Janice Galloway’s Trick Is to Keep Breathing at the Book Group

Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989, Vintage Classics 2015)

Before the meeting: When I was about half way through this book, the following exchange happened on WhatsApp:

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing is a possibly-brilliant novel that I, for one, hated.

It’s a first person narration by Joy, a woman who has tipped over the edge into extreme depression and mental disorder when her married lover drowns on a holiday in Spain. At first I thought that my copy of the book, in a Penguin Vintage Classics edition, had been poorly reproduced from old film: the type is mostly dark and slightly blurred, though occasionally, apparently at random, a sentence or two is lighter and clear. There are odd blank spaces as if several lines are missing. And every now and then the margin boasts a word or a column of words, perhaps partly obscured by the gutter or running off the edge of the page. It took a while to realise all this was deliberate, a way of physicalising the state of Joy’s mind, on a continuum with the way the width of the column changes every now and then when Joy relays to us a horoscope or an advertisement from a magazine, or the type switches to italics as, bit by bit, the traumatic event in Spain is revealed.

It must be this typographic play that led the New York Times reviewer quoted on the back cover to write: ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy as rewritten by Sylvia Plath.’ I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, but a bit of unconventional typesetting doesn’t make a Tristram Shandy.

The portrayal of Joy’s unrelenting descent into darkness, starvation and disorder must be what led the judges to award it the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year for 1990. According to the website of ‘mental health charity’ MIND, ‘this well-established literary prize celebrates writing that heightens understanding of mental health issues in all their forms’. Elsewhere, Fay Weldon, a frequent judge, acknowledges that it is a little-known prize, and that ‘”literature” is not what concerns us here, but effectiveness, accessibility, honesty, optimism and helpfulness’. She wrote that in 2011. The judges’ desires were different in 1990, or they read the book differently from me, because I found very little optimism or helpfulness in it, and while Joy’s experience is vividly realised, I don’t think my understanding of anything is heightened.

The novel is a nightmare account of an experience of grief, anguish, disordered thinking, despair, self-starvation. The men in Joy’s life are generally sexually exploitative and/or clueless about her mental state. Her one woman friend has gone to the USA, and that friend’s well-disposed mother offers baked goods as an optimistic panacea. The doctors she encounters are unable to help, and in some cases, callously, don’t even try. If her account of her time in a mental institution is even half accurate, then the system needed to be burned to the ground: but it’s more of a darkly satirical fantasy, almost certainly with some truth but not something you’d trust as an account of anyone’s actual lived experience. For me, and I may be completely idiosyncratic here, the book came across as a kind of mental-illness porn.

At least one member of the group has signalled in advance that he loved the book. I’m open to persuasion, but only by a crack. I expect there will be discussion of the ending, which may be ambiguous, though I’m fairly clear about how I read it. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

After the meeting: Covid–19 brought restrictions to Sydney again on Wednesday, and though we were only six people and could have met legally in someone’s home, we decided to meet online.

Once we got settled in – ‘Hi, I like your beard’ ‘How did the test turn out?’ ‘Are people wearing masks in your part of town?’ – we moved on to a terrific discussion of the book.

Why it was terrific is that two completely incompatible readings of the book were aired, and the proponents of each could see that the other was coherent and justifiable from the text. It was all in how you read the tone. I guess I was at one extreme, reading the tone as something like that of Truffaut’s movie The Story of Adèle H, unremitting misery: Joy is sunk in grief and depression, goes through the motions of daily life and relationships, keeping up appearances but unable to show anyone – friends, former lovers, current sexual predators, co-workers, doctors – the depth of her despair. The chap putting forward the other extreme read it as grimly comic: through her terrible grief, Joy never loses her sense of herself, holding onto what she can of relationships and keeping with her routines as a way of staying in the world, vulnerable to predators but keeping her core self shielded from them, bantering defiantly with the useless doctors. Others were in different points along a spectrum between the two readings. No one else had read the ending as grimly as I had, and when I read the final paragraph to make my point, my opponent offered a completely valid alternative reading. I say ‘opponent’, and at one stage someone thought we were being a bit intolerant of each other, but I really don’t think that was happening: certainly I was delighted by the difference, and my respect for the book ballooned, give that it could sustain such different readings.

There was some talk about the terrible weather in Glasgow, and how what someone from tropical North Queensland (that is, me) might see as unrelentingly grim, might be seen by others (including possibly Janice Galloway) as dourly amusing. we’re reading another Scottish nook for our next meeting to put that theory to the test.

Proust Progress Report 22: The end

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2334–2401

Finished!

Seven volumes, 2401 pages, finished!

Having read a little of À la recherche du temps perdu first thing most mornings for the last 22 months, I’ve reached the end. My copy of the book has suffered: not only has the print on its covers worn way as in the image to the left, but the back cover has broken free, taking the last four pages with it.

I probably should have something brilliantly perceptive to say, but nah! I’m enjoying Patrick Alexander’s translation of the whole work one tweet at a time at @ProustTweet, and seeing how much I missed by reading it with my inadequate French; and I’ll probably read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life sometime soon, but if my life has been changed I can’t tell (yet).

In the final 70 pages, Marcel continues his detailed account and analysis of the currents and undercurrents of high society, of the toll taken by time on his A-listers as seen at his last matinée. When he meets Gilberte’s daughter, he realises that this young woman is like a place in a forest where many roads meet (‘les «étoiles» des carrefours‘) – so many threads of his life, so many relationships converge in her person, and through her he is able to see how different parts of his story interconnect.

But then, with hardly so much as a paragraph break, he moves on to contemplating the huge project he is about to embark on – namely this book. There are wonderful passages about his plans and expectations. Having long since lost his fear of death, he now fears it again, but now he fears it for the sake of his work, not for himself. He will write all through the night, perhaps for a thousand nights, but cannot know whether his destiny will, like Scheherazade’s sultan, allow him to live another day in order to hear the rest of a story:

Et je vivrais dans l’anxiété de ne pas savoir si le Maître de ma destinée, moins indulgent que le sultan Sheriar, le matin quand j’interromprais mon récit, voudrait bien surseoir à mon arrêt de mort et me permettrait de reprendre la suite le prochain soir.

And there’s this, about what it would mean to take on the project:

[L’écrivain] devrait préparer son livre, minutieusement, avec de perpétuels regroupements de forces, comme une offensive, le supporter comme une fatigue, l’accepter comme une règle, le construire comme une église, le suivre comme un régime, le vaincre comme un obstacle, le conquérir comme une amitié, le suralimenter comme un enfant, le créer comme un monde sans laisser de côté ces mystères qui n’ont probablement leur explication que dans d’autres mondes et dont le pressentiment est ce qui nous émeut le plus dans la vie et dans l’art.

In English:

[The writer] would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces as for an offensive, to bear it as a load, to accept it as a discipline, to build it like a church, to follow it like a fitness routine, to overcome it like an obstacle, to win it like a friendship, to feed it like a child, to create it like a world, bearing in mind those mysteries which probably only have their explanation in other worlds, the sense of which is what moves us the most in life and in art.

Later, typically, he undercuts this heroic tone, saying that the project is less like building a cathedral and more like sewing a dress. He says that Françoise, his barely literate housekeeper, understands the nature of the work better than many educated, literary people.

The prospect of death hangs over the closing pages, and the knowledge that his anxiety was well founded – this volume and the preceding one were published after Proust died – intensifies the poignancy. Having lived with this book for nearly two years, if only for a couple of minutes a day, I’m now surprised to find I have an urge to start all over again. Here’s the last sentence:

Aussi, si elle m’était laissée assez longtemps pour accomplir mon œuvre, ne manquerais-je pas d’abord d’y décrire les hommes, cela dût-il les faire ressembler à des êtres monstrueux, comme occupant une place si considérable, à côté de celle si restreinte qui leur est réservée dans l’espace, une place au contraire prolongée sans mesure puisqu’ils touchent simultanément, comme des géants plongés dans les années à des époques, vécues par eux si distantes, entre lesquelles tant de jours sont venus se placer – dans le Temps.

I had serious trouble translating that, and when I looked up Stephen Hudson’s translation (here) I got the impression that he had trouble too. Here’s his (the ‘…’ in the first bit marks the omission of several phrases that aren’t in the edition I’m reading):

If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to … therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time.

I don’t think mine’s any better, but here it is:

So, if a long enough time was left to me to accomplish my work, first of all I would not fail to describe men in it, making them resemble monstrous beings that occupy a place so much more substantial than the restricted one reserved for them in space – a place, rather, that extends immeasurably because, like giants immersed in the years, they simultaneously touch all the distant periods they have lived through, between which so many days have been placed – a place in Time.

That ‘longtemps‘ at the start of this sentence reaches all the way back to the first sentence of the first novel:

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.

500 people: Week Eighteen

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

Slim pickings this week. It’s not so much that I haven’t had casual contact with strangers as that I’ve been preoccupied with other things and not made mental notes. Here’s what I’ve got.

  1. Sunday 14 June, driving back to Sydney from Brisbane, we stopped at a motel in Port Macquarie. It turned out that when I’d made the booking online I’d left out the final digit of my phone number. Our host made a point of telling us this, because usually she sends a confirming text. She was clearly relieved that together we’d managed to get us booked into the last remaining room with no drama. So were we.
  2. Monday afternoon, having had a sore throat that was getting progressively worse, I drove to our local COVID–19 testing site, where, unusually, I had to wait – there were two cars ahead of me. A man in PPE came to my window, introduced himself as Doctor ––, and gave me a form and a pen. My impression was he came out just for the human contact.
  3. Monday, a little later, a woman in mask and PPE came and took the completed form from me. We made polite smalltalk and then she swabbed my inside cheek and my preferred nostril. [The text message advising me of the negative result arrived at half past 6 next morning, and my throat and other symptoms cleared up by the end of Wednesday.]
  4. Wednesday evening, in the flash new extension of the Marrickville Metro, I went looking in vain for our preferred brand of green curry paste. At the checkout of the Asian supermarket, I asked the woman on checkout how she liked the new shop. Unlike an old pal at checkout elsewhere in the new Behemoth, she didn’t moan about the changed conditions, but said simply, ‘It’s a lot bigger.’
  5. Thursday midday, the Emerging Artist, granddaughter and I visited Kelly Wallwerk, an artist-friend of the EA who is painting a mural on a water tank beside the oval in Petersham Park. The mural will show a woman in whites bowling, and we had a long chat about the process of creating it. (Photo in the slide show below.)
  6. Friday, filling prescriptions at the chemist’s, I couldn’t help but notice that the woman behind the counter looked weary. I ventured a comment: ‘You look tired.’ She didn’t hear and asked me to repeat it. When I did, instead of a smiling denial or similarly smiling agreement, she just looked even more weary, and said, ‘Yes.’ When the woman on the second cash register said she’d stay there for a while, my woman said, partly to me, ‘Thank God.’ I didn’t get the impression she was complaining. She was just bone-tired.
  7. Friday late afternoon, walking beside the water in Blackwattle Bay, we noticed some odd behaviour in a flock of seagulls near retaining wall. The birds would hover just above the water, perhaps even letting their feet go under, then dip their beaks just beneath the surface, all the time flapping vigorously so as not to move forward. Each bird would then fly away in a tight circle and repeat the process. A man was sitting on a bench nearby with a camera on his lap, looking off into the distance. I asked him, ‘Have you seen what the seagulls are doing?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. That’s why I stopped here. We then speculated together about what they might be up to. He thought they were feasting on a school of whitebait, and I couldn’t think of a better explanation.
  8. Saturday, at breakfast, in Leura where we went for the day, we asked for pepper for our eggs. The waiter brought us the grinder and left it on the table rather than doing the grinding herself and taking it away, which left me in a state of moderate to high alert in case the pepper was needed elsewhere. Sure enough, soon after omelette and poached eggs were delivered to the table nearest to us (a safe 1.5 metres away), the man on that table was trying to catch the waiter’s eye. I held up ‘our’ pepper and asked if it was what he wanted. It was. He was effusively grateful.
  9. Saturday afternoon, we’d been told there was to be music at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. We logged in at the Carrington’s courtyard. where there was a great mass of men, women and children in yellow, many of them sporting elaborate yellow floral headgear and other ornaments, many looking as if they meant business with drums, and all seeming remarkably cheerful in the face of the bitter wind that swept through the space. I stopped a young man, who had a delicate yellow chain attached to an earring, and asked him what was going on. He was only too happy to explain that Katoomba’s celebration of the solstice, which usually takes over the whole town for the weekend closest to the actual date, had been Covid-cancelled, but some community groups had decided to put on a show anyhow, and the Carrington had made the space available. What we were seeing was the group Hands Heart Feet, who were second on the program. [Not strictly part of this narrative, but they were fabulous, as were the belly dancers who opened the show.]

Running total is now 170.

Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies

Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies (Headline 2020)

The Emerging Artist has been urging this terrific book on everyone who will listen (it was her insistence that made it jump my To Be Read queue). It’s a novel that manages to include mini-essays about politics, economics, religion, cancel culture and the art of war while telling a deeply personal story about an immigrant Pakistani Muslim family in the USA, particularly after the 11 September attacks and during the Trump era. The author has described it as literary reality TV, by which I think he means that while it follows the author’s life closely and is populated by recognisable characters from his real story, and so reads like memoir, it’s actually carefully structured fiction. The epigraph, from Alison Bechdel, gives fair warning:

I only make things up about things that have already happened …

Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer winning dramatist. His play Disgraced was put on by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2016, so some of my readers may know his work, but this book is my introduction. It has made me a fan.

Like Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Homeland Elegies starts with current presidential scandals – for Roth it was Clinton’s sexual misdemeanours, for Akhtar it’s Trump’s all-round egregiousness. But where Roth forgot about Clinton and moved on to his protagonist’s own misdemeanours, Akhtar stays with Trump, or at least with his (or the narrator’s) father’s infatuation with him, and Trump remains at least an ominous background presence for the duration. In the end, the book is an exploration of the state of the US nation under Trump. I read it as a kind of elegy for the USA that has been ailing for decades and been given what may be its death blow by Trumpism (it was published before the 2020 election, but hasn’t been defanged by Biden’s election). It also includes an earlier immigrant generation’s lament for a lost homeland – hence the plural elegies of the title.

In the first pages, in a section named ‘Overture: To America’, the narrator’s university mentor remarks ‘almost offhandedly’, long before the advent of Trump or even the Tea Party, that

America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment is paramount and civil order an afterthought. The fatherland in whose name – and for whose benefit – the predation continued was no longer a physical fatherland but a spiritual one: the American Self.

The rest of the book can be read as the narrator’s process of discovering what that means.

I may be making it sound dull and programmatic. It’s anything but. Its arguments are complex and compelling, and given to Proust-like reversals. Its characters, especially the narrator’s father, leap off the page. At the sentence level it’s alive and engaging. Take this brilliant passage about the early part of Trump’s ascendancy:

The national mood was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, nihilistic – and no one embodied all this better than Donald Trump. Trump was no aberration or idiosyncrasy, as Mike saw it, but a reflection, a human mirror image in which to see all we’d allowed ourselves to become. Sure, you could read the man for metaphors – an unapologetically racist real estate magnate embodying the rise of white property rights; a self-absorbed idiot epitomising the rampant social self-obsession and narcissism that was making us all stupider by the day; greed and corruption so naked and endemic it could only be made sense of as the outsize expression of our own deepest desires – yes, you could read the man as if her were a symbol to be deciphered, but Mike thought it was much simpler than all that. Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.

(page 242)

‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ That is, the characterisation of Donald J Trump may not be startlingly original, but this is beautifully put, and there’s a lot more of it in context. No sooner have you stopped cheering (if you’re me) for this passionate statement of a vital truth, than the narrator takes us into the sleepless night that his friend Mike’s tirade has brought on. And just in case the reader wants to cheer for Mike, it turns out that Mike makes a logical – or at least logical to him – leap to arguing that it makes sense to vote Republican. This is a book that never falls in love with its own rhetorical power. It avoids cheap shots and easy answers. In a short final section, the narrator is to give a talk at a university. At first the Muslim student organisation calls for his invitation to be rescinded because his work is ‘offensive and demeaning’, but then when someone puts up posters accusing him of being pro-terrorist, the Muslims rally to back him. He’s not implying the bogus argument, ‘I’m being attacked from both sides, so I must be right,’ but holding out for complexity, for thoughtful reading. The book as a whole repays thoughtful reading in spades.

500 people: Week Seventeen

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

I’ve been travelling this week, visiting family in Brisbane. Surprisingly, I’ve had fewer opportunities for new connections while away from home – so much time spent in the travel bubble with the EA, working out timetables and routes. Conversations with AirBnB hosts, though invariably pleasant, don’t count. But the following hit-and-run encounters do.

  1. Monday 7 June, having arrived in Brisbane, and found what we thought was a safe parking spot (it wasn’t, we copped a $100 fine) we passed Red Hill Cinemas, a building that was once a skating rink, on our way back to our flat, and decided to go to a movie. We asked the young man who sold us our tickets if there was somewhere we could eat. He directed us to the Colle Rosso (get it?) pizza place, but it and another that we found through Apple Maps were both closed. We went back to the cinema and asked the front-of-house man if we could get a refund on our tickets as we needed to eat and wouldn’t make it back in time. He went and asked his manager then, having failed to get through, told us that the cinema provided food. Gratefully we ordered toasties, and twenty minutes later, just as the movie was about to start, he brought our meals to Row F.
  2. Monday, on our search for Colle Rosso, we asked for directions at a bottle shop, which was the only sign of mercantile life nearby. The chap there was kind, pointed us in the right direction, and said he’d be surprised if it was open on a Monday night. Mildly distressed at the prospect of us going hungry, he said, ‘I’d make you a pizza myself, but I haven’t got an oven here.’
  3. Tuesday, at the Queensland Art Gallery’s wonderful William Yang retrospective, Seeing and Being Seen, there’s a series of photographs related to a North Queensland murder case in the early 1920s. The Emerging Artist asked if the magistrate who made an egregious verdict in that case was my grandfather. I had a close look at the photos and text, and said to a woman who happened to be looking at the same work, ‘That magistrate was my grandfather!’ She was suitably impressed, or perhaps horrified. (For the record, I was wrong – the case was heard four years before my grandfather got the job.)
  4. Wednesday, I was visiting an old friend who is living in a kind of home for aged Marist Brothers. He introduced me to a number of men in their 80s and in various states of frailty and apparent aphasia. The one I want to single out here was someone I had known reasonably well 55 years ago. He is the man who introduced me to the writing of John Henry Newman, Raissa Maritain and, you won’t be expecting this name, William Burroughs Jnr. When I introduced myself and offered some memory prompts, the only response I got was a blank watery gaze, and a limp handshake.
  5. Thursday morning, in the QUT campus at Gardens Point we were looking for the swimming pool. We approached a young man in a tracksuit that seemed to be made from African material with bold geometric design in dazzling orange and green. He knew where the pool was, and he was heading that way. A few seconds later he pointed to the pool, but said he had no idea how to get to it. The EA complimented him on his gorgeous outfit at the same moment as I, going for something less obvious, was saying how I liked his lavender hair. ‘Thank you,’ he said to both of us, in a tone that could have meant, ‘Why are these old people commenting on my appearance?’ (I don’t usually mention race in these encounters, but it’s significant that this man is white.)
  6. Friday morning, we called on the William Robinson Museum near the pool. The woman on security told us we could visit a website that gave a guided tour of the exhibition, relating it to Nick Earls’s book William Robinson: A New Perspective. ‘But it takes a lot longer if you do that,’ she said. I said we needed to be quick because we’d just been for a pre-breakfast swim and were hungry. ‘You went for a swim in this weather?’ she asked in Queenslandish horror (we’re having a bit of an Antarctic moment). We reassured her that we’d been to the heated pool. When we left 20 minutes later, she wished us a good breakfast.
  7. Friday, a knock on the door turned out not to be the Emerging Artist returning from the laundromat, but a woman who introduced herself nervously as working with our AirBnB hosts. ‘I’m wondering,’ she began, ‘if you’ve seen—’ I interrupted her and to say that yes, I had seen the bunch of access cards she was looking for. I apologised for not having been in touch as soon as I saw them, as I knew they weren’t meant to be there. Her relief was so enormous, it clearly didn’t occur to her to blame me.
  8. Saturday morning, as we headed out for breakfast and the European Masterpieces from the MET exhibition at QAGOMA, we shared the lift with two brightly clad young people. They barely acknowledged us when they entered the lift, not rudeness so much as mutual absorption. When the woman said something about coffee, I said something about the importance of the first coffee of the day. (I don’t actually drink the stuff, but I’ve learned that it’s richly symbolic of the good life for some people.) That broke the ice, and for the rest of our descent we chatted about the terrible noise from construction work in Roma Street that had kept up all night.
  9. Saturday afternoon, we were barefoot in bathers on our way to the sauna in our hotel/AirB’n’B. Outside the lift on our floor, an elderly gentleman said hello (elderly, but probably younger than me!). I said something about us making ourselves at home and he ignored me completely. A little later, he asked if our TV worked. I said it had last night. He again didn’t respond. At that moment the lift arrived and two much younger people came out. ‘Ah, there you are,’ he said. ‘I need your help. My television doesn’t work.’ I realised later that he must have been very deaf, and had been looking away when I spoke.
  10. Saturday evening, when we’d finished dinner, a group of young people arrived at the door we were coming out of. The woman who seemed to be their leader said they were in the wrong place and should turn around. Knowing that the eatery has three entrances, I said its name and asked if that’s what they were looking for. She said No and set off. The last of the group, a man with a blond beard and a northern European accent, said, ‘We are just confused.’ I said, ‘And I was just helping to increase the confusion.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, smiling. ‘Thank you.’

Running total is now 161.

500 people: Week Sixteen

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

  1. Sunday 30 May, at a one-year-old’s birthday party, I met a number of new people, but really only had one conversation with someone who was new to me – the baby’s father’s stepmother. (We didn’t discuss what relation that makes her to the baby: I’d just go with grandmother.) She’s been travelling to Europe for work three times a year until last year, and was happy to regale me with tales of her travels, including a particularly lovely three days working at her computer on a train from Chicago to San Francisco – three very productive days with fabulous scenery rolling by outside her window. I asked the potentially annoying question: Did she know a friend of mine, from the same country of origin as her parents? After some memory trawling and adjusting of my pronunciation, she realised that she did know my friend, whom neither of us has seen or some years.
  2. Tuesday afternoon, I was having a hot drink with a couple of relatives from out of town at the Art Gallery of NSW. As I carried two large slices of layered honey cake to our table, the woman at the next table looked up from her abstemious salad and said something envious. ‘They’re not for me,’ I said, sharing her envy.
  3. Wednesday, in my second 20-minute session in the sauna, I somehow managed four conversations with new people. When I returned from my between-sessions cold shower, the two men I had left in sombre silence were chatting. The subject was tattoos. When one of them said, ‘I actually regret about half of mine,’ I seized the chance and asked him which ones. He backed off from his original statement ], but gave us both a tour of his calves and lower thighs, where he sported the images of a number of computer games – Pacman, Mario Bros, etc – and (the reason he’d backed off) the names of his three children. He saved the upper part of his body, he said, for more spiritual images. Something from The Everlasting Story scraped into that category.
  4. Wednesday, a woman joined us, and took control of the situation, swapping names and information about how long we had all been coming. I mentioned that my partner had stopped coming because the sauna was a bit male dominated, and people didn’t observe the Covid three-person limit. As it happened she had come in and made it four, but we didn’t make an issue of it. When another man (more about him soon) poured water on the rocks, she said something like, ‘It doesn’t matter to me, but there’s a sign asking us not to do that.’ A little later when the same man took a swig of water, she said, ‘It makes no difference to me, but I’ve read that if you drink while you’re in the sauna it takes away from the health benefits.’ She didn’t seem to mind that she got grunts in return and when, after a decent pause, the man took another swig, she exchanged a rueful smile with him.
  5. Wednesday, somehow the conversation turned to health and the water-swigging, stone wetting, grunting man, who had long blond hair and had a godlike surfy beauty about him – someone I was prepared to dislike on sight – volunteered that he’d recently had a brain tumour removed. While the woman, who had facilitated the conversation so elegantly, expressed sympathy, I went for vulgar curiosity: ‘Did you have a general anaesthetic, or did you have to be awake for the surgery.’ He’d had the anaesthetic, but knew it wasn’t always so. In that brief exchange my whole understanding of what was happening with the grunts etc was transformed. Later, I saw him with his clothes on, and something in his demeanour made it clear that he was dealing with the after-effects of the surgery.
  6. Wednesday, then I was alone with the other man who had been part of the tattoo conversation. He said he wouldn’t be game to bring a book into the sauna. And we had an interesting chat about the problem of too-many-books. He’d recently sold some art books for about a fifth of their worth, because it was easier to just accept the first offer from a bookshop. In the earlier conversation, before we got to tattoos, we had been taking about flexibility, specifically the possibility of putting one’s palms flat on the lower bench while sitting on the upper one. He had said to tattooed man that he could help him get there. I’d chimed in – and maybe it was my entry onto the conversation: ‘You’d never get me that flexible.’ He took it as a challenge: ‘Maybe not. But I could get you closer to it.’
  7. Saturday in the Inner West (Dulwich Hill, Earlwood, Marrickville, Enmore) I kept noticing other drivers being courteous and generous, often with a friendly smile, which was pretty good given how heavy the traffic was. I’m not counting them, but we had a similarly courteous encounter while walking on the Earlwood side of the Cooks River. As we approached a little sandstone-block chicane (see photo) designed to make the path unpleasant for bike-riders, a 60-something man with earbuds approached from the other direction, jogging at an impressive pace. We stopped to let him through, but he also stopped, and waited until I gave an explicit ‘After you’, then ran between the stones and past me with a friendly smile.

Running total is now 151.

Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (University of Queensland Press 2021)

This is a formidable book. I’d heard Evelyn Araluen read some of its poems, which she always does with a slight, dangerous smile, and was looking forward to reading them. The smile is mostly still in evidence, but the danger doesn’t feel slight. What’s endangered is any hope of emerging with Australian settler colonialist assumptions intact, or at least untroubled. In the book’s generous notes, Araluen spells out her understanding

that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

(page 99)

What looks like an elegantly designed slim volume of poems is actually a piece of incendiary resistance to colonial attempts at genocide and erasure, from May Gibbs’s cute bush creatures to perfunctory or self-serving acknowledgements of country, by way of a whole gallery of settler-Australian poets and poetic tropes. There are rage-fuelled mash-ups taken from widely read, familiar texts; poems whose ideal readers have PhDs in critical theory or contemporary poetics; and longer prose poems that could just as easily be categorised as essays and short stories. There are poems that turn their gaze away from the colonisers and dwell on family and the natural world.

In her conversation with Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival My blog post is at this link), Araluen said. ‘This is not a cancel culture book.’ And that’s an important point to make. ‘For the parents’, one of the longer pieces, is in part an expression of gratitude and appreciation for her parents who read May Gibbs to her and her siblings, which when she first ‘discovered theory’ she thought meant they were ‘losing to the settlers’:

While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were
never taught to settle for them. My parents ever pretended 
these books could truly know country or culture or 
me – but they had both come from circumstances in which 
literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just 
wanted me to be able to read.

The acts of resistance in this book are not rants against an easily demonised foe. They involve the poet’s own inner wrestles, and bring a finely tuned, disciplined intelligence to bear on issues that lie at the heart of Australian culture. The book isn’t an easy read, especially for old white men, but it’s not hostile. Speaking as an old white man I felt it as a bracing invitation and a forthright offer of guidance and even help.

Added later: There’s an excellent discussion of Dropbear by Jeanine Leane in Sydney Review of Books, at this link. Here’s a taste:

Dropbear is blunt, biting and beautifully crafted. Although it is those things, it is more than the sum of those things. It’s a radical and timely affront to the history, the myths, the gossip and the stereotypes that still confront us all as the Country’s First Peoples.

Dropbear is the tenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Journal Blitz 7

Given the lack of government support for the arts in general and literary magazines in particular, it’s no small miracle that so many of them survive and continue to publish excellent work. I do my little bit, subscribing to three and buying an occasional one-off as the spirit moves me. Then I find time to read them, sometimes falling terribly behind.


Jessica L Wilkinson (editor), Tricia Dearborn (guest editor), Devika Belimoria (artist), Rabbit 31: Science (2020)

Rabbit is a ‘journal of nonfiction poetry’. I don’t subscribe, and I’ve only read one previous issue, Number 10 (my blog post here). Like that issue, this one is beautifully designed – it features gorgeous images made by Devika Belimoria using a mysterious (to me) process involving acrylic paint and macrophotography.

The Science issue is edited by Tricia Dearborn, whose poetry I love. Whereas Tricia’s own science-related poems tend to be accessible to a non-specialist reader (as I have testified in blog posts here, here, and here), some of the poems she has chosen here are dauntingly technical. But one good thing about anthologies is one can skim, though I didn’t skim very much at all.

To give you a taste, here’s a sampling of opening lines:

From ‘Perpetual Motion’, a series of prose poems by Amit Majmudar:

Amazonian nomads, last studied in the 1940s in Brazil (in that
anthropologist's recordings of their dirges, you can hear chainsaws buck
alive in the background), had a religion based on the quest for eternal
life – only immortality wasn't a quality, as it is for us, but a place they had
to keep walking to find

From Jacqui Malins, ‘If you’:

If you are reading this I may be dead
or alive and you have survived past
infancy

Jilly O’Brien, ‘No Laughing Matter’, which is a prime example of what Tricia Dearborn’s editorial describes as ‘science at play – revealing the world, cracking bad jokes and considering the big questions’:

Pierre met Marie in the lab
He had his ion her

Jaya Savige, ‘Starstruck’:

I cannot honestly claim to have met Stephen
Hawking. But once I was skidding down the steepest 
bridge in Cambridge – in the rain, on my rusty BMX 

As well as the science poems, this Rabbit contains the winners of the 2020 Venie Holmgren Environmental Prize, with clear and accessible notes from the judges; a number of articles including one by Tricia Dearborn about her own poetry’s relation to science; a stimulating interview with Astrid Lorange; an essay adapted from a performance piece; and several reviews of recently published books of poetry. All good reading.

I have taken Rabbit 31 into the sauna with me over a couple of weeks. It was ideal reading in that contemplative environment, but alas, it’s bound with glue, and my copy is now pretty much a loose-leaf gathering of poems, images and articles. (Also I was mocked for inappropriate sauna behaviour.)


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Southerly 80!, Vol 79 No 1 (2019)

Southerly, Journal of the English Association, Sydney, has turned 80, and though no issue has appeared since this one came out in 2019, rumours of its death were apparently exaggerated. At least, the website is back up and running.

As befits a journal of such longevity, this Southerly has something for a range of tastes: poems, stories, memoirs, critical articles, notes about literary history, and a substantial number of reviews. A handful of contributors have been around for the majority of the journal’s lifespan, while others are writers appearing in print for the first time.

In ‘A Bell Note’, David Brooks, retiring editor, offers a fascinating account of his years in the chair, including the difficulty of producing the journal with mostly unpaid labour (contributors are paid, but not editorial staff) in an environment that has become increasingly hostile to literary magazines, or at least to the notion of funding them. His account of the role of literary magazines in the funding economy is worth quoting:

The government was using the journals as a means, on the one hand, of arm’s-length funding of writers (through their payments to contributors), so that, at ground level, it did not have to involve itself in deciding which writers to fund, and, at another level, the journals’ decisions as to who was worth publishing and supporting aided the Board in its decisions concerning which writers to give individual grants to. The journals, in other words, were supported because they were a vital filter in the government’s wider program of support for Australian writing. But increasingly, in the last two decades, this ground has shifted. Literary journals continue to perform this same function, but it’s now largely for the publishing industry; to the government they are supplicants, mendicants.

Richard Nile’s ‘Desert Worlds’ is a survey of the way literature has portrayed the Australian soldiers’ sojourn in Egypt in 1916. It’s almost as if the proponents of patriotic myths should be very glad of the disaster of Gallipoli, because without it those gallant men might now be remembered as racist, sexist, drunken hoons.

Alison Hoddinott’s ‘Poetry and Musicophobia’ does a quick tour of distinguished poets and other writers who have been, not deaf like Henry Lawson, but tone deaf – unable to hold or even recognise a tune, even while being extremely sensitive to the musicality of language. There are amusing anecdotes about Hal Porter, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath, among others.

’Editing Daniel’ is a brief account of the life and work of Daniel Thomas, art historian and gallery director, written by Hannah Fink, co-editor of Recent Past: Writing Australian art, the first collection of Thomas’s writing.

Jumana Bayeh’s ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’ glances at a couple of pages of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story where, she says, an Arab-Australian character appears in an Australian novel for the first time, then goes on to a fascinating discussion of two much more recent novels by Arab-Australians, Loubna Haikal’s Seducing Mr Maclean (2002) and Michael Muhammad Ahmad’s The Lebs (2018), with Edward Said’s Orientalism as theoretical backdrop.

There’s a wonderful variety of poems, including: the melancholy ‘wrap’ by joanne burns (whose apparently is reviewed by Margaret Bradstock elsewhere in the journal); the harrowing ‘Explant (caveat emptor)’ by Beth Spencer (I had to look up breast explant surgery to understand this poem); Anne Elvey’s poem in memoriam Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Grevillea Robusta’; and Jaya Savige’s ‘Coonoowrin (Crookneck)’, on which I spent far too much time and still have only deciphered less than a quarter. Just in case my reader shares my love of impossible word puzzles, here’s the opening of that last-named poem:

Hushbound, mountchain, coiled for-kin ache
revenant, calm. Warm hay be stark enigma flags, but cannot 
rarely be sore heart to tune and luck upon your sighin'?

Decoded:

Husband, mountain, [unintelligible] 
[unintelligible], come. We may be [unintelligible], but can it
really be so hard to turn and look upon your son?

If you can fill in the blanks, the comments section is open.

Of the reviews, Michelle Cahill made me want to read David Brooks’s The Grass Library; Toby Fitch reviewing Dave Drayton’s P(oe)Ms offered valuable insight into some contemporary poetics; Oliver Wakelin on Luke Carman’s Intimate Antipodes, perhaps inadvertently, caught me up on some literary gossip.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 237 (Winter 2019)

As a marker of how far behind I am in my Overland reading, while I was reading this issue, the last one edited by Jacinda Woodhead, the fourth edited by her successors, Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, has landed in my letterbox.

Mind you, Overland isn’t all that committed to timeliness either. The punchiest article in this issue, ‘Crocodile tears‘ by Russell Marks, is a blistering criticism of a book published in 2016, Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater. After noting that the book met critical acclaim and won awards (not to mention modified praise from bloggers such as me, link here), it goes on:

All of this should come as a surprise because Saltwater‘s myriad problems could have excluded from publication altogether.

Drawing on his own extensive experience as a lawyer working with and for First Nations people, he makes a very convincing case that Cathy McLennan’s memoir of her time as a young lawyer working for an Aboriginal legal service in Townsville is full of poor legal practice which the older McLennan seems to endorse, is misleading in many ways and feeds a racist agenda, while distracting readers from its reactionary politics by ‘vivid and shocksploitative descriptions of her clients and their lives’. (I searched online in vain for any defence of the book.)

The only moment that felt seriously dated was a citation of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in Hannah McCann’s ‘Look good, feel good‘, an otherwise excellent article about the emotional labour of beauty salon workers. Though The Beauty Myth may well hold up, it’s hard to imagine an article in Overland these days quoting someone who so bizarrely argues against masks and basic contact tracing mechanisms.

My other highlights in this issue were: ‘Only the lonely‘ by Rachael McGuirk, discusses the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ from the perspective provided by her family’s long-term, harrowing experiences with drugs, mental illness and the justice system, ‘Inspired and multiple‘ by Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, who describe their process of co-translating poetry as ‘a dance in chains’; ‘At the crossroads‘ by Con Karavias, a history lesson about the German revolution that raged from 1918 to 1923, but will never be restored to mainstream respectability because to do so would be to acknowledge that conservative forces unleashed Hitler and Nazism in order to crush it.

Of the four short stories, ‘Womanhood‘ by Mubanga Kalimamukwento, a Zambian coming of age story involving female genital modification, had most impact on me. ‘The Sublime Composition‘ by Gareth Sion Jenkins incorporates elements of Microsoft Word’s track changes feature in a deconstruction of an incident recorded in Thomas Mitchell’s journals of exploration, but it’s an extract from a work in progress, a taste rather than a meal.

In the eight pages of poetry, I loved the way ‘Tenor and vehicles‘ by Shastra Deo and ‘Learning‘ by Jini Maxwell resonated with each other. One begins:

Fact: things are like other things. Supposition: liking
tweets is like a simile. 

The other:

There is a very fine line
between writing and just sitting down

Overland has a number of regular features:

  • a guest artist. Number 237 has Matt Chun, who is currently – or was in January 2020 – the Children’s Literature Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, and who brings a children’s illustrator’s sensitivity to these sometimes necessarily grim pages.
  • three columnists: On failure by Alison Croggon; On the school as utopia by Giovanni Tiso; and On writing in water by Mel Campbell
  • the results of at least one competition. This time it’s the 2019 Fair Australia Prize (FAP), an annual prize co-sponsored by the United Workers Union and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. The winners – two short stories, an essay, a poem and a cartoon – share a fresh directness in the way they address issues facing working people in Australian and, in the general fiction prize winner, in India.

And three more journals are now on the shelf above my desk …

500 people: Week Fifteen

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge. I’m realising that the point of taking note of these mainly probably ephemeral encounters is to pay attention to moments of making connection. Since starting these weekly reports, I’ve remembered my first encounters with people who have been important in my life – which is another story, but not unrelated.

  1. Sunday 23 May, we made an unplanned visit to the Corner Gallery in Stanmore, where there is an exhibition centred around beautiful photographs of Central Australian sites by Philip Bell. The artist was present, and we had an interesting chat about the work: he took the photos some time ago, and has reconsidered them in the light of Mark McKenna’s book Return to Uluru and the story of Bertha Strehlow.
  2. Tuesday morning, as I was heading out to the street when a tiny white dog with a pink collar yapped a furious challenge. I bent down and offered her the back of my hand, which was enough to change her challenge to a warm, bouncy greeting. So of course I got to talk to the human who, it turned out, has just taken on looking after the puppy two days a week. She, the human, lives in a part of our complex that means she rarely has reason to come to the lovingly tended flower gardens, and she was enjoying noticing them. We chatted about dogs and working from home, and then …
  3. Tuesday, immediately after that encounter, I was hailed by a recent acquaintance (Number 4 of Week 14), who introduced me to her partner, who was cleaning the brick wall outside their back door with a high-pressure hose. He apologised for the noise and, as expected, I said it was no bother. Truth be told, I’d barely noticed it.
  4. Tuesday, later in the day, I was in the sauna with an old acquaintance (Number 9 of Week 13) when a third person came in and pretty much ignored my greeting. After we’d been sitting in silence for a while, my old acquaintance started doing stretch exercises, and the newcomer asked, ‘Do you have flat feet too?’ We three then had a wide-ranging conversation, starting with flat feet and achilles tendons, taking in the Indian army’s policy of rejecting applicants with flat feet or no space between their thighs, to the difficulty of making friends in a new city and the possible role that ethnicity (polite word for racism) might play in that. Both my companions were the sons of servicemen. The newcomer had to ask us to repeat some things, so I realised that his initial lack of response may have been because I had mumbled incomprehensibly to a non-native English speaker. Possibly the mumble’s friendly tone helped him to take his later initiative.
  5. Thursday, as usual, was grandfathering day, and being in the company of a three-year-old person makes encounters happen. This Thursday, we had hot drinks at a cafe near the Newtown police station, a table away from a couple of men in suits who were discussing the prices of different sized USB sticks. when one of them went inside the cafe, someone at my table burped loudly. The USB man couldn’t resist. ‘Was that the young lady who did that?’ he asked. The young lady in question hung her head in pure shyness. I said, ‘No, she wouldn’t do a thing like that.’ He said, ‘Not yet.’ Given that everyone involved knew that I was the burper, this was a complex exchange, mostly benign exchange.
  6. Thursday, a little later, we were on a train. A young family – man, woman, baby nearing 12 months – sat opposite us. Out of the blue, the woman produced a shiny white camera and having asked permission took a photo of us. She then handed us the undeveloped polaroid snap, and all six of us watched the image emerge. It turned out they were o their way to the airport, going home to Melbourne. The Emerging Artist and I expressed our sympathy – they were heading back to a week’s lockdown, and there we all were, chatting maskless on public transport.
  7. Thursday, on the train on the way home, a woman sitting opposite us started chatting to Ruby. She responded with bowed-head shyness. The Emerging Artist asked if the woman and her companion were on their way home from work, and that led to a substantial conversation about their decades of employment for the same company, their prospects for retirement, and eventually the woman who had started it said she was sixty-five years old. The EA expressed surprise. Though I had also thought she was in her mid 40s, I thought this was a bit of an ageist gaffe, so I pointed at the EA and said, ‘She’s 35.’ (The EA is brilliant at making connections with new people – she does it by asking a lot of questions. I guess my most comfortable way is to make a joke.)
  8. Saturday morning, we’re spending part of the weekend with friends at Patonga, secluded beach town north of Sydney. On an early walk, the EA and I were behind a family where each adult in turn had something to say about how the teenage girl should dress for the unexpected cold weather. One of the women noticed us drawing even with them and said, ‘Sorry,’ in that Australian way of acknowledging proximity. I said, ‘Nah,’ or something equally articulate, then pointed to the EA and said to the teenager, ‘She’s been trying to figure out what I should be wearing too.’
  9. Saturday, later in the morning, we went to buy hot drinks at Cafe du Blueza – a marquee pitched in its owner’s front yard that serves snacks and drinks. I noticed some Girrakool Blues Fest merchandise and asked about his connection with it. It turns out he was the director of the Festival, but had to make a Covid pivot when it was cancelled – and is now doing quite well as a weekend front-yard barista.

Running total is now 144.

500 people: Week Fourteen

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

Here’s another week’s worth of apparently almost meaningless encounters. I say apparently because I can feel my general attitude changing when I’m out in public. Where I used to be content inside my bubble, either alone or with my companions, perhaps enjoying people-watching, I’m now tending to notice possibilities for connection – and notice how generally people welcome a friendly word out of the blue. It may not be the beginning of 500 beautiful friendships, but it changes the feel of public places.

Click on the image to see its source
  1. Sunday 16 May, early afternoon, walking with the Emerging Artist in Sydney Park on another beautiful late autumn day, I passed a man and a woman who, like us, were in their couple bubble. The man’s T-shirt caught my copy-editor’s eye. In a beautiful cursive, it read, Theiyr’re. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, and by their startled reaction I may have said it in a tone of great urgency, ‘where did you get that fabulous T-shirt?’ They both laughed, and he said, ‘Google it.’ It turns out, of course, that the joke is everywhere, but none of the T-shirts I found on line did it as beautifully as that one. The pic above came closest.
  2. Sunday, on the same walk, near the skate park, I was similarly awe-stricken by a birthday cake sitting on a low wall. It was shaped as a blue skateboard, with wheels made of chocolate-topped cupcakes and candles shaped as the numeral 10. Such art cried out for an appreciative audience. After a moment of polite, silent appreciation, I caught someone’s attention and asked, ‘Who did that?’ ‘The mother,’ someone said, and the mother came back from a short distance away. ‘That’s fantastic,’ I gushed – sincerely. ‘It was a rush job,’ she said, in the classic ploy to avoid the evil eye. And she laughed.
  3. Monday morning, I bought a soy and linseed sourdough loaf at our local artisanal bakery. The masked man behind the counter, whom I hadn’t met before, said, ‘There must be a Spanish joke in that.’ Replying to my raised eyebrow, he went on, ‘Soy is I am, so Soy latte means I am milk.’ Being a smarty-pants, I said, ‘It would have to be Soy leche.’ Then as I was leaving, I said, ‘It needs work but you may have the makings of something there.’ (Arguably this exchange doesn’t qualify for inclusion here, because I did nothing to provoke it, but on the other hand I’ve had nice casual friendships with other people in that bakery, and who knows about this one?)
  4. Tuesday morning, setting out to visit the physiotherapist, I passed a woman wiping down the wrought iron fencing in front of part of our complex. I stopped to chat, we told each other which units we lived in – hers, obviously, was the one whose fence she was cleaning (‘Spring cleaning,’ she said, even though it’s late autumn). She asked if I was an owner or a renter, and when I said, ‘Owner’, she told me her name. I reciprocated.
  5. Tuesday, on the way home, in the back streets of Newtown, near the back of Camdenville Public School, a woman called to me from her car. ‘Can you tell me the way to Newtown Public School?’ Embarrassingly, I couldn’t. ‘I can tell you where Newtown High School is,’ I said, and offered to look up the primary school on my phone. ‘It’s OK,’ she said, indicating her own phone, and drove off. I’m still not sure where Newtown Public School is, but about five minutes later I passed her on foot in King Street looking as if she’d found what she was looking for. I don’t think she recognised me.
  6. Tuesday, at the vegie shop later in the afternoon, the woman ahead of me at the cashier was leaving with a wide open zip on the bag slung over her shoulder. I called out to warn her. She said, ‘Yes, I usually leave it open because I’m always in and out of it.’ When I’d finished checking out, she was still outside the shop with her two or three young companions (sons?). I kind of apologised. She said she usually has the bag at the front. I confessed that I’m regularly told that my backpack zip is wide open, and I was just passing on the favour. (Actually I have a new backpack whose zip isn’t broken, so those encounters are generally in the past.)
  7. Wednesday afternoon in the sauna, clearly a good place for talking to people, I had an actual conversation when there were just two of us there. I can’t remember how it started, but I know it was my doing. I learned a lot about how saunas are done in Finland: in particular I now have a mental image of my sauna companion gasping for breath in the ice-cold pond he plunged into after his first Finnish sauna, barely able to gasp out the word English so the nice man who was trying to help him could switch from Finnish to impeccable English to advise him to slow his breathing right down. We talked about life as a paramedic; I recommended Benjamin Gilmour’s movie Paramedico, though sadly couldn’t remember Benjamin’s name; my companion had read the book of the movie; he had suggestions for where there might be a sauna better suited to the Emerging Artist’s needs and preferences.
  8. Friday early afternoon at the School Strike for Climate, I was impressed by the row of policemen who marched beside the demonstration about two metres apart, keeping us to our side of the street (alas, not shown in the photo below). Remembering a moment fifty years ago at my first demonstration – a moratorium march against the war in Vietnam – when I said something to a policeman and received a punch in the head, I decided to see what happened this time. I don’t remember what I said in 1970, but in 2021 I said, ‘Thanks for doing this.’ The young policeman smiled and said, ‘You’re welcome.’ Emboldened, I said, ‘This must be a change of pace for you guys.’ ‘No,’ he said, we do this most Fridays and Saturdays. There’s usually a demonstration about something, not always climate change.’ I went back to chanting, ‘Stand up, fight back!’
  9. to 11. Friday, a little later, we were about to be organised to spell out a message – ‘Invest in the future, not gas’ – for a drone shot and a commercial TV helicopter. A woman standing next to me asked nobody in particular what letter we were standing next to. I was able to tell her that we were standing on the edge of the E. Someone joined the conversation and said we were at the end of the future, and a small group of three or four people bonded over the dark joke.
    12. Friday about 5 o’clock, in the thick of King Street, a young man with a scruffy beard (not an unusual sight in Newtown) was shucking a big and evidently heavy backpack. A long white arm stretched from the top of the backpack. Instead of just noting this as a colourful detail of the street, I stopped and asked him about it. ‘It’s my travelling companion,’ he said, with what may have been a British accent. ‘When I’m asking for a lift, I hold it out.’
    13. Saturday lunchtime, we were in a small Lebanese cafe where the owner said the kafta burgers were made using her mother’s recipe. I asked if she’d seen the recent episode of The Drum on ABC TV where they talked about vegetarianism. ‘I never get to watch TV,’ she said in the familiar sorrowful tone of the small cafe owner. I told her: ‘They were saying that a lot of men won’t give up meat because it would somehow affect their masculinity, and a man on the panel said, “I’m Lebanese, and if I stopped eating meat my mother would kill me.”‘ Our host laughed and told a story of what happened in her family when she tried to go vegetarian temporarily. ‘Oh yes,’ her father said, ‘have some of this delicious lamb.’

Running total is now 135. There are 32 weeks to go and I’m 365 short of the 500 goal. So about 12 encounters a week should get me to the goal. I reserve the right to shift the goalposts