More Lies from Richard James Allen

Richard James Allen, More Lies (interactive Press 2021)

Rae Desmond Jones, poet and one-time mayor of Ashfield, is quoted on the back cover of More Lies saying it was ‘like swallowing a tab spiked with speed – with Raymond Chandler’s spook dealing and watching from the corner’. It’s a clever way to encapsulate the weirdly surreal noir, high-velocity, trippiness of the book, and perhaps there’s a hint of the narrator’s intrinsic unreliability in the inconvenient fact that Rae Jones died four years before the book was published.

It turns out, according to Richard James Allen’s unusually informative Acknowledgements, that though this slim volume can be read and enjoyed in a single sitting, it has been a long time in the making: a first draft was written in the 1990s; a version was performed as a monologue at the 2000 Sydney Writers’ Festival; adaptations for stage and screen were created but never made it to performance. Rae Desmond Jones had plenty of opportunity to read it after all.

In the first of 34 short chapters, the unnamed narrator is strapped to a chair, being forced to keep typing by a ‘divine creature’ to whom he has just made love, and who is now holding a gun to his head. He tells us that he’s been caught up in a planned assassination and a drug-running scheme, that he has to keep typing because the noise provides a cover for his criminal captors. But soon he admits that he’s lying – or perhaps not. Anyhow, his situation changes dramatically, and improbably, and soon he’s typing on a laptop in a jail cell. And so it goes: localities change; characters change names, motives, identities and gender. The narrator is a self-confessed liar caught up in a Kafka-esque nightmare, or is it a Dada-esque dream? Occasionally he breaks into verse. Through all his vicissitudes – sometimes he seems to be in a hard-boiled detective novel, sometimes an episode of Breaking Bad, sometimes a dark existential tract, sometimes a spoken word event – he keeps typing, reasonably sure that none of the other characters will read his text, but not at all sure he can trust the reader – that’s you or me – whom he addresses with deep suspicion.

You can see why I had my doubts about the blurb from Rae Desmond Jones.

Confused? Well, read the book. It won’t clear up your confusion, but it will amuse, and while it’s at it, it may stir up some thinking about the nature of fiction.

The book was launched in a cheerful, well-attended zoom event, where Richard James Allen read the first couple of chapters. You can see a recording at this link.

I’m grateful to Interactive Publications for my complimentary copy.

500 people: Week 33–34

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

As we reached the end of lockdown and got out into the parks to picnic in groups of (mostly) the legal five or fewer, we seemed generally even less likely to talk to random strangers. However, I had some genuinely warm transitory encounters in those last two weeks.

1. Monday 27 September. The Emerging Artist and I were exploring Pyrmont, at the edge of our permitted 5 k radius. We were about to climb a short flight of stairs signposted ‘Cliff Walk’, when a woman who was busy with a trowel in a small vege garden beside the stairs called to us: ‘Going up to the windy place, are you?’ So we stopped to chat: it transpired that she is a little older than I am, has lived in the area for 10 years or so, and manages the hilliness with some difficulty; she cultivates this little garden as a community service as well as the windswept one in her own back yard; her husband, older than she is, is active in a community recycling project.

2. Thursday. We were back in Pyrmont with Ruby, where she frolicked among water spouts and we had leaf-boat races in a shallow waterway. Between activities, the EA asked Ruby if she’d like a snack. A young masked man sitting just within earshot spoke up: ‘Oh, what snacks are there?’ Not that he wanted to know – this was clearly an invitation to chat. But I told him what I knew of what was on offer at the little kiosk. The conversation expanded, so soon we knew he lives in Camperdown, and that we have places in common where we go with our young ones (his daughter was asleep in a stroller next to him). He gave us a number of tips about good places elsewhere in the Inner West. When he and his daughter headed off, it was with the possibility of meeting again.

3. Monday 4 October. On our morning walk by the Cooks river, we passed a man and a woman picking mulberries – or rather, he was reaching up into the branches looking for ripe mulberries while she was eating one he’d found earlier. I picked one from the opposite side of the tree, and gave it to the EA, saying, ‘I hope they haven’t been poisoned.’ The young man didn’t catch my exact meaning (I was masked and I’m guessing English wasn’t his first language). He said, ‘Oh no, they are mulberries.’ The young woman stepped in: ‘We ate some yesterday, and we’re still here!’ This is a different tree from the one in Week 32.

4. Monday, on the same walk, we passed the Earlwood Spoon Project. People are invited to decorate wooden or plastic spoons, make them into characters of some sort, and add them to this installation. There’s another, smaller installation along the Wolli Creek section of the Two Valley Trail. The recent heavy rain and wind had laid the spoons low, but someone had rendered them upright and orderly. Two youngish women were bending over the display, exclaiming: ‘Look at the bride!’ ‘There’s Wally!’ and so on. I inserted myself by telling them of the recent devastation, and then all four of us spent a little while pointing out clever creations: Homer Simpson, Chuck Norris (?). Someone apologised for swearing. A brief good time was had by all.

Photo by Penny Ryan

5. Tuesday evening, I was walking through our underground garage, maskless though we’re supposed to be masked in the common areas, and listening to a podcast – the Thoroughly Modern Mozart episode of Christopher Lydon’s Open Source. To prevent further ear damage I don’t use ear buds, and I was filling the garage airwaves with the sound of a classical piano. When a masked man with a shock of black hair appeared, I hastily turned the podcast off and fumbled for my mask. We nodded to each other – frostily on his part, I thought. Then he called back over his shoulder, ‘Whose is that piece?’ I could tell him it was Beethoven, but I was way out of my depth, so the conversation couldn’t go much further.

6. Sunday morning. We were helping some friends scope out an apartment they are considering putting an offer on – they’d done their inspection, this was just the environment. A woman emerged from a ground-level apartment and we bailed her up and plied her with questions: strata arrangements, rules about pets, use of the swimming pool, public transport, most convenient shops, development proposals for the nearby green space …

7. Sunday afternoon, it started to rain a few moments into our regular Cooks River walk. We persevered, and a couple of minutes later overtook a large woman who was walking with a stick. As we passed her with the usual nod and smile, one of us said, ‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ She managed a wry grin: ‘Sort of!’

Running total is 228. Let’s see if I manage to be any more sociable with strangers now that the Sydney lockdown is officially over.

Ruby Reads 27: Tashi

Anna & Barbara Fienberg, Kim Gamble, Arielle and Greer Gamble, Alphabetical Tashi: A story told in ABC (Allen & Unwin 2020)
Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble, Tashi (Allen & Unwin 1995, 2018)
Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble, Tashi and the Big Stinker (Allen & Unwin 2000)

The Tashi books are a great success story of Australian children’s literature. They had their beginnings in stories that Barbara Fienberg told to her little daughter Anna in the bath. When Anna grew up to be a children’s author – editor of The School Magazine for some years, and creator of a string of picture books including The Magnificent Nose and Other Marvels – she and her mother decided to make some of those childhood stories into books. Kim Gamble, who had worked with Anna on a number of earlier projects, joined the project and created a charming and distinctive visual presence. Tashi was born.

Each of the Tashi books includes two stories told by Tashi to his friend Jack, who usually relays one of them to his father. Tashi comes from a land far away where he had amazing adventures and triumphed over aseemingly endless line-up of monsters and villains. There’s excellent comedy in the telling, as Jack’s father consistently exasperates his son by asking the wrong questions. Jack’s friendship with Tashi has a sweet, unforced subtext about the enriching possibilities of immigration.

Anna and Kim (full disclosure, I have worked with both of them and think of them as my friends) did magical school visits where Anna would read a story while Kim created a chalk image of one of its key moments. Many schools around New South Wales treasure the works created on those occasions.

So, how did Ruby, like many others of her age group obsessed with Elsa of Frozen, take to Tashi?

Not that well.


This gorgeous alphabet book was Ruby’s first encounter. After Kim’s untimely death in 2017, the Fienbergs and Kim’s daughters Arielle and Greer teamed up to make a kind of memorial using some of his original art created for the 16 books in the series.

We progress through the alphabet, as Tashi (A boy) confronts a series of foes, starting with Baba Yaga and ending with fierce Zeng and his army. Every page is striking and there are some spectacularly beautiful spreads featuring rural south-east Asian landscapes with karst mountains, ornate bridges, buffaloes and thatched roofs.

The verse narrative is sparse, and none of the encounters with baddies is spelled out in any detail. It’s meant to remind readers of past reading pleasures rather than provide new ones.

Ruby was generally unimpressed. She’s not interested in scary stories: she covers her ears during some bits of Catwings, or asks us to skip those pages altogether. So she took no pleasure in the wonderfully scary pages here. The one page that stirred her interest was V: ‘Very Big Stinker, who farted and fumed.’ This fitted very nicely with her current opinion that saying ‘Poo-poo’ is the height of wit.


So we bought a copy of Nº 7 in the series, Tashi and the Big Stinker, whose cover shows Tashi recoiling from a cloud of greenish gas at the rear of a very large man.

Oh dear! The farting pages were a long time coming and when they did they were far too graphic for our almost-four-year-old. The playing around with narrative point of view, which I have found delightful, went right over our young one’s head. And then the second episode, a dramatic retelling of the pied piper story, is far too scary for her: there’s a brilliant moment when all the children of the village are about to plunge over ‘a steep drop, down, down, a hundred metres down to the rushing waters of a mountain gorge’, led there by a pied piper figure who is as genuinely frightening as Heath Ledger’s Joker.


Perhaps we needed to go back to the beginning. We got hold of the original, Tashi, with an unstinky, elegant swan on the cover. But oh dear! The action that leads up to Tashi’s splendid flight on the swan had our little listener rigid with horror. Tashi’s parents sold him to raise money to travel. Never mind that they sold him to a war lord – we don’t care what that is, but we do care that parents can sell their children!

The second story in this book has a dragon – the last dragon – who, instead of turning into a good dragon which happens a lot in Ruby’s games, is killed by Tashi. Perhaps some of our extinction-averse zeitgeist has helped form Ruby’s sensibility. The fact that there is a benign grandmother was no help. Nor was the almost complete absence of female characters apart from her.


It was like introducing two dearly loved friends, only to have them take an instant dislike to each other, and being able to see why.

Maybe we’ll try again in a couple of years.


Tashi and the Big Stinker and Tashi are the 12th and 13th books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

George Megalogenis’ Exit Strategy

George Megalogenis, Exit Strategy: Politics after the Pandemic (Quarterly Essay 82, 2021) – plus correspondence in QE 83

In the opening pages of this Quarterly Essay, George Megalogenis, veteran of the Canberra press gallery, describes the way trust in the Australian government was eroded over the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd-Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison years. The key question for the essay, he writes, is:

Can Australia restore faith in good government? Are we doomed to repeat the farce of the last decade, when we avoided the worst of the GFC only to succumb to policy gridlock and American-style electoral polarisation in the recovery? Or will the visceral experience of the pandemic allow us to reconceive the political economy of the nation?

(Page 4)

It may be the key question, but as far as I can tell the essay makes no real attempt to answer it.

What it does do, with considerable flair, is spell out the history that defines the present moment. He compares the Covid recession with previous recessions, and describes the way relationships between governments and the heads of treasury have changed and developed over the decades since World War Two. He also describes the way the economists advising governments finally learned that government spending worked better than restraint as a response to economic recession.

The essay revisits, among other things, the Global Financial Crisis and the Pink Batts beat-up. It covers familiar ground, such as the way Prime Minister Morrison’s was slammed for taking a secret holiday in during the 2019-2020 bushfires meant that he was less cavalier about the Covid crisis. It discusses the way universities were left out of Covid rescue packages.

It tells these stories in prose that makes us uninitiated readers feel as if we’re understanding something, with the kind of gossipy personal touches that remind us that government decisions are made by fallible human beings, who are advised by other fallible human beings, but that fallibility is substantially decreased if public servants aren’t sacked wholesale by incoming governments, as they were by Tony Abbott.

The essay is dated 7 June 2021. By the time it was published a couple of weeks later, the current Sydney Covid-19 outbreak had begun. By the time I got to read it three months after that, a sizeable proportion of the Australian population was back in lockdown, there were weird demonstrations in Melbourne, and the prospect of the Federal Government offering the kind of leadership that would restore faith in good government seemed remote. But the essay’s final paragraph – helped along by submarine deals and more bloviating about climate change – has lost none of its force:

Morrison has yet to accept responsibility for the future. The longer he waits, the greater the risk that the rest of the world, led by a reinvigorated United States, imposes its own terms Australia


Quite a bit of the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 83 – Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes – responds specifically to Megalogenis’ discussion of the Morrison government’s treatment of universities. Megalogenis discussion is interesting – they did it because they hate universities, because universities produce Labor-voters, and because they hate Victoria and Victoria specialises in higher education.There’s a lot of nuance in the discussion, but the Morrison government doesn’t emerge from it smelling any more like a rose.

For me, the most telling response to the essay’s main thesis came from Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute and author of Quarterly Essay 70, Dead Right (my blog post here). He laments that this essay didn’t contain ‘a lot more on possible exit strategies and the political forces that will determine which options are placed on the democratic menu and, ultimately which dish is selected.’ I love this departure from the usual calm tone of QE correspondence, in which he quarrels not so much with George Megalogenis as with his source – an economist calling out an economist rather than the journalist who may be simply innocent meat in the sandwich:

George quotes former Treasury secretary Ken Henry saying [successive governments’] hostility to government spending ‘was not something that the Australian Treasury had dreamt up … The academic consensus around fiscal policy was basically: “It’s too hard to use” … The best thing to do is sit on your hands and let the private sector work it out.’

What utter crap. No such academic consensus ever existed, and it’s not at all clear from the essay whether George believes it did. But what is clear … is the tendency in Australia for powerful people to source advice, economic or otherwise, from those they agree with.

(QE 83 page 123)

The most telling additional piece of information comes from Travers McLeod, chief executive officer of the Centre for Policy Development. The National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), he tells us, was established by Scott Morrison in March 2020 to ‘coordinate advice to the Australian government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic’. Then, on 3 May 2021, ‘with Australia at the bottom of global vaccination rates, and the Delta strain having just been used to justify a ban on Australians returning from India’, it was disbanded.

It does look as if any hope for a reasoned response in Australia to the ongoing pandemic crisis (not to mention the climate emergency) must lie with the states, or with any luck, a change of government.

The Prelude Progress Report 3

William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, in William Wordsworth Selected Poetry, edited, with an Introduction, by Mark Van Doren (Modern Library College Edition 1950), Book Seventh line 619 to Book Eleventh line 152.

After averaging 70 lines a day for three months now, I’m past the three-quarter mark in ‘The Prelude’, still surprised by the joy of it. Most of this month’s reading has been about Wordsworth’s response to the French Revolution.

Book Eighth, subtitled ‘Retrospect – Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man’, revisits his childhood in the Lake District and his early time in London. There’s a wonderful set piece describing a country fair at the start of this Book, and there are some descriptions of shepherds at work which I suppose could be read as treating those working men as picturesque features of the landscape, but they reminded me of James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life in their appreciation of the difficulty of that work. He goes back over his time in Cambridge and in London, looking at these times with more mature eyes. This section is sometimes a bit opaque and abstract, but it’s fascinating as an account of a young man finding his way in an increasingly complex and morally compromised world.

Books Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh are a revelation to me. I don’t think I’m the only person who has thought of Wordsworth as the ‘Daffodils’ guy, or – slightly more seriously – the guy who wrote some great sonnets and the Lucy poems. That’s what it meant to be a Romantic. I suppose I’d vaguely heard about his sympathy for the French Revolution, but when I ‘did’ him at university in the early 1970s there was no hint that that sympathy had anything to do with his poetry. But of course the Romantics weren’t wafty, apolitical nature-lovers: Byron went off to fight in Greece, Blake railed against the human damage caused by industrialisation, and Wordsworth as a young man was hugely invested in the French Revolution, appalled that England sent young men to do battle against the revolutionaries, horrified at the Terror, and overcome by relief at Robespierre’s death.

Mind you, one line from ‘The Prelude’ did emerge into the general culture in the 70s. I don’t remember whether it was referring to the ‘alternative society’, women’s liberation, or opposition to the US-led war in Vietnam, but someone quoted these lines (Book Eleventh, lines 295–296) that struck a strong chord with me:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!

What follows makes it clear that he’s not talking about a dawn of affluence or a youth of indulgence, but a revolutionary dawn. Then there are these wonderful lines:

Why should I not confess that Earth was then 
To me, what an inheritance, new-fallen 
Seems, when the first time visited, to one 
Who thither comes to find in it his home? 
He walks about and looks upon the spot 
With cordial transport, moulds it and remoulds
And is half-pleased with things that are amiss
’T will be such joy to see them disappear.

I imagine these lines resonate with many in younger generations just now who are challenging rigidities around gender, race and other identities.

That’s pretty much where my reading is up to: the world is on the brink of miraculous transformation. I do hope we’re not being set up for disillusionment.

Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty

Aravind Adiga, Amnesty (Picador 2020)

Danny is an illegal immigrant working as a cleaner in Sydney. Like the thousands of undocumented workers discussed on The Drum on the ABC the other night, he came to Australia on a student visa and then stay on beyond the visa’s expiry date. He arrived by plane, so he’s not one of the visible–invisible ‘boat people’ who are held indefinitely in detention. His application for refugee status was rejected (being a Tamil from Sri Lanka who has been tortured wasn’t enough to qualify him), and now he has now spent four years working cash in hand, observing Sydney customs so as to pass unnoticed, and reading books on Australian law in a local library so he and his fellow illegals can better understand their options.

His precarious equilibrium is shaken when a previous client is killed, and – mild spoiler alert – he knows who did it. But the murderer knows that he knows, and threatens to dob him in as an illegal immigrant if he goes to the police. Should he do the right thing by the murdered woman, or should he opt for self-preservation? This moral quandary and the cat-and-mouse game with the murderer play out in short sections time-stamped from 8.45 am to 7.03 pm on a single day. During the day we learn details of Danny’s story: the circumstances of his torture and migration to Australia, his exploitative work set-up, his history with the murdered woman and her murderer. We also get to see Sydney through his eyes, as he wanders erratically around the inner suburbs.

I was less than enthralled.

Danny’s dilemma doesn’t become any more complex as the novel progresses. We know from early on what the stakes are; there’s no mystery, no intensifying danger, no real suspense. The interest lies in the way the novel shows Sydney and Australia from a different point of view. In the episode of The Drum I mentioned earlier, the panellists all agreed that the visa overstayers were beneficiaries of a well-known scam. That’s not how it appears in this book. There’s a scam all right, but Danny, like others we glimpse through his eyes, is trapped, living precariously, and vulnerable to exploitation. He lives in a room above a convenience store in a kind of indentured servitude to the owner of the store. He has a girlfriend but hasn’t dared tell her about his illegal status.

Danny knows that you don’t pronounce the p in receipt. When he hears another brown man pronounce it, he knows that that man is a legal immigrant who doesn’t have to worry about such things. Several times in the course of the day, there is the look of recognition between brown men that happens in a white-dominated place like Sydney, but for Danny it’s not a simple matter of like recognising like. He is more vulnerable than legal immigrants, and he needs to be wary of them as much as of anyone.

This could have been compelling. But I was yanked out of the narrative too often by things that were weirdly wrong.

Some, I think, are the result of intrusive and culturally arrogant copy-editing. Though my copy of the book says it was published in London, North American spelling prevails, most egregiously for Sydney Harbor and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. (I would find it just as jarring to find a reference to the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.) This is almost certainly not Aravind Adiga’s doing.

Some of the weirdly wrong things may be Danny’s mistakes, part of the characterisation. For example, ibises are near-ubiquitous in the inner suburbs of Sydney in real life. Here they are called jabirus, completely different birds, though a Google image search might not make that clear. When there’s a mention of sulphur-breasted cockatoos, a kind reader would think Danny had misheard ‘crested’ (until the name turns up correctly 100 pages later). These errors took the shine off the pleasure given by Danny’s nice observations about ‘Aussie mynas’, which until recently Australians called Indian mynas.

Most disturbingly wrong are a number of geographic impossibilities. There are several references to ‘the cliffs that rise up at Pyrmont’ –  it’s a huge stretch to describe the cuttings in Pyrmont as cliffs. There are palm trees down the middle of William Street. Parramatta seems to be awfully close to Erskineville. Danny stands at Hyde Park looking east, and has the Harbour, which in real life would be on his left, on his right. And there’s this:

He turned around and looped back aimlessly, down into the area known as East Sydney, which had a view of Sydney Harbor [sic] … Through a vista of palm trees, he saw blue ocean and, near it, the white opera house.

(page 92)

You can’t see the Harbour from East Sydney; he probably means Woolloomooloo. But no matter how you slice it, the Sydney Opera House is nowhere near the ocean. And what are these palm trees Danny keep seeing? It’s like Saving Mr Banks‘s version of North Queensland.

It’s easy to see how these things can happen: it looks as if the author didn’t get to revisit Sydney when the novel was in manuscript, and depended on friends with no experience as proofreaders to correct any errors. And none of it would matter, except that the narrative meticulously names places, even down to street numbers, and when the geography doesn’t work, the whole world of the novel begins to feel untrustworthy. In the end I struggled to take any of it seriously.

500 people: Week 32

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

Lockdown continues. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world. Unlike the lockdown last year, there’s very little camaraderie amid the social distancing this time round: people seem to be much more stuck in their own worlds, as if wearing a mask makes you invisible. Nevertheless:

1. Sunday 19 September. The elderly woman ahead of me at the checkout (probably younger than me) chatted animatedly for a couple of minutes in an East Asian language. When it was my turn I asked the woman behind the till what language they had been speaking. ‘Vietnamese.’ Another employee, white, joined us and said what a hard language it was to learn. The three of us chatted for a bit about tonal languages, the pronunciation of phở, and where excellent phở can be found in Marrickville. sadly I didn’t make a note of the recommendation, but I’m happy with Great Aunty Three in Enmore, and miss their phở terribly during lockdown.

2. Still Sunday, the Emerging Artist and I passed a man and a woman who were packing up their gear beside an inflatable kayak. I paused in my walk to ask the woman how much the kayak cost, a question that had arisen with us a couple of days before, but really I asked for the sake of human contact. She looked at a loss and passed me on to her male companion. He told me how much, ‘but it was second hand.’ We chatted a little bit about the joys of kayaking on the Cooks River.

3. Wednesday morning, we were out of our Local Government Area and more than 5 kilometres from home, but it was legal because the EA had an eye specialist’s appointment, and dilating drops meant she couldn’t drive herself home. We arrived early and ordered a take-away coffee. While we were waiting in the otherwise deserted coffee shop, a woman came in with a dachshund on a lead. It sniffed the bottom of my trousers, and when it came back for a second sniff, I offered it the back of my hand, whereupon it barked ferociously. Now we understood that its owner hadn’t left it outside the shop because she knew it would bail up any passers-by. During all this, the dog owner and I managed to communicate quite a lot without benefit of words mouths or noses.

4. Thursday, we were walking on the bank of the Cooks River beside the Marrickville Golf Club when we had a classic old-style Australian exchange. A group of men in their 60s or so were teeing off. We must have looked as if we were interested as the one who was second in line said, ‘Don’t bother watching him’ – his friend who was about to swing his club – ‘you won’t learn anything.’ The EA knew the correct response: ‘We should wait to see how you do it.’ Of course we didn’t.

5. Saturday morning, on our morning walk past the Enmore Tafe College, we came upon a man on a step ladder reaching up into a mulberry tree that overhangs the footpath. Standing beside the ladder was a woman holding a dessert bowl. There was a lot of red fruit on the tree, and a couple of black ones in the bowl. ‘Ripe already!’ we said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we’re saving the footpath from being stained.’ Trying hard not to imply that he might not have been motivated only by civic mindedness, I thanked him for his service to the community.

6. Saturday afternoon, just an hour or so ago, we were in the socially-distanced queue for one of the few toilets in Sydney Park. (The park was busy; picnicking groups abounded, at appropriate distances from one another and mostly made up of the permitted five or fewer people.) The masked woman ahead of us said something about how thrilling it was to be out in the world and about to go to a public toilet. As the queue moved slowly we chatted, mainly about the fact that we were chatting in a toilet queue, and finding it weirdly liberating

Running total is 221.

Journal Blitz 9

I’m still way behind with my journal reading. Here’s a quick catch-up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 239 (Winter 2020), with links to the articles at overland.org.au.

As with every issue, this Overland is full of reminders of things the mainstream media would prefer us to forget, and offers perspectives that are mostly unseen in those media.

Most strikingly, there’s ‘Ignorance is bliss?‘, an article by Sam Lieblich, psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher, on what he calls ‘ the mental health business’. His thesis is that psychiatry ‘pathologises the normal problems of human life, enforces highly constrained paradigms of thought and behaviour, and insufficiently values patients’ autonomy’. He goes on:

There is still, however, a lot of confusion about the status of the things that psychiatrists treat. These are by no means illnesses, and the medications doctors use to treat them are by no reasonable measure effective.

These are fighting words, and he backs them up with solid references scientific papers that go mostly unreported and remain uncontradicted in scientific circles. The pharmaceutical industry, preying on the desperation of patients and doctors, has ‘insinuated itself into the state and into academia so thoroughly that to find a research project or piece of regulation untouched by their money is almost impossible’. Even so-called mental health advocacy organisations such as Beyond Blue, he argues, ‘act as de facto pharma advertisers’. His discussion of the changing definition of Major Depressive Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is an entirely convincing demolition job.

No doubt this essay, like the many books and article it cites and like, say, Gail Bell’s Quarterly Essay The Worried Well and Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic (links are to my blog posts), will be dismissed out of hand, all evidence to the contrary, by the vested interests it challenges. But I hope it’s widely read. I do wish Sam Lieblich had allowed space for hope with more than a passing mention to ‘the emancipatory and compassionate potential within psychiatry’, but that’s probably another essay.

This Overland‘s theme is ‘Health’. There are other articles on mental health, including the misery caused by Australia’s offshore detention regime (‘Behrouz Boochani and the Penal Archipelago‘ by Dashiell Moore), and a manifesto-like piece on hospitals as places of oppression (‘On hospitals‘ by Vanamali Hermans).

Overland showcases new poetry, short fiction and visual art, all worth paying attention to. I’ll mention just one piece from each category.

Philip Neilsen’s poem ‘Cockatoo‘ tells a comic tale of cockatoos disrupting a football game that widens out beautifully. Who can resist a poem that includes this:

Horns are honking, people are shouting, the cockatoos are shouting
back, with an intensity that is winning the contest. 

Freya Cox’s short story ‘A murmur of resistance‘ evokes the moment of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as experienced by a mostly non-political young Czech woman.

May Day 2020: Organising in the Pandemic‘ is a spread by comics artist Sam Wallman, whose distinctive pieces have appeared in Overland regularly for some time. This one is a witty, concise account of the way ‘some of the more staunch segments of the union movement’ found ways to celebrate May Day under lockdown conditions in 2020 that is, and a pleasure to read.

Occasionally, there are signs that Overland‘s writers and editors want us to know they’ve been to university, and that loss of funding has meant cutting back on copy-editing. The editorial, for example, laments that under Covid ‘we forego almost all the habits of flourishing and eudaimonia’, managing a spelling error and a ten-dollar word in one short clause. But maybe you have to be a copy editor to care about such things, and the pain they cause is vastly outweighed by the good stuff that surrounds them.


Sara Saleh and Melinda Smith (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 8 (2020)

Each year the Australian Poetry Anthology focuses on a different state or territory. Of the 120+ poets in the 2020 anthology, 23 are from the ACT. A more perceptive reader than I am might be able to distinguish locality-based differences in the poetry, but I couldn’t tell who comes from where without checking the biogs up the back of the journal.

Not that there’s any kind of dull uniformity here. The foreword puts it nicely:

Arguably our duty as artists is to bear witness to all of it – from the looming catastrophes of runaway climate change, epoch-making bushfires and a deadly global pandemic, to ever-present entrenched societal injustice, to the smaller griefs, puzzles, and epiphanies that enter every human life. If we ignore the big picture we become irrelevant, if we ignore the small things we ignore the beauty, complexity and mystery of what it is to exist; of what it is we stand to lose. It is in allowing us to play (and hear) many notes at once – to encompass contradictions without being destroyed by them – that the strength of poetry lies.

That range and variety is the strength of poetry, and it’s the strength of this anthology. There’s something here for everyone, and for a wide range of moods and concerns. I enjoyed the presence of many poets whose work I know and love, and many who are new to me. There are indeed poems about climate change and other aspects of ‘the big picture’. There are (of course) poems that didn’t speak to me at all; others that took the words right out of my mouth – or from wherever they were before they got to my mouth – and made them shine; and others still that came from a whole other paddock and made me laugh or, once or twice, cry.

I could list the poems that stirred me, but I’m pretty sure your list would be different from mine. I’ve marked about a third of them for rereading when I pick up this book again, and probably should have marked more. They range from Shastra Deo’s ‘Orichalcum’, which begins:

I don't know what will happen to my body
afterwards, but I want to return 
to the reservoir outside our hometown
where we caught catfish in the summer
my father close to kneeling
at my feet.

to Jennifer Compton’s ‘Late and Soon’, which deals with anxiety about climate change and ends:

Ha ha ha ha ha
____________________________________ha ha.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by translation, of which there are a couple of fine examples here. I want to say a bit about Paul Magee’s poem on page 61, whose title tells us everything we need to know: ‘Seneca, ‘Omnia tempus edax depascitur’ (‘Time eats everything up’)’. If you’re interested, you can see the original Seneca poem with a close translation at this link. Magee, who is one of the featured Canberrans, renders it like this:

Time eats everything up – it snatches it all 
from the root. Nothing's for long here.
Rivers lose heart. The beach is desert. 
Exiled, the sea. Tallest mountains fall. 
Why chatter? The giant sky’s beauty
will burn to a cinder again. Suddenly 
not as punishment but law everywhere 
death insists. And away with worlds.

Like Seamus Heaney’s 9/11 poem ‘Anything Can Happen‘, which is a translation of a poem by Horace, this speaks directly to the present moment – it summons up images of thousands of dead fish in the Darling/Barka last year, horrendous bushfires, and the dire warnings of climate scientists. The tone of Seneca’s original is a kind of stoic (or Stoic) resignation: ‘Everyone dies; everything come to an end sometime.; that’s just how it is.’ This translation has the same content, the same images; just two words that aren’t there in the original create a key difference: ‘again’ and ‘Suddenly’. We can no longer think of the sky on fire as a fanciful imagining of doom – it has already happened; we can no longer think of global destruction as something that will happen in the distant future – it’s happening now. The poem’s key thought that this is not punishment but a law of nature might in other contexts be somehow consoling, but here it’s chilling. I don’t read it as despairing, but as insistently grim: this is real, we’d better face it.

Someone said that one of the aims of poetry is to slow the reader down. Magee’s little poem does that. Sara Saleh and Melinda Smith have put together a collection that will slow its readers down, open us up, broaden us, deepen us, and I hope strengthen us.

500 people: Week 29-31

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

Lockdown continues. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world. Unlike the lockdown last year, there doesn’t seem to be any camaraderie amidst the social distancing this time round: people seem to be much more stuck in their own worlds, as if wearing a mask makes you invisible. Nevertheless:

1. Sunday 29 August. On our daily walk, we went into unfamiliar territory, still inside our 5 k radius. We came across a young man who seemed to be training his dog to run up very steep slopes to place and then retrieve its lead. The dog, a bull terrier, was an enthusiastic learner. We – the humans at least – exchanged greetings

2. Thursday, we were having lunch on the grass in Callan Park with the granddaughter. Just like a couple of weeks earlier, there were two people doing extraordinary things on a low rock overhang – a woman and a man this time. Again I approached them for a brief conversation. My opening gambit was to ask how long they’d been doing it. ‘About five years,’ the woman said. Just like the two young men the first time, they assumed I might want to have a go: ‘The best place to start is in a gym,’ the man offered. I said I was quite happy to watch, hoping I didn’t sound too much like Chance the gardener (as in this movie).

4. Wednesday or Friday that week. Near the Marrickville Metro there are sections of footpath that are paved rather than concrete. This is generally very attractive, but vulnerable to disruption by tree roots and other underground forces. Over the last couple of weeks some rough patches have been under repair. On this day, I passed a man who had pulled up 50 or so pavers that had bulged up in a line stretching from the base of a small fig tree. I stopped to chat, and he happily explained that he wasn’t doing anything to the root – no harm would come to the tree. He was covering the root with sand to create a level surface, then relaying the pavers on that. Next time walked that way, there was no sign of the former trip hazard.

3. Sunday 12 September. While almost all the encounters I’m recording in this series, this conversation was with a new person who I can reasonably expect to see more of. On a carefully orchestrated walk, where there were only ever two of us together at the same time, the Emerging Artist and I met up with one of our sons and a woman he has recently got close to. He had primed her well, and with social eptitude far outstripping mine she drew me into conversation about, among other things, this challenge. We talked about the way ubiquitous mobile phones have drastically reduced serendipitous encounters. She had read a book about dating that said the first rule for successful dating in the offline world (which, as she said, used to be called ordinary life) was to turn off your phone.

5. Thursday morning the car had a very flat tyre. I couldn’t budge the nuts on the wheel so called NRMA Roadside Assistance. The chap arrived in good time, jacked the car up, removed the tyre and replaced it with the spare in no time at all. He did all this without saying a word, remaining pretty much inscrutable behind his Covid mask. He wasn’t rude or hostile, just businesslike in the way he steadfastly ignored my feeble attempts at small talk (‘I haven’t jacked it up because I knew you’d have a pneumatic jack,’ etc.). Finally, though, as he was leaving, I said, ‘I hope all your calls today are as straightforward as this one,’ and he unbent enough to say, ‘Yeah.’

6. Saturday, on our morning exercise outing the EA and I went to the Sydney Fish Market, where a long section of footpath is currently closed because of the new, bigger, better market under construction. As we arrived back at the lights with our fish, there was some kind of kerfuffle. I happened to catch the eye of the the traffic control warden on duty Assuming I’d seen what just happened, he said, ‘There’s always one,’ and we had a pleasant chat about human folly and the need for safety regulations. (He had his mask around his neck.) I hoped he was getting time and a half. He said, ‘That’s the least of my worries. I’m pretty much retired and this gets me out of the house. I’ve only got so much I can talk to my wife about.’ (Pause.) ‘And vice versa.’

Running total is 215.

The Book Group and Mark McKenna Return to Uluru

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (Black Inc 2021)

This was a very welcome birthday gift in March this year, but somehow I didn’t get around to reading it until it became the September title for the Book Group.

Before the meeting: It’s a terrific, powerful, history that reads partly as a thriller and partly as a prose poem.

Mark McKenna has previously written two books that focus on the history of particular places: Looking for Blackfellas’ Point (2002) and From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories (2016). His recent Quarterly Essay, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (2018) takes its readers on a visit to Cook’s landing place at Kurnell. Return to Uluru similarly has a place for its main subject. It tells many stories about Uluru: stories from settler Australia that change radically over the decades, stories from Aṉangu culture and from First Nations people more generally, culminating in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The central strand is a compelling narrative, what McKenna calls the ‘biography of one moment in one man’s life, a moment that encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past’ (page 25).

The man in question is Bill McKinnon, a legendary Territorian policeman, who travelled in the steps of the explorers in the 1930s, taking camels on long journeys through what non-Indigenous Australians saw as the harsh and inhospitable terrain of central Australia, climbing what was then called Ayer’s Rock and adding to the cairn at its highest point, dealing with hostile ‘Blacks’ and doing the heroic work of bringing murderers to justice in the face of enormous odds. He was celebrated in newspaper articles and by writers like Frank Clune. A representative of an heroic Aussie type, a Crocodile Dundee without the comedy, he was also accused of brutal mistreatment of Aboriginal people, and in particular of the unlawful killing of one prisoner.

That killing is the moment that the book revolves around. It happened in a cave near Kapi Mutitjulu, a waterhole at the southern end of Uluru. McKinnon claimed that he fired blind into the cave where an escaped prisoner was hiding, and that he did so in self defence. An official enquiry found that he had done no wrong, but Aṉangu witnesses – and some non-Indigenous people – said different, and in the course of writing this book McKenna stumbled on some damning evidence written in McKinnon’s own hand. The image of the legendary outback bushman evaporates in front of our eyes to be replaced by something much darker. Deeply gruesome details emerge.

There is a story that is left mainly untold: the story of the man shot by McKinnon, whose name was Yokununna. In whitefella versions of the story he was a murderer who was captured by McKinnon, escaped, and was killed while resisting recapture. The murder of which he was accused, we are told, was a matter of tribal law. In an endnote, McKenna explains that he has ‘refrained from reproducing these details due to their ongoing cultural sensitivity’, but we are left in no doubt that Yokununna was no criminal, and that when he died he was drawing McKinnon’s attention away from his fellow escapees. The book ends with some of his remains being returned to this descendants.

My copy is a hardback, and its many photos are reproduced with wonderful clarity. These photos, beautiful though they are, serve as more than decoration. Among photographs from other sources, including the view of Uluru from the International Space Station on the cover, are many taken by Bill McKinnon, and others by the book’s author. So there’s a pictorial dialogue that spans the decades. We get a sense of how McKinnon saw himself. We feel the romance of the centre (in 1932, McKinnon commissioned a dozen mulga wood plaques from Albert Namatjira, making him one of the first whitefellas to encourage, and pay, Namatjira fo an artwork). And we see the descendants of the men brutalised by McKinnon, now back on country. We see Uluru’s senior custodian, grandson of one of the men arrested along with Yokununna, pointing to the opening in the rock that McKinnon fired through.

At the meeting: I had expected this to be one of those meetings where we are united in appreciation of the book and spend the time reminding each other of bits we made special note of. But it was much more interesting than that.

For some, the central idea of the book – that the killing in the cave could be taken as telling the tale of central Australia in miniature – just didn’t hold up, and the telling of it was irksomely longwinded and repetitive. They would have preferred more about people who made cameo appearances, such as Ted Strehlow, Charles Mountford and Olive Pink, and perhaps more about early non-Indigenous encounters with Uluru in the 19th century.

The descriptions of Uluru and the surrounding countryside, some felt, was uninspired. At times, the reader was expected to share assumptions and accept generalisations that some of us just didn’t accept or share – for example, at one stage ‘the Commonwealth was deeply embarrassed’ by McKinnon’s behaviour, but we aren’t told who ‘the Commonwealth’ was or what the evidence was for their emotional state. (This didn’t bother me, partly because I gave a lot of weight to McKenna’s brief account of the Coniston massacre and subsequent exoneration of the perpetrators, so understood that Canberra administrators of the Northern Territory didn’t want further bad publicity.)

One man said he read the book as a foreword and three short stories, which he enjoyed. The aim, as he saw it, was to write a whitefella myth of Uluru, and while he felt the appeal of that (we’re all whitefellas in our group), he was uneasy – I think I heard this right – that there may be some coopting of Aṉangu culture.

Those of us who had got that far all agreed in being moved and impressed by the passages where McKenna meets with the families of McKinnon and Yokununna. At least one man found the most powerful moment in the book to be when McKenna tells McKinnon’s grandson what he has discovered and says he understands the distress this may cause to the family if he publishes it. The grandson, for whom McKinnon has been a family hero, gives his blessing: ‘All of the family, Mum included, are on board for reconciliation, we wouldn’t want anything else.’ Even those who felt that the ‘reconciliation’ offered by the book is largely illusory (I’m not one of them) were moved by this. The passages where Yokununna’s skull is returned to his family and they have their version of events vindicated are equally powerful.

In an inspired moment this month’s Book Selector had invited us all to bring our own photos of Uluru, so the evening ended with a bit of show and tell. The images ranged from a picture of someone’s friend at the top of Uluru in the early 1980s, a photo very like one of McKinnon’s fro the same time, to a photo, also from the 1980s, of the photographer’s family posing cheerfully in a burnt out landscape with a number of old Aṉangu women holding up prize goannas.