Monthly Archives: August 2016

Judith Ridge’s Book that Made Me

Judith Ridge, The Book that Made Me (Walker Books 2016)


tl;dr: This book would make a brilliant gift for a teenager (what the book trade calls a young adult) who loves reading. And part of the money you spend on it will go to the Indigenous Literary Fund. Also: I tell my own story.

Judith Ridge has been a tireless worker in the field of children’s literature for decades, organising, promoting, debating, judging, studying, editing, writing, teaching, networking – oh, and reading. This is her first book. Characteristically of Judith’s commitment to young people and literature, it’s a labour of love: she and the contributing authors have agreed that all royalties from the book will go to the extremely worthy Indigenous Literary Foundation. Also characteristic of her, it’s a showcase for other people.

It’s a showcase in the first place for the 31 writers, mostly of YA fiction, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, who were invited to write about a book that ‘made’ them. The invitation allowed for wide interpretation. As Judith says in her foreword, she was asking what book

made them fall in  love, or made them understand something for the first time? Made them think. Made them laugh. Made them angry. Made them feel safe. Made them feel challenged in ways they never knew they could be, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Made them readers, made them writers – made them the person they are today.

Readers get to know a little more about writers whose work they know and love – in my case Markus Zusak, Shaun Tan (who couldn’t confine himself to anything like one book, but in effect gives a whole reading list of sophisticated picture books and comics, as well as having line drawings throughout the book), Benjamin Law, Alison Croggon, Ursula Dubosarsky (the only verse contribution) and Simon French (one of two pieces that brought tears to my eyes). And we are introduced to new writers we may be interested in – in my case all the rest. To name half a dozen:

  • Will Kostakis, who writes about a book he put down after reading six pages and decided to write his own story
  • Queenie Chan, who writes of the joys of manga, telling part of her story in comic frames
  • Ambellin Kwaymullina, one of the Aboriginal contributors, author of a dystopian series of books, who writes eloquently about the non-written stories that ‘made’ her
  • the late Mal Peet, who tells a wonderful story about turning up at a Moby-Dick tutorial at university with the Classics Illustrated comic
  • Kate Constable, whose piece featuring Tom’s Midnight Garden is a lovely essay on how a reader’s circumstances affect how she reads.
  • Jaclyn Moriarty, who explains beautifully what Roald Dahl can do for his young readers.

As well as the contributors, the book is also a showcase for the 200 or so novels, series, picture books, comics, plays and poetry anthologies that rate a mention, ranging from Homer and Melville to Dr Seuss and Archie comics. In a neat bit of mise-en-abîme, some of the contributors wrote books that some of the others say ‘made’ them. No one mentions Harry Potter.

Something the book does for me that it’s unlikely to do for most of its intended readership – the difference being that I’ve been reading for half a century longer than any teenager – is make me wonder how I would answer the book’s question.

The rest of this post is today’s version of the book that made me.
I was a compulsive reader as a child. I remember lying with my mother on her bed after lunch and watching the words as she read to me – from among other things a Hans Christian Andersen collection – correcting her if she got a word wrong. I loved Donald Duck (though not so much Mickey Mouse) and Superman (rather than Batman) and Classics Illustrated comics. I had Kingsley’s Heroes and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia at home, Enid Blyton, W E Johns and Richmal Compton from the town library, the Queensland Reader and Bible Stories at school. I had to be told not to read at the table during meals. I read in bed at night by the faint light from two rooms away (our North Queensland house wasn’t big on internal doors). When I reached double figures I took on the likes of Great Expectations, Ivanhoe and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

The worlds of books fascinated me. They had snow. A child could look out his bedroom window and talk to another child sitting at her window in the house next door: my nearest neighbours were a sugarcane paddock and a cow yard away. Moss grew on the south side of trees in books: in the tropics the sun comes from either the north or the south, depending on the time of year, and moss grows anywhere it can in the rainforest. In books it can be broad daylight at nine o’clock at night and no one has heard of bandicoots, or cane toads, or sensitive weed, or cane fires, or pomelos, or bagasse, all of which were ordinary parts of my life.

I’d like to be able to write about the wonderful moment when I picked up a book and found my childhood world reflected there. But no, that didn’t happen – and still hasn’t, really. When an aunt started giving me Australian books for birthday presents – Ash Road, I remember, and Simon Black in the Antarctic, both by Ivan Southall – the worlds I found in them were only slightly less other. They weren’t exactly foreign, they just didn’t show the world as I experienced it, where it would rain heavily for days on end, where houses were on stilts, where we guzzled mangoes on our back veranda and where Aboriginal people came occasionally to use our phone to call for a taxi. I grew up feeling that books were never about the real world, but were completely made up – either that or the world of my actual experience was somehow invalid.

What comes to mind when I ask myself if there is one book that set me on a literary path is not a book at all, but an after-dinner talk.

One Sunday a month was Holy Name Sunday in our church. Members of the Holy Name Society, all men, would sit together in  Mass, away from their families, and at one point they would all stand and make the church ring with a rousing anthem:

We stand for God and for his glory,
The Lord supreme and God of all.
Against his foes we raise his standard.
Around the Cross we hear his call.
____Strengthen our faith, Redeemer,
____Guard us when danger is nigh.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we'll live, for God we'll die.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we'll live, for God we'll die.

I was totally in awe of the display of full-throated masculinity. And when I was thirteen I was allowed to join the Society. (Girls joined the Children of Mary and wore pale blue cloaks, which was cool, but boys got to bellow in church.)

I was only in the Society for a year and don’t remember doing anything apart from singing on Sundays, but I did attend that year’s annual dinner. It must have been exciting to be there as one of the men, no longer a boy, but that’s not what I remember. What I do remember is that as we were finishing dessert, someone tapped a glass with a spoon and introduced the speaker, Vince Moran. He wasn’t a family friend, but I had seen him around – Innisfail was a small enough town.

His talk wasn’t an inspirational address. Basically, he told three jokes. What was exhilarating for me was the way he told them: not one after the other, but intertwined. He got to a certain point in his main story line, which had something to do with a cat who was a great tennis fan, then went off on a digression, then from that digression onto another digression, and circuitously back, jumping from one story to another in what seemed random moves, until, just when it seemed the whole thing had become hopelessly muddled, he brought all three strands home with three punchlines in quick succession. The cat, I remember, lost all interest in tennis when he found out what racquet strings were made of.

For all my countless hours of reading, and though I knew from the ABC Children’s Hour that it was a good thing to remember the names of the people who wrote books, this was the first time I realised that stories were made by people – by people who eat food, and go to the toilet, and have to tie their shoelaces like the rest of us. An ordinary man standing at the front of the room had just presented us with a fiction he had crafted himself. (I think he was the same Vincent Moran who wrote for Homicide in the 70s and The Flying Doctors in the 80s.) I don’t think I quite got as far as realising that Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton were also mere mortals (I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised that reality even yet), but a door swung open in my mind. Books might not reflect my world, but people who lived in my world could make them.


I won’t count The Book that Made Me in my tally for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge, but the editor and by my count more than half the contributors are Australian women, so I’m adding the logo here.

Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life

Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life (©2104, Oneworld 2015)


There’s a lot that’s very good in this tragedy-romance of marginalised people living in New York City. Rather than reviewing it, I want to make some observations about how context can affect the experience of reading.

Everyone knows that a book you read as a child can be very different when you read it again as an adult. But the effects of timing can be much more fine-grained than that: in my reading of Preparation for the Next Life, reading while walking and reading in the wake of particular television revelations each made a huge difference.

First the walking. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that two chapters towards the end are given over to a character’s night-long, punishing walk through New York City’s neglected outer reaches. It’s a bravura piece of writing, showing us the changing state of the buildings, people and activities in each neighbourhood traversed, all filtered through the character’s terrified and exhaustion-addled mind. I’m convinced that the author did that walk himself, possibly even in a single night.

By serendipity, I read most of those two chapters while walking in an unfamiliar place, and even though I was in Sydney’s quiet harbourside suburb of Putney, the effect was magical, the rhythm of my leisurely walk providing a perfect accompaniment to the sentences playing in my mind. If you want to do likewise, it’s chapters 52 and 53.

The other piece of serendipity came with a single sentence early in the book. In this case it wasn’t the context that changed my experience of the text. The text changed my understanding of the context.

One woman is explaining to another the kinds of treatment she might expect from a warder if she ends up in prison:

If you fought him, he was authorised to rush you like a man, tackle you, pound your head on the floor, Taser your backside while you crawled, drag you out by the leg while you screamed under the cameras recording all this in black and white, strap you in The Chair, put the spit bag on your head and leave you there for up to twelve hours while you begged for water.

Like much in the early chapters, this is colourful, gritty background that adds to our sense of the character’s jeopardy, and a month ago I would have skimmed over it.

But read in the wake of the Four Corners report on the Don Dale juvenile detention centre it gains extraordinary power. The phrase ‘rush you like a man’ could have been written to describe the overwhelming speed of the real-life warder we saw enter a young Aboriginal man’s cell, grab him by the throat and throw him to a mattress on the floor. We saw real-life young men crying out while being dragged, under cameras recording it all in black and white. We saw a young man being shackled to a chair by a group of burly, uniformed men, his head hidden in a spit hood (a bag by any other name), and the men leave him saying they would come back in a couple of hours.

It emerged that the treatment of the young detainees had been the subject of a number of official reports, but not until the footage was shown on national television were the media and politicians galvanised into action. Though the substance of their action remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that the Four Corners report will lead to some improvement.

But there were disturbing dissonances in the Four Corners report. For example, the image of young Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a chair was compared to the infamous 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib, a comparison that has been taken up since by a number of commentators. The footage itself undermined that comparison: those men aren’t caught off guard, but speak solicitously to the young man (‘How’s that, is that all right?’ ‘You keep chilling out, yeah?’). They’re not deliberately humiliating their prisoner for sport. At least in that footage they give every appearance of men who are acting according to established protocols – it could almost be an instructional video. The similarity to Abu Ghraib is mainly visual, and the comparison serves to generate outrage rather than getting at the truth of the situation.

Outrage has its limitations. To quote a 2013 piece by Mark Fisher about the British tabloid Daily Mail:

Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat. That’s because, firstly, outrage is part of the very currency of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism, which depends not on content but on the sheer circulation of messages… Secondly, since there is an infinite supply of things to be outraged about, the tendency towards outrage indefinitely locks us up in a series of reactive battles, fought on the enemy’s territory and on its terms.

In this case, doing away with the chair and the hood, and even punishing the guards who used tear gas on young men in their cells, might satisfy the outraged need for action, but wouldn’t do much to address the underlying system that leads to the abuse.

Atticus Lish’s sentence brings these considerations to the fore. It characterises a number of the things we saw on Four Corners as only to be expected from the ‘justice’ system. No explanation of The Chair or the spit bag is even needed – so they’re not aberrations of the Northern Territory but vile practices that are widespread and officially sanctioned. If one of the things that intimidates a woman is to be ‘rushed like a man’, there’s a subliminal suggestion that for a man to be rushed like that is close to being acceptable. There’s a gender issue here that the media have hardly touched on.

A friend and I were recently lamenting that novels can no longer transform our understanding of the world as Simone de Beauvoir’s A Woman Destroyed did for her and The Brothers Karamazov for me. We agreed that the fault lies not in the novels but in ourselves – our minds get set in their ways. Reading Preparation for the Next Life has not been a transformative experience for me. But it has restored my sense that fiction can illuminate things, bring them alive in the mind. And I’m grateful

China Miéville’s This Census Taker

China Miéville, This Census Taker (Picador 2016)

1509812148.jpgA friend who know I’d enjoyed China Miéville’s The City and The City  lent me this very short book. When I asked him if he was recommending it he half shrugged, ‘It’s got a child narrator.’ coming from him, that meant ‘No, but you might.’

What can I say? It’s beautifully written, it’s hard to put down, and even though you realise part way through the book that you’re unlikely ever to know what’s really going on you’re compelled to read to the end.

It begins with the boy – sometimes ‘I’, sometimes ‘he’ – running down from his home on the hillside to tell people in the nearby village that he has seen his mother killing his father. Then he believes on reflection that he has seen his father killing his mother, and persuades everyone else that this is what happened, even though no one can find any proof. And indeed his mother has disappeared leaving a handwritten farewell note, though no one is sure of her handwriting, so as with almost everything in the boy’s experience we don’t know if the note is what it seems. He is made to go back to their ramshackle, isolated house to live with his father,  a maker of keys that may or may not have magical properties, who is loving to his son but every now and then seems to enter a weird state and beat an animal – and possibly the occasional person – to a pulp.

I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to believe the boy is correct about his father, and that he is finally rescued by a heroic census-taker. I’m not so sure. All I’m sure of is that the boy understands very little of what is happening in the world, and we understand only a little more. There may be an underlying story that we can put together from what he tells us – like the hidden story in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life perhaps. Maybe it’s a puzzle that can be pieced together by someone cleverer than I am. There’s an acrostic towards the end, though what it signifies is completely ambiguous.

So this is a very readable, tantalising and grim story that doesn’t quite tell itself: something like The Trial meets What Maisie Knew. Did I mention it’s very short? If it had been much longer, this level of uncertainty would have been exasperating. As it is, I loved it.

The Book Group and Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (Doubleday 2015)

gott.jpgBefore the meeting:
After A Little Life, the book group decided to take on something light, and someone had heard that The Girl on the Train was an interesting thriller.

I’m not a member of this book’s target audience. I’ve been mildly gripped by psychological thriller movies (Gone Girl say, or any number of Hitchcock movies, or Gaslight, though I haven’t seen that movie, just the play performed by the Innisfail Repertory Society in about 1960) or on TV (I think of The Fall). Men are strong, sympathetic and protective, or are they dangerous and manipulative? Women sense they are in danger, or are they just neurotic messes? A loving husband is caught in a lie about talking to his ex-wife. Should we be disturbed by what happens next:

He smiles at me, shaking his head as he steps towards me, his hands still raised in supplication. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. She wanted to chat in person and I thought it might be best. I’m sorry, OK? We just talked. We met in a crappy coffee shop in Ashbury and talked for twenty minutes – half an hour, tops. OK?’
___He puts his arms around me and pulls me towards his chest. I try to resist him, but he’s stronger than me and anyway he smells great and I don’t want a fight. I want us to be on the same side. ‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbles again, into my hair.
___‘It’s all right,’ I say.

Even on screen these imagined relationships as full of manipulation and lurking threat aren’t my cup of tea. In book form, if this one is any indication, it’s a game a good bit less interesting than Scrabble. I did read the whole book, I suppose it was well done, and I stayed guessing, or at least unsure, until the final revelation, but I didn’t really care, and the main impression I’m left with is of time wasted. Your mileage may vary. The movie is coming out in a month or two – I’ll probably give it a miss.

At the meeting: There were eight of us and everyone had read the whole book, one or two saying that they couldn’t put it down. And while people generally appreciated its tight plotting, and the way information was gradually released to the reader, no one particularly liked it. Those who are more widely read in the genre said it wasn’t a particularly good example. We compared notes on how soon we guessed the ending.

And over chicken and rice and then ice cream we had a terrific conversation about fathers and sons, how boys and young men could do with someone thinking about them in more constructive ways than generally seems to happen these days, about Eton and Queen Victoria’s correspondence, about whether A Little Life is a bildungsroman, about cumquat marmalade, renovations, and the joys of growing old.

Gary Ramage’s The Shot

Gary Ramage with Mark Abernethy,  The Shot (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

y648.pngGary Ramage, currently News Corp’s chief photographer at Parliament House in Canberra, won the Nikon Walkley Photo of the Year last year. Once a soldier himself, he has photographed soldiers in action in Somalia, Bougainville, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. In between stints in conflict zones, he has shot politicians in Canberra, visited Buckingham Palace and  done the paparazzi thing for Murdoch. This book is his story.

Let me state my prejudices here: I know that to earn a living in a capitalist economy almost inevitably   involves supping with the devil, but working for News Corp is supping with a short spoon; I’m suspicious of the practice of embedding journalists with troops in conflict zones, because it seems likely to lead to reports that uncritically support the war effort; I loathe even the idea of paparazzi, particularly since the death of Diana Spencer. So this book is way out of my comfort zone.

And it’s fabulous.

It’s a funny, dramatic and at times powerfully poignant account of a man discovering his calling and learning his craft, meeting challenges with ingenuity, courage, compassion and a touch of swagger. Ramage’s commitment to documenting the experiences of soldiers in conflict zones transformed my understanding of ’embedding’: this isn’t about backing the war effort, but about making sure that the men who are sent to kill or be killed aren’t consigned to oblivion. And as for the paparazzi action: I confess I shared his glee when he managed with great cunning to invade the privacy of some royals, and I was barracking for him in a long sequence towards the end of the book when he endures great personal discomfort and inveigles News Corp into spending vast amounts of money on semi-legendary equipment in order to get a single blurry forbidden shot that serves no purpose beyond tabloid titillation.

I’ve been photographed for the newspapers a couple of times myself – when my high school results were deemed newsworthy by the Catholic Weekly, when my younger son and I provided cute visuals for a report on a childcare demo, and recently for an article reporting, not 100 percent accurately, that I’m on a solar powered gravy train that will soon grind to a halt. Each time has involved an awful lot of fiddling with light and positioning, checking and re-checking. Ramage’s art of (mostly) getting himself in place, equipped and ready to catch the shot, is a matter for awe.

And the photos scattered through the text and especially those on the sixteen-page centre section are brilliant.

Charlotte Wood’s Natural Way of Things

Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2015)

nwt.jpgThis book came to me accompanied by the same dire warnings as A Little Life. It’s a very hard read, I was told, whose author subjects her characters – plural this time, and female – to unremitting and implausible suffering.

The warnings were justified, but Charlotte Wood’s book is a very different beast from Hanya Yanigahara’s. Jude St Francis’s sufferings are extreme, the men who inflict them are inscrutable monsters and Jude suffers in isolation despite the best efforts of the people who love him. The young women in Charlotte Wood’s fable are punished, not with reason but with a kind of logic. The hands-on perpetrators are loathsome, but knowable, and at some moments pathetic. The ‘girls’ have mostly been abandoned by people they thought loved them. And where Jude remains passively saintlike in his suffering, hurting no one but himself, the ‘girls’ get nasty, manipulative, even murderous, and we mostly love them for it. Also this book is a lot shorter than the other – it’s not out to test a reader’s stamina.

The Natural Way of Things is a fable involving a group of young women, each of whom turns out to have been caught up in a sexual scandal – an affair with a bishop, rape by a group of footballers, a cruise-ship degradation. They include a politician’s PA, a woman from the army, an elite athlete and a child television star. By going public, or being made public, they have each attracted huge media attention. In a kind of metaphor for the prevalent attitude to such women (see the online comments section about any sex scandal involving a woman), they are imprisoned in an abandoned sheep station in western New South Wales, and consigned to oblivion there with two male guards and a bizarrely incompetent woman who is presumably meant to look after their health.

It’s hard going in the first third of the book as their terrible conditions are revealed. They wear coarse clothes, sleep locked in rooms that resemble dog kennels, have no facilities to wash their clothes or themselves, subsist on a diet of vile yellow muck, and do hard physical labour interspersed with beatings. Their prison is surrounded by a deadly,  high, electrified fence.

But even that early part is not just an enumeration of horrors. Sure, there’s a broken jaw here, a suppurating burn there, but the narrative takes us inside the women’s heads. It traces the gradual shift to a sense of themselves as more elemental, more animal than they have ever imagined. So when the prison’s (but not the fence’s) electricity fails and they realise that they have been completely abandoned by the outside world, the movement – at least for the main characters – is not towards despair so much as towards a new way of being in the world, towards reclaiming their reality as physical beings in a physical universe.

It’s a fable. That is to say, it’s not an account of things that could actually happen. It’s more Mad Max meets Kafka than Orange Is the New Black. Reading it in the wake of the Don Day footage and the release of the Nauru files, I realise it’s not entirely fantastical either – if anything, it’s milder than those grim realities. But it is a fable, with its own visceral reality, and beautifully written. I don’t know if Charlotte Wood was ever sent to boarding school, but some of the writing captures that awful claustrophobia. And I don’t know if she comes from the country, but all through the book the descriptions of the countryside leaven and intensify the desolation of her characters. For example:

In the field they labour, chipping weeds, shovelling gravel, raking. The pile of concrete chunks has gone, the pieces laid out end to end into the distance. The road corridor has been cleared, the hard dry dirt graded with their hands and ancient hoes and rakes. Edges have been dug and sloped to stop erosion. As they scraped and cleared the knee-high grass they have shrieked and dropped their tools and leaped from the slithering path of brown snakes and red-bellied blacks, or the stomping shuffle of the thick-necked, weaving goannas. Bird calls drop from the skies all day long and, taught by Leandra, the bird nerd from the army, they recognise them now: not just the screams of cockatoos and corellas or the squawking lorikeets, but also the floatier melodies of wagtails, butcherbirds, thrushes and kites. At night the mournful, mournful stone curlews cry.

AWW2016The Natural Way of Things is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lesley & Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White

Lesley and Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter (UQP 2015)


This is a superb memoir. If the title sounds a bit preachy, don’t be misled. It’s a page turner, a romance, a tale of multi-faceted heroism with plenty of grief, rage and laughing out loud, and some totally – I do mean totally! – unexpected plot twists.

The two authors are mother and daughter. Lesley Williams was born in the mid 1940s and grew up in Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in Queensland, 170 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, where Aboriginal people were referred to as ‘inmates’ and every aspect of their lives was regulated by the authorities. Hers is the last generation to have grown up ‘under the Act’ – that is The Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 and its successors: people couldn’t travel or marry without formal permission, and any money they earned was held ‘in safe keeping’ by the government. When she was fifteen, Lesley was assigned to work as a domestic servant in distant homes; she wasn’t informed of the conditions of her employment and received only ‘pocket money’ directly. A timid girl who lived in fear of white authorities, she grew up, with help from Aboriginal and white friends and allies, to spearhead a campaign for justice for Aboriginal workers that eventually led to a compensation package of $55.4 million dollars.

Meanwhile, she had three children who she was determined would have better lives than hers. Tammy, the youngest, started out ghost writing this book, but became its second authorial voice when they realised how their lives were intertwined. Tammy’s story doesn’t have quite the same extraordinary journey from one era to another, but it’s full of surprises of its own. Spoiler alert: Michael Jackson plays a significant role and José Ayala Lasso, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has a walk-on part.

Both women are great story-tellers. The success of the campaign to recover the stolen wages is almost an afterthought to these two wonderful yarns.

I was about a third of the way into this book when ABC’s 4 Corners aired those heart-stopping scenes of the mistreatment of Aboriginal boys in custody in the Northern Territory. And you know, grim though those scenes were, the government’s treatment of Aboriginal people in Queensland into the 1960s, which Lesley Williams recounts with extraordinary calm and clarity, was just as violent and demeaning in its own way. As with current events in Nauru and Manus, there was no shocking footage, and for most Australians out of sight was out of mind. This book, and other like it, make a huge contribution to our understanding of Australia’s history


Not Just Black and White is the eighth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It won the 2014 David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writing. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get more gongs now that it’s published.

A minute

I’d set my phone to remind me this morning at a quarter past nine – 8.15 am Japanese Standard Time – to mark the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by the USA.

I sat for a minute in silence. Life went on around me without a perceptible ripple. I thought I should spend another couple of minutes making my minute into a social event. (I believe that the opening ceremony in Rio fell silent for a minute – but I wasn’t watching the telly.)

So much fuss is rightly made here of the number of Australians who died in a single day on the Somme in 1915. But that appalling tragedy involved men who were combatants – they had been sent by their government to kill and, as it happened, be killed. The people who died at Hiroshima, instantly or in the long agony of radiation disease, were largely civilians – babies at the breast, old women on their deathbeds, cooks, poets and potters –  going about their ordinary lives in the city of two rivers, as much as life could be ordinary in that country at that time. And the Hiroshima anniversary creates hardly a blip on the Australian public radar these days.

The horror of the atom bomb took a while to be generally known, and was overshadowed by the relief of the war ending. What struck me this morning was that my generation is the first to be born into a world where nuclear weapons had already been used to kill people, the first to be born after what scientists now call Year Zero (because radiation dating has to be calculated differently after 1945), the first to live with the knowledge that human beings have the power to wipe ourselves out, and so – for many of us – the first to spend a lot of energy keeping that knowledge away from the front of our minds. The temptation to think small, to look after number one, to cultivate one’s garden, to turn away from the suffering of other people, to live in a bubble, became significantly stronger 71 years ago today.

A minute of silence goes a small way to opening the mind to the possibility of shrinking that sphere of numbness, of embracing the whole world and all that it has to offer, the joys and challenges as well as the horrors.

Since this is mainly a book blog, I should mention some books. Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki is an excellent narrative historyof the planning for the bomb and the dropping as it happened. Robyn Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine and subsequent articles (here, and here) are excellent on Australian responses, as is Michael Bogles’ piece in Overland 218 (my blog mention here).

Colleen Z Burke’s Home Brewed and Lethal

Colleen Burke, Home Brewed and Lethal: New and selected poems (Cochon Publishing 1997)

hbl.jpgThis is the seventh of eleven published books of poetry by Colleen Z Burke (her writing name acquired the ‘Z’not long after it was published). It includes a generous selection from the earlier books including one that I’ve blogged about (here), plus 25 new poems.

Many of the earlier poems are also included in Burke’s memoir, The Waves Turn. One of the later ones – the prose poem ‘A doll on a stick’ – is a tightened and tidied version of a passage from the memoir, leading me to conclude that the memoir, published this year, was written in the mid 1970s was reworked and integrated into the memoir, which Colleen started in the late 1990s*. Most of the poetry in this book makes no bones about its autobiographical nature: memories of a Catholic girlhood, reconnection with an Irish heritage, defiant feminist rage, marital woes, then – taking up where the memoir ends – the joys and burdens of motherhood, the flavours of inner-city living, environmental and Aboriginal politics and history and, like a punch in the guts, half a dozen poems written in the heat of bereavement:

What fools are we
to think that we can plan
and plot and shape our lives
and choose to go or stay. To
love or not. What fools indeed.
When death is on our shoulder
day and night waiting ..

The book, and life, continues after the death of Burke’s husband, and many of the poems gain added resonance from being read as part of an overarching narrative. For example, one of the new poems, ‘Back to life’, ostensibly about the refreshing effect of the bush, has these lines:

I breathe
back to life.

Another of the new poems, ‘Between the lines’, comes close to describing what is perhaps the strongest feature of Burke’s poetry. Addressing the leftist poet Len Fox, who died in 2004 and was in his early 90s  when this books was published, she says of his poems:

____________when I thought
I had them sussed – they bent
twisted or even
smiled between
the lines
Yet basically
it’s the lack of bullshit
I liked the most about
your poems

I think it’s fair to say that Colleen Z Burke’s poetry aspires to, and generally reaches, a bullshit-free zone. No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures, but straight talk that nevertheless bends and twists and even smiles between the lines.

  • Amended after a conversation with the author

AWW2016Home Brewed and Lethal is the seventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions

Edward John Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound, in the Years 1840–1; Sent by the Colonists of South Australia, with the Sanction and Support of the Government (London 1845)

eyre1-00.jpgI imagine most people think of the journals of nineteenth-century British explorers of the Australian continent as raw material for historians and creative writers, rather than works to be read for their own sake. In fact, the journals were generally written up on the long sea voyage back to Britain, not raw at all, and most if not all of them were intended to give pleasure to the general reader as well as information to actual and prospective colonisers. If one test of a work of literature is whether it lives on in the mind of the reader, then I have some evidence for Eyre’s Journals. It’s more than 40 years since I read it, and this morning I woke up with this passage running in my head:

It was a dreamy kind of feeling, and I could have let the sands of life drain away to the last grain.

I was pleased to find the complete two volumes on Project Gutenberg, so was able to check the quote, and its context. It turns out, of course, that my memory was inaccurate – the original is much better. Here’s part of the entry for 17 May 1841 culminating in the part I was misremembering – the ‘we’ referred to are Eyre and his sole companion for this part of the journey, the Aboriginal man he calls Wylie:

Our stage to-day was only twelve miles, yet some of our horses were nearly knocked up, and we ourselves in but little better condition. The incessant walking we were subject to, the low and unwholesome diet we had lived upon, the severe and weakening attacks of illness caused by that diet, having daily, and sometimes twice a day, to dig for water, to carry all our fire-wood from a distance upon our backs, to harness, unharness, water, and attend to the horses, besides other trifling occupations, making up our daily routine, usually so completely exhausted us, that we had neither spirit nor energy left.

Added to all other evils, the nature of the country behind the sea-coast was as yet so sandy and scrubby that we were still compelled to follow the beach, frequently travelling on loose heavy sands, that rendered our stages doubly fatiguing: whilst at nights, after the labours of the day were over, and we stood so much in need of repose, the intense cold, and the little protection we had against it, more frequently made it a season of most painful suffering than of rest, and we were glad when the daylight relieved us once more.

On our march we felt generally weak and languid – it was an effort to put one foot before the other, and there was an indisposition to exertion that it was often very difficult to overcome. After sitting for a few moments to rest – and we often had to do this – it was always with the greatest unwillingness we ever moved on again. I felt, on such occasions, that I could have sat quietly and contentedly, and let the glass of life glide away to its last sand. There was a dreamy kind of pleasure, which made me forgetful or careless of the circumstances and difficulties by which I was surrounded, and which I was always indisposed to break in upon.

Another great moment is on 6 July  1841, when Eyre and Wylie reach their goal, the town of Albany. It’s a brilliant example of the mechanism described by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark where a white writer uses – in this case – an Aboriginal character to embody some aspect of himself that he can’t acknowledge. This extract begins just after the two exhausted travellers see the apparently deserted town, the rain ‘falling in torrents’:

I was startled by the loud shrill cry of the native we had met on the road, and who still kept with us: clearly and powerfully that voice rang through the recesses of the settlement beneath, whilst the blended name of Wylie told me of the information it conveyed. For an instant there was a silence still almost as death – then a single repetition of that wild joyous cry, a confused hum of many voices, a hurrying to and fro of human feet, and the streets which had appeared so shortly before gloomy and untenanted, were now alive with natives – men, women and children, old and young, rushing rapidly up the hill, to welcome the wanderer on his return, and to receive their lost one almost from the grave.

It was an interesting and touching sight to witness the meeting between Wylie and his friends. Affection’s strongest ties could not have produced a more affecting and melting scene – the wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance, with which he was embraced by his relatives, the cordial and hearty reception given him by his friends, and the joyous greeting bestowed upon him by all, might well have put to the blush those heartless calumniators, who, branding the savage as the creature only of unbridled passions, deny to him any of those better feelings and affections which are implanted in the breast of all mankind, and which nature has not denied to any colour or to any race.

Upon entering the town I proceeded direct to Mr Sherrats’, where I had lodged when in King George’s Sound in 1840. By him and his family I was most hospitably received, and every attention shewn to me; and in the course of a short time, after taking a glass of hot brandy and water, performing my ablutions and putting on a clean suit of borrowed clothes, I was enabled once more to feel comparatively comfortable, and to receive the many kind friends who called upon me.

He’d have us believe he only mentions the ‘wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance’ to make an anthropological point. For the son of a Bedfordshire vicar, feeling ‘comparatively comfortable’ is quite enough, thank you very much.

This is the book that Patrick White was reading during London Blitz when the idea for Voss came to him.