China Miéville’s This Census Taker

China Miéville, This Census Taker (Picador 2016)

1509812148.jpgA friend who know I’d enjoyed China Miéville’s The City and The City  lent me this very short book. When I asked him if he was recommending it he half shrugged, ‘It’s got a child narrator.’ coming from him, that meant ‘No, but you might.’

What can I say? It’s beautifully written, it’s hard to put down, and even though you realise part way through the book that you’re unlikely ever to know what’s really going on you’re compelled to read to the end.

It begins with the boy – sometimes ‘I’, sometimes ‘he’ – running down from his home on the hillside to tell people in the nearby village that he has seen his mother killing his father. Then he believes on reflection that he has seen his father killing his mother, and persuades everyone else that this is what happened, even though no one can find any proof. And indeed his mother has disappeared leaving a handwritten farewell note, though no one is sure of her handwriting, so as with almost everything in the boy’s experience we don’t know if the note is what it seems. He is made to go back to their ramshackle, isolated house to live with his father,  a maker of keys that may or may not have magical properties, who is loving to his son but every now and then seems to enter a weird state and beat an animal – and possibly the occasional person – to a pulp.

I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to believe the boy is correct about his father, and that he is finally rescued by a heroic census-taker. I’m not so sure. All I’m sure of is that the boy understands very little of what is happening in the world, and we understand only a little more. There may be an underlying story that we can put together from what he tells us – like the hidden story in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life perhaps. Maybe it’s a puzzle that can be pieced together by someone cleverer than I am. There’s an acrostic towards the end, though what it signifies is completely ambiguous.

So this is a very readable, tantalising and grim story that doesn’t quite tell itself: something like The Trial meets What Maisie Knew. Did I mention it’s very short? If it had been much longer, this level of uncertainty would have been exasperating. As it is, I loved it.

The Book Group and Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (Doubleday 2015)

gott.jpgBefore the meeting:
After A Little Life, the book group decided to take on something light, and someone had heard that The Girl on the Train was an interesting thriller.

I’m not a member of this book’s target audience. I’ve been mildly gripped by psychological thriller movies (Gone Girl say, or any number of Hitchcock movies, or Gaslight, though I haven’t seen that movie, just the play performed by the Innisfail Repertory Society in about 1960) or on TV (I think of The Fall). Men are strong, sympathetic and protective, or are they dangerous and manipulative? Women sense they are in danger, or are they just neurotic messes? A loving husband is caught in a lie about talking to his ex-wife. Should we be disturbed by what happens next:

He smiles at me, shaking his head as he steps towards me, his hands still raised in supplication. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. She wanted to chat in person and I thought it might be best. I’m sorry, OK? We just talked. We met in a crappy coffee shop in Ashbury and talked for twenty minutes – half an hour, tops. OK?’
___He puts his arms around me and pulls me towards his chest. I try to resist him, but he’s stronger than me and anyway he smells great and I don’t want a fight. I want us to be on the same side. ‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbles again, into my hair.
___‘It’s all right,’ I say.

Even on screen these imagined relationships as full of manipulation and lurking threat aren’t my cup of tea. In book form, if this one is any indication, it’s a game a good bit less interesting than Scrabble. I did read the whole book, I suppose it was well done, and I stayed guessing, or at least unsure, until the final revelation, but I didn’t really care, and the main impression I’m left with is of time wasted. Your mileage may vary. The movie is coming out in a month or two – I’ll probably give it a miss.

At the meeting: There were eight of us and everyone had read the whole book, one or two saying that they couldn’t put it down. And while people generally appreciated its tight plotting, and the way information was gradually released to the reader, no one particularly liked it. Those who are more widely read in the genre said it wasn’t a particularly good example. We compared notes on how soon we guessed the ending.

And over chicken and rice and then ice cream we had a terrific conversation about fathers and sons, how boys and young men could do with someone thinking about them in more constructive ways than generally seems to happen these days, about Eton and Queen Victoria’s correspondence, about whether A Little Life is a bildungsroman, about cumquat marmalade, renovations, and the joys of growing old.

Gary Ramage’s The Shot

Gary Ramage with Mark Abernethy,  The Shot (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

y648.pngGary Ramage, currently News Corp’s chief photographer at Parliament House in Canberra, won the Nikon Walkley Photo of the Year last year. Once a soldier himself, he has photographed soldiers in action in Somalia, Bougainville, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. In between stints in conflict zones, he has shot politicians in Canberra, visited Buckingham Palace and  done the paparazzi thing for Murdoch. This book is his story.

Let me state my prejudices here: I know that to earn a living in a capitalist economy almost inevitably   involves supping with the devil, but working for News Corp is supping with a short spoon; I’m suspicious of the practice of embedding journalists with troops in conflict zones, because it seems likely to lead to reports that uncritically support the war effort; I loathe even the idea of paparazzi, particularly since the death of Diana Spencer. So this book is way out of my comfort zone.

And it’s fabulous.

It’s a funny, dramatic and at times powerfully poignant account of a man discovering his calling and learning his craft, meeting challenges with ingenuity, courage, compassion and a touch of swagger. Ramage’s commitment to documenting the experiences of soldiers in conflict zones transformed my understanding of ’embedding’: this isn’t about backing the war effort, but about making sure that the men who are sent to kill or be killed aren’t consigned to oblivion. And as for the paparazzi action: I confess I shared his glee when he managed with great cunning to invade the privacy of some royals, and I was barracking for him in a long sequence towards the end of the book when he endures great personal discomfort and inveigles News Corp into spending vast amounts of money on semi-legendary equipment in order to get a single blurry forbidden shot that serves no purpose beyond tabloid titillation.

I’ve been photographed for the newspapers a couple of times myself – when my high school results were deemed newsworthy by the Catholic Weekly, when my younger son and I provided cute visuals for a report on a childcare demo, and recently for an article reporting, not 100 percent accurately, that I’m on a solar powered gravy train that will soon grind to a halt. Each time has involved an awful lot of fiddling with light and positioning, checking and re-checking. Ramage’s art of (mostly) getting himself in place, equipped and ready to catch the shot, is a matter for awe.

And the photos scattered through the text and especially those on the sixteen-page centre section are brilliant.

Charlotte Wood’s Natural Way of Things

Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2015)

nwt.jpgThis book came to me accompanied by the same dire warnings as A Little Life. It’s a very hard read, I was told, whose author subjects her characters – plural this time, and female – to unremitting and implausible suffering.

The warnings were justified, but Charlotte Wood’s book is a very different beast from Hanya Yanigahara’s. Jude St Francis’s sufferings are extreme, the men who inflict them are inscrutable monsters and Jude suffers in isolation despite the best efforts of the people who love him. The young women in Charlotte Wood’s fable are punished, not with reason but with a kind of logic. The hands-on perpetrators are loathsome, but knowable, and at some moments pathetic. The ‘girls’ have mostly been abandoned by people they thought loved them. And where Jude remains passively saintlike in his suffering, hurting no one but himself, the ‘girls’ get nasty, manipulative, even murderous, and we mostly love them for it. Also this book is a lot shorter than the other – it’s not out to test a reader’s stamina.

The Natural Way of Things is a fable involving a group of young women, each of whom turns out to have been caught up in a sexual scandal – an affair with a bishop, rape by a group of footballers, a cruise-ship degradation. They include a politician’s PA, a woman from the army, an elite athlete and a child television star. By going public, or being made public, they have each attracted huge media attention. In a kind of metaphor for the prevalent attitude to such women (see the online comments section about any sex scandal involving a woman), they are imprisoned in an abandoned sheep station in western New South Wales, and consigned to oblivion there with two male guards and a bizarrely incompetent woman who is presumably meant to look after their health.

It’s hard going in the first third of the book as their terrible conditions are revealed. They wear coarse clothes, sleep locked in rooms that resemble dog kennels, have no facilities to wash their clothes or themselves, subsist on a diet of vile yellow muck, and do hard physical labour interspersed with beatings. Their prison is surrounded by a deadly,  high, electrified fence.

But even that early part is not just an enumeration of horrors. Sure, there’s a broken jaw here, a suppurating burn there, but the narrative takes us inside the women’s heads. It traces the gradual shift to a sense of themselves as more elemental, more animal than they have ever imagined. So when the prison’s (but not the fence’s) electricity fails and they realise that they have been completely abandoned by the outside world, the movement – at least for the main characters – is not towards despair so much as towards a new way of being in the world, towards reclaiming their reality as physical beings in a physical universe.

It’s a fable. That is to say, it’s not an account of things that could actually happen. It’s more Mad Max meets Kafka than Orange Is the New Black. Reading it in the wake of the Don Day footage and the release of the Nauru files, I realise it’s not entirely fantastical either – if anything, it’s milder than those grim realities. But it is a fable, with its own visceral reality, and beautifully written. I don’t know if Charlotte Wood was ever sent to boarding school, but some of the writing captures that awful claustrophobia. And I don’t know if she comes from the country, but all through the book the descriptions of the countryside leaven and intensify the desolation of her characters. For example:

In the field they labour, chipping weeds, shovelling gravel, raking. The pile of concrete chunks has gone, the pieces laid out end to end into the distance. The road corridor has been cleared, the hard dry dirt graded with their hands and ancient hoes and rakes. Edges have been dug and sloped to stop erosion. As they scraped and cleared the knee-high grass they have shrieked and dropped their tools and leaped from the slithering path of brown snakes and red-bellied blacks, or the stomping shuffle of the thick-necked, weaving goannas. Bird calls drop from the skies all day long and, taught by Leandra, the bird nerd from the army, they recognise them now: not just the screams of cockatoos and corellas or the squawking lorikeets, but also the floatier melodies of wagtails, butcherbirds, thrushes and kites. At night the mournful, mournful stone curlews cry.

AWW2016The Natural Way of Things is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lesley & Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White

Lesley and Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter (UQP 2015)

njb&w.jpgThis is a superb memoir. If the title sounds a bit preachy, don’t be misled. It’s a page turner, a romance, a tale of multi-faceted heroism with plenty of grief, rage and laughing out loud, and some totally – I do mean totally! – unexpected plot twists.

The two authors are mother and daughter. Lesley Williams was born in the mid 1940s and grew up in Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in Queensland, 170 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, where the Aboriginal people were referred to as ‘inmates’ and every aspect of their lives was regulated by the authorities. Hers is the last generation to have grown up ‘under the Act’ – that is The Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 and its successors: people couldn’t travel or marry without formal permission, and any money they earned was held ‘in safe keeping’ by the government. When she was fifteen, Lesley was assigned to work as a domestic servant in distant homes; she wasn’t informed of the conditions of her employment and received only ‘pocket money’ directly. A timid girl who lives in fear of any white authorities, she grows up, with help from Aboriginal and white friends and allies, to spearhead a campaign  for justice for Aboriginal workers that eventually led to payment of a compensation package of $55.4 million dollars.

Meanwhile, she had three children whom she was determined would have better lives than hers. Tammy, the youngest, started out ghost writing this book, but became its second authorial voice when they realised how their lives were intertwined. Tammy’s story doesn’t have quite the same extraordinary journey from one era to another, but it’s full of surprises of its own. Spoiler alert: Michael Jackson plays a significant role and José Ayala Lasso, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has a walk-on part.

Both women are great story-tellers. The success of the campaign to recover the stolen wages is almost an afterthought to these two wonderful yarns.

I was about a third of the way into this book when ABC’s 4 Corners aired those heart-stopping scenes of the mistreatment of Aboriginal boys in custody in the Northern Territory. And you know, grim though those scenes were, the government’s treatment of Aboriginal people in Queensland into the 1960s, which Lesley Williams recounts with extraordinary calm and clarity, was just as violent and demeaning in its own way. As with current events in Nauru and Manus, there was no shocking footage, and for most Australians out of sight was out of mind. This book, and other like it, make a huge contribution to our understanding of Australia’s history

AWW2016Not Just Black and White is the eighth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It won the 2014 David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writing. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get more gongs now that it’s published.

A minute

I’d set my phone to remind me this morning at a quarter past nine – 8.15 am Japanese Standard Time – to mark the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by the USA.

I sat for a minute in silence. Life went on around me without a perceptible ripple. I thought I should spend another couple of minutes making my minute into a social event. (I believe that the opening ceremony in Rio fell silent for a minute – but I wasn’t watching the telly.)

So much fuss is rightly made here of the number of Australians who died in a single day on the Somme in 1915. But that appalling tragedy involved men who were combatants – they had been sent by their government to kill and, as it happened, be killed. The people who died at Hiroshima, instantly or in the long agony of radiation disease, were largely civilians – babies at the breast, old women on their deathbeds, cooks, poets and potters –  going about their ordinary lives in the city of two rivers, as much as life could be ordinary in that country at that time. And the Hiroshima anniversary creates hardly a blip on the Australian public radar these days.

The horror of the atom bomb took a while to be generally known, and was overshadowed by the relief of the war ending. What struck me this morning was that my generation is the first to be born into a world where nuclear weapons had already been used to kill people, the first to be born after what scientists now call Year Zero (because radiation dating has to be calculated differently after 1945), the first to live with the knowledge that human beings have the power to wipe ourselves out, and so – for many of us – the first to spend a lot of energy keeping that knowledge away from the front of our minds. The temptation to think small, to look after number one, to cultivate one’s garden, to turn away from the suffering of other people, to live in a bubble, became significantly stronger 71 years ago today.

A minute of silence goes a small way to opening the mind to the possibility of shrinking that sphere of numbness, of embracing the whole world and all that it has to offer, the joys and challenges as well as the horrors.

Since this is mainly a book blog, I should mention some books. Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki is an excellent narrative historyof the planning for the bomb and the dropping as it happened. Robyn Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine and subsequent articles (here, and here) are excellent on Australian responses, as is Michael Bogles’ piece in Overland 218 (my blog mention here).

Colleen Z Burke’s Home Brewed and Lethal

Colleen Burke, Home Brewed and Lethal: New and selected poems (Cochon Publishing 1997)

hbl.jpgThis is the seventh of eleven published books of poetry by Colleen Z Burke (her writing name acquired the ‘Z’not long after it was published). It includes a generous selection from the earlier books including one that I’ve blogged about (here), plus 25 new poems.

Many of the earlier poems are also included in Burke’s memoir, The Waves Turn. One of the later ones – the prose poem ‘A doll on a stick’ – is a tightened and tidied version of a passage from the memoir, leading me to conclude that the memoir, published this year, was written in the mid 1970s was reworked and integrated into the memoir, which Colleen started in the late 1990s*. Most of the poetry in this book makes no bones about its autobiographical nature: memories of a Catholic girlhood, reconnection with an Irish heritage, defiant feminist rage, marital woes, then – taking up where the memoir ends – the joys and burdens of motherhood, the flavours of inner-city living, environmental and Aboriginal politics and history and, like a punch in the guts, half a dozen poems written in the heat of bereavement:

What fools are we
to think that we can plan
and plot and shape our lives
and choose to go or stay. To
love or not. What fools indeed.
When death is on our shoulder
day and night waiting ..

The book, and life, continues after the death of Burke’s husband, and many of the poems gain added resonance from being read as part of an overarching narrative. For example, one of the new poems, ‘Back to life’, ostensibly about the refreshing effect of the bush, has these lines:

I breathe
again
slowly
back to life.

Another of the new poems, ‘Between the lines’, comes close to describing what is perhaps the strongest feature of Burke’s poetry. Addressing the leftist poet Len Fox, who died in 2004 and was in his early 90s  when this books was published, she says of his poems:

____________when I thought
I had them sussed – they bent
twisted or even
smiled between
the lines
[…]
Yet basically
it’s the lack of bullshit
I liked the most about
your poems

I think it’s fair to say that Colleen Z Burke’s poetry aspires to, and generally reaches, a bullshit-free zone. No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures, but straight talk that nevertheless bends and twists and even smiles between the lines.

  • Amended after a conversation with the author

AWW2016Home Brewed and Lethal is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions

Edward John Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound, in the Years 1840–1; Sent by the Colonists of South Australia, with the Sanction and Support of the Government (London 1845)

eyre1-00.jpgI imagine most people think of the journals of nineteenth-century British explorers of the Australian continent as raw material for historians and creative writers, rather than works to be read for their own sake. In fact, the journals were generally written up on the long sea voyage back to Britain, not raw at all, and most if not all of them were intended to give pleasure to the general reader as well as information to actual and prospective colonisers. If one test of a work of literature is whether it lives on in the mind of the reader, then I have some evidence for Eyre’s Journals. It’s more than 40 years since I read it, and this morning I woke up with this passage running in my head:

It was a dreamy kind of feeling, and I could have let the sands of life drain away to the last grain.

I was pleased to find the complete two volumes on Project Gutenberg, so was able to check the quote, and its context. It turns out, of course, that my memory was inaccurate – the original is much better. Here’s part of the entry for 17 May 1841 culminating in the part I was misremembering – the ‘we’ referred to are Eyre and his sole companion for this part of the journey, the Aboriginal man he calls Wylie:

Our stage to-day was only twelve miles, yet some of our horses were nearly knocked up, and we ourselves in but little better condition. The incessant walking we were subject to, the low and unwholesome diet we had lived upon, the severe and weakening attacks of illness caused by that diet, having daily, and sometimes twice a day, to dig for water, to carry all our fire-wood from a distance upon our backs, to harness, unharness, water, and attend to the horses, besides other trifling occupations, making up our daily routine, usually so completely exhausted us, that we had neither spirit nor energy left.

Added to all other evils, the nature of the country behind the sea-coast was as yet so sandy and scrubby that we were still compelled to follow the beach, frequently travelling on loose heavy sands, that rendered our stages doubly fatiguing: whilst at nights, after the labours of the day were over, and we stood so much in need of repose, the intense cold, and the little protection we had against it, more frequently made it a season of most painful suffering than of rest, and we were glad when the daylight relieved us once more.

On our march we felt generally weak and languid – it was an effort to put one foot before the other, and there was an indisposition to exertion that it was often very difficult to overcome. After sitting for a few moments to rest – and we often had to do this – it was always with the greatest unwillingness we ever moved on again. I felt, on such occasions, that I could have sat quietly and contentedly, and let the glass of life glide away to its last sand. There was a dreamy kind of pleasure, which made me forgetful or careless of the circumstances and difficulties by which I was surrounded, and which I was always indisposed to break in upon.

Another great moment is on 6 July  1841, when Eyre and Wylie reach their goal, the town of Albany. It’s a brilliant example of the mechanism described by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark where a white writer uses – in this case – an Aboriginal character to embody some aspect of himself that he can’t acknowledge. This extract begins just after the two exhausted travellers see the apparently deserted town, the rain ‘falling in torrents’:

I was startled by the loud shrill cry of the native we had met on the road, and who still kept with us: clearly and powerfully that voice rang through the recesses of the settlement beneath, whilst the blended name of Wylie told me of the information it conveyed. For an instant there was a silence still almost as death – then a single repetition of that wild joyous cry, a confused hum of many voices, a hurrying to and fro of human feet, and the streets which had appeared so shortly before gloomy and untenanted, were now alive with natives – men, women and children, old and young, rushing rapidly up the hill, to welcome the wanderer on his return, and to receive their lost one almost from the grave.

It was an interesting and touching sight to witness the meeting between Wylie and his friends. Affection’s strongest ties could not have produced a more affecting and melting scene – the wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance, with which he was embraced by his relatives, the cordial and hearty reception given him by his friends, and the joyous greeting bestowed upon him by all, might well have put to the blush those heartless calumniators, who, branding the savage as the creature only of unbridled passions, deny to him any of those better feelings and affections which are implanted in the breast of all mankind, and which nature has not denied to any colour or to any race.

Upon entering the town I proceeded direct to Mr Sherrats’, where I had lodged when in King George’s Sound in 1840. By him and his family I was most hospitably received, and every attention shewn to me; and in the course of a short time, after taking a glass of hot brandy and water, performing my ablutions and putting on a clean suit of borrowed clothes, I was enabled once more to feel comparatively comfortable, and to receive the many kind friends who called upon me.

He’d have us believe he only mentions the ‘wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance’ to make an anthropological point. For the son of a Bedfordshire vicar, feeling ‘comparatively comfortable’ is quite enough, thank you very much.

This is the book that Patrick White was reading during London Blitz when the idea for Voss came to him.

 

Based on a true story

To the driver who didn’t stop
OK, you slowed enough to see that
she was staggering but not dead
before you drove off. You’ll agree that
women crossing when the red
is flashing shouldn’t be run over
but then today I guess you drove a
little careless. Neither light
nor traffic bade you not turn right,
and if she’d taken one step further
or been a child for goodness sake
of course you would have hit the brake.
It’s not as if you’ve done a murder.
The bruises where you hit will mend.
Sleep well at night. Go safe, my friend.

Colleen Z Burke’s Waves Turn

Colleen Z Burke, The Waves Turn: A memoir (Feakle Press 2016; for availability see here)

waves turn.JPG

Colleen Z Burke is a Sydney poet whose work, as David Brooks says in his introduction to her Home Brewed and Lethal (1997), ‘has not received the attention and awards it’s deserved’. She is a poet of place, particularly inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains; a poet of domestic life, feminist and fiercely maternal; a historical poet, exploring the stories of working class Australians  and her Irish heritage. I’ve blogged about a couple of her books (here and here) and our paths have crossed in a number of contexts. The word that comes to mind is ‘staunch’. The Waves Turn tells the story of her first three decades.

Colleen was born in the early 1940s into a tight working-class Irish Catholic community in Bondi, not a hundred miles or many years from the world of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. She was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, whose treatment of their young charges in Colleen’s day would not have helped the cause of their founder Mary MacKillop’s canonisation half a century later. Leaving school at 15 to help with the family finances, she landed a public service job, but was already snatching moments to write poems and read widely. With a friend she dared to venture into Sydney’s bohemian milieu, but remained enough her mother’s daughter not to plunge into their pre-feminist sex and drugs lifestyle. From there it was small dramatic step into the thriving folk music scene, where she was courted by singer Declan Affley, whom she eventually married, and began to discover her deep connections to Ireland.

Declan’s personality dominates the second two thirds of the memoir, as they negotiate their relationship, travel together to North Queensland, to Melbourne and to Ireland and England, struggling to earn enough money to live on (mostly it’s Colleen who earns while Declan’s work as a musician is paid pathetically), joining causes, and making music. In an extraordinary range of contexts, almost in the shadows, Colleen finds a place for her typewriter and works away at her poetry. This was before the days of creative writing courses, and it was a lonely enterprise, requiring a heroic determination to hold to her own course against all expectations – from bohemians and folkies as much as from Catholics – that she would make a man the centre of her life.

In 1975, which is as far as the book takes us, Colleen was in her early 30s. She had finally gained a university degree, the first in her family to do so. Her mother had died, her first book, Go Down Singing, had been published in the feminist Khasmik Poets Series, and half a dozen of her poems were included in Kate Jennings’s landmark anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted. We know from occasional mentions that she will have children, and from her poetry that Declan will die young and unexpectedly, that there will be more hardship, so it feels as if the book just stops rather than coming to an end point. The final sentence reads:

And as waves turn I’m unsure what the future holds but look forward with anticipation.

Where some memoirs read like novels that claim to be factual, The Waves Turn is more like a careful accumulation of facts in which a story can be discerned. The image of an archaeological dig comes to mind: Colleen Z Burke has delved patiently into the layers of memory, brushed the dirt from the innumerable artefacts she found there, labelled them and arranged them chronologically. Sometimes, in talking about the folk scene for example, memory has almost certainly been helped by festival programs or similar documentation.

There were places where I found the accumulation of detail fascinating, such as the points of similarity between Colleen’s childhood and my North Queensland Catholic childhood half a decade later: the same bottles of milk curdling in the sun at school (why?), the same ‘worms’ made by Vegemite in biscuits with holes (which I read just the other day will soon cease to exist), the same songs of Irish nostalgia. In my 20s, I followed in some of Colleen’s paths: to the edges of the Push and the folk music scene, to protest against the US and Australian war in Vietnam, to the ferment of women’s liberation, to the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University (though in that case I was there half a decade before her) … the list goes on. There’s pleasure in recognising the names of people, streets and buildings, in being reminded of forgotten rituals (Oh, that’s right, on Friday nights people would ask, ‘Where’s the party?’). I don’t know how it would be for someone who hadn’t been there. They might do a lot of head-scratching (as with the passing reference to some Catholics not buying Sanitarium breakfast cereals) and skipping (as with the list of performers at numerous folk-music events).

An edition of the book that included footnotes on all the musicians and big personalities mentioned would be spectacular. I recognised only a handful, but if the ones I didn’t recognise were as interesting as that handful, each list of names in this book is a flag pointing to a trove of stories.

We do get the stories of Colleen and Declan, or rather many of their stories.

For example, Declan Affley is perhaps the only good thing in Tony Richardson’s 1970 movie Ned Kelly. (In a nostalgic moment, I recently downloaded ‘The Wild Colonial Boy‘ from the soundtrack – Mick Jagger reduces it to passionless rinkydink, but Affley’s tin whistle fights to give the song heart, and wins.) The book takes us behind the scenes, not to juicy celebrity gossip, but to how the film gave economic relief to Affley and Colleen, and how, having the rarity of a decent amount of money, they splurged on luxuries.

More than fifty poems are scattered through the book, many of them dealing with events or places that have just been described in prose. So, not just in general but very specifically, the memoir gives a valuable insight into the relationship of the poetry to the life, into things that can only be said in poetry. For example, towards the end of the book, Colleen is employed on a survey to assess the health and welfare needs of people in the suburb of Glebe. In prose:

The health/welfare survey had its limitations, all surveys do, but talking to people in the open-ended section, I gleaned interesting information about their lives. The diverse community included students, transients, pensioners, professionals and more affluent residents in wealthier parts of Glebe Point. We interviewed people from the Glebe Estate in houses owned by the Catholic Church. The Glebe Estate wasn’t bought by the Federal Labor government’s Department of Urban and Regional Affairs, under the radical leadership of Tom Uren, until late 1974.

And so on. In typing that out, I’m reminded of something that nagged at me, though it might be of no significance to most readers. Feakle Press clearly operates on a shoestring, with little money for professional copy-editing, and my blue-pencil finger twitches to fact-check and clarify. In this paragraph, for example: the Glebe Estate was owned by the Anglicans, not the Catholics; will readers from elsewhere understand the reference to Glebe Point (perhaps ‘more affluent residents who lived close to the water at Glebe Point’ would cover it)? is the government purchase relevant, or a distracting complication? But these editorial questions are beside the point here. Colleen then gives us her poem, ‘The questionnaire’, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing in full:

The questionnaire

walking through Glebe
these summery days
of nearly autumn
of nearly autumnI move
through street shadows
of paperthin _ March trees
________to arrive
_____________ anywhere.
Knock on doors
___________opened
by young people
____________eager
as spring to answer
____________ _anything.
But older rustier men
__mostly nod their heads
like old clocks
__listening somewhere else
and pensioners
___________warm as sunlight
___________caught in old brick walls
look at my papers
____________ my well-chosen words
then shut their doors kindly.
And clutching empty questions
I run home
through thin pools
of March trees
__________ singing

And we’re there.

AWW2016The Waves Turn is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.