The Preservationist

In 2013 I spoke with Mexican-born, New York-based architect, conservator and perfumer Carlos Huber as he released Arquiste, a line of fragrances that re-create several key moments in European and South American history.

Visiting Ibiza in his early twenties, Mexican-born Carlos Huber was struck by the glorious perfumes that emanate from the hillside walks the island offers. A million miles from the clichéd Ibiza of nightclubbing is the ancient island flora thick with pine trees, rosemary, and lavender. What Huber had walked into was just a few of the rich scents that have characterised the Mediterranean landscape for centuries, such as wild herbs, citrus, pine, myrtle and dates. These are scents that have meaning beyond their own aesthetic beauty, triggering memories and deep associations. These scents – indeed all scents – can be, effectively, doors into other worlds, of time, place and memory.

Ibiza he found to be an “incredibly fragrant” island, with the distinct advantage that the tourist nightclub trade is so concentrated into a small area that the rest of this marvellous, rustic, fragrant and history-drenched island is comparatively free for the enjoyment of hikers such as himself and his friends. The strong fragrances of the island had set him thinking, and wondering.


Carlos Huber

As he moved on through his career, blending skills from the disciplines of art, architecture, design and historic conservation, Huber deepened his curiosity for the past. He was fascinated by the idea of not just exploring signature moments in colonial and European history for their social, cultural, architectural or artistic significance, but of seeking to re-create the fragrances of those moments: the scents that blended with the people, that wafted through the buildings, that accompanied lovers, cooks, judges and poets, princes, dandies, sailors, explorers, peasants and aristocrats.


Another fragrance that has marked him deeply is the orange blossom. For Huber the orange blossom is redolent of his native Mexico; so too are limes, both citrus fruits that have great cultural and symbolic meaning.

“I was struck,” he commented when speaking from his New York office, “by the idea of the orange coming from the Middle East, arriving in Spain via the Moors, and then on to the Americas, finding the place it really thrives in the Gulf of Mexico. The orange tree comes to represent that cultural hybridisation. It represents the roots of Spanish culture in Mexico and yet, paradoxically, it is not even a Spanish tree.”

The orange blossom also serves as the simple, pure base for the cologne that Spanish and Mexican mothers still use to splash onto their children. “When I was a child, after the bath or shower my mother would always splash me with the orange blossom cologne, and even today, every time I visit Mexico (Huber now lives in New York) I bring some back for myself and friends. Every morning I still splash it on my face, or in the evening. It’s not about masking anything – it’s just the comfort in that smell. When you live outside your country of origin there are things that you miss, and you hold onto these little things that have that deep emotional association.”


This idea of the intangible stayed with Huber as he developed his work in the fields of luxury retail, interior design and then involvement with architecture, historic preservation and art installation, seeking to understand the role of non-visual clues in the interpretation of historic sites. History can be a double-edged sword, full of rich reward and unpleasant discovery.

Many of us are accustomed to the idea that in the past, all smells were overbearingly bad: we think of unwashed wigs, unbathed bodies and chamber pots emptied into city streets, of unrefrigerated food and untreated body wounds. This, Huber suggested, is only part of the story, and ignores the fact that traditions of bodily cleanliness are millennia old – the bathhouses by which many Europeans kept themselves clean (and which are still so much a part of Japanese society, for example) were only discouraged later by the institution of the church who saw such fleshly sites as encouraging all manner of sins. He insists Marie Antoinette was scrupulously clean. The idea of a stench-filled past can be exaggerated; it plays easily into our ideas of continual hygienic progress. However, the case may sometimes be, Huber suggests, that no-one was quite so modern as the ancients.

For Huber, olfactory memories operate as strongly as music or the emotions of the heart in the way aromas evoke places, times, and physical space. He is fascinated by the connection between architecture, space and smell, or as he puts it, “the symbiotic relationship between scent, space and time. Smells can sometimes tell you more about a space than your eyes. For example, when you experience going into a church, or a forest clearing, or an old house, or indeed a new house, or new car – the way you experience the feeling of these spaces is not only the physical aspect, but the characteristic smell of the elements.


“Architecture is not only about the walls. It is about the light, the ventilation and how you experience the space, and the smell is a strong part of that too. My interest and research in historic buildings and sites led me to think about not only the structural requirements necessary in order to preserve a site, but also how these places might have smelt in key historical moments?”

Huber also studied perfumery, and began to draw all the different strands of his experience together. The result is the new label Arquiste, recently launched in Australia, which sees a line of seven fragrances all reflecting elements of his diverse interests – among them history, colonial inheritance, hybridisation, childhood, innocence and beauty. The idea explored here is that the architecture and shape of any given historical moment carries within it not just personal, political or artistic significance, but also its own scent. Huber has worked with master perfumers Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier.


We start with L’Etrog, placing us in 12th century Calabria, immersing us in citron, myrtle and date. Then Flor y Canto transports us to Tenochtitlan, Mexico, 1400, on the festive day flowers are offered on the Aztec altars, a fragrance strongly defined by tuberose and magnolia from the local gardens created when the city (now Mexico City) was built. Next come a companion pair: Fleur de Luis and Infanta en Flor both situate us in the Basque Country, 1660, on the Isle of Pheasants in the middle of the Bidasoa River at Hendaye, marking the French-Spanish border; here Louis XIV awaits his new bride, the Infanta Maria Teresa, an occasion steeped in orange water scents and jasmine with hints of rose.


The collection continues with the startlingly original Anima Dulcis; we are once again in Mexico City, 1695, now under Spanish rule. Cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon and a dash of chilli suggest a baroque brew concocted by nuns at the Royal Convent of Jesus Maria, and reflects elements of an old recipe Huber came across in his research. With heart notes including clove and cumin the fragrance is, quite simply, unlike anything you might be accustomed to. Aleksandr takes us to St. Petersburg, 1837 – the world, both dashing and tragic, of Pushkin and his equally remarkable compatriot Lermontov. Neroli, violet leaf and fir, iced vodka and leather all combine for another remarkable fragrance. Finally, Boutonnière No 7 drops us into the foyer of the Opéra-Comique in 1899 Paris, where Huber creates a gardenia perfume for men, blended with lavender, bergamot and mandarin. The suggestion is of a green and heady scent that attracts beautiful young women to equally elegant men.

This last is a fragrance of which Huber is rightly proud and which has been gathering awards much as one might gather the flowers of Grasse.



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The Beautiful Obscure

After a year of solid writing and research, and much trawling back through years of anecdotes and memories, I am pleased to have completed the first draft of my non-fiction work exploring Australian perspectives on the cultural history of Spain.

Combining memoir, travelogue, art history and social analysis, The Beautiful Obscure: Australian Pathways through the Cultural History of Spain is a book that reflects on 30 years of living with Spain – its people, language, art, politics, religion, history and culture – as an integral part of my life.


The title The Beautiful Obscure refers to a reference in Tobias Smollett‘s 1755 translation of Don Quixote, where the knight-errant decides to retreat to ‘Beltenebros’ – a quiet place in the Sierra Morena, those mountains that divide La Mancha and Castile from Andalucía – and there,withdrawn from the world, to meditate on chivalry and love, while gripped by madness, fury and despair. ‘Beltenebros’ is translated by Smollett as ‘The Beautiful Obscure’.

Quixote’s choice is effectively both beautiful and obscure – romantic and isolating – and the two words sum up my own path through a discovery of, and immersion in, Spanish cultural history: it is both beautiful, in the sense of providing constant aesthetic and personal fulfillment, and yet obscure, in the sense that for most Australians that cultural history is unknown and therefore entirely unfamiliar.


For my own interest as a writer, and hopefully for the enjoyment of future readers, I have made sure the contents of the book do not rehash all the endless clichés about Spain. This is not a book about bullfighting, wine and tapas, gourmet chefs or flamenco dancing.

This book aims to do two things: firstly, to track key elements from the last five hundred years of Spanish art and culture, with an emphasis on those that have had an impact, directly or indirectly, on the development of Australia.

Secondly, this is a book written about Spain from the grassroots level: Spain lived in truck-stop cafes and marginalised suburbs, with immigrant workers, small business owners, the disabled, hospitality workers, cleaners, rural hoteliers, priests, housewives and farm labourers. This is a Spain steeped in love and ritual, of complex beauty, superstition and tragedy; this is about a Spain that is constantly both ordinary and splendid. This is the Spain that is lived every day by Spaniards, and eschews the advertising slogans and inflated hype of governments and tourist commissions.

And in that very tactile and immediate Spain is found more strangeness and charm than in any glossy evocation of chefs, dancers, eaters, drinkers and party goers.


Connecting to the historical and cultural development of Australia, significant attention is paid to:

  • the many adventures of Spain in the Pacific, and how her sailors mostly went mad seeking the elusive continent of Australia;
  • the influence the Reformation-Counter Reformation split in Europe would have on the future nature of the Australian enterprise;
  • nineteenth-century Australian explorers, governors and administrators such as Mitchell, Light, Gawler, Sturt, Brisbane, Bourke, Gipps and Darling who all, to a greater or lesser extent, cut their teeth fighting in Spain with Wellington against the forces of Napoleon;
  • the most significant attempt to settle a Benedictine presence in Australia, which survives to this day at New Norcia;
  • the merging and diverging styles of nineteenth century art as Spain’s overseas empire fell apart and Australia began to grow in confidence as a nation; and
  • Australian participation in the Spanish Civil War.


In the contemporary period, the book looks at:

  • our joint participation in ‘Coalition of the Willing‘ and the Iraq War, under Prime Ministers John Howard and José María Aznar;
  • our experiences of terrorist bombings in Bali and Madrid (notwithstanding Spain’s other long-term problem with Basque separatist terrorism);
  • our social and governmental responses to Islam;
  • our attitude to and policy responses towards refugees from across the water;
  • the question of memory and forgetting: in Australia’s case, the ongoing blight of dispossession and the legacy of contemporary indigenous affairs, and in Spain, the attempt to legislate, via the ‘Law of Historic Memory‘, the opening up of Civil War wounds to the clear light of day.

In the final stages, the book examines Spain’s progress through the recent and devastating financial crisis, and how her southern European traditions, blending the diverse and apparently contradictory elements of Catholicism and anarchism, are both providing the wellsprings for change.

And lastly, The Beautiful Obscure closes with a meditation upon the nature of travel, discovery and reality, looking at two inimitable models: Don Quixote and Ludwig Leichhardt.


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From the Archive: Geoff Page’s ‘1953’

Taken from January 2013, this review of Geoff Page‘s 1953 (University of Queensland Press) was first published in The Melbourne Review.



1953 – Geoff Page

University of Queensland Press

1953 is both a pulse-taking and a cross-sectioning, a feeling of the heartbeat and a peering into the layered veins of Australian social history. In this volume poet Geoff Page visits the remote (semi-fictional) Australian town of Eurandangee on an apparently quiet Tuesday afternoon, February 17, in 1953, at precisely 2:30pm in the afternoon. Taking that singular point in time, his eye and ear casts around the town to uncover the dense textures of life as it is being lived – in the council chambers, the high school, the Greek café, the mine, the farm, the pub, the railway line, the drawing rooms and waiting rooms, the wasteland where groups of Aborigines stretch out under trees to drink sweet sherry. This was the Australia that rode on the sheep’s back, with the clip famously worth a pound a pound. We all know the sensation of passing through sleepy rural towns mid-afternoon, under a blazing sky, squinting from the light, walking into the deep cool shade of retail spaces and wondering whether much ever happens there. What Geoff Page has done with 1953 is show, through a most brilliantly executed series of monologues and verse portraits, that indeed there is life, and beauty, and courage, and desire, and frustration. The heart beats here as strongly as at any other point in time or space.

Post-war Australia is now a very faded time. In 1953, Page’s Australia is a world before our new technologies of communication, before multiculturalism, before the enlightened social engineering of the present. It is an Australia white, mostly male and rural. From the moral heights of the present day it could be easy to sneer at this lost world, but Page is far too deft. This is a love letter to an Australian society superficially very different but as deeply complex and as richly layered as today; where surface uniformities masked buried webs of ambition, love and pulsing, restrained desire; class envies, rules of behaviour and respectability. This is the Australia from which many of us, or our parents, emerged, and this book does us a service as valuable as any social history of the 1950s in explaining, and celebrating, without the need for academic analysis, the beautiful currents that rushed through our towns like dark underground streams.

1953 operates as a kind of poetic anthropological study, without judgement or analysis of the flaws of its actors. From adultery to war vet trauma, to fettlers and cops and country doctors with their receptionists, from the telephonist with a handle on every town conversation, to frustrated housewives looking to the exotic world of distant Sydney, this tender yet thrilling portrait celebrates the rich human drama of a society and time for which now, all too often, condescending terms such as ‘heteronormative’ are invented. Not quite the ‘redneck’ world of Les Murray‘s famous poems, yet this is all white bread, milk, potatoes and carrots and mutton Anglo Australia. Not an immigrant in sight beyond the token Greek marooned in his café serving steak and chips, having banished baklava as something locals were not yet ready for. Uncovering layer by layer, Page’s narrative poem reveals many of the foundations on which contemporary Australia was built – sacrifice, an understanding of isolation, fear of the outsider, and bloody hard work.

Once again, UQP fly the flag of Australian poetry. This stunning volume must be an early contender for many a ‘Best of 2013’ list.


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2015: Another Year of the Long Book

If a book doesn’t grab me in the first twenty or thirty pages, it is discarded – there’s simply too much to read. And so there’s always a feeling of deep reward and satisfaction at coming to the end of a long poem, novel or work of non-fiction. Last year, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a re-reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and  Fernando García de Cortázar’s Brief History of Spain (‘brief’ weighed in at 900 pages) all featured among the highlights of my reading year.

rtuk_news_paradise_lost_01  don-quixote-1

Now with Adelaide Writers’ Week come and gone – and with it the pure pleasure of discovering Martha Baillie, Jonas Bengtsson, Elia Barceló and Marcos Giralt Torrente, to name just a few of the outstanding overseas authors – it’s time to settle in for the long reads of the year.

First up is Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate – for years now on the pending list – to be followed by Bolaño’s 2666 and hopefully, this time I’ll get to the end of Moby Dick. And along with those titles, two epic histories, both read back in high school but untouched since then, are overdue a revisit: Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War and Livy’s The War with Hannibal.


Finally, the recent Adelaide Writers’ Week gave me the opportunity to pick up the works of another author I’ve long wanted to get to know: Martin Edmond. His Luca Antara: Passages in Search of Australia and The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker and the Burke and Wills Expedition will be eagerly read over the coming months.

Plenty to be getting on with…


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From the Archive: On Hitchens

This review of Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably was originally published in the launch edition of The Melbourne Review in October 2011.

Arguably – Christopher Hitchens

Allen & Unwin

“Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.” Hitchens’ epigraph, taken from Henry James (another writer whose soul was divided between Britain and America) is apt. A problem for someone as widely and deeply read as Hitchens would have been to find an epigraph, amongst thousands of contenders, to sum up a life’s work and journey. And he has certainly lived life to the full, even now as he faces cancer with the same great dignity that has characterised his writings.

In this collection of work from the last decade, Hitchens’ reach is as vast as the thinking and observations are deep. From the standpoint of the radical free thinker comes insight into politics and literature and the twentieth century’s churning battle for ideas. Yet this ferment was merely the preparation for Hitchens’ greatest political and intellectual battle that began in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hitchens has been characterised as the only intellectual for whom 9/11 and the Iraq War meant a journey from the left to the right – as always, on his own highly individual journey.


Just as some immigrant populations can become more fervently nationalistic and protective of their new homeland than long-term residents, so Hitchens leapt to the defence of America more keenly than even certain US patriots. 9/11 is the singular event around which many of his writings here revolve. This was the catalyst for clarification and a hardening of positions – Hitchens chose his side and nailed his colours firmly to the mast, at the same time nailing his opponents to the cross. This surety of endeavour and moral purpose allows him to skewer John Updike and trash Gore Vidal, painted here as a degenerating paranoid conspiracy theorist, in whom old age encouraged ugly flowers to bloom. There may be some truth in the notion that 9/11 was the battle cry Hitchens had been waiting for all his life, allowing him to cast off the louche decadence of the literary critic and don the fatigues of war his father had worn so proudly. Perhaps, through his battle-hot prose Hitchens finally, albeit vicariously, matched his war hero. Falstaffian revelry gave way to a cross between the impetuous Hotspur and the committed Prince Hal.

It’s not necessary to agree with everything Hitchens writes – one doubts Hitchens does himself – to appreciate the furious and prolific mind at work. Focussed by an oncoming death, the scalpel is no less sharp – sentiment never interferes with analysis. That said, Hitchens is an incurable romantic, simply one who refuses to suffer fools. He roams widely – here is a brilliant deconstruction of the John F. Kennedy myth, and a glimpse into the monstrosity that was Henry Kissinger; why, irony of ironies, Marx praised American revolutionary ideals and loathed the Russian state; Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens are taken to task for deeply unpleasant aspects of their characters. Subjects as diverse as Nabokov and Harry Potter, North Korea and political correctness, language and post-colonial politics (he casts his erstwhile friend Edward Said rudely aside), Philip Larkin, the Arab Spring, Prince Charles, Hugo Chavez, the Euro, Islamic fundamentalism, the American constitution, the decrepit and tragic state of Pakistan, sex, alcohol, Hitler, Amis and W.G. Sebald – it’s all here. Not all are hits – in a 2007 Vanity Fair piece on Tunisia, Hitchens, for all his ability to read historical trends and extract subtle lessons from them, apparently has no inkling of what would come just three and a half years later, and lets ghastly President Bin Ali somewhat lightly off the hook.

This volume is a brick, yes, but it should also be a cornerstone, a foundational work in any free thinking, ideas-loving person’s library. This is the critical head meeting the open heart. Hitchens is vast, omnivorous, unstinting and merciless; ferocious in his denunciations of mendacity, complicity and shamelessness, fierce in his secularism, brilliant and funny in his literary criticism. Yet he is also graceful and, like all truly great minds, compassionate. Even if this is the only volume by which readers come to know and/or remember the life’s work of this true radical, that is to be celebrated.

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Reprieve Australia: The Quality of Mercy

As events unfold in Indonesia with two Australians awaiting the death penalty, here from my archive is an article written back in 2009 featuring the work of Reprieve Australia volunteer Kellie Toole. It was first published in The Adelaide Review.


In 2007, Flinders University Law Graduate Kellie Toole spent three months working with Reprieve Australia, doing volunteer work to help the legal cases of death row prisoners in Texas

Toole had found out about Reprieve while conducting a research project for Criminal Law at Flinders University. She came across mention of Reprieve and the USA internships, filing it away for future reference. Three years later, having completed her degree, she made what she considered a moral decision, in order to stamp her own career in law with actions that were compatible with the values she held most closely.

Founded in Melbourne by Nick Harrington in 2001, Reprieve Australia is the local branch of an international NGO established to provide effective legal representation and humanitarian assistance to impoverished people facing the death penalty, and to raise awareness of the use of the death penalty around the world. The organisation was founded by renowned British lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, perhaps best-known for his recent defence of the legal rights of prisoners incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay.

Since its inception, Reprieve Australia has offered internships to young Australian lawyers wishing to contribute to this vital cause, while at the same time giving them invaluable practice in the very real world of the southern states of the USA’s death row. The Reprieve Intern Program places volunteers in capital defence offices in the United States, where they work either assisting with the representation of impoverished defendants facing execution, or on research and litigation directed towards systemic reform. Such an experience is difficult to describe, beyond being obviously life-changing.

These internships are not for the faint of heart. Quite apart from the often distressing nature of the work, interns may be asked to work anywhere up to 80 hours a week, and often through weekends at times of high demand, such as during capital trials. Tasks can range spending days at a time at a photocopier, to ferrying clients’ family members to death row to visit their loved one, to providing courtroom assistance in a capital trial. Since its inception, the hours worked by Reprieve volunteers equates to a phenomenal 15 years of full-time work.


Anonymous graves in Huntsville, Texas

The hardest part of getting onto the program, Toole says, was not the selection interview but rather overcoming the American immigration process. ‘Getting the visa was tight. When you want to go there for three months, working on a volunteer basis, to essentially challenge something which is a fundamental part of American law, politics and culture, they make you jump through some hoops.’

Bizarrely enough, the visa was finally granted under the category of ‘cultural exchange’.

Her final interview was conducted by Richard Bourke, an Australian based in Louisiana, and took place right in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. ‘To be interviewed by him at the same time as he was shouting out evacuation orders to people gave me an early warning of the sort of conditions people work under.’

With financial support from Flinders University, Fisher Jeffries and the Law Foundation, Toole set off. Having arrived and been settled into rudimentary accommodation in Houston, she began the daily grind of working through case material. While the experience is an adventure in the broadest sense of the word, it is by no means all glamour or excitement.

‘It is made very clear that you are not there to look at people on death row as if it were a zoo,’ she explains. ‘There is the possibility that some interns might just spend three months photocopying. It is not about you, or your skill development, or your career development. It is about doing whatever needs to be done, doing the grunt work.’

Most of her work involved what was known as ‘digesting’ – taking the hard copy records and typing them up – medical, police and prison records, social background reports, everything. Having such close scrutiny of case material allowed Toole to understand better both deficiencies and injustices. ‘I think it (the Texan legal system) actually is set up to be a fair system, as evidenced by the fact it takes years to reach conclusion. Everyone is entitled to a court-appointed attorney, and there are extensive appeal procedures. There is both the state and federal jurisdiction to work through, so there are ample opportunities for fairness and balance. The reality, however, is that the application of the law is not fair.’

By way of example, Toole cites the case of her own Director in Houston, a woman who has spent 15 years doing only death penalty work in Louisiana. In Texas she was not allowed to be registered as a court-appointed death penalty attorney, so all her experience was not available to those on death row. She had no trouble practicing in Louisiana but her sheer commitment to helping condemned prisoners meant she was not given room to move in Texas. Those who are appointed, Toole claims, are often people with no passion or commitment, thereby making eventual conviction of the prisoner much easier.


Huntsville, Texas

This goes to the heart of Texas’ very pro-death penalty population. Not only are they strongly in favour, but ‘the idea of Australians going over there and campaigning against the American system… we faced some real opposition, some real “How dare we?” One night in a bar we were talking to some guys about what we were doing and when we explained, there was a chill in the air and they said, “I don’t know how you can live with yourselves.” It was said with such a threatening undertone, it was the only time I felt seriously in danger in Texas. On another occasion I was at a symphony orchestra performance and during the interval was having a pleasant chat with a woman, until I said what I was doing in Texas, and I was just frosted out. It was the end of the conversation.’

The underlying message is twofold: how dare you, as a foreigner, question the way we do things here, and secondly, how dare you, no matter who you might be, question a practice that has a profoundly religious underpinning.

Despite the broad public support for the death penalty, there is a hard core of very committed anti-death penalty campaigners in the USA, most of them for religious reasons. Thus, religion cuts both ways, both in favour and vehemently opposed to capital punishment. Although Toole parts ways with the Right-to-Life campaigners on many fronts, she concedes that their prison visits and support networks are highly effective.

Change, though, may be slow in coming. Part of Toole’s administrative work took her through boxes of old archives, including letters appealing for clemency written to then Texan Governor George Bush, often outlining serious cases of injustice, wrongful conviction and false evidence. To concede errors in the system, however, would be to open a Pandora’s Box of further appeals and questioning of the way justice is administered, so in many cases the executions went ahead despite doubts or reservations, rather than risk calling the validity of the system into question. When Hollywood celebrities campaign against the death penalty, Toole explains, they are also given very short shrift in Texas. In fact, she says, it is almost counter-productive, so strong is the opposition to the idea of outsiders changing the state’s legal system. “We don’t want these Hollywood types telling us who we can and cannot execute.”

Given the average cost of some US $5 million per execution – once the entire process is complete from arrest to execution – one suspects Americans might be swayed by the economic argument. Quite the opposite, Toole explains – the high cost only encourages the argument that executions should be carried out quicker, reducing avenues for appeal and therefore time spent in prison prior to execution. That said, the economic line does hold more sway than any humanitarian argument.

Yet she is quick to point out that despite the great levels of support, there are many Texans opposed for religious reasons, and very committed local lawyers too. However, she feels that the high level of support is fuelled, at least in Texas, by the proximity of Mexico and the fear of Mexican immigrants, perceived largely as violent criminals. ‘The racism against Mexicans is really full-on, I was not expecting it, far more than that against African Americans. The fear of Mexicans is amazing, and they are widely blamed for crimes and a range of social ills. There is a lot of fear and hatred.’

Toole is very clear that while she is totally against capital punishment, she has no sympathy for some of the criminals, many of whom have committed horrendous crimes. While she was in Texas there was only one case of a prisoner facing execution at Huntsville (where all executions are carried out, nearly always at midnight) – a man on the capital charge of ‘murder for hire’. Toole worked on this case, doing research into precedents and helping draft some of the clemency appeal documents. Toole was present while his lawyer conducted telephone conversations with the man on the day leading up to his execution. It was surreal experience, she recounts, listening to how discussions centred on light topics such as the breakfast menu and the ingredients of vegetable juice. But as Toole asks with chilling simplicity: ‘What do you talk about to a man who is on his way to be executed?’ The family, naturally enough, were not present to support this prisoner at the time of his execution, having been amongst his original victims.

Death row prisoners often depend for company on pen pals from around the world. Some take the connection even further: bizarrely, Toole describes a coterie of German women who move from Germany to Huntsville in order to marry these death row inmates. ‘These guys,’ Toole says, ‘certainly do not want for female attention, and German women seem to be uppermost in terms of attention. They’re right in there, and have a reputation. It was inexplicable to me. Some of them are plain odd, and go on TV and say all sorts of stupid, damaging things while appeals processes are in place – just getting publicity for themselves when obviously you have to be extremely careful about what you say.’

In some cases, one is unsure whether to laugh or cry: on a visit to death row, Toole had conversations with three prisoners, one of whom, obviously mentally unhinged by the experience, could not work out why his marriage – begun while on death row, and therefore never allowing of any physical contact of any sort – had failed. ‘His perception was so skewed by living on the row, that he could not see why being a death row prisoner was an impediment to a happy marriage.’

In terms of her opposition, Toole makes an interesting point: ‘Executions are nearly always conducted at midnight, which I always think is odd, when people in favour claim everything is totally above board. If there is nothing wrong with it, why does nearly every country do it under cover of darkness? It’s as if the act were shrouded in shame, which I think it should be, as it is shameful behaviour.’

Another curious aspect to capital punishment that Toole often confronted Americans with was to ask them to look at those countries with which they share this passion for the death penalty: China, Iran, North Korea, Iraq – in short, most of the so-called ‘axis of evil’ and company are, in this case, bedfellows of the United States. And yet, she found most Americans genuinely shocked to see they shared this in common with their ‘enemies’. This argument – just look at who some of your bedfellows are – she found was the best way in for convincing Americans they might want to revise a practice so many take for granted, and find quite acceptable.

The experience of working in Texas for three months has left her far better able to cope with stress, and to put any day-to-day problems into real perspective. ‘Now I can face any problem and think: “Well, nobody’s going to die.” That was not the case while working for Reprieve in Texas.’

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Like most people, the death penalty has always appalled me. As a young student doing teaching prac at Fairfield High in the western suburbs of Sydney, I well remember the day Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers were executed in Malaysia. As a media & communications lecturer in Japan in 2005, I held a private dawn vigil for Van Tuong Nguyen, executed in Singapore. Now two more young Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, face the death penalty, this time by firing squad in Indonesia.

Albeit time has altered and dated certain perspectives, here is an editorial written in 2009 for The Adelaide Review, an issue in which we also highlighted the work of Reprieve Australia.


In a recent speech at the SA Writers’ Centre, John Coetzee spoke emphatically of the chill provoked by those who are utterly incurious about the world, those who do not want to know what they do not know. He suggested that this incuriosity – the idea that there is nothing more that needs to be known – is not only inhumane but even, perhaps, inhuman. There are parallels of incuriosity between the fundamentalism of Taliban fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in those Westerners who blindly support state-sanctioned executions. Seemingly worlds apart, both are equally convinced of the moral absoluteness and God-directed rightness of their positions, and are equally lacking in mercy.

Mercy represents everything that revenge does not: compassion, empathy, broad-mindedness and the unequivocal value of life. It is a gift – twice blessed – ennobling the person or institution who bestows it on another. Mercy is an act of concession and, as it supposes the capacity to walk in another’s shoes, is also an act of imagination.

Fundamentalist views of life which call for the killing – without mercy – of those who do not support, or in some way transgress, their particular moral code, such as that espoused by the Taliban, bring horribly into focus one of the essential struggles our world faces as it moves into a more complex, twenty-first century environment; a world where new players and new moralities compete for eminence on the global stage. The moral codes that underpin the security of the society we enjoy are by no means universally admired. They are hard-won, fragile and easily lost.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the Taliban, yet occupying the same ground of immoveable moral certainty, we find the unforgiving legal codes areas of the southern USA. Recent research suggests that American fundamentalists have more in common, in terms of moral reasoning, with Islamic fundamentalists than with liberal Americans – to say nothing of liberal-minded people of other nations. Is a conservative morality an essentially default morality, a relic of ancient times untouched by the enlightenment and the modern world? Is the will to revenge and punish an innate element of all human behaviour, or are these essentially primitive rituals that developed countries have striven to move beyond?

A strong society will allow a diversity of beliefs and practices, yet still hold firm to central tenets of moral decency. Its members maintain their curiosity and openness, yet still know where their moral compass points. There is no room for the violent imposition of values, just as there is no need to indulge in the relativism so beloved of postmodernist thinkers who have claimed all truths are equal. They are not. Tolerance and diversity do not mean the acceptance of barbaric practices; empathy and compassion do not have to mean one abandons all moral principles.

All planned killing is a form of cowardice. Be it terrorism, murder in any of its many forms or state-sanctioned execution, all planned killing is fundamentally cowardice and a failure of the imagination. Terrorists the world over – driven by the urge to money and power despite their rhetoric of religion, nationalism or both – are cowards, plotting the violent death of innocent victims. Capital punishment too is a planned death, often drawn out over years, serving only to add further anguish to the innocent families involved, and providing solace only to those who would cheer for loss of life.


No matter how well the fundamental moral codes outlined in the teachings of Christianity have served Western society, or the extent to which they are indicative of broader, universal moral understandings of good, contemporary society has no place for certain social practices of Old Testament times. ‘An eye for an eye’ belongs to a less morally developed culture.

Convictions can live alongside doubts. It is only when doubt disappears altogether that a terrifying blindness to alternatives emerges. Doubt, arising from the need to question, has been the driving force behind many of the finest examples of religious and philosophical writings of our past and present. Doubt leads us to curiosity, and curiosity leads us – sometimes later rather than sooner – to new understandings. We should be wary of any stance that suggests either that there is only one truth, or that all truths are equally valid. Neither of these stances will serve us as we look for answers to the myriad questions posed by difficult times.

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