Monthly Archives: June 2009

My Place on our street: Mr Malaprop

As I passed the filming site just now, in the almost dark, they’d all but finished packing up. I had a short chat with the security guy. Excerpts:

Don’t let anyone tell you they don’t work hard. They’re here at five every morning…. You’ll like it when you see it.

Yes, I really liked the book.

If you read books you’ll have read Mayo’s Last Dancer. We made that last year. With Bruce Beresford, from Growing Miss Daisy.

I want to read that book, and see that movie: waltzing for the dressing, and raising a flower child.

Thank you for listening.

Once Were Radicals

Irfan Yusuf, Once Were Radicals: My years as a teenage Islamo-fascist (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Once Were RadicalsOver the years, I’ve regularly resolved to rectify my appalling ignorance about Islam. My bookshelves bear witness to my good intentions with a smattering of titles like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam (though I don’t have that precise book) and What’s Wrong with Islam, and none of them have I ever read.

Enter Once Were Radicals. Perhaps it was the hint of B-grade horror movies in its subtitle that made it seem accessible, or perhaps it was the ludicrous cover image of the author – dark-skinned, bearded and brandishing an automatic weapon, but wearing a boxing kangaroo T-shirt, one cricket pad and a Gen-X smirk in front of a bullet-pierced rifle-range target. Whatever, this is book broke through my worthiness barrier.

Irfan Yusuf, Pakistani Muslim from North Ryde, former member of the Liberal Party, old boy of St Andrew’s (Anglican) Cathedral School, blogger (in fact, the book has its own blog), winner of the Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues the year my niece Paula Shaw was runner-up, has written a kind of demotic Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an extended episode of Pizza with political Islamic writings in place of bongs.

The comparison to the Apologia isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Compare John Henry Newman’s opening words

I cannot be sorry to have forced Mr Kingsley to bring out in fulness his charges against me. It is far better that he should discharge his thoughts upon me in my lifetime, than after I am dead.

to the way Irfan Yusuf begins his acknowledgements:

Believe it or not, the first person I’d like to thank is the former US President George W. Bush for popularising the clumsy term ‘Islamo-fascist’.

Both writers take personally the insult – of untruthfulness and terrorist tendencies respectively – to their religion, and respond with what Newman described as ‘draw[ing] out the history of [his] mind’:

I will state the point at which I began, in what external suggestion or accident each opinion had its rise, how far and how they were developed from within, how they grew, were modified, were combined, were in collision with each other, and were changed; again how I conducted myself towards them …

In Yusuf’s case this is a history of growing up as a middle-class immigrant in Sydney, revisiting Pakistan a number of times as ‘an Aussie kid’, gradually learning to distinguish among the interpenetrating religious heritages of his South Asian ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’,  going to Muslim youth camps, learning parts of the Koran by rote in Pakistan and at home, reading books given him by his Wahhabist aunt, toying with conversion to Christianity, engaging passionately with Islam in a number of ways in his teenage years, and in the end achieving an impressive equilibrium. He is given a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but his parents remove it deftly before he can read any of it; he reads The Satanic Verses, and his mother objects because it might interfere with his studies.

As one who was deeply involved in Catholic matters in my teenage years, I could relate to young Irfan’s trajectory, including the bit that involved learning by heart slabs of text in a language he didn’t understand. Even though I’d be hard pressed to name withy any confidence even one of the authors who attracted him to political Islam, the sheer complexity of his reading is in itself instructive: everybody knows there’s not just one Islam, but following the teenage Irfan’s quest made the complexity of Muslim cultures tangible, almost tasteable.

The Pizza connection: Once Were Radicals is at times very funny, with plenty of a specifically Australian quality of ethnic self-mockery. Yusuf impresses on us early in the book that his mother is highly educated, and that she made a calculated decision to speak Urdu in the home so that her children would not lose the language of their cultural heritage, and there’s no disrespect in his lampooning of her heavily accented English in the rest of the book. Lakemba’s Sheikh Hilaly features in one or two scenes whose comic effect couldn’t be further than the pot-shots taken at him by journalists and aspiring satirists: he treats a young bikini-clad Australian woman with friendly courtesy, and tells his astonished teenage charges:

Ostraalyan beebul goodh, nice friendly beebul. Wee Muslim fighth thoo mush. Vee should lurrn from za Ostraalyan beebul how show respect.

All of this is pretty much what I expected of the book after hearing the author speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears. It’s against my religion to tell how a book ends, but I can tell you that for me this one did end in tears.

This needed saying

From one of my favourite political blogs, A Tiny Revolution, some belated but incisive reflections on ‘humour’ about Michael Jackson and by extension other tormented celebrities:

Anybody who runs for President, much less does what it takes to win, is just as weird as Michael Jackson was. They simply hide it better. Here was a guy so terrorized by his father that he’d vomit at the sight of him; a guy whose talent robbed him of his own childhood; a guy who spent the rest of his life mutilating himself and possibly mistreating others in an utterly doomed attempt to find release from his pain. Apportion the blame however you like, but what the hell is funny about that? The moment you stop to think about it–for one second–it no longer becomes fodder for humor. So when we laugh at a Michael Jackson joke, we should know: that’s not laughter, that’s keeping yourself dead inside.

Read the whole post.

Corner shop: Foreshadowing

A little glimpse of what may be in store in the store:




REVOLVER … a new inner city cafe opening soon wanting to give up and coming artists a place to show what they can do … Not just another selling art.

ONE SPACE ONLY!!!! … 70cm x 100cm in beautiful old gilt frame that you do what you like and we showcase it for a month no cost to you showing your contact details. No other art in the place … just you 🙂

REVOLVER has a stunning Victorian/Hip hop flavour that is going to create a new space for locals to mix it up and relax, and wants yo give any artist wanting to get great exposure a chance …

Call Rod on [see image above] or

Email at rod at revolver dot com dot au

Brought to you as a community service

The sixty-eighters’ young appreciators

Beautiful day in Sydney, what better to do than take the bus into town for a free event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘The Young Appreciators‘ was part of the fourth floor exhibition, avoiding myth & message: Australian artists and the Literary world (capitalisation not mine!), which seems to be mainly about artists and literary folk from the late 1960s and on – that is to say, not so much Sidney Nolan–Ern Malley as Tim Burns–John Forbes.

Today is the first time I’ve realised that there is a group of Australian poets known as the 68ers, or perhaps the 69ers: John Forbes, Robert Adamson and John Tranter (whom those in the know refer to by second name only), and quite a few others who are sometimes hard to see because of the long shadows cast by those three. The three speakers at today’s event are younger than the 68/9ers: the oldest admitted to 39, and I’d guess the other two were quite a bit younger. That is to say, none of them had been born in those days when I used to go  regularly to poetry readings to hear John Forbes, who I thought was a bit of a smart aleck and not as interesting as, say Martin Johnston (another 68/9er who doesn’t seem to cast such a long shadow).

Anyhow, it was fun. The first speaker spoke of Vicki Viidikas, beginning her talk by saying she hadn’t known much about her until after she’d accepted the invitation to talk. Since I’d heard the ABC radio programs that she based most of her talk on (with acknowledgement), I can’t say I was riveted. The second tackled John Forbes, mostly, as she said, in terms of marginalia and biography – mentions of herself she’d found in published Forbes letters, for example. It was in her talk that I became aware that those poets of my youth have since become the subject of academic attention. The third, the elegant poet Tim Wright, speaking softly and swiftly enough to be near to incomprehensible to me, talked about Pam Brown, visibly writhing with embarrassment at having the subject of his talk actually in the room.

I loved the moment during the brief question time when Kerry Leves, another of the apparently short-shadowed 68/9ers, admitted that when he’d seen a particular person’s work on a table in the exhibition, he’d said, ‘I don’t remember her!’ It’s a small world, the world of Australian poets and artists.

And I got a real hand in my understanding of Pam Brown’s poetry. I managed to hear Tim Wright say that her work was in many ways similar to Jennifer Maiden’s, but that whereas you tend to read one of Jennifer Maiden’s poems right through to the end, and when you do you feel you’ve learned something (a true statement), with Pam Brown’s work it’s not like that. You tend to stop and ponder a phrase, stare into space, let it sink in or just be distracted (he called her the master of the poetry of distraction, or something of the sort), then go back and read it again: it’s perfect for reading on public transport. I realised that my unexamined working assumption that reading is a linear process – you start at the beginning and go to the end and derive meaning on the way – has made quite a lot of poetry hard to enjoy. And I do read it while walking the dog — surely picking up a bag of dog poo or playing tug-of-war with a stick between lines should have put me in the perfect state of mind. I’ll try again, not so much harder, as with less resistance to the forces of distraction.

The corner shop: swish doors

This isn’t one of those paintings that looks as if it’s just a white canvas but turns out to be covered with tiny Arabic characters or the like. It’s a much poorer thing: a photograph by way of progress report on our corner shop that has been in the making for a very long time.

I noticed on my walk yesterday that the ply panels in the doors, which functioned as a chat board of sorts for while, allowing people to argue the merits of the mermaid and various bread suppliers, to exclaim about desirability of having coffee on our corner, those panels have been replaced by glass. And the glass, backed by white paper to hide the shop’s interior, is etched with a design whose mechanico-Victoriana lines echo the painted wall that an unphotographed sneak preview revealed to your blogger some time back.


So, we have glass in the door. Can opening day be far behind?

Stay tuned.

My Place on our street

For a little while now, a clump of big white vans has been turning up a block or so along our street. Marquees have been pitched in our nearest pocket-handkerchief park. Bevies of young women in long skirts, lace-up boots and bonnets have been ushered across the road by what should probably be described as school-marms. Yes, someone has been shooting a period film in Annandale. My curiosity wasn’t particularly piqued. We may not be New York City, but over the years our suburb has contributed its bit to the big and little screens, and we may have become a little blasé.

Then on Wednesday this week a letter appeared in my mailbox from little leaf pictures indicating that the action was about to move closer to our house, and that there would be ‘stop/go traffic control’ between 8 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon today. But here’s the interesting bit:

We are producing a children’s television series to be screened on the ABC, called ‘My Place’, based on a book by Nadia Wheatley. [Each of thirteen episodes] tells the story of the changing physical and cultural environment of a Sydney suburb from 1888 to 2008, seen through the eyes of thirteen children (a decade apart) whose common element is the terrace they all live in.

I love that book. I bought it because I’d known Nadia when we were both a lot younger, and read it with Penny in a state of high excitement over a hot drink in a Glebe cafe: how much history, of class and colonisation in particular, was worked into its pages! I wept into my hot chocolate at the last page. It’s wonderful that it’s being made into a television series, though they seem to have decided to leave out the first 100 years, which will surely risk pushing it right out of shape. And I’m not sure that broad, leafy Annandale Street can really stand in for the narrow lanes of Newtown (or was it Redfern?) of the book.

My Place IMG_3337

So I was out there today bloggerazzing.

IMG_3344 IMG_3347

Sadly, on my morning walk-past all the action was inside the house. The black shrouded thing on the porch is a monitor and the people in the foreground seem to be keeping track with a vast array of tech gear.

The afternoon was marginally more interesting: filming was over for the day. One or two children were hanging about in pyjamas and dressing gowns, but such are the times that I wasn’t game to take their photos. The ABC’s press release mentions a dozen fabulous actors, but none of the ones I would recognise were in evidence. I did spot one elegant 50s housewife ducking into the costume van and she graciously posed for me:


They’re filming all next week, but I can’t promise any more images. A man in a three mile jacket told me the series will be screening on the ABC in January next year.

Disillusioned with Dylan (a little)

I’m having a lovely time these days listening sporadically to Bob Dylan’s Themetime Radio Hour. He plays a marvellous range of music, from the full version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to totally esoteric blues, with lots of banjo in between, and gives good gravel-voiced DJ spiel, full of biographical snippets about the singers and songwriters he features.

But just now, listening to the program ‘Musical Map‘, I had the uneasy feeling that there was some clay in his cowboy boots. He played a song by one Hank Snow, which he described as Hank Snow’s signature song. It was ‘I’ve been everywhere, man’, a charming patter song consisting mainly of a string of US place names. No mention of a writer, just the fascinating information that Hank Snow was the man who introduced Elvis Presley’s first stint at the Old Oprey.

Bob, just in case you’re reading this, the writer of that song could have done with a mention. He was Geoff Mack. And before it was Hank Snow’s signature song, it made Lucky Starr a household name in his home country. But both of them were Australians. Not worth a moment’s notice. Apparently. Hmph!

Anathem, Heavy

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (Atlantic Books 2008)
14f4541I approached this book with enthusiasm (based on my love of everything by Neal Stephenson I’ve ever read) tempered with guilt (is it the best use of my time to read a 900 page science fiction novel?) and resentment (surely he could have told his story in fewer pages than that, and given us something not quite so heavy to lug around). Three hundred pages later, resentment was a dim memory, guilt had faded to irrelevance, and enthusiasm was transformed into something like exhilaration.

Imagine a cross between Harry Potter and The Name of the Rose, with a substantial dash of A Brief History of Time thrown in, and the faintest possible hint of The Da V*nci Code. A group of adolescent (that is, awfully earnest but also charmingly naughty) members of an religious order set out to solve a mystery, not of a murder but of an invasion from outer space, and uncover a secret conspiracy that’s thousands of years old – only it’s not a religious order exactly, but a vast enclosed community devoted to reason, debate and theoeticcal (theoric in the world of the novel); it’s oversimplifying to say that the invasion is from outer space, and the conspiracy … well, I’m not sure I quite grasped what was going on there, something you could never say about D*n Brown’s plots). There’s maths, there’s physics, there’s philosophy, all redolent of what we know on earth but twisted into new and strange shapes. There are space ninjas (sort of), time travel (sort of), 7000 years worth of back story, and more diverging alternative realities than you can poke a Diana Wynne Jones at. In fact, just when you think you’ve got the measure of this book, it does some kind of athletic sault (oh yes, it makes you want to do that sort of thing to language) and you’re casting about for a new measuring device. The sheer energy of Neal Stephenson’s mind is amazing. His erudition is matched only by his playfulness. His acknowledgements page more or less wrings its hands, says there’s not enough room, and refers the interested reader to 4700 words or so on the web. He can make a fifty-page conversation about the philosophical idea of multiple cosmi not just readable, but fun, though I confess that in that part of the book I was occasionally tempted to skip. But it’s hard to skip when the text is so thick with invention he coins the term Artificial Inanity to describe something that sounds very like spam, for example, and one of his ‘aliens’ says incomprehensibly alien things such as  ‘say zhoost’ to signify agreement or ‘monyafeek’ to express admiration. For those who enjoy an in joke, the marvellously long-lived Enoch Root, a character from earthbound novels Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, makes an appearance here – he has a different name, but there was no mistaking him.

I marked this passage at about the half way mark, just because I liked it. Interestingly, I think it comes close to articulating what the book, beneath all the prolixity, the explosions and the mind boggling theorics, is about:

Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organisations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will behind this; not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.

GDS launch at PPR in Newtown


Last night I went to the Sydney launch of Going Down Swinging No 28. As I may have mentioned, I have not one but two poems in this excellent publication, and I’d missed the Melbourne launch last Wednesday. So of course I made my way to Penguin Plays Rough headquarters in Newtown for last night’s event.

I’d left my PDA at home, so we had a little trouble finding the place. I remembered the address as 475 King Street. That turned out to be a convenience store, which didn’t seem right. My companion wanted to phone home for instructions, but my dim recollection of the Google Street Image made me expect to find a door down the side street. And sure enough there was one.

‘But look, through the windows, you can see that it’s someone’s home,’ said Madam Circumspect.

‘Remember the New American Vaudeville,’ I said.

‘That was fifteen years ago,’ she muttered, but the little New York adventure I was referring to had taken us to a door just as unlikely as this one in the Bowery, and it had opened onto a strangely enjoyable evening of fire-eating, Groucho Marx impersonations and bad folk music. So we climbed the stairs last night, to an evening that was at least as enjoyable, with its own kind of strangeness.

It turns out that we had been seeing someone’s home through the windows. The story as I gleaned it in the course of the evening is that two young women moved into the flat above the convenience store, and when they took a good look at the high-ceilinged, crumbly front room, they decided it was too big to waste as a bedroom or even as a shared living room, and should be put to work as ‘a space’. And so Penguin Plays Rough was born: at 8 o’clock on the third Sunday of every month five programmed writers and five wild cards sit in a red velvet wing chair and read from their work to a paying audience (a wild card is someone who puts their name on the blackboard at the door on arrival).

Last night the room was comfortably full of mostly young people drinking beer and what I thought at first was soup but was actually mulled wine. An assortment of chairs – wooden from the kitchen, wrought iron from the garden, upholstered and plastic – lined two walls, but most people sat in comfortable, picnic-style circles on the floor. My companion’s prediction that we would be the oldest people in the room proved correct by a good ten years, and we were possibly as much as 30 years above the mean. Klare Lanson and Lisa Greenaway, editors of GDS were there. I knew a couple of people, including Mark Tredinnick, poet, essayist and creative writing teacher, who was there to give moral support to one of his students who was reading. But mostly I had a sense that this was a thriving group of people who enjoyed each other’s work, had fun writing and reading and providing an audience for each other. We were treated, among other things, to the final instalment of a Philip Marlowe spoof serial drama with a zombie and cheerful gay male incest. My favourite PPR part of proceedings was a nasty homophobic encounter on Windsor Railway Station told in the language of Shakespeare (‘Ho, varlet, what music doth enter thine ear through yon iPod buds?’ ‘This be Anthony and the Johnsons’), and incorporating a giant green tentacled alien.

A charming young man introduced simply as Shag (who Google tells me is a Radio FBi personality) did the actual launching. He hadn’t actually seen a copy of GDS until he arrived at the venue, but that didn’t stop him from doing a nice job: he had written a piece of ‘Creative Writing’ entitled ‘What I Imagine It will be Like to Launch Going Down Swinging’ which managed to be funny, self-deprecating and devoid of actual reference to the subject of the launch. Nonetheless there was a sweet mood of celebration. Klare Lanson had a few moments in the chair, and managed to slip us a couple of factoids (Peter Carey and Brian Castro appeared in early issues, and in spite of the implied pessimism of the title, it’s now been going and swinging for 30 years). A couple of contributors read their poems and stories from the GDS, Literary culture is alive and well and having a good time in a room above a convenience store in Newtown.

Mark Tredinnick mentioned in a break that his book The Blue Plateau is to be launched tonight at Macquarie University. ‘Do you imagine it will be like this?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said, ‘and that’s not altogether a good thing.’