Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts

Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press 2013)

Whatever else it may be, a desert is a historical document preserving a complex record of the interaction of past climates, geomorphic processes and cultural systems. I like to think of these landscapes as a palimpsest of different deserts. Stratified in time, stacked one above another, each has its own climate, physical landscapes and environment; each its own social landscapes and people, places of association and belonging, territories, resources and itineraries. Some features of earlier deserts project through these layers to become part of the fabric and cultural geography of later deserts. Structural features and processes are held in common: wind and water shape landforms; the basin and range topography provides the formwork of the landscape. No one desert is erased entirely by succeeding deserts – a fact that makes archaeology possible. This monograph – the first book-length archaeological study of Australia’s deserts – is an attempt to map out these histories.

That’s the opening paragraph of Mike Smith’s preface to The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, and it’s a fair account of his project. The book is written with archaeological scholars and students in mind, and general readers are likely to find it hard going. At least I did. But, with judicious skipping and a willingness to read on even while suspecting I might sometimes be missing the point, I found it fascinating.

Tom Griffiths wrote in The Art of Time Travel, ‘Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened and how we know what we think happened.’ In this book, both stories are wonderful, and neither can be honestly told without the other.

As this is a survey of a vast field of exploration, the story of ‘how we know what we think happened’ really is about ‘we’ the profession rather than ‘I’ the author. Again and again, someone is cited as proposing a version of what happened 20, 30 or 50 thousand years ago, only to have that explanation deemed unconvincing in the light of more recent evidence and replaced by a new theory, which is discarded in its turn. There are many sentence like this:

The prevailing view that higher rainfall, and active rivers and lakes, had marked the late glacial climate [that is, the last stages of the last ice age, a little more than 13 000 years ago] changed so abruptly in the mid-1960s that by 1975, little trace of it remained.

One imagines whole lifetimes of study and theorising falling in ruins in less than a decade, and at the same time one is warned that the chapters that follow may some day meet a similar fate.

This constant, apparently dispassionate scepticism, and the implied scholarly humility, stands in heartening contrast to the common discourse of politicians and opinionators who reject inconvenient science and call themselves sceptics.

A second aspect of the ‘how’, as important as the first but here less captivating, is technological advance, particularly in dating techniques. Some of the new technologies are explained in a glossary, but I mostly skipped the discussions of the different dates arrived at using different  processes – I’ll just trust the scientists to know their ABOX 14C from their TIM U/Th. In this case I’m interested in the findings rather than the nano nuts and bolts.

Then there’s the other story, the provisional narrative created from the archaeological evidence. There were people in the Australian deserts (and Smith does say ‘people’, which reads as if ‘like us’ is implied) more than 50 000 years ago, when they shared the place with diprotodons and giant emu-like birds. Those people’s descendants found ways to survive the most intense period of the last ice age 19 to 26 and a half thousand years ago (the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’ or LGM, ‘26.5–19 ka’ in scientific language). As the bitter aridity of that age passed, there is evidence that the population in the deserts increased, and different kinds of trade flourished over great distances. There were changes in technology, culture (Smith’s discussion of cave art is fascinating) and language (who knew that palaeolinguistics was a thing?). The detail is hard for the inexpert reader to follow at times, but what emerges is a rich, complex narrative that is challenging to widely held assumptions on many levels.

Let me give two examples that came up while I was still reading the book.

First, in the splendid exhibition The history of the world in 100 objects currently showing at the  National Museum of Australia, one of the wall notes reads in part:

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the climate warmed up across the world, humans gradually shifted from hunting and gathering to a settled way of life based on farming – and in the process, our relationship to the natural world was transformed. From living as a minor part of a balanced ecosystem, we start trying to overcome nature – to take control.

Well, not all humans. People in Australia did it differently. Even the term ‘ice age’ doesn’t describe what was happening in this part of the world: rather than great sheets of ice, people here had to cope with great dust bowls. Smith discusses at some length the probable different strategies adopted. And as the climate warmed up and the human population grew, even in the desert areas, people in Australia continued to live as part of the ecosystem. Once, this would have been seen as a failure to progress, but now it begins to look much more like something the rest of the world can learn from.

The second example is something Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong man, said at Jonathan Jones’s profound installation, barrangal dyara (skin and bones) in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Pascoe reminded us that long before settlement (he said that in Victoria he’s not allowed to say ‘invasion’) the old people had worked out something rare if not unique in the history of the planet: how to live without wars over land.

Before reading Mike Smith’s book, I would probably have heard this as somehow meaning that the Aboriginal culture and politics had been been unchanging in since an imagined meeting of elders that happened millennia ago. But not now. The archaeological record is very limited in what it can tell us about what happened tens of thousands of years ago, but it does indicate that as circumstances changed (as sea levels fell and rose by more than a hundred metres, for example) so did people’s behaviour. Cultures developed and changed, as did social organisation and people’s relationship to country (archaeologists talk of ‘territoriality’ and ‘land tenure’). Bruce Pascoe’s observation is a powerful counter to the colonialist notion that there is a single template for progress in human affairs, and that Europeans are much ‘further along’ than Aboriginal peoples. No, he says, Aboriginal people chose a different path, a different kind of complexity. Listening to him with Mike Smith’s book fresh in my mind, I’m struck by the startlingly obvious idea that those ‘old people’ were not some imaginary super-beings, but historical humans who grappled with the problems of existence at least as creatively as anyone else on the planet, and in some respect made wiser decisions.

I read this book because of Tom Griffiths’s chapter on Mike Smith in The Art of Time Travel. It was every bit as daunting as I expected, but worth it: like the difference between a reproduction of a painting and the painting itself.

Tohby Riddle’s Milo

Tohby Riddle, Milo: A moving story (Allen & Unwin 2016)

MILO_FRONTcover-thumbnail.jpgMilo is a dog who lives in a pleasant part of a city resembling an idealised Manhattan. He has a quiet life, and a contented circle of friends, though he sometimes gets irritated by the friend who insists on reciting his very bad poetry. One day, with terrible timing, a storm picks up his kennel soon after he has lost his temper with his poetical friend, and he is stranded high up on a roof. Along comes a migrating bird who likes to walk some of the way because you see more of the country that way. And then it’s just a question of if, when and how Milo will find his way back home, and if we will have to read more of the friend’s verse.

If Tohby Riddle’s fans aren’t legion, they ought to be. This book has his characteristic whimsical seriousness in the telling, and his characteristic artwork to die for, complete with the letterpress speech bubbles that have become something of a trademark. It would make a terrific Christmas/New Year / birthday present for a young person who like dogs, or has complex friendships, or is alive. Older people like me will also enjoy it a lot.

Art Spiegelman’s Wild Party

Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party (1928; with Art Spiegelman’s drawings, Pantheon Graphic Novels 1999)

0375706437.jpgThis little book reminded me of the Sydney University Porn Fests in the early 1970s, in which lewd texts were read to huge student audiences as a challenge to Australia’s repressive censorship laws. It was, largely, good clean sexy fun, which introduced a generation of young people to work by E E Cummings, John Wilmot Second Earl of Rochester, Sam Shepard, and any number of less memorable writers.

The Wild Party was published in the US in a very limited edition in the late 1920s. It’s a narrative poem, too short to be called a verse novel, whose jazzy, rhyming lines tell of a night of drunken debauchery that ends in tragedy. According to the introduction, it’s the piece of writing that made William S Burroughs Jnr decide to be a writer. By 21st century standards, it’s almost prim, and its treatment of Lesbianism and especially male homosexuality would sit easily with some of Cory Bernardi’s remarks, though with a lip-smacking delight rather than stern disapproval. Still, it’s a short read, and the verse swings along:

The noise was like great hosts of war:
They shouted: they laughed:
They shrieked: they swore:
They stamped and pounded their feet on the floor:
And they clung together in fierce embraces,
And danced and lurched with savage faces
That were wet
With sweat:
Their eyes were glassy and set.

The poem would almost certainly have faded into obscurity if comics artist Art Spiegelman hadn’t happened on it when he had just finished creating his masterpiece Maus and was casting about for a project that would allow him to experiment with visual style in a way that Maus hadn’t. And so, seven decades after first publication, The Wild Party was reborn as a ‘lost classic’, with brilliant black and white illustrations that feel completely integral to the work. The black candle and ominous teeth in this image, for example, perfectly capture the text’s dark undertow.

wild party.jpg

I read the whole thing on a single walk with the dog. I confess that I wrapped it in a plain brown envelope first, so casual passers by wouldn’t catch sight of the naked woman on the back cover – almost prim, perhaps, but still not suitable for reading in public.

Neil Gaiman’s How The Marquis Got His Coat Back

Neil Gaiman, How The Marquis Got His Coat Back (Hodder Headline 2015)

1472235320.jpgI don’t really understand how this book came into being. Its 58 half-sized pages contain just one short story, hardly a book at all.

My copy, a gift from a friend who knows I’m a Neil Gaiman fan, has a Children’s Bookshop sticker on the inside cover, which suggests the book was published with reluctant teenaged (‘young adult’) readers in mind: a book this size isn’t too daunting, but at the same time the content isn’t babyish.

Another possibility is that someone thought that this story issued as a stand-alone would act as a promo for the 2014 anthology in which it first appeared – Rogues, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois. If so, it seems not to have worked too well, as I saw that door-stopper on the Gleebooks bargain counter this week.

It would work well in the first scenario, though. It’s an elegant, intricate amusement set in a fantasy version of London and involving a mobster Elephant, sibling rivalry, mind-controlling shepherds, an excellent coat, an unexplained resurrection, a totally improbable rescue, the Mushroom, a beautiful young woman with magical powers, and more. My favourite bit:

‘Beg for mercy,’ said the Elephant.
That one was easy. ‘Mercy!’ said the Marquis. ‘I beg! I plead! Show me mercy – the finest of all gifts. It befits you, mighty Elephant, as lord of your own demesne, to be merciful to one who is not even fit to wipe the dust from your excellent toes …’
‘Did you know,’ said the Elephant, ‘that everything you say sounds sarcastic?’
‘I didn’t. I apologise. I meant every single word of it.’
‘Scream,’ said the Elephant.
The Marquis de Carabas screamed very loudly and very long. It is hard to scream when your throat has been recently cut, but he screamed as hard and piteously as he could.
‘You even scream sarcastically,’ said the Elephant.

Neil Gaiman always writes as if he can’t get over his luck at earning a living by making stuff up.

Tom Griffiths’ Art of Time Travel

Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft (Black Inc 2016)

For transforming young minds there is probably nothing more powerful than history in the hands of a charismatic teacher.

1863958568.jpgThat’s a quote from Don Watson in the current Quarterly Essay, Enemy Within. It could have been an epigraph for The Art of Time Travel, which tells the stories of fourteen charismatic teachers, practitioners of the craft of history in Australia. Most of them are or were university lecturers; all of them, individually and collectively, have transformed minds both young and old.

From Tom Griffiths’ very readable, richly anecdotal and often personal accounts of these careers, there emerges a fascinating story of how the mainstream understanding of Australia has expanded, deepened and, yes, transformed over the last three quarters of a century. Australian history, which used to be seen as a short, derivative footnote to the history of England, or occasionally as a collection of beautiful lies that happen to be true(as in Mark Twain’s famous quote), is now something quite different. No one could have imagined 75 years ago, for instance, that the Sydney Morning Herald would be reporting on a local Council being called on to defend its refusal to acknowledge that the Council meets on Darug land. Griffiths offers this summary of the changes:

Australians discovered that the New World was actually the Old, and that the true ‘nomads’ were the colonisers. The nation continent was reimagined as a jigsaw of bioregional countries, which had for so long been its state. The biological cringe about ‘monotonous gums’, ‘songless birds’ and ‘fossil animals’ was replaced by a deep historical narrative about the continent’s southern organic genesis. Australian history became as much about ecological, social and technological discontinuities as about the political stability and continuity for which the European settlers first celebrated it. British colonisation was seen as both an invasion and an awesome social experiment; there was dancing with strangers and there was war. Historians ventured to the other side of the frontier and peered back at the ‘white men’s eyes’, and Aboriginal people were compelled – and some chose – to cross the beach in the other direction. In remote parts of Australia, the Indigenous inhabitants became the custodians of white history as well as black, because they stayed on country while the whites moved away. In the coastal cities Aboriginal people were found to have always been part of Australia’s modern urban history. Indigenous scholars studied the nation’s unending frontier and the intense colonial revolution into which they had been thrown.

Most literate Australians will be aware of these changes. This book gives something of the nuts and bolts of how they came about, through the changing concerns of historians, the new resources (such as carbon dating) available to them, and a shake-up of historians’ methods to include sources other than official written records, and to approach their task as an art as well as a science. Among the historians discussed, some are little known outside the academic world and some are household names. Some of the most interesting developments have spread gently,as if by stealth or osmosis, from scholarly specialty to common knowledge; others have been fanned into spectacular controversy.

If you were to draw up a list of 14 key Australian historians of the 20th century, it would be a different list from Griffiths’, as he acknowledges in his Prologue (he mentions that Manning Clark rates only a couple of lines; that’s also true of Russel Ward). But the strong likelihood is that all of your chosen ones are mentioned either briefly or extensively in someone else’s chapter. Some of the individuals through whose lives and work Griffiths tells his story aren’t even professional historians. They include a novelist, a poet, and an archaeologist. But – he argues convincingly – they all practice the craft of history.

I won’t attempt to summarise the riches the book offers, but if you’ll bear with me, here’s a list of the writers discussed, with a taster from some chapters:

Eleanor Dark‘s 1941 novel The Timeless Land was fiction, yes, but also the product of intensive original research:

Dark was decades ahead of Australia’s historians in realising that the big story about British colonisation at Port Jackson was that of the encounter between settlers and Aborigines.

Keith Hancock, after a lifetime working in Imperial and Commonwealth history, returned to a study of his own country and produced a pioneering work of environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972):

The rise of environmental politics in the late 1960s brought ecology and history closer together, directly stimulating historical scholarship and giving the new environmental history an occasionally apocalyptic and moralistic tone. Hancock placed Discovering Monaro in this new political and scientific context through his engagement with the insights of ecologists and also his twin invocation of the local and the global, a dialectic that bypassed nationalism, the central concern of Hancock’s earlier work.

John Mulvaney published The Prehistory of Australia in 1969. Among archaeologists in mid twentieth-century Australia, he was known as ‘the scientist’ as, among other ground-shaking deeds, he brought carbon-dating technology to bear on assumptions that Aboriginal people had been in Australia for a comparatively short time.

Geoffrey Blainey, a ‘genuine contrarian’, is deeply suspicious of intellectual fashion, and has repeatedly found himself caught up in controversy whether as a precursor to Hansonism in 1984 remarks about Asian immigration or in endorsing climate ‘sceptic’ Ian Plimer. His best known book is The Tyranny of Distance (1966), but The Great Seesaw: A New View of the Western World, 1750–2000 (1988) may be his central book.

Judith Wright, one of Australia’s great poets, wrote two works that earned her a place in this company. The Generations of Men (1959 – at last, a book I’ve actually read!) is what Griffiths calls ‘a semi-fictional novel’ about her grandparents, who were settlers in south Queensland. The Cry for the Dead (1981) revisits the same place a couple of decades earlier to tell a story of the frontier:

In The Cry for the Dead, the story of the land is inextricable from the story of its original people and equally revealing of what the invaders were doing, or not doing. It was a double ignorance and silence Wright was dealing with: ‘If the English settlers were contemptuously ignorant of the realities of Aboriginal life, they were equally ignorant of the country itself.’

Greg Dening‘s most famous book was Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (1992). He shines out from these pages as a writer, but even more as an inspiring and much loved teacher:

Greg’s advocacy of the creative imagination was shaped by his engagement with two different worlds … On one side was the academy. His foundation lecture, ‘History as a Social System’, was his challenge to that institutional inheritance, and all his teaching was radical and dangerous in the way it undermined the academic poses of neutrality and dispassion and made explicit the socialisation of disciplinary knowledge. The other world he addressed with the phrase ‘the creative imagination’ was that of public literary culture … He urged his students to be ‘open to those other ethnographers of our living experience’ – our poets, novelists, comics, cartoonists, film-makers and photographers.

Henry Reynolds‘ world-changing book is The Other Side of the Frontier (1981). His books aren’t big on the literary elements encouraged by Greg Dening, but are ’empiricist, rational, highly structured, heavily evidenced, reinforcing and repetitive, professionally conservative, accessible to the courts’. That is to say, they’re not much fun, but they bring Australia’s frontier violence to light in ways that are defy attempts to dismiss them as pure ideology. In the chapter on Reynolds, Griffiths discusses Keith Windschuttle’s much-publicised attack on academic Australian historians as a body. Paradoxically, Windschuttle’s accusations of fabrication led to an upsurge of careful research into the frontier, which demonstrated that violence was even more widespread than had been thought before his attack. Griffith’s discussion is nuanced and respectful, but gives no quarter.

The chapter on Reynolds also includes a discussion of Noel Pearson’s complex take on the history of colonisation as ‘a third-generation legatee of mission protection’.

Eric Rolls, perhaps better known as a poet than as a historian, is another of the non-academics on the list. His A Million Wild Acres (1981), the history of a forest in northern New South Wales, is singled out for high praise:

In my mid-twenties and freshly home from my first trip overseas, I … wrote a brief letter to Eric Rolls, telling him that A Million Wild Acres was one of a handful of books about Australia that I would like to put in the hands of any visitor to elp them understand my country. Now I would make greater claims for it. I think it is the best environmental history yet written of Australia, and I would hope it could be read not just by visitors but by all Australians.

Stephen Murray-Smith was the founding editor of Overland. His chapter here focuses on a book written a couple of years before his death, Sitting on Penguins: People and Politics in Australian Antarctica (1988), and places it as a significant intervention in Antarctic politics. The Antarctic experience is also a spur to some elegant reflections – by Griffiths as well as by Murray-Smith – on the importance of history:

Murray-Smith argued forcefully that history is not a luxury in Antarctica, declaring; ‘We shall lack the essential tool to our understanding of Australian Antarctica until those with the interest and capacity to write its history are found. And not just one history. Preferably several, or at least a history that will provoke a debate.’ History down south, he was saying, as in any society, is a practical and spiritual necessity. But especially so in a place without families or normal generations, where no one lives their whole life, and where the coordinates of space and time are warped by extremes. And on a continent claimed by various nations but shared by the world, history carries a special international obligation. It is the fundamental fabric of a common humanity.

Donna Merwick‘s best known book, Death of a Notary (1999), isn’t about Australia at all: the notary of the book’s title lived and died in present-day New York State in the mid-seventeenth century. Her role in this book’s overarching narrative is to illustrate developments in the philosophy of history, in her writing and in her teaching at Melbourne University. It is through her that Griffiths talks about the ‘linguistic turn’, the arrival of postmodernism:

From the 19705, postmodernist intellectual fashions swept through Western universities, especially amongst literature and anthropology departments, and challenged the reliability of historical knowledge. All ‘facts’, it was suggested, were intellectual constructions; an independent empirical reality would thus be inaccessible. Fact and fiction blurred playfully, dangerously. The discipline of history, with its moral and civic responsibility to insist on that distinction, was challenged to the core … Some historians were angry and defensive; some were concerned about the consequences of extreme relativism and what they saw as an attack on the Enlightenment project of rationality; some were capsized. Donna welcomed the tempest because, as a champion of the literary and artistic dimensions of the writing of history, she saw opportunities in the new wind and harnessed them. Remaining steadfastly at the helm, she tacked tenaciously to new, secure lands she could not otherwise have reached.

Merwick did not regard postmodernism as an optional intellectual fashion, but a historical condition.

Graeme Davison gives Griffiths an opportunity to reflect on the current widespread enthusiasm for family history. Far from dismissing it, as some historians do, Davison brought his professional skill to bear on his own family in Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age (2015):

[The] book was a search for identity, as all family history fundamentally is, but it was also a reflective exploration of family history as a method – and what better case study could there be than one’s own family? But it is more than that. If a historian wants to examine the mystery of the relationship between generations, and he wants to do it in a personal and contextual way, then he has no choice about where he must go.

Inga Clendinnen died when I was reading this book. I hope she knew how much she was loved by many people she’d never met. Her Dancing with Strangers (2003) radically challenged the prevailing version of the early settlement in Port Jackson. Griffiths’ discussion of her technique of interrogating documents, both in that book and in Aztecs and Reading the Holocaust, is fascinating. But the spine of her chapter is his exploration of the different functions of history and historical fiction. He revisits the public tension between Clendinnen and novelist Kate Grenville over the latter’s The Secret River, and opens it out for what it can teach us:

Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened, and how we know what we think happened. So the ‘non’ in our ‘non-fiction’ signifies an edge that can sharpen our prose and heighten our sense of danger and wonder. It also acknowledges that there are things we don’t and can’t know. Silence, uncertainty and inconclusiveness become central to the narrative.

Grace Karskens rates a substantial mention in Inga Clendinnen’s chapter, because her ‘wonderful’ book The Colony (2009) aimed ‘to continue Clendinnen’s and Grenville’s project of re-examining and rethinking early colonial race relations’. She also has a chapter of her own, as an exemplar of a public historian – that is, a historian who works outside the academy, as a consultant, for example, on archaeological digs or local council history projects.

I sense that some of the power of Grace’s prose and analysis derives from her vocational commitment to pubic history, from her dedicated engagement with history as a human characteristic, from her intellectual curiosity in history as not just a product of the academy but as also the vernacular of our cultural and social systems. Her inquiries have arisen from a public hunger for history, from council commissions, from heritage processes and battles, from environmental threats and assessments, from the stimulus of real places and sensuous things, and from a desire to make sense of how the past is in the present.

Mike Smith ‘is an archaeologist who has revolutionised our understanding of the human history of Central Australia. His main work, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, is possibly as dry as its title suggests, but he engages deeply with the people who have lived in those deserts for many generations, and in his exploration of ‘deep time’ makes some profound discoveries.

When Europeans and North Americans look for cultural beginnings, they tend to assume that humans and their civilisations are products of the Holocene (the period since the last ice age) and that we are all children of this recent spring of creativity in the history of the world … In greater Australia at the last glacial maximum, we did not have an ice age so much as a dust age. And the history of Aboriginal people takes us back, if not into the ice then certainly into the dust, through periods of temperature change of 5ºC and more, such as those we might also face in coming generations. An Australian history of the world includes the experience of people surviving cold droughts in the Central Australian deserts from 30,000 years ago, and the sustaining of human civilisation in the face of massive sea-level rises and temperature changes.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I hope you can tell that I found this book endlessly stimulating, and have come away from it with a reading list as long as my arm.

Don Watson’s Enemy Within

Don Watson,  Enemy Within: American politics in the time of Trump (Quarterly Essay 63, September 2016)


This Quarterly Essay is closer in form to the classic essays of Addison and Lamb than to the engaged argument of most issues. It doesn’t so much push a thesis as offer a series of ruminations and perspectives.

Don Watson is a lugubrious bemoaner of abuses of the English language, so visiting a US election campaign must have been a melancholy experience for him. One of the joys of this essay is the attention it pays to language – my favourite moment being this comment on Bernie Sanders’ repeated use of the word ‘incomprehensible’:

An election processes reality into platitudes. Even the images become platitudes. It grinds all the tendons and marrow and flesh of history, and all the cultural overlays of Los Angeles, and the ukuleles and ‘You bets’ of Janesville, into something universally digestible. Hearing a word like ‘incomprehensible’ in the middle of it is like finding a bone in a fish finger.

More substantially, Watson is also a historian. Rather than give us a blow-by-blow account of Donald Trump’s tweets and other provocations or Hillary Clinton’s emails, he turns to the past for perspective. He likes Hillary Clinton best when she delivers a history lesson rather than a stump speech at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund meeting. He sees Bernie Sanders’ popularity as a resurgence of ‘a much assailed and greatly debilitated, but unbroken American tradition of democratic socialism’, which he presents to us by way of a sketch of the history of Wisconsin, where Fighting Bob La Follette ‘took on the elites for forty years’ and the current mayor, Paul Soglin, continues in his footsteps. He discusses Trump in the context of twentieth century fascism,  concluding somewhat reassuringly:

[Were] he to win the presidency in ways resembling Hitler’s or Mussolini’s, it’s inconceivable that Trump’s next steps would resemble theirs. His brutish and ingenious destruction of the country club Republicans, and the capitulation of most of the remainder, are shameful and concerning, but even if this means the end of the Republican Party, that is not the same as the end of UIS democracy. The Germans of 1933 had had a decade of democracy. The Americans have had a a lot more than that.

Then, less reassuringly, he asks:

And if Trump doesn’t win, will he walk away? Will his followers? He is telling them if he loses it means the vote was rigged. He doesn’t need to be an actual fascist for the day after election day to be a worrying prospect.

What oft was thought but is here so well expressed.

I’m glad to report that most of the essay is about the US rather than specifically about Trump. Not that Watson is reluctant to repeat witty take-downs of either main candidate, but the ‘time’ of the title was also the moment of Muhammad Ali’s death, of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, of Bernie Sanders’ speaking – about all of which he writes beautifully.

Roughly two thirds of this QE is devoted to correspondence on the previous issue, in which James Brown put a case for greater public engagement and debate in Australia’s approach to the possibility of war. Two elder historians lament young Brown’s apparent historical ignorance, other correspondents take exception to aspects of his argument. But there’s a general consensus that more thought and discussion is needed. Brown acknowledges some criticisms as ‘bracing, but useful’, and utterly rejects others. It couldn’t be more different from the way argument is too often conducted in the social media.

Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa

Michelle Cahill, Letter to Pessoa and other short fictions (Giramondo Press 2016)

lp.jpgThere’s a device that writers known for their children’s books sometimes use when they write for adults. They put some serious swearing or almost-explicit sex on the very first page as a coded warning: ‘This is not suitable as a gift for little children.’ Have a look at the first page of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Margo Flanagan’s Tender Morsels.

Letter to Pessoa has a similar device, right there in the title: If you have to ask who Pessoa is, it warns subliminally, this book may not be for you. It’s no idle warning: of the 24 short prose pieces in this book, about half are framed as letters to other writers or otherwise assume that certain writers are part of the reader’s mental landscape (either that, or the the reader is happy to do some research): [Fernando] Pessoa, [Jacques] Derrida, Jean Genet, Tadeusz Rózewicz, Virginia Woolf, [Vladimir] Nabokov – I could go on. For the uninitiated, the reading experience is a lot like listening in on one side of a phone conversation as Michelle Cahill and her narrators engage – playfully, critically or earnestly – with those writers and their creations.

Such intertextuality not only limits a book’s potential audience. It runs other risks as well. When I read ‘Aubade for Larkin’, for example, I looked up Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’, and was bowled over by it. In ‘Borges and I’ and ‘Letter to John Coetzee’ I found it hard to focus, because my mind kept drifting off to the remembered pleasures of Borges’ stories and the challenges of Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. I was grateful to Michelle Cahill for sending me (back) to those other works, but found it hard to pull my mind back to the writing in my hands.

The less intertextual stories are much stronger. They feature a huge range of narrators and central characters – from a cat (in ‘Biscuit’) to an Argentinian poet with AIDS (in ‘Duende’). Those in the best stories, including the cat, are travellers or members of diasporas (or both), mainly sharing the author’s South Asian and African heritage. These stories involve rich  cross-cultural encounters.

‘The Sadhu’ captures brilliantly a complex interplay of spiritual power and seedy sexuality, exoticism and nostalgia, naiveté and wariness, as a young woman from Dee Why meets the holy man of the title in Nepal. In ‘Fever’, a young woman of ‘part-Nepalese, part-Australian background’ visits an older Nepalese man, her uncle, a Cambridge scholar who now trains rebels in arms and explosives, and the story refuses to give us relief from her discomfort as she feels the gap between her world and his. The protagonist of ‘A Wall of Water’ recalls moments from her childhood in northern India, but the present tense of the story is in jacaranda season in Sydney 2010, and the Christmas Island boat disaster is on the television. Again, the discomfort:

Cocooned in the safety of her peaceful apartment Sarita is numb with grief for those drowned and those who survived: Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds. She knows what happens to missing people, how they become little more than a monthly statistic, how the past is a territory. So much has been excised. There are walls of water and walls created by bureaucratic bias. Ruminating on the foreseeable enquiries and broadsides Sarita slumps down with a vodka and soda.

I don’t know that that deserves the first part of Hilary Mantel’s praise quoted on the back cover – ‘Line by line, Cahill’s writing is musical, assured’ – but it does exemplify the second part:’her seriousness is evident, her ambition impressive.’

AWW2016Letter to Pessoa is the eleventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is a generous gift from Giramondo.

Lee Whitmore’s Ada Louise

Lee Whitmore, Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016)


The host of a Radio National books program regularly disparages family histories. ‘We’re just not interested,’ he says. But he’s wrong. Not because all or even most family histories are gems, but because Sturgeon’s revelation –’Ninety percent of everything is crap’ – is as valid here as it is for comics or science fiction. It’s just wrong to disparage a whole genre on the basis of even a large number of poor examples.

Ada Louise isn’t just a family history, it’s also a comic, so it also belongs to a medium often targeted by literary snobbishness. Come to think of it, it’s in a third outsider category as well: it’s self-published. At least, I can’t find any reference to Susan Lane Studio on the internet. The copy I read belongs to a friend, and is number 65 of a limited edition of 100 copies.

The good news is that Ada Louise is definitely in the non-crap ten percent of all three categories.

When Lee Whitmore was about eight years old her maternal grandmother came to live with her family. The grandmother – Ada Louise – was very old and frail and not at all interested in the children. ‘Very occasionally there was a glint of amusement in her eyes,’ an introduction tells us, ‘but mostly she just looked wistful, even sad.’ In what Whitmore’s website describes as a ‘loose series of episodic moments strung together on a time line’ the book sets out to answer the questions that puzzled the young girl: ‘What was it that had made my grandmother this way? What had happened in her life?’

We first see Ada Louise as a tiny figure in a two-page drawing of ‘British settlement Invercargill’, New Zealand in 1885. A speech bubble in the bottom right corner of the townscape reads, ‘Hurry home, Ada,’ and on the next spread the fourteen year old Ada runs with her violin case through a windy yard towards her front door. In the following pages she is absorbed into the cheerful chaos of her many-sistered life, and in the course of the book’s nearly 600 page s her story emerges in a discontinuous way that creates a sense that these are family stories, legends almost, rendered into a coherent whole.

We follow Ada’s fortunes and those of her sisters as they mature, marry, become variously rich and poor and have children of their own. These affectionately realised characters deal with scandal, frustrated ambition, betrayal, heartbreak and almost Shakespearean restoration. There’s also some Micawberish comedy.

The book’s seven chapters follow Ada and her family from New Zealand to Melbourne (when she is 30, in 1901), to Sydney six years later. The cities and suburbs of the action are lovingly created: a church in Darlinghurst, a Prahran mansion, inner-city Sydney streetscapes, Flinders Street Station,Waverley Cemetery; trams, trains, early cars, and the ocean in its many moods.There are cucumber sandwiches, family singsongs around the piano

The comics medium is beautifully suited to this project. From the family tree at the beginning to the hand-lettered postscript, Whitmore is intimately present, not just in her words, but in the movements of her hand recorded in the richly crosshatched charcoal drawings. You can see examples on her website. Here’s the spread introducing Chapter 2:



Ada Louise is the tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Judith Ridge’s Book that Made Me

Judith Ridge, The Book that Made Me (Walker Books 2016)


tl;dr: This book would make a brilliant gift for a teenager (what the book trade calls a young adult) who loves reading. And part of the money you spend on it will go to the Indigenous Literary Fund. Also: I tell my own story.

Judith Ridge has been a tireless worker in the field of children’s literature for decades, organising, promoting, debating, judging, studying, editing, writing, teaching, networking – oh, and reading. This is her first book. Characteristically of Judith’s commitment to young people and literature, it’s a labour of love: she and the contributing authors have agreed that all royalties from the book will go to the extremely worthy Indigenous Literary Foundation. Also characteristic of her, it’s a showcase for other people.

It’s a showcase in the first place for the 31 writers, mostly of YA fiction, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, who were invited to write about a book that ‘ made’ them. The invitation allowed for wide interpretation. As Judith says in her foreword, she was asking what book

made them fall in  love, or made them understand something for the first time? Made them think. Made them laugh. Made them angry. Made them feel safe. Made them feel challenged in ways they never knew they could be, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Made them readers, made them writers – made them the person they are today.

Readers get to know a little more about writers whose work they know and love – in my case Markus Zusak, Shaun Tan (who couldn’t confine himself to anything like one book, but in effect gives a whole reading list of sophisticated picture books and comics, as well as having line drawings throughout the book), Benjamin Law, Alison Croggon, Ursula Dubosarsky (the only verse contribution) and Simon French (one of two pieces that brought tears to my eyes). And we are introduced to new writers we may be interested in – in my case all the rest. To name half a dozen:

  • Will Kostakis, who writes about a book he put down after reading six pages and decided to write his own story
  • Queenie Chan, who writes of the joys of manga, telling part of her story in comic frames
  • Ambellin Kwaymullina, one of the Aboriginal contributors, author of a dystopian series of books, who writes eloquently about the non-written stories that ‘made’ her
  • the late Mal Peet, who tells a wonderful story about turning up at a Moby-Dick tutorial at university with the Classics Illustrated comic
  • Kate Constable,whose piece featuring Tom’s Midnight Garden is a lovely essay on how a reader’s circumstances affect how she reads.
  • Jaclyn Moriarty, who explains beautifully what Roald Dahl can do for his young readers.

As well as the contributors, the book is also a showcase for the 200 or so novels, series, picture books, comics, plays and poetry anthologies that rate a mention, ranging from Homer and Melville to Dr Seuss and Archie comics. In a neat bit of mise-en-abîme, some of the contributors wrote books that some of the others say ‘made’ them. No one mentions Harry Potter.

Something the book does for me which it’s unlikely to do for most of its intended readership – the difference being that I’ve been reading for half a century longer than any teenager – is make me wonder how I would answer the book’s question.

The rest of this post is today’s version of the book that made me.
I was a compulsive reader as a child. I remember lying with my mother on her bed after lunch and watching the words as she read to me – from among other things a Hans Christian Andersen collection – correcting her if she got a word wrong. I loved Donald Duck (though not so much Mickey Mouse) and Superman (rather than Batman) and Classics Illustrated comics. I had Kingsley’s Heroes and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia at home, Enid Blyton, W E Johns and Richmal Compton from the town library, the Queensland Reader and Bible Stories at school. I had to be told not to read at the table during meals. I read in bed at night by the faint light from two rooms away (our North Queensland house wasn’t big on internal doors). When I reach double figures I took on the likes of Great Expectations, Ivanhoe and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

The worlds of books fascinated me. They had snow. A child could look out his bedroom window and talk to another child sitting at her window in the house next door: my nearest neighbours were a sugarcane paddock and a cow yard away. Moss grew on the south side of trees in books: in the tropics the sun comes from either the north or the south, depending on the time of year, and moss grows anywhere it can in the rainforest. In books it can be broad daylight at nine o’clock at night and no one has heard of bandicoots, or cane toads, or sensitive weed, or cane fires, or pomelos, or bagasse, all of which were ordinary parts of my life.

I’d like to be able to write about the wonderful moment when I picked up a book and found my childhood world reflected there. But no, that didn’t happen – and still hasn’t, really. When an aunt started giving me Australian books for birthday presents – Ash Road, I remember, and Simon Black in the Antarctic, both by Ivan Southall – the worlds I found in them were only slightly less other. They weren’t exactly foreign, they just didn’t show the world as I experienced it, where it would rain heavily for days on end, where houses were on stilts, where we guzzled mangoes on our back veranda and where Aboriginal people came occasionally to use our phone to call for a taxi. I grew up feeling that books were never about the real world, but were completely made up – either that or the world of my actual experience was somehow invalid.

What comes to mind when I ask myself if there is one book that set me on a literary path is not a book at all, but an after-dinner talk.

One Sunday a month was Holy Name Sunday in our church. Members of the Holy Name Society, all men, would sit together in  Mass, away from their families, and at one point they would all stand and make the church ring with a rousing anthem:

We stand for God and for his glory,
The Lord supreme and God of all.
Against his foes we raise his standard.
Around the Cross we hear his call.
____Strengthen our faith, Redeemer,
____Guard us when danger is nigh.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.

I was totally in awe of the display of full-throated masculinity. And when I was thirteen I was allowed to join the Society. (Girls joined the Children of Mary and wore pale blue cloaks, which was cool, but boys got to bellow in church.)

I was only in the Society for a year and don’t remember doing anything apart from singing on Sundays, but I did attend that year’s annual dinner. It must have been exciting to be there as one of the men, no longer a boy, but that’s not what I remember. What I do remember is that as we were finishing dessert, someone tapped a glass with a spoon and introduced the speaker, Vince Moran. He wasn’t a family friend, but I had seen him around – Innisfail was a small enough town.

His talk wasn’t an inspirational address. Basically, he told three jokes. What was exhilarating for me was the way he told them: not one after the other, but intertwined. He got to a certain point in his main story line, which had something to do with a cat who was a great tennis fan, then went off on a digression, then from that digression onto another digression, and circuitously back, jumping from one story to another in what seemed random moves, until, just when it seemed the whole thing had become hopelessly muddled, he brought all three strands home with three punchlines in quick succession. The cat, I remember, lost all interest in tennis when he found out what racquet strings were made of.

For all my countless hours of reading, and though I knew from the ABC Children’s Hour that it was a good thing to remember the names of the people who wrote books, this was the first time I realised that stories were made by people – by people who eat food, and go to the toilet, and have to tie their shoelaces like the rest of us. An ordinary man standing at the front of the room had just presented us with a fiction he had crafted himself. (I think he was the same Vincent Moran who wrote for Homicide in the 70s and The Flying Doctors in the 80s.) I don’t think I quite got as far as realising that Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton were also mere mortals (I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised that reality even yet), but a door swung open in my mind. Books might not reflect my world, but people who lived in my world could make them.
AWW2016I won’t count The Book that Made Me in my tally for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge, but the editor and by my count more than half the contributors are Australian women, so I’m adding the logo here.

Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life

Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life (©2104, Oneworld 2015)

1780747772.jpgThere’s a lot that’s very good in this tragedy-romance of marginalised people living in New York City. Rather than reviewing it, I want to make some observations about how context can affect the experience of reading.

Everyone knows that a book you read as a child can be very different when you read it again as an adult. But the effects of timing can be much more fine-grained than that: in my reading of Preparation for the Next Life, reading while walking and reading in the wake of particular television revelations each made a huge difference.

First the walking. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that two chapters towards the end are given over to a character’s night-long, punishing walk through New York City’s neglected outer reaches. It’s a bravura piece of writing, showing us the changing state of the buildings, people and activities in each neighbourhood traversed, all filtered through the character’s terrified and exhaustion-addled mind. I’m convinced that the author did that walk himself, possibly even in a single night.

By serendipity, I read most of those two chapters while walking in an unfamiliar place, and even though I was in Sydney’s quiet harbourside suburb of Putney, the effect was magical, the rhythm of my leisurely walk providing a perfect accompaniment to the sentences playing in my mind. If you want to do likewise, it’s chapters 52 and 53.

The other piece of serendipity came with a single sentence early in the book. In this case it wasn’t the context that changed my experience of the text. The text changed my understanding of the context.

One woman is explaining to another the kinds of treatment she might expect from a warder if she ends up in prison:

If you fought him, he was authorised to rush you like a man, tackle you, pound your head on the floor, Taser your backside while you crawled, drag you out by the leg while you screamed under the cameras recording all this in black and white, strap you in The Chair, put the spit bag on your head and leave you there for up to twelve hours while you begged for water.

Like much in the early chapters, this is colourful, gritty background that adds to our sense of the character’s jeopardy, and a month ago I would have skimmed over it.

But read in the wake of the Four Corners report on the Don Dale juvenile detention centre it gains extraordinary power. The phrase ‘rush you like a man’ could have been written to describe the overwhelming speed of the real-life warder we saw enter a young Aboriginal man’s cell, grab him by the throat and throw him to a mattress on the floor. We saw real-life young men crying out while being dragged, under cameras recording it all in black and white. We saw a young man being shackled to a chair by a group of burly, uniformed men, his head hidden in a spit hood (a bag by any other name), and the men leave him saying they would come back in a couple of hours.

It emerged that the treatment of the young detainees had been the subject of a number of official reports, but not until the footage was shown on national television were the media and politicians galvanised into action. Though the substance of their action remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that the Four Corners report will lead to some improvement.

But there were disturbing dissonances in the Four Corners report. For example, the image of young Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a chair was compared to the infamous 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib, a comparison that has been taken up since by a number of commentators. The footage itself undermined that comparison: those men aren’t caught off guard, but speak solicitously to the young man (‘How’s that, is that all right?’ ‘You keep chilling out, yeah?’). They’re not deliberately humiliating their prisoner for sport. At least in that footage they give every appearance of men who are acting according to established protocols – it could almost be an instructional video. The similarity to Abu Ghraib is mainly visual, and the comparison serves to generate outrage rather than getting at the truth of the situation.

Outrage has its limitations. To quote a 2013 piece by Mark Fisher about the British tabloid Daily Mail:

Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat. That’s because, firstly, outrage is part of the very currency of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism, which depends not on content but on the sheer circulation of messages… Secondly, since there is an infinite supply of things to be outraged about, the tendency towards outrage indefinitely locks us up in a series of reactive battles, fought on the enemy’s territory and on its terms.

In this case, doing away with the chair and the hood, and even punishing the guards who used tear gas on young men in their cells, might satisfy the outraged need for action, but wouldn’t do much to address the underlying system that leads to the abuse.

Atticus Lish’s sentence brings these considerations to the fore. It characterises a number of the things we saw on Four Corners as only to be expected from the ‘justice’ system. No explanation of The Chair or the spit bag is even needed – so they’re not aberrations of the Northern Territory but vile practices that are widespread and officially sanctioned. If one of the things that intimidates a woman is to be ‘rushed like a man’, there’s a subliminal suggestion that for a man to be rushed like that is close to being acceptable. There’s a gender issue here that the media have hardly touched on.

A friend and I were recently lamenting that novels can no longer transform our understanding of the world as Simone de Beauvoir’s A Woman Destroyed did for her and The Brothers Karamazov for me. We agreed that the fault lies not in the novels but in ourselves – our minds get set in their ways. And reading Preparation for the Next Life has notbeen a transformative experience for me. But it has restored my sense that fiction can illuminate things, bring them alive in the mind. And I’m grateful