He Died with a Felafel in His Hand – John Birmingham

Firstly a warning, the book contains strong language and lots of stories of excessive drug and alcohol use and things that happen when that happens, but don’t let that put you off unless you really don’t think that it is suitable for you. That said this book is so incredibly funny and yet so believable that when Birmingham says that it all really happened to him you have to believe him, and it certainly could be true that he had eighty nine of the craziest people house share with him over the years. I know I wouldn’t last five minutes with any of them. Birmingham is an Australian and all the places he lived are in various Australian cities, starting with Brisbane but including Sydney, Melbourne and others over thirteen different properties. Sometimes he moved because he just wanted to, more often it was to get away from his housemates and at least once to avoid being killed by one of them. Because the book isn’t told sequentially and there is no timescale it’s difficult to tell over how long a period it all takes place but some properties he left really quickly whilst in others he was the last man standing.

Interspersed amongst the text are grey shaded passages written by other people who have also experienced Australian house sharing hell. These are a little confusing at first as they appear right in the middle of stories that Birmingham is telling about his own particular nightmare cohabitants. Initially I tried to read them as interludes but it soon became clear that it was easier to get to the end of whatever horror story we were in at the time and then go back and read the one or two extra bits I had skipped, There are also a few extras that are several pages long and in a different typeface to resemble typewritten sections which are too long to be the greyed inserts but clearly Birmingham thought were so funny they had to be included somehow, all these occur at the end of chapters with a full page greyed out intro.

Milo won the house competition for not changing out of his jeans. PJ and I dropped out at four and five weeks respectively, but Milo, who liked the feel of rotting denim – “It’s like a second skin!” – was pronounced the champion at ten weeks and told to have a bath or leave. It was an all-male house.

There are various comparisons of all-male and mixed sex house shares, being male Birmingham obviously has limited experiences of all female occupation, and the general consensus is that for sheer disgustingness nothing beats the all-male property especially if the occupancy level is well above that intended. Set against that for true angst you need to have at least one woman in there (males tend to descend into their own chilled out pit of squalor) and if two, or more, of the housemates are in a sexual relationship it’s probably time to get out of there fast before the whole thing implodes. The other thing that will definitely kill an otherwise happy house is the introduction of a junkie, not just for the drug taking but also for the petty thefts to feed the habit and the tendency to attract the attention of the police with consequences for all. The title of the book comes from the opening line and ‘He’ was named Jeffrey. Jeffrey had joined an otherwise happy house only recently but it turned out he was a junkie, he had died whilst watching TV after a night out where he had had probably one too many of his drug of choice that evening and had passed out and died whilst eating the said felafel, the yogurt dressing had run down over the puncture marks in his arm. It was apparently Birmingham’s first dead housemate, he doesn’t however say if it was his last.

Whilst looking this book up to make sure it was still in print, it is, I found that it had subsequently been made into a long running play, a film in 2001 and a graphic novel in 2004 so it’s popularity, especially in its native Australia, seems assured. John Birmingham is now an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction, this was his first book although he had written articles and stories for a few magazines before this.

Steve Smith’s men – Geoff Lemon

20190625 Steve Smith's Men

The moment you pick this book up you notice the texture of the printed title, it looks and feels like the sandpaper that caused all the trouble and the crash and burn of Australian cricket in South Africa that March day in 2018. Geoff Lemon has covered the team for many years and this is his analysis not just of what happened in Cape Town but also just how did the Australian national team come to be in this mess in the first place. However as Lemon points out at the start of chapter three

This book is not a detective story. It won’t give you every detail of what happened in the Cape Town dressing rooms…

… Only once careers finish will talk begin. Someone can write the comprehensive history then.

What Lemon does do is look deeply at the team and make as good attempt as can be done now as to what happened and why.

For those people who don’t know the background to this, Cameron Bancroft was seen rubbing the ball with sandpaper to roughen it and make it swing more during the Test Match against South Africa. More details can be found on the BBC website here which details the bans given to Bancroft and also the captain Steve Smith and his vice-captain David Warner after this incident.

However this isn’t just about cricket it is also a look at the psyche of a team that formed an effectively closed group and how harmful attitudes were just amplified as there was nobody from the outside to point out how the worst things became normal and then continued on a downward spiral egged on by certain members. As such it can be read as a useful resume of just how groups can deteriorate if left to their own devices. As Lemon points out the team became self selecting, performance on the field became secondary to being mates and being seen to fit the culture that had been created. At times it reads like a real life Lord of the Flies, and just as self-destructive, no matter how good you were you wouldn’t get in the national team unless you were one of the gang and that gang was so tight knit that they rejected all suggestions that things might be wrong.

Things had been going wrong for years and Lemon looks back over that time not just at the team but also at the governing body, Cricket Australia, to try to track why Australia had become the most disliked team in world cricket. Chapter 21 “Australia’s Cricket Culture” starts with five pages of quotes all riffing on the theme that they “never cross the line” meaning that they play hard but not beyond limits, the problem was that the Australian team wanted to set the limits and wanted them further in the distance for them than their opponents. Although stressing that this was a much older problem Lemon decides to focus of the England tour of Australia over 2017/8 to emphasise the build up to the South African debacle. This was a pretty bad tempered few months with Australia emerging the clear victors so they should have gone to South Africa on a high especially given their record in that country, but things started to go wrong soon after they arrived at the first test match. The sledging on both sides was distinctly unpleasant, Warner had taken considerable offence to references to his wife and this had led to a fight almost breaking out after they left the field which unfortunately was caught on camera. That it was Warner, who is probably the nastiest sledger in world cricket, who took offence is ironic in the extreme but that set the tone for what was to come. The Australians claimed that the attempt to alter the ball in the third test was the first time it had been done but nobody believed them so the one caught along with the captain and vice captain had to go, not because of the cheating, but because they were caught out telling bare-faced lies that just kept the story going. If they had just held a press conference at the end of the day and admitted to what had been done then there would have been fines from the match referee but probably not much more.

The book is not only incisive but funny and difficult to put down, the one problem with it getting a wider readership may well be the frequent use of expletives, the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words appear a lot. Now that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Lemon is trying to show where things had got to and on-field abuse hurled at the opposition, known as sledging, is often quoted verbatim and this may put off some readers. I think he was justified in the use of language because of the story he is trying to tell and it is a thoroughly good read.