Book Review: “Fallen: The inside story of the secret trial and conviction of Cardinal George Pell” by Lucie Morris-Marr

I read this book in three days, which, by my standards is very, very fast. That’s because it is a gripping story, even though, like just about everybody in Australia, I knew the outcome.

This is a scorching condemnation of the Catholic Church hierarchy but also of contemporary Australia where vested interests seek to determine who and what is given publicity, which convicted criminals deserve empathy, and when the law should be respected or undermined.

The most striking aspects of the whole saga, captured well by Lucie Morris-Marr, are:

  1. The way that powerful interests worked to initially suppress the news of the accusations against Pell, and then to discredit those involved, and finally and bizarrely to still sing the praises of the convicted paedophile. Pell was known for his right-wing social attitudes on a range of issues. I doubt the likes of Howard and Abbott would have been supportive of a priest such as Father Rod Bower (Gosford Anglican) if he had been convicted of the same offences.
  2. That News Corporation is a vindictive, biased organisation only interested in stories that support its worldview (but you knew that already, didn’t you).
  3. That the Catholic Church has a long, dark history of sexual abuse and of doing everything in its power to hide the abuse, putting its own reputation above the welfare of children.

Morris-Marr starts at almost the end – the day when the jury’s verdicts on the four charges against Cardinal George Pell, are to be announced.

She then goes back three years to the start of her involvement in the story, when she was working as a freelance reporter for News Corporation. She finds out that there is police task force investigating accusations of sexual assault of minors by Pell, and then that Pell is to be charged with the offences. Initially News Corp are delighted to have such a scoop, and splash it on the front page of the Courier-Mail. However, things quickly turn sour when Pell’s powerful connections, including Andrew Bolt, move to have the story squashed. Morris-Marr finds herself without a job and, by the sound of it, having a nervous breakdown.

However, she finds support from CNN and The New Daily, and is back on the trail of Pell. Despite a suppression order preventing publicity of the trials, she doggedly attends every day of the initial trial, which ended without a verdict, and the retrial. She takes us through Pell’s life from young sporting hero, to seminarian, to his meteoric rise to become the third most powerful person in the Catholic Church. At one stage he was even spoken of as a possible Pope.

Her account of his time in Ballarat, where he shared a residence with notorious paedophile Gerard Ridsdale is most revealing. It seems inconceivable that Pell was unaware of the horrendous activities going on in the same building where he lived. One victim says that while she was being raped by Ridsdale, a man, most likely Pell, walked past the open doorway and did nothing to intervene. There are also accounts of Pell fondling boys at the swimming pool, and of being warned off by a man who witnessed him standing naked in front of small boys.

She also recounts his handling of historical clerical sexual abuse for the Church, establishing the so-called Melbourne Response. Many victims of abuse were deeply dissatisfied with, even traumatised, by the way in which they were treated by the Church under Pell’s management.

But Pell was not on trial for turning a blind eye to abuse, nor for his alleged involvement with boys at a swimming pool. He was on trial for assaulting two choir boys in the priests’ sacristy at Melbourne Cathedral. One of the boys committed suicide as an adult, before the assault came to trial. It is the evidence of the second boy, whose name has been closely guarded, which formed the main case against Pell. This evidence was presented only to the jury and no transcripts were released. There is thus an unavoidable gap in the story.

The picture of Pell presented here is of an ambitious, determined, conservative man with very powerful friends. The book also presents a picture of a legal system within which the wheels of justice grind slowly but relentlessly towards a resolution.

Pedant alert. The book was rushed out in the wake of the guilty verdict. Inevitably there are typos and other grammatical errors (in my ebook edition at least) which hopefully will be fixed in later editions . e.g. “Tony Abbot”, “in other incidences”, “juggling an eggshell”, “the cardinal just put his dead down”, the quotation from Howard’s letter not put in quotation marks.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison” by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus PrisonNo Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amongst the many shocking and astonishing things about this book, is that Boochani wrote it secretly in Farsi on a mobile phone which he had to keep hidden from the prison guards. He sent thousands of PDF files using Whatsapp to his translator Dr Omid Tofighian.

Perhaps even Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton would have to agree that it is miraculous that the end-result is such a cohesive, detailed, persuasive, poetic narrative. But then again, if Morrison and Dutton ever read books, this one would be bottom of their list, because it is a damning indictment of their immigration policies and their inhumanity.

Boochani is a Kurd. He was a member of the Kurdish Democratic party which is outlawed in Iran, and of the National Union of Kurdish Students. As a result he was watched closely by the Iranian authorities. The first part of the book describes Boochani’s time in Indonesia and then two attempts to come to Australia by boat, almost dying in the process. Boochani then gives a detailed, sickening description of what he calls the Kyriarchal system imposed on the asylum seekers in Manus – a system built around domination, oppression, and submission. Everything that might give the asylum seekers any sense of humanity, dignity or self-respect is denied them. The system requires detainees to queue for hours or days for everything – food, cigarettes, telephones, medical attention, anti-malarials. The queues pit man against man. Generators are turned off in the intense heat to keep the men exhausted. The toilets and showers are like open sewers. Self-harm is prevalent. Fights break out regularly over minor issues. Huge mosquitoes feast on their exposed flesh. Any attempt to buck the system is met with brutality from the Australian security guards and even the locals, the ‘Papus’. In short, Manus is a living-hell.

There can be no justification for the way Australia treats asylum-seekers. To drive men mad in these conditions, with the supposed justification that it will prevent others from risking their lives at sea is a thin cover. In reality, ever since John Howard, the Australian Government has exploited racism in Australia for electoral advantage. Asylum seekers are a convenient distraction from the corruption and nepotism that the Government gets away with on a daily basis. The Australian media, even the ABC, is mostly a cheerleader for these policies.

The words “important book” have been bandied around a lot recently, but this really does deserve that nomenclature. Surely nobody who reads it can ever again support Australia’s asylum seeker policies.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Gig: Wednesday 2nd October 2019 at The Wheatsheaf Hotel.

NW OCT

The monthly No Wave readings are a sort of heir to the long-running Lee Marvin readings which stopped a few years ago. Curated by Dom Symes, Banjo James and Olivia De Zilva, they usually feature four invited poets. Each poet reads for ten minutes with a break between the second and third readers. The Wheatsheaf is a great pub, serving a wide selection of their own and other micro-brewery beers, wines and spirits. Always a nice buzz at these readings. Get along if you can. $5 entry.

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Book Review: “How Late it Was, How Late” by James Kelman

How Late it Was, How LateHow Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sammy’s wisdom: “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt. That’s the story; the cot to the fucking funeral pyre.”

James Kelman won the Booker Prize for this novel, in 1994. It was, apparently, a controversial winner, mainly because of objections to the profane language. The book is in Scots dialect, from the point of view of Sammy. We first meet Sammy waking from a monster hangover, the cause of which he cannot remember. He soon picks a fight with some “sodjas” (policemen), and ends up in a police cell, waking again to find that he has lost his sight as a result of the beating he received. The rest of the book is his stream of consciousness as he comes to terms with this disaster, which it seems is just one of many, many disasters which have befallen him. He is estranged from his wife and son, his current girlfriend has disappeared, he has had spells in prison, there are suggestions of politically motivated violence, he has no money and, it seems, no friends he can rely on.

“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.”

I found Sammy a surprisingly sympathetic character. His outlook on life is philosophical, almost Buddhist at times. He holds no animosity towards the police who beat him. Towards the end, when his estranged son appears, their relationship is quite touching. Also evident is the kindness towards him of neighbours and Glasgow locals.

This is not an easy read. I’m not familiar with Scots, but perhaps my Irish / English origins made it fairly easy for me to understand. Others might find it hard going. But it is a tremendous achievement to hold the reader’s attention, as it did mine, by describing the inner thoughts of a newly blind man who exists on the margins of society, who utterly distrusts authority and has little hope of redemption.

“Waiting rooms. Ye go into this room where ye wait. Hoping’s the same. One of these days the cunts’ll build entire fucking buildings just for that. Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for.”

© Mike Hopkins 2019 (other than quotes from book)


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Book Review: “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with FeathersGrief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a poetic story of the process of grieving. None of the characters are named: a man, a woman who has just died, two young sons and the presence, in the man’s psyche at least, of a crow. Each brief chapter is from the point of view of one of the characters. Also looming large in the background is Ted Hughes, about whom the man is writing a book. Hughes’ “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow”, has likely been central to the man’s literary history. This is a short but very intense story of a man and his sons, much disturbed by the death of the most important woman in their lives, and their process of returning from the pit of despair to ‘normality’. It is written in short, imagistic, disjointed chapters with sections which are more poetry than prose.

A moving and brilliantly conceived experimental approach to the important subject of grief.

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Instapoetry

PM5a

I did a short workshop on Instapoetry with Kate Larsen recently, at the Guildhouse in Adelaide. Kate is / was artist in residence at ART WORKS. From her bio:

Kate Larsen is an Adelaide writer, arts manager and non-profit/cultural consultant. One of Australia’s best-known social media poets, her alter ego Katie Keys (or @tinylittlepoems) has written and posted a daily poem on Twitter or Instagram for nearly a decade. Her work has been published or commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne, the Australia Council, Kill Your Darlings, Overland Journal, and anthologies, magazines and blogs in Australia, Singapore and the UK.

and she says:

The internet has given birth to an exciting new world of digital poetry. Putting your poems onto Instagram (or other social media platforms) can connect you to a vibrant online community and expose your work to a much broader audience.

The workshop was a succinct introduction to ways of putting your words, usually along with an image, onto a social media platform. Kate mainly focused on using the Over app to do this, and within a remarkably short time, had most of the twenty or so participants posting a fresh poem on Instragram.

Some Instapoets have developed huge followings and gained greater exposure and financial benefit than would have been possible following the traditional publishing path. The most famous is Rupi Kaur, an Indian born Canadian poet, writer, illustrator, and performer. There is much debate in the poetry community about the merit of InstaPoetry, but it cannot be denied that it has introduced poetry to an audience that it would not otherwise have reached. The downside risk as that poets will be tempted to “write for clicks” rather than for quality, resulting in a plethora of “Hallmark card” / inspirational poems.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of short poems on the theme of “The President’s Mirror”. InstaPoetry is a perfect medium for exposing these poems to a wider audience. I’ve started reformatting them for Instagram, and am posting one a day for the next month or so (one example shown above). You can follow me on Instagram here  or via the Instagram app. The latest posts are also shown on the right hand side of this blog.


copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Paroxysm Album Tribute Gig – Nevermind, Nirvana

nirvanagig

Friday 19th July 2019 at 19:30
Broadcast Bar
66A Grote Street, Adelaide, South Australia 5000

Six writers / poets (including me) will give their response to tracks from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album.  This is one of a series of gigs run by Paroxysm Press over the years, in which they invite writers to perform their work in between blasting out tracks from the chosen artist. I’ve taken part in previous gigs which featured Kate Bush and the Divinyls. Kerryn Tredrea of Paroxysm Press curates these events and always picks interesting albums and an eclectic mix of writers. The results are often zany, unpredictable, edgy, chaotic, inspired, fresh and entertaining.

The Facebook event is here

This description of Paroxysm Press will give you an idea of the sort of evening to expect:

“Paroxysm Press rose from the gutter of the Australian music scene in 98’. It’s been fighting tooth and nail ever since to publish the type of hard edge, honest and high impact writing we all love and live for ourselves.

Poetry and prose, ‘shotgun’ fiction, rapid-read novellas; tight, slick, hard hitting spoken word that can hold the stage and keep an audience on their toes even in front of hundreds of drunken music fans. The Paroxysm Crew carry with them a passion, a stubborn anger and a strong awareness of their need to entertain that sees them now among the best authors this country has to offer.

Paroxysm Press simply refuses to die; we will not back down, we will not go away. Every year we get bigger, every year we expand our audience and (most importantly) our much valued, much loved cult following. Like-minded writers from around the world now gather here with us to fight for the power of words. Bigger name authors stand by our side even when the rewards are less than they can receive elsewhere because they too believe in the hard, tough, true to life material we publish. They see Paroxysm fight against a world it can never beat – but they stay anyway – because they can see the fire in our eyes.

Paroxysm Press : ‘too stubborn to die’”

Film Review: “Rolling Thunder Revue – A Bob Dylan Story” By Martin Scorsese

The best documentary I’ve seen about rock music is “The Last Waltz” which centres on the final concert(s) given by The Band, and includes almost every rock legend of the time, from Bob Dylan, to Neil Young, to Joni Mitchell, to Eric Clapton and even Neil Diamond. “The Last Waltz” was a Martin Scorsese film, and so is “Rolling Thunder Revue ….”.

This appears to be a documentary of the 1975/76  tour across America in which Dylan and his band played 57 concerts, in mostly smallish venues, in a 7 month period. Some of the venues look almost like aged care facilities, some are on Indian reservations, others in towns so mundane that the populace is astounded that Dylan would even bother stopping there. The artists on tour with Dylan include Mick Ronson (ex Bowie guitarist), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Joan Baez, Alan Ginsberg and T-Bone Burnett.

The restored video of these concerts captures Dylan at the absolute top of his game. He stalks and snarls around the stage and puts everything into the songs. His face is painted white, his hat is set with flowers, his teeth are bared yellow. His facial expressions as he sings are priceless. As Joan Baez says, there is nobody who can match his charisma and probably never will be. The concerts are interleaved with discussions with current day Dylan and others involved in the tour.

Something to watch out for is that this film is partially spoof. It presents as a documentary but Scorsese and Dylan have planted practical jokes within it – for instance Sharon Stone appears implying that she and Dylan had an affair on tour (they didn’t), a fake movie director complains that he was the one behind the film (he is a fictional character). Dylan gives a coded warning of this early in the film, when he says “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” The title also hints at it – “A Bob Dylan Story”.

This is 2 hours and 20 minutes of Dylan at his peak. If you don’t like Dylan, you might be won over at the end. If you do like him, this is unmissable.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

TV Mini Series – Chernobyl

Horrifying yet gripping, this series is both hard to watch and compulsive viewing. HBO has produced five episodes, about seventy minutes each, which give an account of what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine in 1986.
The series starts in the home of a man, whom we later learn to be a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, in the aftermath of the disaster. It then moves inside the control room of the plant on the fateful day, when, of all things, a safety check is being conducted. A sense of dysfunction and panic pervades the room. We are taken then to the nearby high-rises where people go about their normal lives, but soon congregate on a railway bridge to watch the awe-inspiring sight of the power plant on fire and the glowing sky.

The following episodes track the initial denial of the seriousness of the disaster, followed by the reluctant but inevitable recognition that immediate and drastic action is required to limit the catastrophe. The story revolves around three figures – Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister, and a fictional character, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) who is a composite of various concerned Soviet nuclear physicists. It depicts a political system designed to protect its reputation above all other things. The bravery and sacrifice of ordinary working men and women is in stark contrast to the self-serving cowardice and incompetence of the political class and time-servers. The cost imposed on the innocents living in proximity to the plant is most vividly represented by the fate of one of the firemen initially sent on the hopeless task of putting out the fire, and his pregnant wife.

It brings to my mind the denial and obfuscation by our own incompetent, self-serving political class, incapable of even recognising, let alone addressing the clear and present dangers of climate change.

The series has had mixed reviews in Russia, where it is viewed by some as an unfair portrayal of the response to the disaster. Certainly, some of the characters appear to be one-dimensional. The use of the composite character of Ulana Khomyuk has also been criticised as misrepresenting the efforts of the wider Soviet scientific community.
Regardless of these shortcomings, this is a terrifying and timely reminder of what can go wrong when corners are cut, workers are not trained sufficiently and political imperatives override the welfare of the community. In the case of a nuclear power plant, unimaginable disaster is the inevitable result.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel about …. loneliness, trauma, friendship, community, recovery, office politics, mother-daughter relationships. At times very moving, at times hilarious, at times the characters make you cringe in embarrassment. This is a wonderful book which I found grabbed me from the start. It’s Honeyman’s first novel and therefore an incredibly impressive feat to pull off such a polished book.

Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely young woman whose life consists of an office job during the week, and a weekend consuming vodka and pasta, and talking to nobody. She possesses zero social skills and is the brunt of jokes amongst her work colleagues. Once a week she is the subject of a conversation with her mother, in which she is put down, mocked and humiliated.

Early on in the story she becomes infatuated, from a distance, with a pub singer. She is convinced that their futures lie together and formulates a plan which she expects will lead to them becoming life partners. Where this book then becomes more interesting and insightful is in depicting the way in which, against her will almost, Eleanor is exposed to the warmer side of the Glasgow community in which she lives, a warmth that she has never before experienced. It also takes us into her mental state, the dark story behind her childhood, and the route to her salvation.

We have probably all met an Eleanor Oliphant in our lives, and probably been unkind towards her or at best ignored her. This book gives us pause to think about why people are the way they are, and how a kind word or invitation can make a huge difference to people who have rarely experienced them. If it has a weakness it is that perhaps the characters are a bit too black and white – either totally evil, or wonderfully warm and kind. But this does not detract from the power of the story. Highly recommended.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019


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