Monthly Archives: February 2023

Journal Catch-up 17

Sadly or otherwise, reading in the sauna turns out to be a prompt for excellent conversations, and I’m tending to walk rather than take public transport. So my standard time slots for reading journals have shrunk, and I’m as far behind as ever.

Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 5 (Giramondo 2022)

Each issue of the current series of Heat gives us a slender collection of excellent writing from Australia and elsewhere, including work in translation and work from Australian writers of non-Anglo background.

The stand-out feature in this issue is Kate Middleton’s three ‘Television Poems’. As someone who watches an awful lot of TV, I enjoyed these a lot. They deal with Dickinson (‘the one they always / had to label spinster, recluse, or else just too intense‘); the revelations about sexual abuse on the sets of TV shows, especially Hey Dad! (‘in suburban Sydney / the sitcom architect turned sinister’); and The Crown, with passing references to The Cosby Show, SVU, Scooby Doo, among others. Plus there are endnotes that are both helpful and funny (‘It’s hard being Kate Middleton and being uninterested in the royals’).

Of the rest, I most enjoyed Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘Things That Disappear’, translated from German by Kurt Beals of the USA; and Oliver Driscoll’s ‘Two Simple Stories About Friendship’.

I had a vague unease reading this journal, which came into focus with the final piece, ‘Still Life With Cheese’ by playwright, poet and essayist Noëlle Janascweska. (You can read it for yourself on the Giramondo website at this link.) It’s a nicely written essay that interweaves the author’s personal dealings with various cheeses; a smattering of facts about the history of cheese manufacture; quotes from Zola, Auden, and Wallis & Gromit; and reflections on 16th century Flemish still lifes. There’s a reproduction of Still Life with Cheese, Artichoke and Cherries by Clara Peeters, 1625, which is stunning even in black and white. But I found myself wondering why I was reading it. I’m not particularly interested in cheese, and the essay didn’t make me interested. It feels like something written because the writer is a writer looking for a subject, rather than arising from any inner necessity.

At that point, something crystallised in my mind. It feels as if the new series hasn’t yet found its feet, hasn’t yet established a coherent purpose for existing. I already have two more issues on my TBR shelf. I’m hopeful.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 247 (Winter 2022)
(Much of the content is online at, and I’ve included links)

By contrast, Overland is suffused with a sense of purpose.

The lead article, ‘That’s not us!’ Wake in Fright and the Australian nightmare by Gregory Marks, is an excellent account of Ted Kotcheff’s film and Ken Cook’s novel it was taken from. It’s odd, though, to argue that the film, directed by a Canadian and starring an Englishman, exemplifies Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’. One moment that stands out in my memory from when I saw the film in 1971 is the alarming first appearance, complete with huge cigarette-lighter flame, of Chips Rafferty’s character (who isn’t mentioned in the article), which is the opposite of any kind of cringe.

Serving up colonialism instead of care‘ by Caitlin Prince tackles the pressing issue of how her fellow settler Australians can face and change attitudes that keep colonialist oppression in place. It’s a long article. Here’s a taste of the main argument:

Telling white Australians to ‘get over it’ would be consistent with our colonial stiff-upper-lip inheritance and Australia’s general trend of having the emotional intelligence of a brick, but it would also grossly misunderstand the problem. … People need space to unpack problematic racial views, otherwise they remain repressed, packed in tight, impossible to understand and shift. …

It is radical. and uncomfortable, to imagine meeting racist views with care – uncomfortable for everyone, but impossibly unfair to ask of Aboriginal people, whose lives (and deaths) are impacted by racism. Doing so, however, is sensible if we consider how human beings learn to regulate emotion.

Among the other articles, I particularly responded to ‘An almanac of immeasurable things‘ by Lachlan Summers, which sheds light on the naming conventions of cyclones and other phenomena, and the way the names can mislead. An example:

After the Black Summer [of 2019–2020], calls have been made for a category beyond catastrophic. Far outside the nomenclature of disaster, and generating new conditions of terror, this was a catastrophe that threatened not to end. In fact, ‘Black Summer’ refers to eleven months of waiting for fires to stop reproducing themselves.

The substantial array of poetry includes ‘log‘, a welcome new poem from joanne burns, which begins with this striking image:

dream’s letterhead lies exhausted
in the recycling bin

Among the healthy selection of short fiction, there were some effectively weird, surreal/uncanny pieces. My favourite, however, was a realistic story about a young person living in a share house in a southern city feeling for their home in Far North Queensland as it’s lashed by a cyclone. It’s ‘Sweet Anticipation’ by Jasmin McGaughey, winner of the 2021 Nakata Brophy Prize for young Indigenous writers. Interestingly, only an incidental word or two indicate that the protagonist is First Nations. At least, it’s interesting to me as a Far North Queenslander who was living in Sydney when Cyclone Larry took the roof off my childhood home.

The next issue of Heat kicks off with an essay by Fiona wright. And a quick look at Overland 248 reveals the presence of an old friend from English Hons at Sydney Uni in the 1970s. Much to look forward to.

Bryan Hartas, Hard As

Bryan Hartas, Hard As: My Life as an Orphan Boy (AndAlso Press 2021)

Full disclosure: This book was edited by my niece, Edwina Shaw. ‘Edited’ is an understatement for the process that she and the author undertook together. She describes it in an Editor’s Note:

I first met Bryan several years ago as a participant in the creative writing classes I run at Lotus Place, a resource and support centre for Forgotten Australians. Bryan often spoke about wanting to record his whole life story, despite having difficulty with literacy like many Forgotten Australians.
Over a period of years, Bryan and I have sat together and I have written down his words as he spoke them, later shaping these notes into a chronological narrative …
Over the past couple of years, I have read the story aloud to Bryan and he has added and changed details.

The book tells the story of just one of more than half a million children who were failed by Australian society and its institutions in the 20th century, under the appallingly ironic heading of ‘care’. They are the ‘Forgotten Australians’ – the term used by the 2003–04 Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care:

Children were for many reasons hidden in institutions and forgotten by society when they were placed in care and again when they were released into the ‘outside’ world. … These people who spent part or all of their childhood in an institution, children’s home or out-of-home care background have been the forgotten Australians.

(‘Introduction: Conduct of Senate Inquiry – Submissions:1.16‘, Forgotten Australians Report, 2004, from Wikipedia)

In the first dozen pages of Bryan Hartas’s story, he is relatively safe in his mother’s care. He very rarely sees his father, but hears him attack his mother when he comes home drunk at night. There are two photos, one of Bryan as a chubby baby and the other, a classic of its kind, showing him aged seven with his three siblings grinning awkwardly at the camera. A man whose head has been torn from the photograph, possibly the children’s father, stands behind them. Bryan’s mother was taken away in an ambulance soon after that photo was taken, and he never saw her again. Then the true horror began.

Completely neglected by their father, the children were taken into care, where they were separated. Years of mistreatment followed, including terrible hunger and vulnerability to sexual assault by older boys. In Bryan’s account, he was singled out for special mistreatment because he was ‘ugly’. The treatment meted out by the nuns and others was terrible. As he grew older, he was sent to work with the men around the place, but still given the paltry food allotted to the children. At times he had no bed, but had to find a spot in a shed where he slept under a pile of hessian bags. He was sent out to work on farms. In one of them he was treated well, given decent meals, and received some affection, which he soaked up. But mostly he was treated worse than the farm animals. It may be that he fell through the cracks in the system, but the system itself was hideous. He was sent to a correctional institution after some failed attempts at escape, and while still a teenager he landed in Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane. Possibly the most horrific moment in his narrative is when he talks bout the relief he felt in gaol: he was safe and well-fed, with a bed of his own. On his release he committed a crime so as to find a way back to safety.

He manages to have relationships with a number of women. The narrative glides over the details, but none of the relationships endure. He does have a number of children. He gives up alcohol, does volunteer work, and at the time of telling the story he has a good connection with his children. It’s a story of survival.

The subject matter is gruelling, but it’s a gripping read.

To give you a taste, here’s a story of what happened on the Willises’ dairy farm near Fangool, out past Biloela, when Hartas was fourteen years old. (I can’t find a town called Fangool – maybe it’s a name made up to protect the guilty, and maybe it’s only accidental that it sounds like an Englishing of a common Italian swear word, which could be Bryan’s joke, or possibly Edwina’s.) Another boy from the home, James, was also working on the farm, and for some reason he was treated much better than Bryan. The farm was rundown, and a lot of the equipment – the truck, the milking machines, the windmill, the riding gear – was in disrepair. Inevitably, there was an accident. When Bryan was bringing cows in to milk one afternoon, the girth on his horse’s saddle broke. He fell on some jagged rocks and was knocked unconscious:

When I came to, I had blood on my head and terrible pain on the right side of my back and in my shoulder. I came to in a panic, knowing I’d been badly hurt, that I needed help. So I started back to the house as fast as I could. Staggered and ran and staggered and ran all the long way to the farm. I didn’t know where the horse was.
When I got back, James told me to go over to the house. Mrs Willis gave me a pain killer and told me to sit on the back veranda for a few minutes then go back to work. It was my left shoulder, my dominant hand, and my arm was hanging useless beside me, yet she forced me back to work. After a while, I got up and went to the dairy, but I couldn’t do anything properly because I was in so much pain. I could barely lift my arm. I should have gone to hospital. It was a serious injury.
I got no sleep that night or for many nights for months after that because of the pain. I didn’t even get another pain killer from the Willises. For months I couldn’t use that arm at all and had to fumble around with my right hand trying to put cups on teats and do the other jobs. Many decades later, I still can’t throw a ball with that arm. Only recently, the break and damage was revealed. X-rays showed my shoulder blade had been cracked and the ball joint of my shoulder was chipped. I told the Willises I was in agony, but they still didn’t take me to a doctor.

(Page 75)

This is characteristic of Hartas’s vivid manner of telling. It reflects the confidence he felt in his editor/scribe – confidence that she would record his story with integrity, but also that she is listening with respect and empathy. There’s an insistence on how terrible things were (and elsewhere on how much his mother’s love meant to him) that reflect his wanting her – and us – to understand. I know I’m probably prejudiced because the editor/scribe is my lovely niece, but it seems to me that what shines through in this book is her ability to listen well, and her ability to render the chaos of the spoken word (which anyone who’s ever transcribed their own or anyone else’s speech knows is close to universal) into smooth prose that still sounds like a speaking voice.

I’m glad I read this so soon after reading Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the Past. The books are similar in many ways. Together they bear powerful witness to the lived experience of suffering and resilience that lies behind labels like Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and Forgotten Australians.

Annie Ernaux’s girl’s story

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L Straya (Seven Stories Press 2020, from Mémoire de fille, Gallimard 2016)

There’s an AI app that‘a in the news just now. I asked it to write a review of Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story/Mémoire de fille. Here are some excerpts from what the app came up with:

“A Girl’s Story” by Annie Ernaux is a highly acclaimed and celebrated memoir that tells the story of the author’s childhood and youth. …

The book is written in a simple, straightforward style that is both raw and emotionally charged. …

She vividly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood, and her descriptions are so vivid that the reader feels as though they are right there alongside her. At the same time, the author’s reflections on her life and experiences are both deeply personal and universally relatable, making the book accessible to a wide range of readers.

Lazy students be warned: almost every word in those paragraphs is misleading. The AI clearly hasn’t read the book.

The book does NOT tell the story of the author’s childhood and youth.

It scrutinises barely two years of the author’s life, when as an 18-year old in 1958 she left her parents’ custodianship for the first time, had her first sexual experiences, developed an eating disorder, read a lot (including Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), attended a prestigious college, decided against entering the teaching profession, worked as an au pair in London, and began her career as a writer.

The book is NOT written in a simple, straightforward style.

Take the opening sentences:

There are beings who are overwhelmed by the reality of others, their way of speaking, of crossing their legs, of lighting a cigarette. They become mired in the presence of others. One day, or rather one night, they are swept away inside the desire and the will of a single Other.

The science-fictional feel of ‘There are beings’ probably isn’t there in the original French, where it’s not unusual for elevated prose to refer to people as êtres (literally ‘beings’). But even without that bit of translationese, you’d hardly call these sentences simple or straightforward. In fact, they almost stand as a warning: if you want a simple, straightforward story, go somewhere else. The hint (‘or rather one night’) that the story is going to involve sex is neither simple nor straightforward, but at least it promises spiciness.

The style is NOT raw and emotionally charged.

The style is intensely intellectual, as is only right for a text that is concerned with the process of remembering. Memories are often there as single images, without a clear sense of how they connect with each other. Where memory fails, the narrator quotes from ancient letters and diary entries, or simply speculates about what ‘the girl of S’ (as she is called from the start) must have been feeling. From the older person’s perspective, the sexual experiences are terrible, but as far as the narrator can tell (remember?) ‘the girl’ didn’t see them that way. See the opening lines quoted above: it’s a story of a young woman who loses and regains her sense of herself. One strand of the book is a troubling inquiry into the nature of consent.

The reader does NOT feel as though they are right there alongside her.

Annie Ernaux considers that she is no longer the person who had those experiences as an eighteen-year-old. It took me several pages to be sure that ‘the girl of S’ is not someone other than the author. If we are ‘right there alongside’ anyone it’s the 70-something writer who sets out to ‘explore the gulf between the stupefying reality of things that happen, at the moment they happen, and, years later, the strange unreality in which the things that happened are enveloped’. At least that’s how she describes her initial intention. The book is more complex, recursive and elusive than that.

She vividly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood

No. Just no!

The author’s reflections on her life and experiences MAY BE deeply personal and universally relatable, but not in the way the AI implies.

This calls for discussion of an actual piece of writing. I’ll pick the moment (on pages 74–75) when the girl, still in the last year of high school and working as a counsellor at a children’s camp, has had two sexual encounters with H (the ‘single Other’ of the book’s first paragraph, which I quoted earlier). After the second time, of which the narrator says she remembers very little but which certainly wasn’t pleasurable for the girl, H promises to come to her room and say goodbye the next morning, the last day of camp. The girl knows that he is engaged to someone else, but nevertheless spends a sleepless night imagining that ‘H is her lover, truly and for all eternity’. When he doesn’t come at dawn, she goes to knock on his door. Though he can see his back through the keyhole, he ignores her. This is definitely a ‘deeply personal’ moment, but the narrator isn’t interested in capturing its emotional intensity. She writes:

Even if it had crossed her mind (and I think it probably did) that by promising to come and say goodbye, he was simply trying to shake her off, no objective sign of reality – the fiancée, the unkept promise, the lack of a meeting arranged for later in Rouen – can possibly compete with the novel that wrote itself in a single night, in the spirit of Lamartine’s The Lake, or Musset’s Nights, or the happy ending of the film The Proud and the Beautiful, with Gérard Philipe and Michèle Morgan running toward each other, or the songs (that Esperanto of love) I can list without a second thought.

She goes on to list five songs, all of which are as unknown to me as the novels and movie. I googled one, Dalida’s ‘Histoire d’un amour’, and it’s as romantic as you’d expect – on YouTube here. You don’t need to be familiar with the references to see that the narrator is considering the girl from an ironic distance. She isn’t mocking. Her project is more intellectually rigorous than that, and much more interesting: she wants to understand how ‘the girl’ really experienced the moment, at the same time as knowing that complete understanding is impossible.

After listing the songs, Ernaux does two things. First, she asserts that this kind of self story-telling is common:

At this very moment, out in the streets, the open spaces, on the metro, in lecture halls, and inside millions of heads, millions of novels are being written chapter by chapter, erased and revised, and all of them die as a result of becoming, or not becoming, reality.

This reminds me of the way Proust’s narrator in In Search of Lost Time writes at length about how he imagined what places were like based on their names, only to be almost always disappointed by the reality. Annie Ernaux explicitly suggests that this is a universal thing. So maybe it’s ‘relatable’ after all.

(By describing this fantasising as novel-writing, Ernaux seems to be suggesting that her writing life began that night, a whole other dimension of the memoir.)

The second thing she does is to leap forward in time:

When, in the subway or the RER, I hear the first notes of Dalida’s ‘Histoire d’un amour’, sometimes sung in Spanish, within a second I am emptied of myself, hollowed out. I used to believe (Proust had a comparable experience) that for three minutes, I truly became the girl of S. But it is not she who suddenly revives but the reality of her dream, the powerful reality of her dream, spread throughout the universe by the words sung by Dalida and Darío Moreno, and covered up again, buried by the shame of having had that dream.

(The RER is the rapid transit system serving Paris and its suburbs.)

This paragraph could be seen as encapsulating the book as a whole. Annie Ernaux the narrator grapples throughout with the nature of memory. Here, she realises that in the intervening years, in non-rigorous mode, she has believed herself to be reliving that moment, becoming once again her eighteen-year-old self and losing all sense of who she is in the present. But with her rigorous mind at work, she realises that what is being revived is the dream, the pattern of thinking and feeling that came into play at that moment. Any mockery that may have been implied in the ironic distance of the previous paragraphs is identified as coming from shame.

It’s no accident that Proust is mentioned here. His ghost hovers over the whole enterprise. At one level, his huge novel tells his alter ego’s life story, while A Girl’s Story tells the much smaller story of a teenage girl’s first more or less traumatic sexual experience. (Proust’s narrator’s first sexual experience is of the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it variety.) At another level, they are both philosophical inquiries into the nature of memory and desire. Ernaux’s book doesn’t have the queerness or the comedy of Proust’s, but it is just as serious, just as challenging, and has the added passion of feminist horror.

Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the Past

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Haunted by the Past (Allen & Unwin 1999)

Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934–2011) was a Bundjalung woman who among many other things wrote five autobiographical books. The first, which lifted its title from a song made popular by Kenny Rogers, became a bestseller when it appeared in 1988. Tara June Winch has written about it:

What Langford Ginibi produced in penning Don’t Take Your Love to Town was a broad-scoping segment missing from the body of Aboriginal literature, published in 1988 amid the fanfare and patriotic celebrations of Australia’s bicentenary. Decades later it retains its relevance and importance, still sounding a clarion call to the future for understanding and a breaking of the cycle of social and racial disadvantage for Aboriginal Australians, at long last.

Tara June Winch, ‘On “Don’t Take Your Love to Town” by Ruby Langford Ginibi‘, Griffith Review 80, May 2023.

Haunted by the Past, published a decade and three books after Don’t Take Your Love to Town, continues and amplifies that call to the future. In a writing style that feels unstudied and conversational, it tells the story of Nobby, one of Langford Ginibi’s nine children. This is a mother’s story of seeing her son sent to boys’ homes as a child and then incarcerated more than once as an adult for something he didn’t do; the terror that he would die in custody as so many Indigenous Australians have done; the joy, hers and his, of taking him to his traditional country on his release after eight years in prison; his development as a painter (his artwork is on the cover of this first edition); and in the final pages, his marriage with the prospect of a stable future. Even if you suspect that motherly bias influences the account of Nobby’s ‘crimes’ and punishment, the picture of legal system’s treatment of young Aboriginal men is damning.

It’s a deceptively simple book, just seeming to tell it as it was, one thing after another. There are straightforward quotes from court documents, including psychiatric assessments of Nobby’s suicidal state of mind at one point. Nobby gets to speak for himself in sections written for the book at his mother’s behest. There are detailed accounts of organising prison visits, and hiring cars, and visiting relatives. There are Mum jokes, as when the band strikes up ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ at a wedding, and her family start singing it to her:

I called out to them, ‘If I didn’t take my love to town, you mob wouldn’t be here!’

(Page 178)

But the cumulative effect is far from simple. From the opening words – ‘Where does Nobby’s story begin? With his birth in 1955? Or further back …’ – Langford Ginibi is clear that she is telling her son’s story in the context of the long story of colonisation. Without using terms like intergenerational trauma, her story-telling challenges versions of Aboriginal experiences that ignore this country’s continuing history of racist and genocidal policies. She shows us the human, everyday faces of people who might other tend to be reduced to statistics in the mainstream media. Everything seems intensely ordinary, but long history is there at every moment. It’s a history of resilience and achievement as well as oppression.We are told a number of times about the Aboriginal cricketer who bowled Don Bradman for a duck. You get a strong sense of the warmth of family life – the extended family of people who haven’t seen each other for years as well as the immediate family. The opening pages that tell of her family’s background and, especially, her time in a bush camp with an uncle, are filled with rich experience of community, culture and the natural world.

The darker context becomes explicit in Chapter 6. Chapter 5 has given us pictures of Nobby’s despairing state when he was sentenced to jail again, including one suicide attempt. Chapter 6 begins:

While Nobby was doing this long stretch in jail, the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody was going on. Even before the official inquiry I was always worried about Nobby when he was in jail. I received a letter from him that stated: ‘Mum, if I ever go back to jail again, they’ll bring me out feet first because bein locked up like an animal and bein told by screws, do this do that, it’s nearly drivin me mad! I can’t take it anymore.’ The pressure was so bad. And Nobby was very depressed from time to time. It really got me down. I was always worried that he would have survived the police, the wardens and the other inmates, but then take his own life.

(Page 75)

Characteristically, Langford Ginibi doesn’t linger over her fears. Nor does she milk the situation for suspense:

But he has survived.

And then, the perspective widens:

Not everyone has been so lucky.

The next 15 pages tell the stories of eight Aboriginal men who died in custody or, in one case, were killed by police during a raid on the man’s home. This book is the story of a survivor, but we can never forget the ones who didn’t survive. On the very last page, when Nobby’s story seems to have reached a happy landing, the ghosts of those men appear:

They were callin out to Nobby, sayin, ‘On ya brother. You survived the brutal jails. We didn’t make it. Long life and much happiness to you and your lady. Go in peace, and live for all of us!’

(Page 179)

I picked this book down from my TBR shelf after reading Gregory Day’s Words Are Eagles. The opening essay of that book invokes an Indigenous perspective that written words are dangerous because they can be divorced from particular places and from direct interpersonal communication. It does this without quoting from Indigenous people. In the spirit of counterpoint as recommended by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism, I needed to read something by a First Nations writer, and this book was right there. It doesn’t address Day’s point directly, but it does achieve the thing he advocates. Reading it feels like sitting down for a long chat, a yarn, with a remarkably assured, relaxed matriarch. When you put it down, you see the world differently.

Ruby Langford Ginibi received the Special Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2005, where I had the good fortune to be sitting on the table with her at the awards ceremony. Her other books are:

  • Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (Penguin Australia 1988)
  • Real Deadly (Angus & Robertson 1992)
  • My Bundjalung People (UQP 1994)
  • All My Mob (UQP 2007)

Dinner in the Strangers’ Dining Room

[I originally put up this post in my old blog on 23 May 2005, but didn’t retrieve it when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now mainly because I’m about to write something about Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the Past. The post also has a sadly ironic note from John Hughes, and a reminder that the late George Pell was on the nose in some quarters well before the child sexual abuse revelations. It’s also a reminder that the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards used to be presented at a slap-up dinner.]

Tonight the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced at the traditional dinner in the Strangers’ Dining Room in Parliament House. I had been planning to go with my friend Moira, but she was ill, so after some phoning around I found a most satisfactory replacement in my young neighbour and budding writer Jack.

It was a fabulous evening, full of talk – speeches, conversation, argument – and celebrity spotting. Premier Bob Carr sang the praises of his Premier’s Reading Challenge, then undercut this necessary self-promotion by remarking that it was nice to be able to impose one’s values ‘in the nicest Stalinist way’ and going on to riff on the idea of flying banners all over Sydney’s bearing the Stalinist slogan: ‘Life has become better, comrades. Life has become merrier.’

The address for the evening was to be given by Amanda Lohrey, but she had been incapacitated by a fall, and her speech was read to us (with passion) by Susan Ryan. It was an apologia for secular liberal democracy, framed as a response to some remarks by Sydney’s Catholic cardinal George Pell. Where he had said that secular liberal democracy was empty of values, she argued that on the contrary it thrives on diversity and so is full. The speech did have the feel of an essay looking for a place to be aired rather than an address tailor-made for the occasion. But it was excellent to be reminded that the frisson of irritation that remarks like the Cardinal’s inspire in me can be the occasion for careful thought. (The phrase ‘to we liberal democrats’ did occur in the speech as given. I didn’t get hold of a written copy, so I won’t hold that syntactical atrocity against Ms Lohrey: it may have been Ms Ryan hyper-correcting her. I’m sorry to report, though, that I did not detect a shocked collective intake of breath from the audience.)

I was sitting at an awe-inspiring table. Apart from Jack and me and two other ancillary men, there were Nette Hilton, Wendy Michaels, Julie Janson and Ruby Langford Ginibi. Nette, Wendy and Julie were judges. Ruby, it turned out, received the special award, given each year as a kind of lifetime achievement award. I was sitting next to Ruby, and can report that she stays on message: she takes very seriously her calling to educate whitefellas about Aboriginal history, and she was full of information (about the two Aboriginal bowlers who dismissed Don Bradman for a duck; about the rolling back of Aboriginal education under the Howard government; about John Howard’s motives for refusing to apologise for the stolen generations; about the devastating and ongoing consequences of Aboriginal dispossession). She was also very funny, and I got to feel a little special because it fell to me to help her get various things – the envelope containing her speech, her glasses, a little photo album – out of the bag on the back of her wheelchair.

And as for the prizes, I was struck by the humility of most of the recipients. By that I mean that they gave the impression that their subject was more important than they were.

Gillian Cowlishaw, wispy grey-haired author of Blackfellas White fellas and the hidden injuries of race told of a conversation with two Aboriginal women in Burke:

Gillian’s friend: She wants to tape us for her book.
Sister of Gillian’s friend: If she want to tape me she’ll have to f***in’ pay me.
Gillian: If you want me to tape you, you’ll have to f***in’ pay me.
Gillian’s friend: Well, at least she’s learned the language.

Tony Kevin, awarded for A Certain Maritime Incident: the sinking of SIEV X, referred us to the web site on the subject and predicted that one day someone from Australia’s security institutions would break ranks and tell the truth about what happened: and only then would we know if what he has written is true or false. How’s that for humble?

Katherine Thomson, given a prize for her play Harbour, spoke about the waterfront skulduggery of not so long ago, and reminded us, as we hardly need reminding, that our industrial relations troubles are far from over. (I’m remembering the last moments of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: ‘Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.’) She told a funny story: when she first approached the Maritime Union of Australia to research the play, she went with an open mind and told them so. She was introduced to one group of wharfies like this:

This is Katherine. She’s writing a play about Patrick’s. It’s not necessarily going to be on our side, but that’s OK, because if it isn’t we know where she lives.

John Hughes, gonged for The Idea of Home: autobiographical essays, placed his book in relation to the Demidenko fake, and the way it did the dirty on, among other things, real stories of migration. He attributed his ability to complete it (at the rate of 20 pages a year) to the persistent encouragement he received from other people, especially Ivor Indyk.

Sherryl Clark, recognised for her verse novel for young readers, Farm Kid, used her moment at the mike to remind us of the tragedy unwinding in the country as the current drought continues.

Samuel Wagan Watson, who won the poetry award and the Book of the Year award for  Smoke Encrypted Whispers, was modest in a different way. He said among other things that knowing he’s won the award but not being able to tell anyone made him look constipated to his friends; that writing poetry is a tough game – ‘Before I got published, you know, I used to be white.’

Steven Herrick (please note the spelling – we got it wrong in the magazine recently), receiving his second award, this time for By the River, showed us the medal and said that when he shows his other one to school students, there’s always someone who points out that it’s silver. In trying to convince them that he’s not a loser, he tells them that the premier gave him $15 000 as well as the medal. So, he said, when he leaves, his audience is probably left with the impression that he is a loser and Bob Carr is very rich.

Tim Winton, whose excellent The Turning was the only prize-winning book I’ve read, was brief, said with obviously genuine discomfort that he felt he had robbed the other writers on the shortlist of something, and then thanked many people, including, with a nod towards Amanda Lohrey’s speech, ‘the loyal, dogged, civilian reader’.

And on top of all that, I caught up ever so briefly with a number of friends, and did a little professional fence-mending, possibly some bridge-building. It was a terrific night. Jack said he had a good time too.

Posted: Mon – May 23, 2005 at 05:57 PM

Middlemarch: Progress report 4

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), end chapter 35 to end chapter 46.

Five pages of Middlemarch each morning has been my dependable daily joy for four months now.

This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. Natasha May wrote in the Guardian that when she was young she found George Eliot’s sympathy for Dr Casaubon life-changing. She quoted this from Dorothea’s ‘honeymoon’ in Rome:

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.

In my 20s, as far as I remember, I thought George Eliot’s sympathy for Casaubon was largely sarcastic. My current reading is closer to Natasha May’s. This month in particular, as he faces his mortality, I can tell that Eliot genuinely feels for him, and she paints his inner turmoil so vividly that when he offers Dorothea a word of attenuated kindness, we feel it as his moral victory, as well as recognising that Dorothea is no longer in his thrall:

‘Come, my dear, come. You are young, and must not to extend your life by watching.’
When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.

(Page 488)

That’s the end of Book Four, and of the first volume in the edition I’m reading, so pretty much the central hinge of the novel.

Since then, in the first pages of Volume 2, the narrative has been concerned with the politics of Middlemarch. Fifty years ago I read this as variously background and counterpoint to the main story of Dorothea’s romantic life. It’s not that I misread it then, but this time around I’m much more interested in Eliot’s satirical account of how an uneducated public responds to medical innovation, how professionals’ vested interests oppose that innovation, how media (in this case newspapers) function as tools of political agents, how political elites look after their own, and so on. It’s hard not to think of current conversations about the First Nations Voice to Parliament when I read a sentence like this one:

Oppositions have the illimitable range of objections at command, which need never stop short at the boundary of knowledge, but can draw for ever on the vasts of ignorance.

(Page 503)

This morning, I read a scene involving the two young men: Lydgate the reforming doctor (I can’t bear to call him Tertius), and Will (it seems unfriendly to call him Ladislaw) the reformed artistic gadabout who now edits a newspaper. Lydgate has married the beautiful Rosamond, which we know won’t end well; Will adores Dorothea, which we fear likewise. Lydgate has thrown his lot in with the religious ideologue Bulstrode because he supports Bulstrode’s hospital project. Will is allied with the scatter-brained Mr Brooke’s potential run for parliament because he sees it as a way of supporting the movement for political reform*. The young men – one of them lying on the rug in the other’s living room, while the latter’s wife, Rosamond, waits impatiently for the disagreeable conversation to finish – discuss the evergreen subject of how to form alliances with others who are less than perfect. Lydgate:

If one did not work with such men as are at hand, things must come to a dead-lock. Suppose the worst opinion in the town about Bulstrode were a true one, that would not make it less true that he has the sense and the resolution to do what I think ought to be done in the matters I know and care most about; but that is the only ground on which I go with him.

(Page 531)

Rosamond calls a halt to the conversation. When Will has gone she and Lydgate have a brief conversation and we find out in the last three lines of the chapter, almost as a throwaway that a) Lydgate’s household debts, unknown to Rosamond, are becoming more pressing and, b) Rosamond is pregnant. I thought of this novel as proceeding at a leisurely pace, but no five pages pass without significant plot developments.

* Mostly I can live with not understanding the specific political and cultural references in Middlemarch. I did look up Lord Grey’s Reform Act of 1832. Mr Brooke is a Tory, who in his typical muddled way thinks Grey (a Whig) has a lot going for him. Will hopes to help Brooke get elected, and to influence him to support Grey’s bill.

Alejandro Zambra’s Chilean Poet and the book group

Aalejandro Zandro, Chilean Poet: A novel, translated by Megan McDowell (Granta 2022)

Before the meeting: I enjoyed this novel enormously. I expect people who know Chile, and especially the Chilean poetry scene, would enjoy it even more.

In the freezing Chilean winter of 1991, teenagers Carla and Gonzalo curl up night after night under a magnificent red poncho watching television in her mother’s house and manage to do ‘everything except for the famous, the sacred, the much feared and longed-for penetration’. Just as the nights are beginning to warm up and remove the excuse for the poncho, they get an opportunity, but the famous etc event turns out to be less than absolutely pleasurable, at least for Carla.

The story goes on from there. In my innocence, I was surprised by the turns of events, so I won’t go into detail, except to say that Gonzalo as a teenager is an aspiring poet, and we get to read one of the atrocious sonnets he writes for Carla; and some years later Gonzalo becomes stepfather to Carla’s son Vicente.

The second half of the book begins with an echo of the opening of the first half. Vicente, now a teenage aspiring poet (probably more promising than Gonzalo), is in explicit sexual action with Pru, an older woman visiting Chile from the USA, using alarmingly explicit English he has picked up from porn.

It may be a spoiler, but I’ll risk it: the relationship between the two poets Gonzalo and Vicente is the heart of the book and its narrative spring. Carla and Pru, and Vicente’s natural father León, are vivid secondary characters. Chile, in particular Santiago, and most specifically the Chilean poetry community, provide the charming, engrossing, at times hilarious, always lively milieu.

Pru is visiting Santiago on her first major journalistic assignment. Her editor wants a ‘human interest’ story about stray dogs, but she persuades him to let her explore the poetry scene, and Alejandro Zambra has a lot of fun describing her interviews with poets.

I have no idea if poets and poetry have the prominent role in Chilean life that these poets claim. One of them says that for Chileans the Nobel Prize in Literature is as significant as the World Cup, and it’s a matter of huge pride that Chilean poets have won it twice: Gabriela Mistral (1945) and Pablo Neruda (1971). Not that any of the living poets care too much for Neruda or Mistral – the living are much more interesting and important, and their mutual competition, championing and denigration make Australia’s so-called poetry wars look … well, I was going to say tame, but really it makes them look normal.

I’ve read two other novels with poet protagonists recently: Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother and Niall Williams’s A History of the Rain. Unlike the former, we believe that the characters in Chilean Poet actually write poetry of varying quality; unlike the latter, these poets are part of a thriving scene rather than slightly deranged, isolated mystics. One of the joys of the book is the way their alertness to language features strongly in all their relationships. The account of Vicente’s wooing of Pru, for example, is full of the joys and perils of communicating across a language barrier.

There’s a terrific scene in the first part, when Gonzalo is a hands-on father to Vicente. He breaks one of Clara’s rules by allowing Vicente to sit in the front seat of the car – and accidentally reveals his crime to her. She explodes, using the word betrayal, which sets him off:

‘I’m so sorry for taking care of Vicente every single day,’ said Gonzalo.
‘It’s times like these it’s clear you’re not his father,’ retorted Carla.
Gonzalo looked at her with astonishment and contempt. He grabbed his hair with his left hand, and with his right he tore up an abundant clump of grass.
‘I’m a much better father than that lame-ass, ugly, mediocre motherfucking pusillanimous sack of balls who stuck his dick in you.’

(Page 75)

Rather than continue with the fight, the narrative stops there, and the poet-mind kicks in. Gonzalo spends two pages mentally critiquing his own sentence. It ‘felt a bit ungrammatical and was a pretty stupid outburst, but …’ He ponders the accuracy of ‘ugly’, acknowledges that pusillanimous doesn’t apply, and wonders if he used that word ‘for the mere pleasure of saying a word that León would have to look up in a dictionary’. He quite likes sack of balls because it’s not only hurtful but original. And before pouring himself a double whisky and stomping off to his writing-room he indulges in this final piece of poetic analysis:

The truly damning part was definitely that grand finale, who stuck his dick in you, which brought jealousy to the forefront and insinuated that Carla was some kind of whore. Still, the accusation held a trace of childishness, as if Gonzalo had only just found out how babies are made.

(Page 76)

Megan McDowell’s translation is terrific. At many moments, the narrative turns on the use of language, as in the passage I’ve just discussed. At a key moment, when Vicente is quite young, he and Gonzalo discuss the Spanish word for ‘stepfather’ – padrastro. Gonzalo is reluctant to take it on because astro at the end of a word has negative connotations. McDowell does a brilliant job of putting this into English as a completely plausible conversation for a poet to have with a young boy, and manages not to feel as if she is winking at English readers over the characters’ heads.

The meeting: After an hour of convivial catch-up and organising of food, we settled down to the book. Unusually, the Chooser explained how he had made his choice: he started out thinking of something by Annie Ernaux, in deference to the Nobel Prize committee, but as none of her books were easily available he sought advice at from his local bookseller, who suggested this – which turned out, he said, to be a perfect summer read. One chap who usually doesn’t say much, and usually speaks softly, immediately grabbed the floor and disagreed vehemently: not an ideal summer read at all; for that he’d recommend Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series; this author was too intent on displaying his knowledge of poetry and poets to keep his narrative alive and engaging.

And it was on!

No one, it turned out, had done the work of checking which poets in the book are real and which imagined. A number of us, including a late-comer who had missed the opening salvo, just loved the bit where Pru interviews a range of poets and leaves the main narrative on hold. There’s a disorderly poet’s party that got a lot of love.

The bits that might have been irritating, where the author breaks the fourth wall to comment on his decisions, were pretty universally enjoyed. We were sorry to see the end of Pru, the gringa journalist over whose shoulder we get to know the poetry scene. One chap felt that Carla, Vicente’s mother, was a bit two-dimensional. No one contradicted him, but no one seemed to mind terribly. One man said he’d read the book very soon after last meeting and could barely remember it, which he took to mean it is pretty forgettable – though he did remember that it lacked any strong sense of place. Not everyone agreed – perhaps not the physical place, but we felt that there was a strong feel for the cultural milieu, and the food.

One man brought a bottle of pisco and made pisco sours (of which many are drunk in the book), plus a sour-without-pisco for the non-drinker. He also brought a selection of holiday photos from Santiago and Valparaiso, including one of Pablo Neruda’s home, now a museum.

Favourite passages about poetry were read and enjoyed all over again, including one in which a poet says he doesn’t know whether what he writes is any good, but he writes because of what it achieves for his own mind. (That definitely rang a bell for me and my own adventures in rhyme).

As usual, the conversation dissipated, though this time it stayed roughly on topic: there were anecdotes about meeting famous poets and other famous people (including two stories about David Malouf that cemented his status in my mind as a spectacularly kind person), ruminations on the comparative respect in which poets are held in Chile and Australia, an invitation for personal reflections about step-parent experiences that went unaccepted because none of us had been there, stories of young men getting excited when they realised they were talking to an older man who reads books, some excellent ribaldry. Unrelated: George Pell’s faulty theology, Lydia Thorpe’s stand in relation to the Voice, the complexity of some post-Holocaust Jewish family histories.

Towards the end of the evening, the man who had set the ball rolling with vehement negativity announced with equal vehemence that he realised he had actually enjoyed the book. We took this as vindication of the group as a way of taking the solitary act of reading into a shared experience.

After the meeting: Someone mentioned having seen a YouTube conversation with Alejandro Zambra and Megan McDowell. I dutifully watched it during my grandson’s afternoon sleep the next day. It’s full of good things about the translator–novelist relationship – if you watch it and are strapped for time, you could start at the 10 minute mark and skip all the charming introductory stuff. I particularly love their discussion (from 13’00” to 19’05”) of the Spanish word for ‘stepfather’, padrastro, including Zambra’s comment that as a poet Gonzalo is fighting with that word. Poets are always fighting with words, intensely, he says, ‘which is beautiful’.

Gregory Day’s Words Are Eagles

Gregory Day, Words Are Eagles (Upswell 2022)

Decolonising is a very personal business. It cuts in close to our sense of self. … It will take new emotional skills our parents, and their parents, were unable to teach us.

(‘Serving up colonisation instead of care‘, Overland 247, page 24)

That’s Caitlin Prince, an occupational therapist who has spent most of her adult life living and working in remote Aboriginal communities. She argues that non-Indigenous individuals have intimately personal work to do; we must face and acknowledge intense emotional discomfort, and create safety for each other to do that, so as to make headway against our received and ingrained racism and colonialism.

The processes of personal decolonisation her article describes may seem worlds apart from anything in this collection of highly literary essays, but Gregory Day is engaged in a similar project.

In a brief foreword, ‘Where the Songs Are Made’, Day explains the collection’s title. In British writer Alan Garner’s novel Strandloper, an 18th century English castaway demonstrates writing to an Aboriginal elder, Nullamboin. The fictional Nullamboin recoils in horror: ‘”Then all will see without knowledge,” he cries, “without teaching, without dying into life! Weak men will sing! Boys will have eagles! All shall be mad!”‘ Day glosses this as referring to ‘the violent chaos that ensues from a carelessness caused by the lack of connection to the memorial contours and emotional topographies of place’. Written words ripped from their rightful places are eagles and must be treated warily.

So as the book opens it comes close to questioning whether it ought even to exist. (It comes even closer if you understand Garner/ Nullamboin to mean that the ‘violent chaos’ has a more radical cause: it comes from language being divorced from direct, embodied human contact: the written word is in itself dangerous.)

Approaching this dilemma from a number of angles in these essays is Day’s version of Prince’s personal decolonising.

Day has a deep, insistent commitment to place, specifically the part of south-west Victoria where he has lived all his life. He is best known for his Mangowak trilogy; ‘Mangowak’ is the Wadawurrung name for Airey’s Inlet on the Great Ocean Road, into which the Painkalac Creek flows. Two thirds of this collection of essays relate to that place in some way, many of them to its Wadawurrung heritage. In extremely productive tension with that commitment, the essays also evince a profound commitment to the English language, the written word, the literary traditions of his ancestral countries – England, Sicily and Ireland. (‘Evince’, incidentally, is a word he spends some time pondering. He uses it differently from me.) In what follows, I’ve included links to articles where I can find them online, sometimes as PDFs – sorry!

The collection proper kicks off with ‘The Watergaw‘. Winner of the 2021 Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize, it’s a virtuoso piece. Starting from the sighting of a broken rainbow in rural Victoria, it goes to Scottish poet’s Hugh Macdiarmid’s ‘The watergaw‘ which relates to the same phenomenon. The broken rainbow takes on complex metaphorical meanings, and there follows meditation on place, colonisation, Celtic and Sicilian ancestry, the deaths of fathers, Day’s study of Wadawurrung language parallelling Macdiarmid’s writing in a version of Scots. Starting the collection with this essay throws the reader in at the deep end – it may strike you (as it did me on first reading) as convoluted and self-consciously, even self-indulgently, ‘literary’, but it’s a beautifully compressed weave of the themes that are developed more expansively in the essays that follow.

There’s a leisurely swim with a friend around the river bends at Airey’s Inlet / Mangowak, an exultant respite from the world dominated by smart phones (‘Summer on the Painkalac‘); a piece on the difficulty of naming the colour of soil turned up by roadworks near Anglesea (‘The Colours of the Ground’); a lyrical account of how Day’s ancestors came to the area (‘The Ocean Last Night‘); a reflection on what it means that colonial and more recent writings record 133 different spellings of ‘Wadawurrung’ (‘One True Note?‘); an engrossing account of the elements that went into the making of his novels (‘Otway Taenarum‘); reflections prompted by his experience teaching Wadawurrung language to schoolchildren, with the approval of local Elders (‘Being Here‘).

Though there are occasional mentions of a named Elder who has been Day’s mentor, the only First Nations person to be quoted directly in these essays is the fictional Nullamboin, the invention of a British writer. Even in the reprinted review articles that make up the final third of the book, no First Nations poets or novelists are addressed. This might seem to undermine, or at least make paradoxical, my reading of the essays as embodying a personal decolonising project. Maybe. But I’m sticking to my guns. As I read them, they take on the challenge without appropriating First Nations voices or forms, and without leaning on the writer’s relationships with First Nations people, but find their own way forward as part of what’s sometimes called place writing within the western tradition. As they used to say on Twitter, he’s doing his own research, not expecting First Nations people to do his emotional and intellectual labour for him.

For instance, the essay ‘Mere Scenery and Poles of Light’ (pp 69–94) enters imaginatively into the minds of four people who walked a lot: Paul Cézanne, J S Bach, William Buckley and David Unaipon. Of Cézanne:

The painter’s walks were not artist’s escapes or spiritual retreats but confrontations … It was while walking, while looking at giant cubes of stone spilt on cypressed ledges and the green moisture of gullies in the sea’s brisk shadow, that he best understood how to overcome our now dangerously attenuated sense of time and sylvan space.

Of Bach, who as a young man walked 250 mile to hear his hero Buxtehude play the organ:

With only the orchestra of bird, rain and tree in his ear, surely those walks, conducted for the twin catharses of music and freedom, were intrinsic to the sound that was slowly building within him, even at such a young and truant age.

Of Buckley, the Englishman who lived for decades with the Wadawurrung people:

Here was a European man honoured as a native, a man of fact not fiction, but fated through an almost sci-fi style misunderstanding to survive in sympathy with nature; a man who’d been taught, as we say now, to walk in both action and reflection, to both hunt and to sacralise the hunt, to live sustainably within the behests and laws of his adopted habitat. And how did it end for him? Where did walking take him to? Just to despair? Or also to that secret place where the author of all the songs resides?

Of David Unaipon:

Unaipon moved through the land as a divining rod, and he came with a forked message, one contained within the yarns of the bound and official Bible he held in his hand and the other a message in danger of being cauterised to silence by the white invasion: the knowledge of the spirit realm, where the song still dwelt, the pity and sympathy, the knowledge and laughter still flowing through the land.

And of himself:

I can see myself, the walker, as assemblage, with Buckley’s tattoo on my tongue, with the score of Bach’s English Suites written onto my skin, with a vision of the sea at Cézanne’s l’Estaque lifting me to the top of the climb. My whole body is transformed by the journey into a condition resembling the circular breathing of the didgeridoo player, or David Unaipon’s perpetual motion machine.

It’s a world away from the kind of cultural confrontations that meet a whitefella occupational therapist working in a remote Yolngu community. Maybe it’s more fanciful, more vulnerable to self-deception but maybe, also, it’s important work that makes a valuable contribution to our moment in history.

A note on Upswell, publisher of Words Are Eagles. It’s a not-for-profit publishing house established in 2021 by Terri-ann White who previously was responsible for a brilliant line-up of nooks at UWA Publishing. As she says on the Upswell website:

I’ll publish a small number of distinctive books each year in, broadly, the areas of narrative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I am interested in books that elude easy categorising and work somewhat against the grain of current trends. They are books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.

This is the first Upswell title I’ve read, a gift from a friend who lives on the edge of Painkalac Creek. Long may Terri-ann White prosper, and the Painkalac flow.