(Image: AAP/David Moir)


Earlier this year, writer Jane Gilmore explored her experience of poverty  — its Kafkaesque bureaucracy, how unhealthy it is, its loneliness, the way it pervaded every corner of her life — in a piece as brave as it was well written. It was the best, and most wrenching, thing I read in 2018. Other recommendations for holiday reading — Clinton Fernandes’ Island Off The Coast Of Asia provides a long view of how power has been used by vested interests in Australian foreign policy for generations. Robert Forster’s Grant & I is from 2017 but I only just caught it, and it’s a must-read for any Go-Betweens fan and compelling as a portrait of male friendship as well.

While Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast has maintained consistent high-quality intellectual fare for two decades, my 2018 must-listen podcast is Reply All — which is ostensibly about the weirdness of the internet but ends up covering a staggering array of public policy issues. And on the basis that the world’s greatest film critic, and one of its greatest writers, Howard Hampton, always needs exposure, two of his pieces of the last 12 months: one on the Michael Caine obscurity Pulp and the other on The Death of Stalin. Better yet, revisit his brilliant analysis of Inherent Vice from 2014.


We are, so many of us, addicted to stories of trauma for their own sake. If you’d like a story that doesn’t exploit, but reckons with, trauma (in this case family abuse), I would highly recommend the homegrown podcast Silent Waves, by Raquel O’Brien.  

Silent Waves takes the voyeurism of true crime podcasts and flips it, telling her own story of childhood sexual abuse and other layers and levels of abuse in her family (physical, racial, emotional, etc). O’Brien is willing to take blame, portray herself as honestly as possible. It’s not an easy listen but it’s smart, educational even. O’Brien speaks to academics who understand the psychology at play as well as her own family members (including former Collingwood footballer Heritier O’Brien). This podcast comes good on the long-held promise of podcasts: to re-invent. It’s not a story I can imagine making it to air on a major network. Rarely does media allow survivors of trauma or abuse to take control of their stories, and for that reason alone, Silent Waves stands out.


I’m always a little apprehensive before starting a new current affairs podcast; the majority seem to be hosted by self-serious Washington-types cracking neurotic and dry gags about [obscure state senator] and [snoozy unpopular show he produced two years ago]. This is why I am recommending a politics show hosted by a Netflix celebrity hair stylist. Stay with me!

Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness is a totally joyful podcast that meticulously answers a major question with a leader in their field. JVN, the grooming specialist on 2018’s rebooted Queer Eye, brings his infectious energy and thirst for knowledge to some unexpected, but fascinating topics: What do trade unions actually do? What’s the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims? Each episode is essentially a loose explainer, so start with topics you don’t know well and then dive deep if you’re on board with the tone. No wonk-ish bullshit included. 

Jonathan Van Ness


After a true horror of a year at Your ABC, this London Review of Books piece about the structural dysfunction at its cousin in the UK, the BBC, caught our eye. A much larger beast than our own public broadcaster, the Beeb’s enormous budget and cumbersome program and managerial structure create their own problems. With anecdotes that at times sound eerily similar to stories from the ABC, Owen Bennett-Jones writes about the dozens of staff sent to cover major events, the interviewee complaints about multiple requests from different BBC programs and why independent producers pitch the BBC last with their programs because it’s so hard to get one individual to agree to a commission.


A decade ago, a tiny community called Buttah Windee, 760 kms north-east of Perth, found out their water supply contains uranium levels twice what’s safe. The state government decided fixing this was too much money for community that small, and instead they got signs and bottled water. Then they didn’t get that anymore. So Buttah Windee has curled at the corners as  the population plummets, and has been forced to crowdfund its access to the most basic human need. 

Journalists are much too fond of grandiose aphorisms about the trade, but it’s often true that rural work really does fulfill the brief — what people need to know, and won’t hear anywhere else. So it is with this piece; it’s important on its own terms, but also about more than that.


If you’d like some premiere TV drama to get you through a lethargic holiday afternoon, I’d recommend the HBO series that isn’t — but totally is — about the Murdoch family. Funny throughout, and genuinely thrilling (wait for the boardroom scene), Succession exposes the private and public turmoils of a dysfunctional family at the helm of a global media empire. It’s a masterstroke from showrunner Jesse Armstrong (co-creator of Peep Show and writer on The Thick of It), and features a blinding performance from Brian Cox as Logan Roy, the obdurate patriarch of the both Murdoch-esque and Trump-like Roy family. Aussie actor Sarah Snook also gives a career-best performance as Logan’s daughter, Siobhan, and Australian-American actor Ashley Zukerman has a recurring role as a philandering political adviser.

Sarah Snook as Siobhan Roy in Succession.


Essayist Ellena Savage’s account of returning to Lisbon, a space laden with the memory of trauma, confirms why she is one of the the great writers working in Australia today. The piece, from Savage’s forthcoming book of essays, Blueberries, is emblamatic of her eviscerating voice — questioning and lyrical, steeped in memory, disorienting when it needs to be, and never confined by form. Like any great writer, Savage’s work is always, always surprising, and in Yellow City this is on full display.


In the weirdly dystopian year that was 2018, the best pieces I read were those navigating the reactionary tide swarming our politics and discourse. Nobody articulates the history of this present moment better than Pankaj Mishra, as his fine screed on the “suicide cult” of whiteness proves. Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker piece on the visceral misogyny of the incel movement is another stand-out. So to is Nesrine Malik’s article on the alliance between “reformist”, liberal Muslim commentators and the Islamophobic right. Meanwhile, in a crowded field, Ryan Broderick’s response to the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is one of the most lucid commentaries on the dark radicalising power of tech platforms. And on a final, unrelated note, I keep thinking about this extraordinary essay by Michael Hobbes, which will change the way you think about obesity forever.