Richard Denniss’s Dead Right

Richard Denniss, Dead Right: How neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next (Quarterly Essay 70, 2018)

qe70.jpg

If, like me, you expect an essay on economics to be dry and jargon-ridden, you will be relieved to find that this Quarterly Essay is witty, passionate and accessible. On the 2018 Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast of Richard Denniss discussing his previous book, Curing Affluenza, there are a number of Anna Russell ‘I’m not making this up’ moments: the audience laughs at a piece of snark about the workings of capitalism and right-wing politics, and Denniss protests that what he has just said is the simple truth. These pages bristle with the written equivalents of those moments. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t real

The main thesis:

Neoliberalism, the catch-all term for all things small government, has been the ideal cloak behind which to conceal enormous shifts in Australia’s wealth and culture. It has provided powerful people with the perfect language in which to dress up their self-interest as the national interest.

Neoliberalism pretends to be a coherent theory of economics that says the market should be allowed to function without government interference – hence deregulation and privatisation are always the way to go. But as preached and practised in Australia it is really a rhetoric to disguise greed and self-interest. Denniss multiplies examples of places where the proponents of ‘small government’ are all for government subsidy and regulation, so long as it goes to them or helps causes close to their hearts. The Murdoch media empire and Adani coal mine are only the most egregious instances.

Since I started drafting this blog post, Australia’s Prime Minister has dismissed the ALP’s policy emphasis on welfare, health and education as being about ‘More taxes, more taxes, more taxes, more taxes and more taxes’. He has also described the Sydney Opera House as ‘Sydney’s biggest billboard’. I could almost hear Richard Denniss’s pen scratching these utterances into his notes for future articles.

But yelling at the absurdities and cruelties of neoliberalism is a game we all play in front of our televisions every night. Denniss offers analysis and some steps towards remedy. The real power of neoliberalism, he writes,

has been to convince the media and large swathes of the public that … debates about the shape of our communities and the design of our institutions are somehow a ‘distraction’ from the main game of further tax cuts and industrial relations reform. Neoliberalism has produced the bizarre result that serious politicians and serious political parties define themselves by their ‘economic agenda’, while declaring simultaneously that it is individual choice, not government policy, that creates jobs and prosperity.

Faith in our democratic institutions, he argues persuasively, has been eroded:

The opposite of the narrow economic agenda of neoliberalism isn’t a progressive economic reform agenda; it is the re-establishment of a broad debate about the national interest. After thirty years of hearing that politicians, government and taxes are the things that ruin the economy, it is time for the public to hear and see that politicians, government and taxes are the foundations on which prosperous democratic nations are built.

The essay ends with a list of five new institutions that might help restore a vibrant democracy – institutions that Denniss would like to see introduced only if citizens are consulted at the beginning, the middle and the end of the process of their creation. The institutions, none of which are either left or right propositions, are:

A charter of rights – to place our collective vision of our fundamental rights above any attempts to limit such rights based on the politics of the day. This would have protected us from the recent ‘robot-debt’ debacle, and would curb the current expansion of Peter Dutton’s powers.

• A National Interest Commission – to replace the Productivity Commission and provide ‘broad advice on the kind of advantages (as opposed to benefits) and disadvantages (as opposed to costs) that m=a major project like … an enormous new mine … might entail’.

• A federal corruption watchdog – hardly needs arguing for.

• Democratic education – that is, education in the workings of our democratic system, especially perhaps in the nature of the Senate and how Senate voting works.

• A sovereign wealth fund – ‘imagine if all tax collected from the mining industry went into the same fund from which all [mining] subsidies were drawn. Not only would there be much greater transparency and accountability concerning the subsidies, the revenue collected from the sale of our scarce resources also could not be squandered on short-term vote-buying.’

This QE was published in June. An advantage of coming to it late is that the next in the series has been published, with 47 pages of correspondence about Dead Right up the back (not bad for a 77 page essay). As always, the correspondence sheds new and interesting light on the essay’s subject. This is particularly true of John Quiggin’s account of how Tony Abbott’s prime-ministership dealt the death blow to Australian neoliberalism’s credibility. Interesting in a different way is John McTiernan’s attack, which is a brilliant example of a kind of political writing that distorts the writer’s enemy’s position and then tramples all over the straw man it has created: this is apparently quite effective in the opinion columns of the Australian, when readers of the attack can be assumed not to have read the thing being attacked – here it just makes Mr McTiernan look illiterate. On the other hand, The Australian‘s economics editor, Adam Creighton, is one of several economists who criticise  Denniss’s essay trenchantly without grossly misrepresenting it.

Denniss uses his right of reply deftly and with more courtesy than sarcasm. He says in his concluding paragraph:

It is a privilege to have my arguments tested by such diverse voices. The conclusion of Dead Right is that the opposite of neoliberal economics isn’t progressive economics, but engaged democracy. And engaged democracy requires exactly the sort of well-meaning debate contained in these pages.

History repeating

A little less than eight years ago, she who was to become the Emerging Artist and I sold our house and bought the smaller one where we now live. I recorded the process in verse.

4 November 2010:

On selling the family home
Our home for more than twenty years
Our haven, our Three Seventeen,
Where children’s laughter, rage and tears,
And adults’ too, and in between
Have filled the air, where stains and scratches,
Dents and holes, loose threads and  patches
Are records of our history
With love’s abiding mystery
Was sold on Tuesday, seven thirty.
Our shell, our outer skin, alive,
We’ll trade for one point five two five.
It’s brick and wood, some bits quite dirty.
We’ll shuffle off to somewhere new:
New owners, may it welcome you.

6 November 2010:

Looking to buy
Flexible, unique and charming,
spacious, stylish, redesigned,
with northern sun, and traffic calming,
details of the classic kind,
potential for downsizers’ retreat
in much sought after treelined street,
we seek it here, we seek it there,
our new home could be anywhere,
in Earlwood, Petersham, St Peters,
Marrickville or Hurlstone Park,
(Burwood’s too far off the mark).
At each new door the agents greet us.
We turn up, armed  with cheques, not knives,
Buying, not fighting, for our lives.

26 November 2010:

Announcement
We’ve bought a house, we sign today,
pay ten percent of far too much
(but we’re in love, so that’s OK).
It’s done up with a loving touch,
it’s near a park and faces north,
near shops, trains, buses and so forth.
We’re downing size, yes, less is more,
from Three One Seven to Thirty-Four.
Bring us garlands, bring us flowers.
Blow the whistle: end of innings.
Sing a song of new beginnings.
Four signatures, the house is ours.
Soon we fly the empty nest.
We’ve found our home for all the rest.

And now we’ve just done it again, this time moving into an apartment about a block away from where we mow live. It’s astonishing how those three stanzas describe the process and the feelings that go with it. we exchanged contracts on our present house on 25 September, and bought the apartment at auction on 6 October.

This time it’s serious downsizing. Many books have already found new homes, and many more are yet to do so.

 

Alice Walker’s Chicken Chronicles

Alice Walker, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the angels who have returned with my memories – Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A memoir (The New Press 2011)

chicken.jpg

The Chicken Chronicles consists of 37 short chapters, originally blog posts, about keeping chickens. Not just keeping them, but spending time observing them, enjoying them, being sat on and pecked and fed by them, communing with them, falling in love with them as individuals and as a species, and following the mind wherever they take it.

One of Alice Walker’s childhood chores was to wring the neck of  a chicken each week for the Sunday dinner. Chickens, or more specifically roosters, featured in her 1992 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy – as a nightmarish presence to do with the genital mutilation of little girls. It’s tempting to read The Chicken Chronicles as Walker’s joy-filled atonement for those sins and slanders of the past.

The first chapter describes an encounter with a mother hen who was ‘industrious and quick, focused and determined’. The memory of that encounter kept resurfacing, and Walker writes:

I realised I was concerned about chickens, as a Nation, and that I missed them. (Some of you will want to read no further.)

I took this as a warning and a challenge to anyone who finds that capitalised ‘Nation’ ridiculous or even offensive: if you read on, be prepared for some tendentious animal-liberation rhetoric, perhaps. I did read on, and I was glad to have been forewarned, especially when there is a change of register after half a dozen chapters, and from then on Walker addresses the chickens directly and refers to herself as Mommy (and the person who until then  had been her partner as Daddee), telling them about her travels and her admiration for figures such as Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh, or delivering little sermons to them and the eavesdropping reader. Like this:

Mommy’s mind is dizzy and her heart sore from all the troubles in the human realm. She sees pictures of other birds, no less wondrous than you, covered with oil and dying of suffocation and despair. How can they fathom what is happening to them? How can they understand they are not to blame? What have they done but be themselves, flying about eating insects and grubs, while appearing marvellous to the human spirit, even whole doing so? She learns soldiers from her country have shot and killed two pregnant women in Afghanistan, one of them Mommy of ten. What is an Afghanistan? You will wonder. Is it edible? Mommy has never been there but she used to wear beautiful long dresses made of velvet and embroidered in many colours, which came from Afghanistan.

There’s something real happening here: in addressing the chickens, the mind can go to some basic questions. But any grumpy and humourless children of the Enlightenment should probably stay away from this book. I’m grumpy but not completely humourless, and had to work hard to appreciate passages like that one,  and I found a lot to enjoy elsewhere.

The chapter that picks up the notion of ‘sitting with the angels’ from the book’s title is an example. (I’ve just discovered that a version of this chapter is online in Alice Walker’s facebook timeline – you could do worse than read the whole piece.) As she spends time with the chickens, sitting in her ‘meditation chair’ in their enclosure, Walker finds that memories of her childhood come back to her:

For, spending time with you, not only did Mommy recall and visualise her own mother’s thumb with its deep, beloved scar, and from the thumb begin to see her mother’s face and actions, but she also began to see, in stark detail, the house near Ward’s chapel: the final and most wretched of all the grey shacks; the house that her mother attempted to hide, as she camouflaged all the others, behind a vibrant wall of flowers. And inside the house that shook when anyone walked from room to room, there was Mommy’s room papered with real wallpaper, though too thin and delicate to actually touch! While in her parents’ room her mother had done the Mommy thing that was so typical of her: she had papered her own bedroom with flattened cardboard boxes and brown butcher’s paper.

As she describes the way the chickens gave her back these memories, she also gives memories back to the reader – at least to this one. We had chooks in my childhood home, though I didn’t have to wring any necks and our chicken meals were a lot less frequent than the Walker family’s. This book is full of wonderful descriptions of chickens – their behaviour around roosting, their alarm at predators (river rats and hawks in my case, North American beasties in Walker’s), their joy at being fed and called to by humans’ crude impersonation of their cries. These felt like a generous gift of memory. Walker brings to her chickens with the kind of attention I remember from my childhood, and her descriptions of them capture beautifully the joy of being close up to other species.

Sarah Winman’s Tin Man

Sarah Winman, Tin Man (Tinder 2017)

tinman.jpgThis is a gentle love story. It starts out with a man who we gradually discover is grieving for the loss of his wife and best friend in a car accident. Over the novel’s short length we discover the rich complexity of the relationships among the three of them, the depth of their loves, their joys and their sorrows, maybe particularly their sorrows: not a ménage à trois, but what one of the characters calls a mélange.

It’s very English, tactful when erotic, and filled with the kindness of strangers and the healing of wounds.

 

Marija Peričić’s Lost Pages

Marija Peričić, The Lost Pages (Allen & Unwin 2017)

lostpages.jpgThis book begins with a lie.

The imprint page includes standard disclaimer, ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental,’ but what follows purports to be an account by Max Brod (a real person, you can look him up on Wikipedia) of his relationship with Franz Kafka (ditto). Brod famously disobeyed Kafka’s deathbed instruction to burn all his papers, and so gave the world The Trial and other works that established Kafka’s eminence in 20th century literature. So we’re set up from the beginning for a historical novel about a literary friendship.

Usually, historical novels thrive in the gaps in the historical record: the facts as we have them remain fixed points, and the novelist’s imagination goes to work with people, events and dialogue that have been undocumented. In The Lost Pages, things aren’t so cut and dried. Brod’s biography of Kafka is one of the main historical sources about him. This novel is presented as a manuscript found in Kafka’s papers as preserved by Brod and now owned by two Israeli sisters (which really do exist, unexamined by scholars): so what the fictional Brod writes here can claim to override the historical Brod’s version.

And it does.

It’s a tale full of obsession, anguish, betrayal, jealousy, paranoia (well, it is a story about Kafka), hallucinatory episodes (ditto), and enormous improbabilities which are resolved by even less likely revelations. I kept forgetting that it was written by a 30-something woman living in Melbourne – I was away in the world of Prague literary celebrity a century ago, having a great time. It would be wrong to say the book is silly, but I find it hard to think of a better word for its quality that most charmed me. It’s a romp, if a romp can include social exclusion (Brod in real life and in the novel had severe spinal curvature), abject humiliation, extreme mental anguish …

The Lost Pages is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride

Sue Lawson, Freedom Ride (Walker Books Australia 2016)

freedomride.jpgThis is a YA novel, that is to say, a novel intended for young teenagers. Its main character, fifteen-year-old Robbie Bowers, lives with his bank-employee father and his grandmother in the tiny fictional New South Wales town of Walgaree. Robbie’s a frequent target for the school bully and his cronies, and home is no refuge. His grandmother is prim, humourless and authoritarian, a terrible cook with nasty gossiping friends. His father is hardly any better, having come back to live with his mother after losing his wife when Robbie was a baby. The stage is set for a coming of age story, in which Robbie finds a way to independence of spirit, connection with some decent people, and perhaps even a little happiness.

And that is what plays out. Robbie is befriended by the young man who has come home from London to take over the caravan park when his father died. Robbie accidentally unearths some family secrets and lies, exposes his father and grandmother and their friends as terrible people, and ends up with the possibility of a new life opening up for him.

At the same time, the novel is about the 1965 Freedom Ride, in which a group of university students led by Charles Perkins hired a bus and travelled through rural New South Wales for two weeks, documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people and staging protests at, among other things, RsL clubs that excluded Aboriginal veterans and swimming pools that banned Aboriginal an non-Aboriginal children from sharing the pool. The students arrive in Walgaree about four-fifth of the way through the book. In terms of the plot, they don’t do much more than provide a dramatic backdrop for Robbie’s climactic outburst. In fact, in terms of the plot, the terrible racism that is endemic in Walgaree serves mainly as a broader social justification Robbie’s rebellion against his father and grandmother: they’re not only mean, deceitful, and bad cooks, but they’re unmitigated genocidal racists.

A historical note at the back lists the 37 participant in the Freedom ride, and links it to the 1967 referendum, the land rights campaign, the setting up of the Tent Embassy and the apology to the Stolen Generations. The book clearly aims to  informs a new generation of readers of a significant moment in Australian history. I think it will do that. However, I have two caveats.

First: even though there’s a language warning in the opening pages, the bruisingly racist dialogue, taken together with the focus on a white boy’s coming of age story while all but one of the Aboriginal  characters are pretty one-dimensional, makes me think it’s a book that should be read alongside something by an Indigenous writer: Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which I hope to read soon, comes to mind. And there’s a big list of Indigenous Australian YA book here. [Added later: In the comments below, Greenspace01 mentions A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins, who led the Freedom Ride and appears as a character in this book.]

And second: there’s not a lot of complexity in the non-Indigenous characters. The racists are all mean-spirited bullies, gossips, who are willing, down to the last one of them, to cover up the most heinous crimes agains Aboriginal people, and also they have horrible voices and are terrible cooks. The ones who take a stand against racism are good looking, warm, generous, and witty. Denouncing your racist family and getting the hell out of there is clearly the only thing to do. Sadly, it’s not always like that in the real world. It’s not that I wanted the book to soften its depiction of racism, but when the lines are drawn as simply as this, the story is unlikely to prompt its non-Indigenous readers to look at their own collusion in, or at best benefitting from, the oppression of Indigenous people.

Freedom Ride is the fourteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and the Book Group

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (©2007, Translated Jennifer Crofts 2017, Text Publishing 2017)

flights.jpgBefore the meeting: If I hadn’t been reading this for the Book Group, I would have stopped reading at about page 80. As it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, it seems that wiser heads see it differently, but to my mind it consisted of fragments of story interspersed with short, mostly banal reflections on aspects of travel. It was like reading excerpts from a notebook, some of them expanded to a degree.

I did keep going, from a sense of duty to the Group and in the hope that some of the fragmentary narratives might be continued later.

On page 83, it turns out, the narrator is in an airport and encounters a lecture being given on Travel Psychology. A quick Duck-Duck-Go search shows that travel psychology is a real thing, but the discipline by that name in this lecture seems to be Olga Tokarczuk’s invention, and the lecture has every appearance of telling the reader how the book works, that is to say, the lecturer is the character some film critics would call Basil Exposition. The foundational idea of travel psychology, he says, is constellationality:

in life […] it is impossible to build a consistent cause-and-effect course of argument or a narrative with events that succeed each other casuistically and follow from each other. … Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth. […] Human life is comprised of situations. There is, of course, a certain inclination towards the repetition of behaviours. This repetition does not, however, mean that we should succumb in our imaginations to the appearance of any sort of consistent whole.

That is, abandon hope of finding a consistent whole, all ye who enter here.

Some of the stories that follow do allow for development and even resolution, particularly one about seventeenth century anatomists, and another about a woman who steps out of her life to become homeless in Moscow for a time. The most frustratingly curtailed story from early in the book does continue to a resolved state in the last section. But in general, though there’s a salient theme to do with the preservation of human bodies for display purposes, the book fulfils that warning not to expect ‘the appearance of any sort of consistent whole’. I’ve got nothing against constellations or constellationality, but I guess I do like a bit of a consistent whole. I did enjoy some moments, but over all, I’m a long way from being a fan of this book. Sorry!

[A pedantic note: As a lazy blogger, I looked online to see if someone else had quoted from that Travel Psychology lecture, planning to cut and paste. As a recovering proofreader I was interested to see how what I found in the Chicago Review of Books differs from the text in my copy of the book, which is what I’ve quoted from above: the review follows US spelling conventions, omits the word ‘Human’, and has ‘made up of’ rather than the incorrect ‘comprised of’. It looks as if the US editors were more rigorous than the ones responsible for the Text Publishing edition. If I was even more obsessive than I am, I’d hunt out a US edition to see if, for instance, it too misspells ‘minuscule’ or if its translation of ‘quaestio oritur‘ [‘the question arises’]  sticks to the correct literal translation or gives the common but erroneous ‘begs the question’ as in my copy.]

After the meeting: We had a good conversation over spaghetti bolognese, just seven of us. Mostly people enjoyed the book more than I did, but I think I’m right in saying that no one absolutely loved it – I had been hoping it would find an unabashed champion who would make me see what I had missed, but it was not to be. One man in particular found a thematic glue to do with the unpredictability of life, but mostly there was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. What did emerge in the course of the conversation was the range of stories: none of us could remember one of the episodes singled out for mention on the back cover, but we reminded each other of many moments we had enjoyed.

Given that in one way or another, most of the reflections and narratives in Flights are to do with travel, it was appropriate that the conversation moved on to our own travellers’ tales: two of us had independently visited the bogs of Estonia and a festival in Riga, one had seen wonders in Texas and California, and one had had a transformative experience in Arnhem Land.

Czesław Miłosz’s Captive Mind

Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, translated from the Polish by Jane Zielonko (1953, 1981, Penguin Modern Classics 2010)

milosz.jpgThis book was very popular among anti-Communists during the ColdWar, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a powerful critique of Stalinism. But it’s a long way from attacking Marxism or proclaiming the joys of capitalism.

It’s a classic of 20th century Polish literature, whose author went on to to a long and distinguished careers as a poet, winning the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, described in the citation as one ‘who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts’.

I found the book riveting, not just as a product of its historical moment, though I have come away from it knowing a lot more about the history of Poland in the first half of the 20th century, but for the light it sheds on the way social conditions can inhibit, distort, compromise, undermine, confine, even determine the minds of even the most serious intellectuals. There’s an anatomy of the ways people can pay lip service while holding onto their own beliefs (a phenomenon he calls ‘Ketman’, which includes this:

Just as theologians in periods of strict orthodoxy expressed their views in the rigorous language of the Church, so the writers of the people’s democracies make use of an accepted special style, terminology and linguistic ritual. What is important is not what someone said but what he wanted to say, disguising his thought by removing a comma, inserting an ‘and’, establishing this rather than another sequence in the problems discussed. Unless one has lived there one cannot know how many titanic battles are being fought, how the heroes of Ketman are falling, what this warfare is being waged over. Obviously, people caught up in this daily struggle are rather contemptuous of their compatriot political émigrés. A surgeon cannot consider a butcher his equal in dexterity; just so a Pole, Czech or Hungarian practised in the art of dissimulation smiles when he learns that someone in the emigration has called him a traitor (or a swine) at the very moment when this traitor (or swine) is engaged in a match of philosophical chess on whose outcome the fate of fifteen laboratories or ateliers depends. They do not know how one pays – those abroad do not know/. They do not know what one buys, and at what price.

The bulk of the book is taken up with four heartbreaking case studies of writers/ intellectuals and the prices they paid, either for trying to maintain their integrity within the system or by becoming its agents  – he calls them Alpha, Beta, Lambda and Delta, but Wikipedia identifies them as real people. Though he is sometimes scathing about their choices, he doesn’t see it as a matter of individual morality:

Whoever reads the pubic statements of [these four writers]might say that they sold themselves. The truth is, however, more involved. These men are, more or less consciously, victims of a historic situation. Consciousness does not help them to shed their bonds; on the contrary, it forges them.nAt the very best, it can offer them the delights of Ketman as a consolation. Never before has there been such enslavement through consciousness as in the twentieth century. Even my generation was still taught that reason frees men. … In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit.

I found it hard to read this book without deep unease, not just about totalitarianism or the admirable people I have known who were Stalinists back in the day. True, in Australia people aren’t generally sent to labour camps if they criticise the government or depart from the generally accepted mode of conversation. But I found myself thinking of our own government’s recent banning of Chelsea Manning, and of the constant barrage of propaganda for consumerism and individualism generated by our media, of the way there can be night after night of coverage of the terrible drought in new South wales just now with never a mention of climate change.

Die Gedanken sind frei. Thinking is free, but not as free as we like to think.

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored?

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing 2018)

oysters.jpgDo Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.

When I read one of the essays, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, in a 2014 Southerly, I wrote this:

[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.

In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.

The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.

One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:

The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.

As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.

The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.

Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.

These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:

It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and

when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort

Do Oysters Get Bored? is the thirteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kate Lilley’s Tilt

Kate Lilley, Tilt (Vagabond Press 2018)

tilt.jpgThis must be one of the most publicised books of poetry ever to appear in Australia. Kate Lilley and her sister Rozanna Lilley made headlines in June by talking to the press about how, when they were young teenagers, they were sexually exploited  by much older men – writers, poets, artists, etc in the orbit of the girls’ playwright mother Dorothy Hewett, and how this happened with their mother’s apparent endorsement. The articles under the clickbait headlines generally mentioned Tilt and Rozanna’s book of memoir essays and poems, Do Oysters Get Bored? As Rozanna said in an interview on the ABC’s Hub on Books, the Lilley sisters didn’t set out to make scandalous revelations or impugn their mother’s reputation, but to tell their own stories, and perhaps reconsider their experiences and their parents’ milieu in the light of the #MeToo movement. You can hear that interview at this link:

I don’t expect I’ll damage the sales of Tilt if I say readers will scan its pages in vain for prurient thrills. Poems related to Lilley’s early life make up about a third of the book, in a section entitled ‘Tilt’, and based on my limited acquaintance with her work I’d say they are uncharacteristically personal. Poems in the second section, ‘Harm’s Way’, range widely in subject matter, including Australia’s offshore detention of people seeking asylum, a scandal involving a judge in Arkansas, and a Texas psychiatric institution. These poems often feel as if they have been constructed from words and phrases found in other sources – newspaper articles, court documents, institutional records, perhaps. The third section, ‘Realia‘, is an expanded version of the Vagabond Rare Object chapbook (the link is to my blogpost): the expansion consists largely of seven pages of prose about Greta Garbo, which – for prosaic readers like me – allows for a vastly richer reading of the poems that follow, mainly ‘GG’ which comprises a list of objects from the catalogue for the auction of Greta Garbo’s estate.

But back to the direct, personal poems in ‘Tilt’. The great children’s writer Katharine Paterson said somewhere that her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins started out from the question, ‘What became of the children of  the Hippies?’ These ten poems address a similar question: ‘What of the children of sexual libertarians?’ They are not a diatribe, nor do they ask for a response of moral outrage. They are complex, poised, sometimes angry, clear-eyed accounts of troubling moments in a young life. One poem that keeps coming back to me is ‘Conversation Pit 1971’:

conversationpit.jpg

This little poem is worth sitting with for a while. The title and the first couplet conjure up a period domestic milieu – according to Wikipedia conversation pits were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s in Europe and North America, and I guess we’d add in some parts of Australia. In the second couplet Mum’s blunt, explicit question disrupts any expectation of wholesome conversation. It’s the kind of incident that could be part of a hilarity-filled session of reminiscences among the grown children. The lines giving the speaker’s reply,

Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap

would fit nicely in such a session.

Then what wasn’t revealed in the conversation pit: that the speaker also experimented with girl-girl kissing.

We thought we were so ingenious
I was 11 she was 12

Even though we’ve been told that the mother’s question relates to primary schoolchildren’s activities, it comes as a further shock that the girl being questioned was so very young. Then the poem moves on from outrageous family anecdote mode:

The question changed everything
what had seemed forward was now backward

There’s something almost clinical in this. We’re not being asked to condemn the mother, or to pity the daughter – it’s just one of the infinite variety of ways ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but that line, ‘what had seemed forward was now backward’ identifies this particular way with extraordinary simplicity and precision. And then a terrible ache is evoked in the final couplet:

I needed to speed up
at least get my period

Probably everyone has a story to tell about unhelpful parental intervention or non-intervention in their adolescence. Lilley’s poems have an extra dimension from the fact that her mother was Dorothy Hewett, whose poems, plays and prose often dealt with her own sexuality, and her father was Merv Lilley, author of the book Gatton Man, in which he argued that his father was a serial murderer. There are explicit references to the parents’ works: ‘Turn Around Is Fair Play’ amounts to a gloss on a moment in one of Dorothy’s plays, probably The Legend of Tatty Hollow; and ‘Her Bush Ballad (Bourke St Elegy)’ alludes to the subject matter of Gatton Man. But even without such references, this double handful of poems must change the way we read Hewett’s work. Elsewhere, Kate Lilley has described her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. These poems expose some of the darker implications of that description, while never letting go of an enduring sense of connection, of complex loyalty. A line from ‘Memorandum’, the final poem in the section:

I’ll never get over (not) having you as my mother

[Added later: For a very fine, beautifully articulated discussion of the book and its place in the general ‘conversation’, I recommend Ali Jane Smith’s ‘A Book Is a Good Place to Think’ in the Sydney Review of Books.]

Tilt is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.