josh rosner

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BOOK REVIEW – GEORGE NEGUS: THE WORLD FROM DOWN UNDER

In Book Review on January 11, 2011 at 11:17 pm

I regularly review non-fiction books (politics, current affairs and biographies) for the Canberra Times Panorama magazine on Saturdays. Last weekend (8 January 2011) my review of George Negus’s new book – The World from Down Under: A Chat with Recent History – was published.

As the Canberra Times does not offer its magazine online to readers, I obviously cannot link directly to the review. So, the full review appears below.

On Top Down Under

CURRENT AFFAIRS

The World From Down Under. A Chat with Recent History. By George Negus. Harper Collins. 515pp. $35 pb

It seems there is no political leader who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a George Negus interview. I tried to keep a mental list as I worked my way through his latest hefty tome, The World From Down Under, but it quickly proved impossible to keep up. So long is the list of notable interviews that Negus felt it pertinent to ask and answer his own question, so who haven’t you talked to? in his author’s disclaimer. The answer, if you’re curious, is Barack Obama since he became president (Negus did have an encounter with him on a plane while he was still a senator).

It is not out of spite that Negus notes “Down Under’s first chat with the ‘Big-O of world politics”, as he puts it was scored by Kerry O’Brien, but rather to highlight a theme that runs through this book – no matter where Negus is in the world, no matter which world leader he is interviewing, he is a true-blue Aussie who is most at home on his property in Bellingen.

The World From Down Under addresses six themes: politics, religion, war, economics, environment, and China. More broadly, Negus tackles some difficult topics – climate chanbge, poverty, Indigenous affairs, 9/11, the global financial crisis, the role of woman, to name just a few – with great humour, abiding humility and a keen eye for the subtleties of the human condition.

Negus successfully juxtaposes his many opinions on every topic known to man with some juicy background information related to his interviews. For example, while preparing for his first interview with the Dalai Lama, Negus writes, he debated with his Foreign Correspondent colleagues about how best to address ‘His Holiness’. “…as a philosophically non-religious individual,” Negus informed them, “he considered it would ‘border on the hypocritical; for him to address the Dalai Lama by his traditional pious title of ‘His Holiness.’” He goes on to reveal that no conclusion was reached and even as the interview was about to begin, he was unsure how he would address the Dalai Lama. A clue to the answer lies in the title of the following chapter, Mr Simple Buddhist Monk.

What I love about Negus’s writing is not so much that he is opinionated – although he is and as someone who doesn’t mind sharing his own opinions, I appreciated that –  it is that his opinions are not offered in an arrogant, show-offy, look-at-me-and-who-I’ve-met kind of way. Many lesser journalists and writers may have found it hard to avoid resorting to tacky innuendo and gossip. Negus’s approach is deceptfully simple. He systematically lays out his argument, using all his intelligence and skill, and leave it up to his reader to decide whether he or she is in agreement. Whether it’s the big issues of our time or something a little lighter, Negus gives his readers a gentle push and prod down a path of intellectual rigor.

As an atheist, it might have been tempting for Negus to scoff at and ridicule those of faith. Many pages of The World From Down Under are, after all, devoted either directly or indirectly to religious ideas and beliefs. In chapters intriguingly titled Benazir Bhutto – Dancing with the Devil, Tony Blair – Whose Side is God On?, The World’s Different Kind of God-botherer (about famous atheist, Richard Dawkins) and Who Does God Vote For?, Negus skillfully ingestigates the fraught terrain of politics and religion. He doesn’t always manage to reach a conclusion with each of his interview subjects, but that is far from the point. For Negus the discussion serves two purposes. It is intellectually stimulating and, more often than not, makes for fascinating television.

As someone who has travelled this globe from east to west and top to bottom, Negus is well-placed to analyse Australia’s place in the rest of the world, how we as Australians perceive our relationship to other countries and, perhaps most telling, how other countries perceive us.

More often than not I grimace when I hear the words ‘down under’ because they usually accompany an American accent and the perception that Australia is somehow backward and not a part of the global geopolitical power. In Negus’s hands, the words take on an entirely new meaning. It’s true that Australia is geographically isolated, but our isolation gives us a truly peripatetic perspective of the world. As a nation of people we travel overseas a lot. We have to. As a consequence we have a unique perspective of our own place – and importance – in the world. And this is Negus’s point. There is cause for optimism as Austalians. He puts it, “Whatever our perspective, The World from Down Under or Down Under from the World, all the old rules are out the window.” He’s right. This new decade will surely see the rise of China’s global economic and political dominance. Transparent-democracy websites, such as WikiLeaks, are set to change the way governments and the public sector do business. We are entering, to steal a phrase, a new geopolitical paradigm.

Don’t buy The World from Down Under just because you enjoy watching George Negus on the box. Don’t buy it just because you appreciate fine writing. Buy it and read it because it will change how you see Australia and the issues that are of the gravest importance to us as a nation state in the coming decades.