Monthly Archives: April 2012

Jennifer and Julia and Nye in the Age

Having complained in this blog almost exactly two years ago that Jennifer Maiden had not turned her pen to (on?) Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, I ought to acknowledge when she does so.

This Saturday’s Age published ‘Poor Petal’, which also appeared in the online Sydney Morning Herald, at the end of the Bookmarks column. Like ‘A Great Education’, which was published in the Age in January 2011, it has a prefatory note: ‘When asked if there was an example who had inspired her as Dietrich Bonhoeffer had inspired Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard replied “Nye Bevan”.’ It’s one of Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Someone Woke Up Somewhere’ poems; this time it’s Aneurin Bevan in Canberra opposite Julia Gillard in an armchair.

I recommend it to anyone who is made uneasy by Julia Gillard’s inscrutable public presence.

Overland 206

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 206, Autumn 2012

I’ve just realised that this blog is largely about the vastness of my ignorance. In the years since I left full time work I’ve been reading widely and unsystematically on subjects in which I’m either uneducated,  misinformed or wildly out of date, hoping something will stick – and then blogging about it, sometimes in a shamelessly opinionated way.

Take this issue of Overland for instance.

I’ve never studied economics or political science or 20th century history, but I’ll tell you confidently that Richard Seymour’s ‘The European meltdown: Crisis across the continent‘ talks sense about the current economic crisis in Europe. He describes the European Community as ‘a project that, from inception to denouement, has evinced an extraordinary distrust of the masses’. The crisis, he argues, is brought on not so much by the fecklessness or other failings of the Greeks, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese, as by the inherent instability of a system built to give France and Germany dominance over the less powerful nations, and to foster profit over the interests of the working class (he says it much better than that). And Mike Beggs’s ‘Occupy abundance: On whether Australians are too rich to protest‘ does a similarly enlightening job of unpicking the current Australian affluence. It’s true that since mid-1997 there’s been a 10 per cent increase in purchasing power ‘over the whole consumer basket’, but:

The average hour’s pay now buys 59 per cent more clothing and footwear, 71 per cent more household appliances, and an incredible 1066 per cent more audio, visual and computing power than in 1997.

But such goods make up only around a fifth of the average household’s expenditure. Much of the rest of the consumer basket has actually become less affordable. Compared with 1997, the average hours work earns enough to buy 2 per cent less food, 8 per cent less housing, 26 per cent less water, electricity and gas, 18 per cent less petrol, 5 per cent less healthcare and 21 per cent less education.

That may not be news to people who understand economics, but it is to me.

What do I know about life as an immigrant targeted by racism? Yet I can tell you that Michael Green’s ‘Between two oceans: The life and death of Michael Atakelt‘ and The dangers of a single story: On acting and identity by Tariro Mavondo are brilliantly complementary explorations of the subject. In the former (of which an edited excerpt was reprinted in the Fairfax Age, which either takes the sheen off Overland‘s back-cover boast that it is of the loopy-Left or justifies the Australian‘s nickname for the Age, Pravda on the Yarra – you be the judge!), the writer is in touch with Footscray’s Ethiopian community as they struggle to come to terms with the drowning of a young man shortly after his release from police custody, and the extraordinarily long wait for any cause of death to be made public: ‘This has become a story about a community’s right to exist – its need to understand and to be understood – but it is also a story of grief,’ Green writes, and I would add that it’s also a story of an amazingly resilient community. Tariro Mavondo is about to become one of the first African-born acting graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts: from a relatively privileged background (‘the higher echelon of Zimbabwean society’), she is up against a different face of racism – but this article too is about the right of a community to exist – ‘”6 billion stories and counting.” But where is mine?’

What do I know about the history of sexuality? I spent the prime of my youth in a monastery, and working as a children’s editor didn’t send much of it my way. So Robert Darby’s ‘Another other Victorian: George Drysdale, a forgotten sex pioneer‘ was even more news to me than it will be to people who’ve read The Other Victorians. Drysdale’s tome, The Elements of Social Science: Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, published anonymously in the 1850s, was never mentioned by name in mainstream writing and is generally ignored or misreported even today, but it ran through 35 editions and sold some 100 000 copies in 50 years. The book ‘argued for a new religion of reverence for the human body, condemned abstinence as unhealthy and productive of misery, called for an unfettered right to intercourse among the unmarried, and recommended regular use of contraception to guard against pregnancy and condoms to avoid venereal disease’. Sex wasn’t invented in 1963 (or in my case 1970) after all. The article is seriously interesting

Now, poetry. I did study Eng Lit and have a BA (Hons) to show for it. But I got my piece of paper before postmodernism broke upon the world. I’m not quite the guy who puts his hand up at the Writers’ Festival and asks why modern poetry doesn’t have rhyme or rhythm any more, and why are modern poets so deliberately obscure. My own poetry, such as it is, probably wouldn’t please that guy. But sometimes I feel as if I’m almost as much in the dark as he is. So I was very glad that Peter Minter took a full two pages for his Judge’s report on  the 2011 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. Sadly, if I was hoping his notes on the winning poem, rock candy by Joel Ephraims, would be a guide to reading it, my hopes were dashed. But I could tell there was thought there, and a world of knowledge that’s yet to become open to me. Having said all that, it will probably not be received as a compliment if I say that I enjoyed the night-time flâneurism of ‘Constant companion‘ by the late Kerry Leves (who occasionally graced the School Magazine, with both his presence and his poetry) and ‘Sunday poem‘, an impressionistic take on a visit home by Fiona Wright.

And then there’s genre fiction. Overland doesn’t go in for it much, and nor do I, though I’m doing my best to pick up where I left off when I was 14. It’s probably fair  to say that James Bradley’s ‘The inconvenient dead‘ is a zombie story for people who don’t read zombie stories. Anyhow, it worked wonderfully well for me.
The whole contents of the magazine are readable online. All the links except the one to the Age will take you to the Overland web site.

Asia Literary Review 22

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 22, [Northern] Winter 2011


[Note added in 2021: All the links in this blog post are broken except the ones in the journal title above and in the image to the left, and the profile of Amitav Ghosh and ‘The Sacred Cow‘. The whole journal is still available online to subscribers.]

The Asia Literary Review has a new Editor in Chief, the third in the nine issues since I first subscribed. There’s no note of farewell to Stephen McCarty, as there was none to Chris Wood before him. The silent turnover is just a little unsettling, but I guess we don’t read the journal for news of its staff. Martin Alexander, the new occupant of the chair, was previously (and still is) Poetry Editor. In his editorial, he addresses the journal’s identity:

… while Asia is a concept we may broadly understand, it would be foolish to attempt a precise definition. Asia’s identity is in a state of motion; we aim to capture that motion in these pages.

That’s not bad: if Asia is an imprecise entity, it would be a mistake to overdefine the journal’s scope or purpose. Its contents are in English, and they ‘capture’ Asia in some way. That’s enough.

‘Capture’ can describe what a tourist snapshot does, and there’s quite a lot of that in this issue, mainly but not exclusively in its four photo essays – of street scenes in Java, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the grand but as yet unpopulated city of Kangbashi in Inner Mongolia. The photography is brilliant in each case, but in the end they are all picturesque street scenes, and so a lot less interesting than, say, Jack Picone’s ‘Planet Pariah’ about life on the Burma Thailand border in issue 19.

There are a number of excerpts from longer works, both prose and verse, which are like snapshots in a different way: tantalising glimpses, but sometimes hard to tell what it is one is glimpsing. An exception is the excerpt from Chen Xiwo’s novel I Love My Mum (banned in China, translated by Harvey Thomlinson, and published by Make Do Publishing), which stands alone as a tale of desperate brutality with chilling allegorical implications. You can read the whole excerpt at the link.

Sticking with the idea of ‘capture’, there’s Fionnuala McHugh’s profile of Amitav Ghosh. I’ve only recently discovered his writing, and was delighted to learn more about him, and about his Sea of Poppies. He reveals, for example, that having done a little sailing he knew that sailing was ‘very dependent on words’:

I thought there has to be a dictionary. I happened to be at Harvard but I found the Lascari dictionary in Michigan – published in 1812 in Calcutta by a Scottish linguist. I didn’t have to make anything up.

He sounds like a terrific man – if a Sydney Writers’ Festival scout happens to read this, could you invite him some time soon, maybe when the third book of the Ibis trilogy comes out?

The Ghosh profile is also part of what Martin Alexander calls ‘motion’, if he means by that the kind of dynamic interplay that can add spice to a literary magazine.  Ghosh, we read, turned down the 2001 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize because it was for works written in English, from a region ‘that was once conquered and ruled by imperial Britain’. This is honourable and hardly surprising, given the unflinching portrayal of the Raj in Sea of Poppies. But here it resonates interestingly with a short piece by Pico Iyer, The Empire Writes Back, Revisited, which argues that the formerly colonised have taken charge of the cultural centre, and that the English language, no longer dominated by the former colonisers, is being reclaimed and revitalised by a host of writers from India, China, the Caribbean, Africa, New Zealand, Australia. This ALR tends to bear out Ghosh’s side of the conversation, as most of the contributors seem to be of European or US extraction, and there is that strong touristic element. But Pico Iyer would find material to support his view as well.

Of the short stories, ‘The King, the Saint and the Fool‘ by A. K. Kulshreshth weaves a sweet romance from elements taken from the folk history of Singapore, and Sindhu Rajasekaran’s ‘The Sacred Cow‘ tells a distinctly modern love story in the context of Indian village life. The essay that stands out is Michiel Hulshof’s ‘Special Academic and Art Zones‘. Hulshof is a Dutch journalist living in China. Among other things his essay gives a fascinating account of the economic and political context of contemporary Chinese art (of the kind Sydneysiders get to enjoy at the White Rabbit Gallery).

Almost as good as getting on a plane and travelling for six months.

Maralinga, the book

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Christobel Mattingley is well known in Australian children’s literature circles. Along with picture book creator Bob Graham she was nominated for the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award (aka the Little Nobel). The award went elsewhere, but these two national treasures were honoured by the NSW Branch of IBBY Australia (International Board on Books for Young People) at a Sydney event on International Children’s Book Day, 31 March. Both spoke wonderfully about their work. I learned that a whole generation of French people grew up thinking Bob Graham was French, and whatever his nationality he’s a modest miracle. But for me, Christobel Mattingley was the revelation.

Now in her early 80s, Christobel Mattingley has written an extraordinary body of work for young people and adults that deals with, for want of a better word, social justice issues. Two books in particular stand out: for something like eight years she laid her own writing aside in order to coordinate the landmark Survival in our Own Land—‘Aboriginal’ Experiences in ‘South Australia’ since 1836 (Australian Scholarly Publishing 1988, reprinted at least twice since), which incorporates oral history and archival material to tell the Nunga story of events that have otherwise been told almost universally from a settler perspective; and Maralinga, a smaller project, that looks at first blush like a children’s picture book and would certainly be accessible to most teenagers, but turns out to be a powerful, original and significant work of history. Both books leapt onto my To Be Read list. Marrickville Library had a copy of Maralinga.

As every schoolchild knows (or can look up on Wikipedia):

British nuclear tests at Maralinga occurred between 1955 and 1963 … A total of seven nuclear tests were performed, with approximate yields ranging from 1 to 27 kilotons of TNT equivalent …

The site was contaminated with radioactive materials and an initial cleanup was attempted in 1967. The McClelland Royal Commission, an examination of the effects of the tests, delivered its report in 1985, and found that significant radiation hazards still existed at many of the Maralinga test areas. It recommended another cleanup, which was completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million. Debate continued over the safety of the site and the long-term health effects on the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land and former personnel. In 1994, the Australian Government paid compensation amounting to $13.5 million to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people.

Maralinga tells this story in some detail. As the subtitle – The Anangu Story – indicates, the point of view is not that of the scientists, the politicians, the bureaucrats or the journalists, but that of the affected Aboriginal people (for whose name I wouldn’t trust Wikipedia). It begins well before their country was deemed to be a good place to test nuclear devices (putting the lie to a rerun of terra nullius, you might say) and brings us up to the slow rebuilding of communities in the present. It begins:

Long time ago, before whitefellas came, Anangu lived on their lands for thousands and thousands of years.

There are old people at Oak Valley who can remember living a traditional life in the desert. But the book is not limited to oral history. It tells of the coming of whitefellas to Ooldea Soak: explorers including Eyre and Giles, then well-sinkers and surveyors, in 1912 the Transcontinental Railway, then Kabbarli (Daisy Bates), and the truly invasive United Aborigines’ Mission, whose abrupt departure in 1952 left the now-dependent local people distraught and at the mercy of the dreaded Aborigines Protection Board, to be forcibly removed to alien country at Yalata, on the coast.

While the dispossessed, disoriented desert people were grieving, spiritually lost in foreign country, rebuilding a few basic community structures from salvaged material twice recycled, a township for whitefellas was being constructed in their country … In 1953 the site … was named Maralinga by the whitefellas. This time they took the word from an Aboriginal language of northern Australia.

The power of the book’s text lies in the multiplicity of its voices. It’s one thing to describe the desert people as grieving and dispossessed. It’s quite another to read the words of Jack Baker and others to the 1985 Royal Commission:

We felt lonely about Ooldea, we were worrying for it. We tried to get back up there. Yes, we were worrying and … we were sad for all of the places that we were related to, and we were worried because these places had been spoiled … We were told we could not go back there.

And how telling it is to read first hand accounts like this from Kukika, who worked on Wallatinna Station homestead:

Smoke came from south, brought up by light wind. The sun became bad. People got sore eyes. We were weak in arms and legs, couldn’t get up and dig for rabbits. Blood came from people’s noses and mouths. My two grandmothers died, and my father and mother. Before the smoke we were all okay. We were without sickness. Tommy Cullinan [station manager] didn’t have a name for the sickness. Didn’t know what it was. I was burying people. Shifted camp again and again.

When this book was shortlisted for a number of awards in 2010, I don’t imagine I was alone in thinking of it as worthy, an excellent addition to a school library, but not exactly something to rush out and buy. But you know, it’s also a book that changes the way you see the world, and leaves you in awe of human beings, both the resilient ones who have come through a hundred years of brutal disregard, and the one who has sat down and listened deeply enough to bring their stories to us.

I saw Harry Bardwell’s Backs to the Blast: An Australian Nuclear Story when it came out in the early 80s, and it did include an interview with an unnamed Aboriginal woman. Here, the Aboriginal people are named, we have a sense of their personal and collective histories, and the vibrant illustrations throughout make it clear that they are not just informants, but they share the authorship of the book.

SWF: A C Grayling, curtain raiser

‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’, a lecture by A C Grayling

This was the start of my 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve become accustomed to starting the Festival with the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner, which is always a good night out, though the last two had become a bit corporate. This year the awards evening has been moved to later in the year (not, as feared by some, cancelled altogether), so my Festival begins with this 90 minute event at the Angel Place Recital Centre a month or so ahead of the Opening Address. I’m calling it a curtain-raiser because that ‘s how Peter Shergold (from the SWF Board) described it when introducing the talk, but really it was more of an advance scatterling.

A C Grayling is the very picture of an urbane philosopher. He spoke lucidly for an hour without notes, and fielded questions deftly and courteously. Sadly I slept for maybe as much as half the talk, so I’m not a reliable reporter. But I quizzed my four companions over dinner at the nearby Wagamama and my impression is that I didn’t miss a lot by dozing off. Basically, Professor Grayling told us, we are being watched by Internet corporations who track our online activities for commercial purposes, by government for security purposes, and by journalists for partly public interest and partly commercial interests, and that this isn’t a good thing. I have listened to his interview with Richard Glover on the ABC, which is an excellent 18 minutes of radio and includes everything that the $25 lecture had to offer, including the teasing references to the Professor’s impressive hair. What we got for our money was the sense of occasion, a chance to play Spot the Famous Person (both the Art Student and I saw David Marr and Annette Shun Wah, but some of our other companions hadn’t heard of either of them, which rather spoiled the thrill).

If the purpose of a talk by a philosopher is to prompt one to think, then this one was a big success for me. During the question time, Professor Grayling talked about a village in southern Italy where, when a husband and wife have a quarrel the woman runs out into the street and the couple proceed to shout at each other, while all the neighbours come to their doors and windows to listen. These people, he said, live with a strong sense of community but at the cost of losing their privacy. That raises a much more interesting question about ‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’ than the question of intrusion by the state, corporations and the press. I would have thought that that kind of intrusion is obviously a bad and dangerous thing – and of course that it’;s a good thing to have the dangers pointed out. But don’t we then need to think carefully and precisely about what it is that we’re protecting. Are we protecting our right to be isolated individuals, to have secrets and present a conforming face to the world? Sure, those young people who give out far too much information on facebook or twitter may be laying themselves open to attack, but isn’t also worth asking if there’s not something utopian about that rather than simply foolish? That’s what I’d have liked to hear him talk about.

(Re-)reading Kevin Gilbert’s poetry

Kevin Gilbert, End of Dream-time (Island Press 1971)
and People Are Legends (UQP 1978)

According to his Wikipedia entry, Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) was an ‘Indigenous Australian activist, artist, poet, playwright and printmaker’. His first play, The Cherry Pickers, which he wrote when in prison. made a splash in 1970 or thereabouts. A Wiradjuri man, he played a role in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and was part of the Black Power group. He wrote a book for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992), from which we published a number of poems in The School Magazine, and a sweet memoir for child readers, Me and Mary Kangaroo (1994).

I own a copy of his first published book, End of Dream-time, number 104 of the edition of 200, and it’s sitting on my desk as I type. It’s a beautiful object, handset and printed on creamy, textured paper, with illustrations by the author in a range of single PMS colours. Phil Roberts, the poet founder of Island Press, treated his early books as labours of love. Of those on my bookshelves, this is the one most lovingly laboured over. The presentation is a clear message to anyone tempted to read the poems as sociological specimens (a book by an Aboriginal man was a rare thing in the early 1970s, and any spurious sociological appeal was made all the greater by its having been at least partly written when Gilbert was in prison for murder). These poems, the design announces emphatically, are to be read and respected as poems.

So I was shocked to learn, all these years later, that Kevin Gilbert ‘repeatedly and publicly’ disowned his poems as published in End of Dream-time. It seems that Roberts did substantial editing without his permission. He may have done no more than he would have done for any first book, and the poems may in some sense be the better for it, but Gilbert’s bitter complaint was about the lack of consultation. Adam Shoemaker tells the story, and reproduces the original and edited versions of the short poem ‘People Are Legends’, in ‘The Poetry of Politics‘, a chapter of his Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. Go to the link, read it and cringe: Roberts’s good intentions are clear, but even a whitefella like me who’s been an arrogant enough editor in my time can see why Gilbert would consider it a betrayal of trust. His poems are full of rage and despair at the callous, complacent attitudes of whites toward Aboriginal peoples. Shoemaker quotes him as saying:

I’ve adopted writing as a means of voicing the Aboriginal situation … I try to present as truly as possible the Aboriginal situation and the Aboriginal response.


There is the need to educate White Australians to the present situation of Aboriginal people … I’m presenting it as honestly as possible – it’s not a pretty picture.

What bitter irony, when struggling to find a voice in this way, to have one of those in need of education inject his voice into the mix! (I know Phil Roberts is Canadian, but in this context that’s a distinction without a difference.)

So I went out and bought a copy of People Are Legends, published seven years later by the University of Queensland Press. The back cover describes these poems as written ‘in the language used by living Aboriginals, without editing, without politeness or hypocrisy as practised in “cultured” verse’ (my bold).

Neither book is a comfortable read. Rather than emotion recollected in tranquillity, we get harangues that feel shot off in the heat of the moment. Many of the poems are dramatic monologues, spoken not so much by characters as by exemplars, either of the misery and debasement resulting from genocidal oppression, or of morally contemptible individual escape. There’s a bush ballad that doesn’t quite scan, and quite a lot of satire that has a bitterly intolerant edge, directed not only against whites but, almost, against any Aboriginal person who pursues a politics that’s neither despairingly passive nor holding out the option of retaliatory violence. Even the Gurindji’s heroic stand against Vesteys in 1970 gets the treatment. One of the two poems named for them begins:

They fast
They silently fast
Eloquently silent
In their thundering cry for Right

But by the end that silence has been found sadly, even culpably wanting:

They should remember
Back in time: throughout history
Justice, deprived of a strong voice slowly,
Inexorably dies
And the seeker of justice dies with it
Or silently becomes a slave.

But then, these poems aren’t aiming to give me a good time or lay out a workable political agenda. This was trail-making work: I don’t know that anyone would try to write poems about ‘the’ Aboriginal situation and response these days, and that’s due in part to Kevin Gilbert’s rising to the challenge to educate, to speak as a representative.

Since the thing that prompted me to read these books was the near absence of modern Aboriginal poets from Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788, it’s probably worth remarking that there are quite a number of poems here that wouldn’t have looked odd in those pages. The other ‘The Gurindji’ brought a new music into Australian poetry:

Poor fellow
Simple fellow
Sweet fellow
Sittin’ in the desert
Singin’  desert song

And I’m no expert, but I think ‘Trying to Save Joan Ella’ not only stands up well as a bush ballad, but manages to hold out a significant challenge to the whole tradition. It tells of an Aboriginal woman’s arduous and terrifying ride to fetch a doctor for a dying white baby:

Quick she rode to Thiraweena
And she brought the doctor back
But the child died – and the father
Cursed the slowness of the black
If this cursed gin had ridden
Faster, harder through the night –
But the blacks are bad and useless –
Can’t be trusted out of sight!’

Mary bowed her head in silence
Thought: ‘I wishit me had died
Rode two horses an’ it killed ’em
Never stop’t though me dead tired
Frightened too of horse bin fallin’
When I passed the old ones’ grave
Shut me eyes with courage ‘gammon’
When the ghosts rise I ain’t brave!
Couldn’t do no more I tried but
Kill’d two horses; rode to death.
Didn’t stop! I kept on runnin’!’
And she wept beneath her breath

Really, it’s a poem that cried out to be anthologised.

And one last note: in Child’s Dreaming, published a couple of years before his death, Gilbert showed that he could relax when the burden of being a representative was eased. There was still the element of protest, but without the same bitterness and despair (see ‘Emu and Koori’, as reprinted in The School Magazine  with an illustration by Arone Raymond Meeks, in the left-hand image below). ‘Cicada’ (image by Noela Young) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s given me much pleasure. ‘Eagle’ (illustration Aart Van Ewijk) is just plain genial.


A reason to read the European Journal of International Law

It’s published one of my poems, making me an Internationally Published Poet

At least for a short time, you can see the whole issue here and download the poem from here. And Oh my goodness, it even has a formula for citing it in learned journals: Eur J Int Law (2011) 22 (4): 1219. doi: 10.1093/ejil/chr097 .

Since my readers are unlikely to read the Editorial in its entirety, here’s a significant paragraph from it:

Poets of the World (of international law) Unite! Send us your poems; encourage others to do so.

Consider yourself encouraged. Poems are printed in a feature called The Last Page. You can contact the journal’s editors at ejil ät eui døt eu.

Later: Sorry, but I didn’t realise the poem is behind a pay wall, and I’ve agreed to their having exclusive electronic rights for 12 months. I guess you’ll either have to pay, or have access in some other way, or wait till November. Of course, you could google “he’d feel safer in a boat with refugees’.

Topical clerihews

On a recent election result:

Campbell Newman
Doesn’t look very human
But Queensland voters said bye bye
To Anna Bligh

On an article in the current Monthly:

Robert Mann
Thinks he can
Save us from choosing between Gillard and Abbott
By pulling Turnbull out of his hat like a rabbit.

That is all for today.

Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (©2011, Vintage 2112)

This won the Booker Prize last year. I haven’t got anything sensible to add to the general discussion: it’s very good, what seems to me a very English story involving fine class distinctions, sexual awkwardness, failures to communicate and repeated attempts at mind-reading to compensate, missed opportunities, self-exoneration and -recrimination, competent women and hapless (though far from innocent) men.

The central action of the story happens offstage as it were, and is revealed only in the last couple of pages – though there have been plenty of clues throughout. I’m not absolutely sure but I think we never find out the motivations of the two principals, in fact never really know what actually happened. The story is told from the sidelines by someone whose slant on events left him – and therefore us – pretty much missing the interesting stuff.

Yet it works brilliantly. In particular there’s a letter that the narrator wrote which he tells us about fairly early in the piece. Toward the end, someone sends him a photocopy of the letter and we read it in its entirety. The difference is shocking. I can’t think of a more graphic dramatisation of the way we (well, at least the book’s protagonist and I, probably not you of course) tend to recall our personal histories in ways that avoid any squirming discomfort.

It’s very short.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Text 2010)

ImageFrom my hotel window I look over the deep glacial lake to the foothills and the Alps beyond.

Is it just me, or is that a really bad first sentence? That deep is surely doing nothing at all or far too much, and really, the Alps beyond? Things don’t improve in the second sentence, where the verbs are respectively mannered and cutely passive: Twilight vanishes the hills into the mountains; then all is lost to the dark. I read on with dread in my heart. But, marvellously, within two or three pages the book’s tiny hero had appeared, the prose stopped trying so hard and I was eating out of Ms Bailey’s hand.

The hero is a wild snail. Soon after leaving the hotel of the prologue, Elisabeth Tova Bailey was laid low by a mystery virus. For years afterwards she was so debilitated that it was a major undertaking to leave her bed, and even to sit up or turn over was a big deal. She couldn’t play with her dog, and even the most welcome of visitors left her feeling exhausted. While she was in this state of enforced passivity, a friend brought her a gift of a tiny snail she had found in the woods. The author initially responded unenthusiastically, but as time passed she found that the snail provided not only a distraction during her long stretches of solitude, but also a deeply comforting companionship.

The story is beautifully told. As the relationship with the snail develops, we follow the illness’s progress, share the writer’s reflections on her subjective experience of time, are treated to snail-related gleanings from literary greats and not-so-greats (Oliver Goldsmith, Kobayashi Issa, Elizabeth Bishop, Rainer Maria Rilke, Patricia Cornwall – the list goes on), and learn fascinating information about the anatomy, habits, defences and mating behaviour of snails, some observed directly by Ms Bailey and much garnered from the reference books that took up a lot of her bed time.

I would say the book is charming, and that would be true, especially perhaps of the marginal drawings by Kathy Bray. But it’s also much more than that. What emerges is a profound sense of respect for living things and for the connectedness between them. The chapter epigraphs include a number of marvellous haiku. Oddly, it strikes me that there’s something haiku-like about the book as a whole: where those tiny poems capture a moment, this book, really an extended personal essay, captures a much more substantial swathe of time, but because of the mental state induced by the author’s illness it has a haiku-ish sense of quiet discovery.

It’s all done, after that awkward opening, without straining for effect, without heavily emotive language or any whiff of religiosity. Richard Dawkins would be delighted. I was.