Racism: The curse of our times

Racism is based on fear and ignorance.
I know that sounds too simple, but I’ve been studying it, both literally and figuratively, for a long time – more than 50 years. Regular readers of this blog will know that. I’ve gone back over my 150 plus posts, and at least 15 of them – probably more but the early ones aren’t as well archived — have racism as a theme.
They range from racial taunts aimed at the Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, an Indigenous star of the Sydney Swans, now Australian Football League minor premiers, to my racist upbringing in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. The latter post, published in 2012, was an admission that my wonderful and loving parents were, like many Americans and Australians, unconscious racists, and that I was a racist, too. http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-2x
I told tales of what my father used to say to me on the subway surface cars taking us to the city centre: “Don’t sit next to a coloured person on a trolley, they stink.” As I wrote in my 2012 post, “growing up in a white neighbourhood next to a black one, separated by a playground and years of stereotypes and racial incidents, certainly led me and my friends to distrust, if not hate, our black brethren. It wasn’t until I got to university and met African Americans, who were smarter and nicer and sweeter-smelling than me and my Irish-Catholic mates, did I realise what a load of rubbish I’d been taught over the years. It was a valuable lesson to learn, because you’ll never stop being a racist until you admit you are one.”
And that lesson is yet to be learned in the US, I suggest, after what happened in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 when a policeman shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown who had his hands in the air in the universal sign of surrender. Police claim Brown was trying to grab the officer’s gun, but protesters in the St Louis suburb have been chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” ever since the killing. (Photo above by Michael B. Thomas/AFP)
Policeman Darren Wilson is white, and he shot Michael Brown at least six times, so if he was trying to defend himself, I would imagine he was frightened of a young black man who towered over him, even if he presented no real threat. The suburb of Ferguson has 21,100 residents, about two thirds are black and about 30 per cent are white. In 2000, 50 per cent were black and 44 per cent were white. http://wapo.st/1q7GRtT That seems to me a classic case of whites fleeing a suburb – it happened in my old neighbourhood in Philadelphia. Fear plays a factor in white flight: racial tension increases, older residents say it’s no longer safe, and all you need is one mugging to confirm it for many white residents.
My upbringing instilled such a fear in me, and I thought I was over it, after teaching three years in Harlem in the late sixties and early seventies, where I was mugged once. Then I went to South Africa in 1994 to produce stories on the country’s first multi-racial elections for the Channel Nine Sunday Program. Here’s how I described an incident just a few days before the polls in my 2012 post: “I was walking down the streets of a still tense Johannesburg when I heard someone running behind me, and next thing I knew a black man jostled me. I was scared shitless, until he said very politely: ‘Excuse me.’ I saw a fleeting smile cross his face, as he realised how scared I was, and I felt like an idiot.”
I wondered if other white people felt like this, and I came across a blog by Portland, Oregon computer scientist and writer, Rachel Shadoan, called “Being Shadoan” (http://beingshadoan.wordpress.com/). Her incisive post is titled “I am racist and so are you” (a better headline than my 2012 post), and this is what she has to say about fear: “How do I know that I’m racist? Once, while living alone, I heard a noise that I took to be someone attempting to break in to my house. Instead of transforming into the Valkyrie I’d always imagined I’d be in such a situation, I proceeded to have the kind of reaction I usually reserve for brown recluse spiders. Which is to say, I hid and called my boyfriend to come rescue me. When he arrived, finding the only other occupant of my house to be my wildly overactive imagination, he asked me, ‘What were you so afraid of?’ Unbidden, the image of a tall, young black man popped into my head. I don’t remember what answer I gave my boyfriend, but I doubt it was ‘young black men’.”
Rachel goes on to recount several other incidents involving black men which provoked fear, and convinced her she was racist. And she poses a question to her readers: ‘Hang on, though, Rachel.’ I can hear you now. ‘Just because you’re afraid of black male strangers doesn’t mean you’re racist. Have you considered that your fear of black men is justified?’ She considers it, but comes up with statistics that show that 69% of whites (72% of the US population) commit violent crimes against white people while 13% of blacks (13% of the US population) commit violent crimes against whites. So she concludes her fear is racism, as I concluded a long time ago on the mean streets of Philadelphia. And racism kills people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, George Zimmerman, in a gated community in Florida in 2012. I wrote a piece about that incident then, and praised President Barack Obama for his comment about the case: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-46
My last paragraph was: “Whatever happens in the Trayvon Martin case will provide a good lesson to teach Americans and Australians what’s right and what’s wrong about justice in ‘the greatest country in the world,’ as one of the prosecutors described the US this morning.” George Zimmerman’s trial ended on July 13, 2013, with his acquittal on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. It was a better-run trial than the court in Cairo that convicted Peter Greste and his two Al Jazeera colleagues of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading “false news” about the military coup, but I believe there are a lot of black and white Americans who have doubts about the jury’s verdict on George Zimmerman. (On the other hand, there was a jury unlike the Kangaroo Court in Cairo.)
I mentioned unconscious racism earlier, and I remember a former white principal of the junior high school in Harlem where I taught addressing for the first time the teaching staff, mostly black, about problems that needed to be overcome, and he said: “It’s time to call a spade a spade.” We fell about laughing, and he didn’t last long as principal.
Tony Abbott, who has become an advocate of rights for Indigenous Australians and visits Cape York every year to help young students, had a similar gaffe last week. On launching a project on defining moments in Australian history at the National Museum of Australia, the Prime Minister said: “… the arrival of the First Fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent. Let me repeat that, it was the defining moment in the history of this continent. It was the moment this continent became part of the modern world.” That remark drew criticism from a number of prominent Indigenous Australians, including the chairman of his advisory panel, Warren Mundine: “Well it was a defining moment, there’s no argument about that. It was also a disastrous defining moment for Indigenous people.” The head of the Stolen Generation Council for New South Wales and the ACT, Matilda House, told the ABC’s Sarah Dingle what was wrong with the PM’s comment: “I think politicians really don’t think when they make these one liners and I can’t fathom how a ship or a boat sailed into Sydney Harbour can overtake the 60,000 years before.” http://ab.co/1u7qD3v When I talked to Tony Abbott before he visited Cape York for the first time in 2008, I told him about my days teaching in Harlem, and said: “You’re going to go up there and spend two weeks teaching and helping Aboriginal children in Cape York. But the real heroes are those teachers who stay. I often think about the staff who stayed behind in Harlem. Remember those who you leave behind in Cape York.” http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-eo He agreed and has mentioned the heroes who stay behind several times since when talking about Cape York. But Matilda House is right, politicians should think before they speak, especially on something as important as defining moments.
At least he’s talking about it, and a conversation about Indigenous rights and racism is sorely needed in Australia, as it is in America. To return to Ferguson, Missouri, a former member of the school board there, Charles Henson, told Mark Follman of Mother Jones that while police had made mistakes (photo above Charlie Riedel, AP), some of the criticism against them was unfair, and there was hope: “The real hope now is that a light has been shined. There is a lot of work to be done in this community, and if folks in the city government feel that there’s not an issue with regard to bias and race, then we’ve got a problem. Because that’s fuel for another situation like this to happen again, and we can’t take another one of these.” http://bit.ly/1pb8Y6s
And the last word about the St Louis suburb where religion has a strong influence on the African-American community should go to Jane Brandon Brown, ambassador for the Kingdom of God International Ministries: “We have to have a conversation, people don’t want to have a conversation about race, and we need this conversation. We have to talk about the racial issues, we have to talk about the racial tensions, and then we have to talk about how we can eradicate it.” http://bit.ly/1tkNStZ

Developers fail to see the forest for the trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree
With apologies to American poet, Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918), I think that I shall never see a development as lovely as a tree – particularly three trees that belong to the Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest (STIF). These three beauties, identified as remnant native trees, are part of the STIF endangered ecological community and were proposed to be removed from the site of a 8-storey development on the eastern side of Lindfield Station in Sydney’s leafy North Shore (aerial photo of the trees above).
But Susan Dixon, a Land and Environment Court commissioner, has dismissed an appeal by the developers, Arkibuilt Pty Ltd, because under their amended application all trees would still be removed from the site.
In her judgment, Commissioner Dixon said Ku-ring-gai Council contended that the development could be redesigned to preserve and protect the STIF on the site. But Arkibuilt said there was no opportunity for a redesign of the proposal because the trees block the access path to the basement car park entry. And the removal of the trees was the principal issue in the proceedings. Here’s a link to the judgment: http://bit.ly/1BwcVfR
As one of the objectors to the development, led by the Friends of Ku-ring-gai Environment (FOKE), and their president, Kathy Cowley, I gave evidence at the start of the hearing onsite in May that the 8 storey structure comprising 62 apartments, with parking for 147 cars over three levels of basement car parking, a shop and a gourmet grocer, would result in traffic gridlock, danger to pedestrians, a fairly ugly streetscape, the destruction of the village atmosphere, as well as the removal of the trees. The development would overlook a small street – Lindfield Avenue – next to the station, which turns into a two-way lane under the railway bridge, already constantly jammed with traffic. I described the proposed development as a Nightmare on Havilah Lane, as access to the site would have been by that small lane.
In her judgment, Commissioner Dixon summed up objectors’ concerns: “… the bulk and scale of the development, the traffic impacts generated by the development on the local road network, the loss of a local community shopping strip and services, affordable residential housing proximate to the railway and public services and the loss of the STIF.”
Not only were we concerned about the above, but also the loss of a community-minded garage, run by Greg Doherty, who looks after customers with good old-fashioned service, and the isolation of a Chinese takeaway and a café between Doherty Automotive and a nine-storey development, due to go ahead from 23 to 37 Lindfield Avenue. That would make the nightmare complete!
I wrote a post about these two developments earlier this year (http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-fJ), and was surprised when the Land and Environment Court dismissed the appeal. But the developers deserved the judgment. As I wrote in a reply to a comment from a mechanic who worked at Doherty Automotive and was upset with the developers: “Thanks, Lee for that heartfelt comment. It deserves to be read by every resident of Lindfield, indeed, of Ku-ring-gai, as similar actions by developers and owners are likely to be taken in our suburbs. I have heard about the alleged harassment of Mrs Ducker, who has finally given up the fight and signed an option with the developer. I hadn’t heard about the petition, and the alleged harassment of Greg Doherty, one of Lindfield’s most respected businessmen, who has helped many residents in distress with car problems, and runs the best service station in Sydney in my opinion. It’s outrageous, if it’s true, that he was put under pressure because of a petition that clearly reflected the feelings of the community. It’s a petition I would sign immediately if it were presented to me. Saving small businesses and the village atmosphere are issues the entire community should be fighting for. I agree with you about the future of Lindfield and Ku-ring-gai. This isn’t progress; it’s more like the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley: ‘You pays your money and you takes your choice’.” I added a postscript a day or two later: “I now remember the petition at the garage. I did sign it, and so did a lot of other residents of Lindfield. Unfortunately, the Council did nothing about it. Alas, this is what they call progress.” Well, Ku-ring-gai Council, I have to thank you for doing something about it, by taking on Arkibuilt Pty Limited in the Land and Environment Court, which led to a conciliation conference and the developer amending its application. But Arkibuilt refused to redesign the development to preserve and protect the Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest; which resulted in the Court’s judgment. In other words, they brought this upon themselves. So Greg Doherty, Mrs Ducker and the residents of the units get a reprieve – at least for a while. I have a feeling the developers will come up with a way to get their application approved. We live in hope that will take a very long time.

Eyeless in Gaza, the world needs to say: ‘End the carnage’

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when it may suffice?
That was William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, in Easter 1916 talking about the heroic sacrifice made by the 16 Republicans executed in the Easter Rising. The centuries-long hatred and stone-heartedness built up between Catholics and Protestants seemed as if it would never end.
But it did – not completely, of course – just enough for the violence to subside following the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. It was a long and gruelling process, but the final agreement was mailed to every household in Northern Ireland and a referendum was held in both the North and the Irish Republic on May 22. Seventy-one point two per cent of people in Northern Ireland and 94.38 per cent in the Republic voted to accept the agreement.
One of the men responsible for that agreement is the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who is now the Special Envoy for the Middle East Quartet, composed of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia. If anyone can deal with hearts of stone in the Middle East, you’d think that Tony Blair would be up to the task. But back in 2012 a Palestinian official said: “The Quartet has been useless, useless, useless.” Mohammed Shtayyeh, an aide to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Independent newspaper: “You need a mediator who is ready to engage and who is ready to say to the party who is destroying the peace process ‘You are responsible for it’.” http://ind.pn/1l8JAh4
What the world needs now in Gaza is such an envoy. And many observers say that party responsible is Israel, who launched an offensive in Gaza on July 8 after a surge in rocket fire from Hamas across the border. But Hamas has also rejected a proposal from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) for a 24-hour truce with Israel in the Palestinian enclave. And the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who came back from a visit to the region this week, has been critical of both sides for firing into civilian areas: “In the name of humanity, the violence must stop.” http://bbc.in/1pyIxZc
Ban Ki-moon has repeated the UN’s call for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire to the fighting in Gaza that has killed more than 13 hundred Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 55 Israeli soldiers and three civilians.
Social media has gone viral with comments from Palestinians and Israelis and their supporters. Photographs of dead and wounded children, grieving parents and devastated parts of Gaza have enraged Palestinians, claiming Israeli missile strikes have caused the carnage. This prompted Israel to blame Hamas for misfiring rockets into buildings, including hospitals and schools.
Rani Levi, adviser to the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who pulled Israeli troops out of Gaza in 2005, posted a message on Facebook defending the Israeli offensive in Gaza, saying it was imposed on them by Hamas rocket attacks. He wants the Israeli Defence Force operation to continue for 13-18 days, destroy all Hamas tunnels, confiscate their infrastructure and weapons, and capture or eliminate a “meaningful” number of their field commanders. The IDF should then leave Gaza, unilaterally, without any ceasefire, adding: “We need them to leave a note on the fridge: ‘We had a great time, call us when you want us to come back’.” http://on.fb.me/1qdmpoM
This message is the last thing Palestinians mourning the death of their loved ones, including many children, want to hear. The most poignant response to that message comes from a Palestinian author, Atef Abu Saif, who kept a diary from Wednesday to Saturday last week, recording what it’s like to live in Gaza under the Israeli offensive. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Guardian (http://bit.ly/1l92ww7): “Despite everything – the killing, the destruction, the missing people, the displaced people, the tears, the wounds, the suffering – for these 12 hours of truce, I see Gaza as it used to be. People in their thousands on the street, buying food, moving from one place to another; the shops open, kids playing in the streets. It is a city that has poured itself out into a few moments of peace. Now the truce is coming to an end. The tank mortars have started to roar again, filling the air with their terror.”
In his column last Saturday in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mike Carlton quoted an Israeli columnist and editorial board member of the Haaretz newspaper, Gideon Levy, whose life was threatened after he called on Israeli pilots to stop bombing and firing rockets on civilians. Levy wrote in his column: “The nationalist right has now sunk to a new level with almost the whole country following in its wake. The word ‘fascism,’ which I try to use as little as possible, finally has its deserved place in the Israeli political discourse.”
Those strong words were echoed on the Palestinian side by Mustafa Barghouti, the leader of Palestinian National Initiative, a party in the Palestinian Parliament which claims independence from both Fatah and Hamas. In an interview with Emma Alberici on ABC Lateline Tuesday night, Barghouti said he didn’t know where Hamas was locating its military equipment, but denied they were killing Palestinians: “… the Israeli army can kill people and then accuse the victims of being responsible for their killing. As one Israeli minister said, Palestinians are conducting self-genocide. It is unacceptable to blame the victims for the fact that they are killed instead of blaming Israel and by the way, we the Palestinians are about to sign our own statute … and we are ready to accept an independent commission to investigate and we are ready to go to the International Criminal Court and all those who committed war crimes should be brought to justice.” http://ab.co/1nSICLP
I have been trying to be balanced in writing this post, but it’s very difficult when Palestinians are dying on the streets of Gaza and Israeli shells are exploding in UN schools and shelters. The UN says on average a child every hour is dying in Gaza. The international body is now sheltering 200,000 people in Gaza and is again pleading for a ceasefire, saying civilians have nowhere to go. This is what Israeli Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dore Gold, told Emma Alberici Wednesday night on ABC Lateline: “Israel doesn’t target UN shelters. What it will do is that if Hamas is firing out of an area, putting our troops at risk, and Israel has ascertained that citizens, civilians are not there, then it will fire to defend its troops. Now where are they to go? That’s an excellent question. In fact, if you look at the Arabic leaflets that Israel drops in places like Shejaiya [Gaza City] … those leaflets have maps on them with red arrows saying where people should go to get out of harm’s way.” http://ab.co/1qMpjpj
And Thursday morning on ABC’s AM, Chris Uhlmann asked Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, if Israel was responsible for the shelling of a UN school in Gaza overnight that killed at least 15 people:
MARK REGEV: At this stage we’re still investigating exactly what happened. What we do know is that there was a fire fight in the immediate vicinity of the UN facility, armed forces taking fire and returning fire from Hamas terrorists.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And you were told 17 times that people were sheltering there?
MARK REGEV: I don’t know for a fact and neither do you that it was an Israeli fire that led to those very, very tragic deaths.
CHRIS UHLMANN: What do you suspect?
MARK REGEV: We did not deliberately, I repeat, we did not deliberately target that school.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the attacks: “This morning, yet another United Nations school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families suffered a reprehensible attack. All available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause. Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children. I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice.” http://ab.co/1nLd35s
All this reminds me of a 1990 press mission to Israel sponsored by the Australian/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. I was one of five Australian and New Zealand journalists invited to get a ten-day comprehensive briefing on Israel’s place in the Middle East, including an interview with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. On our one day off, I visited the Jalazone Palestinian refugee camp near Ramallah in the West Bank, accompanied by a UN official and a World Vision worker who knew the region well. There were 6200 people in the camp dominated by a major checkpoint and four observation points where soldiers with binoculars could see into every house. We went to one of those houses, which had every room sealed except for one. It was during the First Intifada – the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of its territories — and the Israeli military sealed a room for each of the family involved in protests. The Palestinian mother had one son killed by a soldier’s bullet during a demonstration and her other son was in prison. She told me the soldiers showed no remorse. They made random visits and told her if she didn’t cooperate, they would “make another corpse in the house.”
Translating for the mother, the 60-year-old village leader said: “No matter how great the sacrifice, the war will continue.” When I asked if they were getting tired of the Intifada, she replied: “This will continue until our goals are realised. They are increasing their aggression, but we are increasing our resilience. My imprisoned son mobilises the little children to continue. They all want to continue.”
Twenty-four years later, those little children who survived are continuing the war against Israeli aggression, and Israel is still fighting against Hamas rockets. Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart, and it’s obvious that both sides have developed hearts of stone.
How can the world bring them together?
The last word on that should go to the chief of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Pierre Krahenbuhl: “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today, the world stands disgraced … I call on the international community to take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage.”
UPDATE: Friday, August 1 8.55am (AEST) The international community finally managed to get Israel and Hamas to agree to a 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza, starting at 3pm Australian time today. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced the truce jointly with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who, as mentioned above, has been tireless in his efforts to end the war. The good news for Gaza, which has had very little lately, is that Israelis and Palestinians will enter talks in Cairo, and that all parties to the conflict had agreed to an unconditional ceasefire during which there would be negotiations on a more durable truce.
Fingers crossed this will be another historic agreement that began on a Friday. But don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE 2: Saturday, August 2 12.10pm (AEST) As expected, the ceasefire has not held. The ABC’s Hayden Cooper reports Israel has declared it over, saying Hamas militants breached the fragile truce soon after it took effect. Both the US and the United Nations are also blaming Hamas for ending the 72-hour truce, which was the most ambitious attempt so far to end more than three weeks of fighting amid a rising Palestinian civilian death toll. But it collapsed after the apparent capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas, which sparked a major military operation. The Israeli military says Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, disappeared when a group of soldiers working to destroy a tunnel in south Gaza was attacked. This time, Hamas appears to be at fault. It is ever thus in the Middle East. http://ab.co/1m7o0da
UPDATE 3: Tuesday, August 5 9.40am (AEST): It’s déjà vu all over again in the Gaza, with Israel and Palestianian groups agreeing to a 72-hour ceasefire to start at 3pm today (AEST). Let’s hope it lasts longer than the last 3-day truce. There was, however, a seven-hour humanitarian truce overnight. The ABC’s Middle East correspondent Matt Brown reports there was a drop in the level of violence during the ceasefire, but Palestinians claimed Israel broke it by bombing a refugee camp in northern Gaza. The original ceasefire collapsed after reports an Israeli soldier had been captured by Hamas. The Israeli military later said the soldier, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, was killed in action. http://ab.co/1qObPVA
UPDATE 4 Wednesday, August 6 3.50pm This will be my last update on my original post. I will publish a longer one when it’s warranted. There has been some good news. After one day, the ceasefire is continuing and Israel has pulled its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip. It’s the first step towards negotiations on a hopefully more enduring end to the month-old war which has killed more than 1,800 Palestinians and 67 Israelis. Israel has completed its main goal of destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels in Gaza. Israeli spokesman Lt-Colonel Peter Lerner said troops and tanks will be “redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions.” In other words, the war could resume at any time if Hamas fires rockets into Israel. Let’s hope negotiations bear some fruit for a change.

Pain is not a story unless it leads to peace

Who’ll stop Ukraine?
Will it be the pro-Russian separatists who almost certainly shot down the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 last week, will it be the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who has supplied the separatists with weapons, technology and advisers, or will it be the media, who are likely to forget the crisis once all the bodies and human remains are moved from the crash site and the fighting resumes civil war proportions. In other words, when the casualties are mostly Ukrainians.
Don’t get me wrong. I am as upset as the Dutch Foreign Minister, Frans Timmerman, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop and the PM’s Special Envoy, Angus Houston, all of whom spoke eloquently about the terrible tragedy that took place in eastern Ukraine when flight MH17 was shot down, and 298 passengers and crew were killed, including 38 Australians.
Mr Timmerman praised Minister Bishop for her leadership in getting approval for a UN Security Council resolution demanding that the separatists in eastern Ukraine return the victims’ bodies, allow full access to the crash site and an international investigation: “I want to start by wholeheartedly thanking Australia for taking the initiative with this resolution, and especially the personal commitment from Julie Bishop that has made this possible. Without her perseverance, we would not be standing here today with this resolution adopted by the Security Council.”
Tony Abbott has been a resolute world leader – some say better than he was as Prime Minister – from the very beginning of the tragedy: “If it does turn out that this aircraft was brought down by a surface to air missile [which is almost certain], there is no doubt this would be … an unspeakable crime.” Angus Houston, who’s in the Ukraine to look after the return of bodies from Operation Bring Them Home, said: “This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions.” And Julie Bishop said after looking at the impromptu, moving memorial on the steps of the Dutch Embassy in Kiev: “It is so unspeakably sad.”
It is, but I wish Tony and Julie and Angus would stop using the word “unspeakable” as an adjective or an adverb. I know they’re saying it’s “impossible to express in words,” as the Macquarie Dictionary puts it. But we need to speak about this “unspeakable” crime, and continue to speak about it until we have a resolution. It might be called unbelievable and unimaginable, but I don’t find it hard to believe Putin is behind it all, and I don’t find it hard to imagine pro-Russian separatists would shoot down a plane without checking if it were full of civilians. I think the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister will pursue it to the ends of the earth, or the dark recesses of the Kremlin where the Russian President may be hatching plans to regain parts of Ukraine, defined and ratified in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Russia is a signatory to these international agreements, which clearly defined sovereign and independent Ukrainian territorial borders, including Crimea. Of course, Crimea, with a mostly Russian-speaking population, voted to secede from the Ukraine in a referendum in March, which the European Union described as “illegal and illegitimate.” US President Barack Obama told President Putin the vote would never be recognised by the US and the international community, as it was held “under duress of Russian military intervention.” http://bit.ly/1x9IirE
And that’s why the international community must do all it can to help Kiev stand up to Putin and the pro-Russian separatists, described by some Ukrainians as mercenaries, who are doing their best to divide a proud nation of 46 million people, with a cultural and linguistic diversity similar to that of Australia. It doesn’t mean we have to go to war against Russia. Sanctions and aid for the Ukrainian government, now in political limbo after the resignation of Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and the collapse of his ruling coalition, are necessary if the EU and the US really want to help end the crisis. http://bit.ly/1l036w4
The images of the victims of the shooting down of flight MH17 have been heart-breaking, but we must continue to speak out for the victims of the pro-Russian rebels, supported by Vladimir Putin. Tony Abbott is giving the Russian President the benefit of the doubt in his continued claims that he wants to see the bodies returned home: “President Putin gave me assurances he wanted to see the families of the victims satisfied. He wanted to see, as a father himself, grieving families given closure and, as I say, so far he’s been as good as his word and we want to ensure that he has a further opportunity to be as good as his word.” http://bit.ly/1rBqmGD
Well, it’s nearly impossible for many of us who have watched President Putin over the years to believe he’s as good as his word – it is, after all, the word of a man who was a lieutenant-colonel in the KGB where lying was an occupational hazard. He wants to stay in power as long as he can and he wants to control as much territory as he can.
We must speak out for the families who have to wait for the bodies of their loved ones to come home (AFP photo above of Dutch military personnel carrying coffins to a waiting hearse at an airbase in Eindhoven, the Netherlands), while Julie Bishop and Angus Houston and the Dutch authorities negotiate with the Ukrainian government to allow a large contingent of forensic investigators into a war-zone crash site where more innocent people may die — no matter how many Federal Police or Defence Force personnel are present. The rebels are still in control of eastern Ukraine. http://bit.ly/1rGKQxO
But, of course, the families can speak for themselves, more eloquently than world leaders, politicians, the media and the countless other commentators, including this one. The most poignant tribute came from the Maslin family. Anthony Maslin and Marite Norris, the parents of the three Australian children who were killed on flight MH17, spoke out about the “relentless pain” they are suffering from the deaths of Evie, 10, Mo, 12 and Otis, 8 (whose smiling faces adorn the photograph at the top of this post), along with the children’s grandfather, Nick Norris, 68. http://bit.ly/1nz65jl
Here’s an excerpt of their message addressed to the “soldiers in the Ukraine, the politicians, the media, our friends and family”:
“Our pain is intense and relentless. We live in a hell beyond hell. Our babies are not here with us — we need to live with this act of horror, every day and every ¬moment for the rest of our lives.
“No one deserves what we are going through. Not even the ­people who shot our whole family out of the sky.
“No hate in the world is as strong as the love we have for our children, for Mo, for Evie, for Otis.
“No hate in the world is as strong as the love we have for Grandad Nick.
“No hate in the world is as strong as the love we have for each other. This is a revelation that gives us some comfort.
“We would ask everyone to remember this when you are making any decisions that affect us and the other victims of this horror.”

And for me, the last line in Sarah Elks’ article in The Australian spoke volumes when the couple asked for privacy from the media: “Pain is not a story.”
We should never bother them again until they are ready to tell their own story.
I just hope the soldiers, the rebels, the politicians and the media allow Mo, Evie, Otis and Nick to come home and rest in peace … and that some of that peace rubs off on a hellhole in eastern Ukraine.

Journalism is not a crime; it’s a way of life

It’s a question often asked by people in my profession: “Journalists are nice people, but would you want your daughter (or son) to marry one?”
Well, my answer is yes, and I’ll give you three examples why from this week’s news: Peter Greste, Ian Cook and Martin Beesley.
You’ve heard about Peter Greste, who was sentenced to seven years in jail by an Egyptian court, which did not know the meaning of justice. His two Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Famy, and Baher Mohamed were also sentenced to seven and ten years respectively. (Pictured above from left are: Mike and Andrew Greste, and Peter Greste).
Caged like animals each time they were brought to this so-called court, to listen to an incoherent prosecution present irrelevant evidence, including old stories Peter Greste had filmed in Somalia and photos of a European holiday he had taken with his parents. Somehow they were convicted of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading “false news” about the military coup. How this judge could know what false news was, given the prosecutors’ presentation, is beyond me, and the defence. All it proved was that the judge was as blind as justice is supposed to be.
Peter Greste, an award-winning Australian journalist, and his family, two brothers in court, Mike and Andrew, and his mother and father, Lois and Juris, in Brisbane watching the verdict on their computer were stunned. Mike Greste said: “I’m totally gutted. It’s devastating. It’s the death of democracy in Egypt.” Juris Greste said: “That’s absolutely crazy.” Lois was sobbing: “Oh my God!”
ABC’s excellent Foreign Correspondent program also had reaction from the family of Peter’s Al Jazeera colleague, Mohamed Fahmy. His mother, Wafa Barriouni, asked the ABC producer: “Seven years he will keep in the prison, seven years… for what? Can you, one of you tell me for what?” It was a question that could not be answered. Mohamed’s brother Adel gave the most realistic appraisal: “There is no hope in the judicial system. We had hope in the judicial system, now we know there is no hope.” http://ab.co/1qzB7YD
Peter had been through hell in the world’s flashpoints before, and won a Peabody award for his documentary on Somalia for the BBC Panorama program. In 2005, he was in Somalia with his friend and BBC colleague, Kate Peyton, when she was shot and killed in Mogadishu. But this was a different kind of hell, parachuted into Cairo to cover the military coup while the regular correspondent was on holidays, only to find himself in prison for simply doing his job. The imprisonment of Peter and his colleagues has prompted a mantra used by human rights organisations like Amnesty International and journalists around the world to highlight the injustice of the Egyptian judiciary: “Journalism is not a crime.”
Would I want my daughter to marry Peter Greste? Of course, I would, and the same goes for Ian Cook (photo above), an Australian television legend, news director of Channels Nine, Seven, Ten and Sky News in London and Australia, who died this week of motor neurone disease at the age of 68.
Cookie, as he was known, was a tough news director, who cared for the craft of journalism, and hated getting things wrong. He knew ratings were paramount for commercial television, and for most of his years, starting in the seventies, the stations he worked for, won those ratings. Robert Penfold, long-time reporter, foreign correspondent and Los Angeles Bureau Chief for the Nine Network, said: “Ian was a great mentor and leader for me and so many others in the news business for so many years.” Robert said Brad Smart, one of his fellow reporters in Melbourne, when they were working for Cookie at Channel 0 (an Ansett station) in the seventies, “reminded me of a 1974 article in one of the Sunday papers about the ‘27-year-old whiz kid who was running Reg Ansett’s newsroom.’ He was indeed that.”
Robert Penfold wasn’t the only one who remembered Ian Cook as a great mentor. When the news of his death was first reported, Twitter and Facebook erupted with scores of tributes to this media executive who had helped them at the start of their careers. Here are just a few of them:
Ian Kain, supervising producer at ABC24, who also worked at Nine and Sky News, posted on Facebook: “He taught generations of Australian Journalists and producers how it’s done. He taught me to keep sentences simple, that a tease is just that, and let the pictures tell the story. Cookie, you will be missed but never forgotten.”
Nicole Webb, a former presenter at Sky News, also posted on Facebook: “He was a great mentor for so many of us. Scary as hell in those super early days, but underneath a giant softie with a heart of gold and a real news man who knew his stuff more than most.” Asha Phillips, former producer at Sky and Nine News, added: “He was my first boss, my first mentor and the first person to teach me how to really write for tv. He was a tough Cookie but he was a gentleman.”
And Ky Chow, Associate Multimedia Editor at the Australian Financial Review, told friends on Facebook how Ian Cook, then News Director at Sky News, gave him an internship, despite his lack of experience, then sat him down and taught him the rudiments of video editing and scripting. “He gave me my first job in journalism and he gave me encouragement and advice in the years after, even after things got tough for him.”
Things really got tough for Cookie in the past four or five years. He had motor neurone disease, which he kept quiet until he had difficulty walking without a cane, and then one day at Sky he came in with two canes. I had one walking stick that day, due to one of my artificial hips playing up, and he joked: “I’m a two cane man.” He later had a fall and had to get a wheelchair.
I had emailed him and asked how he was going. He replied: “I’m on four wheels and Angelos (Frangopoulos, Sky News chief executive) very kindly bought me a very flashy electric model so life in here’s not too bad at all. How are the hips these days?” Ian was like that. He’d always ask about my hips while he was suffering an illness that had no cure.
In recent months, he was at a nursing home in Sydney’s western suburbs, getting the best of care, while losing much of his mobility. But he was still able to subedit on his computer from his sick bed. A former Niner, Barry Matheson, said Ian had played an important role in his life, being responsible for sending him to LA as Nine’s first North American correspondent; he visited Ian at the nursing home earlier this year: “I was blown away that he still did subbing for Sky every afternoon (from 4 to 6pm). A pro to the very end.” Barry recalled what it was like to work for Ian Cook: “He was very inspirational and, unlike other news directors, Cookie rolled up his sleeves and was a “hands on” guy, pounding away on the typewriter, going through every script and checking the film editing. I have to admit we had a few screaming matches over stories, not unusual in a high-pressured newsroom, but he never held a grudge and we just got on with the job.”
Sky’s political editor, David Speers, also spoke of his professionalism: “Cookie was a great newsroom leader, never an easy job. He was also the best mentor of young journalists I’ve seen. He was always willing to tell me when I was on the right track or the wrong track. I respected him hugely and will miss him dearly.” The last word on Cookie should go to Angelos Frangopoulos: “Ian has left a lasting legacy in Australian journalism, guiding hundreds of young people through their careers, offering advice and support.”
And last but not least in this trio of journalists who I’d let marry my daughters (they’re already taken, I hasten to add) is an old mate from my newspaper days, Martin Beesley (photo above), former editor of the Daily Telegraph, and managing editor of The Australian, who died this week at the age of 66, only six months after his retirement.
I worked with Martin at The Australian in the late seventies and early 80s, and also saw him quite a bit at Channel 9 where he was chief of staff for Mike Willesee’s current affairs program. He later became news director at Channel Ten before returning to News Limited in the late 80s, including a role as editor of the Media Section of The Australian.
I remember Martin as a cool customer, always remaining calm in the middle of any media storm. He was a bloke you could depend on when a big story broke. He also had a terrific sense of humour, usually aimed at himself. Peter Meakin, now director of news at Channel Ten, worked with him at Nine, and told the Daily Telegraph: “He was much loved — easy to work with, always without dramas and always with a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. He was a true gentleman.” http://bit.ly/1iM3hzA
Stephen Romei, the literary editor of The Australian, posted a nice tribute to Martin on Facebook: “He was a smart, tough. fair editor. I never saw him lose his temper, or his sense of humour, or his commonsense or his sense of perspective.”
Like Ian Cook, Martin Beesley was a great mentor. He took on the role enthusiastically in his last seven years at News Limited when he moved to Cumberland Newspapers, later to become NewsLocal, News Corp Australia’s community newspaper network. The Daily Telegraph obituary comments: “This allowed him to concentrate on a mentoring role, teaching young journalists the finer points of the newsgathering business. He said this job gave him renewed pleasure in his vocation and reinforced the value of community links between journalists and their readers.”
Martin Beesley, Ian Cook and Peter Greste. Three excellent journos I’d love to have a beer with. Sadly, Martin and Ian are no longer with us, but I will be raising a glass in their honour at services next week. I hope the Free Peter Greste campaign is successful, and I can toast Peter in person.
Journalism is not a crime, it is a passion with a cause. It is a life worth living.

Patty Mills: A role model shooting for the stars

I love basketball. I grew up in the mecca of B-Ball — West Philadelphia – where we played the game all year round, even in the winter when it was snowing. In fact, we used to shovel the snow off the courts so we could play on the concrete surface. Okay, maybe not in a blizzard, but once the snow stopped coming down, and the sun came out, we started playing half court.
Those were the days of Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Gola, Hal Lear, Guy Rodgers, Paul Arizin, Walt Hazzard, Neil Johnston, Herb Magee and Jimmy Lyneham – all names most Philadelphians of a certain age would know. Basketball players who could shoot and run and loved the game. It meant teenagers like me would stand in their concrete backyards and dribble the ball with the left hand, then the right, and when they got to a court, they would shoot layups, driving into the basket, with their right hands, then their left. In another hotbed of basketball, the Midwest, former New York Knicks star and US Senator, Bill Bradley, practised each day as a teenager in Crystal City, Missouri, shooting hundreds of free throws. It was a labour of love.
When I first came to Sydney in the early 1970s, basketball wasn’t a big sport. There was no National Basketball League (NBL), and the main games in Sydney were played in Alexandria Stadium … a glorified tin shed, hot as hell in summer and cold in winter (not as cold as a Philly winter, of course). I played basketball there and at Mitchell High School in Parramatta. The conditions weren’t great and you had to chip in a couple of bucks (it’s hard to remember as it was 40 years ago!) to pay the referees. But it was fun and the legendary Ken Cole was leading the way for the expansion of basketball from a national club championship to the NBL, from his base in South Australia. He played for four different State teams from 1961 to 1972 and was an Olympian at the 1964 Melbourne Games. http://bit.ly/1invbkY
In 1979, the NBL was launched and basketball has been on a roller coaster ride ever since, with its shares of ups and downs. There have been great players like Andrew Gaze and Luc Longley, both of whom also starred in the US where the sport still reigns supreme, even with the rise of European teams in recent decades. One player who also made a name for himself was Danny Morseu, the first Torres Strait Islander to represent Australia at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984.
And this week, he’s known as Patty Mills’ uncle. Yes, the same Patty Mills who helped the San Antonio Spurs win the National Basketball Association (NBA) Championship this week, scoring 17 points in 18 minutes against the 2013 title holders, Miami Heat. Morseu was one of Mills’ basketball mentors and was in San Antonio to watch his nephew take on players like LeBron James, acknowledged as probably the best basketball player in the world today. Patty Mills was draped in the Torres Strait Islander flag after the game, along with another Australian, Aron Baynes, also a Spurs player, celebrating with an Aussie flag over his shoulder.
Patty Mills and his family are great role models for Indigenous Australians. His mother Yvonne was a member of the Stolen Generation, taken from her brother and three sisters at the age of 2 and a half and forced to live with a white family, thinking her mother had abandoned her. But she didn’t find out until 1997 that her mother always wanted her children back. Patty’s father, Benny, also a Torres Strait Islander, started a basketball club in Canberra for Indigenous kids who couldn’t afford to play with a regular team.
Benny and Yvonne taught Patty to stand up against racism when he was growing up in Canberra, attending Marist College before getting a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport. Benny told The Australian’s Will Swanton this week: “We told him, the best thing you can do is walk away.” http://bit.ly/1spgMJx
When you see Patty Mills play basketball, you can tell his days of walking away are over. The photo above shows him scoring a layup against LeBron James, and his all-out hustle has endeared him to his team, his fans and his coach, Gregg Popovich, who paid him this compliment after the championship game: “He’s a special guy. His energy has been important to us all year long. He’s a real significant reason why we got to the finals. Obviously he’s also played well in the finals but the energy, that team sense that he has, it has been infectious.”
Mills’ team play fits in well with the Spurs. They remind me of the New York Knicks’ teams of the early 1970s, coached by Red Holzman and starring Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Dick Barnett, with several other lesser known hoopsters who played the role of Patty Mills – coming on as substitutes and busting the game wide open. There is a wonderful book about the Knicks in that period called When the Garden was Eden, written by Harvey Araton. I’ve written about it in a previous post http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-a6 but if you are a big fan of basketball I’d suggest you get the book from Amazon or somewhere in the States. It’s also about racism and social unrest in the late sixties and seventies, and how basketball helped change the face of racial relations in the Big Apple and the US in those tumultuous times.
I’m hoping the same thing will happen here where we also suffer from racism. I know young Indigenous athletes tend to play Australian Rules, and Sydney Swans coach John Longmire said he tried to get Patty Mills to switch from basketball a number of years ago to play for the Swans, but admitted “it’s fair to say he made the right decision.” And there are certainly two strong Indigenous role models on the Swans: Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, and Aussie Rules superstar, Buddy Franklin.
But Patty Mills is now a free agent, and is likely to get a lot more than the $2.2 million he earned this year with the San Antonio Spurs. The New York Knicks are one of four teams who’d like to have Mills as a starting point guard, and he would be a perfect match for Madison Square Garden – the famous home of basketball in Manhattan. And, as we all know, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere!
Yet, I have seen a number of players just go for the money, and regret not staying with a team like the Spurs, with a great coach, teammates like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and loving fans. Whatever his decision, though, 25-year-old Patty Mills has a bright future.
And basketball in Australia has a special role model to attract young Indigenous athletes to shoot for the hoops … and the stars.

How a Tea Party Brat brought down a divided House

“This country needs to get back to the way it was.” That was 60-year-old David Moffett telling a New York Times reporter why he voted for David Brat, the giant killer who brought down House Majority leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary. With nearly all the votes counted, Brat had 56 per cent to Cantor’s 44.
Times reporter Trip Gabriel was a stickler for detail, telling us that Moffett was shopping for milk, salad, chicken and potatoes in Glen Falls, Virginia at the time, and said: “People are sick and tired of him — sick and tired of the way government is nowadays.”
It sounded like a classic Tea Party reaction to a Republican leader who was partial to allowing unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border to stay in the US, while publicly taking a tough stance on immigration. That convinced his constituents that he was just another politician. One of them, a retired handyman, Malcolm Spencer, told Gabriel: “I don’t think people coming into the country illegally should be granted a free pass and we the taxpayers pay for it.” http://nyti.ms/1v1gk29
The Brat campaign, of course, portrayed Cantor as being hypocritical, and Tea Party supporters knocked on doors and made phone calls, spreading the word. The Cantor campaign raised about $5.4 million compared to $231,000 for David Brat, an economics professor at a local college (Photo above P. Kevin Morley, Richmond Times-Dispatch). It was one of the biggest upsets in US political history – no sitting House majority leader has lost since the position was created in 1899.
A Virginia legislator who worked with Professor Brat on State budget issues at Randolph Macon College, Christopher Peace, told the NY Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer: “I don’t think even he expected to win.” Brat, like many American politicians, is religious. He has a Master’s in divinity from the Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD in economics from American University. Christianity plays an important part in his writings, including his thesis, “Human Capital, Religion and Economic Growth” and a presentation to the Virginia Association of Community Banks titled: “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism, From the Great Generation to Financial Crisis … What Went Wrong?” http://nyti.ms/1ofzQID
Apparently, this religious theme does not extend to his supporters, some of whom are, apparently, brats (I had to use that somewhere). As Amanda Terkel reported in the Huffington Post: “Brat had a loud, committed following on the campaign trail, generating an intensity that Cantor failed to muster. During a local GOP convention last month, Brat backers loudly booed Cantor in front of his family.” http://huff.to/1oWPG6J The boos erupted because Cantor had dared to claim Brat had used “inaccuracies” in his campaign.
Cantor (photo above, Steve Helber, AP), who was tipped to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House, resigned as majority leader, effective on July 31, as the Republicans tried to stop a struggle within the party over the leadership. Like many political losers, Cantor gave an eloquent concession speech, and spoke about how his Jewish faith helped him in difficult times. Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times reports: “In announcing his decision to step down, he told his colleagues of a Holocaust survivor he met who put political travails in perspective. He told reporters that in his religious studies, ‘you learn a lot about individual setbacks. You also learn each setback is an opportunity and there’s always optimism for the future’.” http://nyti.ms/1nxTXhJ
Until yesterday, the Tea Party’s influence had been waning after a series of losses in high-profile primaries, including Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky. The Democrats are now worried the arch-conservatives will make it even more difficult for President Obama in upcoming mid-term elections. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) sent out emails to their supporters (declaration: I am a supporter), saying: “Talking heads like (conservative columnist) Ann Coulter are already gloating over the Tea Party’s shocking victory last night. They claim the Tea Party is resurgent. They’re predicting that right-wing Republican extremists will wipe out Democrats this fall, and wreck President Obama’s agenda. (But) they’re flat-out WRONG. We’re building a national grassroots movement, the likes of which Republicans have never seen. And we WON’T let the Tea Party take out our Democratic candidates with ugly attacks.”
But it’s obvious that Barack Obama’s agenda, already under threat, will be under attack as never before. With only two and a half years left in the Obama presidency, a poor result in the mid-terms could spell disaster. The Democrats do have a chance, though, with their grassroots campaign, raising funds by asking supporters to contribute as little as $3 each. But, as David Brat has demonstrated, money doesn’t always win elections. The Democrats need to have thousands of door knockers and phone callers to make it work. They had that in 2008, and, to a lesser degree, in 2012 to help Barack Obama to two terms in the White House. This could be the summer of campaigning dangerously.
In one of their first statements on the primary, it was clear the Democratic National Committee was going on the attack and would portray the November election for Cantor’s seat as a race between a traditional Democratic candidate and a Far-Right Tea Partyer. DNC Chair and Florida Member of Congress, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, said: “When Eric Cantor, who time and again has blocked common sense legislation to grow the middle class, can’t earn the Republican nomination, it’s clear the GOP has redefined ‘far right.’ Democrats on the other hand have nominated a mainstream candidate who will proudly represent this district and I look forward to his victory in November.” Brat’s Democratic opponent in November will be Jack Trammell, like Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College. He’s also a political novice, the author of 20 books, who lives on the family farm with his wife and seven children, and teaches disability studies at the college. Brat lives outside Richmond, with his wife and two children, and helps run the Ethics Bowl, a competitive debate team, where he often banters with the team’s other adviser, a liberal professor. A student on the team told Jennifer Steinhauer Brat has a sense of humour. He’ll need it. It should be an interesting campaign, with the result certain to be far from academic.
By then, the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton may be getting ready to announce her run for the presidency, the Republicans might have decided who their candidate might be (Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz spring to mind; Chris Christie blew it), and the Tea Party might have found someone as far right as Genghis Khan.
No matter what happens this November, the presidential election in November 2016 should prove to be one of the most fascinating contests in US history, especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ nominee. Will her campaign slogan and song be: “You’ve come a long way, Baby?”

An Irish journey around the Sydney Writers’ Festival

The Sydney Writers’ Festival ended over a week ago, and I thought it might be too late to write about it, until I received an email this week from the Artistic Director, Jemma Birrell, with a summary of the books fest, a newsletter titled “It’s a Wrap.” http://bit.ly/1hqKA41
She quoted Irish author, Emma Donoghue (photo above), who said in her Closing Address: “When you challenge your readers, you also need to comfort them.”
Emma Donoghue was one of the writers we found comforting, in an interesting conversation with Suzanne Leal, about her latest novel, Frog Music (Picador), a tale about an unsolved crime in San Francisco in 1876. It features a burlesque dancer, Blanche; her lover, Arthur, and his mate, Ernest, and the murder of an eccentric young woman, cross dresser and frog hunter, Jenny Bonnet. Blanche, Arthur and Ernest are former stars of the Parisian Circus, and Donoghue peppers her novel with lots of French words and songs from the period. She has song notes in the back of the novel, along with a glossary of the French words, but in most cases Blanche translates for her friend Jenny, and the reader, of course.
It’s a great read, and Emma Donoghue, like most Irish people (she now lives in Canada), has the gift of the gab. She admits: “There’s a bad mother in me,” and drops off her kids at school and can’t wait to get back to writing. But she loves her children as well, and has written Room (Picador), a novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, in which a mother lives with her 5-year-old son in a room 11 feet by 11 feet. She was a good mother, keeping her son Jack safe from the man who has taken her prisoner, but Emma found writing about Blanche and the way she treated her baby was a relief. She told Goodreads website she had never been able to escape from Room: “Not only has it been continuous publicity since Room came out, but I’ve been working on the screenplay as well. So working on Blanche and her many moments of low, nasty hostility to her baby was, indeed, a great contrast.” http://bit.ly/1rBp2G0
So a session with Emma Donoghue led me to sing a song of praise for Frog Music, and my wife Gillian and I continued on our Irish path through the Sydney Writer’s Festival, heading to another fascinating discussion with another Irish author, Eimear McBride, whose novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, has set the literary world a buzzing.
Like Emma Donoghue, Eimear McBride (photo above) had an excellent interviewer (I can’t stand the word “facilitator”), Geordie Williamson, the chief literary editor of The Australian, who began the session with the comment that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Text) is “a book like no other,” and asked her to read an excerpt. I’d suggest you watch this brief video of Eimear McBride reading a passage of her book on Faber and Faber’s YouTube Channel. It really gives you the flavour of the novel. http://bit.ly/1pL90EN
If you’ve just watched it, yes, the book does have a Joycean feel about it. McBride said she spent a lot of time searching for her voice, and then she read James Joyce when she was 25. It’s a story about a girl growing up in rural Ireland until the age of 20, with a religious mother (not surprising in Catholic Ireland), a molesting uncle, a brain-damaged brother and a brutal adolescence during which she was subjected to sexual abuse.
The language is uncompromising. Here the girl gets angry at her mother (and a statuette of the Virgin Mary) for disparaging her brother’s intelligence:
“I don’t want to. I don’t want to. Hear that. I shout stop that. Saying. Believing that. Always saying stupid things about him. She says will you calm yourself. No I won’t. No. No. He’s fine. That’s awful to say. Well that tumour could’ve done more harm than we. Stop. I belt young Virgin Mary on the dashboard. Take it. Take that. Take that.”
It’s a dark Joycean stream of consciousness, blending with a bit of Beckett. She gave a hint of how to read the book during the Festival session: “Full stops encompass a lot of life experience.” She also mentioned that “commas are overrated.” Eimear McBride said she was looking for a new way to tell the old stories about Catholic misery, and was also influenced by Edna O’Brien, whose The Country Girls broke new ground about the repressive treatment of Irish women, sexual matters and social issues in Ireland.
It took nine years for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing to make it to print, with publishers saying it was unmarketable, while acknowledging the quality. The owner of their local bookshop in Norwich, England asked to read it as he was thinking of starting his own press in 2011. Two years later, his Galley Beggar Press published it, and an influential critic, Adam Mars-Jones, praised it in the London Review of Books and it took off from there, eventually winning the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in November 2013.
Eimear McBride is working on a similar book now, with “an evolution of the style.” A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is not an easy read, but it’s worth the effort.
And last but not least, our third Irish author, John Connolly (photo above by Mark Condren), born in Dublin, took to the stage of the Richard Wherrett Studio in the Sydney Theatre to regale us with a history of the crime novel from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, to name just a few.
Jon Page, the general manager of Pages & Pages Booksellers, had an easy job as facilitator (ugh, that word!) with Connolly standing at the podium at first, then moving around the stage while speaking quickly and eloquently, as you’d expect of an Irish writer.
My wife and I have been big fans of Connolly since his first novel, Every Dead Thing (Hodder & Stoughton), featuring the former New York City detective, Charlie Parker, hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. He’s just published his 12th Charlier Parker novel, The Wolf in Winter (Hodder & Stoughton), and they keep getting better. The first time I heard him speak was in the Stanton Library in North Sydney in the early 2000s, promoting Every Dead Thing and its first sequel. He talked about his days as a freelance journalist for the Irish Times (he still writes the occasional piece for them) and how one gruesome murder he covered led him to write about such details in his novels. Connolly now divides his time between his native city, Dublin, and the United States, where his Parker novels are set. http://www.johnconnollybooks.com/
The Charlie Parker books are well written and hard to put down. I was surprised to read a review of The Wolf in the Winter in the Sydney Morning Herald by Sue Turnbull which mentioned Connolly’s “often arcane prose.” http://bit.ly/1x4u2TE Arcane means “mysterious, secret and understood by only a few,” according to the Macquarie Dictionary, and I would argue that while his prose is mysterious (he is writing about mysteries), it certainly is easy to understand. Sue Turnbull questions Connolly’s description of the character of Charlie Parker’s “ageing sidekick Angel” as ‘… mortality shadowed him like a falcon mantling its wings over dying prey.’ This is not your usual urbane crime fiction.”
John Connolly is not trying to write your usual urbane crime fiction. He writes about religious sects like the Familists in England and how they settled in Maine to do dark deeds in his latest novel, and a similar sinister organisation, the Fellowship, which murdered a religious community and buried them in a mass grave in northern Maine in his third Parker book, The Killing Kind (Hodder & Stoughton). Here’s some prose from that novel. I’ll let you judge if it’s arcane or not: “I went to Angel. A smear of blood lay across the width of his plastic shield, where it had fallen against his wound. Carefully, I lifted it away so that it would not stick. His gun was still in his hand, and his eyes were open, watching the figure out in the water. ‘He should have burned,’ he said. ‘He will burn,’ I replied.”
In an entertaining 40 minute lecture, Connolly covered everyone from the stylish Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye to Ross Macdonald, crime writing’s poet of empathy and compassion in The Chill, to George V Higgins, the Balzac of Boston, and his The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In an anthology co-edited by Connolly and Declan Burke, Books To Die For, famous crime writers discuss their favourite mystery novel. The late and great crime novelist Elmore Leonard said in his essay: “It doesn’t get any better than Eddie Coyle.”
After the session, we went to get The Wolf in Winter signed. John Connolly could tell we were big fans when my wife asked him about whether he had a whole scenario in mind, as he was writing about his father’s death in the Parker novels. Immediately, he reached into a box and said: “You are old fans, you deserve something special.” He handed us a copy of I Live Here, a memoir of his early encounters with the supernatural and a meeting with an older woman with a query about a haunted house – a little pamphlet specially bound and signed by the author: copy 908 of 1000.
A special gift from a special writer: it was the perfect way to end our Irish journey around the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

RIP Harry Potter: A magical mentor

I’m getting pretty sick of this – writing tributes about colleagues and old mates who have left the newsroom forever, who have turned off their computers and will never open their contact books again.
But I had to say goodbye to Harry Potter, no, not the JK Rowling character, but the best crime reporter in the Southern Hemisphere (sorry, Steve and Simon and Adam and Norm et al), and the nicest. And don’t worry, Harry had already made fun of his famous namesake in a news story recapped in this tribute made by Ten to celebrate his 30 years with the network. And Harry, I’d rather have you sign the book anyway. http://bit.ly/QknAX2
Harry Potter was the nicest because he never met a young reporter he didn’t help. All they had to do was ask, and he was there with contacts and suggestions on the best way to do the story. In every tribute or obit I read about Harry since he died, his colleagues and protégés would mention how helpful he was. My favourite was written by Nine reporter, Gabrielle Boyle, who posted hers on Facebook (a photo above of Gabby with Harry). This is an example of his mentoring … and how he watched over Gabby at Ten: “You called me with countless tip-offs. You critiqued endless scripts. You sent limitless, encouraging text messages and emails. You taught me that reporters should always strive to be good people first. You set an example … Harry, you set the tone, the standard and the culture in our newsroom.”
At the Kennedy Awards for Excellence in NSW journalism last year, Harry was given the Les Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award, accompanied by this moving video tribute: http://bit.ly/1gG99Ut In the Kennedy Awards’ farewell this week to Harry, journalist and crime reporter Adam Walters had this to say: “You could not hope to meet a nicer bloke on the road. Forever humble and apparently oblivious to his genuine legend status Harry never hesitated to help a younger reporter and introduce his protégés to contacts. An up-and-coming crime journalist couldn’t wish to have a more impressive imprimatur. An introduction by Harry to a senior police officer would cement a relationship forever more.” http://bit.ly/1qFkHB5
The tribute also mentioned how Harry’s son Tim, a former Ten journalist, now media adviser to a NSW minister, told the Kennedy Awards last year of his father’s commitment to the victims of crimes decades after they lost their loved ones. He kept in touch because of his love of his family and his pride in his children, knowing how crime rips families apart. Adam Walters writes: “On those long days of stake-outs and waiting outside courts Harry would unfailingly update us on the progress of his kids at school and on the sporting fields. We would hear of his hopes and prayers for one of his sons to crack the big time in the AFL, his pride in seeing his other son follow so faithfully in his footsteps as a fine journalist, and of course his admiration for his beloved Kate.”
And this is where my personal anecdote comes in, with the mention of his beloved Kate. That’s his widow, Katrina Lee, whom I first met at News Limited in the 1970s. In 1975 I was the acting foreign editor at The Australian, and begging the editor for a pay rise, when the editor-in-chief, Jim Hall, came up to me and said: “I can’t give you a pay rise, but how about a trip around the world.” It was a launch of a PanAm flight from London to Frankfurt. We would fly to the US, stopover in Honolulu, San Francisco and New York before heading to the UK for the flight. Once we got off the plane in Frankfurt, we were on our own to return to Australia, first class, of course, on PanAm flights. The journos on the junket were chief subs and chiefs of staffs and a reporter by the name of Harry Potter. We didn’t have to write anything, unless we wanted to.
The first flight to Honolulu took about ten hours, and we journos lived up to our stereotype by drinking most of the way. I seem to remember we only sat down for takeoff, turbulence and landing. After checking in at the hotel, we had a night’s sleep, but woke up, hungover and thirsty, and headed for the hotel’s pool. I noticed Harry chatting to a young lady in a bikini and next thing I knew, he was down on his hands and knees looking for something. “Whatcha looking for, Harry?” I asked. “This young lady’s lost one of her contact lenses. Can you help?” Well, of course, we did, but being journos we couldn’t resist suggesting Harry had an ulterior motive in his search for the lost lens. After a few minutes, Harry excused himself, looking a bit embarrassed by our good-natured heckling, and said he’d see us in the bar before dinner. A few hours later, Harry returned, this time with a big smile on his face, saying: “I have an announcement to make. I called Kate and asked her to marry me. And she said yes.” We all looked at each other, laughing, and congratulated him. (A photo above of Harry and Kate on their wedding day in 1977! News Limited)
So for the next 38 years, until the last time I saw him at the Kennedy Awards last year, my first question to Harry after saying hello, was: “Did you ever find that contact lens?” I told Tim about it when I worked at Ten News in 2011, along with his wife, Brooke, who’s still at Ten, and they said the whole family knows about it now.
Harry must have been sick of hearing about it, and yet, when I called him, I was usually asking for a favour, on a Saturday or Sunday morning when he was acting as chief of staff, and he never said no. No matter if I were calling from Seven, or Nine, or Sky, whether it was vision or a contact number or if Ten was planning on doing a particular story, Harry always helped when he could. And in 2011, I saw him in the Ten newsroom, as he was catching up with former colleagues, and asked how he was going. He told me about his cancer and how optimistic he was, and he managed to beat it, with the help of a revolutionary treatment last year … until last week.
As soon as I read the sad news on Twitter last Friday, I tweeted: “Farewell Harry Potter — legendary journalist & great bloke. I hope you find that contact lens in heaven. Condolences to Kate & Tim & family.” I only had 140 characters, so let me add Brooke, Nick, Elisa and Jack and the rest of the family now.
Harry Potter, rest in peace, my friend.

A day of contrasts: From bride to gloom in Bondi

It was one of those beautiful autumn days in Sydney. I was driving along Maroubra Road heading to the airport to drop off my brother-in-law and his wife after the wedding of my youngest daughter the day before at Bronte.
A cold wind was blowing, but the bride and groom pictured above had planned the wedding ceremony to perfection at the Bronte RSL. Flower girls, including my granddaughter, threw the rose petals in front of the proud father as he walked up the aisle to hand over his stunning daughter to her beloved. A poem, vows spoken with love and humour, a marriage sealed with a kiss or two, then speeches, drinks, dancing to The Time of My Life, with the newly wedded couple looking like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, toasts, more speeches, more dancing, more photographs taken by the inimitable Kristjan Porm (http://www.kristjanporm.com/) and a myriad of guests. You could drink, dance and keep an eye on the Swans game on the plasma TV on the wall (sound turned down, of course).
That’s why I posted on Facebook: “The wedding of the year. The wedding party of the year.” You can understand why I was feeling good about life, the eastern beaches, my fellow Sydneysiders and a sunny Sunday for the ages. The glow continued until the first rumblings of the Billionaire’s Brawl in Bondi were heard on Twitter. A resident and neighbour of James Packer tweeted he saw the billionaire fighting in the street with a man he didn’t recognise (David Gyngell, Nine Entertainment Company’s CEO) “like two mad dogs going at each other’s throats.”
It made me ponder that on Sunday afternoon when all seemed right with the world, two of Australia’s most influential businessman were wrestling and punching each other while a bodyguard and a personal trainer tried to pry them apart. Unfortunately for both men, a photographer managed to capture images of the Crown Resorts chairman and the Nine Entertainment chief executive as they behaved like two schoolboys.
As a journalist who’s dropped a typewriter on the floor – in order to get it fixed – and turned over the editor’s desk – in a moment of rage against management (no one was behind it) — I’d be a hypocrite if I said I couldn’t understand why they were fighting. But I never hit anybody, and I did apologise for my behaviour. James Packer was angry about a satellite technician who had parked his truck near his house, and complained to David Gyngell. The tech was a neighbour of Packer’s and often parked there when he got home late and had to get up early. He was not trying to get pictures of Packer and his alleged new girlfriend – an Australian celebrity. Gyngell threw the first punch and took the blame for it by day 3 of the prolonged news cycle. There were fears Packer’s casino businesses could go south if he were charged with affray. Due to the public nature of the punch-up, the police were forced to investigate, and at the time of writing, still haven’t decided whether to lay any charges.
UPDATE: On Friday, the NSW Police issued James Packer and David Gyngell infringement notices for “offensive behaviour” and fined them $500 each. No conviction was recorded. I hope that’s the end of the matter.
It was a silly confrontation for both men – long-time mates, but possibly no longer – but the one I feel sorry for is David Gyngell. As managing editor of the Sunday Program, I worked under Gyngell in his first incarnation as CEO of Nine from 2004 to 2005. He was a passionate chief executive. He knew when to praise and when to criticise, and he was fair. He loved television and was hands-on. I was most impressed with him during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. I was on annual holidays from the Sunday Program, which was on summer hiatus, when I got a call from David, asking me if I could come in to help produce A Current Affair, with acting executive producer Ben Hawke and supervising producer John Muldrew. “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away,” I said. My wife was less impressed, but she knew I wouldn’t be happy sitting at home when a story as big as this one was breaking. Gyngell came in every morning and asked what we were doing, and the sky was the limit as far as the budget was concerned. He explained early in the disaster: “One hundred and fifty thousand people could die. We have to cover this from every angle.” He led the coverage, and it was a pleasure to work your guts out for a man who cared about the news and the victims of this horrific tsunami that killed and maimed so many people. (The official death toll is more than 230,000 in 14 countries). He also made up for my working during my holidays, with a trip to Tasmania for me and my wife for a couple of days at the end of January, before I went back to work at Sunday. He paid for the trip himself.
That’s why David Gyngell has the full support of the Nine board, despite the police investigation into the Sunday fracas. The chief operating officer of Nine Entertainment, Simon Kelly, described his boss as a passionate leader: “He lives and breathes the business, he has 100 per cent support of the management and the board and he has been in the office working.” http://bit.ly/1ssaaXA Speaking of support, I like what Gyngell’s wife, Leila McKinnon, a presenter for Nine’s Today Show, and one of the straightest shooting journos in the industry, had to say on Facebook yesterday: “He may be a brawling bogan but he’s my brawling bogan.” He really is a good bloke.
It’s been painful watching the news on every channel covering the fisticuffs and its aftermath as a joke. On the other hand, a friend and former colleague at Nine, Janine Perrett, now the presenter of her own show on Sky Business, The Perrett Report, has been calling on the two executives to apologise all week. On her program on Thursday night, another friend, Crikey business and media commentator, Glenn Dyer, said both men “should have apologised to the community, the shareholders, the board and the employees for embarrassing them.” He added it was a matter of the bosses holding themselves to the standards they expect of other people and the people they employ. A reasonable request from Janine and Glenn.
But back to a happy ending. The response to my daughter’s wedding has been enormous on Facebook. It’s a love story about a young attractive couple with a long and happy marriage in front of them, surrounded by family and friends who adored them – with the photos to prove it.
In my father of the bride address, I meant to recite the A.A. Milne poem that I had read at her sixth birthday three decades earlier, Now I am Six, but I didn’t want to make my speech too long. On second thought, I should have. So here it is, Heidi:
When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three,
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six for ever and ever.
Like any Dad, I said at the time: “And Heidi, I hope you stay six for ever and ever.” And she said, as any clever six year old would say: “No, I won’t. No, I won’t.”
But on the night of the wedding, I thought: “In her heart, she remains as enthusiastic and passionate as she was as a six year old, and in her mind, she is as clever as clever as ever.”
We will have these moments to remember.
But wait, just one more ending, happier and funnier. I’ll leave the last word to Heidi, who posted this on Thursday night on Facebook:
Honeymoon Day 4 (in Bali) — Time for some extreme sports action white water rafting down the Telaga Waja River where I FELL OUT OF THE BLOODY BOAT into the rapids!! My husband (the hero) came tumbling in after me, smacking me across the face with his oar as he fell. And that, my friends, is why you should never leave your private villa and pool.