How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.

 

Perth rivers in ‘palliative care’ after decades of mismanagement

The Swan and Canning rivers are on life support after a decade of being treated as a “political football”, a provocative new report by a collective of WA policy and environmental experts says.

My Clean River, a new group of chemical industry and urban planning experts, and current and former public servants, have published a confronting description of five concrete and steel oxygen injectors operating in the rivers as “palliative care systems”.

The report – Swan Resource 2017 – says the government has been for some years treating the river’s “symptoms”, but not its disease, avoiding direct action on polluters for fear of backlash from the agricultural sector.

The news follows the Department of Parks and Wildlife’s April 21 and April 28 warnings to the public not to eat shellfish from Melville and Perth as algal blooms impacted the river.

Read more at WAtoday

$3 million saves one Perth wetland – but what about the rest?

The state forking out $1.5 million will help Bayswater council double its money and save ‘Carter’s Lot’, but activists say many other vital urban wetlands are exposed to developers because of an archaic classification system.

Despite vocal disagreement from some of Perth’s most prominent scientists who rated its ecological significance highly, ‘Carter’s’ wetland management category was as low as they go.

Environmental organisations, local MP Lisa Baker and Bayswater councillors joined the community in a nine-month campaign against a large housing subdivision planned for the site.

They carried out protests outside Parliament and Ministerial offices, fundraisers, petitions and letter-writing drives, convinced development would not only devastate Carter’s but also lay waste to the millions in state and local government funds spent on restoring the adjacent Eric Singleton Bird Sanctuary.

During the campaign, documents released under Freedom of Information showed planning approvals were issued and clearing began based on half-complete environmental reports.

Planning Minister Rita Saffioti announced this week funding to honour her election commitment, to match Bayswater’s bid to buy back the land from private ownership.

Read more at WAtoday

This article is the fourth in a series:

  1. ‘Damaging’ development approved on doorstep of $3 million wetland
  2. Minister halts bulldozers on doorstep of $3 million wetland
  3. Government approves wetland bulldozing based on environmental study of wrong lot

Movie version of Jasper Jones is off with a bang

Jasper Jones - Photograph by David Dare Parker

Jasper Jones – Photograph by David Dare Parker

It’s been eight years since Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones hit the shelves and was devoured with equal adoration by both critics and the public.

If he’s been a little quiet since, I hear it’s because Silvey has spent the intervening years crafting and honing that remarkable novel into a tight, twisty hour-and-45-minute screenplay.

Read more at WAtoday.

Performance-enhancing book: Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans

the-tim-ferriss-show-podcast

Tim Ferriss and trusty steed Laura keep me inspired and happy through each and every commute. 

Just as with fiction I tend to fall down the rabbit hole, I get excited when I find a good resource covering one of my more “real” areas of obsession.

I find a new font of inspiration and information and sort of suck them dry like a vampire, until I have consumed everything they have to say and grown stronger. Hmm, perhaps more of a parasite.
Unflattering self-depictions aside, recent examples include the financial freedom blog of Mr Money Mustache (nearly 500 posts, worked through gluttonously and chronologically) and the 100-odd hours of The Minimalists’ podcasts so far released.
Eventually, I find, I absorb the message. I’m converted. I get it. I know the Minimalists’ stories and catchphrases so well I listen to them more like a soothing old bedtime story now than a source of excitement. I’ve done the projectsjoined the cult.
But a slightly different case is the Tim Ferriss Show,  the podcast in which optimisation junkie Ferriss conducts long-form interviews with the world’s top performers across myriad fields, deconstructing their habits and back-stories in an effort to find out what habits lead to success.
Ferriss is also author of business classic The Four-Hour Workweek, health hacker bible The Four-Hour Body and learning-method deconstruction The Four-Hour Chef. He is so adored it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s more star-struck, him or his famous guests.
(Imagine my delight, incidentally, when finally my nerd prayers were answered this week and Ferriss bowed to fan pressure to interview Mr Money Mustache in the latest episode).
This show never gets old and never runs out. You never learn it all. It’s the personal development equivalent of a gold mine that runs to the other side of the earth. You could never hope to read all the books recommended, follow up all the little side routes and innovations you hear about. I’ve read two of the books, bits of the others and listened to more than 200 hours of interviews and yet feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I have the books on Kindle, but am planning to buck my own minimalist trends and buy them in hard copy to keep for more easy and frequent referencing. And throughout the interviews, there are certainly common themes, but there is far more variation than there is repetition, and the recurrences are, in themselves, fascinating.

This was the reasoning behind the book, an attempt by Ferriss to capture and distill the best of all his interviews thus far, and draw the connections between them. I approached it with greedy anticipation, having bought it for myself as a Christmas present (though I had to get it on Kindle, the city bookstores having sold out).

It’s a diamond-hard read without an ounce of fat, and includes plenty of new material and insight into Ferriss’ personal struggles. But a word of warning: don’t bother if you’re not seriously into personal challenges and life-hacking. Otherwise it will quickly overwhelm. Even a medium-level devotee such as I found many of the concepts covered (it is divided into sections Healthy, Wealthy and Wise) too advanced for me, at least in terms of finance, exercise, diet and biomedical science. But even if you skim over parts, that, he says, is the way he intends the book to be read. More like a buffet than a three-course meal (my words, not his).
And it’s endlessly stimulating. I love knowing there is always more out there to learn, about people, the capacity of an individual mind and body to reach extreme performance. It’s humorous and fast-paced, and at 700-odd pages, you can skim the parts you’re not up for yet without feeling like you’re not getting bang for your buck.
Cool features include a comprehensive reading list from each interviewee, and a cartooned spirit animal for each based on how they imagine themselves. My advice is get it in hard copy, devour it for fun, then go back and drill down.
Happy nerding!

Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!

Am I stupid? The kind of existential crisis only Don DeLillo can cause

Nicholas Branch has unpublished state documents, polygraph reports, Dictabelt recordings from the police radio net on November 22. He has photo enhancements, floor plans, home movies, biographies, letters, rumours, mirages, dreams. This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.

Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.

Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.

delillo-libra

When I studied literature at uni it was my task to probe deeply into one work of literature at a time, painstakingly dissecting each then fossicking through the rubble for its secrets. On these I was welcome – nay, expected! to write 3000 words. I failed to appreciate this luxury at the time, not knowing or caring that the public like to read things online for perhaps one minute; maybe, if they are very interested, two.

Now that my day job, like so many others’, requires bounding from task to task, email to email and snatching fragments of time for ‘deep work’ that feels as difficult as giving birth (note, I have never given birth), I look back on that time with wonder.

Immediately after it, I avoided ‘hard’ books, plunging through as much crime fiction as I possibly could, and while a murder mystery is one of life’s purest pleasures, the deep reading mind is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Sometimes I fear I have lost it altogether, and nowhere as much as in the attempt to read Don DeLillo, a postmodernist author described aptly by New Republic as “master chronicler of American dread” in a recent article about how it’s high time he won the Nobel prize already.

Each book is entirely different in subject matter to the last. White Noise, perhaps the most famous, I dissected at university. This story of a professor’s terror of death after an ‘airborne toxic event’ hits his town was one of the best books I have ever read.

Cosmopolis is about a genius billionaire financier who spends the whole book taking a limo across town to get a haircut, encountering various riots and lovers along the way. While it was startlingly inventive I probably, honestly, only got through it because it was relatively short. Later, I thought about watching the movie, a 2012 David Cronenberg production starring Robert Pattinson, but I think I abandoned this idea within minutes. I hope the adaptation of White Noise now underway does better.

Underworld was a massive tome of 1000-odd pages sparked by the parallel events of the 1991 New York Giants’ Superbowl win, and the Soviet Union’s explosion of its first nuclear bomb. It was widely acclaimed as a Great American Novel. I lugged on a camping trip a year or two ago, read a couple of hundred pages, admired the incredibly beautiful writing, then turfed it in favour of something easier.

Turns out even in ideal surroundings, I couldn’t muster the necessary concentration. I was full of theories at the time after a bout of minimising that if I wasn’t enjoying something, I shouldn’t bother, life too short, etc, but it was likely just a cover for the towering ineptitude I felt, failing to force my fragmented modern brain to focus.

So when I recently arrived at Libra, I was full of determination to get some intellectual gumption. Libra, as ambitious as the rest of DeLillo’s novels, blends fiction and fact to recreate the lives and events that coalesced into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Threaded throughout it are flash-forwards to the life of Nicholas Branch, an ageing CIA official assigned to write the secret history of the assassination, for Agency eyes only. He has been supplied with every possible material and left alone for years. Decades, even. He thinks they might have forgotten he’s on the payroll. He goes to sleep in his chair sometimes, surrounded by papers and countless words in a room the Agency has paid to fireproof.

He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.

Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Documents. There is Jack Ruby’s mother”s dental chart, dated January 15, 1938. There is a microphotograph of Lee H. Oswald’s public hair. Elsewhere (everything in the Warren Report is elsewhere) there is a detailed description of this hair. It is smooth, not knobby. The scales are medium-size. The root area is rather clear of pigment.

Branch doesn’t know how to approach this kind of data. He wants to believe the hair belongs in the record. It is vital to his sense of responsible obsession that everything in his room warrants careful study. Everything belongs, everything adheres, the mutter of obscure witnesses, the photos of illegible documents and odd sad personal debris, things gathered up at a dying – old shoes, pajama tops, letters from Russia. It is all one thing, a ruined city of trivia where people feel real pain. This is the Joycean book of America, remember – the novel in which nothing is left out.

Branch has long since forgiven the Warren Report for its failures. It is too valuable a document of human heartbreak and muddle to be scorned or dismissed. The twenty-six volumes haunt him. Men and women surface in FBI memos, are tracked for several pages, then disappear – waitresses, prostitutes, mind readers, motel managers, owners of rifle ranges. Their stories hang in time, spare, perfect in their way, unfinished.

It was slow going at first, with me hampered by my lack of understanding of the events of that Cold-War era, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship of JFK with his people, the street life of Dallas, Miami and New Orleans, which may as well be on another planet to Perth, Western Australia, 2017.

I spent the first quarter of the book Googling details I felt, with shame, that I should already know. My eyes glazed over at times. I was spurred on by the moments of just utter perfection I stumbled upon like treasure.

The dog lay throbbing in the shade.

Frank Vasquez showed up with a wife, two kids and some food. The wife and kids took a peek at the visitor. Wayne waited for someone to say, “Mi casa es suya.” He got a little charge from the Old World graces. But they slipped back inside, leaving his smile hanging like a rag on a stick.

One hot afternoon, I lay down in front of a fan, away from my mobile phone, and told myself I could not get up until I had read solidly for an hour. This helped get me over the hump. I finally joined the slipstream. I became absorbed.

I almost began to feel as though I were reading a crime novel as this reminded me, in its beautiful ugliness and powerful sense of place, of James Ellroy’s L.A Confidential, also set in the 1950s.

But between its chronicling the FBI, CIA, New Orleans crime lords, and their circling a stumbling Lee Harvey Oswald like hawks, it returns repeatedly to Branch, locked in his study receiving more and more reference material.

Language begins to loom as a character as much as any other, and perhaps the most powerful, able to oppress those who seek release through it but are unable to control it – not just Branch but Oswald too, whose disability in reading and writing completes his isolation even as he tries to harness words to lessen it.

It was his goodbye to Russia. It signified the official end of a major era in his life. It validated the experience, as the writing of any history brings a persuasion and form to events.

Even as he printed the words, he imagined people reading them, people moved by his loneliness and disappointment, even by his wretched spelling, the childish mess of composition. Let them see the struggle and humiliation, the effort he had to exert to write a single sentence. The pages were crowded, smudged, urgent, a true picture of his state of mind, of his rage and frustration, knowing a thing but not able to record it properly.

He went back to the first day, fall of 1959, jumping right in, writing in a child’s high fever in which half-waking dreams, dreams with many colours, can seem a state of purer knowledge…

Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not see clearly the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest.

He made wild tries at phonetic spelling. But the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things slipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.”    

DeLillo creates a man at the mercy of forces much larger than his own choices;

“He walked through empty downtown Dallas, empty Sunday in the heat and light. He felt the loneliness he had always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down. He wanted to carry himself with a clearer sense of role, make a move one time that was not disappointed. He walked in the shadows of insurance towers and bank buildings. He thought the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give this point is history.”

This point is arrived at not logically, not by reason, but inevitability.

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy or armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death.

The novel closes in a hypnotic exploration of the endless looping replay of the terrible shootings on screens both of Kennedy and of Oswald. They somehow never get to the heart of what happened any more than Branch, locked in his maelstrom of paper, can.

By its wrenching close, I’m mesmerised. DeLillo will never be light reading. There is no reason he should be. He has to be one of the world’s best writers and you meet him on his terms. Read it and weep… and remember, the best things don’t come easy.