A friend of mine calls the Speccie champagne for the brain. There are few publications in the world where words zing off the page quite like it. It’s a real privilege to be invited to write a Diary. I’ve just published my first book, Reframe: how to solve the world’s trickiest problems. It’s a cheeky title, one you can only really get away with if you’re under 30. It isn’t my answers to the world’s trickiest problems. It’s the process we need to go through to get there. I argue for the bottom-up over the top-down and make the optimistic case for the quieter logic solving our problems in the background. Our best ideas come from entrepreneurs and local communities, people with their ears close to the ground who are more agile than those at the centre. The older I get the less convinced I am that I have the answers to everyone else’s problems.
The book tour starts off in North Sydney at the Stanton Library. It’s next door to where I used to go to childcare as a kid. The audience is enthusiastic and I’m honoured that people far wiser than I give up their lunchtime to listen. The bookseller in charge is a cheery fellow called Peter who immediately comes up to make my acquaintance. ‘I know one of your interviewers from the Rhodes Scholarship,’ he says. He warms to a story I tell about Paul Sperduto, a modest shopkeeper in New York who is the hero of my book. He fights planned obsolescence and invests, in his own small way, in local civic revival. Sperduto is an independent soul, sceptical of intrusion and keen to leave his joint in better condition than how he got it. It’s an admirable philosophy.
Selling a book is a hard slog. I now know why retailers employ manikins. Early on I am invited to Dymocks George Street in Sydney to sign copies of my book. I’m not well-known so am a little sheepish, and for good reason. I arrive to be greeted by a giant red table, columns of my book, and a quirky events coordinator called Mark. Mark quickly disappears and I am left with the red table. I’ve handed out plenty of leaflets in my time but selling from behind a table is something else altogether. You have to wait for customers to approach you, and then you have to make a call on whether to engage them in conversation. Some get scared off if you speak to them. Some will talk to you for 15 minutes with intense interest and then quietly replace the book on the shelf when you’re not looking. Others will shuffle up, read the back cover and then buy three copies without a peep. I get a sense that things might be going well when some people tell me they have already bought the e-book online. They apologise to me — sensing it must be bad for business — but I’m cheerful about it. Online retail is not altogether a bad thing. It puts some businesses under pressure but it also creates immense opportunities. Small businesses now have shopfronts which span the globe and people can start companies from their lounge rooms. Economic change is a painful process, but consumers are the beneficiaries. We get lower prices and more choice.
A lot of my promotion comes from radio, which means trips to the ABC studios in Sydney and Melbourne. I get a few good slots with Radio National Drive and Steve Austin in Brisbane. Some are a little quieter. I’ve always wondered what happens to local radio when the cricket is on. It turns out that the ABC carries on as usual. It just broadcasts to digital radio and rolls out mugs like me as guests. I come up with some of my best lines with Richard Glover and James O’Loghlin to an audience of diehard radio fanatics. A few days later I’m on Steve Vizard’s show at Melbourne Talk Radio. It’s a success but I hear the station goes
into liquidation shortly afterwards. Media is a rough business. I just hope
it wasn’t all my fault!
Returning to Sydney I am booked for ABC’s The Drum at 6 p.m. with Judith Sloan from the Australian and Michael Gleeson of Hawker Britton. I enjoy doing The Drum but on this occasion I arrive to pandemonium. The cameras have diverted to Washington D.C. where the Foreign Minister has just resigned. The producer turns to Alain de Botton and tells him he isn’t needed. They then ask if I’ll do three minutes on Reframe and the Labor leadership. Picking through the carnage, it seems to be more about personalities than policies, I say. That’s a shame, since it’s the latter which needs fixing. Change leaders and the problem remains: it’s the same party selling the same ideas.
It’s extraordinary to see Bob Carr parachuted into cabinet from on high. It may be legal but it shows how badly Labor has missed the real message of the past five years. It’s not just the lack of faith in the home team which disturbs. It’s a way of doing government: rendering the façade while the cogs of institutional power tick away in the back rooms. People want transparency. They have a tolerance for human error but they want it identified early and corrected. Politics is like evolutionary biology applied to the world of ideas: variation and selection, trial and error. Some are despairing of our current predicament in Canberra, but I’m inclined to agree with John Howard. The electorate has a way of working things out.
Eric Knight is the author of Reframe: how to solve the world’s trickiest problems (Black Inc), out now.