Some of the books I enjoyed


Most people who read have an inbuilt system of prejudices and fears. They might dread the thought of feminist writing, or post-modernist experiments. Others are afraid of academic writing, with a footnote being akin to an incoming arrow. These are all reasonable opinions, if you really hold them. But why turn what is great fun into a chore?

I only read what I want to read. Here are some categories and some favourites.

Crime novels

My favourite writer of crime novels is Georges Simenon. I would not waste time on his so-called “hard novels”; hard to read is a fair description. Stick to the Inspector Maigret books. 75 novels and 28 short stories, from 1930 to 1972. Each one intense, exciting and in the place. You are in Paris, or a Dutch seaside village, and there is Maigret.

Maigret is monumental. He, along with his pipe, is immovable, and implacable in his search for understanding. He is not interested in law, but in justice. He wants to know why, and his observation of time and place is minute. Maigret evolves over the 42 years, but his appeal remains. Hard to find these days, but op shops are a reliable source. There are some reprints available. Buy them if you can.

Origin stories

This year I read Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun. “NO, I’m not reading a Norwegian from last century,” I hear you mutter. Read it anyway. Hamsun invented the modern novel. In this story he follows a young man into the Norwegian wilderness, where he establishes a modest farm, finds a wife, has children, and sees a town established. But Hamsun makes the personal universal. His style is both formal, and insightful. It has a completely modern outlook, especially in its depiction of psychological turmoil. His treatment of human relationships is refreshingly candid.

If you enjoy reading Hamsun, then there is his masterpiece, Hunger, a tale of a writer’s mad search for love, success and meaning. A forerunner to Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Hamsun introduced the internal monologue to literature. The only caveat is you should find the right translation. Sverre Lyngstad is streets ahead of any other.

History

History can be an acquired taste. Which is surprising, because history is so regulated by peer review that it is very hard to find a ‘bad’ history. Of course we need to be selective, and to choose history, and not PR hack efforts.

History is usually extremely well written, mainly because historians are highly educated, and they are writing as much for their rivals as for their audience. They also support their arguments with evidence, which can look like academic writing, but it is just ‘quality control’. Curiously open to debate, even from us.

I love to read anything by A.J.P. Taylor, who was something of a ‘rock-star’ historian, who popularised history in Britain with a series of successful television shows. His scholarship remained exceptional, and his “The Origins of the Second World War” is challenging in its ideas, and outstanding in its exposition.

Spy stories

I cannot separate John Le Carre from Len Deighton in the spy business. From George Smiley (Le Carre) to Bernard Samson (Len Deighton) they have each created a small pleasure-based industry based on larger than life characters, excellent plotting, and a light touch. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is out of favour because of its age, but for all that, high art.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana show his range, from realpolitik to somewhat lighter. “Greeneland” is his recurring landscape of disillusionment and despair, but when you finish one of his novels, you know a little more about life, and love.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden series is enjoyable, and based on his real life as an agent in post-revolutionary Russia. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent has been described as “timeless”. Ian Fleming is surprisingly lean on talent. James Bond comes across as a misogynistic snob, and the holes in the plots are legendary. I would terminate 007.

Other great books worth a look

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler is a great, sparely written, adult book. Set against the background of the 1939 show trials in the Soviet Union, it is both frightening and inspiring. Not a fun read, but it will stay with you forever.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel everyone should read, because it is firstly a decent, courageous, upstanding book, and because it is clear and unambiguous in its message of equality before the law, and the danger of all sorts of prejudice. It was published in 1960, just before the reaction against the civil rights movement set in. It addresses race, class and the American South, and it is narrated in a visual style. The movie is great too.

So this is pretty much a personal list of books and writers, which I find interesting and well written. There are thousands of good books out there, and millions of bad ones. Choose with care.

1921 – a short visit


1921 is now a hundred years ago. Have we learned anything in the meantime? Have those who aspire to power or wealth learned anything? Has science improved our lives, or do we make the same selfish and stupid mistakes? Are the poor better off? Were there practices and customs which have stood the test of time, and which we still embrace?

The Great War ended in 1918, with all its suffering, privation and loss of life. It caused over 20 million deaths directly, and some consider World War Two as the inevitable continuation of that awful war. Conditions during 1914-1918 included hunger, disease, destruction of vital infrastructure, and civilian dislocation. It also killed off, or maimed, a generation of young men.

When the Spanish Flu arrived, Europe was vulnerable. Its people were exhausted by four years of war. Food production had not recovered. So the flu was virulent, the people were weakened, and the world was opening up for international travel. These were perfect conditions for the storm which hit humanity in the immediate years between 1918 – 1921.

In Berlin in 1921, one quarter of all the children in the city were found to be either suffering from disease, or from malnutrition. At the same time the German Government announced plans to build the world’s largest submarine. Albert Einstein stunned the scientific community by suggesting that the universe could be measured, and later in the year he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In Paris the Allies announced that the German Nation owed them 10 billion (British) pounds, in reparations, payable over 42 years. This decision, and the threats made to enforce the payments, contributed to German political instability, and a sense of grievance which would only grow.

In March, British, French and Belgian troops occupied parts of Germany, which had failed to respond to the demand for reparations in time. Coincidentally both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini consolidated their political power, by taking control of their respective ‘personal’ political parties.

In other parts of Europe the year presented much to consider. In France the first tuberculosis vaccine was made, and given, and the first helicopter flew successfully. Sweden abolished the death penalty, while Finland’s Paavo Nurmi set a new 10,000m world record.

In Italy, the Fascist Party won 29 seats in the Italian general election. Spain was defeated by Moroccan rebels in a major early battle of the Rif War. The Rif War lasted until 1926, and the Spanish would later call in the French to assist in putting down the rebellion.

In January British tanks rolled into Dublin’s city streets, while the Irish War of Independence raged on. A truce was declared in July 1921. Partition between the North (Ulster) and the South (Irish Free State) would be completed by 1922.

Greece and Turkey continued their own side war, from 1919-1922, due to the Allies’ partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Britain, through David Lloyd George, made secret territorial promises to the Greeks, which were all nullified by the time of the cease-fire. There was much loss of life on both sides. This conflict saw the emergence of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), who would go on to lead Turkey until 1938, as President.

Many reports from the United States for this year were either to do with women and their dress, or their behaviour. In Chicago, women found to be wearing short skirts, or showing bare arms, were liable to fines from $10 – $100. In Utah they could be jailed. New York appointed a State Commissioner who had the power to censor dances he thought were indecent. Washington fined women for smoking, although men were permitted.

Race was the other flash-point for Americans that year. At the end of May a black shoe-shine employee tripped, and while falling forward, grabbed the arm of a white female elevator operator. The incident was witnessed by an onlooker, who called the police.

The young woman was not injured, and she did not want to press charges. Clearly it was an accident, and definitely not an attempted rape. He was taken off and jailed, while rumours spread that he was going to be lynched. A white crowd surrounded the jail, and was met by a smaller, but determined group of black men, intent on stopping any lynching.

Violence erupted, with white crowds swamping Greenwood, the prosperous black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The rioting involved burning and looting, over 35 city blocks, and was eventually wound down by the National Guard. No reliable estimate of deaths was produced, with estimates ranging from less than 50, to up to 300. As many as 6,000 Blacks were interned in the aftermath.

Many left the city, but of those who stayed, both black and white residents kept silent. It was not until 75 years later, in 1996, that a Commission was set up to establish the truth of the matter.

In better news for the year, Canadian scientist Frederick Banting discovered insulin, which would revolutionise the treatment of diabetes, amongst other maladies.

In Australia in 1921, there was trouble at Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory. The manager of the property, Tom Cahill, decided that he would ask his brother, Paddy Cahill, for help with the local Indigenous people, who were accused of killing cattle. Paddy Cahill shot over 30 ‘bush people’ by way of solving his brother’s cattle problem. He was ‘punished’ with an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, as a ‘Protector of Aborigines’.

Daisy Bates reported (falsely) that cannibalism was prevalent in Central Australia amongst the Indigenous people. In the same year, Prime Minister Billy Hughes banned flogging in New Guinea. Several junior officers were found to have committed the offence, but they were never charged.

It appears that Australia’s position on race was, and still is, confused. On a more positive note, Edith Cowan was elected to the West Australian Legislative Assembly. She was our first female parliamentarian.

Considering what was making news a hundred years ago, we seem to be plagued with the same issues. Race, wars, gender inequality, pandemics; self interest still seems to drive those in power, and although we have learned to use weasel words to hide our real intent, we are not improving much.

It’s the vaccine rollout, stupid


Bill Clinton certainly had a feel for what ‘worked’ in getting himself elected, and then re-elected. He knew that the electorate had one major concern, and all the other matters were just background noise. Cue Scott Morrison and his Government. The vaccine rollout, period. Fix that, and you are home. No more lockdowns, no more businesses going broke, no more daily press conferences, obsessively watching numbers of infections.

How hard could it be?

Step 1. Buy the product. It had never been done before, but the scientists really came through. A handful of vaccines, produced in record time. Years ahead of expectations. Most of the testing was already done, and Australia is a wealthy nation, and the people were up for spending whatever it cost. There was even talk of sharing it around, with our nearest neighbours in the Pacific and New Guinea, and even Indonesia should be assisted.

But then Australia acted like a classic beginner. Firstly, we relied on a Government which classically outsources every function of governing that it can. We engaged with one supplier, AstraZeneca. Then we rejected, or passed on, a limited offer from Pfizer. Next we backed the University of Queensland effort, which proved unsuccessful.

When the first shipment arrived from Pfizer we had the cringe-worthy spectacle of the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, stating “the eagle has landed”, in relation to 142,000 doses. Much was made of the work being done in the background, but it was obvious from the beginning that the less-fancied AstraZenaca would be the workhorse of the rollout.

The original target was that all Australians would be vaccinated by October. Then the target moved to the end of 2021, then we abandoned all targets. Last week the Prime Minister spoke of horizons, which can mean what you want them to mean. As can his messaging, which he changes regularly, in response to the news cycle.

CSL was then licensed to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the AstraZeneca vaccine had some teething problems. It was found that it caused an extremely rare blood clotting disorder. At this date only two persons in Australia have died as a result of the disorder, so the benefits of using the vaccine far outweighed the risk.

For a Government often accused of excessive secrecy, it is not clear why they highlighted the risk of the rare disorder, with late night televised announcements causing an instant spike in vaccine hesitancy. The Pfizer quickly became the vaccine of choice, and we were then told that the bulk of the Pfizer vaccine would not arrive until October.

The next step in this incredible journey was when the Government advised us that the vaccine could only be safely used by those over 60. The very next night Scott Morrison seemed to advise that anyone under 60 could go and speak to their GP, and get the jab if they were prepared to take the risk.

In another twist to this sorry tale, we appear to hold more AstraZeneca vaccine than we can use, and very limited Pfizer. So we have all our eggs in the one basket, at least until October. Three long months from now.

Somewhere along this tortuous timeline the Prime Minister, who seems to have a fetish for uniforms, appointed a Lieutenant-General, John Frewen, to handle the logistics of the rollout. If we were serious about logistics, we would recruit the CEO of a transport company. He seems to be a handy fall-guy, should the rollout continue to founder.

In a desperate scramble to remedy this sorry mess we have apparently secured some alternative supplies, but they do not arrive until sometime soon, we hope. So that explains the much repeated refrain, “this is not a race”. If it was, we have already lost.

Step 2. Distribution of the vaccine. For good reasons the Government divided the population into categories, or phases, of urgency. Aged Care residents were placed into Phase 1a, as were workers in the industry. Four months into the rollout only one third of the workers have been vaccinated. General Frewen discovered yesterday that, with the benefit of hindsight, they should have been vaccinated at their work-places.

There is no need for hindsight. Blind Freddie could tell the General that if you have a team of nurses visiting a nursing home, it is beyond simple to vaccinate the workers at the same time. Like they have been doing for years, with the flu vaccine.

But the Government, in its wisdom, decided it was too risky to expose the workers to the after-effects of the shot, on the same day they vaccinated the elderly residents. But it was not at all risky to allow unvaccinated staff to provide care, to the same vulnerable residents.

Anyway, most of the workers missed out. Now we have to rely on them taking time off work, to go and have their Phase 1a first shot, and then we needed legislation to cover them for lost wages. We will probably then need them to find their own second doses, with the ensuing running around.

I am not making this up. The next step in the failed rollout is to have the Treasurer ask the business community for help. Like they do with their annual flu vaccinations. It took the treasurer 18 months to discover that businesses routinely facilitate such health measures, for reasons of business efficiency. It means your staff don’t have to take time off work to get the shot, and the business doesn’t have to fund their time off if they catch the flu.

Sometimes the tried and trusted way is the best. The main problem with this rollout is the shortage of supply. So the General spoke of conducting scenario testing, which I presume means war-gaming. Instead, why not try picking up the telephone and buying some more vaccines, from wherever you can. The people of Sydney will thank you, and so will the rest of us. It might even save us from engaging with the Premiers every morning, on the TV.

The greatest team in history, or just the greatest ever season?


When we talk about the history of Australian football we know that the game has been around since at least 1857. The Premiership race is younger, having being contested since 1897, and it remains the yardstick, by which success is measured.

Even then the game was like a bower bird, collecting bits and pieces from other games, like rugby, soccer (football) and other forms of ‘football’, including the fore-runners to Gaelic football, and even an Aboriginal form of a ‘ball’ game.

The early administrators were constantly searching for a better spectacle. The match ball itself has been through many different iterations, but probably began life as a round ball, replaced by differing sizes of a rugby ball until 1880, when the oval ball was designed by Thomas Sherrin. As those who love the game will agree, the administrators will never rest in their quest for that better spectacle.

When searching for the best team, or even the best season we need to turn to the statistical record, because many of the most successful eras have passed from living memory. From Collingwood’s four in a row in the 1920s, to Melbourne’s dominance in the 1950s, even to Hawthorn’s dominance of the 1980s, we are no longer able to rely only on eye-witnesses.

Some contenders

So there is much to be compared, over the years. Carlton did not win its first premiership until 1906, but followed up with wins in ’07 and ’08. They also made the Grand Final in 1909 and 1910, but lost both games. So Carlton played in five Grand Finals in a row, and won three flags, in a row. This was the first such achievement by a VFL club. By 1916 Carlton had won six premierships. The side of 1908 lost just one game for the year, in a competition where there were 10 sides.

They were ‘managed’ from 1902-1909 by Jack Worrall, although his role was more like that of the current head coach. He had been an Australian test cricketer, and an outstanding footballer for Fitzroy. He left Carlton after eight years, due to a player revolt about player payments, and his strict discipline. Worrall was also staunchly opposed to alcohol consumption, which did not help his relationship with his players.

Many older followers of the game still talk of Collingwood’s team in the late 1920s and 1930s as the greatest team ever. Between 1927 and 1930 they won four successive premierships, with a winning percentage of 86% of their games over the period, and an average winning margin of around five goals.

The team became known as “The Machine”, mainly for their ruthless efficiency. They were coached by Jock McHale, and the team boasted the likes of Sid and Gordon Coventry, and Albert and Harry Collier. Sid Coventry and both the Collier brothers won Brownlow medals while accruing their-four-in-a-row flags. Their 1929 team also managed to win every game for the season, a feat no other team has equalled.

Melbourne won three successive flags, from 1939-1941. Coached by Checker Hughes, Norm Smith was at full-forward; Percy Beames in the forward pocket. Fred Fanning was added to the 1940 team, which gave it awesome fire-power. They then quickly dropped down the ladder, and stayed there until their next great era.

That period of dominance was when they played in seven consecutive grand finals, from 1954 to 1960, winning five premierships, including three in a row from 1955 to 1957. If Collingwood hadn’t stopped them in 1958, they would have won six in a row, but football is an unforgiving game. There are no second prizes.

The 1980s belonged to the Hawks. Hawthorn won flags in 1983, 1986, 1988 & 1989, and 1991. They appeared on the last day of September seven times straight, from 1983-1989, winning four, with 1991 the fifth of the period.

Players like Leigh Matthews, Dermot Brereton, Chris Langford, Gary Ayres and Michael Tuck racked up premierships like there was no tomorrow. Essendon won two in a row in the mid eighties, but Hawthorn’s dominance re-asserted itself at the end of the decade.

The 1990s was not dominated by any one team, although Adelaide’s first two flags, won in 1997 & 1998, were surprising. They showed us how good players like Darren Jarman and Andrew McLeod were, although many fans had not seen much of them, before the big games. Adelaide’s premierships were sandwiched between two North Melbourne premierships, in 1996 & ’99. North Melbourne boasted the presence of Wayne Carey, judged by many to be, if not the best player ever, then thereabouts.

Essendon had been the outstanding team for 1999, leading the ladder for the last seven rounds. They were beaten by a freakish tackle in the dying seconds of the Preliminary Final, which saw them crash out of the finals. Their 2000 season is considered by many to be the most outstanding season ever played, but on looking at their record, the ‘best ever’ team only managed one flag, from three years of dominance. Not really comparable with the teams already mentioned, so no cigar for the Bombers.

The Brisbane Lions beat Essendon in the 2001 Grand Final. They then followed up, making it a hat-trick. Their seasons were not particularly impressive, but they managed to be there on Grand Final day, and they managed to beat all comers. Their fall from contention was quick and ongoing. While the Lions at their best were the equal of any teams we might have seen, they lasted at the top for four years, achieved three flags, and dropped off the radar for fifteen years.

Their team was coached by Leigh Matthews, and it had Alastair Lynch, Jonathan Brown, Michael Voss and Simon Black in their ranks. While they were a truly formidable team on their day, it is still surprising that they fell away so suddenly, and for so long.

Geelong won in 2007, 2009 & 2011. They were the form team of the era, and never really went through a rebuild, but Geelong did not dominate the competition. They did inspire it.

Hawthorn did become a genuine force, and they did dominate the competition. Under Coach Alastair Clarkson the Hawks took all before them, winning the 2008 premiership and gradually building to the “three-peat” of 2013-2015.

Clarkson is seen as a master coach, and his teams over the years has included Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli and Jarryd Roughead. The Hawks have since fallen out of contention, but he has taken them from the depths to four Premierships in 15 years.

The Richmond team of the past five years has managed to transform how the game is played, with the term ‘chaos football’ a popular descriptor of their style. The Tigers have dominated the finals in those years, winning three flags along the way. At the moment, Richmond are not convincing anybody. They look to be ‘done’ for this year, and so a reign of three or four years does not a dynasty make.

Although it grieves me to say it, and with only the statistics to support them, the Collingwood team of the 1920s has probably edged the Melbourne team of the 1950s. They lasted longer, at or near the top, than the other teams. And they won four in a row. No other team achieved that. Ever. And no team has gone through a season undefeated, except for Collingwood, in 1929. They must have been a fairly handy team.