Monthly Archives: September 2013

David Marr and The Prince

David Marr, The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell (Quarterly Essay N° 51)


This is David Marr’s third extended portrait in the Quarterly Essay series. After tackling Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott he’s moved on to Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell, with a focus on his response to accusations and proven cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and religious brothers. Though it’s written with Marr’s characteristic pungency, wit and compassion, it’s not an easy read: so much human suffering, so much denial and disconnection.

The essay tracks Pell’s career – priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal – in parallel with the unfolding revelations of abuse and the institutional church’s responses. Its narrative backbone comes from Pell’s four-hour interview in May this year with the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. Its heart is a double quest: on the one hand to hold to account the most institutionally powerful Catholic in Australia, and on the other to try to understand what is going on behind his unrevealing public persona (unsurprisingly, given Marr’s previous writing about him, Pell did not agree to be interviewed for the essay). No doubt the first quest, carefully documented and full of chilling detail, will stir defensive controversy: there may well be an equivalent of That Wall Punch, such a useful distraction from the gist of Marr’s essay on Tony Abbott. The second quest, as befits an essay, asks interesting questions and proposes answers that raise even more interesting questions – the final paragraphs, reflecting on the meaning of priestly celibacy, offer an equivalent to Marr’s conclusion in QE 38 that anger is the juice in Kevin Rudd’s machine …

Avoiding spoilers, I note that Marr isn’t a Catholic. Unlike, say, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s lucid writing, which explores problems with papal infallibility and the moral theology of sex as contributing of the problem of abuse, this essay isn’t particularly interested in the deep questions of how the church got into this state, or of what can be done at the level of culture (beyond relinquishing any sense of being above the law of the land, and acting with justice and compassion rather than defensiveness and financial shrewdness): prayer and forgiveness are correctly dismissed as worse than useless strategies for child protection; there’s little tolerance for celibacy or the seal of the confessional, and even ‘smells and bells’ (Marr’s phrase) come in for a bit of mockery.

Marr tells the story of a man who, abused as a nine-year-old altar boy, met with Pell in 1997. As reported in the Age and quoted here, the man asked how Pell could persuade him to return to the Catholic faith, to which Pell replied, ‘Do you say the Hail Mary?’ While Marr leaves that hanging as one of many examples of Pell’s amazing interpersonal incompetence, a Catholic writer might have stayed with the moment, teased it out a bit. Why the Hail Mary? The words of the prayer don’t offer much help:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Is Pell insensitive to other people’s suffering, or is he suggesting that this form of words might revive some deep, healing connection to childhood piety? Does his question expose the poverty of his personal spirituality, or suggest a profoundly simple approach to faith? If in a similar situation a Buddhist or Hindu sage offered the questioner a mantra, would it seem less bizarrely disconnected? I’m genuinely puzzled.

One reassuring aspect of the essay is that George Pell’s rigid, defensive, authority-centred version of Catholicism is not widely shared by other Australian bishops, let alone the clergy or laity in general. And now, even more grounds for hope, the pope himself seems to be from a very different Catholic tradition.
And up the back, as always, there is discussion of the previous Quarterly Essay. Seasoned feminist activists Sara Dowse, Sylvia Lawson and Rachel Nolan add interesting and necessary perspectives to Unfinished Business, Anna Goldsworthy’s essay on sexism in public life.

In a departure from Quarterly Essay‘s usual practice, and fair enough because a right of reply is involved, a member of the Australian‘s commentariat puts in an appearance, about which perhaps the most interesting thing is that the cheapest of her snarky shots (and there are quite a few) is reproduced almost verbatim by a cooler-than-thou self-styled left-wing cultural columnist. Angela Shanahan: ‘On the other hand, Anna Goldsworthy is an excellent pianist.’ Helen Razer: ‘Anna Goldsworthy, by contrast, is a wonderful pianist.’ A kinder editor might have deleted both these sentences, and left both writers with a little more dignity intact.
Addition: Andrew Hamilton, consulting editor of Jesuit publication Eureka Street, reviews David Marr’s essay here.

‘The death rattle of the fossil fuel industry is likely to become extremely nasty.’

It seems that Australia’s new Prime Minister really meant it when he said he’d dismantle even the moderate steps taken by previous governments to meet the challenge of climate change.

Luckily, however, the future isn’t completely determined by Tony Abbott, the Murdoch media and those whose interests they serve. Among myriad initiatives taken by non-government, non-Murdoch people, 350 Australia recently launched a divestment campaign, Go Fossil Free Australia. From their web site:

As members, beneficiaries, and customers of super funds, banks, educational and religious institutions, and governments, each of us can play a powerful role in divesting Australia’s economy from fossil fuels.

As part of their project of building public dialogue and awareness of fossil fuel divestment and alternative investments, 350 Australia is hosting public forums around the country in September and October 2013, with the intention of presenting a variety of perspectives, both for and against divestment.

Just in case you were hoping you could trust in the Murdoch–Abbott complacency, here’s a talk by Ian Dunlop at a recent forum, outlining just how grim things are.

A 2 degree increase in temperature, which apparently is pretty inevitable, will be bad enough, but if we keep on as we are, we’ll have a 4 degree increase, and the planet then would only be able to  sustain 1 billion humans. I guess anyone reading this will all be dead anyhow before that load of disaster hits the fan, but Tony, how stupid do you have to be not to even try to stop it from happening?

Cassandra Golds’s Pureheart

Cassandra Golds, Pureheart (Penguin Australia 2013)

1pureheartI won’t write a proper blog post on this book because I’ve had the great privilege of reading more than one draft on the way to its final form, and don’t know if I can tell what’s actually on the page! It’s another brilliant tale of tortured female adolescence by the writer who gave us Clair de Lune, The Museum of Mary Child, and The Three Loves of Persimmon.

Cassandra Golds appeared on Books and Arts Daily recently, and gave an interview that all fans of her books should listen to.

Evanescent park art

A while back I wrote a couple of posts about shoes abandoned or carefully posed in the streets near my place. Well, we’re moving on to other accessories.  Or rather, one accessory, which seems to be moving around Enmore Park when no one is watching. I’ve seen this glove a number of times, in a number of places, but only snapped it twice.

Here it is, pretending to be a leaf:


And here, skewered:


Jennifer Maiden in the Age

In yesterday’s Age, and in the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jennifer Maiden has a new poem, ‘The Reflection’ (scroll down quite a way at that link). In it a re-awakened Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer chat on a plane as they did in the earlier poem, ‘Deep River’ (you need a sub to the Australian Book Review to make that link work).

The earlier Rudd–Bonhoeffer dialogue took place soon after Rudd’s replacement by Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, and as in many of Maiden’s poems in which politicians converse with their proclaimed models it has a sense of moral jeopardy, sympathy for the one who is in jeopardy, and a respect for the enigma of their humanity. It ends with the observation that Rudd’s ‘strangely stylised’ slang seems to say:

So we’re all self-constructed out of trauma.
Standing here,
I defy you to file me away.’

In ‘The Reflection’, the sympathy and enigma have receded, and the moral jeopardy intensified. Do read it.

Eileen Chong’s Burning Rice

Eileen Chong, Burning Rice (Australian Poetry 2012, Pitt Street Poetry 2013)


This pocket-sized volume was short-listed for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards along with giants John Kinsella, Peter Rose and Jennifer Maiden. I approve.

I’ve recently read a bunch of scholarly essays about multiculturalism, postcolonialism, cosmopolitanism, hybridity, transnationalism, diasporic writing and other ways of creating or perceiving poetry that is not contained within a single cultural tradition. In that context, I guess these poems by Eileen Chong would be classed as diasporic: most of them deal one way or another with her Singaporean heritage and her separation from it.

But as it happens, I’ve also been rereading (with a heavy heart) some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and it strikes me that Chong’s poems about her parents and grandparents, the family’s food traditions, her childhood memories of Singapore streets, even Chinese history and classic Chinese poets, are part of a similar project to Heaney’s when he writes about his parents and forebears, his childhood memories of Irish fields, his tales of Irish saints and scholars. It would be as big a mistake to fence off this poetry in some semi-ethnographic corral as to do that with Heaney’s. Surely everyone can respond at a deeply human level to poetry in which a mind engages with the relationship between the present world and the world of childhood and heritage?

At least that’s my experience. Take the first poem, which also gives the book its title. It begins:

I did not mean to burn the rice tonight.
'Planting rice is never fun' – generations
of men, women and children ankle-deep
in padi fields, bent double at the waist,
immersing seedlings day after day.

then goes on to evoke the other kinds of work involved in growing and harvesting rice, before coming back at last to the burnt rice with a killer final line (you can read the poem here). At a personal level, this poem works wonderfully for me. It hooks my emotions by stirring into awareness something of my own very different heritage: four generations of my family – great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother – have been sugar farmers. Substitute marmalade for rice, and there I am in my inner suburban kitchen, trying to get the quantity of sugar right, enough to make the marmalade set but not too sweet, and lurking not so very far in the background the memory of cane paddocks, cane fires, cane knives and all they meant in my childhood. My personal story is very different from Chong’s and the history of sugar in North Queensland has little in common with that of rice in east Asia, but that’s where the poem touches me, brings part of my mind alive.

I don’t know that that says much about the actual poetry. There are other deceptively straightforward poems about Asian food and about Chong’s parents and grandparents, some striking dramatic monologues spoken by women from east Asian history, including a number connected to Lu Xun (considered by many, according to Wikipedia, to be the leading figure of modern Chinese literature), some sweet encounters with other Australian poets. I’m looking forward to more.


This seems to be the tenth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

Edmund White Flâneur and the Book Group

Edmund White, The Flâneur: A stroll through the paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury 2001)

1582341354 Before the meeting: I was very happy when this book was suggested as our next title. I’d come across the idea of the flâneur, the aimless wanderer through an urban environment, as an artist archetype (I think it was at the launch of Michael Sharkey’s The Sweeping Plain in 2007), and had somehow got the idea that Baudelaire and Edmund White were the go-to writers for anyone wanting to understand the archetype.

I was misled, at least about Edmund White. That is, I thought he was going to turn out to be a flâneur like the protagonist of Teju Cole’s Open City (which I suggested as a supplementary title), and that’s not how this book works at all.

It’s a short book, part of Bloomsbury’s The Writer and the City series, in which, according to the back cover blurb here, ‘some of the finest writers of our time reveal the secrets of the city they know best’. Peter Carey’s self-indulgent and forgettable 30 Days in Sydney was part of the series, and New South’s generally excellent Cities series may have been inspired by it.

There are six chapters: a general introduction to the idea of the flâneur and the general complexity of Paris is followed by essays about French (and mostly Parisian) attitudes on race, Jews and homosexuality, with an inserted chapter on eccentric and little known museums, and a final chapter on the weirdness that is the French monarchist and royalist movements. In other words, the bulk of the book is taken up with considerations of French culture through the lens of US-style identity politics, in particular through the lens of US gay culture.  There’s very little wandering the streets, though as the text wanders through its chosen themes it sometimes creates an illusion of appropriate lack of discipline.

I enjoyed White’s mini-essays on Colette, Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker. He gives a fascinating account of the Club des Hachichins (frequented by Baudelaire, Balzac and Théophile Gautier, if you can frequent something that only happened half a dozen times). His discussion of why AIDS had so much higher an incidence in Paris than in London raises interesting questions about identity politics (big in the US, sneered at in Paris – guess which attitude turns out to be superior!). The stories of a number of individual 19th century Jews are strikingly similar to the story of Charles Ephrussi in The Hare with Amber Eyes – in a good way.

There is all that, and much more that’s enjoyable and illuminating, but more often than not I was irritated. I grew tired of the name dropping (he once dined with Foucault, but that’s only the high point), the preening (his Parisian dinner-party comrades hadn’t noticed until he mentioned it that Paris is no longer a predominantly white city), the false modesty (he once gave a talk on Genet to a Palestinian audience, who surprised him by loving it even though he is white and Western), the persistent essentialising of ‘the French’ and ‘Parisians’, the titillatory titbits (wife-swapping clubs, cruising by the Seine) and the unremitting gay perspective (the most emphatic detail in his description of a mosque is that the Gay men who cruise its hammam on Sundays don’t touch each other out of respect for the religious environment).

After the meeting: It’s Rosh Hashanah, so attendance at the Book Group was down last night. (Memo to selves: Must keep a sharper eye out for High Holidays in future.) The five of us ate a hearty French meal, gossiped, engaged with the problem of an iPhone whose screen had gone blank, and discussed the book.

One man had really loved it. He’d read it when in the south of France, just before going to Paris, and so was much more attuned to its sense of place than I certainly was. He enjoyed the way the text moved between tiny details and broad perspectives. He found himself stopping to re-read paragraphs just for the pleasure of them. Interestingly enough, he loved the first sentence for its elegance and its cheeky wit, while I was irritated by its Americo-Eurocentrism and its snobbish smart-aleckery:

Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zürich a backwater.

One man had surrendered his copy when the library insisted he return it (probably because I was asking for it), but he hadn’t been unhappy about that as he’d had three attempts at the first chapter and been unengaged – because as far as he could tell, all White was doing was quoting a lot of other people about Paris, which is less true of later chapters. One had read it overnight (I’d dropped off that same library copy to him on Tuesday afternoon) and had a similar mix of enjoyment and irritation to mine, though I think with more pleasure and less irritation. Perhaps part of the problem is that we had all read the entry on ‘flâneur‘ in Wikipedia, and then approached the book expecting it to be an example of flâneurism, which it really isn’t.

Spring joy

It’s about two and a half years since we moved home. About a year ago, the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) that had stood outside our kitchen window in the old house was ailing in its new location – most of its fronds were brown or browning. I took a photo of it to our local nursery and the man there said the plant was almost certainly dying: they don’t take to transplanting,  and it will sometimes take as long as 2 years for them to die, and ours was well on the way. We could trim off all the dead and dying fronds, even sit a cardboard box on top of the plant and burn it, so that all the green growth was burnt back, but it was a slim chance, and the burning was the product of wishful thinking rather than a proven remedy.

I didn’t do the burning, but I took to the leaves with a pair of secateurs and for months our once thriving grass tree was like a dead lump with a few green sprouts sticking out of its top. We made sure it wasn’t over-watered, and gradually it came back to good health. And on the weekend, we noticed it had produced a spike.

grass tree

In no time at all, as measured by grass trees, that spike will be more than a metre high and produce seeds and, if we harvest the seeds and plant them properly, in 20 years time we may even have a new generation of grass trees.