Some holiday reading odds and sods – part one

Over the next few weeks the blog will provide some odds and sods – bits and pieces on a variety of things – which hopefully will provide some interesting, useful and/or amusing holiday reading.


The long history of adapting old words to new purposes is often useful, sometimes a bit precious and sometimes both pretentious and irritating.

Curate and curating are two examples. Once a curate was just the subordinate cleric in a parish whose main purpose was to be a character in 19th century novels who was available as a marriageable candidate for young women with not much of the way in dowries. Then it adapted to another professional sense and became both the foundation for a noun and a verb to denote people like gallery and museum curators and describe what they did.

Now of course, it is a multi-purpose word for use by pretentious prats who arrange goods on a shelf in a retail outlet, bits of foods on a plate or inane social media outpourings. Hopefully, this fashionable use will decline and more common sense words will once more prevail.

No-one would accuse John Menadue – the distinguished public servant, private sector CEO and company director and Whitlam advisor and confidante – of ‘curating’ his regular collection of articles and research by a wide range of people in his regular Pearls and Irritations newsletters. Indeed, while miscellany might once have served as a description of the newsletter contents we perhaps need a new verb for what it does and a new noun for the product. Others can ponder that but the blog is always struck by the sheer range and analytical depth of what is available on the site.

For instance in the period late November to December you could read much but the blog – although always enjoying the odd Mungo McCallum contribution – was struck by a few particularly pertinent articles.

David Stephens, editor of the Honest History website, contributed a piece on the Australian War Memorial, its Memorial Council and its role in the Australian commemoration industry. As Stephens points out – the Council membership looked nothing like Australia when it was established and nothing like Australia now. As well as lots of military brass the Council membership includes three senior business people, a number of people close to 80, and an employee of one of the Council Chair’s companies. While not quite as interesting as the composition of Mr Stokes’ Seven Network company board, in terms of how many members might not be seen as independent, the Council membership does raise questions about who should be on it and how they are appointed.

Abul Rizvi, a former Department of Immigration Deputy Secretary, analysed how refugees are getting to Australia and how many of them there are. As he reports “At 27,931 the number of onshore protection visa (that is asylum) applications lodged in 2017-2018 exceeded the previous record of 26,845 in 2012-2013. The 2012-13 record included protection visa applications lodged by boat arrivals as well as by non-boat arrivals. Coincidentally, the number of protection visa applicants is around the same level as Dutton’s cut in the 2017-2018 migration program.”

In other words Dutton & Co may have ‘stopped the boats’ but instead merely increased the revenues of airlines flying into the country. Rizvi also revealed the huge cost blow-outs and staffing problems in then new Department of Home Affairs. As of yet though News Corp publications are not calling for Peter Dutton’s resignation in the light of these massive failures although the SMH did draw attention to some of the problems.

The journalist, Hamish McDonald, contributes a wonderful piece about Christian missionaries in the context of the killing of a young would-be missionary to North Sentinel Island who was shot with a volley of arrows and buried on the beach. McDonald points out this was at least different from a 2006 decision by the islanders to put the bodies of two Indonesian fishermen on stakes facing the sea as a warning – a practice demonstrated in Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. The blog doesn’t feel very sympathetic to the young American proselytises – thinking that similar outcomes following Spanish intrusions into Mexico and South America might have made the world rather different.

Lastly, James O’Neill, looks at new revelations about Australia and the Iraq War which, while new, confirm much of what we all suspected at the time. To wit Howard’s lies about weapons of mass destruction; the decision to invade irrespective of the theatre around the UN and exploration of peaceful options; and the claim that Australia had legal opinion supporting the military action consistent with the legal advice obtained by the UK Government. As O’Neill says the first part of this last claim was true although we now know the UK advice was doctored to fit the case. For a devastating take on all this read O’Neill and then go and see the great new film, Vice, about Dick Cheney’s career.

It also highlights the urgent need to ensure the Australian Parliament has a say on whether we go to war or not. The Australians for War Powers Reform group (of which the blog is a member) has launched a new campaign – Be Sure on War –  to achieve that goal.

Farewell Ian Buruma

The blog has always been a huge fan of Ian Buruma – historian, novelist, memoirist, journalist – and was sad to see him ‘removed’ from his new post as New York Review of Books editor after publishing an article by an author outed by me too victims. The blog read the article and didn’t think it was much good but NYRB advertisers – mainly academic book publishers, who are a mainstay of the publication – took a no-platforming stance and said that if Buruma didn’t go they would.

A large number of academics and others, however, leapt to Buruma’s defence and wrote to the NYRB to protest. Their letter was published along with others for and against.

But perhaps the best response was from the Times Literary Supplement’s NB columnist – J.C. (actually the Scottish writer James Campbell) – who contrasted Buruma’s offence with some other items published in the NYRB over the years by the founding editors. His list included: an instructional diagram for making a Molotov cocktail; an extract from a book by a convicted murderer who, promoted by Norman Mailer, was released from gaol and then promptly murdered again in the same month his work appeared in the NYRB; Mailer was also a regular contributor to the NYRB despite his ‘infamous attack on his second wife’; as was Nabokov (no comment needed).

J.C. then asks what are we to do about others from literary history – Cocteau a friend of the occupying Nazis; Rimbaud gunrunner and a probable slave trader; Flaubert (should students be allowed to read his Egyptian letters without a trigger warning J.C. asks?); and, Burroughs and his poor wife Joan Vollmer).

Of course that was then not now and the changing climate of opinion is a very good thing. But nevertheless, if we exclude evil, unacceptable behaviour, assault and other sins from literary discourse we won’t have much left.