WHAT AMERICA CAN TEACH US ABOUT CIVILITY

SAN FRANCISCO – THE CITY WHERE WESTERN DREAMS DIED

PUBLISHERS AND THE NAZIS BONANZA

DOES ANYTHING HAPPEN TO THE CAT?

VIDEO – WHY INCOMPETENT PEOPLE WIN (set to music)


WHAT AMERICA TAUGHT ME ABOUT MANNERS

Something has curdled in Australia but I had to fly 12,000 kilometres to realise it. I flew to the United States, to California, where on a trip that took me from Los Angeles to Berkeley on the San Francisco Bay, down to Santa Cruz and then to La Jolla before heading back to Los Angeles, I was stunned daily by how often strangers smiled at me and often said hello.

How rarely that now happens here in Sydney.

Santa Cruz, with its modest neighbourhoods and gardens filled with roses, jasmine bushes and azaleas, was especially polite and warm.

A stranger and I stopped to watch a sea lion basking on a jetty, among the yachts in the massive Santa Cruz Yacht Club. We both laughed, watching the animal, and then started chatting.

I made my comments about how much I was noticing, and enjoying, the friendliness of the people I came across, on the street, in shops, in hotels, wherever. And how it compared with what I noticed back home.

“They seemed uptight”

He concurred. He’d visited Australia in 2014, on a golf trip, and was surprised, he said, by the lack of friendliness. “They seemed uptight,” he said, “and you know, we always think of Australia as being laid back and relaxed.”

He also noted that Santa Cruz was a city – a small one – where all classes, especially the middle class, were well represented. The polarisation that is so notable in cities like Manhattan and London and, increasingly, Sydney hadn’t yet made real inroads.

A fortnight earlier, in Los Angeles, an Australian friend who has been living there for a few years, with regular visits home, had commented to me on how whinge-y Australians had become. How whine-y. And here we were, having a drink and a pizza, in a city with major problems with homelessness and poverty – and people weren’t whine-y. Even the ones who had every reason to be whine-y. Instead, it’s as if they take agency for themselves. Hustle, hustle, hustle maybe but don’t whinge.

In Santa Cruz, in a surf shop, I chatted to the store manager who, with his wife, had lived in Sydney’s Manly for a few years. He said he and his wife used to crack up every week when the Manly Daily arrived. He said, “There’d be these pictures of disgruntled people” – and here, he posed, hands on hips, grumpy expression on face – “and the stories would be about their complaints about how, say, the water fountain for people was further away in the park than the dogs’ water fountain so the kids would fill their bottles at the dogs’ fountain….” He laughed. “You know, things that no-one would dream of complaining about in America because, you know, what’s to complain about!”

Our growing chilliness

He and his wife had returned home because they couldn’t afford to buy a home in Australia. He remembers us fondly but …

Now here’s the thing: I’ve been to the United States for several weeks in each of the last three years but it was this year that I really noticed the warmth. (And this in a country where the daily news is dominated by coverage of President Trump and the likelihood or otherwise of impeachment.)

I don’t believe that warmth is a new phenomenon which I suddenly noticed; I believe it has always been there. What’s happened instead is, in Australia, in the last several years, there has been a growing chilliness, a lack of interest in other people, a diminution of empathy and curiosity … And finally, the contrast between the populations of the two countries has become noticeable to an Australian like me. That was even more apparent after a chat about capitalism and Adam Smith at breakfast at my LA hotel with another female guest, a stranger until then, led to an invitation to join her at the polo that day. In Sydney, even at social events, I can hardly get a stranger to talk to me.

Civility gives dignity

Civility in a people is what helps a society hum along.

I recently wrote to the mother of a young woman who had behaved poorly to me: “One other very good reason why we have manners, respect for others and so forth is that at no time do we ever really know what is going on in someone else’s life. And so by respecting others, their property, their privacy – all the things civilised people do – we don’t unnecessarily add to any burden they may already be carrying.”

I wonder if that’s what Americans get, and we – as we’ve become spoiled, soft, arrogant, self-indulgent, incurious – have lost sight of that altogether. (Is that also why American bus drivers are, almost without fail, cheerful, smiling and helpful? To watch an American bus driver patiently dealing with a veteran in a wheel chair or an elderly person with a walker is a lesson in how to be kind to other people so they also keep their dignity.)

People often complain, and I have too, that the good manners of Americans can conceal a superficiality and that the warmth may not mean much at all on closer scrutiny.

Perhaps.

Mateship to blame?

But it’s also possible they’ve got something fundamentally right and, somewhere along the way, with our bragging complacency about “fairness” we’ve got it wrong.

I ran all this past a close friend to get the male perspective and he wondered how much our “mateship” tradition was to blame.

“Americans have this civility and things like respect, politeness and hospitality are seen as important in their own right,” he responded. “Much of the Australian nature is embedded in the word ‘mate’ which is supposed to transcend all classes.

“That’s pretty extraordinary. The Prime Minister can call anyone ‘mate’. You can call someone in a shop ‘mate’. It assumes an affinity – the sense that we’re all mates. But, in reality, that’s difficult. If there’s mateship between two people, there’s genuine affinity, but ‘mate’ is used indiscriminately whether there’s regard or not. It’s a conversational safety mechanism and it can mean anything from ‘I don’t give a f*** about you’ to ‘I really care about you’.

“So this one word captures the paradox of Australian relationships. Americans are not so casual and when they acknowledge each other, it’s genuine.”

It also goes back a long way. When George Washington was a teenager, reports The Arizona Daily Star for one – it’s a well-known story – he “copied into a school workbook 110 ‘Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation’”. The rules were composed by the Jesuits who had used them for hundreds of years in their schooling of children of the nobility.

“The first of Washington’s rules of civility said, ‘Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present’.”

The same sense of civility infused the code of conduct during the four months of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a summer gathering of 55 delegates that could have been heated, rambunctious and bitter.

Stanford Law School fellow Derek Webb, in a 2012 paper for The South Carolina Law Review, noted “One month into the Convention, [founding father] Alexander Hamilton observed in the Assembly Room: ‘It is a miracle that we were now here exercising our tranquil & free deliberations on the subject.’”

A foundation of civility that lasted

Webb declared that in his lengthy paper he intended to argue “that the Convention was marked by a surprising degree of civic friendship borne out of frequent interaction, daily dinner parties that cut across party and sectional lines, and a variety of parliamentary procedures designed to encourage open-mindedness and rational deliberation. Upon this foundation of civic friendship, the delegates reasoned together.

“This rich, but often overlooked, story of our nation’s founding deserves a telling for lawyers and politicians alike, particularly given the quality and tenor of deliberations in legislative assemblies today.”

And it’s true that, if you only went by what is necessarily reported by the American daily media now, you’d be right to think the United States is as torn and toxic as Australia was by the day of the May federal election. And I have no doubt that in families, in relationships, in arguments, the average American can be as upset, rash and brawling as any of us.

But they still – almost certainly as an ingrained tradition – get civility as a habit to be practised among other citizens every day at all possible times. So should we. Smiles help and many people are ready to smile back.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Meanwhile, the homeless in the United States are growing in numbers, a situation made more poignant by the fact that none of the Democrats in the running for

presidential candidate is yet making a fix for the problem one of their major policies.

The LA Times put it succinctly: the homeless don’t tend to vote. “It doesn’t have a constituency or an advocacy group that has enough money,” one campaigner said.

But what the pollies aren’t getting is that being homeless is not just a shocking problem for the people who are homeless, and the US now has over half a million of them with increases in recent years, it quickly starts impinging on everyone-else’s lives.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in San Francisco, and neighbouring Berkeley where I stayed in late May.

Berkeley train station, for instance, would not be the worst – or the most dangerous – in the world but it’s hard to imagine any other city as posh as Berkeley, especially one perched just by the world’s biggest and richest tech hub, being prepared to tolerate this as a key entry and departure point.

A zebra in the lions’ den

It’s not really a station at all. Built below a freeway overpass, it’s basically an extension of the dirty pavement, at the end of University Avenue in north Berkeley. There are no staff. Ever. Or enclosing walls or restrooms. Benches on either side of a wide central supporting pillar make handy resting places for the sleeping homeless in spite of chilly draughts, even in late Spring. No-one else is around.

Amtrak insists that travellers arrive at the platform 15 minutes before their train. So on Monday, May 27, 2019, at 1.30pm, that would have been me, my suitcase, my laptop and handbag, poised nervously like, a baby zebra in lion territory, relying purely on the decency – or somnolence – of the station’s denizens to safely make it on to my 1.45pm departure train to San Jose.

Fortunately, having by then spent eight days in what I had soon come to think of as a cross between a technicolour parody and a Hollywood film set in a grim future, I’d had the sense to check out the station, just a 500 metre walk down from my hotel, and make two decisions.

I’d either pay a hotel staff member to come and wait with me, or gratefully accept a friend’s offer to drive me to the next station up the line, a proper station with staff and a large enclosed waiting room.

This is Berkeley?

Indeed, it’s also San Francisco, Oakland et al.

The Bay area’s juxtapositions are also what must await any city that doesn’t have the commonsense, conscience and ability to plan long term, and also think about the long-term consequences of the growing divide between rich and poor. That is, any city which doesn’t realise that pandering to both progressive sensibilities and the demands of people who are rich as Croesus while overlooking the most vulnerable will result in dystopia.

My hotel, part of a modest chain (San Francisco hotel prices are among the highest in the world), proved great value, safe and well-staffed, but it was located at the north end of University Avenue which, with its weed-infested centre strip, and often blank fronted shops, made me feel as if I were staying by an abandoned strip mall.

Nice, scary, nice, scary …

Five minutes walk down the same road though, there is a stylish little wine bar, a golden enclave, called Wine So Cru. It’s a brave outpost of a large precinct a few blocks further over, on Fourth Street, which is crammed with chic dress shops, cafes, restaurants, upmarket take-aways, furniture stores, gift shops and even offices of publisher Hachette. Price tags aren’t cheap.

But in what I soon learned was typical of San Francisco/Berkeley, to get to this smart bit, a walker like me had to stride purposefully along windswept blocks where every fifth house seemed to be either shuttered, or covered in graffiti. A couple were burned down. Two blocks away from the shopping precinct, a clutch of young men hung around, idling the day away.

I knew about San Francisco’s homeless but I had wrongly assumed they clustered in one area. And I’m also used to the old adage about New York – walk two blocks in the wrong direction and you’re on your own. This was different. This was like two cities mixed up in almost every few steps you took. Nice. Scary. Nice. Scary … It is also the first time in the US that I’ve decided to take off my watch and leave it locked up in my hotel room and that was whether I was in Berkeley or in the actual city of San Francisco.

And yet, according to a 2018 analysis, prosperous San Francisco, which has more billionaires per capita of any city in the world, comes in at number two in a ranking of the economies of the 40 biggest cities in the United States. (Coming in at number one is San Jose, the other “major Silicon Valley metro area”, the website Business Insider noted.)

The comfortable-looking people on Fourth Street are overwhelmingly Caucasian, Asian or, occasionally, Latino; the homeless, the shopping cart pushers or just the seemingly aimless that I saw in the blocks around were nearly always African-American.

That’s a pattern reflected throughout the Bay area. None of this is good for race relations.

Watch out for the poo

San Francisco now has over 8000 homeless – and that affects everything from the crime levels, to whether or not you can still feel at ease using your local park, to health and sanitation, given the homeless can’t always find toilets. Or, sometimes, give a damn. Be careful where you step on the pavement, or even on a BART train, San Francisco’s local light rail service, another favourite resting place because of the seats, warmth and lengthy journeys.

It’s impossible for a visitor not to be affected by the sight of so many poverty-stricken, raggedy, grimy people and to wonder what is being done for them.

That concern is not always reflected in the attitude of rich locals.

One, Justin Keller, the CEO of a server management start-up, wrote an open letter to the San Francisco mayor in 2016, complaining of the “homeless riff-raff”. The website Splinter quoted him: “The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city … I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people to and from my work my way to work every day.”

Three years on, the problem is bigger. The divisions are bigger and not just between rich and poor, but between those with differing sympathies. In March, The Guardian reported, the residents of one prosperous suburb resorted to GoFundMe to raise $US70,000 for an attorney to block a new homeless shelter in their area. A rival fundraising effort, on the same platform, then raised $US73,000 in support of the shelter.

Unintended consequences

The city’s problems started well before the arrival of big tech with all its disruption and billion dollar success stories. In the late 1960s, residents – anxious to keep the city’s quirky artistic, bohemian vibe – militated against more development. In that short sightedness, they acted against themselves because five decades later, with acute housing shortages, house prices and rentals are staggeringly high. People on middle class incomes or lower have, or are, moving out to areas they can afford. Small businesses and much loved shops have closed because they can’t afford the rents. With the rise of Silicon Valley and tech wealth, these old, often family, businesses have been  replaced by chichi gift shops, tech stores and upmarket restaurants that cater to the wealthy.

And then, incongruously, there are the rising numbers of homeless.

How to let a bad problem get much worse

In fact, San Francisco doesn’t, per capita, have more homeless than other cities reportedly. The average for urban areas is that between seven and nine per cent of the extremely poor will be homeless, according to Splinter News, and that’s where San Francisco is. In proportion to population, San Francisco has fewer homeless than Seattle, Los Angeles or Washington DC (though twice that of New York which has more than ten times the population). The problem is that the city itself is so physically small, they’re far more apparent. As are the problems they bring with them.

Campaigners say other factors have contributed like decades-old cuts to subsidised housing budgets which were never restored. Residents have attacked advocates for the homeless for enabling homelessness. (This year, the city will spend $US280 million on housing and services for the homeless, a 40 per cent increase from five years ago, according to NBC’s Bay area station.) A change to Californian law in 2014 which downgraded certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanours has had an impact on opportunistic crime in this city, as one SF resident, a consumer finance experts, details here.

A constant battle rages in the media: on the progressive side – it’s the fault of big tech for not paying enough city taxes; on the right, it’s City Hall’s over-regulatory regime with new development.

Many of the homeless are mentally ill; in 2013, the figure was 37 per cent. Drugs are a big issue, as are strategies like “harm reduction”, that don’t tackle the effects of drug-use head on, instead accepting drug use. In early June, when the city passed a bill that would give more powers to the city to “force mentally ill drug users into treatment”, critics responded by saying it “represents a grave threat to civil liberties”. (Remarkably, refreshingly, last month, the city suggested funding another ambitious mental health initiative for all citizens with a new tax on companies where the CEOs earn 100 times more than the media pay of employees.)

In May, while I was there, the Bay area had a collective heart attack when the Washington Post published a piece, “How San Francisco Broke America’s Heart”. Around the same time, The New Yorker had a similar article: “In San Francisco, Tech Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness”.

The gist was the same in each, summed up in one observer’s words in the Post piece: “Our rich are richer. Our homeless are more desperate. Our hipsters are more pretentious… San Francisco is now a cruel place and a divided one.”

Always on guard

The threat of sudden, opportunistic crime permeates everything. To get into a dress shop on Sutter Street, near glossy Saks, Macy’s and the Grand Hyatt hotel in downtown San Francisco, but also near the Tenderloin district, I had, to my amazement, to press a buzzer on the locked door.

We’re not talking Fendi or Dior here, just a small boutique selling interesting labels. By now, four days into my stay, I was getting frazzled, and indignant. I’d only just avoided landing in Powell station, a BART station near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, after an online check had revealed it has the most crime of any BART station. I got off instead at Montgomery near the Financial District. The floor of my BART train was stained with a long stream of urine, coming from a sleeping man.

As the assistant in Sutter Street let me in, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “This is a really horrible city!”

She agreed. Like many I met, she wanted the homeless to be helped – but she also wanted a peaceful, less jangled life. She wanted to feel less like the meat in the political sandwich.

But the assistant and I were both wrong in one fundamental way. San Francisco is startlingly beautiful and the bay views are breathtaking. A drive up and down those famous steep streets is a marvel. There are peaceful enclaves galore. The same is true of Berkeley with its stunning university, trees and pretty streets in the right part of town. And both SF and Berkeley have some of the best bookshops I’ve explored, crowded with people of all ages, thumbing pages and sharing discoveries with friends.

Just up the road from my hotel, a kilometre or so away from Fourth Street’s luxe, I also discovered a small strip of Indian spice shops, groceries and emporia rich with jewel-coloured saris, beaded vests and intricate gold earrings. Around the corner from there was a Middle Eastern grocery that also served meals, a massive Latino grocery too and Mexican restaurants.

Humans are, as always, impressive in their determination to survive, to persevere, to hang in there until they can’t.

So San Francisco and Berkeley aren’t, of course, naturally horrible cities. They are just what happens when we get sidetracked by the immediate – especially if it glisters or makes us feel virtuous, the twin obsessions of our times – and don’t think about long term consequences.

We should think of these cities, and others in the US, as the Dorian Gray portraits waiting ahead for all our cities, if we continue to make like the ostrich.

 

WHAT WE READ WHEN WE READ ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST

In mid-May 1944, 19-year-old Hédi Fried, a Romanian, was marched onto a cattle car transport, with her mother, to end up in Auschwitz. In March this year, the now 94 year old, who lives in Sweden, saw her book, Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust, published here by Scribe. It is a follow-up to her memoir, Fragments of a Life: The Road To Auschwitz, and is both simple and wonderful.

She writes upfront “There are no stupid questions, nor any forbidden ones, but there are some questions that have no answer.”

The book’s questions include: “What languages were spoken in Auschwitz?”; “Did you dream at night?”; “When did you realise your family was in danger?”; “What was it like to have your period?”; and “Were there kind SS soldiers?”

The answer to the last, abbreviated, is no.

It’s the straightforwardness of the book  – and the fact that Fried is so candid in her answers – that makes this book so important. For there is now a growing deluge of books which have the Holocaust, Hitler, the Nazis and/or Churchill as their subject and I am starting to worry that we may lose our footing in the rising tide.

So many new books

And this from someone who has at least three bookshelves filled with such titles. But even I came to a halt in California, in La Jolla at the celebrated Warwick’s book store, when I saw that one large display table was pretty much end to end books on the Nazis and the war.

I emailed a friend back here: “So many new books about the Nazis, Churchill, that new Appeasement book, another book about one Jewish village in the Black Forest, another book about 139 VIP hostages that Hitler kept at the end of the war to bargain with, another about 1941, several about D-Day …. and I see there’s now a new genre in women’s popular fiction, plucky women in the resistance, fighting off the Krauts in Paris, spying for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Even am now thinking it’s all a bit obsessive and you know what my kitchen bookshelves look like.”

What would I have done?

As our current era turns dystopian, so are we seeking comfort and inspiration from the tales of valour, courage, defiance from World War Two, particularly from Europe.

The shockingly ghastly stories from inside the concentration camps must serve to make any reader think: never again, just as survivors did after 1945. Nor can we help asking ourselves as we read these books: how would I have coped? And would I have been brave enough to shelter people?

But I began to fret: how many books have been written with the pure determination of Fried to try to explain what it was like to live at the mercy of the inexplicable? To explain World War Two and all its complexities to us so we are warned?

How many have been written because of the new public appetite for these books?

Many of the new titles are very good indeed and I am reading one right now. Defying Hitler, not the Sebastian Haffner original, but a book by British journalists Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis, chronicles “the Germans who resisted Nazi rule”. The stories of resistance from Jews and non-Jews are stunning. The authors write of Robert and Magdalena Scholl and their five children: “For the Scholls, opposition to Hitler was a moral imperative, a simple question of right versus wrong. No matter what the consequences … the family would pay a terrible price for the desire for a better Germany.”

I asked Jeremy Jones, director of international and community affairs for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, if there were any downsides to what looks like a massive bonanza for the publishing industry?

Unvarnished testimony

Jones says, “The Holocaust is now a cultural reference point, the way 100 years ago, Greek mythology or British history might have been a cultural reference point.” His prime concern, he says, is that people understand the Holocaust properly and one way to do that is to listen to , or read, the unvarnished testimonies of those who were there. “That has been very important.”

He argues you can’t truly understand the Holocaust unless you also understand the history of anti-Semitism that led up to it, and he worries that, because of the current interest and the many books, the extermination and inhumane treatment of so many people (not just Jews but gypsies, gays, communists and dissidents) “becomes a kind of backdrop, something that can be exploited”.

“If a book increases our understanding,” says Jones “that’s great. But if [the Holocaust] is just a setting for ‘knights in shining armour’, a cultural cliché, that can be problematic.”

What alarms him, and also Sydney-based journalist Fiona Harari whose own book, We Are Here: Talking with Australia’s Oldest Holocaust Survivors, was published in early 2018, again by Scribe, is that people might be misled. That they may not understand exactly how horrific were the Nazi-run concentration camps, how unimaginable they were in their treatment of human-beings. Readers may think: well, it wasn’t that bad.

Harari, photographed above, cites as one example the bestselling novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a love story between two camp inmates, Gita and Lale. Author Heather Morris has claimed her book is 95 per cent factual and based on the lives of Gita and Lali Sokolov who migrated to Melbourne after surviving the war. Morris met Lali in late 2003, after his wife had recently died, and he told her their story. He died in 2006.

But the resulting novel has been severely criticised by Holocaust scholars and the current administrators of the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre. A report from the latter, which lists numerous historical errors in the novel, comments: “The reality of the war… has been fictionalised and poetised.”

The centre has made it clear it is concerned that Morris has a follow-up novel out this October, again set in Auschwitz-Birkenau and again claiming to be based on a true story.

Fiction and responsibility

Last December, Harari drew attention to the official disquiet about Tattooist in a news feature for The Australian. She stresses she has no problem with fiction based on the Holocaust, but not if it misrepresents, misleads: “It’s so important to make it as accurate as possible for the sake of the people you’re writing about.”

In one scene in the novel, Harari writes in her feature, Lali (incorrectly Lale in the novel) and Gita throw handfuls of grass at each other. Harari says, “There was no grass in Auschwitz. The prisoners might have eaten it if there was.”

Likewise, a reference to “supper” in one sentence worries her given the cosiness of the term; the starving prisoners were, after a day of brutalising labour with death hanging over every move, given 300g black bread with 25g of sausage or margarine or a tablespoon of marmalade. In his Auschwitz memoir, Primo Levi described it as “the evening ration”.

Morris, who thanks her two researchers for their “brilliant investigative skills”, even gets Gita’s tattoo-ed number wrong, says Harari. It wasn’t 34902, as Morris writes, but 4562.

There are also doubts, covered by the New York Times, as to whether Lali even tattooed Gita.

Harari’s concern, and that of others, has a reasonable basis: what happened at Auschwitz was off the scale when it comes to what its terrified skeletal prisoners endured once they’d escaped the initial selection for immediate extermination. Don’t gussy it up. Don’t make it sound less horrific than it was. Do everything you can to get details – which readers might accept as fact – correct.

Forty minutes in a library

I used to be one of Harari’s editors at The Australian and I know how carefully – fiercely – she fact-checks herself. She tells me, “It took me just 40 minutes one Sunday at the State Library to get Gita’s correct number. And that includes waiting time for the reference materials.”

Harari is amazed that, in spite of the novel’s many errors, and concern from such respected authorities, the book continues to sell in big numbers and I saw it in the bookshops of every airport I passed through on my US trip.

Then I discover, hunting my shelves, I already own it. A publisher sent me a uncorrected proof copy before it came out but I’d never opened it. When I do now, I’m stunned by my reaction: I’m offended.

It’s not that cruelties, casual violence, illness, mass extermination, random death, and threats of death aren’t in the narrative. They are. But they are written into the story in a way that, to me, feels thin, almost like stage scenery. The focus is on the developing relationship between the two main characters which seems to take place in more and more unlikely and intimate settings and with unlikely props. (Penicillin “or something similar”? In a camp in 1943? Not possible.)

In one scene, set in the Birkenau part of the concentration camp complex, prisoners wander around, men and women alike, intermingling and chatting. “The crowd has begun to disperse. [Lale] looks around to find Gita, who hasn’t moved from her spot He jogs over to her and takes her by the hand. They move through the other prisoners towards the administration block.”

The Auschwitz Memorial report stresses barbed wire separated sections, moving about was strictly prohibited and armed guards made it almost impossible anyway.

The crucial five per cent

To counter the criticism about errors, Morris has argued: “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction.”

Again, Harari is precise: “She’s said 95 per cent of her book was true. If you had a fact-based account, why would you fictionalise five per cent of it? And which bits of the book are that five per cent?”

Morris’s follow-up novel, Cilka’s Journey, is about the relationship between an SS officer and “sex slave” Cecília Kováčová, which figured in the earlier novel. The cover says it is “based on a heart-breaking true story”.

The Auschwitz Memorial’s initial report though said, according to The Guardian, such a relationship would have been impossible. “… in practice, the possibility of maintaining such a long relationship … and, according to the book, a semi-explicit relationship between a Jewish female prisoner and high-ranking member of the SS hierarchy was non-existent. The disclosure of such a relationship would have involved an accusation of race dishonour … and severe punishment for the SS man.”

Harari concludes, “It’s great that people want to read about this [time], and there’s nothing wrong with fictionalising history. This isn’t sacrosanct. But you have a responsibility as a human-being that you don’t mislead.”

Something for all publishers to bear in mind.

DID ANYTHING HAPPEN TO THE CAT?

American newspapers, in spite of their travails, continue to delight. As I was travelling, I often found one New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Los Angeles Times would last me a couple of days because there was so much compelling reading in each edition. But my favourite article was headlined: “Does Anything Awful Happen to the Cat…?”

I kept imagining a theatre critic trying to pitch it to an editor here and, tellingly, as of writing this, I can’t see from an online trawl that any NYT syndicator in Australia has picked it up.

Animal appeal

It is SO good. It’s about how we feel when animals are used in a stage production and it turns out, our hearts are in our mouths as we wait for denoument. New Yorkers have had the real live lamb in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. The horse puppet in Warhorse. (After I saw the stage production here, with the puppet, there was no way I was going to watch the film version with real horses.) The live rabbit in The Ferryman. The dog in Yen, a 2017 off-Broadway production.

Then, a new play goes on Broadway. It’s 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips and it features a cat. A puppet cat.

The NYT’s writer, theatre critic Laura Collins-Hughes relates that another critic, someone she has always regarded as tough-minded, emails her after Collins-Hughes’ own review appears, asking, tremulously, “Does anything awful happen to the cat?

“She then adds, ‘I have a hard time with lost animals, even offstage puppets.’”

Their sheepness, their birdness

Animals in a show have a particular power, Collins-Hughes writes. “They affect us viscerally, in ways that human actors can’t. Their presence can be glorious. It can also be fraught.”

Something awful does happen to the lamb in the Shepard play though, fortunately for the audience, off-stage.

Collins-Hughes writes later in the piece that she always relaxes instantly if she sees the name of veteran animal trainer William Berloni in the programme.

And she captures this, of animals on stage: “I’m too aware that, in a realm of artifice, they are solidly themselves in all their catness or birdness or sheepness.”

VIDEO – DUNNING- KRUGER, TAKE A BOW

One of the pleasures of writing a recent feature for Good Weekend about our new world of phonies, self-promoters, spin merchants and practitioners of bullshit – “The Pretenders” – was that it let me introduce the Dunning-Kruger effect to anyone who hadn’t yet heard of it.

In my experience, everyone sensible who hears of this theory – and that it has been scientifically tested and proven – brightens. It goes a long way to explain success in the 21st century, and how we got here.

Conceived by two American psychologists over 20 years ago, David Dunning and his then PhD student Justin Kruger, it’s this:

Incompetent people very often have no idea how incompetent they are and so, over-estimate their competence and therefore come across as confident. Which is then mistaken for competence. Competent people, on the other hand, know how much they don’t know – and so, all too often, come across as not confident. Therefore can be seen as less competent than the incompetent (who also, just for a final killer blow, often cannot recognise true competence).

The theory, which was awarded an Ig Nobel prize in 2000, has inspired numerous follow-up papers, a ton of journalism – and this reassuring finale from The Incompetence Opera.