John’s July reading

Waltzing Matilda

By Dennis O’Keeffe

2012

Dennis O’Keeffe is well known as a performer of traditional Australian songs and so has an interest in this song – its origins, variations and performance history. His book, however, tries to go further. He presents sections backgrounding the history of bush workers, the union movement, the squattocracy (especially the links between W Victoria and NW Queensland) and A B Paterson’s liaisons. While some of this was informative for me, it was all a lot to cover in this book which is somewhat prone to falling under the spell of ‘mateship’ mythologising.

Still having memories of ‘Mad Dog Morgan’, I was intrigued at the MacPherson family linkage to Dagworth station and enjoyed the revelation concerning the origins of the Queensland (sometimes Cloncurry or Buderim) version of the song out of the liaison (another!) between a younger Macpherson and his French paramour in Cloncurry. It gave me fresh respect for the dusty old joint!

I spent a couple of years living in Cloncurry and Kynuna (the song was written just across the Diamantina channels and billabongs at Dagworth station – later absorbed into Kynuna station) and was subjected to a regular dose of ear-chewing by local grazier Richard Magoffin (Nelia station) promoting more accuracy and less mythologising in the song’s origins – lyrics and music. The book justifies his views, which is refreshing.

O’Keefe clarifies the background and the sequence of events that led to the song being written and having a number of performances (the first so-called public performance in Winton was an extension of what had happened earlier around Kynuna and was before a similar audience). He also pursues its gradual popularisation and notes the irony that Australia’s national song found its way to popularity as a very early example of a singing commercial for Billy tea.

The author spends quite a lot of energy on investigating Paterson’s dalliances from which he emerges as somewhat self-interested and (in the eyes of the Macphersons and Rileys) even a cad. ”The Macpherson brothers kicked him out and told him never to darken their doorstep again.” I do feel, however, that he draws a very long bow when interpreting some lines (especially in the chorus) as having a double meaning intended to charm the young Christina who is the great-grandaunt of Vic Premier Ted Ballieu).

 

Larrikins

By Melissa Bellanta

2012

This is an excellent piece of work by Dr Melissa Bellanta who has connections with CU and U of Q. As a social and cultural historian, she has specialised in the lives and times of young working (and non-working) people especially in Brisbane. She has also befitted from similar work done in Sydney and Melbourne to produce this very readable overview of the ‘larrikin’ phenomenon in Australian culture (mostly urban).

It would be hard to think of a better, more enduring term that taps into popular Australian culture on such a long time scale. The term itself is examined for its origins and historic usage from the more robust activities of early currency lads and lasses, through a wide range of anti-social activities through to Rhodes Scholar PM Bob Hawke who always seemed quite happy to be identified with that tradition. Paul Hogan, Steve Irwin and the Beaconsfield miners also rate mentions.

As a Brisbane boy, I was taken by the fruits of her scholarship especially on Woolloongabba, West End, South Brisbane, Fortitude Valley, Spring Hill, Petrie Terrace and low lying parts of Red Hill and Paddington as I have family and teaching connections in these areas.

A wide range of popular life from music, theatre, pubs, night entertainments, fights (amateur and pro), sport (organised and otherwise) have been examined to extract the range of meanings for larrikinism (from dangerously anti-social through a range of youthful indiscretions to ‘scally-wag’) in both sexes! Interactions with the importance of locality and social grouping are also examined. The book is particularly valuable for its inclusion of both sexes and some references to the growth of homosexual sub-culture.

This is a popularization of essentially academic work and the author has managed the transition without losing its academic qualities while retaining theoretical explanations that are appropriate and understandable – never an easy task.

While of undoubted interest for those who want to read about our past, its implications for examining activities that regularly crowd the current affairs magazine programs on TV are readily available. There are also some worthwhile thoughts on our history of managing the occasional severe outbreaks of anti-social larrikinism we experience. I, for one, would not include the current focus on ‘bikie’ gangs in this grouping though their origins may be related. As a rough index, when groups, gangs or pushes argue more amongst themselves, society tends to be more lenient. Such attitudes change rapidly when public offence occurs.

An enjoyable and insightful read.

 

The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin

By Joe McGinniss

2011

 

McGinniss cannot be accused of bad timing as this investigative piece arrived just as Sarah Palin belly-flopped in the 2012 Presidential preliminaries (is it too much to hope that she will never ‘float’ again?). He also cannot be accused of poor pre-publication publicity as he researched Sarah while living next door to her Wasilla, Alaskan home (much to her family’s considerable ire). This is an in-depth reveal of the unlovely Sarah making it clear what a lucky escape the world had in the 2008 election.
McGinniss had form, experience and friendships in Alaska deriving from his previous writing about it as a modern frontier community. As a result he garnered information (not all of which could be acknowledged) from a range of sources to build a picture of a woman who systematically capitalised on her own not inconsiderable capacity in the charm department combined with some unholy fundamentalist Christian and right wing extremism (which was initially well-concealed) to advance her family’s interests at all costs while systematically bastardising and ruining anyone who stood in her way or offended her and her interests. (It all sounds a bit too familiar to a Queenslander)

The ploy of renting next door to the Palin home and the frequent use of unacknowledged sources (out of fear of Palin or simply because they are unverifiable?) could be seen to weaken this book and it has been attacked on those grounds.

For my view, there is sufficient that does come from acknowledged and verifiable sources for the thrust of his investigation to hold true enough. While his descriptions of the Alaskan landscape, seasons and wildlife are often useful, they do tend to be repetitive and could easily have been scaled back somewhat.

Apart from a variety of personal activities, the main focus of the book is on the ‘Troopergate’ affair (which brought back memories of Fraser island and John Sinclair), Palin’s involvement with the Alaska Gas line Inducement Act, and her emergent religio-political views of dominionism.

The most extraordinary material aired (somewhat tendentiously and at too great length) concerns the details of the birth of her last child (Trig) who was born with Down syndrome during the 2008 campaign. Either this was a breath-taking scam or a monumental beat-up. The sad thing is that McGinniss is able to quote “It is perhaps the most blistering assessment of her character possible that many Wasillans who’d known Sarah from high school onward told me that even if she had not faked the entire story of her pregnancy and Trig’s birth, it was something she was eminently capable of doing.”

All told, an interesting but saddening read.

 

Jack Holmes and his Friend

By Edmund White

2012

A Jack Holmes who happens to have an endowment so large he takes time to come to terms with? This novel covers a time range from the 50’s to the first us of GRID and I shall be interested to hear from younger readers how they respond to its specificity. There can be no doubt that matters of sex and its description are well presented and there can be no age differential there. However, the notion of the parallel growth of these two men and their different sexualities over a now distant time and place may present more difficulties.

Having lived those times, I was entranced by his representation of their lives as they repeatedly intersect against the background of an unrequited love. The use of class, privilege, education and social and personal ambitions are all very effectively presented. Once again, I can only hope that younger readers pick up on some of the more delicate nuances.

Jack and Will have lives that seem set on totally different trajectories yet they continue to return to an all-male friendship which provides opportunities for Jack, while appearing neutral, to introduce change elements into Will’s life. It is appropriate to point out that the women in this novel are rather thin in characterisation – I would have liked more.

White is as writerly as ever and he neatly contrasts Will’s novelist hopes and practices (‘idea for a novel’) with Jack’s success as critical writer. The final put-down comes as Will’s financial fortunes are founded on preparing dodgy financial year reports (not exactly French novels). The use of third person (Jack) and first person (Will) gives a different light and edge to their viewpoints.

I found the novel a little hard to initially engage but became fascinated by the settings, the interplay between Jack and Will and some of extras – most notably the ballet dancer who had some lessons to teach Jack – a departed good friend of mine had a similar encounter.

The conclusion after dropping the ‘GRID’ word is all a little too sudden and trite. Once again, I would have like a little more detail and fleshing out.

Entrancing but with flaws.

 

Behind the Shock Machine

By Gina Perry

2012

Publisher’s blurb

In the summer of 1961, a group of men and women volunteered for a memory experiment to be conducted by young, dynamic psychologist Stanley Milgram. None could have imagined that, once seated in the lab, they would be placed in front of a box known as a shock machine and asked to administer a series of electric shocks to a man they’d just met. And no one could have foreseen how the repercussions of their actions, made under pressure and duress, would reverberate throughout their lives. For what the volunteers did not know was that the man was an actor, the shocks were fake, and what was really being tested was just how far they would go.

 

When Milgram’s results were released, they created a worldwide sensation. He reported that people had repeatedly shocked a man they believed to be in pain, even dying, because they had been told to — he linked the finding to Nazi behaviour during the Holocaust. But some questioned Milgram’s unethical methods in fooling people. Milgram became both hero and villain, and his work seized the public imagination for more than half a century, inspiring books, plays, films, and art.

 

For Gina Perry, the story of the experiments never felt finished. Listening to participants’ accounts and reading Milgram’s unpublished files and notebooks, she pieced together an intriguing, sensational story: Milgram’s plans went further than anyone had imagined. This is the compelling tale of one man’s ambition and of the experiment that defined a generation.

 

It has been difficult to write about this book as it is pitched at two levels. For those who have been involved in psychology over the past fifty years, it constitutes an excellent review of one of the two most important social psychology experiments of all time – Stanley Milgram’s obedience study in which some subjects appeared to be willing to use lethal force on the other subjects. (The other was by Milgram’s high school friend – Phillip Zimbardo. His jail experiment at Stanford 10 years after Milgram explored similar territory with even more sensational results. His work more recently led to ‘The Lucifer Effect’ reflecting on the Abu Ghraib affair.)

For the average reader, it is worth either tackling the whole book or selected portions to get a taste for what limitations need to be placed on the interpretation of such studies as these (and their replications and variations) and their continuing investigation in popular and scientific arenas.

Much of what is discussed may seem to be over-detailed and repetitive, but Gina Perry (Australian psychologist) is building up a basis for a broader and deeper analysis than any previously attempted, to provide the theoretical backbone so lacking in Milgram’s work.

It is noteworthy that, in the early years (1973-4). The biggest replications of the study were untaken at U of Sydney (a behaviorist stronghold) and the new Latrobe U. It is interesting to note that Bob Montgomery who was principal researcher at Latrobe has since been employed on ‘Big Brother”, ‘the Biggest Loser’ and ‘I’m a Celebrity.. Get Me Out of Here!’ The Sydney experiment was conducted by Leon Mann (a Milgram student) and Wes Kilham (honours student). Kilham was deeply affected by his involvement and in recent years has been running counselling services for Vietnam veterans. He says ‘Soldiers often do things they feel enormously uncomfortable about, and the conscripts in Vietnam felt they had no choice. And for a lot of Vietnam veterans, it was horrifying when people came out and said the Vietnam war was a mistake and should never have happened, and all the justification for what they did was challenged – that can be very frightening.’

 

 

~ John

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