NewSouth

Kathy Mexted was a teenager when the possibility of becoming a pilot entered her head. The year was 1978, and she was airborne in a plane commanded by her father. The latter turned to his daughter and remarked: ‘If you’d like to learn to fly, I’ll pay for it.’ Nonetheless, it would take twelve years for the author to seriously pursue her piloting ambitions. This delay was due to several factors, not least of which was that flying has long been a ‘male dominated industry’.

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What is to be done? The question is asked whenever humankind confronts a new crisis. And the answers, whether from biblical sources, Tolstoy, or Lenin (or indeed Barry Jones in his imminent book, What Is To Be Done?), must confront universal moral quandaries at the same time as they address local needs, hopes, and aspirations.

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Thucydides once said, ‘In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.’ Chris Wallace is not inclined to agree with the Greek historian, particularly when dissecting the Labor Party’s shock federal election loss in 2019. In her latest book, How to Win an Election, Wallace nominates the ten things that Labor must get right to succeed at the next federal election, and self-pity is nowhere among them. This approach appears simplistic, even tongue-in-cheek at times, but she has captured the key elements of electoral success and makes a strong case that Australia cannot afford another ALP loss.

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In her paean to walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that any history of walking is by nature provisional. As a subject it trespasses almost infinite fields: ‘anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies’. Despite such ungainly dimensions, her book Wanderlust (2000) maps rich connections between walking, thinking, and creativity. These stretch from the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece to the Romantic poets; from Walter Benjamin on Parisian streets to political protesters crossing no-go zones.

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Last spring, as the harbingers of a dangerous season converged into a chorus of forewarning, I decided it might be a good idea to keep a diary of the period now known as ‘Black Summer’. The diary starts in September with landscapes burning in southern Queensland and Brazil. Three hundred thousand people rally across Australia, calling for action on climate change. I attend a forum of emergency managers where, during a discussion about warning systems, a senior fire manager declares: ‘We need to tell the public we cannot help them in the ways they expect, but we’re never going to tell them.’ Next week, Greg Mullins, the former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, comments on ABC radio, ‘We’re going to have fires that I can’t comprehend.’ Federal politicians assure the nation that we are resilient.

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Spare a thought for the other existential crises. Remember climate change? Wealth inequality? The rising tide of fascism? Then there’s our newest apocalypse: bad technology. When we look back, the three years from late 2016 to early 2020 will go down as the time the scales fell from our eyes. Maybe the devices we have insinuated into nearly every moment of our lives had their own aims for us all along – our time, our attention, our outrage. In 2018, the runner-up for the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘techlash’: ‘A strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley.’

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As with many authors, Covid-19 forced Catherine Bond to cancel the launch event for her new book. But unlike most authors’ work, the contemporary relevance of Bond’s latest book has been considerably heightened by the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, in the midst of this crisis it is hard to imagine a historical text timelier than Law in War: Freedom and restriction in Australia during the Great War. A century later, lessons from that era are still instructive today.

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In Australia, debate about population runs in well-worn grooves. The focus is on size – ‘big Australia’ versus ‘not-so-big Australia’ – and the tool used to regulate numbers is immigration. When politicians link population growth to excessive house prices, traffic congestion, unemployment, or crime, they call for immigration cuts, not for birth control.

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The Aboriginal tracker is a stock character in certain Australian films, employed as set dressing, catalyst, curio. Although fictional trackers have been celebrated on celluloid, few real trackers have been given life within the national memory. Some people may recall Billy Dargin and his role in locating and shooting Ben Hall. Others might think of Dubbo’s Tracker Riley, or Dick-a-Dick, who found the missing Cooper and Duff children near Natimuk in 1864 when they had been given up for dead.

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I read this book about a young woman falling into the dislocating world of a puzzling mental illness at a time when the global pandemic was disrupting many people’s equilibrium. I started to wonder: might living through this time of enhanced anxiety encourage empathy towards people who experience extreme anxiety in non-pandemic times? If those living in the ‘kingdom of the well’ (as Susan Sontag puts it) now start to recognise the contingent, temporary, and often accidental nature of well-being, could that trigger a deeper understanding of those who always live with chronic illness or disability?

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