Recent reading

Memoirs of an Addicted brain

By Marc Lewis

Marc Lewis qualifies as a rare bird in that this offering tracks his life from a teen stoner into full-blown long-term criminal addict then followed by his remarkable transformation into a respected developmental psychologist and neuroscientist. This qualifies him to present what is even rarer – a clearly accessible description of what drew him to substance abuse and its short and long-term effects viewed both from his own feeling states and simultaneously from the point of view of an informed understanding of cerebral functioning.

Checking, I offered portions of this book to people who have had similar usage experiences. Their responses were that his descriptions of motives, behaviour and experiences were often very similar to their own. One experienced some difficulty in understanding his explanations of the relevant aspects cerebral functioning, Overall, however, this is reasonably well done and most readers with obtained a reasonable grasp with the aid of simple diagrams supplied.

While he has created this dual life chronicle and expresses his later reflections on the nature of addiction from a purely scientific perspective, Lewis is clearly still troubled by his own, trying to create an understanding linkage between what he experienced and why and what science has to offer by way of explanation at a personal and generals level.

In his own words –

“We are prone to a cycle of craving what we don’t have, finding it, using it up or losing it, and then craving it all the more. This cycle is at the root of all addictions, addictions to drugs, sex, love, cigarettes, soap operas, wealth, and wisdom itself. But why should this be so? Why are we desperate for what we don’t have, or can’t have, often at great cost to what we do have, thereby risking our peace and contentment, our safety, and even our lives?”


“I saw myself as a pathetic creature … a fool, completely obsessed with a stupid drug that I was impervious to the riot of life, the celebration of everyday sensation, that even the poorest people on earth were enjoying all around me.”

Although his story is insightful and inspiring, he has to admit “I don’t actually know the answer. I believe that further research in the neuroscience of addiction will help me get closer to finding it.” The big picture is still hard to discern.

Cold Light (Third in the Edith Trilogy)

By Frank Moorhouse

This is definitely the final of the Edith trilogy with the conclusion having eerie resonances for me at a personal level having visited the final location under similar circumstances. This was a feeling that recurred throughout the story as it is largely set in Canberra at the time of my first visit there and against the social and political agendas of my young life.

Edith Campbell Berry was first presaged in a 1988 story then formally introduced in ‘Grand Days ‘(1993), continued in ‘Dark Palace’ (2000) and now, in ‘ColdLight’, she returns to post WWII Canberra disappointed with the fate of the League of Nations and accompanied by her ‘lavender’ transvestite husband who has more than a whiff of later Bloomsbury, Cambridge and the British Secret Service to him.

All of the elements from the period are skilfully manipulated – Edith’s brother and his female partner are committed Communists who are going to have to deal with their own demons, the local political machinations and the decay of the formal party structures – the construction of Canberra and the fate of its original plan serves as a metaphor for the Australian process of national endeavours – Menzies, Curtin, Chifley, Evatt, Holt (memorable as ”the man who had no smile, only a salesman’s grin”), and Whitlam as well as powerful public servants and the literati are also all represented – the emergence of women’s  liberation (nothing new to Edith) – and Uranium policy (current to this day with a change of government in Queensland).

While Edith is certainly a well-fleshed character in all senses (food, clothing, lifestyle, furniture, sex), and her relationships are certainly credible and logical, if there is a weakness, it lies in some of her motivations within her relationships which were either weak or needed more development and (perhaps less so) in her family relationships (a weird reprised funeral).

It is a masterful piece of stitching together known facts, events and sentiments and  ‘could have been’ characters that almost flawlessly breathes back life for anyone who lived through those times. I enjoyed it immensely.

Shanghai Fury

By Peter Thompson

The title of this book seems a little misleading but it is third in a trilogy on Australians in conflict (Fury in Crete and the Pacific campaigns) and when considered with the sub-title (Australian Heroes of Revolutionary China) it all makes more sense. It covers a period from the Opium wars to Chairman Mao in varying degrees of detail but with a strong focus on Shanghai and the involvement of Australians particularly – some courageous, some adventurers, some opportunists, some criminals and even collaborators and traitors.

Some of these were…

The two missionising Saunders sisters from Melbourne who were massacred by Taiping rebels in 1895 and the Rev Robert Mathew who was invited to Christianise an entire warlord army in the 1920s but is now remembered for compiling his  monumental standard, the Mathews’ Chinese-English dictionary.

Geelong-born George Ernest “Chinese” Morrison was already well-known to me from biographies which charted his career as the Peking correspondent of the London Times, as adviser to the warlord Yuan Shi Kai especially during the revolution of 1911 and his all-round boy’s own heroics especially during the Boxer Rebellion when his behaviour would have put that blowhard performance of Charlton Heston to shame.

His involvement was in Chinese affairs was deep, valuable and of a long duration. Nevertheless, he was probably not given appropriate credit for a very long time afterwards especially by the British establishment. Oddly, his son, Ian Morrison, died as a correspondent in the Korean war. His wife Rosalie, writing as Han Suyin, chronicled their love affair in ‘Many-Splendoured Thing’ which was Hollywoodised and Oscared as ‘Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing’.

William (W.H.) Donald (another involved journalist) was quite unknown to me but certainly had a greater and longer-termed impact on the development of Republican China as an independent. A Lithgow boy, he was forty years in China, becoming a close adviser to the nationalist camp, particularly Chiang Kai-shek and his avaricous wife Meiling (one of the notorious Soong sisters and their associates). His undoubted contributions until the end of WWII were written down by that clan in their Formosan retreat largely for reasons of jealousy and image.

Among my favourites were Viola Smith and Eleanor Hinder – lesbian partners and socialist workers for children’s workers’ and women’s rights and improved working conditions who later worked with the ILO.

Eleanor in Shanghai to Viola 1941

‘….I was determined that you would leave me calm, that I would not make it harder for you than it was, that I would show no tears. But the effort at control can build up a suffering that is almost unbearable … By the time this can reach you, of course, this too will have passed, as other griefs have passed. So you can read it knowing that I will soon be alright.

Goodnight my ownest one. How silent the house is!

My love, my dear dear one

Your Bug’

Viola (in California) to Eleanor later in 1941


…The anguish of the last 48 hours without any news or any possibility of getting news of you has been terrible … my heart aches for you darling darling mine but I can serve you best by trying to be reasonable. God keep you safe and grant that this letter reaches you.’

Always your devoted VEE

There were also those who collaborated actively with the Japanese before and during WWII, though Australia’s solicitor-general of the time (Gough Whitlam’s father, Fred) was not inclined to prosecute most for treason. Throughout the period of Shanghai’s notorious heydays Australian flotsam and jetsam washed up a respectable percentage of Shanghai’s con-men, card-sharpers, touts, black-marketeers, drug traders and party girls.

All of this takes place against the emergence and growth of Shanghai as a trading, social and political centre – a rare flowering administrative oddity in which all the vices and virtues were able to flower against a background of incredible growth, prosperity and human misery.

Yes, the gays were there

Christopher Isherwood and Wystan Auden in 1938 visited the Shanghai and gave a report of conditions and life at many levels including high living as ambassadorial guests.

“Nevertheless the tired or lustful business man will find here everything to gratify his desires. You can buy an electric razor, or a French dinner, or a well-cut suit. You can dance at the Tower Restaurant on the roof of the Cathay Hotel, and gossip with Freddy Kaufmann, its charming manager, about the European aristocracy or pre-Hitler Berlin. You can attend race-meetings, baseball games, football matches. You can see the latest American films. If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath-houses and the brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray, like afternoon tea. Good wine is difficult to obtain in this climate, but there is enough whisky and gin to float a fleet of battleships. The jeweller and the antique-dealer await your orders, and their charges will make you imagine yourself back on Fifth Avenue or in Bond Street. Finally, if you ever repent, there are churches and chapels of all denominations.”

Australian attitudes toward China are also canvassed in part. On the one hand, there are the contributions made by expatriate and returning Australian Chinese to the social, business and political life of China with their continuous agitation and funding of the republican cause and the economic contributions of department store originators such as  Sincere and Wing On in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

At the same time, it is saddening to see how continuous has been  the barrage of fear-founded anti-Chinese sentiment in this country and its origins.

George Wynne correspondent to the Sydney Daily Telegraph (Dec 1900)

“British interests compel some of us to live among them, we are told. British capital demands that some of them should give their pauper labour to our lands. British interests, British capital! Shut the Chinaman up in his own country and let him work out his own destruction. Let his unbridled lust, filth, famine and disease aid him in the world! Leave his country with its paltry trade that calls for human sacrifice to inhuman greed. See to it that he never leaves it. That is the only Chinese policy Australia can afford to entertain. That is the only way to keep back the yellow wave.”

I will include as a snapshot of the book, the Weekend Australian review extract
”  …this highly readable history set chiefly in the rambunctious, international city of Shanghai between the first Opium War of 1840 and the declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949. He cleverly, and with few signs of the intricate stitching required, weaves his Australian dramatis personae into the wild story of China’s travails as it struggled to shed its senile, malfunctioning Manchu dynasty, started to modernise as a democratic republic before being invaded by atypically obnoxious Japanese, and then fell, mostly with unknowing enthusiasm, into the hands of the murderous, cynical ideologue Mao Zedong…. History, Thompson concludes, “has a way of separating the dross from the hidden gems”. He has unearthed a couple of dozen in this book, a rare haul.”

As a repeated visitor to China, I would have appreciated reading this book 30 odd years ago. It would have intensified my pleasure and understanding in travelling, meeting and talking to Chinese people and certainly in appreciating the indescribable Shanghai.

~ John C.


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