Needle in the Asian haystack

Wilding’s hero must navigate Kolkata’s chaotic streets.ASIAN DAWN. By Michael Wilding. Arcadia. 226pp. $24.95
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Plant, the astutely named private detective in Michael Wilding’s novels, knows little about Asia and cares less about going there. But in this latest yarn, he shakes off his grass-induced torpor, leaves his Queensland hideaway and, drawn to the offer of paid work and a credit card, takes the case.

The elegant owner of a Gold Coast gallery, Alice Ackerman, wants him to find her husband Alec, who is missing, somewhere in the region. ”Asia. It covered a lot of territory,” Plant reflects.

Trawling for Alec through Bangkok, Kolkata, Manila, Baguio, Singapore, and Pattaya, Plant nets some large, small, and queer fish, some of whom literally make him sick.

All the perfumes of Arabia will not redeem his Kolkata hotel room after one such episode. In his bycatch are bottom-feeding species from academia, publishing, and intelligence. All are served up for satire, as is Plant himself: for in his time he has fought the work ethic, and has said yes to free love, contraception, and drugs.

All these, Plant learns, are now global industries owned by the same names.

Academics, Alice tells him, ”are jealous people. Not a very nice breed at all.” She seems to be right: ”A good lad for someone who wasn’t a footballer,” is the best recommendation an Australian professor has for Plant. Getting his own back, the current breed of academics, Plant alleges, favour baggy clothes, body piercing and androgyny. One of them, Dr Bowles, who has wangled a university job in Bangkok, scores cheap sex by hanging around the brothels until closing time. He is sarcastically called ”Bowels” by Prem, an ex-Colombo Plan student who, having overstayed, knows so much about Australia that he can call it ”the lucky country” and giggle.

Bowles is a spook, according to Professor Ghosh, the missing Alec’s former Sydney colleague, who staggers on with a silver-topped stick, and imperiously orders Plant about. Ganja is no longer available in Kolkata, he declares, just before Plant buys a bagful in the street.

Ghosh delivers long, impassioned, self-interested assertions about all and sundry yet fails to impart the key information he has about where Alec is.

As for publications, Ghosh and Alec have achieved precious little. At Asian Dawn Publishing, their Manila affiliate, the same applies to Johnny the bookseller and Alfredo the writer. One accepts subsidies from the CIA and the other writes propaganda for some mayor. No books are visible. There are, Johnny laments, ”so many fronts and feints and subterfuges in this part of the world”.

Secret agencies threaten people for doing what they are themselves engaged in. Today’s bogey is terrorists, yesterday it was guerillas. General MacArthur in the Philippines, Plant is reminded, had the communists declared illegal after they won seats in the 1950 elections, creating the Hukbalahap rebellion.

When Benigno Aquino flew back to Manila to contest the 1983 elections, at the airport a security man shot him and was then shot too, American style. (Plant’s informants call him ”Nino” instead of Ninoy).

James Bond he is not, nor George Clooney either, but Plant is not always the slouch he appears to be. A master of the one-word sentence and quick repartee, he gives little away. The problem is, neither does anyone else. Even after Plant locates Alec he loses him again not once but twice, and in the end Alec’s death remains unexplained, as do the deaths of Bowles and Starr, the CIA agent.

The name Kolkata dates the story after 2001, but from Plant’s reluctant use of the internet you’d hardly know it. Having no laptop, Plant wonders whether to make a list in his head or commit it to paper which might be found.

Ghosh and Ackerman seem not to have computers and don’t use email. None of them has a mobile phone. Plant hunts for monographs in the library and bookshop, not in the university’s web catalogue, and when trying to find out Starr’s background he doesn’t think of Google or Facebook. Why ever not?

On page one, Plant humbly admits another shortcoming: he’s never been good with strong women. Both Alice and the only other woman in the story, Anna-Imelda, are always either in come-on or dominatrix mode, implying that when they are good they are good for one thing, and when they are not they are horrid.

Both have lived with Alec, but Plant’s one-sentence questioning style elicits nothing about those relationships, let alone why either might want him dead. Both proposition Plant, and the last page leaves it open whether or not he will succumb to Alice’s charms.

So in spite of Wilding’s subtle humour, and his perceptive observation of several Asian societies, the novel remains unconsummated. A sequel will be welcome.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Unsettling true tale of espionage and heartbreak

UNDERCOVER. By Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Faber. 352pp. $27.99.
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I once spent two weeks learning how to win the trust of strangers by lying to them. There was a good reason for it. If successful I would be a NSW Police undercover officer, my job to befriend and betray criminals. Trust is a fragile thing. Hard won. Easily lost. It glues relationships, families, societies together. Citizens cede power to government institutions and trust the individuals in them to exercise that power ethically. Undercover details a decades-long betrayal of public trust by a secret British undercover police operation tasked with spying on “domestic subversives”.

Unknown and unaccountable to the wider police force, the SDS – Special Demonstration Squad – was set up in 1968 after police were caught unprepared by Vietnam War protests in London.

Undercover police had been used in short-term operations to arrest criminals but Special Branch Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon proposed a radical innovation, to infiltrate political protest groups with officers using fake identities. They would live undercover for years, they would never give evidence, nor would their information be used in a trial.

The officers called themselves “the hairies,” they spied on groups ranging from anarchists to anti-road campaigners and animal rights activists. Their motto was “by any means necessary” and those means resulted in the systematic targeting of women, not because they were particularly active or radical but because they made the officers’ cover story more authentic.

In one case a woman was shattered by the disappearance of her partner of seven years, only to be further traumatised years later when she discovered he’d been a police spy. As the undercover officers’ exit stories usually involved claims of a mental breakdown followed by a disappearance many women were distraught, imagining their partner had killed himself.

Most troubling of all are the cases of children born to fathers who, at the completion of their mission, abandoned women and children with no emotional or financial support or way of tracking his real identity.

It’s therefore fitting that the operation was uncovered when one woman set out to find her partner, Mark Stone, only to discover that he didn’t exist, and his name belonged to a dead child. When Stone was found and confronted he confessed his real name was Mark Kennedy and he was a policeman. The 42-year secret operation was exposed.

The story of Kennedy’s exposure spread online, leading Guardian journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis to the story; the result is Undercover. They reveal the undercover officer who withheld information that led to the wrongful conviction of a group of activists and another who helped write the famous McLibel leaflet, which left his lover fighting in court for years.

The operation’s purpose was to gather intelligence but when a small London activist group’s membership consisted primarily of Special Branch, MI5 and corporate undercover spies it feels more like an Ealing comedy than Spooks.

The saddest revelation of all comes towards the end of Undercover, with the discovery that the campaign for justice for the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence was targeted in order to find something – anything – that would damage its credibility. Forty-two years after the SDS began in response to police embarrassment over protests in London, the power of the institution was harnessed, not to try to discover who murdered a teenage boy, but to try to deflect criticism over their botched investigation of the murder.

So far, Evans and Lewis have identified 10 ex-covert officers. Another 12 are known and it is calculated that from 1968 to the present, 100 to 150 officers have been active.

Eight women whose lovers were spying on them on behalf of the state are taking legal action.

Undercover is powerful proof of the crucial role of investigative journalism in exposing secrets and holding governments and their institutions to account. By way of contrast, there are currently 14 government inquiries into the scandal – none of them public.

P.M.Newton’s novel Beams Falling will be published this month.

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Cooking up a catchphrase

Acting a part: MKR participants don’t want a restaurant, just a TV contract.Well, they’ve all been building, dieting and cooking for at least a week, and what do we have? Nothing new, at all. The grab bag of cliches about putting in 110 per cent, with everything riding on this, and the importance of the journey, are wheeled out before the credits.
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These reality contests are no longer about the grout or the sit-ups. They are auditions for guest spots on The Project. Who will be the breakout star? The Dr Rochford, the Chrissie Swan, the Fitzy of Fitzy and Whipper?

Not so long ago, Australians were uncomfortable and self-conscious speaking to camera. Americans always played bit parts when interviewed: the tough guy, the doorman, the cigarette girl. Movies have told them how to deliver a line, unprompted, for nearly a century. We had no such expectations, so rarely had we seen ourselves on screen doing anything other than play sport.

Now, these obnoxious creatures arrive with fully formed TV personae and speak in sound bites they hope will make the promos. On My Kitchen Rules (Seven, Monday, 7.30pm) couples arrive as the bitchy twins, the country couple, the old fogies, and they act, very badly, their parts. They don’t want a restaurant. They want a TV contract.

As these franchises age, the host/judge/presenters become more accomplished at using the same pauses, brow raises and decrees. Their charges have rehearsed signature tunes, catchphrases and the sort of attention-seeking behaviour we hate in preschoolers. They are almost unbearable to watch.

On The Block (Nine, Monday, 7.30pm), the returned heroes swagger around like Hawkeye Pierce. Battle-hardened and aware of their best angles, they are greedy for the spotlight. So knowing, so smug. These aren’t fourth-time Olympians; they are DIY try-hards, so desperate for a red carpet, they could nearly weave one on a loom. The idiotic challenges Blockheads face are just a trap for new players. Oh, what it must be to confidently gyp-rock on telly. What a triumph.

If the new potential reality stars are misguided in their efforts, they look positively authentic compared with the new poets of advertising. Obviously, the industry is attracting different creatives these days, but who knew the epic poets would all sign up to flog junk.

Co-opting a pop song is one thing, but messing with Walt Whitman via Robin Williams to sell kiddies a jumped-up Game Boy is something else. Yes, that new iPad campaign, featuring the dimly familiar soliloquy from Dead Poets Society, is supposed to make us feel better about playing Candy Crush in the doctor’s waiting room. Shame on you Apple. Steve Jobs would be rolling. I don’t want to seize the day, just the throats of the cynical ad execs.

A cheap, nasty bed company is playing fast and loose with Dr Seuss’ The Sleep Book. These people are appealing to the lyrically tired, with a bit of rubbish poetry and what sounds like a slab of Debussy, to comfort the great unrested. They won’t rest until we are all tucked up in our perfect, cheap, appalling beds.

The girls who sleep in these beds presumably wake up and pen some shocking self-absorbed pap because they have eaten a little tub of yoghurt. The much more likely poem: ”My bitch mother is still asleep and won’t get up to make toast, so I’m stuck with this crap in the fridge” doesn’t make charming copy. So let’s celebrate independent adolescence with some lyric nonsense.

Ads are short. Why don’t copywriters try a haiku if they want to cut through the wall of reality-TV jargon?

Back on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, the trainers on The Biggest Loser (Ten, Sunday, 6.30pm) were trying to shake just the right cocktail of compassion and menace as they forced some very heavy sedentary contestants to climb 10,000 steps. No haikus for these hulks. But the pop psychology and pithy platitudes rolled from their lips as effortlessly as a fat woman down a flight of stairs.

All country folk, none of them stopped to comment or gasp about the annoyingly low pitch line or gradient of those particular stairs. They are disturbingly shallow, for one ascension. After 100 attempts of those stairs, the novelty would wear thin. So much nuance is lost in reality TV, in spite of putting in 110 per cent.

Devil Island

ABC1, Saturday, 6pm

This series about an ambitious plan to reintroduce healthy Tasmanian devils into the wild is a must for kids.

Hello Birdy

ABC1, Saturday, 6.30pm

William McInnes is an unlikely but charming host for this series about Australian birds.

The Broken Shore

ABC1, Sunday, 8.30pm

Don Hany roams thoughtfully through a lot of beautiful wild Victorian countryside. Good looking and the story’s not bad, either.

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Secondhand car prices could drop on commission recommendation

Prices of used cars could tumble if a recommendation by the Productivity Commission to reduce regulation on importing second-hand cars is adopted by the federal government.
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Such regulatory changes could also make new cars cheaper, particularly sports and luxury models that can cost much more than identical models sold in other countries.

In its preliminary report on the struggling Australian car industry, the commission touched on the issue of imported second-hand cars, which are heavily regulated, reducing the numbers sold and making it difficult for them to be sold here.

Longer term it recommends removing barriers to importing second-hand cars, citing increased consumer choice and reduced prices.

“The commission expects that, in the long term, the removal of unjustified restrictions to the large-scale importation of second-hand vehicles would benefit the community as a whole,” the report says.

“Restrictions on the importation of second-hand vehicles, particularly the barriers to large-scale importation of such vehicles, reduce competition.”

However industry experts have warned of safety, environmental and regulatory issues if such import barriers were removed.

“Australia has a fine history in enforcing vehicle safety standards and setting the bar high,” said David McCarthy, the senior communications manager for Mercedes-Benz.

“The provenance of the vehicle, its safety and emissions [standards would all be unknown].”

Mr McCarthy also pointed to concerns about rebirthed and stolen cars entering the country.

“There is not an international system that tracks the ownership of vehicles,” he said. “Vehicles being rebirthed or stolen is a major problem [in markets that readily allow cheap second-hand imports].”

His comments were backed up by Santo Amoddio, the managing director of resale industry bible Glass’s Guide. “There’s no doubt it would lead to the reduction in used car prices of some cars,” he said.

“But it comes with significant risk. There would be no way to establish the true history of the vehicle, which has always been a problem with New Zealand cars.”

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When baby brings the blues

Bumpy ride: Low moods in pregnancy can come from a lack of sleep or hormone changes. Photo: iStock’It is believed that at the baby’s birth a ‘guilt chip’ is inserted into every mother.” This is a quote from a new book about dealing with the depression that can affect one in 10 women either during pregnancy or after the birth of their child. It’s a line that’s funny enough to raise a smile – unless you’re a woman with postnatal depression (PND) who’s afraid her depressive symptoms have harmed her baby.
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Mothers can feel guilt for lots of reasons but for a woman with PND it often comes from a fear that her depression will break the mother-baby bond, causing psychological damage to her child as a result, says psychiatrist Gordon Parker, Scientia Professor of Psychiatry at the University of NSW. He is one of the authors of Overcoming the Baby Blues, a new book about coping with depression in pregnancy or after giving birth.

This guilt, along with the stigma that still clings to mental illness, can discourage many women from getting the help they need to get well, he says.

“But even if a mother has depression for the first few weeks or months after the birth, once she’s recovered the bond can be restored,” he says. “What stops some women from getting treatment is the fear of having the baby taken away if there are doubts about her ability to cope. Yet it’s only in extreme cases of mental illness that government services are likely to be called in and while this intervention is rare, it’s generally supportive.”

PND often comes as a complete surprise, affecting women who’ve had no problems with depression before.

“It seems to come out of nowhere but when you take a history you often find that someone in the family had a problem with depression so there’s often a genetic predisposition that loads the gun while hormonal changes in pregnancy fire the bullet,” Parker says.

Along with genes, other risk factors include hormonal influences including a thyroid imbalance or being prone to PMS, having a traumatic delivery or a caesarean and extreme fatigue or insomnia after the birth.

Women who tend to be perfectionist or anxious can also become depressed if life with a new baby feels out of control, he says.

As for women who have experienced depressive episodes before they become pregnant, in Parker’s experience they often manage to get through pregnancy without medication – although they’re still at risk of developing PND.

“Women often say, ‘I’m thinking of getting pregnant – should I stop taking medication?’ If they have serious and difficult to treat depressive episodes I’d advise them to stay on it. But with milder depression, my approach is to taper off their medication and only reintroduce an anti-depressant if depression re-emerges,” he says.

That’s not to say that pregnancy guarantees a good mood that lasts for nine months. Many normal aspects of pregnancy can make women feel down such as lack of sleep, feeling fatigued and trying to adjust to a changing body.

“Women often sleep poorly during pregnancy not because they’re depressed but because they’re pregnant and poor sleep can lead to depression-like symptoms or increased levels of body chemicals that can cause these symptoms,” he says. “So when symptoms of low mood appear in pregnancy it’s important to talk to your doctor to find out what’s going on. Is it depression, the pregnancy itself or just disturbed sleep?”

Overcoming Baby Blues by Professor Gordon Parker, Kerrie Eyers and Professor Philip Boyce, Allen & Unwin, $27.99

For help, contact beyondblue on 1300224636.

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Thrills, chills aplenty this summer

Katherine Howell, former paramedic turned award-winning creator of Ella Marconi. Photo: Marco Del GrandeSunscreen, fly repellent and a good crime novel are all essential requirements for a holiday at the coast or for just lazing around the backyard. Every summer there is a flood of light, criminal fiction and this year is no different with plenty of action, suspense and mystery on offer. This summer it is particularly pleasing to see a strong contingent of Australian crime novels.
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Leading the way is Peter Corris’ 39th novel about Sydney private eye Cliff Hardy, Silent Kill (Allen & Unwin, $29.99). Hardy is hired to bodyguard a charismatic populist, Rory O’Hara, on a tour of regional Australia, but things quickly fall apart following a kidnapping and murder. Hired to investigate the murder, Hardy finds that there are powerful political and commercial forces that want O’Hara kept quiet for good. This is a professional and entertaining story that quickly gathers interest as Corris takes the reader on an enjoyable journey through the backstreets of Sydney and on a road trip to Wollongong and Darwin and eventually to Canberra, which gets a quick serve from Hardy: ”I wouldn’t say Canberra’s an advertisement for creativity and productivity.” The pacing is brisk and Corris smoothly mixes astute political observations with genuine thrills. The story is engaging and the book builds to a taut, exciting climax. One of the best in this long-running series.

The pacing is more subdued in Stephen Orr’s dark, literary crime novel One Boy Missing (Text, $29.99). Set in a small rural town it is an eloquently written story about a missing child, dark crimes and the chance of redemption. Powerful and thought-provoking.

Lighter reading fare is provided by Kathryn Ledson’s Monkey Business (Penguin, $29.99). This is the second in Ledson’s series about part-time Melbourne vigilante Erica Jewell and once more features a fast moving plot, engaging characters and a large dollop of romantic suspense. Easy reading for the beach or pool.

Later in the summer, readers can also look forward to the latest book by Katherine Howell in her series about Sydney Detective Ella Marconi, Deserving Death (Macmillan, $29.99), and Tony Cavanagh’s third novel, The Train Rider (Hachette, $29.99), about ex-homicide detective Darian Richards, who is once more chasing serial killers in Queensland.

Serial killers also dominate the summer reading from overseas. Patricia Cornwell provides yet another blood-soaked tale featuring Kay Scarpetta, Dust (Little Brown, $39.99), in which the chief medical adviser hunts a brutal killer against the backdrop of designer drugs and high level corruption.

Newcomer James Carol makes a solid entry into the serial killer stakes with his first novel, Broken Dolls (Faber, $19.99). The son of an infamous serial killer, former FBI profiler Jefferson Winter now works as a consultant to police forces around the world. Hired by Scotland Yard, he finds himself in London chasing a psychopath who likes abducting and lobotomising young women. A grisly read.

Brian McGilloway also takes the reader down some dark paths with Hurt (Corsair, $29.99). Set in the darkly realised Irish town of Derry, it follows the police investigation into the murder of a teenage girl and a possible paedophile ring. Packed with convincing characters and grittily described locations, it is a tense and suspenseful chiller that confirms McGilloway’s status as one of the best new British crime writers.

Admirers of good British crime fiction can look forward to the imminent release of Peter May’s Entry Island, (Quercus, $29.99). Following the success of his recent trilogy set on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, May moves the action in his latest book to the small and remote Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada. A murder seems to have its origins in the dark history of the island and the forced clearances of the Scottish Outer Hebrides 200 years ago. Well written with vivid descriptions and a strong sense of history, this is superior crime fiction.

For those who prefer dark, suburban thrillers with unreliable narrators and old secrets, there are good examples from both sides of the Atlantic. During the past seven years, or so, Lisa Unger has steadily established herself as a rising star of the American thriller scene and In The Blood, (Simon & Schuster, $29.99) is probably her best novel to date. Lana Granger is trying to escape her past in a quiet college town in upstate New York. When a fellow student goes missing, Lana finds her past and her relationship with a troubled young boy under close examination as her careful web of lies unravels. This is a clever and tricky thriller that reveals its many surprises with clockwork precision. The story moves at a good pace and the suspense steadily but quickly mounts. Some matters are predictable, but the final twists will catch you out. Highly recommended.

Also quite good is Lucie Whitehouse’s Before We Met, (Bloomsbury, $27.99), due out this month. This domestic gothic thriller traverses similar territory to recent releases by Sophie Hannah and Sabine Durrant. After a whirlwind romance Hannah Reilly is settled in London with her wealthy new husband Mark. It seems perfect until Mark does not return from a business trip to America. Hannah makes a few simple inquiries and … he’s been lying. The more she digs the greater the deception appears and soon Hannah begins to fear for her life.

Whitehouse is good at gradually building the suspense and adding twist upon twist. The pace meanders at times, but overall this a solid psychological thriller with an engaging, if unstable, narrator.

There is also the customary selection of bulky thrillers about tough secret agents, grand conspiracies and international skulduggery.

Robert Ludlum contributes his usual fast-paced feast of action from beyond the grave, The Bourne Retribution (Orion, $32.99), with Eric Van Lustbader completing another entry in the Jason Bourne series for the long-deceased Ludlum.

Dean Crawford provides wild action with a science fiction tinge in The Eternity Project, (Simon & Schuster, $24.99), but the pick of the thrillers is John Lawton’s Then We Take Berlin, (Grove Press, $29.99). Moving seamlessly back and forth between 1963 and the 1940s, the story focuses on former MI6 agent and black market ring leader in occupied Berlin, John Holderness. Retired from the service and his thieving days, Holderness is enticed back into work by an old colleague who wants him to do one last scam and smuggle someone across the Berlin Wall on the eve of President Kennedy’s visit to the city.

This meticulously researched and richly detailed historical thriller is a gripping story of espionage and war and people caught up in the unfolding of dramatic events. As with his series about Inspector Troy, Lawton marvellously captures the atmosphere of the post-World War II period and the story rattles along at a good pace keeping the reader entertained from beginning to end.

Finally, for those who enjoy quirky crime novels there is Shane Kuhn’s appealingly titled Kill Your Boss, (Sphere, $29.99). John Lago works for Human Resources, Inc, a company which specialises in providing assassins disguised as interns. These rogue interns are infiltrated into companies where they get close to the selected target and kill them. As Lago notes early on: ”Interns are invisible. Ultimately, your target will trust you with his life and that is when you will take it.” At 25, Lago is becoming too old to be an intern and is about to perform his last job for the company, but he suspects that he will not be allowed to retire peacefully and sets out to ensure his survival.

Kill Your Boss is a highly entertaining thriller that mixes graphic violence and action with amusing asides and some very dark humour. The plot frequently veers out of control, and the cartoon nature of the violence could have been usefully toned down, but overall it is a memorable and thrilling tale. In all, enough good reading to last through the summer holidays.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Young a challenge for carmakers, says Mazda boss

Young people are said to be falling out of love with cars.The global boss of Mazda has conceded young people are falling out of love with the car, presenting vehicle makers with their most difficult challenge for future relevance.
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What was once a rite of passage and a symbol of personal identity has seemingly become a hassle for younger generations. In industrialised countries around the world, including Australia, car ownership and licence possession among the young is falling.

In an interview with Fairfax Media this week, visiting Mazda global president Masamichi Kogai said younger people’s growing indifference about car ownership had become a serious challenge for vehicle makers.

“I have to admit that, in Japan in particular, young people don’t buy cars anymore,” Mr Kogai said through an interpreter.

“In the Japanese market, demand has been declining for many years so for the brands in Japan it has become a real dogfight to get sales from the other brands … unless you can develop and build products that young people really want, you’re never going to succeed.”

A University of Michigan study found the number of carless households in America grew from 8.7 per cent in 2007 to 9.2 per cent in 2012. By comparison, Australia’s love affair with the car remains steady. Last year, Australians bought a record 1.136 million new vehicles.

But a 2010 NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics study showed people under 35 were far less likely to hold a licence compared with previous eras.

Two decades ago, 79 per cent of the state’s 20- to 24-year-olds had their full licence. That fell to 51 per cent by 2009. In the same period, the number of 15- to 19-year-olds with a full licence dropped by 20 per cent.

Glen Fuller, an associate professor at the University of Canberra, said the car had lost its relevance with a significant number of young Australians as the internet and other technology increased communication.

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Limbang rebellion book review: Vivid account of jungle assault

LIMBANG REBELLION: 7 DAYS IN DECEMBER 1962Eileen ChaninNewSouth, 249pp, $34.99  
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The “sketch map” of Limbang in the opening section of this book evokes a long-vanished world made famous by Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Isolated in the Borneo jungle, on a bend in the Limbang River, lies a small British colonial outpost, with its police station, hospital, district office, DO’s house, mosque and Chinese shop-houses.

The map depicts Limbang as it was in December, 1962. This was a pivotal year in South-East Asia. The United States, having shunned military commitment in Laos, was stepping up its involvement in South Vietnam. The British, on the other hand, were pulling out of the region as fast as was decently possible. As they prepared to wind down their commitment East of Suez, the British were promoting the idea of a new federation, to be called Malaysia.

This would bring together five territories: peninsular Malaya, which had been independent since 1957; Singapore, a self-governing entity and one of the world’s richest and busiest ports, and Britain’s three north Borneo dependencies – Sarawak, Brunei and British North Borneo (Sabah).

The prime minister of Malaya, the courtly, Cambridge-educated Tunku Abdul Rahman, liked the idea of Malaysia. There was considerable opposition to the plan, however, in other potential member states, not least in the Sultanate of Brunei, the shrivelled remnant of a once-great Malay Muslim trading state.

There, after decades of somnolence, political and social pressures were building to dangerous levels. Those pressures, which included a heady dose of Bruneian chauvinism and irredentism, would soon erupt in a sudden burst of violence.

A. M. Azahari, a charismatic Brunei politician who had spent his formative years in Indonesia, wanted no part of Malaysia. He was electrifying his followers in the Partai Ra’ayat (People’s Party), which had swept all before it in the 1962 polls, with a call for a restored Greater Brunei.

Azahari wanted a federation of the three Borneo states headed by the Sultan of Brunei as a constitutional monarch. The Sultan was sitting on the fence. Thwarted by the British, Azahari set up a clandestine armed wing, the North Borneo National Army, or TNKU, allegedly with help from Indonesia.

At 2am on December 8, 1962, Azahari’s men attacked police posts and other targets across Brunei, including Brunei Town (now Bandar Seri Begawan), the tiny capital. They also seized Limbang, which is in Sarawak, 19 kilometres upriver from the Brunei capital.

The British Resident in Limbang was Richard (Dick) Morris, an Australian. He and his wife Dorothy were taken hostage by about 350-400 agitated, angry men.

The British quickly recaptured Brunei Town: Gurkhas were flown in from Singapore the same day. But Limbang was to remain in rebel hands for five days. The hostages were only freed on December 12 when an 89-strong company of Royal Marines assaulted Limbang from the river, killing 15 rebels, losing five dead themselves and putting the insurgents to flight.

This book, written by Dick Morris’s daughter-in-law, paints a compelling picture of the fortitude, the stoicism, the sense of duty, the stiff-upper-lip good humour shown by Dick and Dorothy Morris in a time of tension and danger.

It also gives an engrossing account of the bold commando assault on Limbang. Chanin’s account of the improvised attack, the Marines travelling by night in two commandeered barges, will delight any military buff.

She has a great deal of material taken from interviews, memoirs, journal articles, unit war diaries, official reports, colonial-era newspapers, Dick Morris’s papers and Dorothy Morris’s engaging letters (the book is, in part, a reverential family history). This allows her to bring the story vividly to life.

The problem is that these voices are almost all British or Australian. There are no Brunei Malay or Kedayan opposition voices, save for Azahari’s public comments at the time.There is virtually nothing first-hand from the “other side”.

Another problem is that Chanin rather over-eggs the Limbang cake. Brunei, not Limbang, was always the centre of the action. Limbang was a sideshow, albeit a bloody one.

The Brunei Revolt had important consequences. Indonesia, struck by the degree of anti-Malaysia feeling in Brunei, then tried to stir up a revolt among left-leaning Chinese in Sarawak, hoping to convince the world the people of North Borneo were opposed to Malaysia.

That led in turn to Konfrontasi, a three-year (1963-66) conflict in which Indonesia sent soldiers, saboteurs and terrorists into Sarawak and Sabah, Malaya and Singapore. In response, Britain and Australia deployed troops up to 10 kilometres inside Indonesian Borneo. There, in jungle ambushes, they sometimes killed as many as 10-15 Indonesian soldiers at a time.

The Indonesians knew we were doing it. They did not complain, presumably because we were doing no more than they were doing themselves.

Unlike President Yudhoyono, president Sukarno did not withdraw his ambassador in Canberra when things did not go his way.

David Jenkins, a former Herald foreign editor, is writing a book about former president Suharto.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

A life well-lived on the B-list

Australian actor and author Trader Faulkner with Tom Bell and Susannah York in a scene from Promenade.INSIDE TRADER. By Trader Faulkner. Scribe. 354pp. $35.
Nanjing Night Net

The title was inevitable of course. After auditioning successfully in 1950 for The Lady’s Not for Burning, the young aspirant was asked his name by director John Gielgud. Told ”Ronald Faulkner”, Gielgud replied, ”Ronald! Oh, God! What a dreary name!” and was elated to learn Faulkner’s ”down-under” nickname was Trader.

His autobiography puns on the idea of what goes on inside the author and the kinds of inside information we get about the great and the – well, not necessarily – good.

It’s hard to be sure how many people, in his native Australia at least, will remember who he is. Not that this need matter too much if the story he has to tell is an entertaining one, as he makes his way from a somewhat messy Sydney childhood to the periphery of the great world of international acting media.

He is probably best described as a jobbing actor. He never really came near the top on stage or screen but blessed, as he modestly puts it, with ”good looks and natural charm”, he managed to stay in work fairly steadily (give or take a stint at house-painting) over a surprisingly long time. Theatre was his chief goal from his time with the Independent Theatre in Sydney, under the directorial hand of legendary Doris Fitton, when the call of nature – the bladder to be exact – interfered with his scene as the messenger in Hamlet.

Luck seemed to be heading his way when he replaced Richard Burton in The Lady’s Not for Burning when it went to Broadway, but this glitter was soon dulled back in England.

He landed a couple of insignificant movie roles, one of them indeed with Merle Oberon, whom he dares to describe as ”aloof” when years later she doesn’t remember him at a dinner party given by Larry and Viv (that’s the Oliviers).

Fortunately he’d learnt how to do a posh English accent and radio work kept him solvent. The 1955 season at Stratford, which first brought him in touch with the Oliviers, taught him ”the theatre’s greatest lesson: if you want to succeed, keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told”, but it didn’t bring very rewarding roles.

Yet it is interesting enough to read about an actor who, without ever establishing a recognisable presence across the acting forums, still managed to have a career.

The book’s tone is essentially anecdotal and gossipy. It has a cast-list that seems almost too starry for the lightweight narrative that is the story of Faulkner’s life: not just those named already but also Paul Scofield, Judith Anderson, Diane Cilento – and Marlene Dietrich.

Nearly everyone becomes, and is described as, a ”close friend”.

So there is almost the relief of contrast when he falls out with producer Glen Byam Shaw at Stratford. Or with Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray when he invites them to dinner on his London houseboat, forgets and goes out, and they are quite displeased, as you would be, having driven from Stratford for the occasion.

He may well now be best remembered for his biography of Peter Finch, whom he had known in Sydney in the 1940s. He had joined acting classes with Finch who ”widened my artistic horizon, and became a mentor and an elder brother figure”.

I’m not sure that the gifted but not wholly reliable Finch was the best role model for a young man just embarking on life’s journey, but Faulkner repaid his early debts by writing a substantial account of his mentor’s rackety life and glamorous career.

He is less likely to be remembered for his dedicated work in bringing the Spanish playwright Lorca to English audiences, and for his acquired Hispanophile proficiency in dancing the flamenco.

So what sort of man emerges from the 300-odd pages here? His personal relationships – with his alcoholic father who died when Trader was a small boy, his possessive mother, his wife Bobo who divorced him to go off with Harry M. Miller – were probably more complex than his prose is equal to.

His approach seems to be a matter of ”It’s being cheerful keeps me going” and, apart from a few careless errors that could easily have been checked (you won’t find the encomium, ”a lass unparalleled”, in Twelfth Night), it’s lightly readable as it steers a path between self-deprecation and self-congratulation. On the whole, the latter wins.

Brian McFarlane is Adjunct Professor, Swinburne Institute of Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

SPC Ardmona worker’s mother pleads to save family’s jobs

Contract workers leave the SPC Ardmona cannery in Shepparton. Photo: Justin McManusSome are in yellow, others in orange – a colour almost the same as the peaches produced by Shepparton’s SPC Ardmona cannery not far from the centre of town. As the cannery workers walk into or out of the cannery gate, high-vis vests are one of the dominant fashions. Shorts and singlets are another common work uniform.
Nanjing Night Net

So the woman standing on the footpath in a blue and white summer dress stands out from the workers, although she has a close bond with them. Kath Robinson, 67, is a former long-term cannery worker at the Ardmona cannery on the other side of town. And one of her three sons now works for SPC Ardmona.

She has come to the gateway of the cannery to show her support for a business that she believes simply must be saved.

”I’ve got three sons. One of them works here and the others work in the area – and I don’t want to lose them to this town,” she says. ”I risk losing three sons” from the district, she says, if SPC Ardmona were to close the cannery.

The comments make clear that Mrs Robinson values keeping her family close by extremely highly. And then she mentions the tragedy that hit her family just a few short years ago. In May 2010, her two grandsons Chase, 8, and Tyler Robinson, 6, died after a faulty gas heater in their Mooroopna home emitted soaring levels of carbon monoxide, which poisoned them. The tragic incident shocked the community and the entire state.

Mrs Robinson says that if the state government can commit large sums of money on redevelopments at Melbourne Park, it should be able to find the required funds for SPC Ardmona.

”I still think Napthine could give the $50 million,” she says.

”I feel that all the money’s been spent in Melbourne. And governments, whatever they are, don’t worry about rural [communities], and they need rural communities to keep the country going,” she says.

”I don’t think $25 million is that much to give to Shepparton when it will save jobs. And as Jenny Houlihan said, $25 million will easily go on unemployment [payments],” she says, if the cannery were to close.

”Where do they expect people to work? People can’t go and work in Melbourne. Melbourne couldn’t cope with everybody, and we can’t afford to go down there,” she says.

One of the workers to walk the well-travelled path from the footpath to the car park is long-term worker Gordon Cross. He says the federal government needs to give locally produced goods more protection from imported competitors.

”I do believe that the government really needs to start putting import duties on everything that comes into this country,” he says.

Other countries were strongly protecting their own locally made goods via import duties. ”Why aren’t we doing the same?” he asks.

Another worker describes the federal government’s decision to knock back a request for $25 million as ”pretty disappointing”.

Yet another, wearing one of the ubiquitous fluoro vests, identifies a particular electoral reality that he says disadvantaged SPC Ardmona’s bid for federal assistance. ”It’s a safe seat, that’s the problem.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.