Suburban Noir: Crime and mishap in 1950s and 1960s Sydney by Peter Doyle

‘It is about crime, but not port and cigars crime, hatched at the big end of town. Most of the matters here are obscure and small time …’

In this book, Peter Doyle explores the dark side of suburban Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s. Mr Doyle does so by drawing partly on the private papers of his late uncle, Assistant Police Commissioner Brian Doyle, in combination with his own research. The result is a vivid picture of everyday life and crime during this period. It’s a different social landscape. Those of us aged over sixty may remember when money was left out for the milkman, when men routinely wore suits, hats, and ties, and when fewer people owned cars.

Many of the crimes are relatively small (including thefts of milk money), some are tragic such as the strangling of a baby by his young mother, and the arsenic poisoning of a young man by a thirteen-year-old girl. Some are bizarre: a 1968 siege prolonged when the police gave the gunman a loaded rifle. Two of the cases, in which (then) Detective Brian Doyle played a role, were much larger. Firstly, the Kingsgrove slasher who was arrested in 1959 after terrorising women in their homes over a three-year period. Secondly, the kidnapping for ransom and later murder of schoolboy Graeme Thorne in 1960 after his parents won the Opera House Lottery (£100,000).

In addition to the stories, there are a selection of crime scene photographs, some drawings by Mr Doyle as well as his personal memories. From being in the wrong place at the wrong time to planned cases, Mr Doyle shows us the less savory side of suburban life in Sydney during the 1950s and 1960s.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Big Teal by Simon Holmes à Court

The changing electoral map…

In May 2022, several ‘teal’ candidates were elected to the Australian Parliament. There was plenty of noise and fury in elements of the media, with many referring to the ‘so-called teal independents’ who, in their minds, could not possibly be ‘independent’ of Simon Holmes à Court.

In this book, Simon Holmes à Court explains how, with inaction on climate issues a driving force, Cathy McGowan’s election as a community independent in 2013 provided a template for direct political engagement. Climate 200 was formed, a crowdfunded outfit (yes, Simon Holmes à Court is one of the donors but definitely not the only donor) intended to provide the money and expertise to better match the major parties in support of the grassroots movement emerging in more than thirty electorates.

Mr Holmes à Court explains why he drew away from the Liberal Party, after Julia Banks (MP for Chisholm 2016-2019) resigned from the Liberal Party and became a crossbencher over the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seeker children in detention centres.

‘I saw how an independent, a crossbencher, free from the ideology of government or the cowed Opposition, could speak the truth on offshore detention.  I saw how the cross bench could operate as both the conscience and the backbone of parliament.’

The ‘Teals’ are not a political party. Mr Holmes à Court reminds readers of Climate 200’s arms-length approach: that it didn’t choose candidates, only who to support of those already running in the crowded election field. The ‘Teals’ elected to the Australian Parliament have promised to act on integrity, gender equity and the climate crisis. Will they be successful?

I live in the ACT where, for the first time, an independent candidate was elected to the Senate. Seven months after the election, I am quietly impressed with the efforts of Senator David Pocock.

Yes, we have a long way to go to make up for the inaction of previous governments in relation to climate issues. Perhaps it is not too late.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Not Now, Not Ever edited by Julia Gillard

‘We cannot change the past, but the past can inspire us to campaign and change the future. My most sincere hope is for that to be the ongoing role of the misogyny speech.’

On 9 October 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered what is now known as the ‘misogyny speech’ in the Australian Parliament House. I heard about it on the television news that evening. And now, ten years later, I wonder how much progress has been made.

‘The many forms of sexism mean that it is sometimes hard to label sexist behaviour as such …’

The book includes the misogyny speech in full, together with the scrawled notes Ms Gillard used as prompts. Rereading the speech reminds me of the fire with which it was delivered and the hope so many of us had that improvement would be immediate and obvious. Alas ‘…the World Economic Forum estimates it will take 136 years for us to reach gender equality globally.’

There are three parts to this book: Part One includes reflections on the speech; Part Two covers misogyny past and present; and Part Three is about fighting misogyny.

I was particularly drawn to the various personal reflections on the speech, and thoroughly enjoyed Kathy Lette’s article. Yes, humour is important. Chapter Six: ‘Sexism today: Tools in the patriarchy’s toolbox’ is worth reading. As the authors write, we need to be able to identify and understand the various forms of sexism and misogyny before we can defeat them.

Recommended reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

‘For me, the front is as sinister as a whirlpool.’

As I read this book about the horrors of war, I thought about my family members who fought on the Western Front. My maternal grandfather, who lived to be 80, and his younger brother who died because of his war injuries in 1920 aged 30. My grandfather never spoke of the war, of being gassed, or of suffering his first heart attack in his twenties. Another relative, on my father’s side, had several sons in the conflict. Two of them were killed in France.

From the dioramas at the Australian War Memorial, I gain some idea of the conditions, from other reading I gain some idea of the horror.

‘Albert puts it into words. ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’’

This book may be fictional, but I can imagine hundreds of thousands of young men, like the fictional Paul Bäumer, enlisting. My grandfather travelled from Queensland where he was cutting cane, home to Tasmania to enlist. He was too short to enlist in Queensland, tall enough to enlist in Tasmania. Fate. You see, I read this fiction and try to imagine where my own family members were and how they coped.

I read this fiction and the characters become proxies for those other young men, from so many different countries who became caught up in this dreadful conflict. And the only thing that has changed in the last one hundred or so years is that men have constructed ever more awful ways of killing.

‘The horror of the front fades away when you turn your back on it, so we can attack it with coarse or black humour.’ Indeed.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer (Translator)

‘Many restless men rowed north from Skania …’

Enter the world of the Vikings in the tenth century CE as they roam and rampage between northern Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Join with Orm on his journey from captivity to riches. Red Orm is a teenager when he is waylaid by the Vikings who need replacement oarsmen on their dragon-prowed ships. Orm survives capture by the Moors and makes his way to the court of Almansur in Cordoba, Spain. Here he converts to Islam and serves as a guard.

Eventually Orm escapes with his comrade Toke, while on an expedition to raid and pillage Christian churches. They escape with one of Almansur’s ships with a large bell stolen from a church in Asturia said to house the grave of the James the apostle. The bell saves their lives when they make their way to Ireland where Christian monks add another dimension to their life experiences.

They then deliver the bell as a gift to King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, who has converted to Christianity. Orm falls in love with King Harald’s daughter, Ylva, and his adventures continue.

I really enjoyed this novel: there is plenty of action, adventure and humour. It is a long, convoluted story showing that there was much more to Viking life than plundering.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

‘Nothing like a new horse to brighten a day.’

In 2019, a PhD student in art history rescues an oil painting of a horse from a pile of possessions discarded on a sidewalk in Georgetown, and a zoologist finds a skeleton labelled ‘Horse’ in a Smithsonian attic. In 1850, an enslaved boy is present when a mare foals. This is how Ms Brooks begins her novel. Yes, foal will become the horse in the painting and the skeleton in the Smithsonian. The enslaved boy, Jarret, will be with the horse from his first breath to his last. The foal, first named Darley, will be renamed Lexington. Lexington, a real racehorse, won six of his seven starts and became a legendary thoroughbred sire. His offspring dominated American racing in the late 19th century.

Some of the characters in the story are, like Lexington, real. Ms Brooks includes the various owners of Lexington and the painter Thomas J Scott. And in 1954, Martha Jackson a modernist art dealer, becomes obsessed with the painting when the woman working for her seeks her advice on a painting that has been handed down within her family. The key characters: Jarret; the PhD student Theo; and Jess the zoologist are fictional.

Jarret is the imagined son of Harry Lewis, a horse trainer who was able to buy his own freedom in antebellum Kentucky. Harry’s employer, Dr Warfield, offers to colt Darley to Harry in lieu of a year’s wages. If the colt is successful, Harry might be able to purchase Jarret’s freedom. But once Darley wins his first race, Dr Warfield is reminded by others that there is a law preventing Black people from racing horses. As a result, both Darley (then renamed Lexington) and Jarret are sold. They are sent south and become part of Richard Ten Broeck’s operation in Louisiana. Neither will be free.

In 2019, Theo and Jess are brought together by Lexington’s relics. Theo, the son of diplomats (a Nigerian mother and an American father) is painfully aware of racism. Jess, an Australian scientist, fascinated by the bones of the horse is less sensitive. They begin a tentative relationship, cut short by tragedy.

I really enjoyed this novel, the way in which Ms Brooks wove fiction around history to bring both Jarret and Lexington to life. And, just in case anyone has forgotten, slavery may no longer exist, but racism certainly does.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’

In fewer than one hundred and ten pages, Ernest Hemingway takes us on an heroic journey with Santiago, an ageing Cuban fisherman. The family of his apprentice, Manolin, has forced the boy to leave him because of his bad luck, but Manolin still supports him by supplying food and bait.
Santiago, convinced that his luck will change, takes his skiff far out into the Gulf Stream. Here, in the deep water, he hooks a giant marlin. He fights the marlin for three days, admiring its strength and eventually prevails.

But by the time he returns to port, the sharks have eaten most of the fish. Discouraged, he goes home to sleep. Other villagers, seeing the remains of the fish lashed to Santiago’s skiff, are amazed.
To fully appreciate Santiago’s journey, this is a book to read in one sitting. From the routines of life in the fishing village, to Santiago’s courage and strength as he struggles against the fish and the sea. The fish does not go easily, Santiago does not give up. As I read this novel, I could picture the sea and appreciate the exhaustion of both man and fish. The ebb and flow of life.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Idea of Australia by Julianne Schulz

‘Culture is the real barometer of change. Politics often follows.’

After reading enthusiastic reviews of this book by those whose opinions I value, I bought a copy for myself. I read slowly, to think about some of the important albeit uncomfortable questions Professor Shultz raises.

I agree with at least some of Professor Schultz’s conclusions, especially with this: ‘the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking.’

Perhaps, now that we have had a change of government, there is reason for optimism. Perhaps. I agree that we need to acknowledge and better understand our past so that we can make sense of the present and build a positive and inclusive future. But I worry that the current economic climate and the ongoing pandemic will make this even more difficult.

We need to consider the long-term underlying issues while at the same time reacting to urgent emerging needs. We need to plan as well as react.

I would recommend this book to every Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

‘The day that turns a life upside down usually starts like any other.’

In this book, which is part investigation and part reflection, Leigh Sales looks both how ‘ordinary’ people face unexpected and often horrific twists and turns in their lives. And, in looking at her role as a journalist, Leigh Sales reflects on her own actions including how she interviews these people.

‘What prompted me to begin writing this book was the thought of what might happen if I walked towards what I most feared, rather than in the opposite direction.’

The interviews in this book are different from those we have seen on the ABC 7.30 Report. Here we have some insight into Ms Sales’s preparation and presentation. Her interviewees include those who have lost family members, those who came close to death themselves, as well as a police officer, a coroner, a priest, a social worker and former prime minister, John Howard. Ms Sales also writes of her own brush with death involving herself and her unborn child.

Ms Sales writes, too, of how we perceive risk. How, for example, we might be more concerned about the danger of an amusement park ride, or a plane flight (both rare) than being in a car (unfortunately common).

‘To live life, we have to take risks, most of which we will never even know we’re taking.’

When writing about the roles and responsibilities of journalists, Ms Sales acknowledges that she has made mistakes. She refers to her interview of a grandmother following Hurricane Katrina, and how the woman’s grandson intervened.

I found this book thought-provoking and informative. It both explores the different ways in which we approach grief and offers insights into how we can help those grieving. It reminds us to consider the consequences of our own actions.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith