Judge at the Golden Target Awards

June 29, 2015

News update:  I have been confirmed as a judge at this year’s (2015) “Golden Target Awards”, the “Oscars” of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), with judging commencing in mid-July.

GTA Logo 2015

Western Sydney train travel: A tribute to John Dengate

June 19, 2015

Earlier this week I received one of the best CD double albums in a long time: John Dengate’s Australian Son, which is now distributed by Shoestring Records in the Blue Mountains (and run by folksinger Pat Drummond). Dengate “was the closest heir to the legacy of Henry Lawson that this country has known”, writes Warren Fahey, in the Dengate obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald obituary on August 19, 2013.

Many of Dengate’s songs “have already passed into that hazy territory where the song is known and the songwriter anonymous”, Fahey writes.

“Train Trip to Guildford” (1975) is one of them. This song was also my ode for a two and a half year period in the 1980s that I spent travelling by train all over Western Sydney.

From the opening stanza:

Waiting, waiting for the twenty past four to arrive;
Mate, the twenty past four doesn’t run any more,
The next train’s the quarter past five.


But it’s Wentworthville, Pendle Hill;
We’re rattling towards Emu Plains.
I should have got out when I heard someone shout
At Granville, “You have to change trains.”

This was my song.

Sydney (Carlingford) born, Dengate captured this time and place – those interminable Western Sydney train journeys – during the age of the unheated “red rattlers” and prior to the construction of the “Y link” that connected Harris Park and Parramatta, the southern line to the Western line without having to change trains. I worked in Blacktown then, for the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), and I didn’t own a car. What was I thinking?

So I listen now – some 30 years later – to Dengate’s voice and his songs, yet again (my cassette tape of his songs long unusable). It was another time and another place, but that Australia of the 1970s and 1980s that Dengate writes and sings about makes us who we are now. Worth listening for anyone who has a sense of social history, or wants to understand.

Below, the Australian Son album cover:

John Dengate Australian Son album cover


Bookstores now and then

June 17, 2015

For those of us who love physical bookshops, the last ten years have been a time of almost continual loss. This thought struck me as I read Adam Gopnik’s touching New Yorker tribute to the now-departed La Hune bookstore in Paris (“When a bookstore closes, an argument ends”, June 12, 2015).

Gopnik notes that the “forces that brought La Hune down are, sadly and predictably, the same forces that destroyed” other bookstores, “the ruthless depredations of the Internet … alongside the transformation upward (or is it downward?) of the inner cores of big cities into tar pits for a mono-culture of luxury.” And yes, a Dior now stands where La Hune once stood.

Gopnik describes his reaction to the bookstore’s closing as:

Something that it would be indecent to call grief but inadequate to call sadness. At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart.

It is a deep sadness that I have shared too frequently.  To this day whenever I enter a bookshop – especially if it is filled with quality selections carefully displayed – I am filled with, while not quite pure joy, something much more than simple happiness.  Thus the loss of a favoured bookshop can be profound.

My first bookshop – the long-departed “Titles Unlimited”, located at 409 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, New Jersey (near the Fourth Avenue intersection), opened in 1966 – a great year for me, as my book-buying habits were just starting. It was the first of a chain of six under that same name in New Jersey; the original Titles Unlimited had started in New York City’s Union Square in 1961 by the founders, the Keusches, who sold out in 1988.

I recall reading almost the whole of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while standing in its aisles, and it became my favourite stopping-off place on my walk back from high school to home.

I have loved and lost many bookstores since then. I particularly mourn the passing of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California. Shockingly, it had just closed when I visited Berkeley in October 2008 on my way back to Australia. Over the course of two days in Berkeley, I looked in vain for a quality bookshop. How could it be? How could one of the great universities of the world (where I had studied for two years) not have a good bookstore?

It has not been my only loss. My first visit to a Borders bookstore was in East Brunswick, New Jersey with my mother (who knew that I would like it), on one of my visits back to the USA. Thrillingly, Borders then came to Australia, building their large stores seemingly everywhere: I frequented Borders here in Sydney at the Pitt Street Mall store in downtown, the Hornsby Westfield shopping centre, the Chatswood Westfield shopping centre and the Macquarie shopping centre. The particular wonder of Borders was that it actually smelled like an American bookstore, possibly because they brought in so many US-published books (or perhaps they bottled it?). I didn’t think it would last: Borders had over-built, at least here in Australia, and had a haphazard stocking policy, with loads of books that I suspected that few people would purchase. They closed in Australia in July 2011, and two months later in the USA.

I didn’t mourn Borders in the same way, but I still miss it, particularly how it allowed me to pursue my two loves – books and movies – in the same shopping centre.

I have worked in two bookshops. For six months in the 1970s I worked in the B. Dalton on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, primarily in the receiving/shipping room. It was a generalist shop, with a staff of no-one over 24 except for the manager. Our biggest claim to fame was that John Updike, who lived not far away on Beacon Hill, occasionally came in to purchase mostly remainders. At its peak, the B. Dalton was the second largest chain in the USA, however almost all stores had closed by early 2010.

I later managed a bookshop in Adelaide, Australia, not long after my arrival – one that had been a famous “Becks” bookshop prior to falling on hard times. It also disappeared, and last I checked was a women’s clothing shop.

Despite the ongoing loss of bookshops, I still feel blessed, living here in Sydney. My favourite bookstore is “Books Kinokuniya”, the only Australian outpost of a small Japanese chain, one that bills itself as the largest bookstore in Australia. It has quality, quantity, a great location (right near Town Hall in downtown Sydney), a professional staff and moderate discounting. Not the best website, but a fabulous selection, including academic-style books. My close to “equal favourite” is Abbeys Books, located on York Street, not far away. By comparison with the mega-stores, it’s small, but maintains consistent quality, and an almost uncanny ability to have in stock what I am seeking. Good staff, easy ordering, a passable website and a real commitment to quality.

But these are not the only Sydney bookstores worth seeking out. Downtown also houses the venerable Dymocks main store on George Street, which has operated continuously in this location for a long time and has an excellent selection. It’s not nearly as intellectual or literary as Kinokuniya or Abbeys, but has a strong kids section (including good games) and – a guilty pleasure – a fabulous connected high-quality stationery store with unique items unavailable anywhere else. Also on my list are Gleebooks in Glebe – intellectual, quirky and endlessly stimulating; and Better Read Than Dead in Newtown, a place that I have only begun to discover and that reflects its hip, intellectual clientele.

Further afield, Sydney’s north shore, where I live, may not be a cultural mecca like south of the Harbour, but includes a number of places that have filled me with joy over the years: Constant Reader in Crows Nest, the Lindfield Bookshop (with its responsive ordering service) and The Book Review in St Ives. Also worthy of note – out of my weekly path, but enriching my book experience – are Gertrude and Alice in Bondi Beach, Ariel Books in Paddington and Berkelouw Books, which has expanded from its historic Southern Highlands used bookstore to Paddington and now to a number of other small suburban shops, filling in the gaps left by other closures.

And then there’s Amazon, worthy of an extended meditation in its own right. It has the best website bar none, although the recent decline in the Australian dollar and Amazon’s high shipping costs to Australia have reduced its competitiveness significantly. Oh yes, did I forget to mention? – Last I heard Amazon was still the biggest bookseller to Australians. The Book Depository is cheaper for us, but its website far inferior. Gopnik has a cute observation about Amazon:

Anyway (the more impatient counter argument goes on), a bookstore is only a platform for the purchase of literature, and platforms move and change with every new age, gathering and then shedding the moss of our memories as they roll on. Someday, someone will be writing a nostalgic account of one-click shopping on Amazon.


Partisan film review

June 14, 2015

This film review of “Partisan” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 4, 2015 (Melbourne edition) and June 11, 2015 (Sydney edition)

Directed by Ariel Kleiman
Written by Ariel Kleiman and Sarah Cyngler
Starring Vincent Cassel, Nigel Barber, Jeremy Chabriel and Florence Mezzara

I have no doubt that if Australian-Jewish director Ariel Kleiman’s film “Partisan” was produced in a central or eastern European language such as Russian, Ukrainian or Georgian rather than English, it would be touted as a hot prospect for Best Foreign Language film at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s that good.

Shot partly in Melbourne (at a Mount Eliza winery) and partly in Georgia – yes, the country of Georgia, located between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, “Partisan” is set in a mythical “middle Europe”. It features a multicultural cast headed by French actor Vincent Cassel, whose breakthrough role was the rage-filled Jewish character of “Vinz” in Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine”. Here he plays Gregori, the charismatic leader of a cult-like sect where he is the alpha (and only adult) male, part Pied Piper, part saviour and part unquestioned intimidating master to a number of needy and vulnerable women and their children, who he both protects and preys upon.

The film looks and feels vaguely eastern European, although shot in English with a range of different accents. The result is much more accessible for we English speakers, but the loss of cultural verisimilitude may put off some viewers. (How ironic that I criticise an Australian film for including an occasional Australian accent.)

If viewers are put off by the language, it would be a shame, for Kleiman has created one of this year’s most haunting and disturbing films, one that starts slowly and gradually accretes to create a picture of emotional horror. With its creeping sense of dread, “Partisan” has much in common with “Ex_Machina” (currently screening), Alex Garland’s Frankenstein-like meditation on the potential horror of artificial intelligence. This is not classic horror like last year’s acclaimed “Babadook”, but something that – for me at least – operates far more effectively.

Part of the power of “Partisan” is in our experiencing much of the story through the increasingly less innocent eyes of a young boy, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel). This perspective operates in the same way that we viewed the world through the eyes of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character in “The Road” (also by an Australian director, John Hillcoat), a film that haunted me for months afterwards. Gregori has raised Alexander from birth, and the tension in “Partisan” arises when Alexander begins to question his upbringing and role. Because here is the catch (minor spoiler alert): Gregori has trained his young charges for a particular mission: to conduct assassinations, reminiscent of the film “Hanna”.

“Partisan” falls squarely in the category of films about cults; its closest recent neighbours are “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Master”. Because I lived in California during the times of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple massacre and the Charles Manson murders, I find any strong evocation of cults particularly chilling. “Partisan” captures this claustrophobia.

The beauty of “Partisan” – and it is physically stunning, shot by Germain McMicking, who won a special award for cinematography for this work on “Partisan” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, also lies in its ability to illustrate its emotions through simple visuals.

Director Kleiman – at the tender age of 30 and working with his co-writing partner Sarah Cyngler – has full control of all the elements of his film. Aside from the cinematography, he even commissioned three original songs for karaoke sequences in the film. The film’s themes are universal – parenting, mentoring, human need – but “Partisan” has a dark core that will not appeal to everyone: it is rated MA15+ “for strong themes and violence”, for good reason. Kleiman is a director to watch, an assured auteur with a powerful imagination whose future accomplishments are likely to be many.


(photo above:  Vincent Cassel in “Partisan”)