American Pentimento by Patricia Seed


One of the great frustrations of my life is trying to convince people the history of land use planning is a topic of great interest. I’m told I make it sound wilfully boring; that no one wants to hear about Robert Hooke’s regulatory reforms or the origins of the Plumbing Code. By contrast, it’s comparatively easy to talk about current politics, and the more contemporary cycles of planning law, property development, electoral cycles, economic forecasts and social in/justice. These can be discussed using recent terms and ideas that are readily accessible and have the ability to rouse passions based on immediate personal experience. Good examples include Sydney’s lock out laws, Westconnex or the sale of public housing.

The problem with this penchant for the contemporary is that it tends to present us with both a contemporary problem and a contemporary way of thinking about it. Consider this in light of Audre Lorde’s line “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” This suggests that if the only context and language you have to critique contemporary land use is the context and language that made the problem, you will struggle to find a viable solution. Instead, you’ll end up producing an opposition, rather than an alternative.

In this respect, I’ve been considering Buckminster Fuller’s belief that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is easier said than done if the only frame of reference you have is the existing reality.

Talking about this with Tess Lea a few weeks back, she lent me Patricia Seed’s book American Pentimento, which is a comparison of the legal frameworks involved in British and Spanish conquest of the Americas; exactly what I’m assured is inherently dull.

Mostly what Seed looks at is the different legislative attitudes taken to land use during the early phases of European empire. She draws a distinction; the Spanish generally declared land in the name of the Crown, and tended to leave conquered people where they were on the provision they pay homage to the Crown. They tended to legislate against European squatters or individual land owners as this was seen as disrupting the control of wealth – particularly mineral wealth – by the Crown. Whilst this legitimised through the ideology of a benevolent monarchy, it was basically a way of preventing the mercantile class from seizing too much power. Had the various merchants active in the Americas been able to ‘buy’ or seize land in a way recognised by Spanish law, they would have had a legal way to gain the kind of wealth which made them a threat to the monarchy.

The English had the exact opposite approach, having beheaded Charles I for asserting a very similar line of thought. Their argument was that private property ownership was a good thing because it diffused power, and that this diffused power over land ownership encouraged people to make their land as productive as possible, adding both to their own wealth and the collective wealth of the Empire.

This is still the logic involved in much urban renewal and public housing selloffs today; the logic runs that social housing adds no economically productive value to the public coffers, major development generates jobs and growth, and from that jobs and growth we can build more social houses somewhere else. It’s a logic that only works if you think of things in a sort of credit/debit logic, in which the negative social impacts of dislocation can be offset by using development contributions to build social housing in less economically productive areas – such as outer suburbs.

Which is exactly how the English were thinking of it after the death of Charles I. The value of land was based on its economic productivity, not on moral or historical possession. To accept the latter option was to legitimise monarchical rule, which is what the English were trying to avoid. In American Pentimento, Seed traces the formation of this logic into property law.  She starts with the concept of ‘Wasteland’ – a term adopted shortly after the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 “signifying uninhabited or relatively under inhabited ground.”  ‘Wasteland’ gave people of a particular class the legal right to fence and farm land that no one else was ostensibly using. It sat in counterpoint to the concept of the ‘Commons,’ which was land for everyone to use. At this point ‘waste’ didn’t mean rubbish. Instead, the term was used to designated land which could be ‘improved’, usually by the fencing of semi-wild animals to make them easier to hunt and domesticate.

Seed tracks the change through a couple of key texts. The first is Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which drew from Amerigo Vespucci’s (from whom we draw the word ‘America’) writings about his exploration of Brazil. In More’s book his ‘Utopians’ find a country populated by “a people which does not use its soil but keeps it idle and waste.’ In More’s logic, those who seek to use the land have the moral right to take it and, in doing so, make it productive for the public good, thus allowing them to build a utopia.

This connects through to Seed’s second source, Justice William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, a four volume set of writings on English common law. Blackstone is best known as the guy who set up the idea of ‘terra nullius’. There’s an oft site section in the introduction where he writes:

For it is held, that if an uninhabited country be discovered and planted by English subjects, all the English laws are immediately there in force. For as the law is the birthright of every subject, so wherever they go they carry their laws with them.

Or in effect, if an Englishman arrives in a country and can’t see people planting things on it, tilling the soil, or enclosing the fields, English laws apply. This ties into book two of the Commentaries, which is dedicated entirely to the concept of ownership, particularly property ownership:

Property, both in lands and moveables, being thus originally acquired by the first taker, which taking amounts to a declaration that he intends to appropriate the thing to his own use, it remains in him, by the principles of universal law, till such time as he does some other act which shews an intention to abandon it: for then it becomes, naturally speaking, public juris once more, and is liable to be again appropriated by the next occupant.

Thus, within the Common Law rule books carried by colonial administrators, it was a law universally acknowledged, that land that isn’t being used can be claimed by anyone willing to use it.

As far as I can tell, these legal definitions were used in Britain to legitimise the Enclosure Movement, in which traditional Common land was declared ‘waste’ and could, by Act of Parliament, be fenced off and placed in private ownership. As Seed points out, when British policy and law makers moved into newly conquered territory they took Blackstone’s Commentaries with them as the definitive interpretation of English common law and began following the same logic. She writes:

An eminent legal scholar, William Blackstone, in 1765 transformed the traditional English understanding of waste into a colonial legal fiction that such land was unowned. He called this fiction terra nullius (literally, land of no one, land belonging to no one). However, Blackstone falsely implied that this cultural concept had a latin origin. 

Blackstone actually took a late Roman law regarding hunting animals, which were not viewed as private property, and used it as a ‘source’ to justify the English concept that relative underpopulation justified seizing land. Terra nullius exaggerated the English proclivity to interpret unbounded, non-plowed and sparsely settled areas as ‘waste’ or ‘common’ land by proclaiming that such land belonged to no one. 

She notes the appearance of this sort of logic in things like the South Australian Constitution Act of 1834 and India’s Waste Lands Rule of 1836. You can see the same logic – with the use of the term ‘wasteland’ in Bourke’s Proclamation, which I wrote about here.

And you can also see it in the 1830 formation of the Australian Agricultural Company “for the ‘cultivation and improvement of Waste Lands in the Colony of New South Wales.’

This latter example has its direct antecedents today. When we look at State owned urban development, public private partnerships and major redevelopment of city areas, they operate on exactly the same logic, and gain their moral legitimacy in the same way: that right to ownership is connected to productivity, and that non-productive use legitimises dispossession. It’s a logic that, paradoxically, undermines traditional notions of Common lands by asserting common benefit is generated by private ownership. Ostensibly, we all gain from major development through things like development contributions, brought about by the wealth created by individual investors.

When we consider the negative impact of this kind of ‘value add’ on Aboriginal Australia we begin to see the faults quite quickly, but this isn’t unique to the Australian situation. As Seed points out, it predates the British incursion into Australia, hinging on a legal interpretation that ties value to returns on private investment in land. But, as she also points out, there is still a pentimento evident; a term she borrows from the art world, in which the image of an earlier picture remains beneath what’s currently visible.  Her point, as I read it, isn’t that we can return to those earlier images of a pre-colonial or pre-capital world, but that we can still see, and can still draw from, radically different systems of valuing, and governing, land use – assuming we can see through the layers we’ve painted on top of them.


W.E.H Stanner’s ‘The Yirrkala Land Case: A Dress Rehearsal’: Common Law, Terra Nullius and the Gove Land Rights Case

Born in 1905, William Stanner was an anthropologist who spent his career critiquing what he called “the great Australian silence” around Aboriginal culture and land rights. He’s worth reading as one of the first white people who saw the British presence in Australia as invasive rather than civilizing, and this anthology includes most of his major essays.

Of particular interest is ‘The Yirrkala Land Case: A Dress Rehearsal’, Stanner’s 1970 essay on the Yolngu people’s attempt to prevent the Federal Government leasing their land to the Nabalco mining company. Better known as the Gove Land Rights Case, it’s gone down in history as the first major land rights case in Australia, setting up precedent for Mabo.

Stanner was advising the Yolngu as they attempted to negotiate the British legal system. Notably he was writing before Justice Blackburn found against them, and the essay is oddly hopeful. Beyond its impact on the Yolngu and Aboriginal land rights, the case says a lot about our legal system, and how it treats power and land use.

Traditionally, when the British invaded a country there were protocols around the absorption of pre-invasion property ownership into their law. Colin Bourke and Helen Cox cover this in their essay ‘Two Laws: One Land”:

The European legal view at the time [in the 1800s] was that the Crown had absolute title to all land. Under the doctrine colonising powers such as England could apply their own law to a land which they peacefully occupied, if the land was uninhabited, or was occupied by a people without settled laws or customs. In conquered or ceded (surrendered) countries the pre-existing laws of that country were applied until they were displaced or altered by the new sovereign.

In other words, if the British arrived in a place with no existing system of law, they could do whatever they wanted. But if a system of law already existed, they had to undertake a formal process of absorbing it into their systems, via something like a treaty. If they didn’t, it became possible for the invaded population to reclaim their land through British common law precedents around property ownership.

This (sort of) happened in the Cape Colony in 1835, with the Xhosa having their land returned by the colonial minister, Lord Glenelg, after he deemed its invasion illegitimate.

Why didn’t this principle apply to Yolngu land, given northern Australia wasn’t occupied by the Crown until the 1850s? Well, it (sort of) did.

When South Australia was set up in 1836, the Letters Patent (the legal documents founding the colony) reflected the Cape Colony experience and included a clause recognising Aboriginal land rights. When South Australia took over administration of the Northern Territory, this clause was part of the deal.

Stanner recalls this fact coming up in the Gove case, which “caused Justice Blackburn to look sharply over his glasses.” The reason the Letters Patent didn’t ultimately protect pre-British land rights appears to have been because no one got around to telling the Pre-British owners about it.

This was the case made by the Plaintiffs, led by Edward Woodward QC. As Stanner writes:

There was a presumption at common law that the native rights continued. This presumption could only be extinguished by legislation or similar action of a formal kind. No such extinguishment had taken place.

As Woodward argued, just because the Yolngu had never expressly claimed their common law right to their land, that didn’t mean it didn’t exist. There was, after all, no evidence they’d ceded ownership; no treaty, no receipt of sale, no transfer of deeds, or any of the other things you’d expect in a transfer of land.

There’s a corresponding question as to why the Yolngu hadn’t asserted their ownership prior to the Nabalco case in 1970. But why would they? Stanner recalls one of them asking him, incredulously, “does [the] Government really think we do not own the land?” They’d been there long before the British, and their own legal systems simply assumed their sovereignty.

Eventually, it was these formalities that led to Blackburn deciding against the Yolngu. There was nothing clearly stating who owned the land, or at least not in terms recognisable to British law. Given the lack of documentation, it was assumed (as per common law) that the Crown ultimately owned the Gove Peninsula and could lease it to whomever they wanted.

However, Blackburn did recognise the presence of a non-British system of laws, finding that:

The evidence shows a subtle and elaborate system highly adapted to the country in which the people led their lives, which provided a stable order of society and was remarkably free from the vagaries of personal whim or influence. If ever a system could be called ‘a government of laws and not of men’, it is shown in the evidence before me.

Asides from its relevance to Aboriginal Australia, the Gove case points at two things fundamental in how we govern land.

Firstly, the extreme ambiguity of it. As Stanner points out, the Nabalco case was unusual in that it was the first serious review of the legality of the Crown’s ownership of Australia. Two hundred years after British colonisation, it still wasn’t clear who actually ‘owned’ places like the Gove Peninsula.

Secondly, this ambiguity sided with power with and precedent. As Stanner concludes, Australia’s occupation had become a (sort of) legal habit. In the absence of any formal treaties or deeds, Crown ownership was assumed. As Stanner writes of the Crown’s Defence:

For good or ill we did not conquer Australia. We occupied it. The native system was displaced. ‘And that’, the Crown said in a memorable phrase, ‘was that.’

Of course, that wasn’t that. At a purely legal level, Mabo extended upon this judgement to recognise pre-British ownership, albeit with limited results.

I’m still getting my head around why that judgement didn’t do for Australia’s innumerable pre-British nations what it did for the Xhosa, given the Gove case tends to validate the same common law principles. But, as Stanner concludes:

It is bad lack for the Aborigines that their problems arise so acutely just as the mineral boom is reaching the phase of mania. […] The draconian quality of the attempt to snuff out all talk of Aboriginal interests in land is related to this excited background…

That was written in 1970 yet remains alarmingly current.

Incidentally, there’s a good article on Gove, common law and land rights here and there’s a quick overview of the case itself on Wikipedia here.




Darwin: What Happens When South Australia Starts a Colony

Darwin, showing pre and post-cyclone construction standards.

One of the things that marks Australian urban planning is that all the systems that govern it have their history in an entirely different physical landscape. Our cities are, for the most part, modelled on a British tradition, and operate with this logic.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Darwin, where building, planning and liquor licensing law strikes up against an entirely alien environment. Tess Lea’s short book Darwin goes in to this with a focus on the humble mosquito, of which she writes:

The mosquito is also a powerful urban planner, having shaped the spatial contours of Darwin and defined the city’s requirements for habitability with more pronounced effect than any single individual or Northern Territory government policy. It rivals geology in its forcefulness, laying down conditions for where houses can be built (at least 1.5km from known extensive and uncontrolled breeding swamps), how drains must work or roads be sloped, and where suburbs can be located.

I tend to think of Darwin as evidence of what happens when you let South Australia set up a colony. Lea describes Adelaide’s governance as “disastrous [and] violent.” To me, it seems more like the quintessential South Australian mix of good intentions, parochialism and mental health problems.

Darwin was laid out George Woodroffe Goyder, the South Australian Surveyor General, in 1869. A year later Port Adelaide’s Harbour Master, Captain William Bloomfield Douglas, was sent to act as Resident. Everything went reasonably well until the first wet season. In her brilliant book on British colonial government, Running the Show, Stephanie Williams sums up the result:

Everything was getting covered in mould: boots, books, paper. Mildew and weevils got into supplies of flour and oatmeal. Cockroaches devoured currents, jam and sugar; white ants consumed clothing, books and wood.

Not long after, Douglas went mad, became convinced he was facing a mutiny and barricaded himself in his office with a loaded gun. Eventually he was calmed down, and almost immediately contracted what he described as “violent bilious diarrhea.”

In the meantime, Goyder’s subdivisions were sold off to speculators, with most of the best land taken by William Henry Grey who, Williams writes, “already owned much of suburban Adelaide, and who, along with his descendants, would refuse to sell key sections of Palmerston, freezing development, until after 1960.”

Things didn’t really change all that much. Darwin continued to confound colonial governance for decades, a fact which became painfully obvious when Cyclone Tracy flattened it and killed 71 people. Part of the reason the town was so completely destroyed was the building codes regulating its construction were designed in Canberra, and did not include specifications for the tropics. As Lea notes:

…plaintive engineers could not budge Canberra planners from declaring that Darwin was outside any cyclone zone. It took another cyclone to hit Townsville, also on Christmas Eve, before tropical building codes contained any requirements for wind-proofing.

Sophie Cunningham’s book on the cyclone, Warning, describes a city of houses on stilts, built of wood and brick.

…in the early days of 1975 strong walls seemed to be the most important thing of all. Kay Brown, whose daughter Geraldine died in the cyclone, remembers being ‘terrified of living in an elevated house again.’ Her next house was ‘besser block filled with concrete.’

Cunningham also cites architect David Bridgman, who comments:

[New housing] was predominantly built of masonry or precast concrete construction, with small cellular spaces and small windows… these buildings were much stronger and more able to resist cyclonic winds, however, the small, poorly ventilated, interiors were often uncomfortable in the tropical climate and air conditioning became a necessity for comfort.

Last time I was in Darwin, I ended up talking to an architect who told me of a hotel which, during a power strike, became so unbearably hot all the guests had to be relocated, and entire suburbs which were unliveable without constant air conditioning.

Cunningham concludes, appropriately enough, by quoting Lea’s critique of Australia’s ‘shared amnesia’, of which she writes, “She is right to remind us that forgetting is strategic and that it has, in this country, become a very bad habit.” Whilst Lea looks backwards at the history of colonial brutality, Cunningham is looking at the pending impact of global warming. She writes that Australia is a “sunburnt country, one of droughts and flooring rains, cyclones and bushfires.”

Arguably both stem from the same source, a ‘strategic forgetting’ that we don’t live in Britain, and we’re still not entirely sure how to build for, and live in, a radically different environment.

You can buy Tess Lea’s books here, Sophie Cunningham’s Warning here through Text Publishing, and Stephanie Williams’ Running the Show via her website.

Would My Mother Enjoy These Books?

Warning would prompt discussion about my great aunt Bev, who lived there during the cyclone – but she wouldn’t actually read it. Running the Show is too long and the print is too small. She probably would enjoy Tess Lea’s book.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Parable for Liquor Licensing Law

Wizard of Oz

Most people know L Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in which a small girl and her friends suffer a terrifying encounter with flying monkeys on their way to an Emerald City. Upon arrival, they go to a castle and argue with the city’s ruler, who is invisible and entirely ineffective. Frustrated, they pull back a curtain and learn something horrible about city governance.

It turns out the Emerald City isn’t run by an all powerful wizard; just some old guy who has convinced everyone he’s in charge.

For a long time this is how I thought about government. I figured there was someone in control, and change was produced by pulling back the curtain to reveal their moral failings.

This changed several years back, whilst I was running a campaign to change liquor licensing laws in Adelaide. I bailed up the Minister for the Arts and gave him a lecture on the decline of music venues and the cultural context of alcohol consumption. I thought if he understood the issue he’d simply change the law.

As I promptly discovered, I was wrong. No individual minister – let alone an arts minister – could do what I wanted, even if they did agree with me. The defining feature of our political system is that no one is in charge. Power is fragmented across multiple policy portfolios, departments, and levels of government. This is a legacy of the Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights, both introduced in England to stop dictatorships.

The Australian Constitution reflects this with its Separation of Powers, splitting control between Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. These, in turn, break into smaller parts; committees, offices, departments, courts, tribunals, and so on. Any reform requires all of these elements reaching some sort of agreement.

On the upside, this system has fairly successfully prevented dictatorships. The downside is that achieving change is like herding cats. Policy reform happens when enough people in enough key positions reach a consensus; sometimes through democratic process, but equally through media panic, economic disaster, skilful lobbying, or blind luck.

As our campaign to change the South Australian Liquor Licensing Act continued, I began to understand these complexities and it radically altered my approach. Instead of espousing moral truths at unsuspecting ministers, we set up forums through which key decision makers were drawn into a dialogue and gradually came to common conclusions.

This approach worked. South Australia introduced a Small Venues License in 2012. By that point, the number of people we’d worked with was dizzying; all three major parties, two levels of government, innumerable ministries, departments, agencies, offices, industry and community groups, police and public health specialists. The issue progressed because innumerable people began to talk about it, and take ownership of the need for reform. By the end, it was impossible to tell who was actually responsible for the change.

I began with the assumption that all I needed to do was find the right curtain, pull it back and yell at the guy fiddling with the controls. By the end, I discovered that wasn’t at all how things worked.

Yet one of the biggest problems we faced with those reforms was that many of the key stakeholders were constantly looking for the wizard behind the curtain. Faced with complexity, people kept trying to find a simpler narrative, usually wrapped up in fables of corrupt beer barons or meddling Wowsers. These narratives were far easier to rally behind than any nuanced discussion of policy frameworks. They gave people the comforting sense that they were right, and everything was someone else’s fault.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the latest campaigns to reform New South Wales liquor laws. A while back I (and apparently nearly everyone else) read this article, proclaiming:

I can imagine these special little people in Town Hall and Macquarie Street giggling away as they pull their little regulatory levers, fudging the statistics and playing their petty little mind games in the media.

It’s an interesting comment because it assumes that – like the Wizard of Oz – there’s a switchboard over which someone is in charge, and that person is deliberately stuffing things up.

This almost makes sense because the introduction of the lock-outs seems like such an ostensibly bizarre, snap decision that you can imagine someone flipping a switch. Yet, looked at in historical context, haphazard policy reform is par for the course. Liquor licensing law has always been splintered between two extremes, both of which routinely use moral panic to rally people to their cause and secure a narrow consensus. This leads to sudden policy changes, which (at least in my opinion) rarely work.

One the one side, we have what could be loosely referred to as the Temperance Movement, now evidenced by police, public health, resident groups and the like. On the other, there’s the ‘Libertarian’ position, usually driven by industry advocates, arguing that the consumption of alcohol is a civil liberties issue.

Interestingly, both extremes have, historically, resulted in much the same thing. The great victory of the Temperance Union was Six O’Clock Closing. This forced innumerable venue closures and concentrated supply on a handful of larger pubs selling high volumes of alcohol very quickly. Most of their subsequent reforms follow this template.

The Libertarian position is slightly more complex. They’ll normally argue that ‘responsible’ licensed premises should be given extensive trading rights, such as extended opening hours and large capacities. ‘Responsible’ is usually connected to a ‘moral’ pay-wall; a series of fees, charges and operating conditions which can only be surmounted by larger venues. Again, the end result is a limited number of venues, focused primarily on selling large volumes of alcohol very quickly.

Notably, both sides generally dislike, and advocate against, things like small bar licenses.

Having enraged both of these groups, I’ve come to see them as basically the same. Their argument goes:

People need to be protected from alcohol related violence/constraints on their right to consume alcohol. The Temperance Union/Booze Lobby are wowsers/profiting from other people’s misery, and leading us to a public health/economic crisis. Their policy agenda should be ignored, and ours should be implemented.

Similarly, both groups have, traditionally, produced a system whereby alcohol consumption is detached from social and cultural contexts, and occurs in a highly regulated environment. Their debate isn’t so much about the regulation itself, as who controls the environment.

This has a historical precedent as well. Our current systems came into being with the ‘Gin Acts’ of the mid-eighteenth century. These were introduced for two basic reasons: Firstly, London’s new and growing working classes were drinking a lot of gin, becoming enraged by their terrible living conditions, and rioting. Secondly, London’s working classes were making their own gin, which was hard to tax and couldn’t be shaped to the profit of the landed gentry.

The policy response to this had little interest in the lives of the working poor. It was focused on who had the moral right to control them. There’s a brilliant quote from Attorney General Lord Bathurst, who introduced the 1743 Gin Act by saying:

We are endeavoring to reform a Vice almost universal, a Vice which, however destructive, is now no longer reproachful. We have tried the force of violent Methods and found them unsuccessful; we are now therefore to treat the Vulgar as Children, with a Kind of artful Indulgence, and to take from them secretly and by Degrees what cannot be wholly denied them, without exasperating them almost to rebellion.

The 1743 Gin Act finalised the system we know today; in which a licensee must pay for their license, and operate within particular state prescribed conditions. This system introduced the concept of the ‘Responsible Person’, which you can still see on a lot of liquor licences. Indeed, if you’ve ever worked in a licensed venue you’ll probably have an RSA – or Responsible Service of Alcohol – certificate.

Herein lies the moral judgement at the heart of the system. Since it was introduced in the mid-1700s, the debate has always been about who has the moral right to control the social behaviour associated with alcohol consumption. To this end, neither side ever argues for a return to the pre-1720 situation, in which alcohol consumption was largely an unregulated, backyard industry, driven by ‘public houses’ – essentially private houses with a big front room, and a distillery or home brew kit out the back.

I’m not particularly pro or anti either side. As I’ve said, I’ve argued with both for the simple reason that I think both sides have detached the consumption of alcohol consumption from any social context and reduced the policy debate to an issue of control rather than outcome.

What interests me is what we could called the Wizard of Oz Syndrome. This reduces policy debate to a contest – an argument about who has the right to rule, rather than what the law actually achieves. Every review of licensing policy runs the risk of being overwhelmed by these two opposing positions, both going through the façade of throwing back the curtain and yelling at one’s opponents. This means policy reform happens on a ‘see-saw’ model – suddenly switching between two extremes, based on whoever has most effectively seized the moral high ground.

The end result is ineffective policy. Yet this is how we’ve approached liquor licensing law for the past three hundred years, not only in Australia but in all the countries who absorbed English-style regulatory systems. All of the nations who followed this path have ended up with violent, uncontrollable binge drinking cultures. When we talk about ‘European Style Drinking Cultures’ what we mean is ‘Countries that didn’t adopt English style liquor licensing laws’.

We continue to use these English style laws because they’re underpinned by easily comprehensible narratives, not because they work.

As a parallel, the Wizard of Oz concludes with the faux Wizard promising he’ll give the Tin Man a heart, the Scarecrow a brain and the Lion courage. Unable to deliver, he puts a heart shaped cushion in the Tin Man’s chest, pours breakfast cereal into the Scarecrows head, and gets the Lion to drink something he calls ‘Courage,’ which is probably just lime cordial. All of them go away content, convinced they’ve achieved something even though, in reality, nothing has changed.

I’m not arguing for a particular alternative. What I’m suggesting is that the Wizard of Oz Syndrome is a problem unto itself. It reduces complex issues into simple fables, with appealing narratives that are easy, and usually tempting, to believe. Moreover, it gives us the seductive allure of believing ourselves morally righteous, and tells us someone else is to blame.

The downside is it means our policies oscillate between extreme positions based on faux moral arguments, rather than on evidence or real consensus. In the case of liquor licensing, I think you can make a good case that this has been going on for the better part of three centuries.

Would My Mother Like This Book?

Continuing the theme from earlier reviews of reviewing with reference to my mother’s taste in literature – I asked her, and she hasn’t read the book but she found the film very scary.

On the Subconscious City: Top Ten Books on City Regulation

In the last few decades, there’s been a real interest in urban design, yet its ugly cousin, regulation, remains largely unmentioned. To this end, Richard Florida’s Creative City is a best seller, yet the Building Code of Australia is now being given away for free. It’s odd what we value.

This isn’t new; people remember the Coliseum far more than Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s handbooks on building design because one is obvious and interesting and the other obscure and boring. Regulation is, almost by its nature, dull, but it’s also incredibly powerful; more so because of the limited degree to which it is understood and, subsequently, controlled.

A while back I was at a forum on artist run spaces in which regulation was described as a ‘many headed hydra’; you cut off the head of planning approval and liquor licensing pops up, and by the time you’ve cut that off, there’s building certification, and once that’s cut off there’s a re-zoning which has turned your shitty little gallery into a development hotspot. Each conflict is draining, depressing and seemingly illogical.

Yet, the problem isn’t that regulation is illogical, but that it has a logic that extends beyond anyone negotiating or enforcing it.

Much like the cities it governs, regulation is accumulative; formed across generations, outlasting the people who made it and the contexts from which it arose. Rather than a clear set of rules and laws, it works like the subconscious of a city; retaining the memory of past policy trends and traumas, to subtly control our behaviour at a level so deep we’re not even aware of it.

I read a fair few books about regulation, town planning and cities; some directly so, and some not so much. I thought I’d continue my theme of book reviews by picking a ‘top ten’ books about regulation as the subconscious of our cities.

I thought I’d start with that Freudian ode to town planning, L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz – which I’ll post in the next couple of days.

A Brief Reflection on the 2015 Tour de France

A couple of days ago, there was a great interview with Team Sky boss David Brailsford, done by the sports editor for The Times, Matt Dickinson (which you can read here). It was probably more interesting to me than your average reader, because it starts with Brailsford talking about my book:

It made me think, ‘blimey, this is why I got into cycling, why I fell in love with it in the first place […] It’s not just the winning but the struggle, the ambition, the subplots, the suffering of it – a gallant suffering, heroic. Sometimes the most heroic guy ended up third.

But, as Brailsford continues, “then you find yourself in a pro team and you’ve got to win.”

I’ve often wondered what someone like Brailsford might make of 21 Nights. We come at the sport from entirely different directions, so it was oddly comforting to think he sees something similar.

Indeed, he directly addresses what I consider the paradox at the heart of the sport; what Dickinson labels the dichotomy of “romance against efficiency, passion versus science.” The critique of Sky has always been that they reduce cycling to a calculation, until (as Brailsford puts it) “it looks like a machine, automatic, less human.”

It’s the same critique Laurent Fignon made of the 1989 Tour:

The craftsmen were defeated by mass-production. Handmade goods were overwhelmed by factory made stuff. The people’s heroes were strangled and the glory of the Giants of the Road trickled away.

I think Fignon’s description makes it clear the frustration is greater than Froome and, indeed, cycling. There’s something else motivating those fans hurling urine, punches and spit; some legacy of what sport is meant to embody, and what many people felt Armstrong tarnished.

Brailsford addresses it when he reminisces about the key moment of the 2015 Tour; Quintana’s attack on Alpe d’Huez:

People have this idea that we crushed everyone but it didn’t feel like that for any of us standing on Alpe d’Huez. Losing felt very close… People think we are obsessed with data but it’s human endeavour. You can never replace the sensation, the feel. We put a lot of hard work into planning but we can’t get everything right.

The image of Froome chasing after Quintana reminded me far less of Armstrong than of another great cyclist who was accused of being too scientific; Jacques Anquetil, who once lamented, “They call me a calculator, a strategist, even if a miscalculation has just made me lose.”

When Anquetil began his career, all of those traits had been virtues. At that point, cycling coverage relied on newspapers, and dominating the peloton produced tensions and intrigues that came out well in text. But Anquetil, like Froome, had the misfortune of riding in the age of television. Dickinson describes their mutual fault; hours of footage of “black jerseys gathered at the front, controlling the race, killing the spectacle.”

Anquetil’s reputation improved after his near loss to perennial runner up Raymond Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme. Anquetil had let his rival slip away but, in doing so, reserved just enough time and energy to win overall. It was a loss that stripped back the façade of the smooth machine to reveal the focus and persistence underpinning those seemingly effortless victories. It’ll be interesting to see if the same thing happens with Froome.

As for Brailsford, I’m both flattered and glad he enjoyed my book. I remember watching him in John Dower’s documentary A Year In Yellow, on the Wiggins victory.

Initially, he seemed much like the stereotype, coldly assessing Wiggins’ training data. Then he tells Dower about his hatred of clutter, before dropping into a lament that “I’m not close to anybody… I don’t have many friends.” The film then cuts to Shane Sutton’s comically Spartan flat above a bike store.

I remember watching those scenes and thinking, “They’re not winning because of something superhuman. They’re winning because they’re utterly obsessed.” It strikes at that dichotomy Dickinson recognises; your work might rely on science and efficiency, but to care that much about it is a rare and beautiful thing unto itself, even if it isn’t always obvious.

The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff

The first book I read last year was Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. From there, I went through the full Eagle of the Ninth and ended with the King Arthur Trilogy. I read a lot of great books last year, and books aimed for my own age group, but rediscovering Sutcliff’s historical fiction was a bit of a highlight.

In her King Arthur Trilogy, written to introduce children to the Arthur myth, she writes:

Some time early in the fifth century AD […] the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, and the British were left to hold off the invading Saxons as best they could. In the end, they failed, but they put up such a fight it took the Saxons around two hundred and fifty years to complete their occupation; and they never did take over all of the Western country. But none the less, the withdrawal of Rome was the beginning of what we call the ‘Dark Ages’…

The Eagle of the Ninth trilogy opens with this withdrawal, with the last legions shipping out from Rutupiae, their fort on the coast of Kent. In their wake came the invading Saxons, including a particular tribe called the Angles; now better known as the English.

At that point, the country was still occupied largely by Celts; descendents of the Iceni, Brigantes, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni, who had been Romanised for the better part of five hundred years. They fought the invaders tooth and nail. This is where the Arthur legend comes from; a Romanised Welsh king fighting to keep the English out of modern day England.

For a children’s author, Sutcliff does a remarkable job of unravelling the inherent multiculturalism of British and English identity. I was reading her books in Suffolk, one of the first place the Angles invaded, in a house next to a former Iceni hill fort. 1500 years earlier it would have been the front line of Saxon/Celt conflict.

Iceni Hill Fort with Hortse
                     The view from an Iceni hill fort in Suffolk.

Around the same time former Prime Minister Tony Abbott had declared “Aboriginal people have much to celebrate in this country’s British Heritage.” Asides from the obvious dubiousness of this statement, there’s an underpinning question as to what ‘Heritage’ Australia has actually inherited Britain. In London I went to a conference in which the British were discussing the various class and regional distinctions of their accents. Another Australian noted they had trouble understanding the divisions because “You all sound British to me.”

Certainly, it’s much harder in Australia to pick the distinctions between the Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish, Cornish and so on. Most of us are an amalgamation of all of the above, and various other ethnicities. Yet our debates on multiculturalism or the legacy of ‘White Australia’ still tend to assume a dominant, common racial identity. Reading through Sutcliff’s various children’s books, it becomes obvious that most of our ancestors spent longer killing each other than sharing any common heritage. I thought it was an interesting lesson to take from a children’s book.


Would My Mother Like This Book?

Possibly. The font is a good size, she does like Rosemary Sutcliff, it’s good holiday reading. All the main characters are mail though.


Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Last year my esteemed publisher, John Hunter, recommended Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. In return, I’ve so far failed to produce a second book and most of my writing is now absorbed into the thrills and spills of local government.

Hadrian was, of course, one of the great emperors of Ancient Rome. Today’s he’s most famous for building a wall, but Edward Gibbon wrote of him:

Under Hadrian’s reign the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy.

He was a brilliant policy wonk, dedicated to urban planning, administration, and good governance. Indeed, he was most renowned as the first Roman emperor who stopped invading places; who actually withdrew from the territories conquered by his predecessor, Trajan, to focus on better administration.

To that end, he’s a surprisingly good hero for lowly bureaucrats such as myself. Hadrian wrote an actual autobiography, which has unfortunately been lost. Yourcenar’s book aims to replace it; written as if on his death bed to his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius, he explains:

Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when they presume to anticipate custom.

It then takes what could be considered a quasi-feminist turn:

The condition of women is fixed by strange customs: they are at one and the same time subjected and protected, weak and powerful, too much despised and too much respected. In this chaos of contradictory usage, the practises of society are superposed upon the facts of nature, but it is not easy to distinguish between the two.

It’s almost a reiteration of Arendt’s claim that “thought and reality have parted company,” and it drives the book. In Yourcenar’s rendition, Hadrian spends most of his time trying to impose something beautiful, in the form of urban design, monuments and social policy, on something illogical, namely the Roman Empire, gradually wearing himself out in battles with Christian extremists, a Senate that hates him, and the death of his boyfriend.


Would My Mother Like This Book?

No. It’s about a dead old white owning class man. Also, the font is very small.

Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt

I read Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem right before I stared working in the fast paced world of local government and her analysis of institutionalization was pretty terrifying. There’s a great interview with her here, opening with a particularly stupid question about whether it’s possible to be both a woman and a philosopher.

In Between Past and Future, written in 1961,  Arendt cheefully announces “thought and reality have parted company”, before beginning a history of Western thought from the Romans through to the Nazis. Of the Romans, she writes:

Before the Romans such a thing as tradition was unknown; with them it became and after them it remained the guiding thread through the past and the chain to which each new generation knowingly or unknowingly was bound to its understanding of the world and its own experience.

From there, she makes the argument that people’s concept of who they are has increasingly come from where they think they came from, rather than where they are now, leading to a situation whereby the current is overwhelmed by fairly dubious ideas about origins, tradition and authenticity.

She puts this down to Rome’s obsession with its origins, writing:

…the most deeply Roman divinities were Janus, the god of beginning, with whom, as it were, we still begin our year [i.e January], and Minerva, the goddess of remembrance.

Lately I’ve been reading a few Australian histories and, arguably, the same argument makes sense of some of the more comedic moments of the Abbott legacy. You could probably make a case that the myth of Australian origins tended to eclipse a more pragmatic policy framework – for example, having a Minister dedicated to ANZAC, but no Minister for Science, climate change, cities or creative industries.


Would My Mother Like This Book?

She’d probably agree with it ideologically, but the font is pretty small and it’s pretty grim, and there’s not much on either dogs or gardening in it.


Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins

Just before I flew to London, I read Under Another Sky: Journeys Through Roman Britain, in which Charlotte Higgins documents her Grand Tour of Roman monuments in the UK. When I arrived, I enthusiastically followed in her footsteps, searching a car park for remnants of the Roman wall, visiting the amphitheatre’s ruins underneath the Guildhall, and almost falling in the Thames, where the future capital was first laid out.

Higgins book says a lot about the ambiguity behind the concept of ‘Britain’. London was a Roman outpost, and the idea of a discernable ‘British’ identity is much like our concept of ‘Aboriginal Australia’; a blanket term used by a colonising power to describe disparate peoples with their own identities, languages and land.

On the British capital, Higgins writes:

The first notable event in the history of Londinium was its destruction. The name of the city first appears on the page in Tacitus’s account of the rebellion of Boudica. There is a line of black in the archaeological layers that is said to be the charred matter from her flaming of the fledgling city.

Boudica, the marauding Queen of Iceni, destroyed London in 60AD as part of a war so vicious the Romans seriously debated leaving the whole island. Oddly enough, there’s a statue of her on Westminster Bridge near Embankment, set up in 1902 as a sort of weird homage to Queen Victoria.

The primary source on her, Roman historian Tacitus, describes a rousing speech she gave to her troops before her final battle:

It is British custom to fight under female leadership, but on this occasion I fight not, though offspring of great ancestors, after kingdom and wealth. Instead, I am one woman from the crowd seeking retribution for liberty lost […] But the gods side with just vengeance. A legion that dared battle has perished and the remaining men are hiding back at base and looking for escape. The din and shouting of so many thousands will not be withstood, let alone onset and combat. If you weigh troop numbers and war’s reasons with me, we should either win on that field or perish. That is a woman’s intention. You men may survive – enslaved!

It’s doubtful she would have described herself as ‘British’. Tacitus was writing decades after her death, using terms the Romans had invented. She lost the battle, committed suicide, and the Iceni nation was absorbed into the Roman Empire. There’s a thrilling Time Team episode on the subject here:

Higgins sums up Boudica’s legacy after visiting a statue of her in Colchester, of which she writes:

Boudica is, at best, an ambiguous heroine for Colchester, since her sole connection is that in AD 60 or 61 she and her men took and burnt the town, and massacred its inhabitants.

The process by which an Iceni queen became a British martyr says a lot about the capacity to extract narrative from ambiguity. The idea of a unified British identity, with its own history and traditions, didn’t exist when Boudica was alive.

One thing I got from Higgins’ book was a sense that a unified ‘British history’ is a relatively recent idea. The traditions that bind it together obscure the almost continual conflict between Celtic tribes, and the Roman, Saxon, Angle and Norman invasions. Today being Australia Day, it makes a nice counterpoint to the celebration of an Anglo Australian identity.

Incidentally, Charlotte Higgins is the culture editor for the Guardian. You can read some of her articles here or order her book here.


Would My Mother Like This Book

She’d probably read the chapters on Boudica. Whether she’d finish it probably depends on what the weather was like, what she’d picked up from Bunnings that week, and whether the dog wanted a walk.