Capsule review of ‘The Best Australian Racing Stories’ by Jim Haynes [ed] (2010)

The sport of kings, and a refuge for dreamers and desperadoes – few passions grip this nation like horse racing. This collection includes iconic poems from the likes of C.J Dennis and Banjo Patterson, loosely-spun yarns on champions like Sunline, Phar Lap and Peter Pan and pen portraits of the great trainers. Not everything here is carefully written, but the best stuff sits comfortably with the best sports writing this country has produced. Particularly masterful is Les Carlyon’s homage to the Melbourne cup, which skilfully blends beautifully lyrical descriptions of the action with bluntly humorous reportage on the assemblage of drunken human beings dotted around the track.

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald

Capsule review of ‘Sphere of Influence’ by Gideon Haigh (2010)

Haigh started as a business writer, began to write mainly about cricket and now finds he has come full circle as the line between the two becomes ever thinner. This is perhaps his most subdued collection, the one with the least focus on on-field action. The rise and rise of India dominates, though there’s typically thoughtful material on Shane Warne’s IPL resurgence, the ICC’s rejection of John Howard as vice-president, the game’s inept governance and its cynical efforts to produce cricket for non-cricket fans through T20. Nobody writes as elegantly or perceptively about cricket as Haigh; precious few authors write about anything this well.

Book review – ‘The True Story of Butterfish’ by Nick Earls (2009)

If ‘Butterfish’ was a record, it would be Pulp’s ‘This is Hardcore’ : low-key, sad, lovely, funny and kind of dark. It’s classic Earls, starring faded rock star Curtis, who’s back in Brisbane, pottering around in semi-obscurity, producing an album in his granny flat. But then schoolgirl Annaliese shows up at his door and he becomes involved in her life, also becoming friendly with her down-to-earth mother, Kate and misfit brother Mark. Cue memorable riffs on love lost and (maybe) found, the hypnotic power of pop music, growing old, and why nobody throws TVs out of hotel windows any more. 

Book review – ‘Curtin’s Gift’ by John Edwards (2006)

To many, John Curtin was Australia’s greatest prime minister: a hero who was cheered as he walked through the streets of Melbourne and later farewelled by thousands. In many ways, he makes an odd choice of national champion, lacking as he did the grandeur of Whitlam, the wit of Menzies, the fabled common touch of Hawke. But what Curtin lacked in personal style he made up for in achievements, the kind of inarguable, towering accomplishments upon which history books were once based.

He brought Australian troops home in defiance of Churchill and Roosevelt, re-aligned Australian allegiances from the motherland to the new frontier of the United States and saved Australia from Japanese invasion. He was the reluctant hero, the saintly, self-sacrificing figure who safely guided the nation through its darkest, most sleepless night, all the while battling his own personal demons of alcoholism and depression.

Or so the story goes. Curtin’s Gift argues that Curtin was indeed the greatest Australian leader, but that the accomplishments normally attributed to him have been confused or exaggerated and obscure his real legacy. The popular claim that he rescued the nation from Japanese invasion is seen here as an overblown and misleading one, as is the image of Curtin as some kind of Pacific warlord—he mainly deferred to the capable American general Macarthur. Nor was Curtin as opposed to Britain as legend would have it. It is often forgotten that he appointed the Duke of Gloucester to the position of Governor-General, contrary to Labor policy that an Australian should be appointed to the role.

Author John Edwards also argues that Curtin’s intervention in bringing the 6th and 7th divisions home was not as crucial as popular belief would have it. It was a commonsense move and a popular one, he asserts, rather than an inspired and idiosyncratic one. The political machinations leading up to the move are chronicled here, though this section is not as clear or as convincing as other parts of Edwards’s argument.

The notion of Curtin as reluctant leader is more convincingly overturned here. While Curtin was apparently prepared to walk away from politics if he lost his Fremantle seat, he was by no means timid about the prospects of becoming leader and pursued the post with vigour. A lifelong convert to the Labor cause, he was a voracious reader and thought widely and critically about economic issues. As such, he came to the national leadership as the ‘best prepared and trained leader of his generation’.

In addition to throwing light on some of the misconceptions about Curtin’s prime ministership, the book is valuable in that it traces Curtin’s development as an economic thinker. Born in 1885, Curtin experienced Depression-era poverty first-hand and it was formative in his thinking. Later, he became involved with the Victorian Socialist Party, where he absorbed the teachings of Tom Mann. Also crucial were his observations of the wide-ranging powers held by the government during World War I. Appointed editor of the Westralian aged just 25, he possessed what Edwards calls an ‘easy familiarity with concepts and numbers’.

During Scullin’s ill-fated leadership, Curtin distanced himself from the prevailing wisdom in the party on how to end the Depression, rejecting the conventional analysis, which was to cut wages, and supported the Keynesian notion that reducing spending would not end the Depression. When he became leader, he spoke of the urgent need for ‘the reshaping, in fact, the revolutionising of the Australian way of life quickly, efficiently and without question’. His government assumed control of income tax from the states, made key changes to social security, introduced modern central banking and strengthened Australian involvement in the global economy, participating in talks that eventually led to the nation’s involvement in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It was these developments, Edwards contends, that constitute both Curtin’s greatest achievement and the foundations upon which Australian prosperity would once again flourish.

Edwards, formerly one of Paul Keating’s economic advisers, holds a PhD in economics and is now chief economist at HSBC. As such, he brings considerable economic proficiency to the work, and some will no doubt find this aspect of the text dry and somewhat difficult. However, as a look at how economic policy is inextricably linked to social change, the book is invaluable. And as a study in how Curtin’s hard work in establishing the framework for Australia’s recovery was more significant than his more celebrated and dramatic moments, it’s an incisive look at how politicians are perceived and remembered.

Edwards’s work is by no means the definitive or exhaustive Curtin biography (David Day’s tome still holds that title), but rather a convincing re-examination of some of the key strands of his life. We may revere Curtin, Edwards argues, but we have got him all wrong. For someone who got it right so crucially and so often, perhaps the least we can do is understand him and his precious gift. 

Originally appeared in: Eureka Street

Book review – ‘Tree of Smoke’ by Denis Johnson (2005)

In a word : extraordinary. It begins with news of the JFK assassination reaching troops in a Vietnamese jungle, and the horror of innocence lost which that moment so powerfully represents remains omnipresent throughout. Characters include young soldier Bill Houston (first seen shooting a monkey in one of the book’s most powerful scenes), his brother James, a Canadian nurse named Kathy, a young CIA operative called Skip and his shadowy uncle ‘The Colonel’.

To list their storylines would take a review much longer than this and even a comprehensive plot summary would tell you nothing of the book’s towering ambition, its compelling vision of the “loveliest country on earth” and how inexplicable it remains to the combatants even as they wreak havoc across it, its perfect tiny moments (“He didn’t like coffee. He just drank it”) and the glimpses of redemption it finds in the darkest depths of human suffering.

The only writers Johnson can be fairly compared to are all giants: Walt Whitman, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene. Tree of Smoke is a very long book about a wretched war that has been the subject of countless novels and films. Yet it never feels like a chore, never seems familiar ground. In fact, you never want it to end.


Originally appeared in: Good Reading

Book review – ‘Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix’ by Charles Cross (2005)


What an amazing performer Jimi Hendrix must have been. Wildly charismatic, shockingly sexual and a flamboyant showman, Hendrix’s career was as short and spectacular as a shooting star. This new biography reveals both the legendary stage presence and the vulnerable man behind the iconic image. Written by acclaimed Seattle journalist Charles R. Cross, it is an extensively researched, sensitive and insightful look at a complicated character.

Named after one of Hendrix’s most autobiographical songs, “Room Full of Mirrors” covers the great musician’s life in vivid detail, from his early days as a “latchkey kid” to his whirlwind first tour of England, the tumultuous end of the hippy dream and, of course, his wretched death in a hotel bed, aged just 27. Particularly impressive is the way Cross traces how Hendrix’s distinctive and unmatched guitar style (memorably described here as “a visionary, brilliant accident”) developed during his time as an impoverished session musician and freewheeling gun-for-hire.

Cross never shies away from the darker side of Hendrix’s character, his mistreatment of women and drug-addled flakiness, but sees him as an essentially sympathetic figure, a man who never truly escaped the loneliness of his early years. Destined to be considered the definitive Hendrix biography, “A Room Full of Mirrors” may well be one of the best portraits of a rock musician ever written.

Originally appeared in: Good Reading

Review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, 2nd January 2010

In the second half of the twentieth century, factory farms expanded exponentially, all but eradicating the family-run food producers that had previously been the norm. The game changer was the discovery that there was no need for animals to be keep healthy for them to be profitable. Thus began a kind of ‘race to the bottom’ in a vast industry where almost unimaginable cruelty and even sadism has became commonplace, the price we pay to keep up with the voracious consumer demand for cheap meat.

Raising animals for food is an immensely wasteful enterprise – smaller and sick animals are ruthlessly killed, tens of thousands of birds die in transit and huge numbers of other fish and marine species (known as ‘bycatch’) die as a side effect of commercial fishing, an industry which operates with a ruthlessness that renders it a kind of underwater equivalent of factory farming.

Few areas of life are as fundamental as eating, yet the origins of what we eat are seldom explored in any depth. Even accounts of the food industry which take a stand against animal cruelty tend to shy away from descriptions of the slaughter, but here Foer recounts the deaths of animals he observes in stomach-turning detail and finds that even in family farms which treat their animals humanely it is often impossible to avoid the fact that animals die in painful and terrifying circumstances.

Our knowledge of the pain animals suffer has deepened, yet suffering on an immense scale has escalated to the point where there are now some fifty billion poultry living in miserable, illness-inducing conditions. The sheer size and resource-intensiveness of eating animals have led leading scientists to voice support for vegetarianism on purely environmental grounds, an unsurprising conclusion when one considers agriculture is the leading contributor to climate change.

Known primarily for his novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which showed a divisive penchant for linguistic trickery and modernist devices, Eating Animals also has its experimental moments. Five pages contain nothing but the repeated words ‘speechlessness/influence’, while at other times, the narrative is taken up by those the author interviewed and it is not always clear who is speaking. The latter is a particularly disorientating device, but it feels like chicanery alongside the cogent arguments advanced elsewhere.

I would have liked more discussion of the idea of incremental change, for instance some variation on the idea which Paul Macartney floated recently of meat eaters abstaining from meat one day a week, an idea which lacks the ideological absolutism of vegetarianism, but would have a major positive impact if widely adopted.

Foer has a unfortunate tendency to break off from an argument at the wrong moment, a shame because he generally displays a willingness to explore the ambiguities of eating meat and resists providing easy answers. Yet his conclusions are clear; that eating meat as we currently do is unsustainable, both ethically and environmentally. This is a flawed work, though one of some urgency.

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald (Sydney)

Review of ‘Bumper: The Life and Times of Bumper Farrell’ by Larry Writer, 12th June 2011

IN 1945, Bumper Farrell was accused of biting off part of opponent Bill McRitchie’s ear in a scrum. He vigorously denied the claim, arguing that he didn’t have enough teeth left to do such a dastardly thing. Most of his chompers, he argued, had been smashed out by McRitchie earlier in the season.

These were the rough-and-tumble times Bumper played in and they suited him well. The star player and erstwhile captain-coach of the Newtown Bluebags, Bumper’s toughness and intimidating reputation saw him earn representative honours, appearing for NSW and Australia in the front row, where he would punch, kick and pummel opposing props in the scrum then go for a few drinks with them after the game.

Training in those days consisted of a couple of nights a week of running around an oval, then going to the pub. Injuries were not treated with the care they are now and Bumper once reacted angrily to an ambulance officer who tried to revive him with smelling salts, fearing he would look soft for receiving treatment.

The Life and Times of Frank 'Bumper' Farrell, by Larry Writer (Hachette Australia, $35)The Life and Times of Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell, by Larry Writer (Hachette Australia, $35)

Off the field, Bumper’s job as a police officer saw him display the same disdain for rules that made him such a formidable opponent.

He loved nothing more than dispensing a little rough justice, often delivering a boot to the backside of a youngster playing up in the Cross, or more fearsome beatings to the violent pimps and organised-crime figures that peopled his beat, an area that included Kings Cross and Darlinghurst, then in the grip of notorious sly-grog merchants.

For Bumper, Larry Writer explains, the end always justified the means. When people get nostalgic for the days when cops used to give hooligans a belt around the head to keep them in line, Bumper is the kind of policeman they are thinking of. His methods would not be tolerated today but his take-no-prisoners approach earned him plenty of supporters and loyal friends at the time.

Tales abound of him protecting prostitutes from violent johns and exploitative pimps and showing compassion to the working poor and the needy. His was a black-and-white world of heroes and villains and some of his escapades, such as disarming a man who was rampaging through a hotel with a knife, seem ripped from the pages of a comic book.

In an era of large-scale police corruption, Writer can’t bring himself to believe Farrell was crooked, reckoning he only accepted the odd free drink or tray of fruit instead of the regular bribes many of his colleagues took. He certainly never became wealthy, as some police of his era did and, after leaving the force, he continued to work, including a typically eventful spell doing security work for News Ltd, where he enlisted Roger Rogerson to deal with Ita Buttrose’s stalker.

This endlessly colourful character must be a biographer’s dream. Everyone, it seems, has a Bumper Farrell story. He ate raw meat, got someone to eat a live goldfish for a prank, beat up a gangster until he cried, relieved himself on mates‘ trousers for a laugh and once commandeered a police boat to give him a lift home, jumped overboard and swam ashore.

When he was initially denied entry to the force because he was slightly too short, he made up the extra inches by stretching himself on a frightening-sounding contraption. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

It is hard not to detect a glow of admiration shining through these tales and, at times, Bumper comes across as a kind of Robin Hood with cauliflower ears. I can’t bring myself to warm to the punch-happy Farrell as much as his biographer but Writer has done an invaluable service in assembling these anecdotes and painting a picture of a man inescapably of his time and place and of a part of Sydney that seems all but unrecognisable now.

Originally appeared in: Sydney Morning Herald

Review of ‘Golden Boy’ by Christian Ryan

Like many cricket tragics, the first thing I associate with Kim Hughes is not any cover drive he played, nor any win he was involved with, but the distraught press conference he gave announcing his resignation from the Australian captaincy. Far from the cliché of the role being every boy’s dream, it had became a waking nightmare to the permanent man-child Hughes and ended, quite literally, in tears.

How did he ever reach this point? Things had begun so promisingly. For a long time his dominance of the world cricket stage seemed nothing less than destiny. He broke into the national team not by the sheer volume of runs he made, but by the manner he made them; elegant and imperious. At his best, nobody could bowl to him, though he had a tendency to lose concentration, to get himself out. No matter, his supporters argued, these moments were just the last vestiges of youthful impetuosity which would fade with experience.

Yet his cavalier approach to batting never really changed. Australian cricket had fallen on evil times and the golden-haired youngster was too inconsistent to be the messianic figure promised, constantly in and out of the eleven in his early years. Things really soured when he was prematurely elevated to the captaincy. The powerful clique of Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and the Chappell brothers were opposed to the appointment, believing the job to rightly be Marsh’s. If it is not quite accurate to say these players undermined Hughes’ captaincy, Ryan explains, then it is clear that they were never unhappy to see him fail. None of that group speak here about the issue, apparently happy for it to be airbrushed out of history.

Others have been willing to talk about the social schisms, bullying and sad macho posturing, however, and their accounts of the team at this time are damning. Newcomers to the setup found the prevailing mood a “mixture of panic and unease” and watched aghast as Lillee mercilessly pounded his captain with bouncers in the nets and ignored his instructions on the field.

If this was humiliating, worse was still to come. When Packer raided Australian cricket to form his breakaway competition, Hughes was overlooked (he later unconvincingly claimed he was approached, a claim denied by those in the Packer camp) despite being Australian captain. He ended up leading a rebel tour to South Africa, a sad and unworthy end.

One of the themes of Golden Boy is that sporting success is never inevitable and is always subject to the whims of fate. If Hughes had played in an era with less menacing opposition bowlers, or more supportive colleagues, he may be remembered as a great. His best knocks deserve that epithet. Ryan brackets three of them with Stan McCabe’s famed triumvirate of innings, and there is no higher praise from a coinoisseur. But the glory days were all too infrequent.

Hughes’ failure to touch this greatness more often cannot be solely placed at the feet of others. His was an unusual personality, combining an almost pitiful need to be liked with a kind of nonchalant arrogance that meant he would never take advice from others nor learn from his on-field mistakes. He was altogether too emotional for leadership, his assessment of the game at any time betrayed by his boyish face. When Ian Botham played a fabled innings to engineer the most improbable of English victories, many condemned Hughes’ “kicked-puppy demeanour”

On one level, this is an incredibly accomplished biography of irreconcilable personality clashes, the sad tale of opportunities missed and promise unfulfilled. It is also the best cricket book in recent years not written by someone called Gideon Haigh. Among its chief attributes is its implicit recognition that cricket is essentially a sport of individual confrontations masquerading as a team game. When Hughes’ humiliation played out in the most public of arenas, he was horribly, utterly alone.

Golden Boy : Kim Hughes and the bad old days of Australian cricket

Christian Ryan

(Allen & Unwin, $35.00)