Monthly Archives: August 2010

Journals: Asia Lit Review 16 & Overland 199

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 16 ([northern] Summer  2010)
Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland Nº 199 (Winter 2010)

Both these journals have been sitting on my desk for too long.  This is the first Asia Literary Review with Stephen McCarty as editor, which is not the hot news it would have been if I’d read it when it arrived months ago. With Overland, my tardiness is even more embarrassing – the  much awaited special 200th issue is being launched in Melbourne this weekend, making issue 199 so last season.

This is only the third issue of the ALR I’ve read, and as far as I can tell the editorial change doesn’t herald any major shift in direction.

This issue includes work from and about Thailand, Laos, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Turkey, and their diasporas. Intergenerational tensions loom large in almost every piece. Two sayings, one Indian and the other Chinese, capture something of the tenor of that looming. In Sandip Roy’s ‘No Country for Old Women‘, reporting on government attempts to reunite families where elderly parents have been abandoned or abused, he comments:

Love, my mother always says, flows downwards. You can’t force it flow the other way if it does not want to.

The fading popular singer who narrates Stephen Hirst’s ‘It’s All in the Silhouette‘ quotes a ‘lovely Chinese saying’:

one generation plants the trees, the next gets the shade.

Story after story, some very good, deals with a parent’s love and sacrifice, a child’s obedience or resentment and rebellion. There’s an awful lot of pain – grandmothers with bound feet occur in more than one story, and there are a number of guilt-pricked young men living in the USA.

There are other subjects: Gary Jones reports on the Red Shirt encampment in Bangkok earlier this year; Jaina Sanga’s story ‘The Maharaja and the Accountant‘ is a tale of politics from the dying days of the Raj; and there’s a short essay by Tippaphon Keopaseut, ‘Looking for Laos‘. In this last, the writer explores the cultural traditions of her country, beginning with the shocking observation that ‘compared to the great nations of the world, Laos seems little more than an empty space’, continuing with savage wit to give a history of colonisation and concluding:

So, I continue looking for Laos. And if it doesn’t exist? I’ll just have to invent it. After all, isn’t that what writers do?

I hope that’s not just youthful braggadocio. Certainly it’s not the words of someone obliged to stay in shade that someone else has sacrificed their life to plant for them. (The full stories behind those links are available only to subscribers, sorry!)

If the Asia Literary Review serves to expand an Australian reader’s horizons, Overland helps one see more clearly what’s happening near at hand. The entire issue is, as always, available online, so it’s a bit ironic that the first item in the real-world version is ‘Driven to Distraction‘, in which Cate Kennedy inveighs persuasively against internet addiction. As soon as I’d read it, I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone and unfollowed @annabelcrabb, @andrewbolt and the other Tweeters whose witty observations had been delighting (and distracting) me since the election. My Twitter addiction is nipped in the bud. Thanks, Cate! All the same, as with many articles here, I did have a ‘Yes, but’ response: Yes, the internet is a distraction, but I hope not all blogging grows from ‘a compulsion that blunts our capacity for reflective, private contemplation’.

Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickenson in ‘The March of the Insider‘ do a nice job of deconstructing the historico-journalism of Paul Kelly. I haven’t read any of his books, or indeed any insider accounts of Australian parliamentary politics, but I did recently read Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, and this article’s shoe fits that book’s foot pretty well:

… the claim of political journalists to a special ‘insider’ knowledge might be considered an impediment rather than a spur to full democratic participation. The ‘inside’ requires an ‘outside’. The same rhetoric that elevated the journalist and the politician thereby also positions the voter as a perpetual outsider, sending the message that there is a separate political sphere of which they are not, and never can be, a part.

Yes, but isn’t it a whole other story when journalists, political or not, write books about issues such as the Tampa, the AWB scandal, or events on Palm Island?

Tad Tietze analyses the rise of the Greens as a party attractive to the left but with a complex relationship with left politics and left perspectives. Thomas Caldwell argues against the likes of Antony Ginnane and Louis Nowra who have recently been critical of Australian films en masse, with box-office takings as their sole criteria of success or failure. There’s a trio of articles that save from possible oblivion aspects of activist history: Zanny Begg discusses and illustrates political art and the counter-globalisation movement (yes, a tremendously interesting piece which I recommend, but isn’t it odd to discuss participatory art in terms that exclude people not trained in artspeak?); Michael Hyde’s memoir ‘Getting out of the Boat‘, gives the inside story of some key moments in Australian opposition to the Vietnam war; Seb Prowse talks to Iain McIntyre about the latter’s How to Make Trouble and Influence People (Breakdown Press, 2009) which deals with imaginative Australian protest, culture-jamming and graffiti from White settlement to the present.

And there’s literary stuff as well: short stories, poems, reviews, an engagement with the controversy around the PEN/Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature and the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

I skipped the article on literary piracy, part of the Meanland project of exploring the implications of new technology for the written word. I know its important, but for now I’m very happy to get my literary journals in holdable, stainable, dog-earable form.


I was interviewed recently by Lorena Allam for an edition of ABC’s oral history program Hindsight about The School Magazine. The program’s web site now has information up.

Throughout its 94-year history, The School Magazine has been edited by a who’s who of Australian literature: Patricia Wrightson, Lilith Norman, Duncan Ball, and more recently Anna Fienberg and Tohby Riddle.

These days the School Magazine is still around, but available only on subscription. In this era of school-ranking websites and results-based education, there’s pressure to keep up with the demands of the modern classroom. Yet it is as loved as it ever was.

Just for the record, I’m not at all offended at not being listed among the Who’s Who of Australian Children’s Literature. The show will be broadcast on 19 September at 2 in the afternoon, and repeated on the afternoon of Thursday 23 September at 1 o’clock. It should be fun.

How to direct a movie

I subscribe to the podcast of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film reviews on the BBC’s Radio 5 Mark and Simon being away on their summer holidays at the moment, their replacements, known as Floyd and Boyd, have been doing a sterling job. On Friday’s show they interviewed Stephen Frears and Tamsin Greig about the coming film Tamara Drewe, which they respectively directed and acted in. I loved this exchange:

Stephen Frears: There was this wonderful book written by Posy [Simmons]. There was Moira Buffini’s wonderful script. It was like, you know, robbing your kid’s bank. It was just a goldmine of jokes and funny things.
Floyd or Boyd: Now Tamsin, this is Stephen’s standard line – I’ve interviewed him once or twice before. His position basically is, Well, there’s this marvellous screenplay, then I came across these marvellous actors, like Tamsin Greig, then I just sort of turned up and they did it all really, while I just stood around. Now I’m guessing he probably has a little more input than that.
Tamsin Greig: It’s a little bit like — You know when you have a family gathering and there’s somebody there that everybody loves, and everybody trusts, and something just happens. Well, that’s the difference with Stephen Frears. When he’s not there, things don’t happen. But him just being there, and people trusting him, and having that relationship … I mean a lot of the crew have worked with him ten fifteen, twenty years or some more than that. There’s something palpable in the room, and you just get caught up in that. He just stands there and allows you, and so you do, and you never feel like a tit.

Yes, I know, from one point of view they were blowing smoke, but there’s something to it, just the same. It describes, for example, a good part of what I tried to do when editing the School Magazine: to allow the illustrators, editors and writers, so they did, and very rarely felt like tits.

Dementia Blog: reading backwards

Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press 2008)

Pam Brown turned up in my comments section recently to recommend this book. How could I not seek it out?

Like Rocky & Gawenda, it started life as a blog. Unlike R&G, it has kept many blog trappings: date and time stamps, a note of the number of comments on each post (though not the comments themselves), and every so often a list of links (‘About me’, ‘View my complete profile’ and so on, but not any actual URLs). More consequentially, the entries appear in reverse chronological order, as in an archived blog. Unlike Michael Gawenda’s blog, the one that gave birth to this book is no longer on line – at least, my googling attempts came up with zip. The book is meant to stand in its own two covers.

And it does. In just over 50 ‘blog entries’, most of them roughly one and a half pages long, we move from January 2007, when the poet’s mother is living in a dementia facility, back to the beginning of August 2006, when the poet and her family visit the mother who is still living at home with the kind of difficulty and drama familiar to anyone who has a relative with Alzheimer’s or, as they say, a related disorder. So there’s a strong narrative backbone to the book. But this isn’t a novel disguised as a blog: within the blog entries, narrative does not rule. I suppose they count as prose poems, but however you classify them they make an excellent read. They reflect the multiple roles of the writer: daughter of a woman with deepening dementia; mother of two adopted children, five and seven years old and learning to read and write; creative writing teacher variously dismayed and stimulated by her students; citizen responding to the egregiousness of Bush & Rumsfeld; poet reflecting on poetics and the work of other poets, and also – of course – doing the thing that poets do with language and experience, which includes butting those different subjects up against each other, interweaving them, sometimes fusing, even confusing them, finding meaning and hints of meaning in them.

I probably would have found it unreadable as an actual blog, suffering as I do from Internet-related shrunken attention span (IRSAS – you saw the acronym here first). It invites focus, concentration, memory, deep engagement. But, speaking as one who generally finds prose poems alienating and reads them as not much different from bad prose, I found it completely accessible, and engaging. As usual in contemporary poetry, there’s quite a lot of obscurity, but when the subject is dementia and the loss of coherence, references I don’t understand – whether to US sports culture or political journalism, to poetic theory or to people in the poet’s life – I feel the momentary disorientation less as a problem than as another enactment of the theme.

The first/last couple of blog entries were printed in Jacket 35. They are the most vivid evocation of the social life of a dementia ward I’ve yet seen, but the book is much more various than they might lead you to believe. Perhaps I can quote a couple of paragraphs from one of the early entries towards the end of the book, posted at 6:27 am Saturday, August 05, 2006 (because my WordPress theme italicises indented quotes and ignores instructions to leave words upright, I’ve bolded the words that are in itals in the original):

–Eleanor called to say that Mom had been angry at Milt, but was amazingly lucid yesterday. She knows what’s going on in Russia. I wonder what is going on in Russia.

–Is there a Dementia for Dummies?

–How would it define words like knowledge, or like wisdom. Let alone safety and comfort. At the end, comfort is our wisdom. The philosophy of consolation. The minor fictions that give us another hour before worry’s onset, if we’re lucky.

Is that creature woman coming tomorrow? Martha, that is rude; you shouldn’t say that about people. Sara is coming tomorrow.

Sangha wonders what the words cease fire mean. We watch news of rockets and bombings, see bodies taken out of ruins. Rice says there is no civil war in Iraq; there are sectarian tensions. When the reporter mutters, she allows that some of the tensions are violent.

I have never said anything overly optimistic about the situation in Iraq, says Donald Rumsfeld. You’d have to look like the dickens.

I plan to reread this.

Blessed-to-be John Henry

Assuming that the Pope isn’t arrested when he sets foot in the United Kingdom, he will be beatifying John Henry Newman there on 19 September.

I admired JHN greatly in my early 20s, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua is high on my To Be Reread list. His notion of the Development of Doctrine was a bit of an intellectual lifesaver to me as a young Catholic facing such dogmas as ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus‘, which would have condemned all non-Catholics to Hell for eternity, and helps me to have some grasp of how friends I respect can adhere to a church that requires one to believe, for one example, that Mary was a virgin before during and after the birth of Jesus (ante partum, in partu, post partum).

Sadly, the heroes of one’s youth look a little different forty years later. I recently read a friend’s Eng Lit Hons thesis on Newman’s novels, and was shocked to encounter this quote:

He is only half a man if he can’t put his book into the fire when told by authority.

I suppose that’s not so different in spirit from the challenging line from Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, ‘The truth is not always revolutionary.’ All the same, this beatification is not one that betokens a softening of hard line Catholicism.

Not a grocer’s apostrophe in sight

Have a look at this sign in a cake shop in Norton Street Plaza, Leichhardt. Sam Cavallaro probably feels he has crafted a memorable slogan. Clearly he has saved quite a bit of money by not employing a copy writer or an editor. What I love is the way it refuses to yield up a clear meaning. The dollar may lose its value with inflation, but these cakes are good even when they’re stale? No, that can’t be it. Perhaps: our cakes may seem expensive, but you’ll stop worrying about the cost when you actually eat them? But surely that isn’t it either. I know we’re not meant to scrutinise it like this, but honestly it’s not derision I feel but a kind of awe at its koan-ishness.

Election night distraction fail

Because we had predicted it would be unbearable to be near a TV on this election night, we chose to join the art aficionados at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the first night of Ken Unsworth’s ‘popera’, The House of Blue Leaves.

If this happened in the show it was after we left and would have required a transformation of the black decor.

As a distraction it was a major failure. I can’t give you a review because we left after a bit less than an hour. The image above makes it look like fun, and maybe the fun started after we left. The show involved music, dance, sculptural creations, appalling sight lines (exacerbated by sections of audience that radiated entitlement), terrible timing (long waits while clanking and scurrying behind a closed curtain weren’t quite masked by dreary chords from the piano). Much of the action happened close to the floor, and so was easily visible only to the front row of the audience. We were in the fifth row, so relied on guesswork for quite a bit of it.

Given all that, the show started promisingly. After a reverberant male voice proclaimed ‘In the beginning’ and variations, the curtain opened to the sound of heavy breathing on a more or less blank stage (there was a doll of some sort lying up the back left, but it was hard to tell if it was meant to be there), and then a further curtain opened at the back right to reveal the source of the heavy breathing, a woman in a nightie and body stocking lying on her back with her legs spread, crotch towards us. After a little while a small grotesque winged figure descended from the ceiling and rested for a moment between her legs (I think – the woman had moved around and so had people’s heads, so I could no longer see her at all). Then it rose again, and when halfway to the roof emitted a shower of fairy dust, or succubus sperm. A ripple of laughter. The only one of teh evening. The curtains closed.

There followed a song, beautifully performed by Natalie Gamsu in a shiny black frock, in German, something to do with morgen.

A man in black carried a helicopter onstage and popped three balloons by pointing it at them. There were boy sopranos, just their heads in urinal like stainless steel bowls, singing ‘See that ye love one another’. Natalie Gamsu made another appearance, her head poking out of a hole in a tall white boxy structure on wheels, this time singing in Spanish (‘Contorna‘) to a group of masked dancers. Slender wooden poles descended from the ceiling and made occasional clacking sounds that startled the dancers; after a while hands emerged from the ceiling and detached the poles, so that they fell onto the stage. Occasionally, as when a woman in a white dress floated up to land on the table holding the urinal-bowl-boys’-heads, there was a moment that seemed to promise something. But she just floated down to the floor again, helped by a man in black.

To my untutored eye, the choreography would not have disgraced a very good high school performance. The dancers were fine. Everything was done with great solemnity. There was nothing even faintly pop about the music or the decor. It was po-faced rather than pop, and not at all operatic. It was theatre without theatricality, entertainment without amusement, earnestness without seriousness.

One of the young men who made their escape at the same time as us said it was probably going to be brilliant from then on, and we’d kick ourselves when we read the reviews. He was joking.

We got home in time to see 20-year-old Wyatt Roy tell the cameras, ‘I want to be potentially the politician that is available and that gets back to people, that is connected to the community and has their pulse on the issues.’


In the month I was born, Harry Truman announced the doctrine that was to bear his name: ‘the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’

In the month the Art Student was born, the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began.

The first Sydney Gay Mardi Gras was held  the month after our elder son was born.

Our second son was born a week the federal election that made Hawke Prime Minister of Australia.

Children born this month will be able to say, whoever wins, that they were born in the month of the Australian election that acted for all the world as if climate change was an issue that would be addressed (or not) elsewhere.
I voted below the line for the Senate. There was only one person – as distinct from party – on the sheet that I positively wanted to vote for, namely John Faulkner. As I got further down the list I was faced with a series of delicious if inconsequential decisions: how should I order my preferences for One Nation, the Climate Change Denial Party, the Shooters Party, Family First, the Christian Democrats (aka Fred Nile and company), the Sex Party – and should I put some or all of them ahead of the Coalition? I can’t tell you what I decided because I don’t remember, but there was a certain exasperated pleasure in knowing that my vote would do no good to any of them.

Elegant graffiti

I wouldn’t have noticed this but for a young girl who read it out loud to her mother just as I was walking past. It’s on a building site just around the corner from my place.

Words words words: The Meaning of Everything

Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP 2003)

I first stumbled on the OED in the Fisher Library at Sydney University roughly 40 years ago. I doubt if I looked up more than two or three words in it, but I did get a whiff of what a miraculous piece of work it is, with its long columns of quotations illustrating how the meanings of every word changed and developed with the passage of time. A couple of years later I read Raymond Williams’s Keywords (a brilliant guide for anyone who wants to chart a path through the spin of political discourse), which cites the OED frequently, and which made me fall in love with the Dictionary at one remove. The Shorter Oxford on the shelf in my last office was consulted regularly, though the Macquarie and then the internet came, , for different reasons, to rival it as authorities of first resort. The thing is, the OED and the SOED are useful, but they are also fun. They’re like water: you go to them because you need them but you stay and take a dip, even immersing yourself for a while, for the sheer joy of it.

To pummel that last metaphor a little, Ammon Shea stayed in the water far too long. The book resulting from his project of reading the whole thing in a year – which I blogged about the other day – is like a report from someone who has just almost drowned. Simon Winchester gives us the view from the shore, takes us diving in occasionally, lets us swim a little, and delivers plenty of draughts of the cool, refreshing stuff itself. This is pretty much the book I had unfairly expected Shea’s to be: a colourful account of the making of the  Dictionary, with lashings of background history, philology and lexicography, a gallery of striking characters and a plethora of shiny quotes. The book captures well an image of the Victorian creators of the dictionary – editors, sub-editors, paid assistants and (in their hundreds) volunteers, summarised in an epilogue as

legions of elderly, usually bearded men, formally dressed in tweeds and gabardine, sitting at high desks, pens in hand, volumes open beside them, sheaves of paper in racks and shelves and pigeonholes behind them, a heavy, cloistered atmosphere of academic rigour and polymathic knowledge enveloping and embracing them like the very air itself.

The proposal that there should be a dictionary that aimed to include the totality of the English language was first put to a meeting of the Philological Society in London in November 1857 by the Dean of Westminster, Richard Chenevix Trench. The first edition was published, half a dozen learned and mostly eccentric editors later, in June 1928. The story of those 71 years makes up the great bulk of this book.

Simon Winchester  has an eye for the shiny piece of information that, while not strictly essential to an understanding of his subject, keeps the company amused. Sometimes he relegates a bauble to a footnote, as when, having described one Hucks Gibbs as a good shot, he adds at the bottom on the page, ‘Fairly good: he blew off his right hand in 1864, but remained keen on the sport.’ But the colour and movement mostly happens in the text itself: after all, Hucks Gibbs was important for his largely unsung role in smoothing out some nasty personality clashes that could have doomed the project. His prowess with a gun is only mentioned, one suspects, to justify the footnote. If you were a lexicographer wanting the technical inside story of this greatest of all lexicographic enterprises, such cheerful detail might be irritating. For the general educated reader such as I, they playfully echo the fascination of the Dictionary itself. (One of many moments that struck me, idiosyncratically I suppose, was on page 194, where Winchester quotes for no obvious reason the definitions of the word lap: ‘a liquid food for dogs, that part of a railway track used in common by more than one train, the front portion of the body from the waist to the knees of a person seated’. I don’t know how he restrained himself from pointing out that this illuminates Emily Dickinson’s lines about a train, ‘I like to see it lap the miles/ and lick the valleys up.’ Even though the book gives lots of evidence of his love of the language, my guess is that there are many examples of such restraint.)