Archive

Lifeboat Cities by Brendan Gleeson & Transport for Suburbia: by Paul Mees

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September 2010, no. 324

These two books share common assumptions about the nature of our cities and our collective future as homo urbanis. If we are to survive the impending disaster of climate change and build an environmentally durable and socially just future, then we must do so within our existing, sprawling suburban landscapes. Gleeson and Mees know and respect one another’s work – each quotes the other approvingly – but the two authors diverge sharply in tone and intention.

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The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett & The Red Wind by Isobelle Carmody

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September 2010, no. 324

I had fun imagining Sonya Hartnett and Isobelle Carmody indulging in a little pre-publication chit-chat:

IC: What are you working on now, Sonya?
SH: A children’s story about two orphaned brothers battling for survival in a world turned upside down; talking animals; themes of freedom and loss. What about you?
IC: A children’s story about two orphaned brothers struggling for survival in a world suddenly turned alien; talking animals; themes of resilience and loss …

The result is two different novels, but the marketing meetings at Penguin must have been interesting.

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I am in Louisiana with the dogs,
my lost generations of dogs.
How I got there, what budget tour I’m on,
whether my papers are in order,
my visa credible, is a total mystery.

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Equator, a rambunctious, unwieldy novel, begins in a Spanish orphanage with an elderly watchdog, Pinski. According to the narrator, who is addressing a large orange butterfly, Pinski has succumbed to the heat of the day and cannot be bothered protecting his human charges. The human characters – and therefore, by association, those who are reading his story – are called ‘the custodians of the nectar’. This rather beautiful metaphor is used many times in Equator, as are dialogues, which become incantations about good and evil.

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The political assassination of Kevin Rudd will fascinate for a long time to come. As with Duncan’s murder in Shakespeare’s play it was done, as Lady Macbeth cautioned, under ‘the blanket of the dark’, literally the night of 23–24 June 2010. The assassins heeded Macbeth’s advice: ‘if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ And as in Macbeth, the assassins were in the shadow of the throne. Even the old king approved: Bob Hawke, himself deposed in 1991, recognised at last that the removal of a Labor prime minister is sometimes necessary.

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Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars by Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson and Graham White

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September 2010, no. 324

Gambling was and is an economically and culturally important activity in many urban African American communities, and ‘numbers’ was from the mid-1920s a ‘full-blown craze’ in Harlem. It was a complicated method of gambling on a set of three numbers generated by an apparently incorruptible process. The numbers, posted each day by the New York Clearing House, a financial institution just a couple of blocks from Wall Street, related to arcane matters such as daily clearances between banks and the state of the Federal Reserve, but they were eagerly awaited, published in news-papers and deployed for quite different purposes. Numbers ‘bankers’ roamed the streets collecting small ‘investments’ from customers who then collected a return if their three numbers came up. Regular small bets from large numbers of people generated a lot of money, and successful numbers operators became rich. Numbers had a turnover in the tens of millions of dollars a year in Harlem and, remarkably, became the enterprise ‘with the largest number of employees and the highest turnover’ in that legendary part of the city.

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Suburban crime narratives featured in many Australian films in the 1990s, partly due to the influence of director Rowan Woods’s film The Boys, which drew inspiration from the ‘kitchen sink’ cinema of 1960s Britain. Twelve years after its theatrical release, this seminal film – based on the play by Gordon Graham and written for the screen by Stephen Sewell – remains the best example of an Australian genre that illustrates Marcus Clarke’s conception of ‘weird melancholy’ in the criminal element of our cities’ troubled underclass.

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Unsurprisingly, Australia leads the world in the production of close-grained studies of convicts sentenced to transportation. Since 1788, it’s what we do. Emma Christopher proves herself to be a crackerjack at tracking down just about anyone who ever stood before an eighteenth-century court. She reels off their crimes, social origins, associates, aliases, lovers, victims, favourite haunts and previous convictions like a bailiff of long experience. What is more, she appears to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the alleys, lanes and bolt-holes of every city in the British Isles. So stupendous is her talent for conjuring up the atmosphere of the times that most readers will forgive her for too frequently slip ping into the archaic language of the documents she studies.

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How effective is a voice of reason in a climate of fear? In his introduction to this book, Professor Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University says that he is ‘incorrigibly optimistic’ about the role of education in assisting us to make wise decisions about our future. Over the past twenty years, he has written twelve books, including A Big Fix: Radical solutions for Australia’s environmental crisis (2005) and Living in the Hothouse: How global warming affects Australia (2005), forty-five book chapters, more than thirty journal articles and six hundred columns for various publications. That work has been written for the general public, not just the scientific community.

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Southerly, Vol. 70, No. 1 edited by David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon

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September 2010, no. 324

In a 1995 interview for the Paris Review, Ted Hughes was asked if the 1960s boom in translated poetry in the United Kingdom, particularly with series such as the Penguin Modern European Poets, had had an effect on poetry written in English. ‘Has it modified the British tradition!’ he replied. ‘Everything is now completely open, every approach, with infinite possibilities. Obviously the British tradition still exists as a staple of certain historically hard-earned qualities if anybody is still there who knows how to inherit them. Raleigh’s qualities haven’t become irrelevant. When I read Primo Levi’s verse I am reminded of Raleigh. But for young British poets, it’s no longer the only tradition, no longer a tradition closed in on itself and defensive.’

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