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Sunday 30 October 2016

The Divided States of America: How David Mamet and his Olympic Portable Typewriter Foresaw the American Nightmare

Brigitte Lacombe’s iconic New Yorker magazine image of David Mamet writing his Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay for Wag the Dog in his cedar cabin on his farmhouse in Cabot, Vermont, in 1997. He is using an Olympic SM portable typewriter.
My American friends appear to be deeply divided over who to vote for on Tuesday week. Herman Price, no doubt, would have been keeping his fingers crossed that politics stayed out of the equation when the faithful gathered in West Virginia for the annual QWERTY Award fest this weekend - though there were some rednecks in the mix. I can empathise. With just 240 hours left until E-Day, there remains a choice between a candidate accused of making advances to young women, the unwelcome involvement of a government intelligence agency, a potential whistleblower who was knocked off and, in the background, a war - of sorts (and not all that distant from Syria). Sound familiar?
'Truth, justice and other special effects'
         Yep, last night we got out the DVD of Barry Levinson’s 1997 black comedy Wag the Dog, adapted screenplay by David Mamet, and reminded ourselves that there’s really very little new in the wacky world of United States Presidential election campaigns. The movie’s 20th anniversary will be marked by the inauguration next year of the 58th US president and commander-in-chief, two full decades after the candidates came straight from Mamet’s lurid imagination. The action in the screenplay, eerily, starts 11 days out from a presidential election. OK, so Wag the Dog is heavily coated-on cynicism, but how else can one view from this considerable distance the shambles that is the showdown between Mr Trump and Madam Clinton?
Mamet’s screenplay was an original rewrite after an earlier adaption by Hilary Henkin of Larry Beinhart's book American Hero, which came out in 1993 as a satirical conspiracy theory novel. It hypothesised that Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait in early 1991 had been scripted and choreographed as a ploy to get George H.W. Bush re-elected (taking a cue from Margaret Thatcher's similar war in the Falkland Islands). Mamet has Washington spin doctor Conrad Brean (played by Robert De Niro) set out to distract the electorate from a presidential sex scandal. Brean hires a Hollywood film producer (Stanley Motss, based squarely on Robert Evans and played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman, a role for which Hoffman won a best actor Oscar nomination) to construct a fake war with Albania. Kirsten Dunst plays a young actress playing a supposed Albanian civilian war victim, presumably the real-life grand-daughter of the left-behind-in-Vienna Harry Lime (this is clever stuff from Mamet). The CIA gets involved, first wanting to expose the phony war then abruptly electing to end it. Wag the Dog, even more eerily, was released a month before the outbreak of the Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton administration.

In the great tradition of Dr Strangelove, Mamet’s wonderfully drawn characters include a seriously deranged soldier (Sergeant William ‘The Old Shoe’ Schumann), played with much conviction by Woody Harrelson. Anne Heche is equally impressive at Brean’s assistant Winifred Ames.

At the time of Wag the Dog’s release, Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Roger Ebert said, “The movie is a satire that contains just enough realistic ballast to be teasingly plausible; like Dr Strangelove, it makes you laugh, and then it makes you wonder.” The wondering, I’m afraid, is over. Little did Ebert know that in 2016, Wag the Dog would become frighteningly less satirical and take on a great deal more realistic ballast. It is no longer teasingly plausible, but an actual commentary on the presidential election. Oh, how clearly Mamet saw it coming!

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Westbrook Pegler and The Loaded Typewriter

When legendary American journalist Westbrook Pegler died, in Tucson, Arizona, on June 24, 1969, aged 74, newspapers across the country ran the story on page one and paid Pegler the ultimate tributes. One paper headlined its story “Acid-pen columnist dies”, another said Pegler was “Irascible, free-swinging”. Lauding him as “Pegler of the Thorny Prose”, The Cincinnati Enquirer said he “used his typewriter as other men have used a broadsword or a meat-axe”. He had been “the master of the vituperative epithet”, “a 50-year journeyman in the practice of invective”. For a typewriter-wielding newspaperman, it just didn’t get much better than that.
To be “hit by Pegler’s typewriter”, in defence of his perception of American values and the American way of life, was to be “Peglerised”, and that meant being condemned to eternal damnation. Fellow columnist Bob Considine wrote that Pegler’s typewriter “couldn’t write gray”, and that Pegler was both the most beloved and hated columnist in American “at one and the same time”.
         A Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent (the youngest in World War I) and sports writer, Pegler was both fearless and peerless. He had labelled Franklin D. Roosevelt a “feeble-minded fuehrer” and “Moosejaw”, Harry S. Truman a “hick” and a “thin-lipped hater”, J. Edgar Hoover a “nightclub fly-cop”, and Vice-President Henry A. Wallace “Bubblehead” and a “messianic fumbler”. Roosevelt asked Hoover to investigate Pegler, but the FBI found no evidence of sedition. Many other political and union leaders “came out of Pegler’s typewriter no less scathed”. One can only imagine what he would have made of Donald Trump. He might well have liked him.
         Pegler’s column “Fair Enough”, which started in the New York World-Telegram in 1933, was syndicated by United Features of the Scripps-Howard organisation and later Hearst’s King Features to 186 newspapers until 1962. He was the first columnist to win a Pulitzer for reporting. His career had started as a 16-year-old in Chicago (where his father was himself a legendary journalist), covering the 1912 Republican National Convention.
         At the height of his typewriting powers, in October 1938, Time said, “ … Pegler's place as the great dissenter for the common man is unchallenged. Six days a week, for an estimated $65,000 a year, in 116 papers reaching nearly 6,000,000 readers, Mister Pegler is invariably irritated, inexhaustibly scornful. Unhampered by coordinated convictions of his own, Pegler applies himself to presidents and peanut vendors with equal zeal and skill. Dissension is his philosophy.”
        Here is a piece Pegler wrote from the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria:
Paul Gallico

Wednesday 19 October 2016


Often on fine days like this her father and I take my one-year-old granddaughter for a stroll from the swings and playthings at Weston Park down past where the mobs of kangaroos graze on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin and on to Kurrajong Point.
Whenever we do, we are reminded of Australia’s Day of National Shame – and today, October 19, 2016, is the 15th anniversary of the killing of 353 refugees, 146 of whom were little children. It’s on our walk that we pass the SIEV X Memorial. We always stop to pause and think about the fragility of young human life, and the shameful senselessness of these 353 deaths. My granddaughter Ely is all the more precious to me at these times, surrounded as she is by the only known recognition of the deaths of "unknown" girls and boys or her age. The memorial is rightly described as “Canberra's most memorable and affecting sight” – and this in a city which houses the Australian War Memorial. Here are a few of my photos of the memorial – the smaller poles represent the children whose blood is on the hands of all Australians. 
On the 10th anniversary, in 2011, Melbourne’s Marg Hutton wrote on the ABC’s The Drum, “it is deeply troubling to see both major political parties using the tragedy as justification for ramping up Australia's harsh and punitive treatment of boat people … To use SIEV X as a warning or a threat in this way is particularly odious, given the suspicions of Australian culpability in the sinking that have never been fully investigated.” On the 13th anniversary, two years ago, Phillip Adams wrote in The Australian, “The day we learnt of SIEV X's sinking I thought the disaster would break our hearts and change our ruthless policies towards asylum seekers. Instead it hardened them … We were complicit in those deaths, yet we did not hang our heads in shame. Instead we voted for even tougher policies.” “SIEV X was a tragedy … It was, and remains, a tragedy for this nation, too, reminding us that the White Australia policy lives on.”
This 15th anniversary falls on a day when our national broadcaster, the ABC, has been forced to defend itself over Monday night’s Four Corners TV program, in which it exposed the conditions faced by 128 children living on Nauru under Australia's immigration policy. Not so long ago, John Howard, who shamelessly held on to office as Prime Minister by using the SIEV X incident to his advantage, presented a two-part series on the Menzies Years and brazenly glossed over the SIEV X deaths. Be assured that all politicians involved in the SIEV X deaths, no matter what persuasion, will rot in hell for this. And hopefully that rotting process will start very soon. Unlike the SIEV X victims, they will not be mourned.
SIEV X stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X. It was an Indonesian fishing boat en route from Sumatra to Christmas Island carrying 421 asylum seekers. It sank in international waters 70km south of Java on October 19, 2001, at the height of the Federal election campaign. The 19.5m by 4m boat had departed Bandar Lampung the day before. It sank during a storm inside a temporary Australian border protection surveillance area around the Australian external territory of Christmas Island, and 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died.
In February 2002, an Australian Senate Select Committee found that " ... it [is] extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles." The committee was surprised there had been no internal investigations into any systemic problems which could have allowed the Australian Government to prevent it from occurring.
In 2003, Steve Biddulph and the Uniting Church in Australia worked to build a suitable memorial for victims and in September 2006 a “temporary” memorial was erected at Weston Park. Designed by Mitchell Donaldson of Queensland's Hillbrook Anglican School, it consists of 353 white poles, all decorated by schools, churches and community groups across Australia. Typically, the Howard Government tried to stop the memorial being constructed, but the now permanent memorial, involving the work of more than 1000 student and community artists, was dedicated in October 2007. 
For more horrific details of Australia’s Day of National Shame, please Google “SIEV X”.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Scoop: Clare Hollingworth Turns 105

Clare Hollingworth, the British journalist who scooped the world with news of the outbreak of World War II, celebrated her 105th birthday in Hong Kong yesterday.
On August 31, 1939, the then 27-year-old Hollingworth had been working as a journalist for less than a week when London's Daily Telegraph sent her to Poland to report on worsening tensions in Europe. On September 1 - 
From Outbreak: 1939: The World Goes to War, by Terry Charman
Hollingworth went on to report on conflicts in Palestine, Algeria, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, China, Aden and Vietnam. She would "happily go anywhere with just a toothbrush and a typewriter". Hollingworth was born in Knighton outside Leicester, home of the Imperial typewriter, but she generally used a Hermes Baby.
Hollingworth with her second husband, Geoffrey Hoare.
In the months before she joined the Telegraph, to July 1939, Hollingworth earned the nickname the "Scarlet Pimpernel" by helping 3500 political and Jewish refugees to escape the Nazis, facilitating their evacuation from Katowice to Britain.
General Bernard Law Montgomery imposed a ban on British female correspondents on the front lines in Egypt in 1942, so Hollingworth became briefly accredited to TIME.