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Making a racket

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Thursday, Mar 19, 2009

Enthusiasm is an excellent quality to find in a non-fiction writer.  So many books are either drily specialised or glib and workmanlike.  It’s a real pleasure to read a book and feel that the writer is discovering facts mere minutes before you, relating them in real time with all the passion of new knowledge.


If nothing else, Australian writer Gideon Haigh is an enthusiast.  His journalistic background means that he’s used to flipping from one topic to another and acquiring knowledge on the fly.  If he has an area of specialisation, it’s cricket, about which he has written over a dozen works.  But he also writes widely on business and social issues, working as a well-informed amateur.


Watching him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008 was a revelation.  At several points in a panel discussion, he completely abandoned answering questions on his previous book (Asbestos House)to read large selections of court transcript from a forthcoming work on abortion.  It was entertaining to watch someone become completely caught up in a topic.  There’s only one way to describe it: Haigh was geeking out.


The book in question, The Racket: How Abortion Became Legal In Australia (Melbourne University Press), was released toward the end of last year and it’s mostly a continuation of Haigh’s festival geek-out.  The list of sources and information at the end of the book is prodigious and Haigh seems determined to use every single detail he has found.  Reading it, you experience the same feeling as watching Haigh speak—a writer joyously throwing out facts to the audience.


The Racket details the web of corruption and crime connected to the underground abortion trade and how a range of activists, politicians and doctors eventually saw it dismantled and abortion legalised.  Using transcripts from abortion trials, memoirs and first-hand testimony, Haigh manages to assemble a comprehensive picture of how events unfolded.


At less than 300 pages, the barrage of information and anecdote can be a bit overwhelming and it’s easy to lose track of the colourful characters that made up Melbourne’s abortion trade in the 1950s and 60s.  Haigh’s sources are incredible and he is able to recreate the era and the events with remarkable complexity, if not as much clarity.  He seems intoxicated by his findings and it mostly rubs off on the reader.


For such a grim and confronting topic, Haigh’s light touch is welcome.  While the details are often difficult to stomach, the amusing digressions and sub-plots ease the difficulty.


While imperfect and a little overstuffed, The Racket is a fascinating insight into another world—and the highly active mind of an exceptional journalist.

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