Monthly Archives: January 2010

Pudding Lane

Kostas is one of the stars of Gillian Leahy’s exquisite little documentary Our Park. In the film, though not in the clips at the link, we see a little of his project of establishing a community garden along Whites Creek Lane. At one point, he says that his many plantings will stop dogs from slipping under the fence and into the canal – and is immediately given the lie by a shot of a dog doing exactly that. The laughter is good natured, but Kostas’ project comes off looking less than practical.

Eleven years later, the lane is transformed into a leafy garden, and Kostas presides over the Pudding Club, whose primary school student members spend a couple of hours each weekend watering, weeding, composting … and eating cakes cooked by Kostas. There are pomegranates, olives, stone fruit, birdbaths and dog watering holes. The plantings and edgings continue into the park to the north of the lane, and there are seedling gum trees planted across the canal. A recent application to have the lane declared a shared zone with a 10 km/h speed limit was rejected by Leichhardt Council, but by sheer hard work and personal charm Kostas has created something special.

A Life Like Other People’s

Alan Bennett, A Life Like Other People’s (Profile 2009)

Probably inspired by the success of Alan Bennett’s little hardcover, The Uncommon Reader, the publishers have given us this physically similar book. But where the earlier was a whimsical piece in which the Queen discovers reading for pleasure, with mildly catastrophic results, this is perfectly serious memoir. Originally published as part of the 650 page volume Untold Stories, it explores the themes of family secrets, depression, dementia and suicide in the lives of Bennett’s grandparents, parents and aunties. It’s a testament to his skill, and to the depth of his affection for his family, that for all its grim subject matter the book is a joy to read. The prose is unfailingly urbane, and he manages to convey multiple perspectives with apparent ease: for example, when one of his aunties (a term whose class connotations he carefully spells out) decides to take apart his mother’s stove to give it a thorough cleaning, we are amused at the spectacle of Bennett’s father flying into a rage (a very uncommon event) at this dire insult to his wife, and at the same time we realise that it was a dire insult.

Perhaps partly because I’ve tried something similar in the predecessor of this blog, I was taken by his attempt to convey the conversation of a demented aunty. His description is quite long, but this little bit may give you an idea, both of its truthfulness and of its elegance:

Embarking on one story, she switches almost instantly to another, and while her sentences still retain grammatical form they have no sequence or sense. Words pour out of her as they always have and with the same vivacity and hunger for your attention. But to listen to they are utterly bewildering, following the sense like trying to track a particular ripple in a pelting torrent of talk.

As I was reading, I found myself thinking of AD Hope’s lines about Yeats (see, the poems you study in your youth hang around in your brain forever): ‘To have found at last that noble, candid speech / In which all things worth saying may be said’. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it seemed that Bennett could write about a huge range of  human experience without his prose ever stumbling. We know, for instance, the kind of emotional tumult involved in the experience referred to in this sentence: ‘While sexual intercourse did not quite begin in 1974 it was certainly the year when sex was available pretty much for the asking … or maybe I had just learned the right way to ask.’ What did Freud say about jokes? Not that this is unconscious – on the contrary. And it’s not that he’s hiding anything. It’s just that the prose is not about self-revelation, but about elegant, usually witty communication. I wasn’t sure this was entirely a good thing, whether a little raw emotion mightn’t have made a more interesting book. But he was ahead of me. Towards the end of the book, when Bennett’s mother, after decades in and out of psychiatric institutions, ECT, is in advanced dementia in a nursing home, he winces at the way the employees address her, calling her loudly by a diminutive that was never hers, kissing her lavishly, who was always physically reserved. He observes with irritation that his mother seems to enjoy it, and goes on:

But then taste has always been my handicap, and so here when in this sponged and squeegeed bedroom with an audience of indifferent old women I do not care to unbend, call my mother ‘chick’, fetch my face close to hers and tell her or shout at her how much I love her and how we all love her and what a treasure she is.
Instead, smiling sadly, I lightly stroke her limp hand, so ungarish my display of affection I might be the curate, not the son.
The nurses (or whatever) have more sense. They know they are in a ‘Carry On’ film. I am playing it like it’s ‘Brief Encounter’.

There are photos of the Bennett parents scattered throughout. Almost as much as the prose, they convey the deep current of love that flows through the book.

Did I mention that it’s very funny?

Fourmillante Sydney …

… Sydney of dreams …

Last night we spent a couple of hours in the city for the first night of the Festival of Sydney. We saw:

  • thousands of people in a good mood, many sporting little electric fans that somehow lit up with an ad telling us to switch to a sponsoring bank
  • the fig trees in Hyde Park sporting ornate trunk wraps
  • a spangled woman floating beneath a giant balloon outside the Barracks Museum, who dived in slow motion to touch fingers with a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders

  • kaleidoscopic images lighting up the wall of the law courts building
  • a hundred saxophone players belting out a tune from the upper and lower verandahs of the Mint Museum
  • twenty bagpipers playing ‘Amazing Grace’ from the front of Parliament Building
  • Black Arm Band singing ‘Treaty’ in the Domain, and even though we were half a kilometre away from the stage they really did the business (Al Green, the main act, didn’t reach as far back as us in quite the same way)
  • aerialists throwing weird shadows onto the western façade of St Mary’s Cathedral

  • A fabulous band called (I’ve just looked them up on the Festival web site) Big Bad Voodoo Daddy doing ‘Minnie the Moocher’ in Martin Place, which was packed even tighter than the Domain

I don’t have high expectations of these kinds of giant parties, particularly since being vomited on by a stranger at Darling Harbour one New Year’s Eve 25 years or so ago. Last night was like a good dream, or a dozen of them at once.

Treason on the Airwaves

Judith Keene, Treason on the Airwaves: Three Allied broadcasters on Axis radio during World War II (Praeger 2009)

An Englishman, an Australian and an American walk into a courtroom … It could be the start of a joke, but in this case it’s a fascinating study of three very different people who were charged with treason for their activities as radio broadcasters for the Axis powers, and the three very different ways their nations dealt with them. The subjects are John Amery, whose broadcasts for the Nazis included nasty anti-Jewish rants, Charles Cousens, who broadcast for the Japanese and expected (in vain) his Australian listeners to discern deeply embedded messages that would help in the war effort, and Iva Toguri, one of the 50 000 (yes, so many!) nisei trapped in Japan in 1941, who broadcast as Orphan Ann but was tried as Tokyo Rose.

Judith Keene says in her introduction that ‘the big patterns of history are made up of a great many micro-histories, individual stories, writ small and smaller’. The stories of individuals accused of treason must be one set of micro-histories that tests the big patterns: much as we might want the famous footage of the man dancing in Martin Place to represent the whole meaning of the Victory in the Pacific for Australians, there was a lot more going on than that. Along with the sheer joy that the War was over, in Australia as in Britain and the USA there was also quite a bit of racism-inflected vindictiveness around, for which these treason trials provided a conduit.

All three stories are fascinating, but Iva Toguri’s fills me with almost evangelical zeal. She was born in the USA, and was a cheerful, outgoing child and adolescence. Like many nisei, she identified as American, and her parents organised to send her to stay with relatives in Japan so she could learn Japanese language and culture properly. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she refused to renounce her US citizenship and, cut off from her parents as a source of funds, found what work she could in a Tokyo where her US status was certainly not an advantage. As a typist in Radio Tokyo, where her fluency in English was valued, she took pity on the wretched US and Australian POWs, slipping them food and blankets at some risk to herself, and because she had a rich deep voice was soon invited across to be an announcer on Zero Hour, a program beamed out to Allied troops in the Pacific, consisting mainly of popular US music. Cutting a long story short, at the end of the war, while thousands of nisei who had renounced their US citizenship were readmitted to the US without question, at the prompting of the 1946 equivalents of today’s shock jocks, she was arrested, tried for treason in a process that was later shown to be unambiguously corrupt, imprisoned for decades, further harassed and humiliated on her release and then pardoned. Someone ought to make a movie about her. (And having written that last sentence I went googling and found that there is a movie in the works, to be directed by Frank ‘Shawshank Redemption‘ Darabont from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton.)

Judith is a friend of mine, so I might not have mentioned this next thing if Richard Walsh hadn’t done so at the launch in April: the book is dreadfully edited, to the point that the regular bloopers become a significant distraction. In the very first paragraph of the introduction, a punctuation error renders the second sentence close to nonsensical. ‘Grey’s Elergy‘ (two spelling errors) and ‘the dye was conclusively caste’ (two spelling errors and a redundancy) are not atypical. I’m very glad that Praeger Press of Connecticut published the book, but anyone who commits their manuscript to them should be warned that the detail of your text is not in safe hands. Anyone who wants to know what a line editor does will find this book instructive: the things that make it hard to read are the things an editor would have fixed. However, I recommend that you treat the frequent blemishes as you would mosquitoes on a bushwalk: irritating, but not enough to make you turn back.

Eliasson’s Lights at the MCA

We visited the MCA again yesterday, this time to see the Olafur Eliasson exhibition. The most interesting things there – apart from the room where we were invited to build things in white Lego and to admire the extraordinary creations of those who had come before us –were his pieces made with light. I was probably a bit spoiled for them by having seen James Turrell’s work in Naoshima, where the thoughtfully reverential treatment allows the work to become almost numinous. In the MCA, for example, the 360º Room for All Colours, in which a circular wall becomes something like a domestic-sized Aurora Borealis (Eliasson is from Iceland) might have had that effect, but the chatter from the Lego room, the attendant’s helpful explanation of technical matters, and the intrusive detail of the floor and the room beyond the ‘room’ (unlike the polished blankness of the floor in the photo on the MCA site) allowed in too much mundanity, and the room felt to me like a clever novelty. ‘Take your time’ was the title of the exhibition, but there was little in the presentation to enforce that injunction.

Except in the piece entitled ‘Beauty’. In a black-lined room a fine spray of water fell from the ceiling, in light from a single directed bulb. In a very slight breeze, perhaps caused by our movements, the water fell in gentle arcs, catching and refracting the light like a shimmering, almost mother-of-pearl curtain. As I was standing in the dark at the back of the room, three women walked in. Something about their manner emboldened me, and I said, ‘Walk into it.’ And they did. It looked great – the curtain completely vanished for a moment, then reformed. Then I discovered for myself that when you walked into the mist, a circular rainbow formed around you.

There were other lovely things in the exhibition, but I wanted to make sure I told you about that.

December niece news

Since I seem to be posting regular notes about nieces, perhaps I should explain: I’ve got eight of them, and five of the eight have lived, or at least stayed for a while, with us over the years. Every one of them is a source of great joy. A number of them are meeting with a degree of success as writers and artists, and I’m shamelessly putting my blog to work as part of their publicity machines. (We have seven nephews, sources of no less joy, who have so far been more or less avoiding the need for publicity.)

Paula Shaw, whose memoir Seven Seasons at Aurukun received quite a bit of attention earlier in the year, and not just from me, popped up again in Inga Clendinnen’s article in the December Australian Literary Review. Although the article itself has attracted aspersions from Guy Rundle in Crikey, the reference to Seven Seasons as ‘a brave and honest book’ stands uncontested. Thanks to my avuncular Google Alert, I also came across a number of reviews by teachers – on the publisher’s web site, and a review by an Aboriginal reader who has the most negative response I’ve seen so far, identifying a ‘heart of darkness vibe’, but says all the same that it would be a ‘good read for anybody interested in contemporary life in an Aboriginal community in Australia’.

Meanwhile, Paula’s sister Edwina Shaw has been gracing the pages of the Griffith Review for a couple of years now – and grace is the right word for it, even though her stories deal with dark themes set in Joh-era Brisbane. She has a story in the current issue, along with Frank Moorhouse, Louis Nowra and other luminaries. She also has a story, about different youth altogether, in the current (Winter) edition of the Asia Literary Review, sharing the contents list with among others Henning Mankell. (I was putting off posting this until the Asia Literary Review web site included details on the Winter issue, but as it’s now 5 January my title will be appallingly out of date if I postpone any longer, so here it is with what may be the right cover.)

Update: Chris Wood, the editor, has told us in a comment that it is the right cover.

Another update: The Winter issue is now up on the Asia Literary Review web site. I’ve fixed the link, and added one to Edwina’s story, ‘Broken’.

From Hell

Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Top Shelf Publications 26)

Each of my sons gave me a big comic for Christmas. I’ve already posted a note about R Crumb’s Genesis. From Hell, in which Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell tackle Jack the Ripper, makes an interesting companion read. Both books have ample sex, violence and uncanniness. Both deal in multiple versions of the same events. Both feature self portraits by the illustrator that are charmingly at odds with the rest of the book (Crumb on the dust jacket flap in his ‘lounge pants’; Campbell in an Appendix as a gangly stay-at-home dad). And both have notes up the back that exert a fascination of their own.

I’m not particularly fascinated by Jack the Ripper. In my teens I read what must be one of the few books on the subject not mentioned in the appendices of this one, The Identity of Jack the Ripper by Donald McCormick (what’s the good of keeping these records if you can’t trot them out occasionally), in which Jack was revealed to be the Prince of Wales, and that was enough for me. Alan Moore, by contrast, has immersed himself in Ripperology and hammered it into a vast, complex web of story, incorporating court records, newspaper accounts, speculation, rumour, architectural history, literary history, Masonic ritual, unexpected historical connections and just plain invention, with appearances by Queen Victoria, William Blake, William Morris, Aleister Crowley, Hitler’s parents – the list goes on. I can’t say it was a pleasant read, but it’s a very impressive one. Likewise Eddie Campbell’s art (in this book) is rarely pleasant, but it’s darkly powerful. There’s a lot of hatching, and it’s often hard to tell exactly what is being shown – which at he more grisly moments is a great blessing!

I started out reading the main narrative in tandem with the notes that constitute the first appendix, but gave up about a third of the way in, because the plethora of information about sources was slowing the story down terribly. However, it’s good to know how little of the narrative is pure invention on Moore and Campbell’s part, and I’m reasonably sure that without the notes some bits of the story would have remained completely mysterious to me. And there’s one fabulous twist in the tail that would certainly have bypassed me if the last couple of notes (I skipped to the end) hadn’t first told me that the ‘scene on page 23’ was cryptic, second told me to work it out for myself, and third given me a big hint that transformed the meaning of one of the many subplots into something almost redemptive.

In the first few pages, a convenient warning to parents to put the book on a high shelf, there’s a sex scene that exemplifies Eddie Campbell’s genius by managing to be very explicit (by which I mean anatomically specific), not at all soft-focus prurient, and also joyful. This scene is what sets the whole ghastly plot into action, which according to one school of Biblical interpretation brings me back to the similarities to Genesis.

In short, I don’t know who I’d recommend this book to, but it’s very good.

Fantastic and not so fantastic Mr Fox

Roald Dahl, illustrated by Jill Bennett, Fantastic Mr Fox (1970, Puffin 1974)

I came out of  Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox wondering if I oughtn’t reconsider my devotion to the cinema. The film is brilliant, witty, beautifully performed all round, and – for me – a totally pointless experience. Was this like the moment when a 12 month old child decides that the breast is history? (That moment in the life of one of our sons, incidentally, happened in the cinema: he wouldn’t accept his mother’s breast and insisted on crying loudly. The movie was The Turning Point. True.) Then I remembered my last five outings to the pictures, and I’m looking forward to the next sip of mother’s milk. I did, however, feel the need to read Roald Dahl’s book on which the film was based.

Though in my days as a young parent I was a Dahl fan, I hadn’t read Fantastic Mr Fox, but we have a copy stashed away. I dug it out. Sure enough, it seems to me that Wes Anderson kept the story outline, elaborated it with myriad Hollywood tropes, and missed the point. Specifically, the movie completely missed that Dahl’s story is deeply and deliciously ironic. It takes place in rural England, and depends on the reader knowing that farmers are generally decent people who work hard to provide food for our tables: farms are benign places, and foxes are pests who savagely murder poultry that’s meant for us to eat. With that basic assumption in mind, underlined in this Puffin edition by Jill Bennett’s drawings of a classic idyllic countryside, Dahl opens his narrative with pen portraits of three physically grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile farmers, and a fox whose nightly depredations are portrayed as the behaviour of a responsible, loving husband and father. He draws on the folk tradition of the fox as clever, and uses the sneaking sympathy for foxes that is all through children’s literature as a lever to turn the moral order on its head. The book is subversive, shocking in a delicious way and, as the farmers become more murderous and the fox cleverer in outwitting them, it’s also jolly good fun. It’s like a vulpine Peter Rabbit.

Maybe in these days of vast chicken factories it just doesn’t make sense to demonise small farmers, even as ironically. or maybe that irritating commonplace that Americans don’t do irony (that link is to a particularly irritating example) has some truth to it after all, given that I would have thought Wes Anderson was one of the best counter-examples. Whatever the explanation, the farmers in the movie are not only grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile, they are immediately recognisable as representing rapacious industrial capitalism: their ‘farms’ look like combination gasworks and concentration camps. These are awfully familiar villains. Dahl’s fox talks and wears clothes, but his behaviour is fox-like – he lives in a hole, has four barely differentiated cubs – so that there’s an appeal to the (young and other) reader’s knowledge about actual foxes and their actual status as pests. Anderson’s fox lives in a tree with all mod cons, writes a newspaper column, has to deal with a ‘different’ adolescent son. He’s as much as fox as Mickey is a mouse.

All this doesn’t necessarily matter in itself. If Fox and his underground friends are trapped in a sewer with archways and electric light rather than a deep hole they’ve dug themselves, and find their salvation in a vast supermarket filled with frozen and canned food rather than among the living or freshly killed poultry on the farms themselves, it’s just a different story, isn’t it? Well, yes. Different, and duller. Much of the original text survives, but in my opinion it loses everything, its ironic lifeblood drained out and replaced by clever-dick formaldehyde.

If you’re planning to go to this movie, and especially if you’re planning to take a young person to see it, I urge you to read the book, or read the book to the young person, first.


By way of quick and dirty retrospective, here are the first sentences from my blog (or really blogs, as I changed platforms and name in May) for each month of the year. It’s a meme, picked up from The Couch Trip.

1 January:
I just found out from the nice people at Wikipedia that the Catholic Church no longer celebrates 1 January as the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, and hasn’t done since 1960.

1 February:
Penny said I had to blog this, even though I was so bowled over by it that I lost track of how I came upon it, so can’t give proper credit. [It’s a lovely bit of Obamiana.]

3 March:
Yesterday was a big one for the Shaw family. [My niece Paula’s book launch.]

1 April:
Last October I posted a little entry about Nicolas José’s address at the NSW Premier’s History Awards, in which he spoke of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, due for publication in August this year, and mentioned Taam Sze Puy’s bilingual memoir, My Life and Work, published in Innisfail in 1925.

4 May:
A couple of nights ago I had a hugely reassuring phone call from one of the editors of a literary magazine that has accepted a couple of my poems.

1 June:
L K Holt’s man wolf man won the Kenneth Slessor Award this year.

1 July:
I’ve been slack in my self-imposed duty to be a blog of record – that is, to keep you informed about what I get up to by way of going out to stuff in the evenings, often stuff you won’t hear about from the newspapers.

4 August:
Last night my men’s group book group met to talk about Anna Karenina (Anna Karenin, as she’s called in the secondhand copy I bought on Monday), and an excellent evening it was.

3 September:
I haven’t exactly managed a daily post as we walked through the Loire Valley: points d’internet aren’t exactly common and those I have found, when they functioned at all, have had keyboards that drive me crazy.

2 October:
I was on a bus in Connecticut in August when Penny texted me from the airport in Sydney to tell me Yasmin Ahmad had died.

1 November:
This afternoon we visited the White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale, and then went on to Object Gallery to see their part of the exhibition Menagerie.

1 December:
I don’t suppose many people would see an item about youth suicide in Queensland as a good news story, but this story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald marks my niece Kym’s first byline in a major newspaper.

So this year, I’ve been published, and so have my nieces. I’ve travelled, with Penny and without her. People have died. I joined an all-male book group. I’ve tried to blog about all my reading, gallery-going, lecture-attending, and my reading has been, um eclectic –100 books by my count, including comics like Watchmen and revisited children’s books. Obama and Rudd have continued to inspire and disappoint. The past has continued to surprise.

I’m setting this to upload at a minute after midnight. I intend to be sound asleep in a single bed by then, with Penny, sick and infectious with the flu, sleeping in our bed a room away.

Happy 2010!