David Marr's new book is an exploration of social panics and their deleterious effects on Australian politics and culture.
It's a fascinating premise for a book, and when I went to hear Marr speak at the Stanton Library this week he explained it all so beautifully. He said that he realised he'd been writing about panics all of his life, in one way or another.
Panics, he said are like thunderstorms. They are dramatic and thrilling (except for the victims) but they soon disappear, and the emotion they evoked is quickly forgotten. But while they are happening they can seem to be the only panic we have ever experienced.
Marr's book looks at the wreckage panics leave behind. He identifies the Whitlam dismissal in 1975 as the first great social panic that he was a part of. He describes the feeling amongst the media and the people at the time that this was a dire and dangerous situation that needed to be acted upon now - the government had to go at once. No-one at the time paused to question the morality of, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald calling for the overthrow of a democratically elected government. But with the benefit of hindsight most see it as having been a disgraceful situation, and the actions of the time basically indefensible.
Marr's private-schoolboy charm and mature good looks worked a treat on his largely elderly North Sydney audience, though a few flinched when he dropped the F-Bomb, not once but three times! A daring choice. But I think he wanted to shock us into realising that panics are real and shocking in themselves, though they have become such an intrinsic part of Australian political life.
So if you feel like some serious reading on your summer holidays, I think that David Marr's Panic might be worth a look. It covers many of the recent panics that leave so many of us embarrassed about the state of our culture: the Henson panic, for example, and the abominable laws that grew up during the terrorism panic (which hasn't really finished yet, I would suggest).
And the book ends with an extended examination on that most abiding of modern panics in Australia - our fear of boats arriving on our shores. For that alone the book is worth a careful reading.