Higher education reform: use and abuse of Menzies

by Francesca Beddie

 

When Australia was rebuilding after World War II, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, recognised the important role of universities in educating Australians to power our economic recovery.

Funding and enrolment growth for universities increased sustainably under Menzies, and more Australians were given the opportunity to obtain a degree.

Australia harnessed its higher education system to drive its recovery from World War II and make our nation stronger than before the war started.

By harnessing our higher education system once again we can drive our recovery from COVID-19.

Like so many nods to the past deployed by politicians, this reference distorts the historical record. Menzies repeatedly made it clear that the value he saw in higher education went well beyond the economic. Take this extract from his 1942 Forgotten People speech:

Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.

David Furse-Roberts presented an excellent account of Menzies’ attitudes and actions on education in an essay published last year in Quadrant called ‘A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education’. It should be compulsory reading for all education ministers wanting to recruit Menzies to their reformist ventures. They would see that Menzies was fully aware his plans to expand universities would cost the federal government an enormous amount of money. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Furse-Roberts does not discuss the Martin review Menzies commissioned in 1961 to ‘consider the pattern of tertiary education in relation to the needs and resources of Australia, and to make recommendations to the Commission on the future development of tertiary education’. But it too deserves consideration by contemporary policy makers, who purport to be striving for an integrated tertiary education sector. The principle underpinning the Martin review, which resulted in the binary system of universities and colleges of advanced education, came from Sir Harold Robbins who was tackling the same questions in the United Kingdom of how to expand tertiary education:

tertiary education should be available to all citizens according to their inclination and capacity.

Most regrettably, Tehan’s proposals ignore that vital ingredient for success in both learning and life: motivation.

Menzies supported the idea of a national university that would focus on researching issues directly relevant to the national interest. But he also championed pure learning and ‘the unfettered search for truth’. He considered that these things contributed to a civilised life, the goal of his education policies.

Today’s proposed reform of humanities education, as well as the government’s lacklustre support for arts and culture and for the ABC, suggest our leaders are retreating from the aim of creating a better Australia to one that can produce good-sounding statistics about jobs and growth. The latter are important but without the fulfilment of talent, the creation of social wellbeing and a celebration of beauty, the numbers add up to a nation in decline.

Historians do, sometimes, point out inconvenient facts: Cook did not circumnavigate Australia; Australia did have slave labour (and arguably still does); Menzies believed in learning for its own sake. That is no reason to send a price signal to students dissuading them to study history, which offers policy makers so much if they choose to overcome the presentism of contemporary debate. Were they to champion the humanities and agree with Menzies that progress means embracing not just the utilitarian and profit but also ideas of tranquillity and leisure, we would be heading towards real prosperity.

Surely, in these weird days of COVID-19 we deserve leaders who share Menzies’ yearning for the company of books and conversation with friends, rather than people who selectively quote or misquote him and focus only on the prosaic and the next poll.

[This post first appeared at https://johnmenadue.com/francesca-beddie-higher-education-reform-use-and-abuse-of-menzies/]

 

Australia Day: occasion for collective mourning

In early January, the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, suggested the first sitting day of Federal Parliament for 2020 be devoted to marking the unprecedented bushfire crisis. That got me thinking about Australia Day.

Why not make it a day of mourning, not just for Indigenous Australians as it explicitly became on 26 January 1938 but for all those heartbroken by the devastation that has swept our land.

26 January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day a group of Aboriginal men and women gathered at Australian Hall in Sydney. They moved this resolution:

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

After the phrase ‘callous treatment of our people’, that resolution might have carried the words ‘negligent care of our country’. In 2019/2020, that negligence has had horrific consequences.

White people have not been good at heeding advice about the treatment of this ancient land and its first peoples. Before he embarked on the Endeavour expedition in 1768, James Cook, whose arrival on Australia’s east coat 250 years ago will be widely commemorated this year, received a set of ‘hints’ from the president of The Royal Society, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. Lord Morton exhorted Cook to remind the crew it was their moral responsibility to do no harm to the Indigenous inhabitants and to respect Indigenous land occupation. The British Admiralty also instructed Cook only to take possession of advantageous positions with the ‘Consent of the Natives’. Cook proceeded without any such consent.

Kevin Tolhurst, whose name became so familiar during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, has pointed out that, after 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939, we have also had plenty of advice about bushfire management. The problem lies more with implementing the findings from these reviews. One lesson from the Black Saturday tragedy is that ‘stay and defend’ is often not the best course of action. The ‘leave and live’ option has saved lives this bushfire season.

Other recommendations have not been adequately followed up. In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments signed off on a national policy, which listed 14 national goals. One of those was to ‘further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes’. This goal recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape as a way to build resilience to climate extremes.

Francesca M. Beddie 

Bushfire haiku

Red sun smoky skies
Surely not the new normal
Though it’s been weeks now

Stop checking the app
Blue diamonds are not that close
Can’t just hope for rain

Have a bushfire plan
Know what to take, when to leave
Impossible choice

Life goes on, prepare
Pre-Christmas celebration
Down at the seaside

There too fire invades
Its acrid smell permeates
Nostrils, then psyche

Smoke wakes me at 5
Reach for the phone, Fires Near Me,
No danger here, yet

The sun’s not up but
Turns the sea-mist apricot
An ominous dawn

Whitest sand in world
is grey under smoky sky
The water is still clear

The sea is calm now
An easy swim brings relief
Tiny shells sweep in

Childhood memory
Collecting dozens of shells
Making necklaces

A short-lived respite
Further along the bay it’s
Not shells but embers

Black gum leaf fragments
Mark the pattern of the waves
No escape today

Social media:
Hawaii holiday snaps
ScoMo with Aussies

Cave Beach next morning
Ripples catch the orange light
Burnt leaves fall from sky

Surfing with embers
Finishes the holiday
Pack up, leave early

Hot and dry at home
No more the green oasis
Water gutters, plants

Evening news: fire kills
Two young men, fathers of babes
Where is the PM?

A Facebook call out
Our local firefighters need
Chapstick, lozenges

I can help out here
Drop off a bag of supplies
Add mince pies as thanks

Family of firies
Deputy captain and son
Battling deadly blaze

Smoke in nostrils, dreams,
In every room: cannot sleep
Start the to-leave list

8am, gym class
Keep up the normal routines
Walk dog, exercise

Festive fun-filled class
Christmas yoga, breathing smoke
Downward dog with flies

Catastrophic day
A waiting game: should we leave?
Nerves fray, we are mute

Inside try to work
39.6 degrees
A new fire, closer

Panic scrapes my throat
Finish packing, spray the house
Check the app, again

Papers in the car
Along with clothes, did I pick well?
Plus some precious things

5pm, 20⁰
The fire 20k away
Down to watch and act

Sky is grey, briefly
Teased that it might bring moisture
Now a sallow glow

Variety show
Yes, life must keep going on
Scrooge, angels, bagpipes

Talent, cheer and hope
Hat goes round for firefighters
It’s time for Christmas

Francesca M. Beddie © December 2019

The Golden Country: review

I follow migration matters closely, so Tim Watt’s survey of the White Australia Policy and subsequent immigration policy was familiar territory. For those who don’t, there is much to recommend in the story he tells and his demonstration of the economic benefits of skilled migration. But his analysis has flaws.

Watts is a Labor MP married to a Chinese Australian. They have two children. This gives him a personal interest in how Asian Australians see their country and its history. In The Golden Country (a reference to Australia’s changing complexion), he takes us back to the 19th century. He uncovers tales of the Chinese on and off the goldfields and on the front during World War One that were absent in the history and myths he learned as a child. This biographical thread runs through the book, which traces the creation of the “Australian Legend”. To understand how a sense of Australianness comes about, Watts draws on anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s idea that nations are shaped by “an imagined political community” with a shared history, culture and values.

Australia’s national identity was forged as explicitly white and Western. The East “was seen to be home to immortality, irrationality and psychological weakness, whereas the West was the home of virtue and rationality, discipline and physical strength”. We are living, Watts says, with the hangover from that dichotomy, which saw a century of nation building defined by the exclusion of Asian Australians. He uses statistics to show how such exclusion still pervades our political institutions, the nation’s boardrooms and top echelons of our public service and universities.

Now that 13 per cent of Australia’s population, over three million people, has Asian heritage – more than the percentage of African Americans living in the United States – this bamboo ceiling must be dismantled. Before suggesting how, Watts says this change in demography is primarily the result of John Howard’s immigration policies. He has evidence to back this up. The emphasis on importing skills during the Howard years doubled the total permanent-migrant intake. Even more significant was the increase in temporary migrants deployed to address skill shortages in a booming economy.

Watts focuses on the contradiction between this policy and Howard’s insistence that Australia was neither an Asian nor a racist country and his refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian vitriol. That’s a fair observation, as is Watt’s conclusion that, by allowing the anxieties Hanson stoked to enter the political lexicon, Howard reshaped the electoral strategies of both conservatives and progressives. The latter came to see “race, immigration and national identity as dangerous political terrain”. Nevertheless, as Watts shows, most Australians have not been much influenced by the shrill, offensive “ethno-nationalism” of recent years, with the political debate about migration being fuelled by “unrepresentative conservative political parties”.

This being so, Watts goes too far when he says Howard’s culture wars “hindered our collective ability to talk openly about the implications of the societal shifts he set in train”. That has meant, he asserts, governments haven’t invested in the urban infrastructure needed to cope with more people nor anticipated problems like foreign interference with diaspora communities. He can’t shaft these unresolved matters of public policy home solely to Howard or to one side of politics.

Where Watts stays silent on John Howard is the latter’s decision to take Australia to war in Afghanistan and the Middle East and the ramifications this has had on immigration, namely the influx of refugees from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. This silence has two possible explanations: Watts’ focus on Asian migration; his own party’s shameful record on asylum seekers and offshore detention.

Benedict Anderson’s imagined community turns out to be more than an explanatory tool. The concept shapes Watts’ ideas for today’s multicultural Australia. He wants to reimagine Australia, starting by arguing that racism in Australia is untypical. With a nod to Noel Pearson, he wants a set of contemporary Australian values that include respect for difference and inclusiveness but otherwise embody those in the Australian legend: the fair go, egalitarianism, mateship, pragmatism and irreverence. Watts wants everyone living in the golden country to embrace these values.

Our community, he thinks, is already there (although he does concede there are significant differences between multicultural urban areas like the one he represents in Melbourne and the bush). It’s the national political imaginings that must catch up. This needs leadership but can also happen by injecting new Aussie stories, for example about Chinese Anzacs and Indian traders, into mainstream history and by elevating Asian-Australian talent into the top echelons of Australian political, business and cultural circles. Watts should also have made mention of voices from other corners of the world.

When it comes to his policy prescriptions, Watts changes his analytical hat for one full of nostalgia for Anzac, with an Asian twist. And he doesn’t do enough to link his desire to see skilled immigration continue apace for the sake of productivity with other pressing domestic problems. These include environmental sustainability, inter-generational disadvantage among Indigenous Australians and the long-term unemployed, persistently poor innovation and management in Australian enterprises.

Nor does Watts properly factor in the impact of changing patterns of labour mobility. His justified concerns about current problems in immigration – the exploitation of lower skilled temporary migrants and underfunded settlement programs – prevent him from imagining a new global citizenry who embrace not one nation’s values but who thrive by being connected across the planet.

[This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian.]

Israel-Palestine and the Bahrain conference – Jared in wonderland

by Peter Rodgers

Whatever happens with Donald Trump’s presidency, the future of his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, is assured. A career as writer of romantic fiction is his for the asking.

Finally, there was something in writing, something to talk about. The first part of the long-awaited US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revealed by Kushner for the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Bahrain on 25-26 June.  Never mind that the principals to the conflict were not officially present for the birthing of the “New Vision for the Palestinian People and the Broader Middle East”. Never mind that the glossy brochure was vacuous rather than visionary. Never mind that it was the bribe, not the deal, of the century.

In the world of Trump it’s all about the dream. Imagine a bustling tourist centre in Gaza and the West Bank, Kushner declared. “Imagine people and goods flowing securely throughout the region as people become more prosperous.” Imagine indeed. And how will such a vision splendid be realised? Through buzz phrases and mythical foreign investment of US$50 billion to “unleash” the economic potential of the Palestinians, to “empower” them to “realise their ambitions,” and to “enhance” Palestinian governance. Palestinian GDP would double, a million new jobs would be created.

Fine words flowed about education and training, health, employment, infrastructure, transportation, trade, communication, legal and regulatory frameworks, quality of life, and so on and so forth. A US$5 billion superhighway would link the Palestinian Authority controlled West Bank and Gaza, run by its nemesis, Hamas. A new Singapore, a new Dubai, a new Sweden would rise from the congested alleyways of Gaza and the abraded hills of the West Bank.

Worthy perhaps, but utterly hallucinogenic. It ignores Israel’s asphyxiating hold over Palestinian life, commerce and communication. The word occupation has vanished from the lexicon. The vision proclaims the need for the Palestinians to develop 4G and 5G technology. There is no mention of the role that Israel plays in impeding this. That Israel only lifted a ban on 3G wireless technology for Palestinian mobile services in 2018. In the words of one Israeli commentator, “It’s as if the plan was designed for a Palestinian economy that exists in an imaginary universe or on the moon, without a realistic discussion of how many aspects of the Palestinian economy are linked to Israel”.

The plan mentions governance but steers well clear of the issue that lies at the very heart of this—and the conflict that has split blood and treasure for the past seventy-plus years—Palestinian statehood. Perhaps that will leap out of the cake in part two of the Kushner “vision”. But the Palestinians have already seen the plan for what it is. A grand bribe to persuade them to decouple economic well-being and political aspiration. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, declared the plan dead on arrival. Engaging with it, he said, was tantamount to a Palestinian declaration of surrender. To which, Israel’s ambassador to the UN responded encouragingly, “What’s wrong with Palestinian surrender?”

With the Bahrain conference focused on declaration rather than detail, Kushner hailed it as a “tremendous success.” He reportedly told a Saudi newspaper that his “very detailed and reasonable plan was well received by attendees” from all over the world.

Others, within and beyond the region, had a very different take. An Israeli journalist reported criticism of the plan as “amateurish hodgepodge” which promised “projects that cannot be implemented, funded by money that does not exist and contingent on a peace deal that will never happen”. The economic bonanza was not a confidence building measure but a “con job and insult rolled into one”. It dangled dollars in front of Palestinian noses, implying they could be bought, and set up a chain of events which will lead to the Palestinians being blamed for the plan’s “inevitable failure”.

A former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Dan Kurtzer, now Professor of Middle East Studies at Princeton University, tweeted, “I would give this so-called plan a C- from an undergraduate student. The authors of the plan clearly understand nothing.”

Kushner will probably lose little sleep over this. Dismissing Palestinian criticism of the US approach, he noted that the Palestinian Authority did not “have a great track record of getting a deal done. I’ll keep doing it the way we want to do it”. That “way”, it seems, is to redefine the Palestinian “problem” as largely, if not wholly, an economic one. Forget about contested history, forget about contested borders, contested aspirations. Throw enough money at the Palestinians and they’ll forget who they are. They’ll be so busy basking on the beach in Gaza or strolling through its shopping malls that politics will be a thing of the past. Dream on Jared.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 4 July

Image: Pixabay

Towards cosmopolitaness

In April 2019, the American Society for Editing decided to drop hyphens in expressions denoting dual heritage, like ‘Asian-American’, ‘African-American’ and so on. ‘American Indians’ refers to those hailing from India; the first people of the American continent are called ‘Native Americans’. While a hyphen is a small thing, its use can be a sensitive matter when it touches on a person’s sense of self, especially now when public discourse revolves around ethnicity, gender and other self-selected groups rather than the -isms that used to dominate politics: socialism, liberalism, humanism. 

Writing in 2010 (when hyphens were still de rigeur), Tony Judt said:

today we are all hyphenated—Irish-Americans, Native Americans (sic), African-Americans, and the like. Most people no longer speak the language of their forebears or know much about their country of origin, especially if their family started out in Europe. But in the wake of a generation of boastful victimhood, they wear what little they do know as a proud badge of identity: you are what your grandparents suffered. 

I saw that sentiment on display at the Sydney Writers Festival  last week. A panel of successful writers lamented their split identities. What a pity they had to put themselves into boxes! What a shame not all had learned a second language!

I know the awkwardness a ‘foreign’ name can cause: how do you spell ‘Francesca’? Where do you come from? I always say just Australia, even though my mother was a Pom, one grandfather a German and one great grandmother a Spaniard. That heritage has enriched me, because we are, to quote Stan Grant, ‘a human symphony, the songs of so many lands’. Grant argues in his new book, On Identity, that it’s time to leave identity behind and to embrace cosmopolitanism. Perhaps dropping the hyphen is a step in that direction.

Capturing Antarctica

Nowhere but in Antarctica is the light such a shade of lemon

Some people say a visit to Antarctica changed their life. I don’t but months after my trip the other-worldly beauty of the seventh continent is still with me and I am still grappling with how to put the experience into words. Someone who managed to capture the spirit of the place, long before the I-phone and cruise ships made it easy to photograph penguins and icebergs, was Frank Hurley.

Hurley’s photographic genius has been recorded by Alisdair McGregor. Here’s an extract from my review of the biography:

Hurley could be lyrical in conveying the personality of Antarctica. Of ice floes he wrote:

Newly born ice spotless and lily-like, larger adult masses in the pride of their beauty and gnarled decaying fragments in the senility of old age … Time will disintegrate all.

Little would Hurley have imagined how much more quickly the ice shelves are melting a century on from his first encounter with their majesty.

Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life, by Alasdair McGregor. NLA Publishing, 460pp

See also:
https://www.nla.gov.au/selected-library-collections/hurley-collection

Word play

People in Buenos Aires, especially the locals (porteños or people of the port) don’t get much sleep. Many commute for several hours to get to and from work during the week, so they are used to eating late and rising early. On weekends, they might get to sleep in, but those who like to party won’t be adding many credits to their sleep bank because nightlife doesn’t get started till close to midnight: quite a challenge for visitors used to eating at eight and going to bed before twelve.

In local dives, musicians carry on the tradition of singing tango, yes, singing. The music and lyrics are as essential as those sexy dance moves. Elsewhere, young Argentinians are bopping to rock ‘n roll or testing out their own songs in soirees hosted in people’s flats.

One aspect of tango lyrics that intrigues me is the incorporation of vesre, a play on words that switches around the syllable of words. So, café (coffee) becomes feca, mujer (woman)/ jermu, amigo (friend)/ gomía, pizza /zapi (which is also the name of a major Argentine pizza chain).

Pity the poor student of Argentinian Spanish! And for that matter of English and its rhyming slang. Like vesre, the tradition of Cockney rhyming slang came out of the working class, people who were traders in London’s markets in the 19th century. Their slang is also confusing, and complicated. It finds an expression that rhymes with another word, which is replaced by that expression, or part of it at least. For example, the word ‘look’ rhymes with ‘butcher’s hook’ but the actual rhyming word ‘hook’ is omitted leaving the word ‘butchers’ to mean ‘look’. In the same way ‘feet’ rhymes with the word ‘meat’ in the phrase ‘plates of meat’, so in Cockney ‘feet’ are ‘plates’, while ‘teeth’ rhyme with ‘heath’, as in Hampstead Heath, so become ‘Hampsteads’. For more on these mind-frazzling expressions – not all obsolete — visit http://www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk

Both these versions of wordplay show us how adaptable language is and how people and cultures influence the development of dialects, vocabulary and humour in local communities and beyond. With more than 300 languages spoken in Australian homes, Australian English is, according to Ingrid Piller, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, becoming more diverse. Newcomers don’t just come to terms with colloquialisms, Cockney slang and other word forms, like ‘brekkie’ and ‘barbie’, or weird uses of words like ‘average’ to mean ‘bad’ or ‘mate’ not to mean ‘friend’. They also introduce words from their native languages and create their own versions of English, getting their revenge on the vagaries of English spelling and utter confusion of its slang.

Image: the bandoneon,  an essential instrument in tango and much more complicated to play than the accordion.

The full stop

If you want to write well, learn to love the full stop. See it as the goal towards which the words in your sentence adamantly move.

So advises Joe Moran, Professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University, in an article that sings the praises of that dot at the end of a sentence, a dot that is increasingly missing in social media. Studies have been done into the effect of the fullstop; these suggest that people tend to read a text message that ends with a full stop as curt or passive-aggressive.  Maybe, but maybe also people just don’t text using complete sentences.

In formal writing, sentences are necessary. Here’s Moran again:

A good sentence moves smoothly and cleanly towards a stop. The best way to ensure this happens is to put the important stuff at the end. A sentence ordered like this feels more deliberate and more memorable just as, when you stop speaking, what sticks in your listener’s mind is the last thing you said. A sentence’s strongest stress falls on its last stressed syllable, just before the full stop.

Until Aristophanes of Byzantium invented the dot or periodos to signal a complete thought, sentences just went on and on and on. Here too is the origin of the American word for ‘full stop’, the ‘period’. According to Anglophile Fraser McAlpine during the 18th and 19th centuries a distinction was made between the period – the dot itself, also used then (but see below) to end abbreviations and initials – and the full stop, which was only ever used to end sentences. In the 20th century, for  reasons that are not entirely apparent, the generic term for that dot shifted within British English and it became more commonly referred to as a full stop even when used for other purposes.

I’d like now to turn to one of the most surprising discussions that occurs in my training sessions: the debate about the number of spaces used after the full stop. Is it one or two? In the age of the computer and modern fonts, the answer is one. Before that, because typefaces and printing were less clear, the practice was to have a larger space between sentences. When typewriters were invented in the 1860s,  typists achieved this by using two spaces. That practice was drummed into all who learned touch typing and, remarkably, seems to have carried over to many who have learned to type on a computer keyboard.

This is a matter of style not grammar, so where else, in Australia at least, to get the answer than the Style Manual,  which on page 97 says:

[The full stop] should be followed by one space only.

Later on the same page and on pp 152-153, the manual gives a list of the places where not to use the full stop (note still two words). Here too the modern trend towards minimal punctuation means entrenched habits must be abandoned. For shortened words that are contractions, that is words consisting of the first and last letters of a word, no full stops are necessary.

For example: Mr Mrs Rd Qld dept

If the shortened word is an abbreviation, consisting of the first letter of the word, usually some other letters but not the last letter, the manual says to use a full stop.

For example: para. Mon. Vic. cont.

The latest edition of the manual was, however, written in 2002 and things have moved on, with these full stops now being dropped too. So, when in doubt, remember that the most important thing is to use punctuation to help your reader get your message. Full stop (period).

 

Literary speed dating

‘I like Putin’, a tonged-straight-haired platinum blonde declared. We were standing in a long queue to make a pitch to a publisher. Mine was about Russia and history and houses.

The blonde had a card. On one side was the cover of her book — the back of a naked woman with a horse tattoo, her arms tightly bound; on the other side was a quote from her racy novel about bondage and a picture of a red stiletto shoe. I didn’t have more than my normal business card. ‘For an older guy he’s pretty hot’, she continued.

The girl in front of us — her bangs ended in a purplish hue — raised an eyebrow. I said that Putin did feature in my story but not as a sexy dude. The girl gave me an approving glance. In her millennial- American-TV accent, she told me about her book, a young adult fantasy, and about her potential market. She seemed to know a lot. Even so, she said she’d fluffed her second interview. At least the first, with one of the YA editors, had gone well.

In front of her was the youngest man in the room, suave, chic. He had a card, also featuring the name of his book. And he was counting. With 27 minutes to go in this speed-dating, we weren’t all going to get our three minutes with the big publisher. I just made it. The editor’s skin glowed. Her job must suit her, I thought, and right now I wish it was mine. She was attentive, as she had been to all the ones before me. She asked a pertinent question about my approach to the tangle of material I was reeling off. It was going okay, I thought. Then I heard ‘ambitious’, a code word perhaps? Definitely. Politely, sympathetically, even ruefully, she told me her publishing house was too commercial for my project. My time was up; the blonde was next, with her raunchy offering to round off the event. That lucky editor’s head must still be spinning.

This was literary speed dating. A motley collection of wannabe writers, mainly women, some lugging shopping bags with their manuscripts, stood around in a bland hall waiting to sell their projects. Heart rates were high to start with, gradually lowered by the camaraderie of strange competitors. We practised on each other, then chatted, till the bell rang again, signalling our turn for a three-minute date. My first went quite well. I didn’t choke up; I think I got the idea across. We had a convivial chat all in 180 seconds! The second meeting seemed okay too. He asked if I had finished the manuscript. Not quite, I replied, immediately regretting my honesty, then thinking such an enquiry could be a hopeful sign? I wanted to think so. But as I went back into the bustle of late Friday afternoon on Broadway, I felt utterly drained. I’m still waiting for the call.