What We're Reading / What We’re Listening To: May

While we’re all safe and snug at home, the digital world abounds with creative content we’re all anxious to get on top of. Looking for the cream of the crop? Writing NSW staff share our best picks in podcasts, music and radio shows this month.

Dragon Friends

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Senior Program Officer

More nonsense: a Dungeons & Dragon comedy podcast. I have no interest in D&D, and heard about this podcast and the Sydney-based live show for years without trying it. But after I listened to all 108 episodes of Free to a Good Home, I thought, ‘You know what would make my life better? More Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing.’ Who happen to be on the cast of Dragon Friends, along with the ever-hilarious Alex Lee. The story is continuous from season one, with the first and fifth seasons being my favourites. In an alternative reality, where I’m healthy and able to apply my brain productively, I’m not sure I would have ever listened to this. But as a distraction from the current reality, it’s perfect.

Harry Potter & James and the Giant Peach

Claire Thompson, Program Officer

I’m really enjoying this trend of celebrities reading children’s books. On Spotify, I’ve been listening to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone read by various celebrities, including Daniel Radcliffe, Stephen Fry and Eddie Redmayne. Taika Waititi has just begun a YouTube series reading James and the Giant Peach with celebrities to raise money for Partners in Health. I’ve only listened to the first episode so far, but enjoyed it so much. It features Chris Hemsworth and Liam Hemsworth reading the part of the old aunts (hilarious), and Nick Kroll being the voice of the creepy old man who gives James the crocodile tongues. Taika narrates the story and uses different props to create sound effects – swishing a bottle of water around, crinkling a plastic bag, cutting a piece of wood with a knife. Would definitely recommend either of these series if you want a form of escapism. 

Preservation, Jock Serong

Jane McCredie, CEO

I’m finding audiobooks a real solace in this time of isolation. After a day of Zoom meetings, being able to shut my eyes and listen to somebody else tell me a story is immensely soothing. I recently listened to Jock Serong’s Preservation, narrated by Conrad ColebyIt’s a gripping, if harsh, story about a little known episode in Australian history, one that raises new questions about the early days of white settlement and the various relationships between the new arrivals and the Indigenous people whose land they were occupying. The book is loosely based on the story of the Sydney Cove, a ship bringing an illicit cargo of rum from Kolkata, India, which was wrecked in Bass Strait in 1797. The survivors of that wreck attempted the epic trek to Sydney across country. Three of them made it. It’s a dark and violent tale, but one well worth listening to (or reading if you’d prefer).

Coronacast, Kate Bush & Feminist Folklore

Sarah Mott, Project and Communications Officer

I wake up to an old radio alarm clock, whose murmuration of politics penetrate my dreams in very weird ways for half an hour until I’m conscious. Then while I’m hunched over a cup of tea I tune into my saviour, the hero we need but don’t deserve, Norman Swan. He soothes and assures my little brain (coked up on Trump-heavy headlines absorbed in dreams) in his calming brogue; now I’m ready for the day. Maybe while I’m getting ready for work I’ll squeeze in an episode of the 7am Podcast – a perfect dose of righteous indignation, but episodes are only 15 mins so I can’t stay mad for long. While I’m working I’ll be carefully going through my favourite albums. This week it’s been a mix of The Kick Inside by Kate Bush, One Life Stand by Hot Chip and The Essential Willie Nelson. Last week it was Ziggy Stardust and Swamp Dogg’s Love, Loss and Auto-Tune. Once I finish work I slip on my headphones and listen to something absorbing while I go for a run – maybe The Guilty Feminist (inclusive and forgiving feminism), Pretty for an Aboriginal (the inimitable and hilarious Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell) or 99% Invisible (Roman Mars does NOT look like what he sounds like). Same again while I’m cooking dinner, maybe an audiobook. Once it’s time for bed, if I can’t sleep (most nights) I’ll set my podcasts on a timer and drift off to the soft mutterings of Feminist Folklore or National Geographic.

This is a LOT. I can see it is. But if I turn off the background noise, sit quietly, start thinking, my own anxieties bubble up; climate change, how to survive this pandemic with any kind of future career, my family. So I listen – constantly – instead, and get through each day.

Mirror Sydney

Julia Tsalis, Program Manager

I have been listening to Vanessa Berry’s new podcast Mirror Sydney. This is her first venture into podcasting but draws on a lifetime of looking closely at the places and buildings around her. Casting not so much a sharp eye, but a loving, inquisitive eye open to wonder.

You may be familiar with Vanessa’s blog and book of the same name. If you are, the podcast is another way to experience Vanessa’s insight and willingness to go right down the bunny hole of finding out about a place that catches her eye. If not, you have many joys awaiting you. Listen to the podcast, go back and dip into places of interest on her blog, accompanied by photos of the places she talks about, and read her book with beautiful hand-drawn maps.

Vanessa’s work is a reflection on ‘places on the margins, places otherwise ignored or soon to disappear or somehow outside the regular pace of the city’. In her work Vanessa acts as a guide through Sydney for those of us who live here, but so often just rush past, maybe glancing at something unusual and briefly wondering about it but not much more. She becomes your more inquisitive self, always looking closely and with an open heart at what’s around her, willing to pursue those fleeting moments of wondering about a place and providing us with a wealth of stories and information.

There are currently three episodes available. One on the soon to be closed Carlingford to Clyde rail line with a branch that used to service the factories and had the stations named after those factories. In ‘Tales of Tempe Tip’, Vanessa places this second hand shop in its social context and recognises its simple everyday importance. I particularly enjoyed ‘The West Side and the Mona Lisa’ as it is set in my suburb of Marrickville and as so often happens after reading something by Vanessa it sets you off on an exploration of your own to re-look at places that you’d barely noticed.

In a city that so often feels (and is) on the edge of being replaced by apartment buildings, cafes, and new roads Vanessa is the city’s witness and scribe – taking note of what is here now and marking it as important with her attention.


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