Archive

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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The Inconvenient Child by Sharyn Killens and Lindsay Lewis

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September 2010, no. 324

Sharyn Killens is no stranger to the spotlight. After a long career as an entertainer, she is used to appearing in make-up and gown, pouring out a song. She is also a veteran of interviews and media stories, with a different song: that of her own extraordinary life. In The Inconvenient Child, written with her friend Lindsay Lewis, Killens (known on the stage as Sharyn Crystal) relates a wrenching and finally satisfying story of abject misery and triumphant emotion. In the paradigm of classic Australian memoir, her tale needs no bells and whistles to ring true. It is a transfixing performance.

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Edward Sugden was the first master of Melbourne University’s Queen’s College, a position he held for forty years. One needs to provide this identification, because although in his day Sugden was regarded as one of Melbourne’s best-known citizens, his is one of those names that has dropped from view. Along with his contemporaries Alexander Leeper of Trinity College and John MacFarland of Ormond, he contributed to what Wilfrid Prest calls ‘the golden age’ of Melbourne University’s colleges.

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The Body in the Clouds, Ashley Hay’s scintillating and accomplished first novel, is in fact her fifth book, its predecessors all being non-fiction. There was the Lord Byron book, The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron (2000), Gum: The story of eucalypts and their champions (2002), Herbarium (2004) and Museum: The Macleays, their collections and the search for order (2007).

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Dance is an ephemeral art. This is just one reason, among many, why Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon’s beautifully designed and presented Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 is an important contribution to the light industry of dance historiography. Its eye-catching cover, with a Walter Stringer photograph of dancer William Harvey in a soaring leap above an Australian landscape, will attract bookshop browsers. A perusal of its contents will encourage purchase, as a special gift or for one’s personal library.

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Smithy is a retired shearer turned vineyard worker. His days are spent among the vines, where minutiae become conversational talking points and the lives of others are dissected with dogged patience. Smithy, a recovering alcoholic, still haunts the bars he used to call home, but no longer drinks in them. As a consequence, memories are resurfacing: a past up north, his wife Florrie, and days when his son still regarded him as his father. Charlotte also lives in the town. She shares a common bond with Smithy, following the events of a particular night. Fearing the emotion of that night and without alcohol to numb his fears, Smithy decides to seek redemption in the only way he knows.

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