Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
(Showtime) This documentary (more of a fly-on-the-wall ride-along) looks at the bizarre 2016 primaries and general election in the US. The access to the candidates is terrific, even better than the Pennebaker piece, but you get the sense that whilst Donald Trump kept on winning, his rivals kept attacking the Republican candidate next in line, as they clearly couldn’t accept such an outlier: denial of clear facts over bruised feelings aka derangement syndrome, replicated even after he was endorsed by the GOP and contested the election against Hillary Clinton.
The footage is king here; but the analysis is also vastly entertaining, as three old political hands, meeting in interminable cafes over what appears to be lethally unhealthy food, opine and refine as they go. We recommend the first series (2016), all 26 episodes: the subsequent series concentrate on the Trump Administration, a matter unlikely to be of reliable guidance, as the Donald tends to drive everyone else mad. History will have to judge that experiment, a long way down the road.Continue Reading →
By Malcolm Turnbull (2020)
To re-tell a recent joke, with apologies to Frankie Boyle, Turnbull’s memoir is not like Turnbull the man, in 2 respects: it has a spine, and you may not want to put it down. Yes, we’re on record as not being Malcolm fans, for whom this pretty well written and interesting book is designed, though it holds wider interest in following the August path of destiny for Australia’s 29th Prime Minister, a path strewn with garlands and fleeting triumphs, told in a voice of peerless self-confidence, well described by Jonathon Green in the Sydney Morning Herald as “first person magnificent.”
In a soft (the creators of Frontline would have called it a ‘flirt-piece’) yet revealing interview by Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30 programme, Mr Turnbull kept stressing that his (legendary) ambition had a purpose…”I always wanted to get things done…to effect change, to effect reform.” Leaving aside the risible claim that change and reform were effected on his watch, this No-Power-Without-Purpose mantra sums-up Turnbull, explains his formidable personal trajectory, and demonstrates that he was never a true conservative.
As the late Roger Scruton explained, “The subjection of politics to determining purposes, however ‘good in themselves’ those purposes seem, is, on the conservative view, irrational. For it destroys the very relationship upon which government depends. This, the conservative might say, is the true source of the absurdity of communism: that it saw society entirely as a means to some future goal. Hence it was at war with the very people it had set out to govern.”*
Mr Turnbull’s book is in 5 parts: beginnings (1954-1982), his legal and business activities and entry into politics (1983-2003), his rise to leader of the opposition and fall (2004-2013), his time as loyal (yes, that’s what he says) servant of the Abbott Government (2013-2015) and his stint as Prime Minister (15/9/2015 – 24/8/2018).
Malcolm was formed, uno ictu, such that he was never really a child. Here are some examples of his time in short pants: “We rented [in Vaucluse]…from a frightening old man called Clarrie Ball, who lived next door in Flat 1 with a snappy dog that didn’t like me…”
“The Sydney Grammar boarding house at St Ives was a brutal, badly managed place. Bullying was rife and I was particularly unpopular.”
“Next door was the classroom where he taught 1A – the brightest of the new boys, including me.”
“I loved history, often embarking on my own independent research…I probably didn’t know the word for it then, but it was the start of a lifelong interest in historiography…”
“One master was especially sleazy. When I was 14, my friend Ted Marr and I went to see Alistair Mackerras to complain about him. Alistair was an unworldly man, an innocent in many ways, and he couldn’t understand what our concern was. I told him that if he didn’t move the master out of the boarding school, I’d walk across the park to see the chairman of trustees, whom I knew to be the very grand Sir Norman Cowper, senior partner of Allen Allen & Hemsley.”
(In other words, he was a prig and a bully from early on.) He was unlucky in his parents: Coral Lansbury left for another man when he was only 10, and rarely kept in touch; she is remembered here with justifiable coldness, and may help us understand his extremely close bond to wife Lucy. His father, a gadabout and ultimately successful hotel broker, whom he adored, died in a light plane crash when the author was 28.
The co-captain and senior prefect “…left Grammar filled with confidence, ambition but above all curiosity.”
He went to Sydney U and immediately sought to be elected editor (he lost to a communist) and immersed himself in political journalism. His 1975 obituary for labor firebrand Jack Lang is somehow apt: “He was convinced of his own rectitude and regarded anyone who disagreed with him as a saboteur.” Turnbull found attractive the reportage “where the journalist is right there in the centre of the story.” He cold-called channel 9 and radio 2SM and got a parliamentary round. “Sitting in the press gallery, watching the politicians clash in the parliament below, I thought, I could do better than that.”
Turnbull was, along with his bête noire Tony Abbott, that quaint curio, a Rhodes Scholar, despite the former’s disdain of “imperial fantasy.” He combined his study of law with running highfalutin errands for Kerry Packer and earning on the side as a Fleet Street hack. (You certainly could not convict Turnbull of laziness). On return to Australia, shortly after rejoining the Liberal Party, he ran for pre-selection in the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth, at the tender age of 26. He lost narrowly, not having mastered the art of branch-stacking, which he perfected in 2004. But then he had become Packer’s consigliere, advising on diverse elements of that panjandrum’s empire, including his inquisition by the Costigan Royal Commission (“…I’d resolved to see it through, believing firmly that nobody was better able to get him out of the mess than me.”)
By a combination of grunt work, threats and dirty pool, Packer was vindicated. And then another triumph: Turnbull’s victory in the over-hyped Spycatcher case, an ill-judged attempt by the British Government to stop the publication of a poor book that had pretty much washed-around the public domain already. Turnbull made more of this rather ho-hum legal victory than Nixon did of the Alger Hiss case.
Still, he was on his way. Having staked a name and reputation for himself, and free of Packer, he formed a lucrative partnership with Nick Whitlam, and spent the next several years making a lot of serious money – which is impressive if all you want to do is make a lot of money. He writes: “Nick Whitlam became unhappy; Neville [Wran] and I never understood why.” Note that Whitlam himself riposted in the 25/4/20 ‘Weekend Australian,’ “Not true. Neville knew. Everyone in the firm knew. It was because of [Malcolm’s] unwillingness to work as a team, his unwillingness to think beyond the transaction at hand…Most left the firm when I did…[one’s] “parting shot was: “I know, Malcolm, you think that you are the smartest in the room here at Whitlam Turnbull; let me include you in a secret: you are alone in that belief.””
DITCHING THE QUEEN
That belief flowered of course, and Turnbull, disgusted with the thought that Australia could share a head of state with another country, formed in 1990 the Australian Republican Movement. He opines: “Nobody could seriously contemplate leaving the powers of a directly elected president in the undefined, and thus potentially uncertain, world of convention” which perfectly encapsulates the superior stability of a distant crowned head following convention to a partisan local one bound by a set of constrictive and myopic rules.
He quotes himself: “Australians should be able to pick up their Constitution and find in it an accurate description of how their democracy works” which must seem to most Australians a curious reason for all the ensuing fuss. The referendum was a disaster for the republicans: a damaging rift over the right model arose, and the voters clearly decided that if wasn’t broke, why fix it.
During this time he encountered leading constitutional monarchist Tony Abbott, and he quotes Abbott in referring to him as “the Gordon Gekko of Australian politics.” Turnbull deploys the Soviet tactic of painting Abbott as not only weird but mentally ill, especially when he challenged and supplanted Turnbull as Leader of the Opposition and later when Abbott was PM. Yet there is something in Abbott’s slur that seems less than crazy.
To paraphrase Gough Whitlam paraphrasing Tacitus, “…everyone would have agreed that he was qualified for the post of Leader if he had not held it.”
Turnbull is reasonably intelligent, diligent, and good on detail. The chapters covering his time in the 4th and 5th Howard Governments, in opposition, and as a Minister under Abbott, are patchy but interesting. A policy wonk, his overweening vanity and overconfidence undermined his efforts, demonstrating again why businessmen often flounder in the murky soup of democratic politics (Rudd referred to Parliament House as “Chateau Despair.”)
His chapters on the River Basin Plan, the GFC and the NBN are good, albeit examples of him tackling problems too big for anyone, but his early conversion to Global Warming Theory reminds us that his education favoured humanities and his core competence was finance, not physics or geology: “And I understood then, as the decade that followed confirmed, that the fires, floods and droughts were getting worse and more frequent. And we knew why. It was precisely what the scientists had foretold would be the consequences of global warming...facing the dry and fiery consequences of a warmer climate, we have a moral duty to act...” The consequences for Malcolm’s moral vanity were to be more blatant.
He seems to have been, on more than one occasion, a reluctant usurper: after he defeated Brendon Nelson in a party-room ballot for Leader of the Opposition, he made some incredible blunders. One rather curious and irrelevant one was to be fooled into using a faked email against PM Rudd (‘Utegate’), which blew-up in Turnbull’s face when the fabrication was revealed (he had no part in that, his crime being one merely of naivity). The fundamental, critical misstep arose from his failure to read the signs that his colleagues were fed-up with Rudd’s messianic schemes and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was the last straw.
Turnbull thought he had a moral and political obligation to support it: Joe Hockey challenged him but ran on a platform of deferring hard decisions on the CPRS, which revealed him as a political eunuch. Abbott, conceding he’d been something of a ‘weather vane’ on the issue, told Turnbull, apologetically, that he was sorry but he was going to have a go too, based on total opposition to such an idiotic scheme. (That principled conduct is not mentioned in this book).
Abbott won by a vote and eventually became Prime Minister. Turnbull endured many dark nights of the soul but was appointed by Abbott as Communications Minister, where he seems to have made the best of the mess that was the NBN, and renewed his love affair with the ABC. Possibly the most contentious parts of the book cover his shots at Abbott, including his alleged capture by Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, his charges that Abbott was a psychopath and his strangely supine response to a man he says was very dangerous, destroying the Party, and imperilling the nation. But in September 2015, he brought on a challenge – “not because I crave the limelight etc but because I know I would be a better, more contemporary, more liberal PM than he is.”
Part of the problem with these contentious portions is that Turnbull is his own source on important matters. On the Credlin issue, for example, he states that Michael Thawley, whom Abbott hired to head the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, was a “counterbalance to Credlin, whose influence and control he believed was excessive.” The source? Turnbull’s private diary, 14/11/2014, and we’re not told whether Thawley said as much, to whom, or if this is simply the diarist’s inference. (Actually, many of the diary entries sprinkled through the book, and the footnotes, struck us as passing strange.)
In any event, Turnbull, for all the ‘right’ reasons, masterminded an “elegant” coup against a man he calls a “besieged would-be tyrant,” perhaps forgetting that if this paints Abbott as Caligula, Turnbull is Claudius, a naive and flawed wowser whose edicts included a bonking ban and who was poisoned by his faithful servant. Before the reader shares the coup gastralgia, however, and the feverish ex post facto reasoning by which the author explains it, she has to wade through twenty or so chapters on the Turnbull government, some 350 pages of PM Turnbull’s legacy.
It is a slog, frankly. Instead of summarising it at length, we can synthesise Mr Turnbull’s achievements thus: He (1) kept most of Abbott’s policies (including on the same-sex plebiscite, border control, national security, and the Paris CO² agreement), except for trivial flourishes such as Knights and Dames; (2) Spent like a drunken sailor on Gonski 2.0, a Julia Gillard initiative; (3) Renewed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although without the US; and (4) Introduced a bonking ban on government ministers.
That’s about it. To be fair, although he did nothing much on tax, he had a go, and he flirted with grand schemes, à la Kevin Rudd (e.g., Snowy 2.0). But apart from hurling a lot of cash about and blowing numerous thought bubbles, there’s not much to show for almost 3 years, certainly not for the transactional over-achiever he was meant to be, one who “always wanted to get things done…to effect change, to effect reform.” This perhaps explains the disappointment of the very many who had high hopes for Turnbull. (He does get points for telling Rudd to go jump when Rudd – seriously – wanted support for a tilt at UN Secretary-General).
He does himself no favours, in the final analysis, by styling the push against him in the winter of 2018 as some sort of right-wing coup designed to bring Labour Leader Bill Shorten to the Lodge! Not only does this theory look completely deranged, and based on alleged hearsay statements that read literally mean no such thing, it also bears-out the comment of Ross Fitzgerald, reviewing the book in the 2/5/2020 ‘Spectator,’ that “it’s Abbott, rather than Turnbull, to whom the Liberal party really owes an apology.” This closing chapter of Turnbull’s is a sad coda to a fractious administration and a wasted political career.
One startling aspect of the author’s account of the coup is the failure to recognise he was dying by the sword he himself had wielded. He denounces what he refers to as the treachery, deviousness, and undermining by a “gang of right-wing thugs“, including a “foreign-owned media company'” in a mad design to blow-up Project Turnbull. He writes, apparently without irony: “Having been involved in many leadership challenges, it was all horribly familiar.” Indeed. The tactics deployed against him in August 2018 look a lot like those of September 2008 (Turnbull assassinates Nelson) and September 2015 (Turnbull assassinates Abbott).
Turnbull was Selectors’ choice for the White-anting Olympics, having eroded Brendan Nelson as party leader and Abbott as PM. Paddy Manning wrote in Born To Rule: “Turnbull pledged his loyalty to Nelson but gave him absolutely none. He simply refused to accept the decision of the party room, and the undermining began immediately.” So when Turnbull, on 21 August 2018 called a spill to demonstrate how much more loved he was than the despised Peter Dutton, who challenged, he was unpleasantly surprised to find that the vote was 48-35 in his favour, a margin so modest as to be untenable.
This increased the groundswell. Aware hostile forces in his own ranks were closing in, he released information that cast doubt on Dutton’s eligibility as an MP under s. 44 of the Constitution, and insisted that any challenge would need a public petition of at least 43 signatures of Liberal MPs. He thought that Dutton and his allies would struggle to amass that number, and he was right. But by Friday morning, he was given a petition with 43 signatures of his colleagues. His overthrow must have been awfully painful, for him and his family and friends, and he is eloquent about it. But one wonders if he felt even a stab of contrition, a soupçon of empathy, when he read that last entry on the petition? Signed by progressive Liberal Warren Entsch, the signatory added the words: “For Dr Brendan Nelson.”
Reading A Bigger Picture, which is often interesting and informative, one is nevertheless reminded of Alexander Hamilton to Aaron Burr, who had asked “What was Washington’s most notable trait?” to which he replied: “Oh, Burr, self-love! Self-love! What else makes a god?“**Paul Keating, write for the Nation Review and originate the idea of the Guardian Australia? Turnbull states: “But as I reflected on the two parties, while I admired the romance and history of the Labor movement, I always felt I was a natural liberal, drawn to the entrepeneurial and enterprising.”
Later he writes of admiration for Rupert Murdoch in the 1970s because he was, among other things, “politically progressive.” He does confront the smear that Turnbull approached Labor looking for a parliamentary slot and convincingly refutes it, but the fact remains that he would have been perfectly at home in the centrist wing of that party. He criticises Abbott’s government because it “lacked a coherent economic narrative” which would not be a priority, putting it mildly, for a conservative. And he quotes Jack Lang: “The Liberals have no loyalty or generosity – and no gratitude. The Labor party is at least sentimental.” (As if the latter quality was a good thing).]
————————————-[**Burr, Gore Vidal, (1973).] [A note to the editor: This book has some repetition, some curious and unnecessary digression, and should have been cut (or, as politicians hate that word, ‘tightened’) by at least 100 pages. And we’re not sure these telling statements needed publication:
“Inexplicably, we [Turnbull and Robert Maxwell] got on like a house on fire“;
“Turnbull & Partners …were more like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction – the people you call when you have a really bad problem“;
“I’m not a hater, as so many people in politics are“;
“Happily, Russel Pillemer and I had more to collaborate on than witness statements for the HIH Royal Commission“;
“I’ve always been pretty objective about myself, tending more towards self-criticism” and
“Peta [Credlin] has always strongly denied that she and Tony were lovers. But if they were, that would have been the most unremarkable aspect of their friendship.”] Continue Reading →
(Jeff Janoda. 2019)
We at TVC are not particularly interested in the experiences of German pilots stationed in Southern Russia in December 1942, and so we would not have picked up Sundog, had we not known that its author, Canadian Jeff Janoda was also the author of the terrific, Saga A Novel of Medieval Iceland. Janoda justified our faith. It would have been our loss, had we judged this book by its subject matter. The settings of the two novels could not be more different, but the concise, detailed and historically rich style are the same.
(#4: 2018 – #5: 2020)
The show goes on and Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) wends his way down the stairway of good intentions, towards Hell. We have already expressed our admiration for the parent production, Breaking Bad; and of the superb initial seasons of this inspired prequel, One, Two and Three: these next 2 series are just as good and increase the intensity of feeling for Jimmy and long-suffering partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) as they hurtle towards a moral and existential abyss.
In series 4, Jimmy is reacting to his brother’s death by embracing an even darker, Byronesque morality; temporarily disbarred for the shenanigans with his brother over the Mesa Verde case, he is now eking out a living selling disposable cellular phones, and helping Kim cut legal corners. Eventually, he regains his licence to practice, but from now on, it’ll be as Saul. Meanwhile the perpetual war between cartel licensed rivals the Salamancas and Gus Fring waxes and wanes, embroiling Mike Ehrmantraut and Nacho Varga. Much of the criminal activity this season turns on the clandestine building of Gus’ underground, you-beaut, state-of-the-art meth lab, which leads to fatal results for members of the German construction team.
In series 5 (just completed: you can now binge-watch the entire 10 episodes) we really get to know (and fear, and loathe) a character introduced in season 4: Eduardo (‘Lalo’) Salamanca (Tony Dalton), one of Hector’s innumerable nephews, arriving from south of the border to help out after Hector’s stroke. Lalo is genial and hedonistic, but don’t let that fool you: he’s as friendly as a rattlesnake. (Indeed, he is pivotal in making Jimmy “a friend of the cartel,” a friendship no one needs or should want.) Dalton gives his character a multi-dimensional treatment that results here in something TVC did not anticipate: a man actually worse than all who have gone before. The game of chess he plays with Fring throughout is a high-stakes contest at which to marvel.
This story continues to be a wonderful, Dickensian saga, rich and full of apprehensive interest. Jimmy and Kim are the glue, of course, continuing to tease and tantalise us as to how they will end up: they are also gloriously (and plausibly) inconsistent and self-contradictory in their actions and morals. All of the key and supporting players are first class, as are the scripts, plots, setting and action. Don’t miss it and ‘hang onto your socks and hose’ for the next iteration!Continue Reading →
By David Sedaris (2017)
Having caught his act just before plague was upon us, TVC thought it a lucky ‘Rabbit Rabbit’ move to read his paean to serendipity, Theft by Finding. These are diaries kept by him (much winnowed; the originals comprise 8 million odd words, or 8 Clarissas) from 1977-2002 and as he so rightly argues in his introduction, diaries – proper diaries, the best diaries (Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank) – are written to find oneself, never with an eye to publication.
From his wastrel twenties to his successful mid-forties, his circumstances change but he hardly does, either in style or outlook, suggesting heavy edits of the early stuff. But the diaries (approached by us initially with dread, as with all diaries) are fascinating and compelling, deadpan funny in the most rough-and-tumble way. A good review of the book in The Guardian was preceded by the following sub-title or watermark: “The humorist’s material includes drug addiction, crazy jobs, his eccentric family and homophobic abuse – but much is achingly funny” which seems to us a deliberately virtuous fudging, in that the drugs, squalor, insane relatives and aggressive sexual weirdness are all achingly funny.
We recommend a reading of this from go to whoa, and you see a life unfolding in a sort of real time, camouflaged but not blotted-out by a myriad distractions and situational cul-de-sacs. Or you can read it in a random fashion, like digging for truffles; it is a rich field. Some examples we hope suffice to demonstrate the point:
“I’m in a seafood place drinking coffee. I need to get to Raleigh, but so far rides are sparse. I have a joint and $3. I remember being appalled when David Larson hitchhiked to North Carolina with $1 in his pocket, and now here I am. I started the day with a ceramic pig but abandoned it after it got to be a drag to carry.” (Dec. 1, 1977 West Virginia)
“While listening to a country music station, we heard a talk/song narrated by our flag. “I flew proudly at Iwo Jima and on the blistering deserts of Kuwait, anywhere freedom is threatened, you will find me.” The flag recounted being torn into strips to bandage wounded soldiers and then it explained how it hurts to be burned and trampled by the very people it works so hard to protect. When given a voice, our flag is not someone you’d choose to spend a lot of time with.” (Oct. 28, 2002 New York)
“The woman at the phone company addressed me as “Mrs Sedaris” until I couldn’t stand it anymore and corrected her. That always happens. They think I’m a woman – a woman named David.” (Jan. 13, 1982 Raleigh)
“Harry Rowohlt, the fellow who translated my book into German and is reading with me on my tour, told me that when someone on the bus or at a nearby table in a restaurant talks on a cell phone, he likes to lean over and shout “Come back to bed, I’m freezing.”” (May 18, 1999 Cologne)
“Last night I went crazy for marijuana. I was Jack Lemmon tearing up the greenhouse in Days of Wine and Roses. I looked for (and found) pot in the folds of album covers I had used to deseed long-ago ounces and quarters. I found some under the sofa cushions. Then I pulled out the couch and looked under the radiator. I turned the place inside out and got a little stoned but not much.” (Feb. 15, 1982 Raleigh)
“Last night, after finishing the cabinets, I went to the little market around the corner for beer and found $45 on the floor in front of the checkout counter. I thought I’d dropped it, and by the time I discovered it wasn’t mine, I was back home. First thing today I went out and blew it. I bought: 1. two pounds of goat meat 2. more beer 3. Fires by Raymond Carver 4. the New York Review of Books 5. hardware 6. groceries 7. a magazine called Straight to Hell in which gay men recount true sexual experiences, many of them outdoors and in cars or under bridges” (Jan. 22, 1984 Chicago)
“I’d never noticed that Ronnie had a mustache, but still it upset her. When she got home she told Blair, who said she’d probably feel better after a shower and a shave.” (July 4, 1988 Chicago)
“I will never again drink at a party I am hosting. I will never again drink at a party I am hosting. I will never again drink at a party I am hosting.” (Jan, 15, 1989 Raleigh)
“Walking down 8th Avenue, I fell in behind two muscled gym queens. When a a car alarm went off, one of them turned to the other, saying, “That’s the Puerto Rico national anthem.” “Really?” the other guy said. “That’s actually their anthem?”” (Sept. 4, 1992 New York)
“Meanwhile, channel 13’s Nature special was devoted to cats. Hugh and I switched back and forth from musical to musical to the mother calico teaching her young to hunt. It’s a lesson that Dennis, our cat, apparently slept through.” (Feb. 10, 1998 New York)
“The teacher threw a lot of chalk today, but none of it at me. We have a new student, a German au pair, and I wonder what she must think, watching people get yelled at and hit with things. Our last homework assignment was handed back, and though I’d technically made no mistakes, she still found fault with it. I’d written, for example, “You will complain all the time, day and night.” Her comment read, in angry red pen, “Pick one or the other. You don’t need both.”” (Sept. 14, 1998 Paris)
“On the way to the bookstore I asked Frank, the escort, what he thought of my bow tie. He hesitated for a moment and then said, “A bow tie tells the world that the person wearing it can no longer get an erection.”” (June 13, 2001 San Francisco)
“I think in Hungary they give a star for electricity, a star for heat, a star for running water, and so on. The fourth star signifies that the Astoria has cable TV. They boast forty channels, not mentioning that twenty-three of them broadcast the exact same programs. Our hotel is fronted in scaffolding, and our rooms offer a view of a mangy, narrow side street. The one thing they excel at here is stoking the furnace. It’s below zero outdoors, while inside our rooms we could roast chickens by leaving them on the nightstand. There’s a large group of French people at the hotel and I heard one woman saying she’s so heat-swollen that her rings no longer fit.” (Dec. 17, 2001 Budapest)
“Little, Brown forwarded an envelope of mail, and I realized after reading it over that every single letter wanted something from me. The senders included: a college student writing an article on magazine readership. “I’m on deadline so email me as soon as you get this!”…an Indianapolis human rights group wanting me to attend their rally. “Your agent says you haven’t got the time, but I suspect you do.”“(March 9, 2002 La Bagotière)
“Dad has rented an apartment to Enrique, one of Paul’s employees, and Enrique’s mother…She’s in her early sixties and was recently hospitalized for depression…it’s hard to adjust when you have no friends and can’t speak the language. Dad decided that her problem was low self-esteem. Work would make her feel needed, so he hired her to scrape paint. It was only a two-hour job, a $16 opportunity, but after ten minutes he snatched the tool from her hands. “This is how you do it!” he yelled. “Like this.” When she failed to catch on, he screamed at her all the louder. “Oh, get off it. You know what I’m saying.” The episode left her more depressed than ever, which, Paul says, is the way it works with the Lou Sedaris Self-Esteem Program. “You’re a big fat zero is what you are, so here, scrape some paint.” A foreigner will learn the phrases “Can’t you do anything right?,” “Everything you touch turns to crap,” and “Are you kidding? I’m not paying you for that.”” (June 13, 2002 London)[And by the way, with the profoundest respect, the diarist is wrong: The Wire was overrated.] Continue Reading →
‘The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’
(By William Dalrymple) (2019)
“Don’t Be Evil.” The motto of Google, Inc., which has become something of a cocktail-party joke. At least the British East India Company never pretended to run India for the Indians.
There’s a risk in applying contemporary morality to historical figures and events. This is not to say History will be kind to, say, Mao, but a true fair history has to take a walk in the target’s shoes. In this deep and worthy book, Mr Dalrymple tracks the serpentine path of the British East India Company, the first joint-stock private company to run a country – in fact, an Empire, in fact, several Empires (Mughal et Maratha).
A series of English sorties culminates in Clive, Hastings and the Wellesley boys carving up the sub-continent like a Christmas pudding, robbing its rich resources and sending a fortune home to Blighty. It is a well-researched and well-told tale, but the author is so much on the side of the natives that he seems to overlook the fact that it was basically the decadence of the various dynasties that opened the door to the commercial marauders in the first place.Continue Reading →
Adelaide Festival Theatre (5 March 2020)
(Written and Directed by Robert Icke; adapted from the play “Professor Bernhardi” by Arthur Schnitzler)
This piece is a playground for ethicists, a sociologist’s paradise, and a nod to Lord Melbourne, who said of Macauley, “I wish that I was as sure of any one thing, as Tom Macaulay is sure of everything.” Whilst a contemporary adaptation of a 1912 play, set in the antisemitic and ferociously Catholic Austrian Empire, takes hostages to anachronism, the dilemmas raised remain fresh and probably insoluble.
Dr Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) is the founder and head of the prestigious Elizabeth Institute (in the original, named after the Empress Elisabeth, now conveniently apt for the English monarch), which works towards a cure for the raft of brain maladies we call dementia. She is brilliant, precise and – pardon the euphemism – she does not suffer fools gladly. She refuses admission to a Catholic priest (Jamie Parker) who has come to give the last rites to a 14 year old girl (at the request of her parents) dying from sepsis caused by a botched abortion. The Priest and the parents obviously believe that “these sacraments provide the forgiveness of sins, help the individual to prepare for death, and bring peace and courage to the sick person as the Holy Spirit guides them on their final steps to eternal life*.” We don’t know what the patient believes but we know what Dr Wolff – a woman of science, a Jewish unbeliever – thinks of it all. She has no sign the patient wishes for this and fears it will disturb her right to a peaceful death. Thus she imitates Gandalf at the Bridge, such that ‘none shall pass’, and so the patient passes without the benefit of extreme unction, etc.
The parents complain. The matter goes ‘viral’ as things always did, and do these days only more so. The Institute’s Board is concerned. The Executive is all a-flutter. Dr Wolff thinks it a storm in a teacup but her colleagues – jockeying for position, anxious about the damage to institutional reputation and funding – don’t circle the wagons so much as throw Dr Wolff under them. The Doctor, meanwhile, sticks with the “Never apologise, never explain” rule.
The Second Act starts with a Q & A style programme where Wolff is fed to the wolves of a TV panel, the most ill-advised participation of its kind since Prince Andrew sat down before the cameras. She wants to assert the primacy and purity of Hippocrates but her inquisitors are off into other issues, of gender fluidity, power imbalance, racial-identity politics and ‘intersectionality.’ The trolling continues apace, and gets physical: the patient’s father gives her a punch on the snout, her car is daubed with a swastika, her cat is given some amateur surgery and her house is assailed with bricks. The doctor is rusticated from the Elizabeth Institute, struck-off the medical register, and, with nothing to fall back on but her own resources, finds those offer little with which to break her fall.
There is a rich grab-bag of “issues” arising here, including: Was the Priest shoved?/Would she shove a white man?/Is there a Jewish cabal at the Institute?/Would things spiral out of control if a man had barred the door?/Would it have hurt to let the exorcism proceed? All this is complicated by the toxic mixture of modern identity politics (what Douglas Murray has written of as the ‘Madness of Crowds.’) Assumptions are constantly made and challenged, going beyond religion to matters of race, gender, class, and ‘privilege.’ For a long time, one feels (with the Doctor) that this noise poses an insane distraction (it recalls the great Elaine May line: “It is a moral issue and to me that’s always so much more interesting than a real issue.”) This is enhanced by a device that could have been tiresome, but here becomes intriguing – characters are played against type (women take male roles and vice versa; coloureds (whites) play blacks and vice versa) which accentuates the sense of dissonance and confusion. Indeed, the whole is a sort of entitlement car crash, where ‘rights’ rush towards the intersection, and all the lights are green.
Our essential reservation about the play, which was never less than interesting, is that it lacked synthesis. A morality play, to work effectively, has to cohere in an argument. In widening the scope from the original, there was an attenuation. And the shit-storm hitting the doctor seemed disproportionate, even out-of-date, in such a secular age. These defects might have sunk or at least damaged the play, but then, we were lucky in the actors’ performances. Anni Domingo was great as the demonstrative bureaucrat in Act 1 and the strident panellist in Act 2. Parker as the Priest (doubling as the enraged, vengeful father of the patient) was spot-on. Chris Colquhoun, as the voice of reason on the Executive, and TV moderator, was excellent. Liv Hill as the gender-confused tyke that hangs out with the Doctor at home, was splendid. Mariah Louca, Daniel Rabin and Millicent Wong as medical colleagues (and later panelists) were fine, as was Naomi Wirthner as Dr Wolff’s chief antagonist. Joy Richardson was amusing in the Alan Rickman role from Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Shelley Conn was suave as the treacherous Minister.
Save the best for last: Juliet Stevenson is on stage almost for the duration (even at interval), and manages to draw together the strands of a complex and contradictory personality and its trajectory, from her brusque and exasperated displays of invincibility to her initial stirrings of doubt and realisation. As magnificently rendered by this actor, the Doctor is not a heroine; she is not quite a victim; and she is certainly not the villain as cast by forces beyond her comprehension let alone control. What she is, and here Stevenson’s skill is to the fore, is a human under considerable external pressure and internal chaos, a catspaw for all the righteous minds and “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”**
The wood-paneled setting (by Hildegard Bechtler) is simple and uncluttered, refectory-style tables and chairs serving to suggest various hospital rooms, the TV studio, and Wolff’s home; the use of spotlights and freezing of action in moments of violence are well-worn but were effective. The use of jazzy percussion (by Hannah Ledwidge) from above the stage was apposite. Overall, this was first class, enthralling and moving entertainment.[* Oregon Catholic Press website.] [** George Orwell, Essay on Charles Dickens.] Continue Reading →
Adelaide Festival Theatre, Friday 28 February 2020 (Directed and designed by Romeo Castellucci)
Mozart thought he was being poisoned by instalments, so that his death would adjoin completion of the Requiem in D minor (K.626). In other words, he was commissioned by the Next World to write his own funerary music. He was obviously paranoid by then, but the ‘anonymous’ commissioning of the work (by an agent of Count Walsegg, who knocked on Wolfgang’s door), and his own serious illnesses, may have informed the beauty and brilliance of the piece: a hotchpotch to be sure, and an incomplete one, but inspirational nonetheless, despite it not striking the ear as particularly sacred, or ecclesiastical, for a liturgical piece. Yet “[t]he total impression remains. Death is not a terrible vision but a friend.”* Actually, parts of the work bordered on blasphemy, at least at the time, when that was a Thing, but its shining virtue, 229 years on, is the glorious music, the musical structure, and the feeling of re-birth and renewal, that is the hallmark of World Art.
At the Adelaide Festival, these aspects were wonderfully rendered. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Rory Macdonald was magnificent, at its very best. So were the singers: Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, David Greco, and Siobhan Stagg, superbly supported by the Adelaide Festival Chorus. (A list of the main credits is below). This alone would have been sufficient (a few other Mozart liturgicals and incidentals were sprinkled in) but we had the added frisson of staging by Romeo Castellucci, that avatar of the avant-garde, which The Varnished Culture had been dreading a little. Castellucci’s vaunted ‘colossal, pioneering, visceral, revelatory imagination’ struck us as quite earthbound at times (at times, literally), but the overall effect of his work, carried out by spirited dancers with ingenious props and flourishes, was delivered, as promised: “a ritual of life and death, extinction and the possibility of rebirth”, in ways which were satisfying and even moving.
Certainly, we had some quibbles. These reflect upon your reviewer more than the Director, perhaps. Some of the tropes were so obvious as to be trite. For example, the battered black automobile of death (see below) that obliterated the cast, all dressed in white – they bounced artistically off the bonnet, one by one, and laid themselves low in the firmament for a dirt-nap en masse. TVC had a panic-flashback to the disastrous ENO Don Giovanni, complete with clapped-out Ford Consul, rolling onto the stage. (For a moment, it seemed Castellucci was unmasked as Calixto Bieto, only with taste). Dervishes whirling around a maypole may signify the circle of life, of course, but in a requiem mass? And a full-scale disrobing? A troubled lad kicking a skull around (it’s been done)? The projecting of things past (cities, languages, architecture, etc., all commemorated in crisp TimesNewRoman font) to remind us of mortality? A faux Pietà? Pondering such touches, we considered them visually impressive but thematically silly.
Nevertheless, these jarring notes were dissolved in the fluid state of the whole, with the overall effect dreamlike and thought-provoking: The stark opening with an aged lady abed, a nearby discarded orange symbolic of past fertility; the rear wall a backdrop for splashes of colour (by lighting, paint, dirt, and so on) that ultimately tilted to dump its accumulated detritus onto the stage, as would a gravedigger; the dancers in full attire, marching or skipping in formation; gyrating ‘shakers’ spreading dirt artistically across the length and breadth of the earth’s floor, or dancing around lush, verdant fruit trees; and, at finale, though once again rather obvious and derivative, the cute Tot, alone, centre-stage, doubtless forgetting his lines, who closed the circle of the thesis (vide: 2001: A Space Odyssey). At curtain, the Festival first-night crowd of the Great and Good (Our current Premier, the former Premier, Festival Director Armfield, Geoffrey Rush, David Marr, et al) rose almost in unison at this highly impressive meld of old and new. Amadeus, possibly the only Catholic Freemason in the history of Music, would have worn a Heavenly Grin.
CAST & CREW
Conductor Rory Macdonald
Stage Director, Set, Costume and Lighting Designer Romeo Castellucci
Associate Director and Costume Designer Silvia Costa
Dramaturge Piersandra di Matteo
Choreographer Evelin Facchini
Revival Director Josie Daxter
Costume Designer Assistant Elisabeth de Sauverzac
Associate Lighting Designer Marco Giusti
Chorus Master and Associate Conductor Brett Weymark
Image Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2019 © Pascal Victor
Soprano Siobhan Stagg
Alto Sara Mingardo
Tenor Martin Mitterrutzner
Bass David Greco
Featuring Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Adelaide Festival Chorus and dancers from Australian Dance Theatre.[*Einstein, Mozart – His Character; His Work (1946), p. 354.] Continue Reading →
(Directed by Billy Wilder) (1945)
An early Wilder classic; one of the first great Drunk Films, and one that has hardly dated in its universal relevance.
A middle-aged drunk can recover an awful lot of esteem by calling himself “a writer” (as this reviewer knows). In The Lost Weekend, Don Birman (Ray Milland) is a ‘drunk-called-writer’, who gives his brother Wick (Philip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) the slip, so he can carve-out a few days to write that novel about his battle with the bottle. But since Don always struggles with paperwork, he decides to just hit the bottle instead, at home and in visits to his local watering hole, run by Nat (Howard Da Silva).
Weekends are short, but this one is too long: Don’s out of cash half-way in, resorting to petty larceny, and he’s hopeless at that as well. He can’t even hock his typewriter because the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur. (Oy! How to atone or repent without a little drinkie?) Don gets a charity tipple from Nat and then a loan from an old flame, but he crashes and burns, waking up in the Alco-Ward. There he spurns the tough love on offer and flees “Hangover Plaza” for more liquid pastures. He’s getting better at larceny; pilfering a whisky, weaving down the lazy avenues, he slinks back to his apartment and settles in: but then the walls start crawling and the bats start swirling as the DTs hit. We leave Don (in the care of Helen, returned to collect compensation for the pawn of her coat), hovering between hope and oblivion – courtesy of the Hays Office we’ll assume a positive outcome, but we have our doubts.
Beautifully scripted and structured, the movie combines stark and brutal reality with the surrealism of alcoholism (its joys and terrors), and a deep, wise compassion that somehow never lurches into classroom moralising. Dark, hip and witty, the overarching strength of the piece comes from Ray Milland’s astounding performance. From the bon vivant charm one got used to from his previous films as a “light romantic second lead,” to the snarling, desperate, crafty soak after the booze beckons, his is a Jekyll-and-Hyde characterisation both utterly credible and utterly compelling. (“I’m not a drinker, I’m a drunk!”)Continue Reading →