Monthly Archives: October 2011

The book group, The Life and Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox, The Life (Allen & Unwin 2011)

Before the Book Group met: I knew The Life was about a surfer, based to some extent on a real person (as spelled out in an interesting article by Nick Carroll here). I knew that it also drew on Malcolm Knox’s own fairly recent experience as a surfer. Now, unless you count the pleasant and instructive experience of copy-editing a book of essays on surfing and surf culture a couple of years ago, the closest I’ve been to riding a surfboard is to have broken a wrist the first time I rode downhill on a skateboard. Oh, and Peter Drouyn was two years behind me at boarding school, and I once had a friend who said things were gnarly. So no matter how many people recommended The Life, I would have given it a miss, as I have Tim Winton’s Breath, if it wasn’t for the Book Group. And so but yeah I have yet another reason to be grateful to the group.

I’m writing this a day after finishing the book [and about a month before the twice postponed meeting], and the voice of Dennis Keith – DK, the narrator and main character, who occasionally starts a sentence with a string of conjunctions a bit like the last sentence in my first paragraph – is still echoing in my head. He’s a wonderful character, overweight, approaching 50, living with his mother, socially incompetent and suffering from some kind of mental chaos. But once he was the world champion surfer, a genius on the waves. A double tale unfolds – the story of events leading up to his mental implosion 30 years earlier, and what transpires after the arrival of a young woman he calls his BFO – short for Bi Fricken Ographer. There’s a central love story and a violent death, but the main power of the book for me is in the world created in its language, and though I gather there’s some controversy about the way DK is recognisable in the surfing community as a version of a still-living surfing legend, for outsiders like me there’s a feel of authenticity that probably has something to do with not having moved too far from actual history.

After the group: We met last night. Malcolm Knox is a friend of one of our members, and came to the meeting as a special guest.  As a result, we stayed pretty much on topic all night, even though two of us, who arrived late, had been to the annual opening to the public of the Egyptian Room of the Petersham Masonic Hall, which would usually have been a major distraction from the book of the night.

One of the guys has been a keen surfer all his life, and knows an awful lot about the parts of the real world that the novel relates to. Others have done some surfing. To most of us the surfing world was pretty much a closed book. We’d all enjoyed the book, and I think it’s true to say that we all loved the chance to talk about it with the author. He was completely useless when asked to clarify the ending – he’s written a version where the end was clear, but it didn’t work because DK could never have got things that clear in his head, so he had to rewrite it to its present opacity. Sadly, this means that he doesn’t know who dunnit any more than any careful reader. Apart from that, he seemed happy to be quizzed about the process of writing, and rewriting, about the thinking behind a number of key decisions, about anything at all really, and we were pretty happy to do the quizzing.

Even though I count a number of brilliant writers among my friends, I’m still a boy from North Queensland who didn’t meet a Published Writer until I was 20 years old (the poet R D Murphy, aka Brother Elgar FMS), and I was very impressed by Malcolm’s generosity in joining us like this. He said he feels a sense of responsibility – if people are prepared to read his books the least he can do is sit down and have a meal with them, and anyhow he’d rather talk to eight people who have actually read it than 300 who’ve come to his talk at a festival because they couldn’t get into the one they really wanted. I hope he enjoyed the evening as much as I did.

Sarah Maddison’s Beyond White Guilt

Sarah Maddison, Beyond White Guilt: The real challenge for Black–White relations in Australia (Allen & Unwin 2011)

I’ve been having trouble blogging about this book – maybe I would have been better off writing one of those ‘X reads Y’ series of posts that take you through the book along with the blogger over the days or weeks it takes to read it. There was hardly a page when my mind wasn’t firing off in many directions, excited by one idea, quarrelling with another, irritated by an elliptical use of a reference, challenged and provoked and challenged again. But here you are, just one little blog post.

The book starts brilliantly. While strolling around her inner city suburb the author sees on the bank of the polluted and deformed Cooks River a tiny space that she imagines to be pretty much unchanged in the 200 and more years since white settlement. She pictures a group of people of the Eora nation going about their lives there, and is shocked by the mental image, not because it is new or surprising, but because she realises ‘that [she] had allowed [her] consciousness of that reality to fade.’ She goes on, ‘Unlike Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, I could choose to “forget” or to deny or repress the reality of my place here.’

Such moments must have been experienced by every thoughtful non-Indigenous Australian – moments when, in shocking contrast to our habitual complacency, it becomes blindingly clear that our current lives rest on a history of colonial invasion and dispossession. Recounting this example in the Introduction implies a promise that the next 200 or so pages will unpack such moments: How and why does that forgetting happen? What would happen if we stopped ‘forgetting’ and began to live in the real world? How do we go about making that change? Is this a thing that we need to address as so many million individuals, is there a challenge we need to meet collectively, and if both how are they connected?

Coming from the author of Black Politics, a powerful account of the main themes and tensions in Aboriginal politics based on extensive interviews with a range of Aboriginal leaders, this implied promise feels anything but hollow.

I’m not confident that I can summarise the book’s argument adequately, but here goes:

  • When the British arrived on the continent of Australia in the late 18th century, they wanted the land, and took it, with devastating consequences for the people who were already living here. Some people baulk at calling what happened genocide, but it’s hard to see how that word is far off the mark.
  • As the Australian nation formed, and people took on the  Australian national identity, they needed stories of the nation’s origin that would allow them to feel good about themselves and the identity. Stories were told of pioneers’ hardihood, of Anzac larrikin heroism, of sporting accomplishments. The history of European–Aboriginal relations was marginalised or silenced. This version of national identity became entrenched both in public institutions and in people’s minds.
  • The objective reality is that all non-Indigenous Australians continue to benefit from the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to struggle with the consequences of the huge and ongoing assault on their ancestors, their cultures and their communities.
  • We know this. We mostly ignore it, but we know it. [This has to be very confusing for us as children: the stories are told and discounted in the same breath.] This is a kind of anaesthesia, a dissociative story we tell ourselves.
  • To break through that anaesthesia and face the reality of our history involves emotional discomfort. Unless we face this discomfort we’re likely to either a) see the problem (if we admit there is one) as inherent to Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures and so none of our business, or b) intervene in ways that  don’t challenge the assumptions that allowed the past and ongoing injustices to happen in the first place. [Her discussion of the Intervention is compelling.] Either way, we continue to live in a strange, dissociated state.
  • What has to change is us.
  • Real, effective change isn’t impossible. Australian history is full of examples. [She discusses  the 1967 referendum, the Reconciliation process of the 1990s, and the Sorry Books and the apology for the Stolen Generations.]
  • So what is to be done? We need a difficult conversation about remembering and forgetting. We need dialogue – as opposed to debate or just conversation – in which [I’m quoting Boori Pryor, not anyone in this book] ‘we see your tears, you see our tears’. We need to acknowledge our [now I’m quoting Sarah Maddison] ‘bonds of solidarity with the perpetrators of historical and human injustice’, and find a way to break them, that is, ‘to rethink who we are as a nation’.
  • ‘Relationships will be central to whatever path lies ahead’. An immediate opportunity is the referendum coming up in 2112 to include an acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.

It’s an important subject, and an important book. When you read it you may find my summary inadequate, and if so you’ll get no quarrel from me. The fact is, I found the argument hard to follow. My best guess as to why is that there are actually two books here struggling to co-exist. One is the one I’ve tried to summarise above. The other is a companion volume to Black Politics, which acknowledges and synthesises a vast body of thinking in a range of disciplines that addresses the issues of racism, colonisation and collective guilt. Notes and the bibliography account for nearly a quarter of the book’s pages. The text is studded with rich, provocative quotes, but at times it feels that no phrase, no concept can be used without deference to its originator. This may be sound academic practice, but the effect – at least for my kind of reader – is that hardly any time at all goes by without someone identified as political scientist A, legal scholar B, anti-racism educator C, political psychologist D, historian E … the list goes on … popping up, throwing a couple of words into the ring and then disappearing. I’d be going, ‘Who was that talking head? What  context did they use that phrase in?’ I would rather have read an overview of the scholarship,  White Politics, perhaps, and then moved on to Sarah Maddison’s argument. Or perhaps this is just a longwinded way of saying I found the scholarly apparatus distracting here.

Another reason for my difficulty is confusion about the word guilt. You’ll notice I haven’t used it in my summary. Is guilt a feeling or a legal verdict? Does it refer to a subjective state or a collective condition, or a vertigo-inducing combination? It seems to me that there are a number of quite distinct things rolled together in the one term here.

You can see Sarah Maddison speaking loud and clear in her own voice in a talk given at the Wheeler Centre here. I recommend it.

For Nicola

What better way to acknowledge and welcome editorabbit, cranky pedant and rabbit lover, to the blogosphere than to share a couple of images from the World That Gets By Without Editors.

This is from King Street South in Newtown. It repeats its two-A’d message in an endless animated loop.20111019-122443.jpg

And I have wanted to take a photo of this sign for a long time. It’s one of three at the corner of Salisbury Road and Australia Street in Camperdown. Two have this charming variant spelling.

SO welcome, editorabbit. The world is so full of a number of such things. I look forward to seeing many more on your site.

Colm Tóibín’s Empty Family

Colm Tóibín, The Empty Family (Picador 2010)

I’ve read very little by Colm Tóibín – his book on Barcelona, an extraordinarily spoilerish review of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and that’s pretty much the lot. This collection of nine short stories, which has been beside my bed for a while and which I decided to read just now as possibly better suited to post-nasal-surgery times than a single longer work, is my introduction to his fiction.

While there are no characters who recur, and nothing like a discontinuous narrative, the book feels coherent – a number of the stories are about people returning to their country of origin after a period of exile, self-imposed or otherwise; many of them deal with Gay male experience; they are mostly set in Ireland or Barcelona, and in all of them connection with place and the people of the place are significant. An elderly Irishwoman returns to her native Dublin after a long absence to design a film set; after the fall of Franco, a Barcelona Communist returns from exile and encounters the old and new Spains; an Irishman returns from New York when his mother is dying. ‘The Pearl Fishers’ traces a delicate, questioning path through the Irish Catholic Church’s sex scandals. ‘The street’, the longest story, traces the developing relationship between two Pakistani indentured labourers in Barcelona.

I don’t know if I would have been quite so struck by this book’s Not Safe For Work bits if I hadn’t read it immediately after Philip Roth’s The Humbling, but I was struck by them. In three of the stories, there are graphic accounts of sex, probably more specific than the ones in The Humbling, but where at one stage Roth’s narrator protests, ‘This was not soft porn,’ Tóibín’s narrator and his characters are too engaged to need any such disclaimer. Both writers describe activities that I personally have no urge to participate in – Roth’s account makes me wish I’d somehow missed those pages; Tóibín’s prose manages to shed light on the nature of desire. ‘Barcelona, 1975’ reads as memoir, or at least conte à clef, and has an almost anthropological feel to it: this is how we did things in the dying days of the Franco regime, this is some of what we learned, and in particular this is how it felt.  Everywhere in his writing, you can feel the connections between people, again in stark contrast to the despairing isolation in the Roth book. That’s got to do with their different subjects, of course: Roth is writing about the loss of creativity. But I suspect I’m talking about something that goes much deeper in each writer – perhaps a cultural difference between Irish Catholic, lapsed or otherwise, and New York Jewish intellectual who is only as successful as his latest creation.

Open letter to an unnamed man on the news

Dear sir

I didn’t catch your name, but I saw you on the ABC News last night. I think there had been an earlier moment when you chanted directly to the camera, ‘No man date!’ and I guessed then that you weren’t a hardened participant in demonstrations. You didn’t have that ‘Here we are again, it won’t do any good but at least we’ll have stood up and been counted’ look about you. You actually looked as if sitting in the gallery of Parliament House and chanting should have achieved more than getting yourself expelled. You even looked as if the fact that you and you friends are opposed to a piece of legislation made it an act of tyranny for the legislation to be passed.

All the same, I was taken aback when you spoke to the television cameras and called the Prime Minister a scr*g. I understand that you were furious and speaking in the heat of the moment. I don’t know if you signed any kind of release permitting the ABC to use your image and words, or even if that’s required. You might feel pleased that you were able to make your point of view known to the whole country, indeed the world. But are you aware that by using that word, you have created the impression that from your point of view there’s something deeply affronting about having a woman for Prime Minister? I do hope you wouldn’t defend that position in your cooler moments.

Contrary to the impression created by the Leader of the Opposition and others, insulting individual politicians, on the basis of their being female or any other basis, is no substitute for argument. You had your moment in front of the cameras and however sensible, self-reliant, generous, thoughtful or even visionary you may be in the real world, you were seduced by those who set the tone for our national debate into giving the world the impression that you are a bullying misogynist. I hope your grandchildren will understand the pressure you were under and manage to be tactful.

If it’s any consolation, any number of us who protested against the Vietnam War, Apartheid, the Invasion of Iraq, the turning away of the Tampa, the Northern Territory Intervention, etc etc have undoubtedly had moments that were just as silly and noxious. Mind you, most of the time we didn’t have anything like the Murdoch machine backing us, so however self-righteous we were we lacked your apparent sense of entitlement.

I hope it’s been a good learning experience for you.


We almost missed it …

.. but the Art Student made an appearance in the print version of the Sydney Morning Herald today. ’24 Hours’, the arts diary has a para on the ‘Rabbit Proof’ exhibition at the Hardware Gallery. I couldn’t find it online, so here’s a little phone photo:

Rew Hanks’s stunning print featuring Kim Jong-Il scrapes in with an ‘even’ but the Art Student appears in bold and has her image reproduced!

She’s given me permission to upload a clearer, though still small, version of the image:

Oh the fame, oh the recognition!


Last night the Hardware Gallery in Marrickville opened its fifth annual collaboration with The Sydney Gallery School. (The Gallery School is aka Meadowbank TAFE – threatened as are all TAFEs by a recent not much publicised COAG discussion paper. But this is post about good things in the present, not the whittling away of the public good in the near future.)

The collaboration is an exhibition entitled Rabbit Proof, featuring work by second and third year printmaking students at TGS and artists affiliated with the Gallery. It’s a charming exhibition, with more rabbits than anyone would care to poke a stick at, with Hopping Hare Alexis those who wanted alcohol. One of the prints is by her who is known here as The Art Student. At the end of the launch, only two works had sold two prints, and hers was one of them! Soon I really will have to drop the Student part of her nom de blog.

If you go to the Gallery website, you can see photos of some of the prints, including hers, ‘The Landing’, which plays around with one of the famous paintings of Cook’s landing at Botany Bay. You’ll recognise it when you see it.

The Humbling of Philip Roth

Philip Roth, The Humbling (Jonathan Cape 2009)

I love Philip Roth’s prose, the way it seems to just flow directly from somewhere inside him, like lava or blood, yet always with extraordinary control of nuance. I haven’t read enough of his novels to know if The Humbling is representative of what he’s writing these days, but I do hope it’s not. I also hope the book isn’t a fictionalised representation of his current state of mind. Simon Axler, the hero, is a great stage actor who has suddenly lost his ability to act, and the agony of his loss is conveyed with such poignancy that it’s hard not to think Roth has been there, or has at least fantasised such a loss for himself.

What does a great artist do in such a situation? Well, first he doesn’t kill himself, then he commits himself into a psych hospital, then he’s discharged and after a while either kills himself or doesn’t (he does make a clear choice, I’m trying not to be too spoilerish). And that’s the whole story. Except for the second act where he falls in love with a much younger woman and has lots of increasingly exotic sex with her.

I believed in the despair. I accepted the falling in love. The specifics of the sex felt like an older man working hard to imagine how the young folk these days do stuff, what with all that queer theory and non-binary approach to gender they’re always going on about. Or maybe I was just embarrassed.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is to be announced in a couple of days and Philip Roth’s name is being mentioned again. If he gets up it won’t be on account of this book, but maybe it will cheer him up.

Overland 204

Jeff Sparrow, editor, Overland 204, Spring 2011

At a time where the terms of Australian political debate are set by the self-styled ‘centre-right’ Australian to the extent that vehemently anti-Communist Robert Manne is seen as left wing, everyone who’s more socialist than Ghengis Khan should subscribe to Overland. It has been appearing regularly for more than 50 years as a journal of ‘progressive culture’, unashamedly of the left from its beginnings, creating a space where dissenting voices can be heard (arguing with each other as often as not), and staying for the most part readable by people (like me) who wouldn’t know Althusser from a hole in the ground. Unlike the Australian, it has no Rupert Murdoch to prop it up. You can read most of every issue online. The point of subscribing is to help sustain it.

In this issue, in no particular order:

  • ‘The birthday boy’, a short story from an early Overland updated and retold in sequential art (ie, as a comic) by Bruce Mutard. While the story here stands on its own merits, I’d love to read the original, by Gwen Kelly, so as to follow the process involved in the updating (who were the 1955 equivalents of 2011’s Sudanese students, for instance?). I couldn’t find it on the Web. Maybe I’ll make a trip to the State Library …
  • John Martinkus, in ‘Kidnapped in Iraq, attacked in Australia’, tells the story of his capture and release by Iraqi insurgents in 2004 and the attacks on him by the then Foreign Minister and rightwing ‘journalists’. There’s nothing new here – I wrote to Alexander Downer’s office at the time and received a boilerplate reply – but it’s very good to be reminded of this shameful moment just now when Downer has been on the TV denouncing David Hicks again and one of the ‘journalists’ has been wailing about free speech after being held to account by a court
  • an interview with Afghani heroine Malalai Joya. I was glad to read this after attending a crowded meeting in Marrickville Town Hall where the acoustics and sight lines made her incomprehensible and invisible to me. The interview gives a sharp alternative to the mainstream media’s version of what’s happening in Afghanistan and it’s a great companion piece to Sally Neighbours’ lucid ‘How We Lost the War: Afghanistan a Decade on from September 11‘ in the September Monthly
  • some splendid, almost Swiftian sarcasm from Jennifer Mills in ‘How to write about Aboriginal Australia‘: ‘First, be white. If you are Aboriginal, you can certainly speak on behalf of every Aboriginal person in Australia, but it is best to get a white person to write down what they think you should be saying.’
  • Andy Worthington’s When America changed forever and Richard Seymour’s What was that all about? reflecting on the damage done to democracy in the USA and its allies by the ‘war on terror’
  • Reading coffee‘, a short story by Anthony Panegyres that reminds us of anti-Greek violence in Western Australia during the First World War (and is also a good oogie boogie yarn)
  • Ellena Savage’s ‘My flesh turned to stone‘, which I may have misunderstood (it quotes Lacan, and refers at one point to gender-based torture, which may or may not be how the academies nowadays refer to torture of women), but seems to be putting the eminently sensible proposition that terrible experiences have lasting after-effects on individuals and communities, and expecting people to just get over them isn’t realistic
  • A number of poems, coralled off together in a section up the back, printed in white on pale green, which is either a cunning way of making us read the poems slowly or a case of a designer for whom readability isn’t a priority. The ones that spoke most to me are Jill Jones’s ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline‘ and John Leonard’s ‘After Rain‘. Jill Jones discusses the former on her blog here. You may have to be fascinated by swallows to enjoy the latter – which is very short – as much as I did, but who isn’t fascinated by swallows?
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s ‘A one-man writer’s festival’, a hatchet job on Clive James’s poetic aspirations. I found myself asking why. The poor bloke’s got cancer. Leave him alone.

I didn’t read everything, which is pretty much a hallmark of the journal-reading experience. You can skip things because of an annoying turn of phrase on the first page (as in a reference to Sydney’s western suburbs as perceived as ‘some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale’ – Annandale! I doubt if that would have got past the editors in a Sydney-based journal). You might be put off because something looks too abstract, or promises a detailed discussion of a book you plan to read. Or you might be pre-emptively bored by anything about publishing in the digital age, even while admitting the subject is important.

I read this Overland in a grumpy post-operative state. And enjoyed it.

In praise of bricks and mortar bookshops

Last night, slightly stir crazy from four days of post-seroplasty languor, I went with the Art Student to a book launch at Gleebooks. The happy hour we spent there makes me realise all over that buying books online (not that I do it that much) strips away a whole wonderfully human dimension of the book-buying experience.

The book was Compassionate Bastard by Peter Mitchell. Upstairs at Gleebooks was crowded with a marvellous combination of family, friends and colleagues of the author, and almost as many again with no personal connection. The launch managed to have an intimate feel and at the same time be the kind of thing that should have been filmed and put up on Slow TV or whatever. [Later addition: Peter Mitchell turned up in the comments to say that all three speeches were videoed, and can be watched on his website.]

Ian McPhee, Minister for Immigration in the Fraser government in the early 1980s, launched the book, and John Menadue, head of the Department of Immigration then and later, spoke. Peter Mitchell, who is a poet in another incarnation, went to work for the Department of Immigration in 1990, getting ‘a real job’. He became Director of the Villawood Detention Centre until he resigned in 2003 – so he was there as the bipartisan agreement on immigration and refugees was torn apart by John w Howard, and the new harsh and inhumane treatment that persists until now was ushered in.

I won’t try to summarise what was said. Enough to tell you that it was incredibly heartening to be in a room with three men who have had close-up experience and responsibility for thinking about policy on refugees and asylum seekers, who are scathing about by the focus group driven debate that dominates the subject these days (they named no names later than Howard, but they didn’t need to), who have been thinking deeply about the subject. They didn’t make huge claims for the book – but they did a great job of selling it to us as a well-written, often funny and sometimes heartbreaking collection of stories that show us the human dimension of Australia’s mandatory detention policy.

Ian McPhee said this book was an excellent companion read to Carina Hoang’s The Boat People and David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book about the Tampa episode Dark Victory. He said that the Greens are the only ones in Federal Parliament who have a credible, humane, practical position on refugees.

Some snippets from John Menadue:
‘Mandatory detention does not deter. It only punishes.’
‘I think we can get back to decency, but we’re a long way from it now.’
‘The decency of Australian people is not shown by opinion polls, but with leadership it will re-emerge.’

John Menadue mentioned (with appropriate apologies, the Centre for Policy Development, which has developed a paper with the self-explanatory title, A New Approach: Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees & Asylum Seekers. There’s a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall on 13 October to discuss this paper.