The New York Review of Books and other upstart review rags

Listening to a podcast yesterday, I heard a tribute to the longtime New York Review of Books (NYRB) editor Robert Silvers, who died on Monday at the age of 87. He had been editor since the first issue in 1963, with one of the founders Barbara Epstein as co-editor until her death in 2006.

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The NYRB is a major English language cultural institution, but in a way I would like to see it die with Silvers. I fear a giant media company such as Conde Nast will buy the title to exploit its legendary status. Its editorial decisions would then be determined by commercial considerations rather than the passions of an obsessed longtime editor.

Silvers' passions have defined the NYRB, and often a publication's story can be just as interesting as its content. For me the NYRB's wider story includes the London Review of Books (LRB) and Sydney's own Newtown Review of Books (NRB). Australian Book Review would qualify if it was called the Melbourne Review of Books, but it's not and therefore it doesn't.

Aside from the 'Review of Books' in their titles, what they have in common is that, in their own way, each of them is an upstart.

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The NYRB was founded when a printers' strike shut down seven New York City newspapers, to take advantage of a gap in the market for book reviews. Similarly the LRB was started when publication of the Times Literary Supplement was suspended during the year-long management lock-out at The Times in 1979. Curiously the LRB was included as an insert in the NYRB for its first six months, in an umbilical cord kind of arrangement.

The NRB's 2012 'upstart' founding was a little different, more in the nature of fandom. Or perhaps 'taking the piss'. I'm never sure. It was the hobby of a couple of Newtown locals from the world of publishing and editing, one of whom is married to the 'Godfather of Australian crime fiction' Peter Corris, who write's the NRB's 'Godfather' column.

The editing of the NRB is very professional, and like its more wordy and worthy namesakes, it does takes itself seriously, though in a different way.

It has a tight discipline and invariably does what it says it does. That is 'to provide intelligent reviews of books people will want to read'. It covers a range of subject areas that is eclectic but excludes poetry and children's books.

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The stylistic counterpoint to the reviews is the 'Godfather' column, and it does an excellent job in filling out the NRB's 'eclectic' brief. It's always a good read. This week's is on hair. Corris, with his hairline intact, pontificates on the comb-over and other options available to balding men.

As a hobbyist online publication that cuts a professional cloth, NRB is part of a local tradition that includes the film review site Urban Cinefile. The editors Louise Keller and Andrew Urban decided to call it a day last month after 20 years and 1040 weekly editions.

I always found their reviews every bit as compelling as those of David and Margaret. But sadly the media acolades that marked the ending of their review partnership did not, as far as I can tell, extend beyond the Manly Daily.

Andy Warhol and his mother

When I visited the Art Gallery of NSW last week, I spent time at the 'Adman: Warhol before pop' exhibition.

I probably wouldn't have made a special effort to see an Andy Warhol exhibition because I have always dismissed him as superficial. Indeed this collection was focused on his career in the advertising industry.

A quote that I read the other day would seem to reinforce my attitude: 'I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're so beautiful. Everything's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.'

Andy Warhol and his mother

Yet this exhibition revealed to me that I can be very superficial in my evaluation of other people's apparent superficiality. Warhol was in fact much more grounded as a person than I'd realised.

There are the obvious contradictions. He was at home in the drug addled world of New York in the 1970s and 1980s but at the same time a 'devout Catholic' of the Eastern Rite who is said to have attended Mass almost daily and volunteered at a shelter for the homeless.

But what I found more interesting was the aspect of his personal - and professional - relationship with his mother Julia, who is described as 'the passion of his life'.

One of the panels in the exhibition tells the story: 'Warhol needed some text for an assignment in a hurry and asked his mother to pen it for him in her own baroque and rather quirky handwriting. The client loved the spontaneous yet decorative result, and an important feature of Warhol’s commercial art was born: Julia’s calligraphy.'

Warhol and his mother went on to collaborate on many commercial projects, and in 1958 the Art Directors Club of New York awarded a certificate of merit to ‘Andy Warhol’s mother’, as she was always known.

The Story of Moondog - Julia Warholas calligraphy

The two would together observe their Eastern European traditions. Julia made traditional folk art and also decorated Easter eggs and embroideries for the church, while Andy would often incorporate the religious motifs and the gold of church decoration into his art.

She looked after him domestically while they lived together until just before her death in 1972.

Then we have the Warhol of the 1970s and 1980s that we're much more familiar with. But now I can look at that Warhol through the lens of his relationship with his mother and appreciate his depth as a person and cultural icon.

TV may be shallow but it keeps us together

My favourite technology writer is Farhood Manjoo, who has written the State of the Art column for the New York Times for the past three years.

In the confusing and always changing world of emerging technology, he has the ability to see and articulate what is really happening. His predecessor David Pogue wrote about how the latest gadgets make our lives easier. But Farhood Manjoo is interested in their impact on people and society.

On Air Sign

Earlier this year he wrote about the death of broadcast TV and the rise of Netflix. 'There was a lot to criticise about broadcast TV, but it brought the nation together. Streaming services are doing the opposite'.

He talks about the 'polarisation of culture' and the creation of 'echo chambers' which isolate us from our fellow citizens. 'We're splitting into our own self-constructed bubbles of reality'.

It's true. We all have digital content menus that are unique to us. They might be Netflix playlists or whatever we follow in Facebook or Twitter. They reflect of our own interests and personalities.

That might sound like a positive development. We're no longer media zombies. We're self-actualising, to use a jargon term. But, as a result, mass media is finished and it's not at all good for our society.

Reality programming and certain sporting events represent the last gasp of television and media as a glue that holds society together. Like the Melbourne Cup, they have us all acting in unison. As long as My Kitchen Rules and similar mass interest events manage to survive, there will be something to talk about at the water cooler.

But the network bosses are struggling to keep their audiences, and also the rights to the big sporting events, with telcos such as Optus starting to outbid them. With justification, they are going to Canberra to lobby the Communications Minister to cut or eliminate the licence fees they must pay to use the public airwaves.
 

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It's easy to see society fundamentally divided in the results of last year's elections in both Australia and the US. In neither country was the system able to produce a leader who could act on behalf of the nation. That's because there was no longer a nation, at least not in the sense that we had come to know it.

History will look at the 60 years from the middle of the 20th century as the high water mark of social cohesion in the US, and also Australia. It was also the period in which the institution of broadcast television rose and fell.

'We're back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn't much of a shared culture,' says Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. 'For most of the history of civilisation, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.'

Graceless politics affects us all

One of the many dispiriting but remarkable moments of the Trump presidency occurred when he met German chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday.

After photographers asked the two to shake hands, Merkel leaned in and quietly asked: 'Do you want to have a handshake?' But Trump continued to hold his hands together between his knees.

Trump and Merkel not shaking hands

In his short time in office, Trump has set a new tone that has replaced civility and grace in politics with a calculated bluntness that diminishes the propensity for bridge building between political adversaries. This has taken root elsewhere.

When we watched it together, a friend remarked on incoming WA Premier Mark McGowan's acceptance speech on election night just over a week ago. Instead of congratulating his defeated rival Colin Barnett for a 'hard fought campaign', he paid tribute to the people for rejecting the 'stupidity and ignorance' that, in his view, Barnett represented.

Barnett's campaign was not hard fought, but that's not the point. You find something positive to say about your rival because civility in politics contributes to making the world a better place to live for all concerned.

I think this new standard of division has also affected my own attitude.

Recently I told this friend - slightly tongue in cheek - that I liked to be 'politically correct'. It was a stupid thing to say, but I said it instinctively, to distinguish myself from the likes of Trump and The Australian newspaper, who often use that term to put down their rivals.

In characterising myself as 'politically correct', I wasn't thinking of my support for positive values such as social inclusion, which are ridiculed every time this pejorative term is used. I was playing the nasty game of political division that is more interested in point scoring and crushing rivals than in action to improve people's lives.

My friend said that he wished there could be more 'civil conversation'. He was speaking in the context of our discussion of the Bill Leak cartoon satirising negligent indigenous fathers. I continued to be outraged by the cartoon, while he hoped that its publication and notoriety might lead to productive discussion.

I can see that he might be the one to shake hands with Bill Leak while I would look the other way.

Ian Thorpe chases bullies but ignores bullying

A day after seeing the film Moonlight, I went to iview to watch the first episode of Bullied with Ian Thorpe, which first aired on Tuesday evening.

I knew the ABC program's treatment of school bullying would be worlds apart from that of Moonlight's meditative approach, and I wasn't wrong.

Bullied with Ian Thorpe - website banner

Moments after I pressed play, I wanted to press stop. The drums in the soundtrack set up the tension that marked the program. It was about the thrill of the chase. Nailing the bullies.

Using hidden cameras to hunt down and intimidate the bullies, rather than fostering understanding by opening everybody's eyes to the bigger picture, as Moonlight did.

There were a lot of positive values articulated by the sincere Thorpe and authoritative expert Professor Marilyn Campbell. But the main game was action of giving the bullies a bit of their own medicine, as if two wrongs do make a right. You violate my right to respect and I'll violate your right to privacy.

There was no suggestion of the ambiguous nature of school bullying, where bullies and bullied alike are victims of a system that is made up of chains of manipulation and coercion.

Bullied with Ian Thorpe - Kelsey

In Moonlight we saw the main character Chiron bullied by his best friend Kevin because Kevin was forced into it by those further up the chain. In turn, those higher up would have been bullied by others - drug dealers perhaps. I don't think you'd ever find a bully who wasn't being himself or herself being bullied or intimidated by some more powerful person or life circumstance.

About a decade ago, I ran into one of my school bullies and he apologised to me. I mentioned this to a friend who was in the same class. He said: 'What? You bullied him as much as he bullied you'.

My friend was right. I was mostly the victim of bullying, but would not hesitate to take it upon myself to bully others if they were weaker than me and the opportunity presented itself.

Do I feel the need to apologise or to admit my guilt? No. Do I think the dynamics of the system that fostered my bullying need to be studied and acted upon? Most certainly.

My point is that targeting bullies - by hidden cameras or other means - only makes bullies out of those attempting to halt the bullying.

Thorpe was the gentle giant superhero on a mission to stamp on the bullies with his secret weapon the hidden camera. I would suggest that some set of circumstances would have manipulated him into taking part in this show business game that really wasn't him.

In doing so, he was himself a bully, a bit like Kevin in Moonlight. He was working as a proxy for the dark sources of real power, whatever they were. The program's mistake was that it had Thorpe nailing the bullies, rather than the culture that produced them.

Moonlight's open-ended moments of melancholy

Yesterday I got to see the movie Moonlight, and found that it gripped me from the beginning and was as easy to like as I was expecting.

Chiron in Moonlight

It's the Oscar winning American film about growing up black and gay with an unstable crack addict mother. It keeps these issues under the radar. But while its 'treatment' of them may be implicit, it is more powerful as a result.

More front and centre is the mood of melancholy, which is beautifully presented and defines just about everything in the film, which is poetic rather than naturalistic.

One New York Times reader commented that the film failed to engage her because its narrative was 'obtuse'. That's the point. It's a meditation not a documentary, even though it is partly based on the life of the co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney.

In the final act, the main character Chiron - now a drug dealer in Atlanta - comes to meet his boyhood friend Kevin - who now runs a restaurant in Miami, where they grew up.

Kevin and Chiron in third act of Moonlight

Kevin, who has an infectious smile and a bubbly personality, is a picture of coolness. He's also an open book. Happy being a father and busy in his job. His circumstances are humble but life appears to have worked out well.

Chiron, on the other hand, is a man of few words who is scarred by the emotional abuse he suffered as a child. He's slightly overweight and has a fragile sense of self-worth. But he's established a certain equilibrium in his life. He can hold his head up when he chooses to.

Kevin ribs Chiron for being unforthcoming about his life in Atlanta. The most revealing detail we learn is that Chiron has not been sexually intimate with anybody since the moment he shared with Kevin on the beach when they were boys.

Has he tried and failed, or was it just that he could not be bothered embracing his sexuality? The fact that we're left guessing is one of the strengths of the film.

That's because it doesn't matter. What matters is his attitude to life and to himself, which I think is at once tenuous and steadfast. He's always had an uphill battle and still suffers far too many moments of sadness. But he's survived.

How John Olsen looks at landscape

Yesterday I went to the Art Gallery of NSW to see the John Olsen: The You Beaut Country exhibition. It has just opened there after moving from the National Gallery of Victoria, where it received mixed reviews.

John Olsen - Sydney sun or King sun 1965

The 89 year old is often described as Australia's greatest living painter. But there was faint praise for the exhibition in The Age's review last September, which was headlined 'mildly entertaining at best'. It goes on to refer to the 'merry narratives and bright topographies' of the stand out works, as if they belong to the same genre as Ken Done's paintings.

In fact the works are deeply spiritual. They are mostly landscapes which initially struck me as mind maps with plenty of colour and verve. But the penny dropped when I saw the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem 'Pied Beauty' printed on the artwork label of a painting that is titled 'Pied Beauty' (Glory be to God for dappled things...).

I think that the concepts most commonly associated with Hopkins - inscape and instress - can equally be applied to Olsen's landscapes. Inscape is the distinctive design of everything in the universe, and instress is our ability to recognise the inscape in the world around us.

John Olsen - Pied beauty 1969

So what I called Olsen's 'mind maps' is also a kind of genetic code that reflects the inscape of the landscapes. When he paints, he instresses.

I don't know whether Olsen himself sees it that way, but that was my take on the paintings, having studied Hopkins when I was at university in the 1980s.

Viewing the Olsen exhibition made me think about how I look at landscapes. There are landscapes that stay with me in both my conscious and unconscious being.

When I visited Canberra at the weekend, I was moved by the harmony between the built and the natural environment. It stayed with me.

The buildings are mostly low rise and their architecture tends not to be ostentatious. The autumn colours were quite arresting and the sparseness of the buildings ensures that they do not dominate as buildings do in most large cities.

I also have an isolated memory from my first visit to Tasmania in January 2006. It was of the landscape around Queenstown which had been completely denuded by mining - moonscape was the word that came to mind. I would say that I was 'taken out of myself' when I looked at and experienced this 'moonscape'. It is quite remarkable that I retain the particular memory with such clarity after more than a decade.

John Olsen - Sydney Harbour 2016

My experience of these two landscapes was heightened. I would normally say that I was arrested by them, but I think the terms inscape and instress are more apt to use in describing the way in which I apprehended them.

If I was John Olsen, I would paint them, and if I was Hopkins I would write a poem about them. But for me, they are just imprints on my memory, as such heightened experiences of landscape are for most of us.

Remembering The Little Red School Book

While spending the weekend staying with friends in Canberra, I visited exhibitions at Old Parliament House and the National Archive. Among the National Archive's current featured exhibits are documents related to The Little Red School Book.

Publication of this book was the subject of intense debate in Australia in 1972. It was banned in several countries but the Federal Minister for Customs and Excise Don Chipp eventually allowed its publication here.

The Little Red School Book

The book's Danish authors encouraged school students to use their initiative against what they portrayed as the authoritarianism of the time. School teachers and other adults needed to be regarded as 'paper tigers' who 'can never control you completely'.

Discussing school education, the authors criticised the majority of teachers who 'think it's unnecessary to explain to their pupils why they must learn certain things'. With regard to sex and drugs, the issue in the minds of the authors was safety, not morality (i.e. harm minimisation). They emphasise technical explanations and advice about the risks of drug addiction and STDs.

Documents in the National Archive exhibit include a protest letter from the president of an Adelaide branch of the Presbyterian Women's Association, who wrote that she was 'appalled by the polution of the mind' represented by publication of the book.

Another correspondent, from South Yarra in Melbourne, commended the Minister for resisting the protestors, who'd sent 'unsigned filthy notes ... worse than the publication that they are complaining about'.

Presbyterian Womens Association

I was drawn to the exhibit by a recollection from when I was in Year 7 at high school. It was 1972 and there was a rare non-conformist Christian Brother who quietly lent me the copy of the book that he'd managed to source.

As a 12 year old, much of it went over my head. But I remember perusing its content and writing a review to enter in a book review competition being organised by the school librarian. I won the competition because mine was the only entry. I'm not sure how the librarian managed to avoid censure from the principal, but that wasn't my concern.

Now when I think of the furore over The Little Red School Book in 1972, I'm inclined to compare it to the recent debate over the controversial Safe Schools Program, which in its own way is also designed to foster student responsibility and to avoid conflating safety with morality.

In contrast to their Coalition forbears who debated and approved The Little Red Schoolbook 45 years ago, it seems that members of today's Federal Government have shown a conspicuous lack of backbone in yielding to pressure from the right wing and acting to gut the Safe Schools Program.

Symbolic vengeance against big business greed

Pope Francis has said he's inclined to give a few coins to beggars on the street. Enough to send a token message of support but not enough to create a dependency on charity.

This would not work for me because I do not carry coins. But the news item did make me think about messages we send by how we choose to pay for goods and services.

Stack of cards

I used to think that I was sending a message of solidarity to small business owners if I handed them cash rather than a card. But about ten years ago my mechanic told me he prefered card payments because the cost of handling cash was higher than the card fees they had to pay the bank.

He claimed it was a furphy that bank fees for card payments cost merchants more than cash. With cash, they need to have change on hand and pay staff to securely take the bags of cash to the bank. Charging a fee for card use was a scam, he said.

Obviously each merchant's circumstances are different, but since the conversation with my mechanic, I have had no hesitation using a card for payment.

Which card, though, is another matter.

In addition to my Mastercard, I have a now rare Diners Club card, which I got fee free in a promotion about 20 years ago. It appeals to my sense of history because it was the world's first payment card when it was introduced in the 1950s.

But I actually like the fact that - in common with American Express - it costs merchants about twice as much in bank fees compared to Mastercard or Visa, every time I use it. I never use it for payments to small businesses, but Diners is my card of choice when I shop at Coles or Woolworths.

It is to give them a token financial sting as payback for their exploitation on several fronts of farmers and other small business owners. I know that vengeance is never a good thing, but it does give me satisfaction to know that I have the power to use my Diners card symbolically in such a way.

For years they have put financial pressure on these small businesses through their policy of delaying payment of invoices for the supply of produce and other goods and services. However at long last, Coles announced this week, with some fanfare, a change in policy. They have promised to pay invoices within 14 days, in what they are disingenuously touting in newspaper advertising as a show of support for farmers.

I will consider changing my own policy in favour of using my Mastercard rather than my Diners when I shop at Coles.

The desire to live in a foreign country

While I was in Malaysia last month I was in email contact with a friend back in Australia. He told me about the retirement visa which the Malaysian Government offers to foreigners to bring investment into the country.

You buy a property to live in and deposit an amount of money in a Malaysian bank. In return you get a ten year extendable visa and an exotic lifestyle at less than one third of the cost of living in Australia.

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On the whole I enjoy living in Sydney and did not seriously consider moving to Malaysia. However I think there is a lot to be said for spending time in another culture to give you a greater sense of perspective on your own.

A major formative experience for me was living in the Philippines for three months in 1983-84. Until that point, I had considered Australia and Australians to be God's gift to the Asia Pacific region and the world.

But I came away thinking of Filipinos as the most gracious and loving people on earth. I really wanted to make my permanent home there. I'd lost interest in Australia and its people, whom I now regarded as gauche and self-opinionated in comparison to Filipinos.

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15 years later, I spent two years living in Rome. In many people's minds, a dream existence. I loved my work and my colleagues and the friends I made. But when I had to choose between the offer of a job in Australia or extending my two year initial appointment in Rome, I leapt at the opportunity to return home. Perhaps somewhere in my unconscious, I wanted the exotic to remain exotic. It seemed that life for me in another culture had a use by date.

However my desire to live elsewhere tends to resurface. After I quickly dismissed thoughts of retiring to Malaysia, I felt attracted to the idea of spending more than a few days in a foreign country. So last week I made a gesture in that direction when I booked an August flight to Tokyo, together with the most basic Airbnb apartment I could find. I will be living simply for five weeks in one spot in the city's inner western suburbs, a world away from my usual home in Sydney's inner west.

Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum Kochi

There will be challenges. Furniture too close to the floor for what our culture regards as comfort. Having to use a squat toilet every day. But also pleasures. No inhouse bathroom, which means regular visits to the sento. There's also not much of a kitchen, so I expect to be a regular patron at the ramen noodle bars in my vicinity.

Friends think I'm a bit odd to seek out such a rustic existence in an unfamiliar setting. They may have a point. But time spent in the thrall of another culture's bare essentials offers the possibility of new experience for those of us in the later stages of our lives.