Strewth! A magnificent memoir of home truths

“What do you call a fart in the bathtub?”
It was a question I asked award-winning columnist of The Australian, author, snake lover and bagpipes player, James Jeffrey (Photo above The Australian), a decade or so ago.
The answer, of course, is “Gorp,” the sound of a fart in the bath. James liked it and we have been exchanging bon mots ever since. He did mention that the excellent actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, said his surname sounded like “a fart in the bath,” but it has too many syllables. James replied: “May Gorp be with you,” and we have used it and many variations ever since.
But this is not a piece about Gorps. It’s a belated review of James’s magnificent memoir, My Family and Other Animus, which was published four months ago. Better late than never. It’s a book mainly about a family of animated spirits, especially his mother, Eszter, a feisty Hungarian dedicated to smoking and several marriages. In his preface, James mentions a list of suggestions that will make for a better life and a happy family. My favourite and his: Make sure the kids see the love flow between their parents.
His family arrived in Australia on a ship from England in 1976, when James was four, with his mother and his siblings and his British father, Ian, heading for a coal-mining job in a country town a few hours up the road from Sydney. His mum found the town so boring, she waged a successful campaign to move the family back to the Big Smoke and the Sutherland Shire.
Four years later, the Big Fight, as it became known, erupted between his Mum and Dad, and his father’s mother and sister, visiting on Australia Day, which led to screaming, and the barricading of James and his sister, Olivia, in a bedroom. The Siege ensued, and eventually, when his father went off to work, the removalists arrived and the family left him behind. James writes: “… this was the moment in which my old world ended and a new, chaotic one rose in its place … life would take on a seismic instability so filled with madness and strain and vendetta and daftness and acts of love both beautiful and misguided that, decades later, I rarely go a week without thinking about it all.”
The split led to the Family Court and two years after the Big Fight, the divorce and custody arrangements were settled in 1983. James, who was eleven at the time, told the Family Court: “Yes, I love them both the same. But I’d rather live with Dad.” James and Olivia stayed with their Dad. (His mother had moved in with her third partner, Janos.)

But life goes on, and James tells tales of the birth of his first child, Daisy, who was born in a Sydney hospital in 2002, in a “labour-and-caesearean marathon.” His wife, Bel, had come back earlier from Moscow where James was working, and he arrived in time to be at the birth: “Daisy’s first act was to part her legs and pee on the doctor, confirming in quick succession that she was a girl, and that she was our girl.” He had the photo developed and scanned by a 2002 computer that downloaded line by line. The result prompted a colleague to email from Moscow: “It looks like a scene from Alien.” Three and a half years later, Leo was born, with James whispering: “He’s a boy,” to Bel, adding (he regrets to say): “He’s got a really big schlong.”
James Jeffrey loves his family, but journalism is also in his blood. Aside from his much-read and much-loved daily Strewth! column in The Australian, where I first “Gorped” with James, he writes the parliamentary Sketch, inherited from the late, great Matt Price, whose pieces in the Oz were priceless for their humour and insight. James also captures the joy and mayhem of Federal parliament in his Sketch, occasionally saying outrageous things about outrageous politicians.
He’s also not afraid to take on readers who abuse him via email or tweets, bravely stating: “All I ask is that they try to be original with their abuse.” And there are two things that make him ponder the value of the online comments section below his columns and vignettes and short Strewth! tales: “And this passes for journalism?” and “And your point is?” His response is razor-sharp: “I’m still in love with the idea of a newspaper being a banquet with plenty of courses. Hard news, breaking news, solid analysis – all of this is important. But they’re not the only reason readers turn up. So, for those of you poised to ask me what my point is – apart from vive la difference – it’s a straightforward one: this article passes for journalism.”

Speaking of journalism and journalists, Jeffrey has a chapter on one of the best, the late Mark Colvin of the ABC (photo above Mark and James, The Australian), described by James as a “broadcaster, writer, Twitter friend, outstanding human being and , in a twist of fate I still pinch myself over, dear friend.” Colvin would often comment on a piece or a single line or two and once he caught James “completely off guard” with a line about the last of his Home Truth columns in The Australian: “I hope Bel is suitably appreciative of what between the lines is one of the great love-letters of all time.”
Mark was dying of cancer and spent a lot of time in hospital, but, as often happens, James thought he had time to visit him the following day when he got the saddest of news from his mutual friend, the ABC’s Leigh Sales, and was whisked away to the office of another friend, Labor MP Terri Butler, where he went “wild with grief.” Despite his distress, he managed to write a poignant tribute to his dear friend for The Australian’s next edition. Here’s a brief excerpt – the piece began in Bunnings where the pair used to meet and chat: “Our conversations sometimes wandered the world or history, sometimes stayed very local. Sometimes we dug deep, sometimes skated happily across the surface. Then eventually, we’d say goodbye – and suddenly I’d realise I was still in Bunnings.”
The tribute continues: “He was brave, he was stoic. Injustice and hypocrisy made him angry … He was one of the finest people I’ve ever known, and becoming his friend has been one of the great joys of my life. He left one last tweet to be sent out once he was gone: ‘It’s all been bloody marvellous’.”
That chapter, and the ones piecing together the columns about the dementia and death of James’s father and his mother are worth the price of admission to this brilliant book. If you’re a sentimental old journo like me, you might shed a few tears, but that’s good for the soul.
Dementia. Not a good word. Not a good way to die. James finally confronted his father on a nostalgic trip to Lightning Ridge. In the car on the way back to the mining town, he talked to his Dad about the “d-word,” which prompted him to get out of the car and start walking along the road toward Lightning Ridge. “Come on Dad, we have to talk about what’s happening to you,” called James. His Dad’s reply: “Do you think I’m not aware?” The last sentence of that chapter is full of sorrow: “The sky was immense, but the world beneath it was suddenly smaller.”
The next column on his father begins with this ominous sentence: “It was a Sunday when Dad first forgot my name.” The descent into full-blown dementia was swift, and he asked his son: “What line of work are you in?” Within days, his Dad was moved into the dementia ward of a nursing home. James muses in the last paragraph what the future holds for his father: “He still has the company of his phantoms. Bit by bit, they grow more assertive as the flesh-and-blood people in his life slip out of focus, flicker and fade. Then one day, I’ll go out into that garden and sit among the flowers with a man who looks like my father.”
I teared up after reading that. The next paragraph is James’s turn: “That was the hardest column I had yet written. When I finished typing it, I stared at the last seven words for a very long time. As it turned out, we didn’t have long at all and I was soon writing the most bittersweet of follow-ups.” The next column on his Dad is certainly bittersweet and worth reading, but I’ll leave it to you.
Let’s end this review on a slightly less lugubrious last chapter: “Apres mum le deluge.” After selling her house on Gumtree, the online classified site, James’s Mum decided to move house again a few months later. It was only three minutes from Coles and she told James she was happy. Then she had a heart attack in the morning and a second one later that afternoon, and was flown by helicopter to Newcastle for surgery in a larger hospital 380 kilometres to the south. The entire family gathered around her as she spent 18 days battling as her life ebbed away. Finally the respirator was switched off, and she was gone.
The funeral was a celebration of his Mum’s life with a little ghetto-blaster in the back of the hearse taking the coffin to the cemetery switching from a “sad, yearning voice and a keening violin” to Fur Elise, “a trusty bit of Beethoven Mum had always loved playing on her piano.” Near the end, the celebrant asked the family and friends: “If anyone would like to share a memory of Eszter, please do.” Cue the thunderclap. So loud it felt like it had pounded the mourners’ eardrums deep into their skulls.
“Once we were confident no one had been hit by lightning, we all laughed. In that carnival of grief, it was even more than a moment of release – it was almost magical. More than anything, we understood that there couldn’t have been a more Mum way to say goodbye. Well, either that or a shower of cigarettes.”
James, Thank Gorp for such a wonderful read.
My Family and Other Animus, James Jeffrey, Melbourne University Press, 185 pages.
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Comic duo Laurel and Hardy’s moments to remember: Tales of Hollywood stranger than fiction

Laurel and Hardy were two of my favourite comedians. Every year on Thanksgiving, a US TV network played one of their old films. We laughed at their jokes and slapstick, with perfect timing and the sheepish face of Stan Laurel and the exasperated reactions of Oliver Hardy providing moments to remember.
What brought back that memory? A brilliant new novel by John Connolly, a former Irish journalist who’s written 15 books about a fictional American detective, Charlie Parker, a crime series that started with a plane crash in the state of Maine and has branched out into an epic story about Hollow Men, the Brotherhood, a Monstrous Mother and a criminal empire. I’ve read most of them and noticed on Connolly’s website that he was publishing a novel reimagining the life of Stan Laurel, one of the great screen comics, with his jolly, overweight partner, Oliver Hardy. He is a work of fiction, but it’s based on an enormous amount of research, outlined in the Author’s Note, including four seminal Laurel and Hardy biographers and the letters of Stan Laurel, a prodigious correspondent whose missives can be found in Stan’s Correspondence Archive Project, along with a brief biography. Connolly loved Laurel and Hardy because they were part of his childhood. My childhood.
The novel begins in the Oceana Apartments by the sea in Santa Monica, California where Stan “chases butterfly memories” in the last days of his life. He remembers Oliver (Babe) Hardy: “Babe is always with him … But now Babe is gone, and he is alone.” We get to read more of Stan’s memories throughout the book (and this post). It’s a short first section, like the 202 remaining chapters, but it encompasses the life of the comic duo from Stan’s childhood in northern England where his father, Arthur Jefferson, aka AJ, managed theatres and was also an actor and director to Babe’s upbringing in Georgia carrying a sandwich board advertising specials at the Baldwin Hotel run by his mother. Along the way, Connolly tells tales of Hollywood and its stars (imagining what Stan would say): Chaplin for one, who has sex with 15-year-old girls; who takes actress Paulette Goddard to bed, believing she is 17, and ‘is disappointed when she reveals that she is twenty-two;” who is the greatest comedian Laurel has ever seen; and, last but not least, according to Stan, “Chaplin is a monster.” Harvey Weinstein comes to mind.
Stan Laurel had a Chaplin complex. He was Chaplin’s understudy at Fred Karno’s comedy company when he was only 19. Stan travelled with Karno to the US in 1910 and 1912. The company split when Charlie moved on to become a star in motion pictures in Hollywood. When Stan’s common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg, told him he was as good as Chaplin, he replied Charlie was the best that has ever been. Babe Hardy was working with movie producer Larry Semon, who wanted to make pictures like Chaplin’s and didn’t care who the Little Tramp was screwing. Babe believed Chaplin should be in jail. But Chaplin is Chaplin (often repeated in the novel). Semon had no vision and his company collapsed. It led Babe to sign a contract with Hal Roach, one of Hollywood’s most famous and successful movie magnates, and the partnership of a lifetime with Stan Laurel that began in 1926.

While Stan and Babe had a great partnership, it didn’t mean they always chose the right partners in marriage – not to mention their affairs. When Mae returned to Melbourne, Stan married Lois Neilsen in 1926. They had two children, a daughter Lois, and a son who died tragically nine days after his birth. They were divorced eight years later and Stan married Ruth Rogers. But Stan continued to pine for Lois, who refused to remarry. The marriage to Ruth lasted three years, who told Stan: “You’re just a child. You have no idea what you really want at all.” His next partner was a mad Russian actress and singer, Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, accompanied by Countess Sonia, and Roy Randolph, the Dancing Master. Stan and Vera had three wedding ceremonies. Connolly writes: “He (Stan) will spend most of 1938 drinking, for reasons not unconnected to their marriage.” Years later at the Oceana Apartments, Stan remembers Vera: “He remembers that Vera was a drunk. He remembers that Vera couldn’t sing … He remembers that Countess Sonia’s perfume smelled like cat piss … He remembers driving the wrong way down Reseda Boulevard, intoxicated and crying and only (his lawyer) Ben Shipman’s bamboozling of the jury keeping him out of jail.” There’s more. He remarries Ruth in 1941. That lasted until the end of the war, when he met and fell in love with Ida Kitaeva Raphael. When Ben Shipman read about their wedding in a newspaper on May 6, 1946, he screamed: “Jesus Christ, he’s married another Russian.” But this marriage endured until death did them part nearly 20 years later.
Babe Hardy had a similar chequered marital record, starting with Madelyn Saloshin, who played the piano at a theatre where he was singing in a quartet. They had a dog and a monkey. Babe said it wasn’t a marriage. It was a zoo. It was short, followed by a longer, but not much happier union, as his second wife, Myrtle Reeves, was a drunk. He had a lover, Viola Morse, but he continued to look after Myrtle, who did things like escaping from a sanitarium, sneaking out of her sister’s house and trying to drink herself to oblivion in a hotel. A policewoman talked her out of jumping out the hotel window, and Myrtle was arrested. Every newspaper in the country had the story. Still Babe found it hard to leave her, although he spent a lot of time at the races in Santa Anita. He sought comfort from Myrtle with other women, but eventually got a divorce and paid hefty alimony bills. Although he’d been with Viola Morse longer than Myrtle, Babe finally met his true love, Lucille Jones. Despite Viola’s pain, Babe and Lucille married … and she cared for her husband until he died in 1957.
Somehow Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy managed brilliant careers in spite of their marital problems and family tragedies. They made short films for Hal Roach, released through MGM, during the silent era in the late 1920s and took to audio like ducks to water. Their first sound movie was a success: Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. With their traditional bowler hats, suits and ties, mixing sight and sound gags (mostly written by Stan), the Pom from Ulverstone and the Yank from Georgia enthralled American audiences during the Great Depression. Laurel and Hardy won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy, in 1932 for The Music Box, a revision of their silent film, Hats Off.

Later that year, Laurel and Hardy decided to take a vacation and made a deal with MGM: ten days of publicity, the rest of the time to themselves. They travelled by train to New York via Chicago and took what they thought would be a leisurely cruise on the RMS Aquitania to Southampton. Stan and Ollie were amazed by the thousands of people who waited for them in Chicago, just wanting to touch them, shake their hands. It was worse, and scarier, in New York when the Broadway multitudes did not let them pass. They had to hide in Minsky’s Music Hall and were smuggled aboard the Aquitania. Much to their surprise, Stan and Babe had become two of the most famous men in the world. In Britain, thousands greeted them from London to Leeds and Birmingham, to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stan spent time with his father, AJ, who wondered why his son changed his last name from (Arthur Stanley) Jefferson to Laurel. Stan had no satisfactory explanation; it was Mae Dahlberg’s suggestion.
Laurel and Hardy made 105 films between 1926 and 1951, when they retired from movies. Laurel met Charlie Chaplin at his house in Beverly Hills, and they reminisced. Chaplin said: “Who else like us is left”? Stan “cannot help but admire Chaplin, even as he wishes him more capable of truth, and more worthy of affection.” He never saw or spoke with Chaplin again. For Babe, his moment in the sun was taking part in a John Ford touring production of What Price Glory, a fundraiser for the Order of the Purple Heart. Among the cast were John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr and Jimmy Cagney, who told Babe he was so good that if someone hadn’t held him upright, he would have fallen on the floor laughing. Hardy sat in the club car of the train on the way to San Francisco, regaling the famous actors with tales of old Hollywood, with Duke Wayne’s eyes and ears wide open. Connolly writes: “They were listening to me, Babe says. Can you believe that? All those great men were listening. To me.”
Stan and Ollie toured England in the early 1950s, to dwindling audiences, until May 18, 1954 when Babe had a heart attack. The tour was cancelled, and they returned to the US where Stan worked on scripts for television. In 1955, he had a stroke, from which he recovered, but Babe had another heart attack and a stroke, was paralysed and lost his voice. He died on August 7, 1957. At the Oceana Apartments, Stan pays tribute to his partner: “Babe is with him and of him … he knows that he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.”
Stan continued to write jokes and sketches for fellow comedians, and was recognised with a special Oscar for his creative pioneering work in cinema comedy in 1961 (Photo above from The actor Alec Guinness wrote Stan a letter which had a prominent place on his desk, congratulating him on his Academy Award: “For me you have always been and will always be one of the greats.”
In his Author’s Note, John Connolly says Stan Laurel “kept his telephone number in the Malibu directory because he enjoyed being visited and had no fear of those who might make their way to his door.” Among those visitors were Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke. Stan Laurel died on February 23, 1965 and Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy at the funeral: “The halls of heaven must be ringing with divine laughter.”
John Connolly admits his novel and his depiction of Stan Laurel might not meet with unanimous approval: “All I can say is this: by the end of the writing of this book, I loved Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy more than ever, with all their flaws, in all their humanity, and my admiration for their artistry had only increased.”
As a reader, I felt the same way.
He, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, 453 pages
PS: If you’re interested in watching some of the old clips of Laurel & Hardy films, you can find them on their official website: The BBC has produced a biopic of Laurel and Hardy’s final tour of the UK in 1953, titled Stan and Ollie, starring John C. Reilly as Ollie and Steve Coogan as Stan. No release date has yet been announced, but fans of the famous comedy duo won’t want to miss it. A preview by and photos of the film have been released on Twitter.

Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold

Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye on my team, the Sydney Swans, now with three wins and seven losses (sometimes it’s hard to write after a defeat); and waiting for a story I can really get my teeth into. I found one, it’s on racism, and I am starting to write that today. But in the meantime, I will publish my review of a book I finished reading a while ago. It’s been sitting here as a draft. Now that it’s subbed it’s about time I posted it. It’s by one of my favourite writers: Helen Garner.
Everywhere I Look (Cover photo above, Text Publishing) is a wonderfully written book by a great Australian author. In her delicious collection of essays, diary entries and stories, Helen Garner chooses her words carefully and teaches them how to sing.
I took notes and found myself writing “lovely story” at least ten times. The first note came after reading “Dear Mrs Dunkley,” a terrific yarn about Helen’s fifth grade teacher, a hard taskmaster who terrified her but showed her how to take a sentence apart and put it back together. Helen Garner wrote about her in an introduction to an earlier collection of her essays, describing a dream in which she wore “instead of your grim black 1940s wool suit, you were dressed in a jacket made of some wondrously tender and flexible material, like suede and buckskin, in soft, unstable colours that streamed off you into the air in wavy ribbons and garlands, so that as you walked you drew along behind you a thick, smudged rainbow trail.” The introduction prompted a reply from Mrs Dunkley’s daughter, who said she enjoyed her book and the introduction and sent her a photo of her and her mother. In this photo (in about 1960), Mrs Dunkley was dressed in black, and her daughter said in her letter: “My mother was an alcoholic.” It made Helen see her teacher as she really was: “… an intense, damaged, dreadfully unhappy woman, only just holding on, fronting up to the school each morning, buttoned into your black clothes, savagely impatient, craving, suffering: a lost soul.” Garner writes: “Dear Mrs Dunkley, You’re long gone, and I’m nearly seventy. But, oh, I wish you weren’t dead. I’ve got some things here that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show you … I would like to thank you. It’s probably what you would have called hyperbole, but, Mrs Dunkley, you taught me everything I know…” Mrs Dunkley made fun of Helen for being weak on arithmetic, and she would say: “Stand up, you great MOON CALF.” In her last paragraph, Garner says goodbye: “Dear Mrs Dunkley. I know your first name was Grace; I hope you found some, in the end. Please accept, in whatever afterlife you earned or were vouchsafed, the enduring love, the sincere respect, and the eternal gratitude of your Great Moon Calf, Helen.” Wow. “Dear Mrs Dunkley” is only four pages long, but every word is a gem, chiselled in gold.

Another yarn that earned my “lovely story” tag was “Notes from a Brief Friendship” about the writer Jacob Rosenberg (photo above: The Age, Simon Schluter). Invited by the publisher to write an endorsement for his book of memoirs about the Holocaust, Sunrise West, Garner sends a “humbled sentence” for the cover. Jacob writes back to thank her and suggests lunch. The first one doesn’t go too well, but he does ask her to launch Sunrise West. This leads to several more lunches and a brief friendship between a man in his eighties and a woman at least 20 years younger. Both wonderful writers. There was a gulf between them, Helen writes, but “when the chips were down, when his storytelling voice breathed freely and I heard it without defence, my respect and affection for him were unconstrained.” After the launch, Helen hardly saw Jacob again, but she did go to his funeral, a Jewish service, “deeply satisfying in its formality, tender in the beauty of its readings and tributes.” The “brevity and shyness of our friendship made me feel suddenly weak with sadness,” Garner writes. Soon after his death, she hears an old interview with Jacob on Radio National in which he says: “Suffering is so singular an art … I believe that nothing is lost in the universe somehow.” Reading his memoirs again, she remembers a dream she had many years before she met Jacob. It’s about a bush that grew on the lip of an abyss. I’ll let Helen finish the dream: “The bush grew right on the very edge of nothingness, and yet somehow its roots were holding. It had a grip that no wind could disturb; it thrived there, all on its own, this modest little plant, and while the abyss yawned beside it, it went on bravely, doggedly flowering.”
In her diary section, “Dreams of Her Real Self,” Helen tells fond, moving and sometimes painful stories of her mother and finds a letter in which her nine-year-old niece pays a wonderful tribute to her grandmother just before she died: ” But what I liked was often we would go into her room … and see all theese speicial (sic) things of hers some belonging to her six children one of which is my mum. I love all six of them and give them my best dreams of Grandma, dreams of her real self, the self with no evil diaseases (sic), the strongest part of her body and everyone should know it’s still here.” Helen Garner paints poignant portraits: the author Elizabeth Jolley, who wrote “flesh-and-blood letters, dipping an old fountain pen into a bottle of ink ..” adding “how much her books mean to me, the spasms of laughter they provoke, the quiet tears of recognition and relief.” (“My Dear Lift-Rat”); Australian of the Year and advocate for victims of domestic violence, Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was killed by his mentally ill father (“The Singular Rosie”); and a lively portrait of a company of Australian ballet dancers (“In the Wings”). Garner spends five days in the studios watching the dancers in scenes from Swan Lake and becomes a convert to ballet. The last sentence leaves you gasping with delight and wanting more. In any review of her books, Helen should have the last words; these are about the dancers: “They manifest the tremendous onwardrushingness of life, which has only one destination, and yet constantly renews itself, full of a joy that transcends words.”
PS If you’d like to know more about Helen Garner, read this excellent profile by the highly respected literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, published in the December 12 edition last year.

Why I can’t trust Donald Trump

I knew it was time to chill out when I got into an argument at the TAB – the local betting agency – over Donald Trump.
All I said was I hope I have better luck with my bets on the races than my vote against Donald Trump. Out of the blue, a bloke I never met before said: “Give him time,” which prompted me to say Trump was the closest thing to Richard Nixon the US has ever had, and he will be impeached in a year or two. My new best enemy carried on, as did a TAB friend, who started to add his two cents. It was at this point, I said: “He’s a bully, a bullshit artist and a horrible human being.” I’ve said worse things about Richard Nixon. Then I left.
For those people who read my blog, you may have come across the post I wrote earlier this year where I said this about the President-Elect: “Donald Trump is likely to win the presidency on November 8 because not enough Americans will realise how awful he will be and vote for him. They voted for Richard Nixon who claimed he was not a crook. But he was a crook and a liar and he ruined a generation of Americans. He had to resign on August 9, 1974 because of the Watergate scandal, and it was one of the happiest days of my life … I think Donald Trump is likely to win because Americans are divided, angry, tired of politicians and political correctness, hypocrisy, broken promises, Wall Street and banks … I’m planning on going back later this year to the US for a university reunion, and I will be asking people if they’ll be voting for Trump. I think the majority will say yes. I hope I’m wrong.”
But no, I wasn’t wrong. I went back to the US to the 50th reunion of the Villanova University class of 1966, and this is what I found in my June post. After friends in northeastern Pennsylvania said they’d vote for Hillary Clinton, I asked at least two dozen alumni at Villanova who they’d vote for. Too many of them said, like Villanova nursing graduate, Lorraine Brewer: “Anybody but Hillary.” An old friend, Steve Freind, the president of the student body in 1966, and a former Republican representative for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, said yes immediately when I asked if he would vote for Trump. “Why?” I asked. He replied: “I’m not going to vote for that (a rude word describing Hillary).” The Chairman of the Class Committee, S. Curtis Seifert, said he’d vote for Trump: “I don’t like politicians and Donald Trump is not a politician.” Rich Galli, who’s an attorney in suburban Philadelphia, said: “I have to vote for Donald Trump. He’ll scare the foreign leaders and he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.” Joe McCauley, a retired bank vice-president, was standing next to his wife when I asked if he would vote for Trump: “My wife would kill me. I’m not going to vote, I think. I don’t think I’ll want to vote for Trump and I can’t vote for Hillary.” Another old friend, Tom Sproul, surprised me with his reply: “Who else am I going to vote for? I’m not going to vote for Hillary. She’s terrible on foreign policy.” An alumnus standing nearby chimed in: “I can’t stand listening to her.” Dave Banmiller, a former CEO of Pan Am and Jamaica Airlines, said he wanted to get Mitt Romney (more of him later) elected. I asked Dave again if he’d vote for Trump and he repeated he wished Romney would have run for president. He wouldn’t say for certain if he’d vote for him, but it seems likely: “I just wish Donald would tone it down a bit.”
These were white male and female, university graduates, and they were voting for Trump. After travelling around northeast Pennsylvania, I saw quite a few “Trump for President” lawn signs and a particularly nasty one: “Hillary for Prison 2016.” It was rust-belt country, where manufacturing jobs are disappearing, and an omen for the Clinton campaign in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. I thought Trump could win, but I never thought he could triumph in my home state. I stayed with Jim and Roz Morgan in the lovely town of Lake Ariel, and we visited Roz’s relatives in Scranton and had drinks at an Irish bar that would have made Vice-President Joe Biden feel at home. Both he and Hillary Clinton’s father were born there, and Pat McMullen’s pub reminded me of the Irish bars in Philly. And this is where I found the secret vote … Americans who wouldn’t say they were voting for Trump, until after the election. They cropped up in a page one story in The Weekend Australian by Cameron Stewart. They were the “Forgotten People” of the United States. That’s what Donald Trump called them: “the forgotten men and women of America,” and there they were in Scranton. In Pat McMullen’s bar, no one said they were voting for Trump, but some Scranton residents told Cameron Stewart they would support him. Paul Bidwell, a 32-year-old handyman and security guard, who works three jobs to look after his wife and kids (Photo below: Paul Bidwell with his children Aires and Audrijanna in Scranton. The Australian, David Joshua Ford) said: “At least Donald Trump is a billionaire … he owns half of New York City so if he can bring that business model to the United States, we can start making money again.” A lifelong Democrat and council worker, Patrick McNicholls, said: “I am done with the Clintons, they are a dynasty and they have been there too long and they don’t care about the middle class. I like Trump’s message about undocumented aliens and I want America to be proud again. We are getting kicked around and we not respected any more.” That’s why the polls were wrong: the pundits didn’t talk to the Bidwells or the McNicholls or even look at the anti-Hillary signs on the lawns of Scranton and other rust-belt towns in Pennsylvania. According to the US Census, the white population was 84.1% in Scranton in 2010, and the number of people in poverty was 22 per cent.
I grew up in Philadelphia, about 160 kilometres southeast of Scranton, and it’s a Democratic town. Once an Irish and Italian stronghold, it’s now 43 per cent African American, 42 per cent Caucasian, 13 per cent Hispanic and 7 per cent. Many of those white residents have moved to the suburbs to get away from the minorities, allegedly ruining their neighbourhoods and bringing down house values. It was in the suburbs of Philadelphia and other US cities where the whites voted for Donald Trump, voicing the same kind of anger and disillusionment heard in Scranton. I heard it at my Villanova reunion, and I heard it in Pennsylvania, not as much in Washington, DC, which, of course, is a Democrat enclave under an Obama administration -– the beltway hated by Trump and his supporters.
I watched the election results on November 9 (8 in the US), a day that will live in infamy for the Democratic Party, but it started well for Hillary Clinton. Channel Nine’s political editor Laurie Oakes told presenter Karl Stefanovic about a prominent Republican Party operative who gave him the line: “Our only path to the White House now is if Bill and Hillary, when they move in, invite Mr and Mrs Trump in for lunch.” It looked good for Clinton and the Democrats until about 1.14pm Australian time when CNN’s John King, manning the electoral maps, commented: “Donald Trump voters are saying ‘We have a path (to the presidency)’. At 2.29, I switched to Sky News where an unhappy former Labor Party President and Federal MP, Stephen Loosley, said it was “Midnight in America,” what commentators had been saying about Trump’s gloomy convention speech. The Ohio-born, former NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally, added there’s “not a lot of good news,” agreeing with Loosley’s “Midnight in America” theme. Sky’s political editor, David Speers, said: “That’s where it’s at”: a huge voter block, angry, voting for change and wanting to “drain the swamp” in Washington … “Republicans are polishing off their victory speech.” At 3.21pm, Speers says: “It has happened, Donald Trump is on his way to becoming the next president of the United States.” At 4.26 pm, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said it was “a truly amazing story.” The first to call it — at 6pm (2am New York time)– was the ABC Australia’s Antony Green. John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, whose emails released by Wikileaks, hurt Clinton, came out to the 11th Avenue street party where her supporters gathered to celebrate her victory. There was no celebration. Podesta said Hillary would speak to them tomorrow but she did call Trump later to concede. Donald Trump then appeared on stage to give his victory speech, congratulate Hillary Clinton for her concession and her hard-fought campaign and appeal to Americans “to bind the wounds of division.” Division he had created after a career of lies and 18 months of insults, misogyny, arrogance, ridiculous promises and unproven accusations of criminal action against Hillary Clinton. The next morning, she was gracious and told her supporters they must accept that “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The president-elect tried to use those words against her this week after she joined the Green Party candidate Jill Stein (ABC America photo below) in her vote recount in as many as three states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. If he had lost the election, he would have been the first to ask for a vote recount. But he told Associated Press that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” without a shred of evidence.
In November 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected president of the United States in a landslide, winning 49 states and nearly 61 per cent of the popular vote. His opponent, Senator George McGovern won only one State, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. In one of my favourite political biographies, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, author Rick Perlstein chronicles how Nixon only accepted four congratulatory phone calls and attacked McGovern for claiming the president would not end the war: “Wasn’t that fellow unbelievably irresponsible with his charges in the last two days?” Nixon then “congratulated himself for the unwarranted magnanimity of his victory speech: ‘You’ve got to be generous, don’t you think so?’” I’d like to think in a future biography of Donald Trump, someone will discover he said something similar to an aide after his victory speech, often described as magnanimous by his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and whichever one of his staff actually wrote the words.
The presidential election was all about trust: Many voters did not trust Hillary Clinton; but she did win the popular vote by nearly two million; therefore more people did not trust Donald Trump. I am one of them. The National Democratic Training Committee has asked Democrats to support an investigation into Donald Trump before he takes office. Why? They cite three reasons: Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women and multiple women have accused him of assault; he illegally donated $25,000 from the Trump Foundation to Florida Attorney-General Pam Bondi’s re-election campaign to avoid prosecution for Trump University’s fraud lawsuits in the state; and he has been involved in over 3500 lawsuits. Just last week, he paid off the victims of the Trump University lawsuit to avoid having to testify in court.
Mitt Romney, now being considered by Donald Trump as a possible Secretary of State, has described the president-elect as a “con man,” a “phony” and a “fraud.” In a speech in March this year, Romney said: “Look, his bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who work for them. He inherited his business, he didn’t create it. And whatever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there’s Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius he is not.” Of course, Trump claims he is a genius because he has never personally declared bankruptcy, but four times Trump-related companies, the Taj Mahal and the Trump Plaza Hotel, both in Atlantic City, the Trump Hotels and Casinos Resort, and Trump Entertainment Resorts, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy – allowing him to reorganise debt while the casinos and hotels stayed open. When the Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy in 2014, he was no longer in control of the casino, and reminded people of that in a tweet, saying it was “good timing.” The casino closed down in October, putting 3000 people out of work. How can you trust someone like that, Mr Romney?
Well, Mitt had dinner with Trump and Reince Preibus last night at a three-star Michelin restaurant, Jean-Georges, located in the Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan overlooking Central Park (AFP photo at the top, L to R: Reince Preibus, Donald Trump, Mitt Romney). After a superb meal, Romney told AFP he had been impressed by Trump’s acceptance speech and his preparations for office: “I think you’re going to see American continue to lead the world in this century,” adding he had “increasing hope that president-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.” Talk about singing for your supper. Mitt, how can anybody trust you now?
I could go on, but you can see by now why I can’t trust Donald Trump, and why he is likely to be the worst president since Richard Nixon, the only one to resign, before he was impeached, and pardoned a month later by then President Gerald Ford to end “our long national nightmare.” Hunter S. Thompson in his obituary of Richard Nixon tells this story: “Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that ‘I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon’.”
How will American voters feel if Trump resigns, or is impeached, in 2018? According to professional prognosticator, Professor Allan Lichtman, who predicted a Trump victory, is now predicting that the Republican Congress will impeach him and put in Mike Pence as president: “I’m going to make another prediction. This one is not based on a system; it’s just my gut. They don’t want Trump as president, because they can’t control him. He’s unpredictable. They’d love to have Pence — an absolutely down-the-line, conservative, controllable Republican. And I’m quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook.”
We live in hope.

An Award and Some Recognition — Tom Gannon Art

My cousin Tom Gannon has received a well-deserved award for his book of poetry, Food For a Journey, by a Canadian arts organisation. He has written a short blurb about the award and the recognition he has garnered from three alumni magazines on his website below ( I wrote a review last year and posted the above photo of Tom with an exhibition of his paintings. I described him as a renaissance man, and he certainly is. I highly recommend his book, and if you haven’t read the review, please do so now. You will understand why I was so excited about it, and why the Book Excellence Awards have given him this prize. Congrats, Tom.

vcm_s_kf_repr_161x241A Canadian arts organization, Book Excellence Awards, has informed me that Food for a Journey has been chosen as the winner of the organization’s 2016 Book Excellence Award for Poetry. A year ago, when the book first appeared, my publisher at Antrim House, Rennie McQuilkin, told me that he thought the book might win a […]

via An Award and Some Recognition — Tom Gannon Art

Memories of Edward Albee: A playwright who was not afraid of Virginia Woolf

(Photo above of Edward Albee in Sydney in 2009 by Renee Nowytarger, The Australian)
This blog post is a bit unusual as it’s been handed over to an old friend of mine, Dr Michael Nardacci. We first met fifty years ago as graduate students at New York University. Mike went on to get his doctorate in American Literature at NYU, I settled for a Master’s degree, teaching in Harlem and Sydney, and a long career in journalism in Australia. But this post is not about me, it’s about Mike and his lifelong interest in Edward Albee, the most influential American playwright of his generation. Mike interviewed Albee at his home in New York City in 1965 when he was a senior at Siena College near Albany, and the interview was published in the school’s literary magazine. Albee described it as “the best interview I have given,” and on his recommendation, it was published in The Playwrights Speak, a book by Walter Wager. Mike Nardacci (pictured below on the top of Sandia Peak, New Mexico) is also an accomplished caver, a veteran teacher of high school and college courses in English and Geology, and his column, Back Roads Geology, appears in the Altamont, New York newspaper, Enterprise. He is the author of a brilliant long poem about the celebrated cave explorer, Ghosts of Floyd Collins*, and an acclaimed play about the legendary Akhnaton, Fragments of the Pharaoh.
Here are Michael Nardacci’s poignant memories of Edward Albee:

I interviewed Edward Albee with a colleague from Siena College, Walter Chura, in 1965 shortly after his play Tiny Alice had a successful run on Broadway, confusing and fascinating audiences as it continues to do today. Albee had become internationally known on the basis of his early one-act play The Zoo Story and the great success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Albee received us in his elegant town house on West Tenth Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. He spoke of his plays, dismissed much of the commercial Broadway theatre, and held surprisingly conservative views of the political scene and the then-raging Vietnam War.
He then escorted us to his garage in which was parked a Lamborghini he had purchased on a trip to Europe, along with the miniature castle from Tiny Alice — a beautifully-crafted, intricate piece of work. I wonder what became of it.
He often sounded like one of his more complex characters: well-spoken, thoughtful, with broad cultural knowledge. I told him that I aspired to be a writer and that I expected to attend NYU, expressing hope we might meet again if my plans came to pass.
They did. In the fall of 1966 I moved to New York and as a grad student at NYU I was put up in the venerable One Fifth Avenue Hotel on the corner of 8th Street near Washington Square; the One Fifth was owned by NYU and had two suites on each floor reserved for students. As I had no morning classes, often at around 11 at night I would take a short walk around the area close to the hotel, and on several occasions I encountered Albee who was out walking his dog “Pucci” at an hour when he was unlikely to be recognised. But I did — and to my pleasure — he recognised me. We would chat about the obvious things: the theatre scene and his own work. (His play A Delicate Balance had recently opened to good reviews and was enjoying a healthy run with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in starring roles.) Once or twice I offered to buy him a drink but as he had his dog with him, that never happened.
After that first year in New York, I lived for a year on Carmine Street and then in the legendary Judson residence on Washington Square South and did not encounter Albee but followed his career as he completed such odd experimental works such as Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao-Tse-Tung. The summer of 1968 my historical drama Akhnaton (since re-thought as Fragments of the Pharaoh) was performed by a local theatre company in Albany. I sent Albee an invitation to the premiere, and though he did not attend, on opening night he sent me a congratulatory telegram wishing me luck in this new phase of my life. Rest assured it was displayed and read to the cast and crew of my play!
Soon, however, Albee entered a dark period in his life. The characters in plays such as Virginia Woolf and Delicate Balance had serious problems with alcohol — and their creator followed a similar path. Until then, his only real Broadway failures had been the inexplicably awful book for David Merrick’s musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s — which closed in previews — and a stage version of James Purdy’s twee novel Malcolm. Now he had a series of failures, culminating in the vituperative Man With Three Arms — roundly denounced by the critics as “a temper tantrum in three acts” — and the impenetrable, unpleasant Lady From Dubuque filled with what might be the foulest language from a major playwright ever heard on Broadway.
But following a number of extremely nasty incidents in which his drinking caused major problems with friends and colleagues — which are numbingly detailed in Mel Gussow’s biography Edward Albee: A Singular Journey — he began a recovery which revived both his talent and his persona. There may have been a number of factors that led to the turnaround. He was hit by a car in California, an accident which nearly cost him an eye. His increasing debt might finally have awakened him to his self-inflicted precarious situation. But it was also in this time that he took up with a young Canadian artist, Jonathan Thomas, with whom he began a decades-long relationship, which ended with Thomas’s death in 2005. Albee himself attributed his recovery to Thomas’s influence. Albee’s homosexuality had long been an open secret, and caused some critics — William Goldman and Robert Brustein among them — to read all kinds of double meanings into the relationships between the heterosexual couples in his plays.
Albee deeply resented these inferences. He remarked acidly, “I know the difference between men and women,” and used legal manoeuvres to shut down productions of his plays — particularly Virginia Woolf — in which the parts were played by all-male casts. He was criticised by a number of gay and lesbian writers for not writing plays with gay themes. But his politically incorrect response was: “I am a playwright who happens to be gay; I am not a gay playwright.”
Following his rehabilitation and vowing to abstain from alcohol, Albee’s career began to bounce back. His powerful drama Three Tall Women — written following the death of his adoptive mother, with whom he had had a difficult relationship — exploded on to the New York theatre stage and let the theatre world know that the much-admired playwright was back and in control of his medium. The play has since been performed in many countries and won him his third Pulitzer Prize. He followed this with three plays which were also critical and financial successes: the mysterious Play About the Baby, which ranks in its confusing storyline with Tiny Alice, and a comedy/drama The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?. After a long delay, his play Occupant about Sculptor Louise Nevelson was produced off-Broadway and provided still another powerful part for an actress.
It was around the time I went to see Occupant that I wrote Albee a letter. I re-introduced myself to him as the college-boy interviewer and expressed admiration for Occupant. I also told him that I would be honoured to take him to lunch some time when I was visiting New York City. To my surprise he wrote back, told me that he remembered me, and accepted my invitation, saying that spring was his least busy time (this was in the fall and he travelled a good deal lecturing.) I responded with a letter to which I attached a poem I had written about rafting through the Grand Canyon. He congratulated me on having written a “nice old-fashioned poem” — still not sure if that was praise or put-down! — and recommended a couple of changes in the wording which I gladly made.
But aside from a couple of Christmas cards which we exchanged, I never heard from him again. I wrote him a couple of lengthy letters, one after I had just seen a production of his The American Dream and The Sandbox at the Cherry Lane Theatre which Albee directed. I praised the production and inquired about new work he might be engaged in. I also sent him a copy of my play Fragments of the Pharaoh.
Some time after that I read about a New Jersey production of a new Albee play titled Me, Myself, and I which was allegedly headed for Broadway. But the production never happened, and for the last three or four years there has been little news about Albee or any new work.
And then he died on September 16 at his summer home in Montauk on Long Island following a brief illness. Broadway theatre lights were dimmed a couple of nights later in his honour and no doubt there will at some point be a star-studded tribute to the playwright featuring readings from his works.
While a number of his works including some clearly experimental ones will probably not pass time’s test, there is little doubt that plays such as The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, and that tiny gem, The Sandbox, will be staples of the American theatre scene for many years to come. All of them contain sometimes extraordinary acting parts even though critics have quibbled over the internal logic of all of them. His more curious efforts, Ballad of the Sad Café, Tiny Alice, and Seascape among them, probably will be revived from time to time as works containing bits of overlooked brilliance. His more feeble efforts, The Lady from Dubuque, The Man With Three Arms, and his attempted stage dramatisation of Nabokov’s Lolita are perhaps best forgotten, being false starts in an otherwise highly interesting career.
But I will always regret that my invitation to take him to lunch, though accepted, never came to pass. The two hours I spent with him as an undergraduate and our brief conversations on Eighth Street in the late night were captivating. You knew you were in the presence of an intelligent, fiercely talented man whose long career –whatever its misfires such as the book for Breakfast at Tiffany’s — contained the work of a creative talent who was never afraid to try something new, never hesitant about exploring unknown territory, always willing to invest his work with his own singular sensibility. His passing leaves a sizeable gap in the American literary scene. But I will always be proud of the fact that Albee knew me by name, sometimes shared his thoughts and observations with me, and once critiqued one of my works. How many other aspiring writers can make that claim?
*I wrote a blog post about the Ghosts of Floyd Collins five years ago, complaining to the New Yorker and its then managing editor, Amelia Lester (now the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Weekend magazine), that they had never acknowledged receipt of the poem. It was their loss — Tom Krause.

Hillary’s health scare has Trump on the rise

It hasn’t been a good week for Hillary Clinton. It started with her describing half of Donald Trump’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it,” and ended with her having to spend three days recovering from a mild bout of pneumonia.
What made matters worse was the amateur video showing her wobbling as she got into her car after leaving a Ground Zero 9/11 memorial service, and having her doctor reveal that she had diagnosed Mrs Clinton with pneumonia two days before the incident.
The illness and its aftermath, which had Donald Trump wishing her well and looking forward to seeing her at the first debate, were a godsend for the Republican candidate, with the latest national polls showing Trump on 46 per cent to 44 for Clinton. An earlier poll had Trump 5 points ahead in Ohio, a state that in recent presidential elections has always picked the winner.
In a country that spends a lot of time worried about health (just watch the medication ads on American television), and its many citizens who suffer from all kinds of illnesses, as well as hypochondria, the health of its president is paramount. Hillary Clinton was first to produce a clean bill, even while she was on her sick bed, with her doctor, Lisa Bardack, saying she “has not developed new medical conditions this year other than a sinus and ear infection and her recently diagnosed pneumonia. She is recovering well with antibiotics and rest. She continues to remain healthy and fit to serve as President of the United States.” Whew, breathed the Democratic National Committee, who would have had to choose another candidate if Secretary Clinton had to withdraw from the race.
Donald Trump, of course, is fit as a bull (and full of the bull as well), or so he has declared many times during the campaign while suggesting that Hillary Clinton might not have the stamina to be president of the United States. He took the opportunity to appear on a TV medical show (there are quite a few of them as you can imagine) with Dr Mehmet Oz, and just so happened to have a copy of his own records in his suitcoat pocket, tests taken last week by his GP, Dr Bornstein. He handed the letter to Dr Oz, who read some of the details to the audience, and said the results were good. Donald Trump later released the letter which summarised the tests, saying he takes a cholesterol-lowering drug and is overweight but overall is in “excellent physical health.”
Game tied, with Trump admitting he should lose weight, and Hillary Clinton back on the campaign trail, telling supporters in North Carolina: “I recently had a cold that turned out to be pneumonia. I tried to power through it, but even I had to admit that maybe a few days’ rest would be good. I’m not great at taking it easy even under normal circumstances, but with just two months to go until Election Day, sitting at home was just the last place I wanted to be.” You can see from the photo above by the Washington Post’s Melina Mara, Secretary Clinton looks well.
Trump couldn’t resist having a go at Clinton at a rally on the day after his doctor’s appointment. He wondered aloud to the audience if she “would be able to stand up here for an hour and do this.” Washington Post reporter Robert Costa fills in the rest of the story:
“I don’t think so,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “I asked a question,” Trump said in the interview soon after. “Everyone screamed ‘No!’ I want to be respectful. I’m a respectful person. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to stay there. But right now, she’s in bed recuperating and I want to be respectful.” Trump also said that he resisted weighing in on Clinton’s illness on Twitter because “I thought it would be inappropriate to tweet when I saw her in serious danger.” But was he tempted? “No,” Trump said quickly. “No. I was not tempted. Not even a little bit.”
The health issue is not going to disappear before election day on November 8. Hillary Clinton will be scrutinised every time she goes to a rally or gives a speech, especially at the three presidential debates. And health problems can lead to the withdrawal of a candidate. One of the most famous withdrawals occurred in 1972 when the Democratic Senator from Missouri, Thomas Eagleton, was forced to resign as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 after he revealed he had been treated three times for mental illness, including electroshock therapy in hospital.
Eagleton was a late entry as the vice-presidential candidate at the Democratic Convention, and Senator McGovern wasn’t aware of his mental problems until the Monday after he was chosen. McGovern was hoping he could stand by his man, and his campaign staff put out a statement declaring he was “one thousand percent for Tom Eagleton.” But he finally had to cut Eagleton loose when Democrats stopped donating to his campaign against the incumbent president Richard Nixon. When he sacked Eagleton, McGovern tainted his image as an honest politician. As Rick Perlstein put it in his biography of Nixon, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, “The saintly don’t survive in politics.” He quotes James Naughton of the New York Times: “In the Democratic primaries, Senator McGovern managed to convey the impression that he was somehow not a politician in the customary sense. His reaction to Mr Eagleton’s disclosure may have seriously impaired that image.”
As regular readers of will know, I have often mentioned the parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, and one of my journalistic heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, wrote a wonderful, gonzo book about the 1972 election, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. If you substitute Donald Trump for Richard Nixon in this paragraph by Thompson on page 414, you will see what I mean: “The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about ‘new politics’ and ‘honesty in government,’ is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, is we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.”
A vote for Hillary Clinton will ensure that the best instincts of the United States will be kept out of the hands of hustlers like Donald Trump. I’m also hoping that the Democratic candidate will know when it’s time to take a short break – a night with husband Bill perhaps — from the madness of a presidential campaign in the next 51 days to recharge the batteries.
Undoubtedly, Donald Trump’s campaign team will say something like the statement they released this week: “We are pleased to disclose all of the test results which show that Mr Trump is in excellent health, and has the stamina to endure – uninterrupted – the rigors of a punishing and unprecedented presidential campaign …”
I’d rather have a rested Hillary Clinton than a hyped-up show pony any day.
Footnote: If you ever needed evidence of Donald Trump’s line of bull you need go no further than the news overnight that he has finally admitted Barack Obama was born in the United States. But after five years of leading the birther controversy, Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton started the rumours in 2008. How low can you go? It’s not the first time he’s accused Secretary Clinton of creating the controversy, but fact-checkers in the US have repeatedly disproved his assertions.

Why Trump will win: Remember Richard Nixon?

Okay, you’ve seen the headline above, and you’re reading this post to see if I’ve gone crazy. Well, no, I’m just accepting the inevitable.
Donald Trump is likely to win the presidency on November 8 because not enough Americans will realise how awful he will be and vote for him. They voted for Richard Nixon who claimed he was not a crook. But he was a crook and a liar and he ruined a generation of Americans. He had to resign on August 9, 1974 because of the Watergate scandal, and it was one of the happiest days of my life.
What does this have to do with Donald Trump? (A photo of him with fans above. Washington Post) Well, if you will allow me a certain amount of self-indulgence, I must return to 1971 when I was getting ready to go to Australia with my best mate, James McCausland, on an Israeli freighter. James was a financial journalist and we had met at United Press International in 1966 when I was a news editor, sending out three bulletins a day to ships at sea. He wrote the daily stock market report.
I had been teaching in Harlem for three years until I turned 26 and was no longer eligible for the draft. Teaching in a disadvantaged area made you exempt. A few of my mates who fought in Vietnam came to watch me teach, and said: “At least they gave us a gun.” (It wasn’t that bad!) When Richard Nixon bombed Cambodia in May of 1970, students around the US protested against what they saw was an incursion into another country; they had already been demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. The protests erupted into violence: Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University. Such was the fear in New York of further violence that schools were closed down for a few days. Nixon thought it was the most successful military operation of the war. Many Americans of my generation believed it was a disaster and strengthened the Khmer Rouge cause which would eventually kill as many as three million Cambodians.
Given all this, Nixon was still able to convince Americans he would be a good president. As civil rights leaders marched around the country, fighting to desegregate schools, whites were battling to keep African Americans out of their suburbs. In 1971, Nixon pretended he was a statesman, not a politician trying to get re-elected. In his State of the Union address, he tried to sound like John F. Kennedy: “We have gone through a long, dark night of the American spirit. But now that night is ending. Now we must let our spirits soar again. Now we are ready for the lift of a driving dream.” I was telling any of my friends who would listen that Richard Nixon was a crook and a liar and they should not vote for him again.
Alas, many did, and Nixon won the election in a landslide against Senator George McGovern, whose campaign went pear-shaped after his running mate Tom Eagleton had to withdraw due to electric shock therapy for mental illness. Nixon had a 60 per cent approval rating. After my uncle died and left me enough money to get a flight back to the US and pay off my student loan in December 1972, I asked friends and neighbours what they thought about Tricky Dick. When they said I was right about Nixon, I asked why they voted for him. “We didn’t,” most of them said, to which I replied: “Well, how did he win by a landslide?” This was six months after the Watergate burglary and the Washington Post reported a scoop on October 10, 1972 from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: “FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-Election of the President.” Despite all this, not just the burglary, but his love for the Silent Majority that alienated the liberals and his hatred for the Yippies and hippies, Richard Nixon was re-elected president. (Photo below of Nixon at Republican National Convention in Miami in 1968. AP file) Twenty months later he would resign, the only American president to do so.
Rick Perlstein, in his brilliant profile of the disgraced president, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner), points out that some people still believed McGovern would win, but not by a landslide. One of those was the legendary political columnist of the New York Times, Scotty Reston, who wrote on the Sunday before the election that he couldn’t believe the Gallup poll which showed 59-36 for the president. To believe the poll, said Reston, “you must also believe that the American people regret corruption but have accepted it as an unavoidable part of American life and really don’t care about all those millions of dollars given to the Republican party by a few rich men and women, all the secret funds, and the bugging and burglary of the Democratic party and the fake letters and political sabotage and the guerilla warfare used in this campaign …”
Scotty Reston was wrong, and I’m afraid that the nay-sayers in the media are making the same mistake with Donald Trump. The division that Nixon helped create is still with the American people, as Trump’s call to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, and make it more difficult for Muslims to get in, is reaching the majority who are no longer silent as they drink their Budweiser and watch Fox News. Hillary Clinton, if she wins the nomination, which is likely if she does as well on Super Tuesday as she did last weekend in South Carolina, will be the voice of reason and tolerance. It seems to me many Americans don’t want to listen to that. They’re angry, jobless and jaded and want to kick bums in Syria, particularly ISIS bums. Donald Trump is preaching to the converted. My preferred candidate, Bernie Sanders, said Trump was dividing America, and appealed to voters to unite against the likely Republican nominee (after Sanders’ big loss in South Carolina): “Let me be clear on one thing tonight. This campaign is just beginning. When we come together, and don’t let people like Donald Trump try to divide us, we can create an economy that works for all of us and not just the top 1 percent.”
Columnist David Brooks writing in the New York Times doesn’t mention Richard Nixon, but he believes Trump is “the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means. Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of ‘I’d like to punch him in the face.’ I printed out a Times list of the insults Trump has hurled on Twitter. The list took up 33 pages. Trump’s style is bashing and pummeling. Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or a loser.” Nixon called people who opposed him idiots, morons or losers, and worse. Just listen to those tapes he recorded in the White House, if you can stand it.
Donald Trump excelled himself today in his ability to say outrageous things and get away with it – so far. When Jake Tapper of CNN asked Trump about white supremacist organisations like the Ku Klux Klan supporting him, specifically former KKK leader David Duke, he refused to disavow them:
Trump: “Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I would have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them. And, certainly, I would disavow them if I thought there was something wrong.”
Tapper: “The Ku Klux Klan?”
Trump: “But you may have groups in there that are totally fine, and it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups, and I will let you know.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote about the KKK comment and a Trump retweet of a Mussolini quote: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Trump said on NBC’s Meet the Press: “What does it matter if it’s a quote by Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.” Cillizza claims neither of these comments will adversely affect Trump on Super Tuesday: “For his supporters — and, at this point, that’s a lot of people — his willingness to completely spurn the political-correctness police is the very thing that draws them to him. And, his unwillingness to apologize when scolded by the news media or other Republican politicians for some of his inflammatory remarks make his backers love him all the more: He’s edgy! He’s anti-establishment! He tells it like it is!”
I think Donald Trump is likely to win because Americans are divided, angry, tired of politicians and political correctness, hypocrisy, broken promises, Wall Street and banks. I could go on, but then I would sound like Donald Trump. I’m planning on going back later this year to the US for a university reunion, and I will be asking people if they’ll be voting for Trump. I think the majority will say yes. I hope I’m wrong.
It will be an interesting campaign if the two most likely candidates secure their parties’ nominations: Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton: The billionaire takes on Madame Secretary. Both have baggage, but the difference is that Trump doesn’t appear to care if he wins or loses.(I think Bernie Sanders would have a better chance of beating Trump, but Super Tuesday might kill his chances.)
But if Trump does become president of the United States, it’s unlikely to be the end of the world. After all, Richard Nixon was president for five years and eight months and America survived.
And this was what Hunter S. Thompson, the master of gonzo journalism and the man who could have written the best Trump biography if he were still alive, had to say about the ignominious president in his 1994 Rolling Stone obituary (reprinted in Atlantic magazine):
“Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that ‘I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon’.”

The Writers’ Revolution: Reclaim the book for authors and readers

Most Australian writers don’t make a lot of money. Of course, there are Peter Carey and Tom Keneally, and in the recent past, Colleen McCullough and Bryce Courtenay, and going further back, Patrick White and Morris West, to name a few.
They were well looked after by publishers and their marketing and publicity staff and literary agents and bookshops and the media. But the digital age intervened and brought disruptions to book sales as customers bought Kindles and e-books. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia et al targeted bibliophiles online. There were those who suggested books and bookshops would be joining newspapers in the morgue.
It was all about money and convenience and how people purchased Kindles or Kobos to read their e-books on trains, planes, buses or cruise ships. But publishers were still paying authors only 25% for digital rights, and writers were getting angry.
And thus was born the writers’ revolution. Five years ago a group of distinguished Australian authors, including Sue Woolfe and Bem Le Hunte, got together on a Sydney balcony and formed an e-publishing co-operative. Sue was the initiator, having had a few bad incidents with publishers, one who put an inappropriate cover on one of her novels, and another who dismissed her manuscript in a few minutes because she used the first-person narrative. The author of four novels including the multi-award-winning Leaning Towards Infinity, Sue decided to email a fellow novelist. He said e-publishing was a good idea, and it led her to emailing Australian publishers, telling them about her new manuscript and asking if they’d consider going into partnership with her. In her blog on her website, Sue chronicles how the passion of her fellow writers eventually developed into the authors’ portal,, but not before her group, at first called The Royalties, were challenged by their lack of digital knowledge. Her plan was “to build a portal to enable Australian authors like us, luddites like me who almost have no bravery at all when it comes to the internet, to e publish. A site that any author can use. A site that attracts readers, and connects them with authors.”
Sue Woolfe and Bem Le Hunte and a number of authors finally got their site, and it was launched last week by another writer, a former NSW Premier and Australian Foreign Minister, and presently Director of Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology at Sydney (UTS), Bob Carr (Bob Carr with Bem left and Sue right. A better photo of Bem — with glass of wine — and Sue below!). Among those at the launch at Bem’s home in Paddington were other writers and journalists, including children’s author Libby Hathorn (one of the original group), historian Anne Whitehead, Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham and the SMH PS (gossip) columnist Michael Koziol. And the man who’s been promoting books for publishers and authors for decades (and Wuthering Ink), publicity guru, Alan Davidson, seen below with Bob Carr (that’s a glass of water!).
Bem Le Hunte started the proceedings with a welcome, saying Wuthering Ink is like a start up, a social venture, run as a literary salon at home. Her fellow co-founder Sue Woolfe recalled some of her blog chronicles, including a Bob Carr story: “I know he reads – one year I was head of the fiction judging panel for the Christina Stead Award, the Premier’s Award, and was told … to write comments for his speech on the short-listed books, which I duly did, and which he duly dismissed because he’d read all the books. His comments, which I listened to with great interest, were excellent, sophisticated, perceptive.” She added that many women’s books were on the short list, and Bob had read them all.
Over the years, she realised that writers lose 90 per cent of their income to publishers and bookshop, and “If Bill Gates was losing 90% of his income, he wouldn’t have much either.” Wuthering Ink was there for authors, said Sue, with an automatic author form which makes it easy for writers to digitise their books, their new and old work, which had often disappeared from bookshops. It also offers authors the opportunity to publish internationally by removing publishing territories, as well as increasing royalties by up to 80% for digital rights. It’s all on the website.
Bob Carr began by saying the NSW Labor Government had always been an advocate of meaningful funds for writers. He said the Premier’s Literary Fellowship from the NSW Ministry for the Arts had awarded Bem Le Hunte $10,000 for her second novel, There, Where the Pepper Grows, the story of Benjamin who fled his native Poland during the Nazi occupation, aiming to fulfil his father’s dream of settling in Palestine. But he and his fellow survivors are stranded in Calcutta (where Bem was born). It’s still a topical novel about the search for refuge.
After a brief sojourn to the immigration debate by calling for a reduction in the immigration rate because of “breakneck” population growth (and the preservation of Paddington’s heritage), Bob Carr returned to his love for books and the need for authors like Primo Levi to be able to tell their story. He talks about Levi’s book, If This is a Man, about how he survived Auschwitz. It took him a long time to get the book published, but he finally got his story into print. It was important because he wanted the German people to understand what was done in their name. Bob Carr says it would have been terrible if his story was lost.
Carr mentions Anthony Burgess, whose works weren’t best sellers at first. Gore Vidal was another author whose stories were overlooked in the beginning. Other authors who deserve more readership include Murray Bail, whose award-winning novel Eucalyptus, has “genuine Australian stories.” Carr says he’s just got around to reading the 1999 book. And, of course, Colleen McCullough, who wrote Thorn Birds. Her publishers kept asking for a sequel. But she didn’t want one, and wrote a series of books about the Roman Republic. Bob Carr believes authors should be allowed to control their own work.
Last week I wrote that I wasn’t sure how publishers would react to this authors’ portal. I have heard from a publishing source, who told me: “Well, as always it comes to ‘you get what you pay for.’ If you want the full publishing service — editorial/design/production/marketing/promotion terrestrial and digital — you’ll sell a lot more books and share the income with the publisher.” In my experience, there are many good, caring publishers in Australia (even the ones who rejected my novel!).
Independent bookshops didn’t disappear when Amazon and Borders moved into their market. In fact, the ones that cared about their customers flourished. Mark Rubbo, owner of Readings Books and Music in Melbourne, wiped out his rival Borders bookstore, simply by looking after his patrons and staying on top of his game. Here’s a great piece on how he did it. Wuthering Ink also aims to look after its readers as well as its authors, so that people anywhere in the world can get access to the writers’ works. Wuthering Ink is both a bookstore and a site for authors to digitise their works automatically and display them for sale. What do established authors think of the new site? Booker Prize Winner Tom Keneally said it was a “grand concept … a splendid idea.” Distinguished novelist James Bradley said: “I’m really interested to see where it’s ended up — it’s a great initiative.” And the celebrated playwright Stephen Sewell said: “Like the film actors, directors and writers who established the once great United Artists studio trying to wrest creative control back from the executives and moneymen, we wish to reclaim the book for the people whose hearts and souls go into them, and for the readers who cherish them.”
Don’t take my word for it; have a look at the website and Wuthering Ink on Facebook with videos of some of its founding family of writers. The authors are passionate and believe they are on the verge of a revolution. Just listen to Sue Woolfe: “We at Wuthering Ink have bent our brains to make our site luddite-friendly and automated to enable us all to publish our work in perpetuity.”
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Listen to the Wordsmiths: When words are hogwash

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.”
That was Lewis Carroll writing in the 19th Century when words meant something. Now words mean less rather than more, especially when spoken by politicians. It is a major theme of a book written by a wordsmith, Don Watson (photo above), award-winning author and former speechwriter to Prime Minister Paul Keating. In his introduction to Worst Words: A compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon (Random House, 439 pages), Watson chronicles how one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, Graham Greene, liked Fidel Castro, even his four-hour orations. Greene wrote that Castro’s speeches were “not made up of evasions and oratorical tricks and big abstract words … they are full of information, down to earth, filled with details … he is the revolutionary brain in action …”
Watson uses a random sample of managerial language as an example of words that mean nothing: “In particular, the degree of formality evidenced across universities, regarding the documentation of risk strategy and risk appetite, processes to identify and manage risk, and reporting on new and emerging risks suggests that rigour in risk management is a key enabler in improving organisational performance.” Whew!
That prompts Watson to sum up what’s wrong with public language in this succinct paragraph, ending with one of my favourite words: “All public language inclines to pomposity and deceit, but modern public language inclines these ways acutely and nails it to the inclination. Unlike Greene’s Castro, it is also evasive and dishonest in its essence; abstract, devoid of useful information and concrete example, remote from human reality, filled not with detail but with hogwash.” If I were in the audience listening to Don Watson recite that passage, I would give him a standing ovation.
Recently, I gave a small speech to a public meeting at a local golf club on a proposed merger of two councils in North Sydney: Ku-ring-gai (where I live), and Hornsby. I’ve written a post about the meeting, but I had to read the proposal put forward by the NSW Local Government Minister to see why he backed the amalgamation of two councils that were quite capable of standing alone. It was written in managerial language that meant nothing. Here is an example: “The government detailed the benefits of the merger in the proposal, including ‘improved strategic planning and economic development to better respond to the changing community’.” I added this: “That line could have come directly from the ABC TV (satirical) series, Utopia. What does it mean? Absolutely nothing.” The audience laughed as did Garry West, the delegate of the Office of Local Government CEO, who will consider the submissions and pass on his assessment. It made my day.
Don Watson explains in the introduction what’s harmful about the language of management: “. . . as far as I know, no one has studied the effects on human beings of long-term daily exposure to jargon and clichés: but we may assume that a world whose language defies visualisation, and is stripped of all lyric, comic and descriptive possibility, is far from and ideal human environment and some kind of trauma may result.”
Once you’ve read his excellent introduction, you can look up all the jargons and clichés and words that you hate quite easily, as the book is alphabetical, from Tony Abbott’s “absolute crap” to the Australasian Bottled Water Institute’s “zero kilojoule hydration option.” The former was Abbott’s assessment of climate change; the latter is more commonly known as water. Watson gives examples: “The argument (for climate change) is absolute crap.” And “People willing to pay for the convenience of a zero-kilojoule hydration option when they’re out and about.”
For my favourite “worst” phrase, “going forward(s),” Watson gives five references, as in “Excuse me, can you tell me the time going forwards?” Politicians are the worst offenders. Richard Marles, the Shadow Minister for Immigration, who is also a co-host for a Sky News current affairs show on Saturday morning with Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has four mentions in this category: two for the Julia Gillard ALP campaign slogan in the 2010 election. Here’s one Marlesism from the ABC: “What is very clear in terms of the best interests of the Labor Party now, what is very clear going forward is that everybody unites behind Julia Gillard.” And another one from the Sydney Morning Herald: “In terms of going forward we are utterly committed to the fact that we need to make sure.”
Watson also inserts some of his worst words to famous speeches to show how ridiculous they sound. For example, “access,” which has become a buzzword, as in Access Economics, and shows up in this Human Rights Commission report: “Language is a key issue of access for people from any non-English-speaking culture …” And from the sublime speech to the ridiculous word, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with a not-so-accessible ending: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (and should have equal access).” Poor Abe is probably spinning in his grave over that one.
I could go on, but I suggest you pick up a copy of Worst Words, and see if some of your most hated phrases have also earned a guernsey on Watson’s website: where you can send your examples of atrocious words. It all started with his 2004 book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language and continued in 2005 with Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words. And I almost forgot. Yes, Malcolm Turnbull does get a mention or two. Remember one of his first speeches as Prime Minister in September 2015? If so, you must be agile and innovative: “The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.”
If you like Worst Words, you’ll also enjoy a more formal book about language: Modern Australian Usage: A Practical Guide for Writers & Editors, 3rd Edition (Allen & Unwin, also 439 pages!). The author is another wordsmith, Nicholas Hudson, a long-time editor and publisher working with Australian writing and writers. In his preface, he describes what the guide is all about: “The issues it discusses are not invented: they are the issues which most often arise. The questions are the questions most asked. The mistakes are the mistakes most often made.”
It’s a well-written, readable book, and Hudson says its major inspiration was Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “as will be obvious (but I hope not objectionably so) to lovers of Fowler.” I can’t say I’m in love with H.W. Fowler, but I have a 1984 edition of the book in its original form which he began planning with his brother Francis in 1911 that I have consulted on quite a few occasions in the past three decades. It’s a classic and every library should have a copy. Fowler was a scholar, but he wasn’t dry or pedantic, as you can tell by his lovely dedication of the book to his brother, who died before it was published. Francis George Fowler died in 1918, at the age of 47, of tuberculosis contracted during his service with the British Expeditionary Force in 1915-16. H.W. Fowler writes: “To the memory of my brother … who shared with me the planning of this book, but did not live to share the writing. I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullness enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied. He had a nimbler wit, a better sense of proportion, and a more open mind, than his twelve-year-older partner.” Hudson writes like that, too as he profiles himself in the preface: “ … it is a book written by an amateur, in both senses of that abused word. Firstly, it is by an unashamed lover of words in general, and of the Australian idiom in particular. Secondly, it is by one who is not a professional scholar.” Honest and humble, Hudson may not be a professional scholar, but he’s a professional writer.
He also writes about grammar, five succinct pages which tell you everything you needed to know about grammar but were afraid to ask: “If people say that they know no grammar, they are talking rubbish. If they knew no grammar, they would not be able to understand us and would not be able to construct sentences which we could understand. What they generally mean is that they do not know the jargon of grammar, so they cannot describe the rules. In this respect, grammar is like sex. Most people can do it, but if they want to discuss it they had better learn the names of the parts.” Sex: What a wonderful way to introduce grammar!
Hudson has an entry on weasel words, where he praises Don Watson’s “monumental book” for “creating a list which has been added to every day since (2004).” He says Watson’s examples “are so good that I need quote only one: John Kerry, America’s ever-more-pontifical secretary of state, recently began an answer about Middle East peace negotiations by declaring, as he often does: ‘I want to make this crystal clear.’ He then went on: ‘The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate’.”
Nicholas Hudson’s comment on Kerry’s declaration is so good, he deserves the last word:
“I fear that some Australian politicians have used even more words to say even less.”