Turning point

The Battle of Midway
By Craig Symonds
Oxford University Press

The 1942 Battle of Midway was undeniably a pivotal event in WW2, and it is no surprise that it has been the subject of numerous books and movies. The surprise is that Symonds, currently a professor at the US Naval War College, finds plenty that is new to say by delving into the underpinning cultural and strategic issues.

He points out that the battle took place only six months after the strike on Pearl Harbour. Since that time, the central element of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, the Kido Butai (“Mobile Force”) had swept all before it, venturing as far as Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). It was the Kido Butai – a group of carriers and support ships grouped together into a single task force – that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbour. In fact, says Symonds, things had gone so well that the Japanese could not conceive of failure.

Battle of MidwayAnd therein lies the rub. The strategic purpose of invading and occupying the island of Midway was always dubious – it only made sense as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Hawaii, although it would have been difficult to hold and supply – but there was also the goal of luring what was left of the US fleet into a decisive battle. Carrier battles were a fairly new concept – the recent Battle of the Coral Sea was the first actual case – but everyone agreed that locating the enemy was of crucial importance.  But the Japanese had no doubts that the Americans would do exactly what they expected them to do. Symonds recounts the story of a large table-top exercise aimed at predicting the course of the battle. These things can offer very useful lessons, except that the senior officer who was the arbiter kept changing the rules to ensure victory.

So the Japanese went into the battle with a swaggering confidence, with numbers, experience, and better planes on their side. But the American had some advantages: they had broken much of the Japanese radio code, and their ships had radar.

And there were important cultural elements that found practical expression. Something simple, which turned out be crucial: on the American carriers, when an attack was imminent, the fuel lines that ran around the ship were purged with carbon dioxide. (Give the man who thought of that a medal, someone.) Damage control was practised and there were redundant systems to keep things going.

US doctrine was to keep carrier groups separate. Pearl Harbour had revealed the danger of having too many eggs in a single basket. This meant that it was difficult to co-ordinate large attacks but it also meant that the key assets were unlikely to be taken out in one strike.

Symonds notes that the first US strikes on various parts of the Japanese invasion force were hopelessly inept. The Japanese air cover was powerful. The Americans suffered from repeated failures of technology, with torpedoes failing to explode and bombs dropping before they were supposed to.

The key US ship was the Yorktown. The Japanese were sure they had sunk it at the Battle of the Coral Sea but it had limped home and had been repaired in record time.

Aside from that, according to Symonds, the Japanese suffered from competing priorities: on the one hand trying to level Midway and on the other trying to engage the US fleet. This led to the famous ‘Nagumo’s dilemma’ where he had to choose between arming his planes for a second strike at Midway or load them for an attack on the US carriers. His decision was considered, logical … and wrong. Planes were still being re-armed when groups of American dive bombers arrived. Even worse, the air cover fighters were miles away, chasing a flight of hapless torpedo bombers.

Symonds notes that the US attack on the three Japanese carriers, the Kaga, the Akagi, and the Soryu, is sometimes described as a co-ordinated effort but in reality it was something of a scramble. It took only five minutes for all three carriers to be damaged beyond repair. The American scored only a few hits, but once the interior was alight the fire spread along the fuel lines and ordinance began to cook off. There was no hope.

Even with three carriers gone the Japanese still thought they could win. It was as if they could not understand the concept of defeat. If they had withdrawn at this point they would have had enough assets to fight another day. But they pressed on, launching effective attacks on the Yorktown, and they believed they had sunk it.

But the Yorktown proved to be a tough ship. The damage control crews managed to keep it operating, even fighting. The Japanese launched another attack, thinking it was a different carrier. They inflicted massive damage but in doing so revealed the position of the final Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. The American counterstrike was brutally effective, and the Hiryu was out of the fight.

The Yorktown was abandoned but refused to sink. A recovery crew went back on and it was thought that it might be saved – but then a roving Japanese submarine found it. That was it for the Yorktown.

Finally, with four carriers gone, the Japanese commanders admitted that the day was lost and turned for home. Everything had changed on 4 June 1942.

There were some other important consequences as well. The Japanese had lost many of their best pilots while the Americans were able to rescue many of their downed airmen. The Yorktown could be replaced by the growing American industrial machine (the name was transferred to another carrier a bit later). The Japanese did not have the capacity to rebuild. After Midway, it was just a long series of holding actions and grind-down defeats.

For the Japanese, there was only one strategy left: defend a contracting perimeter and hope that the Americans would not be able to bear the costs. It did not work out that way.

What happened? Symonds has a series of answers. For years (even before Pearl Harbour) the Japanese had gone from one victory to another. In hindsight, it is clear that those victories were against weak opponents, or ones taken by surprise. A positive outlook is important, yes, but so is resilience and the capacity to deal with setbacks. A victory mentality only works when there are continued victories.

Yes, the Americans had a good dose of luck, but it was the sort of luck that is underpinned by the right strategic thinking and practical actions. Yes, it could have all worked out very differently. The point, however, is that it did not.

Stress test

Appearing on In the Black Digital site, July 2020


Tough times: how to cope with stress

Anyone who has done it knows that running an accounting practice can be a stressful undertaking. But the COVID-19 crisis has taken it to a whole new level, imposing unprecedented levels of financial and psychological pressure. Coping with this type of stress is not easy but with the right attitude and appropriate tools it can be done, and possibly the experience of adversity can provide an even greater level of personal resilience and strength.

An irony is that the clients of accounting practices are increasingly looking to their advisers as a voice of stability, reassurance, and control. While there are no firm figures, anecdotal evidence indicates that many practices have seen revenue drop by 30-40 per cent, or even more. Many CPAs have continued to provide services to clients with reduced or no charges, which will help to build relationships for the long term but puts more strain on the short-term bottom line. In other words, the pressure has gone up while the returns have gone down.

Dr Grant Blashki, Lead Clinical Advisor with Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of Australians, explains that people in business need to consciously maintain their mental well-being.

“The usual common-sense approaches to maintaining mental well-being still apply,” he says. “This involves keeping up regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, creating regular routines and making time for friends and family. “Some particular issues that are important during the pandemic are using  online technologies to stay connected with people who are important to you, and being clear about work and home-life boundaries. Don’t let the problems mount up.”

Stress mgt

Break the cycle

Warning signs that stress is turning into a serious health problem include constant fatigue, low energy and disrupted sleep. Other symptoms include withdrawal from usual engagement with work and friends, a noticeable drop in performance, and obsessing about negative themes. There may be a need for professional help, and there should be a readiness to seek it as required.

For people working from home, it is important to establish a routine, including regular contact with colleagues. There are unhelpful behaviours that should be avoided, such as staying up late and then sleeping in, or some form of substance abuse.

Richard Maloney, author of Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times*, and CEO of Quality Mind Global, a consulting firm specialising in mindfulness in the workplace, recognises the pressures that many accountants are under. He emphasises the importance of allowing yourself to de-stress and re-focus. Meditation is beneficial but simply listening to relaxing music can also be very helpful, as can ‘walking meditation’. The aim is to break the cycle of stress.

“You need to schedule time away from work pressure, to clear the mind and minimise negative thinking patterns,” he says. “Another good idea, if pressure is piling up, is to make a ‘gratitude list’ to shift your focus from your problems to the good things in your life.

“If you feel that stress is pushing you into a conflict mentality, try going for 24 hours without saying anything negative. This will make you conscious of yourself and your feelings.”

Taking the pressure off

Dr Blashki points out that Beyond Blue has designed a website called Heads Up**, which provides useful articles, videos and interviews for people in business. It includes a guide for businesses advisers on how they can maintain their own mental health as well as offer assistance to others.

Despite the difficulties of the current situation there is also the opportunity to deepen client relationships.

“There is so much uncertainty in business right now that clients will be looking for leadership, advice and initiatives from their providers – and more than just numbers,” says Maloney. “It’s okay to extend conversations beyond financial issues, and to ask a client how they are weathering this storm at the psychological level. No-one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

A related idea is to run workshops for clients on building mental resilience, and providing resources on mental health as well as business management in tough times. In fact, Maloney believes that helping others is an essential way to reduce one’s own stress.

“If you are more focused on others you are less likely to obsess about your own problems. In the end we are all here to help and serve each other, and we can attain a great sense of accomplishment from doing that,” he says.

Dr Blashki agrees with this theme. “One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic has been a recognition of the fragility of other people’s lives,” he notes. “It has reminded us how dependent we all are on each other. Assisting others, whether with business advice or simply a compassionate ear, can all contribute to a sense of community. That will be greatly appreciated.”


* Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times, Richard Maloney, Woodslane, 2020.

** Go to https://www.headsup.org.au/  See also the Beyond Blue documents Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work and Actions for small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing, available at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/


Key points for coping

  • Take regular ‘de-stress’ time, away from work issues
  • Stay connected with family and friends
  • Ensure that work and home-life boundaries are clear
  • Look to available resources on mental health
  • Be aware of warning signs such as fatigue and social withdrawal

Unplugging, wellbeing, and good work

Appearing in In the Black magazine, August 2020


24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week

By Tiffany Shlain

Simon & Schuster, $30, 256 pages

There is no doubt that cell phones have improved our lives in many ways but Shlain makes the point, in this fascinating book, that they have also generated anxiety, social dislocation, and exhaustion. She argues that regular unplugging from IT, which means not only phones but computers, social media and screens in general can have a profoundly positive effect on one’s life. She has built a successful career from Net 24-6 booktechnology so her willingness to deliberately turn it off for one day out of seven (and extending it to her entire family) might seem surprising. However, after doing it for a decade and she can provide many lessons, including on how it improves mental and physical health, rebuilds relationships and, ultimately, increases overall work productivity.

Shlain examines the Jewish idea of shabbat (a day of rest) and also delves into the underpinning neuroscience and psychology. She emphasises that just turning the phone or computer off is not enough: they need to be put completely out of sight, reach and mind. Breaking the habit of 24/7 connection can be difficult but it is worth the effort, and soon becomes second nature. So try it. You have nothing to lose but the stress.


Work Wellbeing

By Mark McCrindle and Ashley Fell

Rockpool Publishing, $30, 224 pages

Here are some remarkable statistics: in a survey of over a thousand Australian employees undertaken for this book, 72 per cent regarded wellbeing as the most important aspect of their workplace, and 83 per cent believe it is up to the employer to facilitate wellbeing. Surveys also indicated that a very large number of employees are somewhat or very unhappy in their workplace, and consequently give only minimum commitment to the organisation.

It does not have to be this way, say workplace researchers McCrindle and Fell, and it should not be. They argue that satisfied, motivated employees should be the first priority of a leader – even more so than customers, as happy employees will lead to happy customers. They draw on their consulting experience to establish the characteristics of a wellbeing workplace, finding that a positive and supporting culture, a sense of purpose, and a realisation of impact are the keys. Leaders have to be collaborative rather than commanding, and be able to communicate long-term goals. Interestingly, this is true even with employees who work remotely. McCrindle and Fell note the need to understand different generations, but a common factor is that all employees want due recognition, meaning, and a sense of community.


Advancing the Common Good: Strategies for Businesses, Governments, and Nonprofits

By Philip Kotler

Praeger, $55, 196 pages

Advancing the Common GoodKotler is one of the heavy hitters of business theory, having published dozens of books on branding and marketing. But he has also written extensively about the social responsibility of the private sector, and this book consolidates his views and thinking on the broad subject. Making profits is not the essential point of business, he says, but merely a means: the real objective is to make the world a better place. In fact, in the era of Net-driven transparency and social media a company cannot afford to have its reputation tarnished by irresponsible actions.

Kotler provides many examples of firms that have used their expertise and capital to assist the disadvantaged sectors of the community and reduce overall inequality without compromising the financial bottom line. But merely acting at the margins is not enough, he says. Existing companies have to re-think their entire purpose, and newcomers should incorporate social objectives from the start-up phase. When considering new initiatives leaders should factor in the impacts on the physical and social environment. Kotler admits that defining “the common good” is not easy but he offers some useful metrics and organisational models. His main focus is on US society but most of what he says has universal application.


Downloadable Resources


Navigating recovery

Consulting firm Accenture has published a number of useful articles about charting a course for recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and has now consolidated the material to provide advice and insights. The collection looks at the long-term implications of the crisis for business leaders; creating a resilient workforce through training and redeployment; assessing fundamental changes in consumer behaviour and routes to market; rebalancing for risk and liquidity, while assessing opportunities for growth; and re-designing IT systems to allow for business continuity and system durability. The overall theme is how to turn adversity into opportunity through strategic leadership and effective planning.

Download, with links, from:



IT protection

Foreign intelligence services and cyber-criminals have begun to target contractors as a way of by-passing the protective measures of government agencies, according to the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Its publication Cyber Security for Contractors examines common intrusion strategies, ranging from socially engineered emails to unpatched applications. The publication sets out defensive tools, including applications control, regular reviews and patching, whitelists, and ongoing vetting of employees. The value of unclassified information contained on a contractor’s systems is not always evident but it can still be sensitive, particularly when aggregated. While the publication is aimed at government contractors there are broad lessons for corporations as well.

Download from:



Salary trends

Data from recruitment firm SEEK shows that the finance sector is one of the areas continuing to show solid rates of year-on-year salary growth. Compliance-related roles were especially strong due to a heightened regulatory environment. Within the finance area, risk consulting in insurance and superannuation showed strong demand, and company secretary roles also attracted high salaries.  Starting salaries continue to be strong but there is some evidence that growth is slowing (a trend evident even before the COVID-19 crisis). On the other end of the scale, the real estate and property sector recorded a year-on-year decline, with valuers’ salaries falling most sharply.

Go to:



Chart data

Anyone who needs to see at a glance how the COVID-19 crisis has affected the Australian economy, and how the recovery is likely to develop, will find authoritative information in The Chart Pack published by the Reserve Bank of Australia. It summarises macroeconomic and financial market trends, with data on credit and money, banking indicators, inflation, commodity prices, the stock market, trade and GDP growth. There is also useful information about regional and global developments. The graphs are updated monthly and can be downloaded individually or as a package. There are also links to more detailed data available through the RBA website.

Download from:



Team players

Patrick Lencioni is the author of a series of books imparting business lessons through fables, and in this TED talk he uses stories and anecdotes to define the qualities of an ideal team player. The essential attributes, he says, are humility, which means focusing on the greater good; being hungry, entailing self-motivation and a willingness to take the initiative; and being people-smart, which requires being perceptive about others, asking good questions, listening carefully and knowing how to respond effectively. Lencioni emphasises that it is up to the leader to nurture and develop these qualities through example, mentoring and good recruitment choices.

Watch at:




Victoria’s Other Secret

Red bra 1



My name is Vicki and I have a secret. Had a secret. It’s someone else’s problem now.

Let me start at the beginning, or at least what might be the beginning. I had just been dumped. This has happened a number of times, often enough for me to have developed a little ritual for coping with it. I would buy some lingerie. I could only afford stuff from the Discount Everything store in the local mall. So here I was.

Dumped for being insecure, being needy, being … me, I suppose. So now I was listlessly looking through a rack of bras. No, no, not that one, wrong size, no, not that colour, no …

Buy me, said a female voice.

I jumped. I looked around. There was no-one close by.

I would be good for you, said the voice.

Actually, the voice seemed to be inside my head. I assumed I was experiencing some sort of post-dump breakdown.

You’re not, said the voice. I’m right here.

Okay, I thought. I’ll play along with the delusion.

Where, I said. Or, rather, I thought it as if I was saying it, on the basis that if I was going crazy there was probably no reason to share it with the world.

Here. In your hand.

I looked at the bra I was holding. It was a rather odd colour, a sort of dark blue. Not my thing, really. No, I looked at it again, and it was an interesting pastel teal shade.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the wrong size. Too big in the cups. I am not a well-endowed girl.

I’m perfect for you. Check again.

I did. Huh, it was my size after all. Guess I mis-read it. I looked at the tag again. There was something else written there. COLD WATER HAND WASH ONLY. And a price, a very reasonable price.

Try me on.

I hesitated. Talking bras are … weird.

Try me on, and you’ll never be dumped again.

How do you know about that.

I know a lot about you. I know you need me. I’ll be good for you.

You’re … a bra.

We’ll be great together. Try me on and you’ll see.

I went into the change room, and put it on. It was comfortable. Perfect fit. Then I looked at myself in the mirror … and gasped.

I had … cleavage! How the hell did that happen?

Told you.

I looked at myself at various angles in the mirror. I did not appear to be any larger than usual in the chest department but somehow the bra, with a decent amount of padding, was making better use of what was there. The result: cleavage. Curvy, eye-catching, fleshy cleavage.

If he could see you now, he would be crying that he dumped you. But you can do better than him. Much better.

I doubt it, I said. I’m pretty ordinary.

But when I looked at my image, I began to think that maybe the Voice was right.

I can give you … what you want. If you buy me. Now.

Well, you know, whether I was going crazy or not, I just had to buy it. Maybe I was imagining the whole thing, but to tell the truth the idea that I might be able to get off the dumping treadmill through the correct choice in underwear was not unappealing.

I took the bra to the counter and handed it to the woman. She looked at the tag. “Odd, I thought I knew all the brands but I’m not familiar with this one,” she said. “WitchyWood, eh? Where did you get it?”

I gestured in a general direction.

The woman shrugged and processed the transaction. I – we – left the store.

We’re going to have so much fun, said Voice.


I should tell you about my life. Except there isn’t much to tell. I live alone in a little apartment, I have a small job in a big company, I have some friends but no-one I am particularly close to. I occasionally go out to see if I can find some appropriate company, with very mixed results. That’s it. I told you there wasn’t much, right?

But none of this addressed the concept of a bra that could talk – talk inside my head, anyway. I was not sure if anyone else could hear Voice and I did not want to try any experiments. Just in case other people couldn’t hear it. And just in case they could.

So what’s your story? I said, sitting on the couch with the bra in my hand.

Voice was silent.

How come you can, er, talk?


How did you end up in a store?


There was a long pause. Then: we should go out.

Huh. Well, that wasn’t a bad idea. So I went to the wardrobe and selected some going-out clothes.

Not that top. That one there. The silky red one.

That’s a halter. I can’t wear that with, er, you.

Sure you can.

I inspected the bra. Somehow, it had changed into a halter-style.

I can be whatever I need to be.

It had also changed colour, ruby red to match the top. Or perhaps I was just imagining the whole thing.

You’re not.

I looked at the halter top. It’s a bit slutty, isn’t it? I said.

It’s just slutty enough.

Actually, it was hard to say no to Voice. Inside my head, she sounded very … convincing. So I put on the bra and the red halter top and a tight skirt and, believe it or not, I thought I looked pretty good. My hair seemed bouncier. Those little glitches on my skin had vanished. I swear that that annoying cellulite had disappeared. Even my eyelashes looked, well, kind of seductive. I looked like I should be in a television commercial for some sort of beauty product. Vicki 2.0.

So, it being Saturday night, I – we – went out to a nightclub. Now, usually, when I go to a place like this, I went with a little group of friends, a sort of safety-in-numbers concept. I would cross my fingers and hope that I wouldn’t be noticed, or that I would be.

But duly armed with killer lingerie, tonight I felt like going solo, leading with the cleavage and the bare shoulders. The bouncers waved me through and, what do you know, people started looking at me as soon as I entered. I took a seat at the bar.

Before a minute had passed a guy came up to me and asked if he could buy me a drink.

No, said Voice. Not him. He’s C-grade.

What, they come in grades? I said to her.

Voice seemed to sigh.

So I say no thanks to him? I said.

You say, definitely not.

“Definitely not,” I said to the guy.

He looked rather hurt.

Good, said Voice.

I saw another guy checking me out.

What about him?


How do you know so much about this?

Voice said nothing.

I looked around. On the other side of the room was a handsome guy. Well-dressed, blond-ish, just the right amount of semi-shaven panache.

Him, said Voice. Go for the stubble.

So I turned towards him, leaned back against the bar a little, gave him a good view of the guns.

He came over. Yes, he was an A, alright.

“I’m Phil,” he said.

“Of course you are,” I said. Or maybe it was Voice doing the work and I was just lip-synching. “As in, Phil-me-up, is it? Buy me an expensive cocktail, Phil.”

He did. He asked me my name.

“Vic – ” I started.

Victoria. It’s sexier.

“ – toria,” I finished.

He smiled. Wow, Voice was right, Victoria was sexier than Vicki. If only I had known.

Things with Phil went from there. Some drinks, some innuendo, an invitation. To make a long story short, I ended up with a bit of stubble-rash on my thighs. Worth it. Totally.


I would not have minded seeing Phil again but Voice was adamant that I should not return his calls. I was not entirely sure why he called me, since I had not really done much in the sex department. Mainly been on the receiving side, which was a nice change and a good place to be. Maybe Voice had got into his head in some way.

Dump him, said Voice.

But he was so pretty, I said.

Dump him, see how he likes it, just like all the times they have dumped you.

I must say that when she put it that way the idea had its attraction. Serves them right. Serves all of them right. Wait, did I actually just think that!?

In any case, when you go to a smorgasbord you don’t have just the one dish. There are plenty of others to try.

Hmm, I said. Well, okay then.

So we tried some more dishes. Alex was next, as I recall. He had a Porsche. Then there was Will. He had his own handcuffs. I forget the name of the next one but I remember that he had a very nice tongue. I have a feeling there was a fellow called Steve in there somewhere. And so on.

Meanwhile, my working life continued to grind away, as I shuffled papers around for reasons that were not entirely clear. Frustrating, because I was capable of doing much more, and I had better qualifications than most people here. But at least my co-shufflers seemed rather more social these days, and the boss of my division seemed to be spending more time than usual hanging around my desk.

One day, the boss said to me: “You know, Victoria, there’s a promotion coming up. Section head. I’ve noticed in these past few months how effective you are in your job, and I feel you should be considered. What assets would you bring to the job?”

Lean forward, said Voice. I did.

Deep breath. I did.

She told me what to say.

“Assets?” I said. “Just the two.”

“Ah,” said the boss. “I see.” He smiled and walked away.

So that’s how you get ahead, I said to Voice.

She giggled. Do you want the job or not? she said.

I thought about it. Eventually, I said: Yes.

A few days later, I was told I had been given the promotion. So the lesson was obvious: all those women who have the good jobs and the handsome boyfriends and the bright prospects … cheat. Maybe they all had talking bras.


The downside of the new job was that I had to take work home sometimes. I was going through a slab of papers when Voice said: I’m bored. We should go out. Meet someone. Bring them back here.

And then dump them? I said. As usual?

That’s the point. You seduce them in order to dump them. Hurt them.

I thought that the point was to have a good time.

You thought wrong. Get dressed. The silver bandeau, I think.

Before I knew it I was in the bedroom, manoeuvring myself into the top. The bra had reconfigured to max the push-up effect.

I don’t really want to go out, I said to Voice. I’m not in the mood.

What you want does not matter much. Now, the black skirt with the slit to the thigh.

I had the skirt in my hand. I looked at it.

No, I said, putting the skirt down.



The bra began to pinch me a little. In a sensitive area. There was the twinge of a headache at the base of my skull. It began to grow into a throb.

And then I was picking up the skirt and pulling it on. A part of my brain was saying, yes, I did want to go out, pick up some guy, do what I was supposed to do. It would be fun. Wouldn’t it?

The pinching stopped and the headache vanished.

Good girl, said Voice.


I’m not sure how but I ended up at a bar called Reboot. I started talking with a guy named Paul, and before I knew it we had been chatting for an hour or so. Voice was impatient, saying that he was just a B. I reminded her that this outing had been her idea, and anyway there were no A-grades in sight.

And he was pleasant company. We had things in common. He made me laugh. I would have been happy to sit and talk with him, and I think he would have been happy to do that too. But Voice was insistent. Anyway, one thing led to another, and a few hours later I was standing by my bed in my underwear, watching Paul sleep. Funny how some guys do that after pretty good sex.

He’s nice, I said to Voice.

He reminds me of someone, said Voice. Someone … someone I used to know … a long time ago … but he left me … after making promises … so many promises …

Is that why you do all this? Because someone broke your heart?

He broke … my soul.

There was a flush of heat in my head. This was some angry lingerie.

They’re evil. All of them.

Be that as it may, I said, I would like to keep this one. For a while, at least. I’m getting pretty sick of one-nighters.

There was a long pause.

Then: Kill him.

Uh, what?

Kill him. Take a knife from the kitchen and kill him.   

I recoiled in surprise, and then horror. I – I can’t, I said. I – I don’t want to – I won’t –

But now I was in the kitchen and I was taking a large knife from the drawer.

I’ll show you how. It’s easy.

I could see a hand holding the knife. Was it my hand?

There was a throbbing in my head, like a raven’s claw twisting in my brain. The bra was tightening around me, cutting into my flesh.

Stop, I said. Please …

Take the knife and put it on his throat and pull it across and then I’ll stop.

I tried to push Voice away, push her out of my head, but she was holding on with a manic strength. I lifted the knife and tried to get the blade under the strap of the bra, hoping to cut it off. But the fabric had become as strong as iron, and now it was as dark as blood. I began to struggle for breath.

My feet were starting to carry me towards the bedroom. I could see the knife in my hand.

You can’t get away, said Voice. You’re mine now. Now and forever.

“No!” I shouted aloud. With a huge effort, I threw the knife across the room.

You will regret that.

The bra was strangling me, squeezing the air from my lungs. The throbbing in my head had become a roar now, a storm of savage anger. I sagged to my knees.

I will make you regret it. I will make you regret everything.

But something scratched at my memory. What was it … I had seen something on the day we had met … something about the tag … what had it said …

On my hands and knees, gasping, I made it to the bathroom. I managed to get into the shower. My breath almost gone, I groped for the tap. The hot tap. I pulled the lever.

There was a gush of water. Steaming, scalding. It hit the bra. Voice screamed.

Cold water hand wash only, bitch, I said to her.

But she wasn’t giving up. The bra tightened even more.

The water was so hot it was blistering my skin. But if it was bad for me it must have been agony for her. I grit my teeth against the pain, against the boiling water and my cracking ribs and my pounding skull. Hold on, I told myself. Just … a little … longer … one … more … moment …

Enough! shouted Voice.

Then get off me, I said.

The bra loosened sufficiently for me to take a breath. The pain in my head began to recede. I reached up and turned the water off. But I kept my hand on the lever.

If I do that, you will destroy me.

I thought about it. Yes, this was a truly homicidal piece of underwear. But we had been through a lot together, and it had been pretty good, up to the final chapter.

I’ll make you a deal, I said. You get off me, get out of my head, and I’ll let you go on your way.

There was a long silence.

Slowly, I began to pull the lever. A hissing drip came from the tap.


The clasp unfastened and the straps slid from my shoulders. I was free.


And so the story ended where it began, in the Discount Everything store. After making sure the salespeople were not looking my way, I took the bra out of my bag and slipped it onto a spare hanger. I put it in with a row of others.

I was by no means sure that releasing it back into the wild was a good idea. But I had given Voice my word, and that has to count for something.

I looked around. There was a somewhat colourless young woman sorting through stuff on the bargain table. Huh.

I turned to go.

Wait. Please.

I looked at the bra.

I … I could be good, said Voice. If you would just –

Forget it, I said.

I walked away.

She called after me: Victoria –

It’s Vicki, I said.



Red bra 2



I, Viridian: Supervillain

Viridian graphic coverThis is the story of Viridian: supervillain, fan of Shakespeare, owner of many sexy shoes, carefree and irresponsible at the competitive level, bearer of a mystical and powerful gem.

Raised by thieves to be a thief, she was never really a child, or never really grew up, she doesn’t know which. When she washes up on the shores of Oklahoma City, pursued by shadowy forces and an unknown enemy, she links up with a peculiar gang of would-be supercriminals: mastermind Monk, samurai Tantō, strongman Cave, and the remarkable Flux.

And through them she discovers what it is she is looking for: a reason to fight, a reason to stay, a reason to care, and, most of all, a reason to love.


Available through Amazon



Our Town

Our town has long been a place where not a great deal happens, and that is how most of us have always liked it. There are the locals, some of whom have been here for several generations, and an itinerant population of holiday-makers who come here to enjoy our pleasant lake and interesting forest. The two people, a young woman and a somewhat older man, who caused a certain amount of disruption to our little community were in the second of these groups, and they took a lease on a holiday house on the edge of the town, where there was an overgrown path that led down to the lake beach. They had been living quietly there for about a month when word passed around that they could fly.

At first this notion was dismissed as the gossip of those people who spent a bit too much time in either of the town’s two bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less traditional variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a person of extremely sober disposition, said that the young woman had landed in the parking lot to return a borrowed book. Mr Pearson, who had taken a morning jog along the lakeside beach every day for perhaps twenty years, stated that he had seen the pair sitting on the high branch of a tree that could not possibly be climbed; they appeared to be having some sort of breakfast picnic.

There were those in town who were dismissive of such suggestions. After all, they pointed out, the couple had often been seen walking around the town, holding hands and carrying bags of groceries. Even more, they had been noticed waiting for the bus, which would hardly be expected of people who could fly. True, they were a little odd, friendly enough if engaged in conversation but apparently inclined to keep to themselves. The age difference, perhaps fifteen years between them, was unusual but hardly a cause for recriminations, and our town has always prided itself on its open-mindedness. And finally there was the obvious argument that human beings could not fly. To this group of our people, this constituted game, set and match. End of discussion.

The problem was that sightings of the flying people – sometimes together, sometimes alone – continued. Some townsfolk took to walking around with cameras while looking upwards, in the hope of taking a photograph. Only one photograph was, in fact, taken in this period, and it was so vague and blurry that it was not accepted as solid evidence even by people who swore that they had seen the airborne pair.

The situation became such that one of the town’s police officers, Patrolman Hilda Turner, said that she would pay a visit to the couple and sort the matter out. She did, indeed, set off to interview the couple in their rented house, and returned an hour later, wearing a somewhat puzzled expression. When she was asked whether the couple could fly she answered, yes, I believe so. But she emphasized that she had not actually seen either of them leave the ground. The man was on the roof of the house when she arrived, replacing some broken tiles, although there was no evidence of a ladder or any other means by which the roof might be reached. While Patrolman Turner was engaging the man in friendly if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of coffee. Patrolman Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over coffee, reported Patrolman Turner, she had asked the young woman point-blank if she and her companion could fly, and the woman had replied, why yes, yes we can, and would you like an oatmeal cookie. Patrolman Turner said yes, she would like an oatmeal cookie, and at that point the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Patrolman Turner asked the man if it was true that they could fly, and the man confirmed that it was. The policewoman asked how was it that they could do something which appeared to defy the laws of physics. The man responded that it was an issue of belief. He had once met someone who could fly and had therefore realized it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realized it was possible. So there it was.

Patrolman Turner subsequently returned to the police station where she filed a short report, and later answered a few questions put to her by the editor of the local newspaper.

The resulting article caused, by the quiet standards of our little town, something of a stir, and there was a growing movement for the mayor, Ms Thompson, who ran the popular café in the main street, to become involved. Ms Thompson called a public meeting for that evening, to be convened in her café, where beverages, scones and cakes could be purchased. There were questions as to whether the flying – the allegedly flying – couple should be invited, but after discussions with Patrolman Turner the mayor decided against it, although she left the option open for a later time.

The meeting, as it turned out, attracted most of the local population as well as quite a few holiday-makers. Patrolman Turner was asked to reiterate her report, which she did in such a clear and steady manner that even some of those who had previously rejected the possibility of flying people as a hoax or a series of mistakes began to acknowledge that there might be something in the idea.

The questions and opinions that arose from the meeting fell into several categories, namely:

  1. Could the flying couple be witches, or perhaps aliens.
  2. Was there a way for the business people of the town, always on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, to make money out of this.
  3. Should the Department of Defense, NASA, or perhaps some other agency of the national government, be informed.
  4. If the ability to fly stemmed from the belief that one could fly, was it therefore possible for other people to learn to fly.

A number of people expressed considerable interest in this last point. After all, if gravity could be overcome by simply assuming that it did not exist, then it called into question many concepts previously taken for granted. Several of the younger townsfolk remarked that they would be very pleased to take flying lessons, and would be quite willing to forgo a belief in gravity and whatever else was required in order to get off the ground.

The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion, although nearly everyone agreed that the flying couple were probably not witches or aliens but ordinary people who had somehow acquired an extraordinary ability. Notably, there remained a hard core of non-believers who argued that human flight, aside from the airplane variety, was simply impossible and that was all there was to it.

The faith of the non-believers was severely tested the next day when, quite suddenly, the couple landed in full view of many people, outside Petrucci’s Famous Pizzeria. They then ordered a pizza, pepperoni with extra cheese, with a side of potato salad, as carry-out.

There were a few people who huffed that descending on a public street in this way was tantamount to showing off but most of the townsfolk were merely curious, and put a series of polite questions to the pair while they waited for their pizza.

Yes, said the couple, we can fly, and have been able to for some time. No, flying itself is not difficult but landing requires a certain amount of practice. Yes, it is a matter of belief. It requires putting aside everything you know, or think you know, about the world and how it works, and instead substituting the knowledge, the sure and certain knowledge, that flying is possible. This leap of faith becomes much easier when you have seen someone do it, said the man. No, we do not know how the first person to fly achieved the feat. The young woman mentioned that, even after she had seen her partner fly, she had spent many hours standing in a park thinking about it. And then she realized that it could be done, because it had been done. And then she did it.

The pizza and potato salad arrived, and the couple ascended to return home. The ascension was, in some ways, not particularly impressive. There was no sudden leap into the air with arms outstretched, Superman-style. Neither was there any magical incantation or puzzling ritual. Instead, it was more like a steady drift upwards, off the surface of the planet, and then at a certain height the couple, pizza and potato salad in hand, turned towards their house. The only impressive aspect of the entire process was that it happened at all.

With the phenomenon of human flight now confirmed, our community grew strangely quiet on the issue. There was an unspoken consensus that, given that the couple had been as forthcoming as possible in their explanations, and seemed to be a pair of pleasant individuals, to notify government authorities might be an invasion of their privacy. Neither was there any further talk of ways to monetize the matter.

And then, one day, they were gone. Their rented house was empty; the real estate agent said that the lease had expired, according to schedule, and they had not renewed it. He did not know why or where they had gone but he said that, when they had returned the keys to his office, they had not expressed any ill-will towards the town or its people; quite the contrary. The most likely explanation was that their extended holiday had simply ended and they had returned to wherever it was they had come from.

But their departure did not mark the end of the story. For several weeks, a number of townspeople could be seen standing on cliffs, or by the lake, or in their yard, looking across the water or into the sky. It was a month after the departure of the couple that the first sightings of flying people began. Since then it has been a slow but steady trickle.

Over time, we have largely returned to the view that ours is a town where not very much happens. Yes, some people can fly, in that drifting, undramatic way; and others can but generally choose not to, for reasons of their own. We accept it because, putting it simply, we cannot do anything else: it is what it is. We do not find it remarkable, and we probably never will.



Person flying

The Bear


My earliest memory is of the day when my father brought a bear home. I must have been only four or perhaps five, counting by the Korean method, and my brother must have been only two or three, and my sister was only a baby. The bear was only a cub, I remember thinking that it looked like a ball of black fur, and it made a strange mewling sound.

My father told us that he had found it when he was leading a platoon of his soldiers on a training exercise in the forest not far from where we lived, which was in turn not far from the military base that he commanded, on the eastern edge of Seoul. He said that the bear’s mother had been killed by hunters – this was not uncommon in those days. The soldiers with him had said that the merciful thing to do would to shoot it then and there, as it would not be able to survive on its own, it was too young, but my father would not hear of it. But he agreed that, yes, the cub would soon be killed by another bear or some other creature of the forest if it was left. So the bear came to live with us.

My mother, needless to say, was not happy with this idea. It is a wild creature, she said. It has claws and teeth and when it gets bigger it will surely have a very nasty disposition. And we barely have enough food for ourselves.

You must realise that at this time, the early sixties, Korea was a very poor country, even in the area around the capital. Memories of the war were still fresh, and even though my father was a respected figure in the military – and as a colonel he had a significant role in the administration of our part of the province – there was often just enough to go around and not much more. Having meat in a meal was a treat, let me put it that way.

But my father was adamant that we would take in the orphan bear. And once my father had made a decision there was not much point in further discussion. He said that he would build a little cabin for it from scrap wood in the backyard, a bit like a cave, and the bear could live there in the warmer months and could eat leftovers.

There aren’t any leftovers, my mother said. But then she looked at the little ball of fur, and it made that mewling noise, and, well, she accepted that we could not simply throw it back into the forest. She shook her head and muttered something about another mouth to feed but the bear stayed. Somehow she managed to find food for it. Occasionally, later on, when my father was not at home, and when the bear could sit up, I would see her feeding it little bits of radish while she was cooking. She would see me watching and hiss that I was not to tell my father under any circumstances.

My father gave the bear a name but I cannot remember what it was. My mother, my brother, my sister when she could talk, and I just called it ‘the bear’. In fact, I believe that the first word my sister could say was 곰.


I should tell you a little more about my father, I think. He was from a town that was now in the North, but he had fought for the South in the war, and had been decorated and promoted. His medals and letters of commendation, along with his photograph, are in the glass-fronted case that we bow to on New Year’s Day and other significant occasions.

Like many soldiers he could be very stern and strict, and you could sense the steel in him. But there were times when he spoke in a softer voice. He would tell us stories about the war, about the Battle of the Han River and other incidents. He called MacArthur ‘the American general’ but he used the term ‘the General’ for another man, Park Chung Hee, the man who was now leader of the country. He had been a general but had recently assumed the title of President. My father knew the General, they had been in the same class at the military academy, we have a photograph of the graduation ceremony that shows the two of them.

I suspect that they also had had something to do with each other in some part of the war, although I am not sure what. In any case, there was some 정 between them. I suppose that battlefields create those sorts of connections.

My father’s responsibilities meant that he often had to stay at the base, but I recall warm evenings when he was with us in the little house. He would sit on the porch and drink 소주 and my brother and I would sit on the ground and listen to him talk. Aside from stories of the war he would tell us about the little town where he grew up, about planting rice and cabbages, and praying that the rain would be not too little, not too much, just the right amount, and that the winter would not be too cold.

The bear would be with us, sitting on its bottom and listening to the stories as well. I remember my sister sitting there but often, since she was very young, she would lean against the bear and fall asleep. I assume she liked the bear’s soft, warm fur. I mentioned this to her many years later but she said she could not remember it. Well, she was not much more than a baby at the time.


The bear had a remarkable talent for mimicry. When it heard my mother singing while she cooked or cleaned, in her sweet clear voice, it would make a crooning sound as well. My mother told me that it liked to sit and watch her putting on her makeup. One day, she said, she found that the bear had got into her cosmetics drawer and had put makeup on its face. I was there at the time, she told me, although I don’t remember it. I wish I could. A bear with lipstick and powder! Now that would have been something to see!

Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. I think that not all the stories about the bear that my mother and father told us, a bit later on, were true. Maybe they were just stories for children. But I like to think that that one, at least, was true.

One thing I remember quite clearly was when my mother took me and my brother into the forest to look for berries and mushrooms. She carried my sister in a back-sling. Of course, the bear came with us. I guess that by this time it had been with us about a year, perhaps a bit more, so it was no longer a cuddly ball of fur. But it padded along behind us, on all fours, happy to eat berries when we found some.

At one point the bear stopped. It stood up and sniffed the air. That was the first time, I believe, that I saw it stand upright.

It looked around. It looked at us, my mother and brother and sister in the sling and myself. Then it looked again at the forest.

Then it went down on all fours again and came over to us. It nuzzled my hand, and I scratched its ears in response, as I usually did.

Someday, my mother said, it will have to leave. It is a wild animal, after all, and one day it will have to leave.


The bear had been with us three years, I suppose, something like that, when it vanished. It was not in its little cave-cabin and not in any part of the yard, and not in the house.

My father came back from the base that evening, and I remember my mother telling him, very softly, that the bear was nowhere to be found. My father said nothing.

I was surprised that the next morning a truckload of soldiers from the base appeared at the front of our house, and my father gave them a series of orders as he climbed into his jeep.

He saw me watching. He moved over a little to make space on the seat beside him.

Come on, son, he said to me. Let’s go and find our friend.

So I climbed in and we set off through the forest. My father knew where he was going, and eventually we stopped outside a little cave. My father got out of the jeep, and the soldiers climbed out of the truck and raised their guns. From within the cave there was a low growl.

Father, I said. We’re not going to shoot the bear for running away, are we?

No, my father said. But even though this is the cave where I found the bear, there might be another occupant. So stay in the jeep, son. To be safe.

My father walked towards the cave. He called out the bear’s name.

Being a boy, I did not stay in the jeep. I got out so I could see more clearly.

My father called out again.

The bear – our bear – came slowly out of the cave. On all fours, it went up to my father and nuzzled his hand.

My father stroked the bear’s head. The bear gave a soft growl. My father said something to the bear but I could not hear his words.

They stayed like that for a long, long moment. Then my father turned and walked back to the jeep. The soldiers returned to the truck.

My father saw that I had climbed out of the jeep. He gave a little nod, and then helped me in. He looked back. The bear was gone.

You have to go home, he said to no-one in particular. You have to go home.


It was early the next morning when my father shook me awake. Get dressed, he said. Don’t wake your mother and brother and sister.

I did as I was told. Then he took me outside and we climbed into the jeep.

We drove along the road that led to the military base. I had not been here before, or at least I could not remember being here, but I recalled him saying that it had recently been expanded.

We drove to the new section. There was a small helicopter on a concrete pad. My father got out of the jeep and talked to a guard standing near the helicopter. I could not hear what they were saying but at one point my father pointed to his badge of rank. Eventually, the guard saluted and opened the helicopter door.

My father gestured for me to come over, which I did. Together, we climbed into the helicopter.

I had not known that my father knew how to fly a helicopter but obviously he did, and he started the engine. He put a radio headset on and spoke to someone, using the words ‘on my authority’ several times.

Then we were off.

I asked him where we were going.

North, he said. There is something I have to see, and show you.

But won’t the Communists kill us if we go to the North? I said.

It’s not a long way over the border, he said. By the time they get planes in the air we’ll have seen what we need to see and be on our way back.

So we flew on, heading to the North. Seoul fell away behind us and we passed over a long strip of green forest.

The DMZ, my father said.

I nodded. Perhaps I should have been worried, even fearful. But my father seemed to be entirely sure of what he was doing, and so I was not afraid.

Occasionally he spoke to someone on the radio. Then there was another voice coming through the little speaker, a voice with a different accent. I realised that it was a Northern voice.

I just want to see my hometown, my father said into the radio. This helicopter is unarmed. All I want is to see my hometown, and for my son to see it.

The Northern voice continued to speak, even more stridently. My father turned the radio off.

Then we came to a town. We circled, and came in low. People in the town came out and looked up at us, unsure of what was happening.

My father pointed at a cluster of little houses. That was where I was born, he said. And my father was born there as well. Can you see the vegetable patch at the back? My mother was born at the other end of the town, in that house over there, you see? That one near the ricefield. They were killed in the war, as you know, but … that was where we lived. Before.

It was a town, like many other towns scattered across the landscape of the Koreas. A town like many others, but special. The town where my father was born.

Do you understand? my father asked.

I thought about it.

I understand, I said.

He nodded. He turned the little helicopter southwards. He was smiling.


Years later, after my father had passed, my mother told me that she had been very angry with him, but the way she said it made me think that she understood what he had done, and why.

My father continued to hold the rank of colonel but it was made clear to him, according to my mother, that there would be no more promotions, no more medals, no more letters of commendation. I said that it was surprising that he was allowed to stay in the military, let alone keep his rank. She said: the General.


So that is the story of the bear. For many years I did not really think of it, but these days, as I approach the age that my father was at that time, I think of it often. I wonder how the bear fared in the woods, what sort of life it lived. And I wonder if some day I might be able to visit my father’s hometown, to talk to the people there and see the fields of rice. But when I think of this I realise that I do not know the town’s name. My father had never told me, and I had never asked.

bear paw

The Journey Within

Appearing in Sunlight Press magazine, October 2019


The White Book

By Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Random, $12, 160 pages, ISBN 9780525573067


If you want a novel with a clear, three-act narrative and an all’s-well conclusion, then this book by Korean writer Han Kang is not for you. In fact, it does not even look like a novel, written in short and seemingly unconnected snatches of prose. It is more like an extended meditation on life and death, on what might have been and on what once was. And that is enough. More than enough.

White book coverIt is unknown how much of The White Book is autobiographical but it feels as if a good part of it is drawn from lived experience. Han has no lack of courage as a writer, in that she was willing to make such a departure from her previous book, The Vegetarian, which won the Booker International prize in 2016. That novel – actually three connected novellas – followed the increasing detachment of a woman from the real world when she announces she will no longer eat meat, and then eventually stops eating altogether. Significantly, we never really find out why: the three novellas are (effectively) centred on her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.

But we know that she is on a journey that leads to the most innermost part of the soul – something we find again in The White Book, and an idea that underlies much of the dynamism of the current Korean literary scene. The narrator of the book is in search of herself through an examination of the past, reflecting the way that South Korea is itself looking for a way forward (a theme, interestingly, often taken up by Han’s novelist father, Han Seung-won). It is a culture looking for the elusive balance between past and future, retaining what is most valuable without a trace of bleary-eyed nostalgia. The path has not yet been found but there is a sense that it will be, eventually.

Make no mistake: making one’s own fate is not an easy process, just as The White Book is not an easy read, despite its apparent brevity. It requires a certain level of engagement, and the reader has to be willing to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The story that weaves in and out of the book centres on the premature birth and death, after only two hours, of a baby that would have been Han’s older sister (eonni is the Korean term). Han imagines the heartrending scene of the mother holding the newborn close and begging: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.”

But the universe decided otherwise, and the tiny corpse is taken into the forest for burial. The white swaddling cloth became a funeral shroud. It is this image that leads Han to examine the white things that punctuate her life: rice, pills, salt, waves, a bird on the wing, an empty page where text should be. And snow, a connection that leads Han to reflect on “the city” where she lives for a while, a place where snow disguises and then reveals the past. It is Warsaw (although never identified by name), a city which, like Seoul, has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, a cycle in which Han sees an image of her departed, un-named eonni and herself.

For she eventually comes to realise that if the baby had lived then she, Han, would probably not have been born. It is a duality, a balance, that provides Han with a comfort, with a sense that things worked out as they were supposed to, as they were fated to. In the book’s final passage, Han bids her ethereal sibling farewell: “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath that you released.”

There is a toughness in Han, a sense of resilience and a willingness to peel back layers to find the core of being. This book could easily have become a mawkish plea for sympathy but the restrained, poetic writing provides a sense of moving from mourning to acceptance, a completed circle. It is a limited emotional pallet but the right one. It is no surprise to learn that the book took a long time to write and almost as long a time to translate.

The White Book is not for everyone but those who accept it on its own terms will find that it offers beauty, poignancy and resonance, a knowledge of what is lost and what is gained, and how one becomes the other.

Han Kang

Tales from the strange North


Appearing in the Weekend Australian, Review magazine, 5-6 May 2018


Defectors spill the beans on starving Hermit Kingdom


Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation

By Daniel Tudor

Tuttle Publishing, 288pp, $29.99

North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate

By Loretta Napoleoni

UWA Publishing, 250pp, $19.99


It seems to hang on the hazy horizon, communicating by way of bizarre ­announcements and occasional explosions.

North Korea is such an unlikely country that it might be a parallel dimension, and would even be faintly comical if nuclear weapons were not in the mix.

The recent thaw in relations has shed some light on the power structures, but ­little is known about how ordinary people lead their lives.

Daniel Tudor’s remarkable book is a start on changing that. It is based on a weekly column, Ask A North Korean, published by an American online newspaper based in Seoul. The column invites readers to put questions to North Kor­ean defectors, and it is hugely popular in South Korea. The book is a series of in-depth interviews with four defectors, covering everything from politics to fashion.

Ask A North KoreanOne surprise is that so many people have ­escaped from North Korea. There are more than 30,000 living in Seoul and many more in China and elsewhere.

Perhaps it should not be surprising: a central theme of the book is the raw toughness of living in North Korea. Outside the major cities, hunger is an everyday reality; in the cities it is a little better but there is still not much food security.

The good news, such as it is, is that the economy is slowly improving. The famine of the 1990s was a turning point for the country. Shortages of everything brought the black ­market into the open, and a wave of small businesses sprang up to provide what the lumbering state-owned enterprises could not.

The government tolerated the move, knowing there was no alternative. Eventually, something like a private-sector economy running parallel to the state-managed system developed. It was enough to keep the country afloat, at least, and it has continued to grow.

One of the biggest businesses is the trade in television programs and news from South Korea and China, mainly on USB sticks, which has undercut the government’s monopoly on information. Another booming activity is the sale of home-brewed liquor — a way to escape from the grinding reality, presumably. Second-hand clothes from Japan are also big sellers.

For its part the government does not seem to be particularly interested in economic management. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, sometimes talks about “juche”, a loose idea of national self-reliance, and he seems to see small private businesses as fitting into the framework. He also says, according to several of the interviewees, that nuclear weapons are more important than food.

That, and the raising of the Kim clan to near-divine status. The rules of their veneration keep changing, leading to a level of confusion on what is required.

This can be dangerous, as any hint of a lack of love for the leader can mean a one-way trip to a prison camp, not just for the individual but for their entire family. It is like Stalin’s terror as performed by the Keystone cops. Most people just keep their heads down, go through the ­motions, and bow when they are supposed to.

The defectors in the book have little to say about the North Korean elite, mainly because it is largely separate from the general population.

They note, however, that since the economy began to privatise, many people in the circle around the Kim family have become very rich, usually from skimming a portion of government business.

This group is known as donju — “masters of money”. It appears that no one believes in socialism or juche any more.

For the elite, the goal is more money. For the Kims, it is staying in power. For most of the population, it is surviving.

If Ask a North Korean is the view from the bottom up, Loretta Napoleoni takes a different perspective in North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate. She claims the book is ­“dispassionate” but this is hard to accept. In fact, she has never been in the country (according to the book’s publishers), even though she makes a variety of claims about what she calls the North’s “glorious” past.

Some are strikingly odd: in her account of the Korean War, for example, she somehow neglects to mention the 300,000 Chinese ­soldiers who came in on the North’s side.

There might be a reason for this: she sees the North-South conflict as a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union, and acknowled­ging China’s involvement would upset her ­paradigm.

This is not to say she wholeheartedly supports the current North Korean regime. She calls juche “the Scientology of totalitarianism” and points to the government’s involvement in the global drug trade and other illicit activities.

Nevertheless, Napoleoni seems to fall into that caste of European academics who take the view that any enemy of the US is at least ­worthy of a sympathetic hearing. She applauds Kim Jong-il (father of the current leader) for “outsmarting” Bill Clinton on a deal called the Agreed Framework, under which the US ­promised aid in return for North Korea freezing its nuclear program. In fact, North Korea reneged on the deal before the ink was dry, which Napoleoni sees as pretty clever.

Interestingly, she says sanctions will never be effective and any diplomatic contact is unlikely. Given this, it is hard to know what ­Napoleoni would make of the events of the past few months. She would probably say Donald Trump had nothing to do with it, that he just happened to bumble along at the right time.

It’s nonsense, of course.

Bellicose language, tougher sanctions, and a willingness to sit down to talk about nukes are the new elements Trump brought to the game, and the approach seems to have worked. How it will play out is still not known, but it might be appropriate to give some credit where it is due.


  Dine show displays breadth, versatility, and creativity

Appearing on Culture Concept site, July 2017



Jim Dine is sometimes categorised as a Pop artist but a new exhibition of his prints at the National Gallery Victoria (International) shows the real breadth and creativity of his work. Jim Dine: A Life in Print displays 100 works covering 45 years. The prints are part of a gift of 249 works donated by the artist to the NGV collection.

Dine originally became known as one of the group of New York artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s, although he never saw his work as ‘Pop’. But the grouping is understandable, as Dine often chose everyday objects as his subject matter. He produced, for example, a long series of prints of dressing gowns, originally derived from an advertisement.Dine Robes

At another level, he also produced extremely realistic drawings and prints of tools, such as hammers, saws, axes, and even nutcrackers. This interest in mechanical processes, which also informed his precise attitude towards printmaking, stemmed from his upbringing: he was raised by his grandparents, who owned a hardware store.

However, as his work evolved through the 1980s he became more experimental, combining printing techniques to obtain certain effects and “interfering” (his word) in the printing process to produce one-off rather than replicated prints. He also began to use innovative materials. Blue Crommelynck Gate (1982) is a lithograph printed with black and silver ink on a surface painted with synthetic polymer, for instance. In this sense, Dine presaged the current trends of printmaking towards mono-prints and the fusion of commercial with fine art techniques.Blue Crommely Gate 1982

Along the way, Dine drew on subjects as varied as skulls, birds and the Eiffel Tower (he is now based in Paris) for prints and drawings. He has also produced portraits and self-portraits, usually as lithographs.

Even in his eighties, Dine continues to create prints, as well as paintings and sculptures. He has, he says, a wealth of ideas for new works and no plan to stop creating.

Dine self 2008 litho



The show Jim Dine: A Life in Print is on display at the NGV International until 15 October 2017.