8am and my home phone rings. Two months ago now. Landline calls come in only two varieties. Shills or people looking to purchase tents. The latter group are after Paddy Palin, purveyor of camping consumables. Only one fat finger fumble digit difference, alas.
That morning, the friendly chap was searching for Lyle Rosewarne.
My knowledge of the Rosewarne dynasty – and a quick Google search – assures me that we aren’t a people who name our babies Lyle. ‘We’ might be sex monsters, sure, and ‘we’ might have our mitts in the till occasionally, but we certainly don’t name our young’ns Lyle.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve been contacted out of the blue as part of a missing Rosewarne search. One day I’ll write up the tale of the guy who arrived at my office thinking he was my brother. I rationalise the whole thing as being like cats who rub up against people they know hate them; I’m approached by randoms rummaging for Rosewarnes because I’m hostile to the whole genealogy thing.
During the same week that the Lyle call came through, I was reading the actor Alan Cumming’s memoir Not My Father’s Son.
He just seemed so much bigger in my pop culture imaginings.
Anyhow. In Cumming’s truly lovely memoir, a running thread is his participation in the television show Who Do You Think You Are?
For a show I’ve only seen snippets of, my loathing is perhaps a tad disproportionate. Every episode of this screen nightmare involves the same set of histrionic events. A celebrity finds out that a relative generations back was a slave, a slave owner, a member of the SS, whatever. And there are tears. So many tears.
Why the hell are they crying about? Surely this isn’t the first time they’ve heard about slaves, about Nazis, about the grotesque things humans can do to each other. Why is it suddenly more real now? Are they feeling responsible? More responsible than before their names were plotted on some shonky family tree?
Of course, in Cumming’s memoir it’s even worse. He discovers that his grandfather – who he hadn’t ever met – was reckless. Think motorcycles and Russian roulette. And the charming Al sees himself as reckless and suddenly his life has a new kind of logic.
I won’t play naive here: I get why people love biological explanations. Biology, genetics, feel like an excuse, an explanation, in a world that is otherwise complete chaos. But surely smart people, savvy people – people like Cumming who comes across as wise and witty for nearly the whole book – could be a tad more critical about ancestry-as-answer.
Aside from my hostility to biology-as-destiny explanations – I’m a social scientist, of course I’ll battle the blood explanation until my last breath – I’ll admit there’s some ego-preservation at play here.
Do I not become a little less original if I’m just like my mother/my grandmother/my big-haired, sarcastic great-great-great aunt Esmeralda?
My position is that if that New Zealand sex devil is related to me, I don’t want to know. If the coffee machine embezzeler guy is related, again, I don’t care. These are not ‘my people’, they aren’t getting a bloody kidney and I’m not feeling guilty about their misdeeds.
They aren’t more real to me because there’s a highly-diluted blood connection.
A lecture, of course, that I spared the man looking for Lyle. I’m a morning person; he got a friendly Lauren who cheerily provided him the contact details for my uncle, the family genealogist.
In the uncertain realm of traditional publishing, August/ September looms large as a preferred time to release new Christmas titles. Part of that involves authors strutting their stuff at writers festivals. And this year – at events such as the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) – it’s hard to avoid noticing that science, and scientists, are receiving special billing.
As a relatively recent recruit to the literary world after decades of speaking at scientific conferences and striving with data-driven research papers and reviews, I’ll be discussing The Knowledge Wars (2015) – my latest effort at public science communication – in Melbourne and Brisbane.
Having a science profile may explain why I’m also performing at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas (September 5-6). Science drives rapid change: politicians who cling to the past can view the scientist’s addiction to evidence (especially in relation to the the environment) as highly subversive. Literature is, of course, also dangerous.
Writers festivals feature current and veteran social revolutionaries who, like Germaine Greer, have morphed into cultural icons. Other stars are famous (or emerging) novelists, philosophers (AC Grayling) and gurus, who try to explain us to us. Self-knowledge does not necessarily sit well with a conservative worldview.
Writers festivals offer a very personal experience. Pay for the book and you can meet your favoured author! Downloading the electronic version to a Kindle or iPad means passing on that autograph and brief encounter at the signing table. But, though it’s by no means the same experience, e-readers are fantastic for someone like me who spends too much time on planes and in hotel rooms.
It’s great to travel with a library of diverse titles, purchased because they might be a good read, or from a need to know more about an unfamiliar endeavour. These e-versions take up no space and, if badly written or of little substance, they don’t clutter the bedside table.
So what am I reading now on my iPad? Apart from easily-digested murder mysteries, I’m persisting through Thomas Piketty’s monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013). His general message, that the increasing prominence of inherited “aristocracies” of wealth is a present and ever-increasing disaster for human society, makes sense though, on the small screen, I’m missing a lot of the detail that’s in various graphs and the like.
Capital is one book that’s best experienced in print, where it’s also more convenient to flip back and forth. Why read Capital? All of us are impacted by policies based in economics, and most would like a better understanding. There’s an unfinished copy of the awful “Neocon Bible” (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957) on our bookshelves.
That negative view could just reflect the way that I see the world and may be why, on my iPad, I raced through, and greatly enjoyed, Jeff Madrick’s very readable Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World (2015). Madrick, a former economics columnist for Harpers and the New York Times, points out how the neoliberal/economic rationalist belief system based in the revelations of Nobel Prize Winner Milton Friedman has minimal grounding in data and has, in fact, done enormous damage to Western Society.
Paul Krugman refers to such practices as “zombie ideas”: killed over and over by evidence but, undead, they continue to disinter and do even more damage. Does their “immortality” reflect that they work to transfer even more wealth to the rich and powerful?
Checking a list of e-books is one thing, but there’s nothing more satisfying than picking up something unexpected in a good bookstore. Browsing in Reader’s Feast (one of Melbourne’s “independents”) recently I chanced on Ann Moyal’s A Woman of Influence: science, men and history (2014). This sequel to Moyal’s autobiographical Breakfast With Beaverbrook (1995) is an easy read, dealing with life after she helped organise press baron Max Aitken’s (UK Minister for Aircraft Production, 1940-45) memoirs.
Checking the bookshelves at home can also provide welcome surprises. People give us books, we buy books on whim and, particularly if they are too big to lug onto planes, they often sit around, unread and ignored.
A recent “excavation” turned up two heavy volumes of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy. I’ve started number three, Cold Light (2011), which has the heroine, former League of Nations star Edith Campbell Berry, hoping for political preferment back in Bob Menzies’ Canberra (1949-51), when the conservatives were intent on outlawing the communist party. Moorhouse uses his characters to probe continuing, long-term political and sexual tensions.
So my reading of late has, in one sense or another, been somewhat Canberra oriented. That’s where the economists with real power in Australia live, and both the Ann Moyal and Frank Moorhouse books describe familiar locations and attitudes.
It is, along with the current polarisation in federal politics, suggesting some different thought on the workings of our national capital.
Well-written books remain central to my intellectual life. Though I use online media, and played a very small part in helping start The Conversation, nothing beats dipping into a hard copy lifted casually from a desk or coffee table. The inexorable decline of print newspapers is a real concern. We need insights that go beyond the increasingly constrained realm of investigative journalism.
Ink on paper or electronic, a well-researched and honest book has enormous power.
Peter Doherty is appearing at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney, on September 5 and 6, details here. And at the Melbourne Writers Festival on August 29, details here.