Frank Moorhouse described his early books as ‘discontinuous narratives’. They were collections of short stories whose characters and situations overlapped, but lacked a narrative through-line. In the half-century since those books were published, discontinuity has become much more commonplace in novels, and it’s probably only because Moorhouse recently died that Girl, Woman, Other put me in mind of his term.
The bulk of the book consists of four sets of three short stories. In each set the stories are about three women who are closely related (in one case, two women and a gender-nonspecific person who was assigned female at birth). The main characters are all Black (though some pass for white), and most of them are part of the LGBTQI+ community. They are mothers and daughters, lovers and friends, teacher and students, activists and cancel culture warriors, a playwright, a farmer, a merchant banker. The action mostly happens in England, in the context of feminist and Black liberation movements from the 1960s to the present day. Once you get used to the regular sudden changes in place, time, point of view and voice, the effect is exhilarating.
Of the final two chapters, the first provides a kind of narrative resolution when many of the characters turn up for an event foreshadowed in the first section. So technically the narrative isn’t totally discontinuous in Moorhouse’s sense, but the event is transparently a device to allow characters from different stories to run into each other rather than a real climax. The final section seems to go off in a whole new direction by telling the story of one of the book’s incidental white women characters, only to twist that story back into another narrative strand, to end with a moment that is no less emotionally satisfying for being utterly implausible.
I just read someone online saying they’d heard that ‘the text lacks punctuation’, so they chose to listen to it rather than read it. Well, I’m not saying they were wrong to listen, but the absence of quote marks and full stops – to be precise, the use of full stops only for the ends of sections – is not the annoyance you might expect. Evaristo uses line breaks as a form of punctuation: the meaning is always clear, there’s plenty of white space on the page, and the narrative flows beautifully. I for one was happily seduced.
When I read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, in which sclerophyll forests might as well not exist, I yearned to read a book about the Australian bush. She who is known in this blog as the Emerging Artist had been urging me to read John Blay’s Wild Nature for more than a year. So, though I didn’t expect it to be an Australian extension of Wohlleben’s book, it pretty much leapt from the bookshelf into my waiting arms.
The book is made up of three major strands.
First, there’s the narrative through-line: the author’s account of an intrepid walk through Australia’s south-east forests, often following animal tracks and sometimes, memorably, forcing a way through thick vegetation by throwing his body against it. A woman named Jacqueline accompanies him on much of his journey. We never learn her second name and are left to deduce that she is his partner. The narrative is based closely on journals he kept on his walks.
Second, he gives a history of the ‘Forest Wars’, the bitter conflict between those who wanted to exploit the forests for timber and woodchips, and those who wanted to preserve it – with the Forestry Department, which once played a custodian role, at times coming down heavily – and, though Blay doesn’t ever say so, corruptly – against the ‘greenies’. This strand is the fruit of extensive work by Blay recording oral history from participants in both sides of the wars. Although his sympathies are clearly with the conservationists, he has warm, respectful relationships with people who have the industry’s interests at heart.
Third, he incorporates the fruits of research, including his broad botanical and ecological knowledge, and colonial and pre-settlement history. What Wohlleben calls the hidden life of trees is mentioned briefly, and at one stage Blay follows the path of early nineteenth-century shipwreck survivors, an episode explored in historian Mark McKenna’s From the Edge.
It’s a strange book. Too often, reading it is like going on a long bush walk with an enthusiastic guide who names every tree and bush you pass, except of course the reader can’t see them, so all we get is a list of botanical and geological names. I smiled ruefully when I read Blay’s comment on the shipwreck survivors’ account:
Without the on-ground knowledge of where they were from time to time, it would have made so little sense to those who seldom ventured into the outdoors that the long journey might as well have taken place on the moon.
The slog is made worse by moments, all too frequent, that seem to have come straight from a journal and escaped the revising eye. This little passage is a good example:
All the tracks are treacherous bogs. Bandicoots have made trails in the wet earth. Across the heath, crimson bottlebrush and fairy fans glow brightest. Grevillea, bracelet honey-myrtle and banksia alike take the form of ground cover. A black snake suns itself on a sandstone pavement. The place is always full of surprises even as the landscape itself is surprising, it also has the potential to astonish.
This list isn’t so bad – at least bottlebrush and grevillea are reasonably well known. But how did the triple tautology of that final sentence get past the copy editor?
So John Blay isn’t one of the great nature writers. But his enthusiasm for the south-east forest is infectious, and here are thrilling moments, of which two stand out for me.
In the first, he and Jacqueline come upon a grove of waratahs. Here is just part of the encounter:
In photographs the flowers seldom look as beautiful as they do in nature. They look too blue, too muted, grubby. Where is that red inner glow? How could they change like that? Photograph after photograph, they come back imperfect, in shades of dull murk, and each one makes me more determined to capture the flowers in their full crimson magnificence. In this heavily canopied forest the light changes subtly, as does the glow of the flowers. Their flashes can surround you like wildfires on a mountain. Any shards of sunlight cut through too brightly and wash out the subtleties. At times there is a halo miasma around the trees caused by the intensity of insect life attracted to the sweetness of the flowers; some insects are so tiny as to be visible only when the clouds of them are lit. One moth hovers, others strike at eccentric speeds, the native bees, wasps. All love the warmer morning air. As the heat increases, so do the insect numbers, until the dews dry and it gets hotter and just about all retire for a siesta.
The other moment I want to mention takes the experience of reading the book onto a whole other level. On a spread toward the end there are two full-page maps of the area facing each other. One shows the forests of south-east Australia; the other the area burnt out by the bushfires of the 2019-20. The two areas are virtually the same. It’s like being hit over the head with a club: all of that wilderness we have been slogging through, the passionate object of John Blay’s attention, the bringer of aesthetic joy to Jacqueline, the terrain of the bitterly fought forest wars, all of it, has been ravaged by fire. As he tells us in the text, the heat from the fires has almost certainly damaged the complex underground web of fungus so necessary for the forest’s health. The scale of the disaster is close to unimaginable.
For all its faults, this book helps us to imagine it, helps to make the climate emergency viscerally real
For eight months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad. I’m away from home at the end of July, and didn’t bring it with me, but there’s still quite a bit to report.
At the end of last month, Achilles was about to re-enter the battle. This month’s reading began with Hephaestus, god of fire, creating magnificent new armour for him, including a shield whose decorations include images of all aspects of life. Achilles dons the armour and, basically, starts killing people. Zeus lets all the gods of the leash – they’re now free to join i on whichever side they like, and they do. Fleeing Trojans fall into the river, and the river god enraged at being filled with corpses, rises up and attackes Achilles. But Hephaestus comes to his aid – so it starts to look like Australia in the current phase of climate change: raging floodwaters and relentless fire at war with each other.
There’s a lot more. My key take-away this month is a realisation that the word ‘hero’ has changed meaning quite a bit since Homer’s day. I doubt if anyone took Achilles to be a role model. First he takes offence and brings terrible destruction on his own people by sulking in his tent when they desperately need his help, behaviour that gets him called a beeyatch online (Sorry, I couldn’t find the place again to give you a link). Then, once he’s back in the battle he is absolutely, brutally ruthless. He not only sets out to slaughter everything in his path, including the river, but he makes callous, mean-spirited speeches to those he is abut to kill. A hero in the sense of role model or exemplar of moral virtue he is not. Achilles as a hero doesn’t inspire admiration so much as terror. ‘Thank the gods this is set in the ancient past,’ I imagine Homer’s first readers muttering, ‘because it would be a nightmare to have someone like that alive today.’
When I went looking or the beeyatch quote, i stumbled on this, from Simone Weill:
The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the lliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.
(from ‘The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, 1939)
Maybe that’s the point. Achilles isn’t so much a hero, as a person at the mercy his passions, transformed by them into something monstrously destructive.
There’s an excellent article on Heat on the State Library of New South Wales website, entitled ‘On Fire‘. The author, Miriam Cosic, gives a quick history, from editor Ivor Indyk’s rage at the Hand That Signed the Paper affair to Alexander Christie’s appointment as editor of Series 3, and pays appropriate homage to Jenny Grigg’s elegant minimalist design of the new series. She interviews Christie, who has a deep respect for the multiculturalism, internationalism, and especially commitment to good writing that characterised the earlier series of Heat, as well as their providing opportunities for new writers:
‘It takes a long time to become a good writer, to really hone your craft,’ Christie says. ‘I want to bring [emerging writers] into the mix and elevate them next to established voices. That’s really important to me.’
The second issue opens with a black and white photo of a bark painting by Naminapu Maymuru-White, which serves as a kind of acknowledgement of country, and has a caption alerting us to an exhibition of Yirrkala bark paintings to take place in New Hampshire in September this year. The six pieces of writing follow:
‘Ludic Literature’, an abstract literary essay by British novelist Helen Oyeyemi
‘Unlock to Ride’, a short story by New Zealand novelist and short story writer Pip Adam
‘Min-Min’, a prose poem / flash fictionby First Nations poet Samuel Wagan Watson
‘Sit Down Young Stranger’ a short story by Luke Carman, a Heat veteran
Three prose poems by Michael Farrell, also a Heat veteran
‘Allen’, a short story by Ren Arcamone, this issue’s ’emerging writer’.
I enjoyed Luke Carman’s story about a depressed musician in Katoomba, and look forward to his next book, which is due out very soon. But, perhaps because I’ve been reading a diary I kept nearly 50 years ago when I was living in a shared house, the piece that most engaged me was ‘Allen’, in which an inner-city 20-something couple have an imaginary flatmate that they can blame when things go wrong in their flat. By good fortune, ‘Allen’ is the one piece from this Heat that has been made available online. If you’re interested, here it is.
Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland244 (Spring 2021) (Much of the content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)
There’s so much excellent stuff in this edition of Overland that it’s hard to know where to start. The high point for me is probably the short story ‘Shane’s castration‘ by Michael James, a tale of early teenage humiliation at the skateboard rink that negotiates the intersection of sexism and the oppression of young people with profound compassion for all its characters, and maintains the tension right to the final sentence. The other three short stories are strong, but inevitably pale in comparison. Someone in the sauna asked me what I was reading just as I started Kathryn van Beek’s ‘Honey Babe‘. I read out the first sentence, in which bras are mentioned, and no one asked me to read further. It turns out to be a weird story in which a woman gives birth to a large peach: I’ll never know how it would have gone down with that audience.
The poetry section is, as always, strong. The poems that touched me most were both by Belinda Rule. ‘Pointless, in space‘ is a lament for the Croajingalong National Park devastated by 2019–20 bushfires, and an atheist’s prayer for the timber men (particularly poignant for me as I’ve just read John Blay’s Wild Nature, blog post yet to come, in which the author walks through that forest just before the fires); ‘In the only flats in a posh suburb‘ is a complaint about noisy neighbours, kind of.
It’s the cumulative richness of the articles that take up just over the first half that leaves me in awe. In particular:
‘I would prefer not to‘ by Ellena Savage discusses the toll ‘turbo-neoliberalism’ takes on the lives of millennials, compares her situation to that of her boomer (?) father, and takes both him and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener – whose catchphrase gives the article its title – as heroes
‘Taking what’s owed‘ by Rafi Alam describes the way Community Legal Centres, founded as independent community-based initiatives, have largely been transformed under the influence of neoliberal policies into charities competing for government subsidy
Life-making through and beyond the pandemic by Miriam Jones focuses on ‘life-making’ workers, in particular early-childhood educators, speaking as an early-childhood educator herself and doing a brilliant job of contrasting the perspectives of policy-makers who see childcare as primarily a way of keeping women in the workforce, and the the workers themselves who ‘know that children are not only the nations’s future, but powerful, insightful and creative human beings in the here and now’.
Before the meeting: This book received a lot of attention in the press when it was published, in a way that me feel I didn’t need to read it. We now all know that trees emit scents that affect the way other nearby trees react to, for example, insect attacks or fungal infections. We know that a complex network of underground funguses helps forest trees to grow and pass nutrients from one to the other. We know that trees that spring up close to the tree their seeds fell from continue to interact with the ‘parent’ tree. In general, we know that careful observation and experimentation is revealing that the received wisdom about trees, like the received wisdom about many other things, needs a major overhaul.
Peter Wohlleben has spent decades managing a forest in the Eifel, a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium. He gives guided tours of the forest, is a committed conservationist and, as the book makes abundantly clear, loves trees with a passion. His passion is catching, and the scientific findings he describes are fascinating. He doesn’t intimidate his readers with scientific jargon or hector us with conservationist polemic. Instead, he is personal, lively, charming, and whimsical.
I found the book unsettling in two ways. First, the whimsy: there are mother trees and orphan trees; trees send and receive messages; trees are impatient or well-disciplined or altruistic. That makes for lively reading, and works well as metaphor. There’s no harm in saying, for example, that a tree tries to grow out of its neighbours’ shade because it wants more light. But surely that’s a figure of speech, it’s not that the tree wants something the way a human infant or even a puppy does. Peter Wohlleben does seem at times to be attributing actual thoughts, desires and emotions to the trees. He says occasionally that we can’t know what trees are feeling – but he comes close to implying that that’s just because we don’t have a common language. That is to say, maybe what I read as whimsy is actually a perfectly serious, I would say mystical, anthropomorphism. I react against that: surely we can respect trees, and forests, without attributing consciousness to them.
My second difficulty is the book’s exclusive attention to the northern hemisphere. As I read about beeches, oaks, birches and poplars, I yearned for information about angophoras, figs and eucalypts, about sclerophyll forests in general.
The Black Inc edition I borrowed from the library seems to be aware of my two misgivings. It signals that the book is relevant to Australian conditions by adding a foreword by Tim Flannery (though he doesn’t add any antipodean information), and that it’s based in solid science by including ‘Notes from a Forest Scientist’ by Dr Suzanne Simard, whose research provides the basis for much of the book.
I did enjoy the book. My discontents, far from leading me to toss it aside, prompted me to read more. I’ve recently read Richard Powers’ wonderful novel, The Overstory, which covers some of the same territory. I expect to blog soon about naturalist John Blay’s Wild Nature, an account of his big walk through the forests of south-east Australia that immerses the reader in the experience of those forests, with excursions into the history of the battle to conserve them and occasionally into some of the science. And I’ve got Suzanne Simard’s seminal work, Finding the Mother Tree, on order from Gleebooks. (It arrived as I was about to hit ‘Publish’.)
After the meeting: A group member has Covid, and there’s currently a surge in hospitalisations and deaths in Australia, so we decided too revert to zoom. It was a small, short meeting.
I’d felt a bit strange about writing almost entirely about my discontents with the book before the meeting, but as it happened, that’s how the meeting went as well. About half the group hadn’t finished the book, in spite of it being quite short. The same two problems were prominent: the anthropomorphising got on people’s wicks (one person was delighted to learn that word – he knew what it meant as soon as he heard it); and the complete absence of Australian/sclerophyll/tropical forests was, at least to one person, very annoying. Other discontents were the lameness of the humour (humour which I hadn’t noticed), and the lack of structure – it just seemed to be one thing after another, with a lot of repetition among the things.
Yet there was something like consensus that the book’s content was interesting and important. A number of people mentioned other books: Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) as a partial remedy for the absence of Australian content; Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (2020) as an example of even more exasperating anthropomorphism. Not everyone shared my love of The Overstory. There were some anecdotes about the death and regrowth of trees from our own experience, and one folktale.
Then we talked about Covid. Of the seven of us, four had had it at least once. The chap with the current positive result wasn’t there, so that makes five out of eight.
As I think about this book of poetry, the word ‘immersive’ comes to mind.
‘Hardanger’ in the subtitle is not an uncompromisingly hostile state of mind but a place, the Hardanger Fjord in Norway, where Kit Kelen evidently spent some time and, it seems, let the place generate poems in him.
These lines appear on the book’s title page:
the forest is the poor man's coat
keeps off the worst wind's bite
step in – let other worlds elapse
follow the trail of light
They offer an explanation and an invitation. The first line explains the title in what sounds like a folk saying, which in another context could be a lament for the poor man’s exposure to the elements, but here asserts that forest provides protection. We are invited to step into the book, as into a forest, for an alternative to whatever other worlds we inhabit. The book is offered to us as respite. That’s where my sense of immersion comes in: poem after poem offer glimpses of restorative calm, mostly in the Norwegian landscape. It’s the closest thing I’ve found in a book to walking in the bush.
Not that it’s all cosy, and far from humourless. As in ‘sweet’ (page 100):
and you'll draw mosquitoes
from the thinnest air
There are poems about death as well as poems describing the view of the fjord from a mountain top; poems of autumn and winter as well as summer; a lot of rain. The poet spends time in the small town of Ålvik, visits museums in larger centres, and riffs on the gravestones in a local cemetery. There’s often a sense of language not being quite up to capturing the experience of being in nature: sentences trail off, though we usually more or less know how they would have ended; or they miss their opening words. It often feels easy, throwaway, as if the poem just happened, the thought or feeling or spectacle effortlessly caught on the wing. But, of course, that’s the apparent ease of a virtuoso.
Though these are overwhelmingly poems that respond to a place, I found myself brooding on the small section of ekphrastic poems – that is, poems responding to paintings. They raise the interesting question: can you really appreciate such a poem if you haven’t seen the painting it refers to? Like the poems of place, there are three elements present when you read the poem: the words on the page, you the reader, the place or work or even referred to – and the ghost of the poet who put the words together. With poems of place, at least the ones in this book, you don’t need to have been there to appreciate the poem. (Just like you don’t need to have been in love to enjoy Robert Burns’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’.). Take the poem ‘the fjord like laid paper’, whose title doubles as its first line, which begins:
the fjord like laid paper
a ship rules a line
the only thing straight
in all the world turning
If you’ve stood and looked out at the fjord on such a calm day, you will read that differently from someone – like me – who has never been to Norway. For me, it primarily conjures up an image; for you, perhaps, the main thing is the simile/metaphor. Either way, the effect of the poem is to bring a vivid image of the fjord to mind, and I don’t feel any need to fly to Norway in order to understand the poem. (I do feel an impulse to go and see the places for myself, but that’s a different matter.)
When the subject s a painting, though, it’s a bit different. Take ‘Cowshed Courting’ (page 148), which refers to a 1904 painting by Nikolai Astrup that hangs in the Bergen Museum:
If you read this without seeing the painting, you’re left pretty much groping in the dark. I’m grateful that Kelen has named the painting in his title rather than calling the poem something like ‘After Astrup’, and I’m grateful for the internet, because it was no trouble at all to find an image of the painting online.
The opening lines have typical Kit-Kelen syntax:
fin de siècle light they caught then
we still breathe – it's unnatural
A conventional phrasing might be, ‘They caught a fin de siècle light then, which we still breathe, even though it’s unnatural.’ But the syntax serves a purpose: it reflects the process of seeing the painting. You begin with a general impression to do with the quality of the light, which makes you realise that this painting belongs to a particular era (fin de siècle, the end of the 19th century); next you have a sense of the painters of that time – no more specific than ‘they’, because after all this isn’t an art history essay; but having seen it as belonging to its own time, you realise that this painterly light still feels to us as familiar as the air we breathe – familiar but all the same artificial / ‘unnatural’.
The artifice has a purpose, as the viewer’s eye finds the figures on the left, and the brightest spot of colour in the image:
the colour's captured
a passion in the cowshed
rose cheeks and have you in my arms
deep pockets of brandy for inspiration
From the woman’s cheeks, the eyes travel over the figures. The poet projects himself into the image, identifying with the male figure and reading the bottles in his pocket as ‘inspiration’. (A different viewer might see those bottles in a less benign light, but that’s not this poem, or at least not foregrounded here.)
Then we’re taken on a tour:
never mind the pong
someone's peeping from the loft
A vague look to the right of the courting couple – yes, we notice that there are steaming heaps of cow poo all over the floor of the shed. Then we travel clockwise up to the top of the frame, and oh, there’s a creepy voyeur – a peeping tom – unnoticed until now. If the poem was a sonnet, this would be the volta, the turn. A poet less sure of his effects might have inserted a line space here, to mark the discord. But we move on without comment:
no glass but spring shines through the window
past which dung's piled – verdure and ordure
Only now do we come to the geometric focus of the painting, the window through which we can see a dung heap and beyond it some vague greenery. This is the source of that light we first noticed, and there’s an ambivalence to it: dung and greenery, ponginess and light. The assonance (if that’s the word) of ‘verdure and ordure’ reminds us that these things are intimately connected.
Our eyes travel down to rest on the middle of the image – the row of cows’ rear ends, and the unswept floor.
hear it ringing from the rear of each
and the floor steams unswept
Astrup doesn’t show the cows decorating the floor (surely ‘ringing’ is the politest term ever used for the sound of cows shitting), but Kelen gives us an aural equivalent what he shows, just as the earlier ‘pong’ has given us an olfactory one.
In the last line, our eyes travel back to the figures:
days are barefoot now
There’s a sense of completion as the poem finishes its circuit of the painting, from the woman’s cheek to her feet. With characteristic apparent ease, it has introduced a number of pairings: the pong and the ringing; the passion and the peeping; the verdure and ordure; the man fortified with brandy and the woman barefoot and vulnerable; then and now. That last pairing has a lovely complexity to it: in the opening lines, ‘then’ is the time of Astrup and ‘still’ is our time; ‘now’ in the emphatic position as the poem’s last word may refer to the changing seasons implied by the mention of spring in line 9, or it may again be contrasting the time of the painting with modern times when courting doesn’t have to happen in secret in cowsheds, but the whole day – the world outside the window – can be barefoot, open to intimacy.
The poem has made me look closely at the painting, and I may well read it differently from Kelen. In fact, by naming the peeper and then moving on quickly, the poem almost invites an argument. But in Kelen’s reading, or at least in my reading of Kelen’s reading, the painting, and so the poem, celebrate the way love can thrive in unlikely circumstances, and not be tarnished by prurient attention to it. The peeping tom is noticed and then ignored. The dung helps the greenery to grow. The poem gives shelter from ‘winter’s worst bite’. I don’t know that I could have understood any of that from the poem without reading it with the image open beside it.
Having written all that, I really should show you the image as well:
Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t explain the title of this Quarterly Essay. It may be a straightforward inversion of the name of a Melbourne band, but I read it as referring to Stevie Smith’s most famous poem, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’, which begins:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
The essay centres around the harrowing stories of three young people whose behaviour no one could have mistaken for cheerful waving, but who received attention from public institutions that left them immeasurably worse off. It’s pretty much a catalogue of horrors, with some glimmering hope to be found in the Victorian government’s commitment to act on the recommendations of the recent Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.
Krasnostein avoids defining what she means by mental illness. It’s a bit like what a US supreme court justice said about pornography: ‘I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.’ As well as diagnoses like schizophrenia or – predominantly – various personality disorders, her use of the term comes close to encompassing homelessness, addiction, racism, marginalisation, responses to climate change, and suicide, or even simply vulnerability to the prison and mental health systems. This imprecision may be a feature rather than a bug. The essay is concerned to discuss mental illness from wider perspectives than the purely clinical, and boundaries between it and other forms of oppression are in their nature fluid.
She speaks of the profoundly destructive and destabilising effect of colonisation on the minds of settlers as well as First Nations people. She relies on Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma. She draws on Jung and Freud, and on recent thinking about systems change. She goes into some detail about the interface of criminal law and mental illness diagnoses. And in the middle of it there is the terrible vision of young people’s lives being ruined.
It’s a powerful and timely essay, but I found much of Krasnostein’s argument hard to follow. For example, I didn’t understand the logic by which a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder meant that a person who burned down a lot of buildings wasn’t an arsonist (though I get that punitiveness isn’t a reasonable response). Elsewhere, in an apparent non sequitur, a section begins, ‘I am thinking what it means to remember,’ and goes on to talk about stigmatisation of marginalised groups. Or there’s a beautifully written paragraph about a Trumpian demonstrations in Melbourne that seems to be there because the demo happened while the essay was being written.
More than any other Quarterly Essay, I’m glad of Black Inc’s practice of including correspondence in the following issue. This correspondence helped me understand what the essay was saying.
There are responses from journalists, historians, a psychiatrist, a criminal defence lawyer, and people who have worked in prisons and mental health institutions. Several of them mention their own experience as clients of the mental health system, as Krasnostein does in the essay. Taken as a whole, along with Krasnostein’s generous response, they illuminate the essay beautifully and extend its reach. To finish, here’s a quote from Joo-Inn Chew whose bio tells us she ‘works in general practice and refugee health in Canberra’, that gets to the heart of the essay (I like the way Joo-In Chew writes of wounds, addictions and diagnoses rather than conditions or illnesses):
Behind each wound, each addiction, each diagnosis is a person and a story, and beyond that a web of cultural and economic power which shapes everything, from the start people get in life, to how they express distress and whether they seek help, to how they are treated by front-line services and social institutions. Not everyone knows what it is like to feel safe and free in Australia. Every one of us can take stock of where we are in the web, how we use the power we have and how we recognise the common humanity of people around us. We can normalise our own vulnerabilities and use our power well. I thank Sarah Krasnostein for an essay which invites us to do just that.
According to their standard biographies, Charmian Clift, her husband George Johnston and their children Martin and Shane left London in 1954 to live on the Greek Island of Hydra and write full time.
But between London and Hydra, there was Kalymnos, where they lived for most of a year writing a novel together. The publication of the novel, The Sea and the Stone aka The Sponge Divers, meant they could move to the more hospitable island of Hydra.
Mermaid Singing is Charmian Clift’s account of their time on Kalymnos. Though I’ve read several of George Johnston’s novels and have my eyes on Nadia Wheatley’s selection of Clift’s newspaper columns, Sneaky Little Revolutions (NewSouth 2022), this is the first of her books I have read.
It starts out as a charming, chatty account of a modern Australian family, fresh from expat life in London, arriving on Kalymnos seeking respite from hectic big-city life. They are met with enormous hospitality. The young, blond children are taken to the hearts of the community. Cultural differences are perplexing, and often hilarious to both sides.
Mermaid Singing was published the same year as a book I loved as a child, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a memoir of Durrell’s time with his family on Corfu in the 1930s. The opening chapters of Mermaid Singing remind me strongly, not so much of that book – which is written from a child’s point of view – as of the TV series The Durrells. Like The Durrells, these opening chapters make rich comedy out of the visitors’ shock at the condition of the house they have rented, and the locals’ only half comprehending attempts to make them welcome and comfortable. The Durrellesque comedy continues with escapades like one involving a ruined toilet, and there’s even a pet rabbit: the locals struggle to grasp that the children’s pet isn’t intended to eventually become food, and their attempts to console the children when it dies made me laugh out loud.
The book moves well beyond comedy. The treatment of the rabbit’s funeral, insisted on by the distraught Martin and Shane, is a good example. It goes from high comedy to this:
By the time we reached the top of the stairs the procession was fifty strong, and all across the mountain slope dark figures were flitting among the scattered houses, converging on us. The children clustered close about Martin and Shane suddenly began to chant softly. Behind us a woman took up the chant and tossed it, shrill and unexpected, down the massed moving line.
The ludicrous reason for the procession was lost and forgotten. We were caught in something else, an old rite the meaning of which had melted in a time lost long ago but the form of which was part of that dim race memory we inherit at our births. That wild cry of lamentation was not for a stiffening rabbit. It was for Tammuz dead, or the springing red flowers where Adonis’ blood was scattered, or a woodland king torn on the sacrificial oak. Straining and stumbling on the loose boulders we toiled up the dusk-wreathed mountain. The chanting rose deep and sad from a hundred throats, and a boy with a torch (or a lantern or a candle or a blazing cypress brand) moved to the head of the line and led us on. High over the noble rock that soars above the town one star hung in the great blue night. I thought perhaps we were climbing to reach it.
The book moves well past the comedy or the romance of cultural difference. The Johnstons get to know people, and to understand something of the realities of life in that traditional Greek community whose survival depends on the dangerous work of collecting sponges from the sea floor, work that is disappearing as synthetic materials replace sponges in many of their uses. They develop real relationships of mutual respect and affection. The chapters on gender politics – one on the women’s lot, and one on the men’s – are brilliant. For the women, there’s the everyday indignity of being referred to as gorgonas and the appalling toll taken by seemingly endless childbearing. For the men, there are months away at sea each year where ‘their daily lot is danger, hardship, privation’.
It’s basically a travel book, with rich and/or amusing descriptions of landscape and local customs. But it’s more than that. Through it all, George and Charmian are working on their novel, and keep a parental eye on their children. Even for its first readers, part of the appeal must have been in the element of memoir. Nearly 70 years after publication, when we know that George went on to substantial fame with My Brother Jack (1964), that the Johnstons’ time on Hydra has an almost mythic status (as in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard), that Charmian became an enormously popular newspaper columnist, that the charming little boy went on to write brilliant and challenging poetry, and that all their lives were to be touched by tragedy, the book is filled with astonishing light.
A personal note: Martin Johnston and I were born in the same year. I knew him when we were in our 20s, and was in awe of him as a poet. It’s tempting the read the book’s final image as somehow prophetic. The family have been swimming with two of their local friends and helpers. A blue boat with a tan sail arrives and is being hauled to shore by some children. They call to Martin to join them:
He turns his head slowly towards the boat and the other children. Slowly he goes towards them, almost reluctantly, the kelp trailing forgotten from his hand, looking back over his shoulder as he goes, as though he is watching for something … or listening … […] If I stay for a moment, only a moment, perhaps I might hear it too – that one rare mermaid, singing.
Added later (14 July 2022): Fran Munro has pointed out in a comment that Charmian Clift’s biographer Nadia Wheatley recently appeared on Caroline Baum’s Life Sentences podcast, where she talks interestingly about Mermaid Singing and Kalymnos. The relevant part of the conversation, if you’re interested and have limited time, runs from 20’45” to 27’28”.
Frank Moorhouse died last week, after making a huge contribution to Australian literature and to the lives of Australian writers. Many thoughtful and informative pieces have been published. In case you’ve missed them altogether, I’ll just mention Julianne Lamond’s piece in The Conversation and the most recent Monday Musing in the Whispering Gums blog.
What I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the recent articles – or anywhere else, for that matter – is that in the late 1960s, before the publication of his first collection of stories, Futility and Other Animals, he wrote a series of sketches for the student paper Honi Soit under the general title ‘Around the Laundromats’. From memory they featured a big lazy cat, and each piece featured a conversation in a laundromat. Frank lived in what he came to call ‘the Ghetto of Balmain’, but I’m pretty sure some of these encounters happened in the laundromat opposite my flat in Glebe. One of them featured the young woman who was my girlfriend at the time, whom he called ‘the English Student’ or something of the sort.
I wonder if anyone has dug those sketches out, and if they would be worth reprinting, perhaps as a small book.
For seven months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.
Reliably, I come across references to it during the rest of my days, the kind of passing remarks that would otherwise go unnoticed. This month, for instance, in Charmian Clift’s Mermaid Singing (blog post to come), Charmian and her husband George have just discovered the pleasures of seafood on the island of Kalymnos, especially palamethes, ‘a sort of mackerel plentiful off the Anatolian coast, sliced and grilled like steak and served hot with oil and lemon juice or cold with a thick garlic sauce’. George says something ironic about British seafood, then:
Pass the palamethes, there’s a good girl, and I’ll write you an Iliad!
Last month’s reading ended with Hector killing Achilles’ comrade Patroclus. I was completely unprepared for what a big deal that is. First there’s the struggle over Patroclus’ body. For hundreds of lines the Trojans try to drag it from the field to strip it of the Achilles’ resplendent armour, and also to dishonour the corpse as a kind of trophy. The Greeks, led by Menelaus, fight them off, determined to protect the body of this much-loved comrade. It seems that everyone loved Patroclus. When word is finally sent to Achilles of his death, Achilles’ grief is epic, and he is joined, first by the women who have been given to the two of them as booty, and then by a stream of sea nymphs. We’re left in no doubt that this is no ordinary death.
Thetis, Achilles’ immortal mother, persuades him not to re-enter the battle immediately. She goes to the blacksmith god Hephaestus and asks him to make new armour for her son. Homer takes 150 lines to describe the impossibly complex imagery he embosses on the shield.
And now, in Book 19, Achilles has just addressed the Greeks. He and Agamemnon have come as close as they can to mutual apologies – which isn’t actually very close. Agamemnon in particular blames it all on the goddess Ruin who. after all, has deceived even Zeus. Meanwhile, the Trojans have rejected the wise advice of Polydamas to retreat to within the city walls, and been persuaded by Hector’s heroic posturing to stay near the Greek ships where – we know – they will be vulnerable when Achilles returns to the battle. The end is in sight.
This month’s reading has shown me what all the fuss is about. This piece of millennia-old writing still has tremendous emotional power. I could quote any number of passages, but here’s the moment when Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death (Book 18, lines 25–40):
A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles.
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face
and black ashes settled onto his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there, fallen ...
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands.
And the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives
caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed,
out of the tents they ran to ring the great Achilles,
all of them beat their breasts with clenched fists,
sank to the ground, each woman's knees gave way.
Antilochus kneeling near, weeping uncontrollably,
clutched Achilles' hands as he wept his proud heart out –
for fear he would slash his throat with an iron blade.
And. really just to illustrate the virtues of the Fagles translation, here’s Alexander Pope’s version of those lines:
A sudden horror shot through all the chief,
And wrapp’d his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hands he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears;
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.
The virgin captives, with disorder’d charms,
(Won by his own, or by Patroclus’ arms)
Rush’d from their tents with cries; and gathering round,
Beat their white breasts, and fainted on the ground:
While Nestor’s son sustains a manlier part,
And mourns the warrior with a warrior’s heart;
Hangs on his arms, amidst his frantic woe,
And oft prevents the meditated blow.
You have to admire the way Pope fixes improprieties related to sex and gender: the captive women are virgins, and Antilochus, Nestor’s son, is far too manly to weep. I had a quick look at other translations. George Chapman (1616) has Antilochus weeping with the women. Richmond Lattimore (1946) has: ‘Antilochos mourned with him, letting the tears fall’. A S Kline (2009) has him ‘weeping and groaning’. For now at least, I’m content to wonder what Caroline Alexander, the Iliad’s first female translator, does with this moment – Amazon are advertising the hardcover for $150+ dollars.