‘Depends What You Mean By Extremist’ by John Safran, 2017. A review by John Cook.

It would seem that John Safran has been around for a long time (1997 actually) and keeps on popping into consciousness with his various films/videos/TV shows. I, for one, watch what he has to say as much to enjoy his quirky manner and directions of inquiry as for great depth – though depth is often present when he follows a line such as racism in America and reporting on the death of Richard Barrett in ‘Race Relations’ and some of the musings of the ‘Sunday Night Safran’ on Triple J with Father Bob Maguire.

If there is an indication of his increasing maturity it has to be this book. Safran takes on the confusion and puzzlement most people feel when presented a daily diet of extremist doings whether they be right wing ‘patriots’, jihadis, islamaphobes, ant-Semitics, Q Society or anarchists. He has the background, skills and experiences that enable him to move from group to group plying his usual slightly fey, inoffensive, ‘matey’? manner that enables him to get close to people normally seen as cardboard thin media stereotypes and prod gently into their background, behaviours and ultimate goals.

The confusion, I for one, experience in trying to get a grip on these groups is partly reflected in the early stages of this book as Safran meets extremist individuals and begins to burrow into their awareness. Some of these people vary from the foolishly ignorant through closed-mindedness into petty actions (ranging from public affray through to the infamous ‘tinny terrorists’) on to the genuinely dangerous and suicidally angry.

Safran manages to extract some common features from many of these individuals that focus not always on a particular issue so much as a felt need that shifts from one focus to another such as moving from Asian migration to Islamic migration. I see it in two senses. One is a driving need to be right – to have found ‘the answers’ and ‘the cure’.  The other is when those answers are matched by a fear that those answers might actually be wrong and in need of modification or re-direction or admission or error. It is clear to me that the most dangerous of these individuals are those who are fundamentally most fearful, defensive and angry in this sense.

Safran sets his investigation against a mostly Melbourne setting (understandably) that it is remarkable for its very ordinariness and suburban and urban) feel. I enjoyed the story of the pig roast at the Cronulla riot ‘commemoration’ that few enough attended while no one seemed to have any idea how long the roast might take though the sausages were OK.

This is vintage Safran with a weird mixture of the serious, thoughtful,  comic and bizarre that might encourage some deeper thought and consideration by readers genuinely interested in investigating this contemporary phenomenon that is a pointer towards changes and instability in so many Western nations – viz Hansonism and Trumpism.

Where else are going to find two extracts like the following ..

‘Del (a Palestinian woman working somewhat covertly in Melbourne Jewish bakery) tells me her aunty is wrapped in a paradox of her own. She’s convinced that her doctor, who is Jewish, is trying to poison her ’She’s going on and on and on. And I’m like, “Why do you see him if you think he’s poisoning you?” And she goes, “Jews are the best doctors.”

‘How could anyone who grew up with Mad magazine think that ISIS is a good idea?’

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Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, 2017. A review by John Cook.

One thing you can be sure about Leonardo – his homosexuality – anyone famous for wearing outfits in pink and rose and who kept a series of young men in his retinue all his life (Salai and Francisco Melzi) while keeping detailed records of what it cost for their flashy clothes was ‘in the club’ – and he is often cited as such. We must have good taste as he was almost certainly the greatest polymath, multi-talented autodidact of all time. It is stunning to see just how far his thirst for knowledge and understanding that knowledge drove him all his life. It is just a little unfortunate that his drive for self-improvement was such that so few of his art works survive completed though they are complemented by his magnificent notebooks with their wonderful records of his musings and theorizing. It is fitting that this latest biography (525 pages) is as thorough as it is from the practiced pen of Walter Isaacson who has already tackled two other minds of our time – Albert Einstein and Steve jobs.

Leonardo’s private and public lives are thoroughly covered both within his household and his young men and externally in his dealings with the great families of the Italian Renaissance, the Papacy and Kings of France. He seems to have been particularly sure-footed in knowing when to transfer his allegiances and offer patrons what was needed ranging from painting, sculpture, architectural and engineering and munitions skills – again with a patchy record of completions. In fact, reading about how he navigated his times and the mixture of task completions and delays is one of the highlights of this book. Probably one area where he accomplished so much that satisfied his personal thirst for understanding and which also enriched his art has to be his ground-breaking studies in anatomy.

Isaacson is very thorough and detailed in his referencing both of other earlier biographers back to Vasari and in utilizing Leonardo’s extensive notebooks that are held in a number of different locations and are subject to constant re-examination and re-evaluation. I particularly enjoyed his analysis of how Leonardo’s left-handedness created a distinctive signature in his painting and drawing technique so that it possible to parcel out his and other’s contributions to a particular work. His mirror-writing is similarly explained though he also used simple codes when he wanted more privacy. It is often remarked that there is a deal of androgyny in his work which may reflect his preferences and certainly the figure and features of Salai. He was no fan, in this respect of his contemporary Michaelangelo referring to his nudes as “a sack of walnuts rather than a human figure”.

The application of these insights into analyses of his works was very useful though it would have been helpful if my E-book version had illustrations that could have been enlarged. The reader really needs this to be able to appreciate what we are being shown in detail.

His early life and its continuing influence of his behavior is something of a field day for all kinds of psycho-analysts and they have had their ‘fun’. There are traces of this in Isaacson’s text but not over-whelmingly so. I have spent my fair share of time reading about some of the greats of the Renaissance and those who followed in Northern Europe especially Bacon and the early Dutch scientists. It was fascinating to see how Leonardo’s mind worked from Mediaeval origins through his intense curiosity to observe, speculate and theorise so successfully – he was also lucky to be among the early readers of ancient texts newly translated and printed into Italian (his spotty early education did not include much Latin which may have helped steer him away from self-satisfied ecclesiastic learning).

The two words I dread to hear these days are ‘iconic’ and ‘genius’. To this man they truly apply and reminds us of why we should be a lot more careful in their application. He stands as a beacon of truly human thought and application and he was one of us!

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Crimes of the Father by Tom Keneally, 2016. A review by John Cook.

“what was obvious … was our love of the Church as a community… “We wanted to be modern because that was our world. We wanted to be Catholic because, in an even more intimate sense, that was our world as well.”

“I took their sins on me. I took the sins of the girls and the sins of the boys. On me. I risked my soul so that they would not have a squalid experience in a suburban toilet. But I will never be thanked.”

These two quotes from this book represent the polar extremes of this book from the deeply saddened yearnings of thoughtful spiritual beings and their desire for a fulfilling spiritual life to the appalling ratiocinations of a truly bankrupt soul.

This says a great deal for this book and led me to purchase it for a very good friend who was born, bred and educated an Irish Catholic but, like so many, has suffered some disengagement from his church over the years. I sometimes feel a little guilty for my tasteless verbal attacks on his beliefs in our more youthful years but now feel that any serious damage generated probably came from within that institution itself. I have yet to hear his reactions from him but look forward to them.

Keaneally needs no introduction for an Australian reader nor does his affection for Ireland and Irish causes. The two books that stand out for me are his early ‘Bring Larks and Heroes’ which delves into the problems of the earliest Australian Irish who had no priestly presence and ‘The Great Shame’ where he delved into the Irish Diaspora and its international consequences. Until I began my family tree explorations a long time ago (pre internet) I was not aware that I had a GGG Grandfather (Daniel Kelly) who was transported as a United Irishman in 1789 and  a step GGG Grandfather Michael Fitzgerald, who was involved along with his brother Maurice in the uprising of 1804. So, somewhat belatedly, along with 6 million fellow Australians, I confess to having an interest in things Australian and Irish.

This book is not an exposé of the most recent events investigating paedophilia and abuse with the Catholic church (and others and state run institutions). It is set rather in 1996 at a time when cracks were appearing and protective barriers mounted. There are no direct references to living or dead persons but it is not difficult to relate many of the persons depicted as being similar to Cardinals, Monseigneurs and priests of recent infamy.

Keaneally uses the device of having a 60 year old priest, Frank Docherty, who previously had been sent to his mother house in Canada for his vocal anti-Vietnam war position and pro Vatican II views. There he studied psychology to return on a visit to Sydney with a Doctorate in the psychosexual problems of the religious. He is there to deliver a lecture which is probably not wanted by the senior hierarchy whose approval he however needs if he is to return to work and live in Sydney. He is, at once, inside and outside the  institution.

I would not describe this as a heavily narrative driven work though there are a few story lines which coalesce around the sexual depredations of clergy and the responses of the church over time culminating in the Devitt case very similar to that which generated the infamous Ellis defence and which rendered the church entity incapable of being sued. Things are a little too convenient in plotting terms highlighted by Docherty encountering an abuse victim as the driver of his taxi from the airport on arrival. There are victims, including suicide (Stephen), distraught families and difficult personal decisions to be made with regard to individual positioning on events (Brian Wood in the Devitt case).

The reader is left with a sad understanding how the institutional wing has responded defensively whether in the law courts or through devising mechanisms apparently devoted to a caring response but which are almost entirely self-protective in effect.

Saddening and not a little depressing, this work does, however, leave the reader with the hope there are always persons of good feeling and intent who may eventually win out against the evils and machinations it discloses.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, 2017. A review by John Cook.

The background theme of this book remains alive and kicking with Ireland heading into a May referendum on abortion.

This, for me, was a rather mixed read. It comes in at nearly 600 pages and so requires some dedication. On the other hand, it covers a remarkable canvas from 1945 to the present day in Ireland seen through the prism of an unusual gay man – Cyril Avery. This means that there are inevitably going to be a series of clashes with the political establishment and its companion the established Catholic church. These occasions are presented with some heat and vitriol which is entirely warranted. Initially …

‘Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.’

The opening story sequence from the protagonist’s conception, the expulsion of his shamed mother and her arrival in Dublin to share with another two displaced young gay men and her subsequent finding a niche while her son is adopted (somewhat) into a privileged family is very good writing. I found myself thinking of Dickens with the biting story telling and the later picaresque episodes. However, even at this point the author commences an authorial usage which marks the entire book – the use of coincidence. This could be a partial deal breaker for some, but I eventually got used to it and almost found myself having a guessing game as to when the next occurrence would pop up.

The writing is a remarkable blend of story telling that can in a eye-blink turn from sad to angry, to comic, ironic and reflective. The young Cyril whose adoptive family life is something of a vacuum eventually decides to confess his homosexuality to a priest. He eventually says the magic words and this is the response ..

“Am I forgiven, Father?’ I asked, leaning over him, trying to ignore the stench of his breath. ‘Are my sins forgiven?’

His eyes rolled in his head, his entire body gave one great convulsion, he let out a roar and that was it, he was gone.

‘God bless us, Father’s dead,’ said an elderly man who had been kneeling on the floor, supporting the priest’s head.

‘Do you think he forgave me?’ I asked. ‘Before he croaked, I mean?’

‘He did, I’m sure of it,’ said the man, taking my hand now and letting the priest’s head fall rather hard against the marble floor, a tinny sound echoing around the church. ‘And he’d be happy to know that his last act on this earth was to spread God’s forgiveness.”

A passage that touched me deeply much later in the book when Cyril is supporting AIDS patients in a New York hospital (the one solid love of his life Bastiaan is a Dutch HIV/AIDS specialist at the hospital). He is with a dying young man asks him how many contacts he thinks he has had.

‘I have no idea,’ I said.

‘One.’

‘Christ,’ I said.

‘One, and even then it was only once. I’ve had sex one single time in my entire life and that’s what brought me here.’

I said nothing. What was there to say?”

I remember one such case at the beginning of the plague years in Brisbane.

The reader needs to be ready for regular jumps in time which are quite well handled as the story moves through age stages and different locations and cultures over the 70 years of the story’s passage and while its is an individual tale its impact is broadened as there is so much in this tale that reflects the experiences of gay men world wide – from frustrated young love to gay bashing – death and wounding.

This is has a strong recommendation.

“Ah Jesus,’ she said, laughing as she stood up. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. We’re none of us normal. Not in this fucking country.”

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Coming Out Catholic by Alex Dunkin, 2015. A review by John Cook.

In the words of Lady Bracknell ‘Every luxury that money could buy, including christening, had been lavished on you by your fond and doting parents’ – in my case moderate to high Anglicanism. I then had the good fortune to attend a non-religious boys secondary school where as I questioned myself on so many things I encountered ‘Some Mistakes of Moses’ by Robert Ingersoll (new edition in 2016), a most famous 19thC American orator and atheist who more recently found favour with Christopher Hitchens – and that was the end of Abrahamic religions for me.

That hasn’t stopped me from having many religious friends including priests and those who have found their way to be religious and gay. I have read quite a lot over the years and feel most close to Bishop Spong. I confess to giving some of contemporary gay friends some heat on the subject of confession and contrition but more of that later.

The author is an Adelaide academic and writer who has tried his hand at a number of forms of expression and evidently writes from personal experience. I must confess I, yet again, led myself astray with this book. I expected it to be full of detailed anguish, beatings, loss of friendships (and perhaps family) and it simply isn’t. One reviewer (Tracey Korsten, Glam Adelaide) said “It’s like a gay boy’s Disney fantasy.” And so has to be seen in another light.

Yes, we have a story of a boy growing into a young man largely in the Catholic Secondary school environment. Yes, there are the to-be-expected moral and religious impositions personified by the Redemptorist sounding Principal father Peter. Yes, there is the mindless vicious bully, Chris. Yes, there is the best mate, Mark who seems to effortlessly have it all. Yes, there are the usual emerging cravings and yearnings and the fear and panic that they might be detected. Yes, there are quite rational and believably adolescent self-examinations of what it means to remain a Catholic and hold true to his emerging sexuality. Yes, there is a Priest – counsellor who is surprisingly understanding, helpful and supportive in unguessed-at ways.

Then, things turn different as there are a series of events that one could only hope hold true for all young-uns coming out. He comes out to family, friends, class-mates! and his religious counsellor all with eventual positive outcomes. It is sad that this response is a to-be-hoped for outcome for all such young men and women but sadly often isn’t. Nevertheless, if I take the book as assisting those coming out to think through their situation and take comfort that not all will be bleak along with some of the strategies described, this is a worthy book indeed. It needs to be widely available in school libraries to assist straight, gay, middling and trans to understand themselves and to be understood by others. Our young man concludes ..

I’m a sinner just like everyone else at my parish, but my sin isn’t my homosexuality. The sinfulness of my being gay is that it tempted me, allowed me—encouraged me, really—to think that I was somehow set off from the rest of society, that I wasn’t really part of the world. The sin of my homosexuality is that it led me to believe lies—deadly, soul-killing lies—a sin for which I am indeed heartily sorry. But by the grace of God I’ve forgiven the people who told me those lies, and I’ve forgiven myself for believing them. And by the grace of the people I pray with every week, by the love they give me and the love I return, I move forward with them into the truth: I am part of society. I am part of nature. And I am very happily part of the church.

One thing that intrigued me was the delightful piece of justification our young man utilises to find his way through the thicket of sin. I have, shamefully, given my Catholic friends some heat on the subject of confessing sinful homosexual behaviour, showing contrition, being absolved, then doing the same sin shortly afterwards (guess what!). Our young man doesn’t see his fast emerging sex life as sinful and in any case he argues quite Jesuitically …

 “Jesus did die for our sins, this I know. And so to not sin a little every now and again would be a bit of a waste. I mean the price has already been paid, and it would seem almost ungrateful to not get full value out of it. Sin and forgiveness aren’t about living as puritans to avoid sinning, but there to set us free, so that we can live as we want to, and then be forgiven for any sins that might happen in the meantime. So I’m not sure why I’m worrying about sins right now.”

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CARDINAL: The Rise and Fall of George Pell by Louise Milligan, 2017. A review by John Cook

It is rarely that I have a think about what I write in a note from a legal point of view but I did consider that before writing this. I checked the most recent reviews of this book and was taken by the clear difference between that supplied by the SMH which was factual and supportive of the journalist author’s determinations while the Oz review started out as follows.

‘Lawyers representing George Pell have demanded an apology and retraction from Fairfax and The Guardian over articles ­ repeating child sexual abuse allegations made in a new book ­described by the cardinal as a “character assassination”.

The legal demands were sent to the media outlets at the weekend after a book made a series of allegations against Cardinal Pell over his role in the sex abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church.

They include unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing by Cardinal Pell, who has stridently rejected any misconduct.

The articles published at the weekend reported allegations made in ABC journalist Louise Milligan’s book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, published by MUP.’

I can only say all power to MUP and their legal advisers who must have indicated that the book should be published.

I see three themes in this book.

First there is the range and depth of sex abuse perpetrated mostly (not all) on young boys and youths under the care of Catholic priests and educators. This is limited largely to Victoria and the Ballarat diocese though story lines trail off elsewhere to Melbourne, Phillip Island and the Torquay Surf Club. However, this is only a subset of the larger Royal Commission investigation into similar matters but with a much wider ambit.

Milligan has been following this matter for a long time and expertly marshals a range of interviewees obtaining their stories as well as the wider issues of their ‘fit’ in their respective communities while she also tries to counter objections that might be raised with regard to their reliability while highlighting other instances of accusation higher in perceived reliability and non-contamination of group memory. Given that even the church has offered compensation (in varying degrees) to many of these people, there can be little doubting of what happened though there can be debate about details.

Second is the characterisation of the institutional response of the church, which was clearly tardy, disbelieving and also appeared to have engaged in some tactics (especially legal) which could be seen as more characteristic of a rich and powerful multinational organisation rather than a caring religious organisation with a pastoral mission.

Third is the involvement of George Pell on two levels. Was he privy to what was happening in the Ballarat diocese when some of the worst of these abuses were playing out and parents and others were being fobbed off and serial offenders transferred into new opportunities to further their abuse pattern? As the formulator (he takes credit for it regularly) of the Melbourne Response was he continuing a pattern of dampening down any damage to the church institution at minimal cost while employing the blunt and savage weapon of legal warfare? Is there a continuing pattern of avoidance and protection?

At the personal level has Cardinal Pell been a deft user of a mixture of legal ploys, overseas activities and poor health to avoid closer examination? Are there instances of Pell, himself, behaving inappropriately towards youngsters both in the pool at Ballarat and later in the Surf Club changing room at Torquay?

George Pell reads as a gifted individual physically and mentally. He clearly advanced rapidly within the ranks of his church to the very peak of that organisation. Milligan supplies individual commentary that indicates two very different sides to the man – one is warm, caring, helpful and worthy of his promotions another as dominating, curt and insensitive.

I believe he is both as are many intelligent, skilled successful manipulators in any large organisation. Apart from his personal behaviours which remain to be fully tested, I think he has acted quite predictably and appropriately in his own view especially as a Vatican II counter-reformer. He is loyal to his church organisation and his own image of himself as a protector and promoter of what he has devoted his life to. It is sad that his views and actions seem to have prevented him from fully engaging with the true nature of the deep malaise he was confronting with the enduring empathy and concern one might have expected. He seems to display the pastoral declarations require of him but fails all to often as a pastor. As an aside, I have to mention that similar behaviours from persons in similar positions of authority have been paraded before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from other religions and State organisations.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to explore these issues in some depth (366 pages) and some recent news indicates that there may yet be more to be written. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

‘ABC News May 17, 2017 –  Victoria Police are considering whether to charge Catholic Cardinal George Pell over sexual assault allegations dating back to the late 1970s after receiving advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

Key points:

    DPP provided advice to Victoria Police about sexual assault allegations against the Cardinal dating back to 1978

    Police to consider laying charges, after three officers flew to Rome last year to interview George Pell

    He strenuously denied the allegations saying they were untrue, completely wrong

Three Victorian detectives flew to Rome last year to conduct a voluntary interview with Cardinal Pell

Police have issued a statement today saying they had received advice from Victoria’s DPP about a current investigation into sexual assault allegations and detectives would consider the advice before any charges were laid.’

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Down The Hume by Peter Polites 2017. A review by John Cook

This is a somewhat bleak but revealing read. That said, there are occasional flashes of humour and worthwhile insight into some aspects of gay life with which I have had almost no experience. Count the ways. I have had a little to do with Greek-Australian culture but not a lot. I smiled at the description of weekend ‘Greek school’ but, apart from Tsolkas and a few others, I didn’t have a lot of insight – especially into a  substantially dysfunctional family (father rejecting and vicious – mother loving, supportive but addicted and delusional) living in heavily ethnic urban areas. The world of drug use is not new to me and the author largely focuses on a painkiller with a name that echoes a range of commonly abused substances. I have had virtually no experience of ‘Muscle Mary’ culture but have been a long-time observer of the semiotics of gay dress and speech which feature heavily in this story (especially clothing).

The central character, Peter, has a number of names including nicknames that make things a little confusing as it is the same for his lover and the author’s Christian name as well. Peter works in an old persons’ nursing home that is largely drawn with frightening accuracy from the viewpoint of a lowly worker who actually interacts with the patients he services. This provides an ancillary story of partnered older gay men and their treatment by family and society. Peter’s story has very little in the way of silver lining. He is deeply attached to his mother yet they share a key addiction. The back story of his family provides some answers for his current position and condition and is believable if somewhat unyieldingly gloomy.

His love life with his lover, Nice Arms Pete, is a case of hope over certainty (unfaithfulness, chemical, physical and emotional abuse) and there is a painful process of disabusement (is that a real word?) that readers follow (use of some typical modern hand-held technology here) wondering where it will end for Peter. The conclusion is more in the same vein with lots of tortured thinking and responses to admittedly often unpromising urban environments. I found myself yearning for some more hopeful and positive responses to this world for someone.

The sense of disillusion is quite overpowering in this novel and is matched by the story’s progress through the streets, parks and suburbs of an inner-urban environment (part of the departure route from Sydney on the old Hume Highway). Central to Peter’s world and life is the issue of chemical use whether it is Nice Arm’s use of testosterone and other unguessed chemicals often abused in his circle or Peter’s desire to dull his and his mother’s emotional pain with inevitable consequences.

This is a kind of variant on the road trip novel that is a journey through shadows and darkness.

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