Good books about The Great Gatsby, Waltzing Matilda, coal mining and the ruins of European Empires.

I read somewhere that Baz Luhrmann is making a new movie based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book “The Great Gatsby”.  Having known for a long time that this novel is regarded by Americans as one of the great books of their nation’s literary history, I decided that the time had come to read it. I found it to be an odd book because of the authors strange style of writing, but it does paint a stark portrait of the decadent lifestyle of wealthy Americans during the Roaring Twenties when they were totally oblivious to the fact that they were speeding like an express train towards the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Incidentally, the book did not sell well when first published. Then, thousands of unsold copies were distributed by the publisher as gifts to American troops all over the world during World War 2. It seemed to them that life in the Roaring Twenties was a hell of a good alternative to the battlefields. When they wrote home to say what a good book it was, sales took off and it acquired best-seller status.

Years ago in South Africa, I was seated next to South Africa’s last white President, Wilhelm de Klerk, at a fund-raising dinner for the University of Orange Free State. He was the one who had the courage to set Nelson Mandella free. While we were enjoying a chat over coffee and a local liqueur called Van der Hum, he said:  “Would you mention to Bob Hawke that he made a dreadful decision when he failed to choose Waltzing Matilda as your National Anthem. Everyone associates Australia with that splendid song, yet you chose Advance Australia Fair, which I find to be quite boring. History records that Australian troops sang Waltzing Matilda when they were over here fighting in the Boer War.” I reminded the President that while the music was great, the words were not appropriate. He responded by saying that it would have been quite easy for someone to write new words. I was reminded of this conversation while reading a new book about Waltzing Matilda, which has been written by singer and songwriter Dennis O’Keefe. It has 300 pages of splendid research about Banjo Paterson, Christina Macpherson who first adapted the tune from a song she had heard in Scotland, the Australian Workers Union who organised the great Shearer’s Strike and the squatters who fought them. The fact is that the swagman who died at the billabong was Samuel Hoffmeister, one of the strikers who burned down the woolshed at Dagworth Station. He was shot while trying to escape from the troopers. Banjo Paterson made a pleasant story out of an ugly incident. Incidentally, I mentioned de Klerk’s comments to Bob Hawke some time later. Bob wisely said that there were no votes to be gained in changing the national anthem.

Yet another book on the ’sins’ of the mining industry has hit the bookshops, and is selling well. Written by Sharyn Munro, it is entitled “Rich Land- Wasteland”. Its sub-title is “How coal is killing Australia”. Its 400 pages are well written and represent the most devastating indictment of the mining industry that I have read anywhere. Munro is clearly a dedicated Green who lives alone in a cottage in the hills of the Hunter Valley, and she travelled the length and breadth of Australia interviewing people whose lives and livelihood have been changed by the impact of mining. She names them all throughout the book, and a quick check shows that they are real people, not fictional characters that she could have used to bolster her story. If you take this book at its face value, without seeking the views of miners, investors and governments, you would hit the streets and start campaigning for every mine in Australia to be closed down immediately. The book was given to me by my friend, Bails Myer, who, like me, is stunned that the mining industry has not gone public to put its side of the story, and refute Munro’s allegations. There are always two sides to every issue that causes public controversy. While I am sure that they can improve their act, miners do create thousands of jobs and a lot of export revenue from which we all enjoy the good life.

The latest Quarterly Essay by David Marr is entitled “Political Animal — The Making of Tony Abbott”. It is worth reading, even though Marr is clearly of a different political persuasion to Abbott. The ‘punching’ incident that the media has played-up is really a minor feature of the book. The key issue is the manner in which Abbott’s strongly-held religious beliefs appear to be at odds with his political instincts. Another significant highlight is a questioning of his wisdom in seeking to destroy Gillard through a policy of extreme negativity, rather than presenting himself as a man of vision whom Australians will want as the next Prime Minister. The clear impression that the book leaves in your mind is that Abbott may not make it to the top. Time will tell.

The baggage left behind by the European Empires of yesteryear are catching-up with the Western World, and there is a price now to be paid. I strongly recommend that you read a great book written by an Indian historian, Pankaj Mishra. Entitled ”From the Ruins of Empire”, it sets out the manner in which the British, French, Dutch, German and other European colonists conquered and plundered Asia for 300 years, then failed to prepare their colonies for independence, and still regard Asians as inferior beings. Beautifully written in a logical manner, which is highly educational and not vindictive, Mishra concentrates mainly on China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, but also reveals how Europe and USA encouraged Japan to build its own empire based on their model, with disastrous consequences. The result is that centuries of abuse have not converted Asia to the ways of the Western world or established a genuine concept of democracy, except in India. All of Asia now wants their world to be centred on their own particular cultures and be financed on their own version of capitalism, which they believe is far less corrupt than the western version. In particular, a rejection of Western values is growing rapidly, and the influence on government by the Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist faiths is immense, resulting in a growing rejection of Christianity, which they see as the religion of those who plundered them. Of interest is the assertion by Mishra that the Indian sub-continent should never have been split into three nations. He says that this massive error was caused by British actions in deliberately fostering hostility between Muslims and Hindus in order to try to keep control of their colony. It should have evolved as one powerful and prosperous nation, and avoided the current position where Pakistan and Bangladesh are virtual basket cases, economically and politically. Mishra also says that China is moving rapidly away from Marxism and re-embracing the philosophy of Confucius — a fact that the West is ignoring at its peril. The lesson for us here in Australia is that we will not prosper in Asia if we are perceived to be a subservient outpost of Europe and the United States, as Asians have never forgotten that the Western world raped and pillaged them for far too long.

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