TERMITES INSIDE THE ABC
WHAT DO WOMEN REALLY WANT
A VERY NORMAL WORKPLACE
POETRY IS THE NEW SEX
VIDEO: DANCING HIGH
British social research once revealed that you can tell if your relationship is heading towards the rocks because you start becoming irritated by the way your partner eats.
I can’t see or hear what ABC staff eat for breakfast but I’m often gritting my teeth as I listen to what is coming out of Fran Kelly’s mouth on Radio National Breakfast.
What I’m looking for instead is authoritative commentary and interviews that tell me the important issues of this brand new day.
What I often get is too many spoonfuls of Kelly’s own feelings seeping into her coverage. Often it’s not her actual words, but the tone. Or the questions not asked.
So it suddenly struck me the other day: is my love affair with the ABC in trouble? It’s an affair that has lasted since I first learned to listen to radio – or “the wireless” as it was then called.
Radio National is the default position on my radio, with the dial moving over to News Radio and ABC Local for selected programmes. I hardly know where any other stations are on my radio. Who can do without Robyn Williams’ Science Show? Background Briefing, Conversations with Richard Fidler, Future Tense, Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue, The World Today and many more across the ABC span, all of which keep me informed and enriched.
And while I know where the commercial TV stations can be found, of course, my TV used to be locked into the ABC pretty much as well.
How many times do we do it?
But I started totting up the times the ABC and I now have meaningful and happy contact every day. I always start with RN Breakfast but if there was an intelligent alternative to what can often sound to my ears like a lecture, I’d take it like a flash.
Of course, I watch the 7pm ABC news on TV but am often stunned by the line-up, especially when there’s a major international news story and I have to wait through three or four local stories – often soft “people” ones – to get the latest.
The Sunday 7pm news is particularly bad. Last Sunday’s news, November 25, which naturally had the Victorian election as its lead, put the fiery Paris protests as its fifth item, scheduling it after reports on sex assault offender Anthony Sampieri and a new glucose monitor for pregnant women with diabetes.
The surprise – and ominous – election results from Taiwan, in which voters in one of the most democratic countries in Asia registered a swing towards a more Beijing-friendly approach and away from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, was seventh.
And even then the ABC’s item did not lead on the news of the Taiwanese’s seeming pro-China shift, but on that country’s rejection, in a referendum, of legalising same sex marriage, an issue that has always been high on the ABC’s agenda.
I rarely watch 7.30 now though it was once a “must”. It seems to me that too often host Leigh Sales is sycophantic if she approves of the person she’s interviewing, as per Paul McCartney, or verging on the hectoring if she doesn’t.
(An independent investigation of her controversial interview with then treasurer Joe Hockey after the 2015 federal budget cleared Sales of showing bias but noted her manner was “questioning and contrarian” and “adversarial”.)
Sales also comes across to me – and this is true of several of the current big ABC names – rather pleased with herself, rarely a good sign in a fellow human-being. Tony Jones is also afflicted – and I gave up watching QandA maybe two years ago, except on rare occasions, for that reason.
I used to love the rigour and timeliness of Lateline, as many ABC viewers did, relying on it for intellectual fodder and ideas. But that got the chop after 28 years during the reign of former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie in a move announced by ABC director of news, Gaven Morris.
PM on Local ABC Radio was a must until, executives under Guthrie, cut that too, to half an hour when it used to be a rich and riveting hour of news and analysis. The same fate befell The World Today and Business PM was dropped altogether.
I have cable TV so I get nearly all the television drama and movies I need on that, especially as it has the BBC First channel, and my friends who don’t have cable, get their drama fill from Netflix, Stan and so on.
And Sky News is fantastic for breaking news stories as well as the Duracell Bunny that is the crackingly good journalist and political editor David Speers.
So I have clearly become a fault-finding and negligent girlfriend to the ABC.
I know though from talking to neighbours, friends and others that I’m not alone.
I feel mean writing this when the ABC, which is full of dedicated, hard-working and passionate people, several of whom I know personally, is suffering so much: from big budget cuts by the federal government, the loss of hundreds of staff over recent years, odd management decisions (see above) and the corresponding rise of suffocating management-speak and behaviour, the uncertainty and embarrassment caused by the departure of Michelle Guthrie followed fast by the resignation of ABC chair Justin Milne, and the upheavals and demands brought by digital technology.
But one of the key issues for me is the ABC’s approach in its news and current affairs coverage – and its seeming refusal to recognise that there is any bias in what it selects to cover and how it covers what it selects.
At the launch of the ABC Alumni Association last week at the ABC’s Pyrmont headquarters, former 7.30 host and political journalist Kerry O’Brien began his opening speech with an anecdote designed to show how ridiculous it was for anyone to think ABC staff show bias.
Everyone – except me, and perhaps a few others – laughed heartily.
So I need to argue this: the greatest threat to the ABC is not, in fact, from government interference nor budget cuts nor the demands of technology and staff losses. It is from the inside, from people who most profess their love of the national broadcaster.
Like many great institutions – from the 18th century court of the French kings to the house of the Romanovs, from the union movement to the big banks – the most perilous weakening often comes from the inside, when something is manifestly going wrong, but those on the inside either fail to recognise it and do something about it before people turn against the institution, or they simply can’t see it. Or won’t see it.
The real problem with group think
I’m re-reading Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ 2004 novel Snobs at the moment. Fellowes, whose life had exposed him to the intricacies of the British aristocracy, is forensic and very funny with this portrait of the insularity of the upper classes.
At one stage in the novel, he writes of one particularly arrogant lord, that “he shared the usual fantasy of the less intelligent members of his class that on every given topic, from port to euthanasia, there is a ‘sound’ way of thinking and one has only to voice this view to carry the field. Since they are generally only addressing like-minded people, the field is as a rule easy to carry.”
That is how group think works.
Sitting in that audience of around 150 people at the alumni launch, I reckon I could have gotten to within 95 per cent accuracy, the views of nearly everyone there on everything from refugees to euthanasia to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
(At one stage, an organiser also joked about who was coming to the launch and who hadn’t been invited. He raised an easy laugh and a few claps when he said this institute’s Gerard Henderson hadn’t been invited. I could probably predict with the same accuracy how many of that audience had ever bothered to attend a Sydney Institute function or find out the breadth of this institute’s interests and its willingness to provide a platform to speakers with which the institute’s key organisers don’t necessarily agree.)
Lover come back
I love and need the ABC. This country needs an independent and fearless broadcaster which is authoritative and without any suspicion of bias. I want to fall deeply in love with the ABC again.
So at what stage, will those inside the ABC have the courage to say to the stars like Fran Kelly and Leigh Sales, and to former stars and still big names like Kerry O’Brien, listen, you need to tone it down?
And to its news and current affairs staff: we don’t set or follow agendas; we report and analyse the news and events and with fierce impartiality.
On its website, the ABC Alumni group says this: “Some of us have left the ABC with mixed feelings. Many still love the place and the work they did; some couldn’t wait to leave; others were made redundant and left unwillingly. These are and have been turbulent times at the national broadcaster … However, we all care deeply about the continued existence of a public service broadcaster. This is your chance to save it. Not only can you be a force to restore adequate funding; the Alumni will provide you with an inside track to support the ongoing staff and encourage management to make the right decisions.”
Maybe this new association will provide some frank and fearless leadership on this essential issue. Before it’s too late.
WHAT WOMEN REALLY WANT
In 1885, William K. Vanderbilt inherited $US65 million on the early death of his father, the railway magnate William Vanderbilt. Adjusting for inflation, that would be strictly be $US1.7 billion today but a better measurement is by wealth relative to per capita GDP, in which case William Jnr came into a stupendous $US19 billion.
Vanderbilt’s ambitious wife, Alva had thought he might come into around $US20 million.
William junior immediately set about commissioning the largest yacht ever made for personal use. It cost $US650,000 (almost $US17.5 million today) and when there was a collision one night with a freighter and it sank, William Jnr simply commissioned another.
His elder brother, Corneil (Cornelius), who had inherited the same amount, doubled the size of his already massive Fifth Avenue mansion and started building a beach cottage at Newport, the 70 room estate The Breakers.
Hard in these days of sinking markets and shrinking super balances not to feel the slightest pang of envy. Not for the money – who needs that much? – but the security that came with it.
Which turns out to have been the major motivation in Alva’s life. And, it has to be said, in the lives of many women before, then and now.
But there is usually a price.
A new fictionalised account, based on Alva’s life, A Well-Behaved Woman, puts it like this: “When one inherits so much money that publishers create and sell to the public booklet reproductions of the last will and testament from which it came, so much money that it seems there is no limit to it, so much that it can’t possibly be spent on oneself, so much that barring a complete catastrophic collapse of one’s country’s economy, it can’t even be lost …”
Author Therese Anne Fowler expresses the above another way, and here’s the rub: “Alva would not have guessed the effect exceptional wealth could have on an already very rich man.”
I picked up this novel from Hachette because I already knew something about Alva. In The Husband Hunters, by Anne de Courcy, about the 19th century American heiresses who had married into skint British aristocracy, I’d read that huge amounts of money weren’t enough for her.
She craved the position held by Caroline Astor – or Mrs Astor – as a queen of New York society. And so Alva took part in those transatlantic transactions made famous by Edith Wharton. She “sold” her daughter, the beautiful and gentle Consuelo, heiress to a staggering fortune, to the Duke of Marlborough whose own home – Blenheim – was a palace, but a palace in need to extensive and expensive repairs.
And with that, a daughter married to a British duke, Alva’s position in New York society soared yet again.
But poor Consuelo became the poster-girl for the unhappiness of these calculated marriages. De Courcy includes a telling cameo: Consuelo wrote of one freezing winter at Blenheim (it was a battle for her to work out which servant could be asked to light a fire), “From my window I overlooked a pond in which a former butler had drowned himself. As one gloomy day succeeded another I began to feel a deep sympathy for him.”
But I also picked up this novel because, in our current time with its focus on wealth and inequity, as well as women’s power – or lack of it – its author, Fowler, has very cleverly placed its first chapter in a poor and filthy New York street, pungent with horse dung. It was here, in 1874, that the genteel girls of an elite academy, including a young Alva, were handing out baskets of goods to the impoverished women and girls in the area.
Alva Smith had her own demons. Her mother had died, and her father, a once rich southern plantation owner was also dying “almost as quickly as his money was running out”.
Soon, unless Alva used her wits, she and her family would be in a position not too far removed from these sisters in the slum tenements.
And so, she parlayed her southern lineage and European education into making herself a prize with supposed high society connections, who would appeal to the stonkingly rich, but also nouveau riche, Vanderbilt family. The Vanderbilts – whose wealth was just three generations old – were so looked down upon by entrenched Manhattan society that they were not allowed to buy a box at New York’s Academy of Music. Nor would Mrs Astor receive them.
The socially ambitious second son, William K., keen to elevate himself and his parents, seized on Alva. Her wedding let her escape looming poverty with all its grim consequences, and she took her sisters up the social scale with her.
Luck and cunning played their part of course, as they always do in life. Especially with fortune hunters.
Julian Fellowes observed cannily, again, in Snobs (see above item), how “men were either born with money or they spent years beavering away at careers to make themselves rich while women … women can be poor one day and rich, or at least married to a rich man, the next.”
Jane Austen redux
I can’t pretend this novel about Alva Vanderbilt’s life is anything but a page-turner but it is certainly clever for its mesmerizing insights into how the American upper classes lived during the Gilded Age, when monster fortunes were being made and spent, and workers and servants had few rights, including the right to a decent wage.
But there was an unexpected benefit; this novel provides so many sharp asides about the role, place and motives of women in a society based on wealth and snobbery that the corners of almost every tenth page of my copy are turned down for future quoting.
Many struck me as being pretty applicable now in an age where money and how much you have increasingly dictates how you are regarded in certain circles. And treated.
As British journalist Toby Young pointed out in his memoir, How to Make Friends and Alienate People, about working at Vanity Fair magazine in New York during the heady, opulent 1990s, there was a weird similarity between the way young women disported themselves in Jane Austen’s novels, pursuing any man with a fortune, and the immaculately coiffed and designer-dressed show ponies of America.
At the time, there were several film versions of Austen’s novels, from Clueless (a very funny Amy Heckerling update of Emma) to Sense and Sensibility, Emma (original interpretation) and Persuasion.
Young argued, “The reason Austen adaptations struck such a chord with American audiences wasn’t due to the usual nostalgic yearning for a kinder, gentler era …. It was because they recognized their own society up there on the big screen.”
Young cites W.H. Auden and his line, “the amorous effects of ‘brass’”.
In an hierarchical, plutocratic society, “the swiftest route to the top”, notes Young “is through marriage.” Shades of Fellowes.
Young is amazed, in a supposed age of female emancipation, to discover “the willingness of New York women to enter what is essentially a nineteenth century marriage market… Women judge each other according to who they can ensnare.”
The coldness of which brings us back to Alva Vanderbilt.
What well-behaved really means
Once ensconced in her big home, particularly after she discovers that William K. is a bit of a creep, Fowler’s Alva delivers various observations on a woman’s place in a rich society dominated by men.
Commenting on the shenanigans of various Manattan male millionaires in late 19th century society – Pierpoint Morgan, for instance, built his mistress a house near his own to make his visits easier – Alva supposedly writes to a beloved friend, “These men must believe themselves completely beyond reproach! And well, why wouldn’t they? Wives permit all of it …. “
A few lines on, in which she dismisses the accepted notion that the wives are happily preoccupied with families and running vast homes, Alva concludes, “I don’t believe a word of it. We accept their behaviour because of what would happen if we didn’t.”
(That reminds me of a wry aside from British journalist and former Vanity Fair editor, Tina Brown, in the diaries she kept in the 1980s. She observed that if the wife of a super wealthy man stopped laughing at his jokes in public because she had heard them so often, the man didn’t change his jokes, he changed his wife.)
When Alva contemplates divorce because of her husband’s philandering, Fowler has her brood: “It was one thing to feel righteous in the face of social scorn, but quite another to be poor and to be cast out of society… What sad irony it would be if in rescuing her pride, she ended up no better off than if she’d never married into money. Henry James would give such a character just that end.”
Alva, ever resourceful, pulls off the impossible. Read the book to find out what.
But reading about all that wealth and all those power plays made me think again about where women are today.
A remarkable few decades
I can’t help thinking life was much easier for women like me because of our baby boomer birthdates.
Things were different in the mid-20th century. For a brief and remarkable couple of decades after World War II, when everyone from corporate bosses to politicians and, especially, ordinary citizens wanted a safe, sane and innovative society, what mattered and what was respected was not just money, but ideas and intelligence, talent, dedication and creativity to help shape this new world.
In 1961, for his inauguration celebrations, the young president John F. Kennedy made a point of inviting, along with the expected Washington political elite, writers, artists, scholars, thinkers, entertainers and even fashion icon Diana Vreeland.
Besides, the prosperity that came to the West with the end of the war meant that, with a few glaring and shocking exceptions, most people began to feel they had enough money for their needs anyhow or would have soon.
Is it any real surprise that this was also the era when women’s rights really took off?
On all the historic statistics, women have never possessed or earned as much money as men. Nor – in spite of Australia’s Gina Rinehart and Walmart heiress Alice Walton – have the numbers of incredibly rich women in the world ever come close to the numbers of men.
But in that mid-20th century period, women, relieved of the pressures that come when the one thing a society most respects is money, were able to flourish.
I was one of those women born at just the time that meant that when I was educated and then went into a job, it was all about talent, the ability to learn and hard work. That’s what I was told, and that’s pretty much how it was. In my experience, older male bosses bent over to accommodate this shift. (Young women journalists are stunned when I tell them that the afternoon paper newsroom I inhabited in the 1970s was far less covertly sexist than the newsrooms of today.)
We earned our way. We supported ourselves from the time we got our first job because that was expected of us. We pushed hard for equality. (It’s worth an aside that in the last phase of her very wealthy life, Alva Vanderbilt became a keen campaigner for women’s suffrage.)
We paid off or helped pay off mortgages.
And given we were baby boomers, there are still quite a few of us around.
But what anachronistic creatures we are now as money has gradually concentrated itself in fewer and fewer hands and the nexus between power and money has come hugely apparent again.
I suspect women like me are now far outnumbered by women who either grew up before my generation, or after, when what has mattered is cash. Money. Loot. The status, and security, that comes with wealth.
Given the odds, that mostly means a man’s wealth. Best to marry up or at least well.
A Freudian answer
A totally hilarious piece from The Spectator, published in August this year, and brought to my notice by my funny and sharp-witted neighbor Adrienne, answers the question that has puzzled everyone since Freud: what do women really want?
The answer is supposed to be agency but British writer, Cosmo Landesman, pooh-poohs that. He concludes, “after two marriages, a dozen long-term relationships and a thousand and one dates” that what all too many of today’s women want is a big house.
Or rather, a man in possession of a big house. “… a man with a big beautiful house. Preferably, a man with a big beautiful house in the beautiful British countryside or the south of France.
“They say size isn’t everything, but it’s amazing how the possession of a big house will alter a woman’s perception of a man. He doesn’t have to be tall and handsome to attract women. He can be a short, bald gargoyle with bad breath — but thanks to his beautiful big house, there are women who will see him as a tall sexy beast.”
The writer himself, unfortunately, was only in possession of a small maisonette flat in North London with two nice balconies.
The opposite of Alva’s Wheeeuw! for Landesman, even if, like Fellowes, it has given him a ringside view of what might be going on these days with women, wealth and power.
Landesman writes further: “How do I know this? Over the past two years I’ve met three truly awful men with truly amazing women in their lives. Men who were narcissistic, obese and immature. Men of exceptional mediocrity. They are the kind of men you look at and wonder: what does she see in him? Big heart? No. Big brain? No. Big penis? No. Big house? Yes! It is no coincidence that all three of these men have a beautiful big house in the countryside. And two of them have very nice flats in London as well, which makes them pretty irresistible.”
He was lucky enough to be able to draw on an article in which journalist Esther Walker, who married British food writer Giles Coren, son of the humourist and Punch editor Alan Coren, confessed – trust the English to be so frank – that “her husband-to-be had many attractive qualities. ‘But’, she wrote, ‘what got me hot under the collar and made me go weak at the knees was his house. I really fancied his [five bedroom] house.’”
Of course, there are also some very nice men with large houses and big gardens with only themselves, give or take the stray and intermittently visiting adult child, as the sole occupant.
I try to give such men copies of Landesman’s article to put them on their guard.
It’s all a very long way from the independent, self-supporting life that I was brought up to believe in, as were many women born earlier than me who also benefited from those kinder, more equal times post-war as they moved into their 30s and then middle age.
My own mother, a writer, had been profoundly influenced by Virginia Woolf’s late 1920s essay, A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf argued that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
My mother earned money from her writing all her life and therefore insisted that any house my father bought included a large “room of her own” for writing and painting. (The last was a triumph, with water views.)
The truth is that money buys freedom and always has, so I would advise any young woman of today, who might be perturbed by the above, to spend less money on clothes, cosmetics, haircuts and nights out, and instead save and invest.
Another way of getting to the right Wheeeuw! And all on your own.
Besides which, Alva, according to Therese Anne Fowler’s rendition, has one more line of advice that is worth all of us keeping to heart: “No person’s good opinion of you matters more than your own.”
I had a moment of grace the other day. My alterations tailor had sent me to look for braid and fabric at a wholesaler tucked away in Surry Hills. E.M. Greenfield turned out to be a kind of wholesaling/open to the public warehouse on two floors above a ground level. The top floor seemed huge, an expanse of every kind of fabric you could think of, on rolls, all stacked neatly in rows and rows of high shelves. I asked the young man at the counter what he had in linen, possibly with some stretch, and he led me to the last row, right at the back of this enormous room, past row after row of shelves, and pulled out a couple of rolls from the bottom rung. He knew exactly where the linen I was interested in was and neatly cut off and labelled a sample for me.
For the braid, I had to go down a flight of stairs to a similar floor, this time with shelves and shelves of braid, trimmings and the like. Again, an assistant led me to this type of braid and that, to see if any of them would suit.
I could hardly believe my ears and eyes. At no stage, did anyone say to me: “Let me just check the computer.”
Nor was I asked to stand and wait endlessly as someone stared at a screen, punching away at a keyboard and saying things like: “hmmm, I can’t seem to find anything” or “what did you say again? Black linen? How do you spell that?” or “sorry, the system seems to have gone down”.
These were people, of all ages from 30s upwards, who knew their business inside out. Whatever technology they obviously must use for their accounts and so on, they don’t inflict it on their customers and nor do they need to, given their stupendous knowledge and efficiency.
Then I went around the corner to Tessuti, the fabric people, and the woman who served me was exactly the same. She located within seconds the rolls of linen that might work for me. Again, she never resorted to a device or screen.
When I left Greenfield’s, I went past a couple of people sitting behind a counter. A woman with blonde hair; a man with glasses.
I said fervently, “It’s been so wonderful to be somewhere so normal.”
They both fell about laughing.
POETRY IS THE NEW SEX
Businessman and company director Michael Easson recently invited me to a Sunday book launch. It was for the slim 58 page NV Anthology 3 from the New Voices Poetry Group. Eight poets – including Easson and also Dexter Dunphy, now Emeritus Professor in the School of Management at the University of Technology Sydney – each read two of their poems.
If you’re thinking this sounds like a Sunday afternoon from hell, you’d be 100 per cent wrong. It was delightful, inspiring, moving and a lot of fun. The large room was also packed.
None of the poets are professional though the new anthology is edited by Australian poet Mark Tredinnick.
Every month, members of the society meet at Dunphy’s home to read each other’s poetry and workshop their own.
What struck me was the liveliness of these poets, who all have impressive day jobs, the beauty of their words, the feelings conveyed, and often the sly humour.
In his opening essay, Tredinnick creates a poem by gathering together scattered lines from each of the poets.
Here are some of my own favourite phrases and lines:
“You had a little taste of me/and say you love me,/but you don’t know/the seventy years of me. (Rosalie Fishman, Do You Know How)
“Busy old fool unruly Donne:/Love is not a bleak zero sum,/Nor a finite natural resource/To be share-traded on the Bourse. (Oliver Freeman, The Economics of Love)
“Nobody was invited. Too many turned up./Early ones resented the newcomers – /and suggested that they leave (Thomas Jones, The Narcissist’s Picnic)
Other poems are beautiful in their entirety – including those of Easson and Dunphy – and too long to quote here.
It all made sense when I read that poetry, according to Tredinnick, “seems to want to be made”.
I’ve shared before on this Hello? blog clips of a dazzling, dancing Rita Hayworth, set to Harry Belafonte’s Jump in the Line. Then Robyn Williams tipped me off about another set of Hayworth clips, but this time set to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. Just as joyous. Enjoy.