Category Archives: Books

Ruby Reads (8): Possum Magic

Julie Vivas and Mem Fox, Possum Magic (Omnibus Boks 1983)

Possum Magic is one of the children’s books I have been most looking forward to revisiting. It was published the year Ruby’s father was born and we enjoyed it together many times over.

Julie Vivas’s images – the tiny possum Hush and elderly grandmother, the miscellaneous Australian native birds and animals who follow their adventures, and the round-bottomed children whose discarded Vegemite sandwiches are crucial to the plot – are as freshly witty and whimsical as ever. And if my experience is anything to go by they still play well with the target audience of 2019.

Early in the book, illustrating Grandma Poss’s magic, there’s a cluster of pink kookaburras. On our second read, try as I might, I couldn’t persuade my reading companion to move on, even though she had clearly enjoyed the whole book on the first pass. This time we’d turn the page, but then turn it right back, over and over. Entering into the spirit of things, I did a version of a kookaburra’s laugh. This was such a great success that I was required to repeat it for what may have been half an hour. I laughed myself hoarse, and every time I tried to change the subject, Ruby would make her wishes known, either by saying ‘Ha ha ha’ or by pointing to the pink kookaburras again.

So yes, the images are magic!

But the story is another thing. Grandma Poss has made Hush invisible, and the pair of them travel all over Australia looking for the way to reverse the magic and make the little possum visible. They discover that Vegemite, pavlova and lamingtons do the trick.

Reading it this time, it struck me that in the hands of a lesser illustrator it would have become a travelogue draped over an implausible narrative, with panoramas of the cities visited, close-ups of the ‘iconic’ white-Australian foods, and so on. Julie Vivas has lifted it to a whole other level, made the magic alive and central, and ensured the book’s longevity.

Possum Magic is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss

Sebastian Smee, Net Loss: The inner life in the digital age (Quarterly Essay 72), plus correspondence from Quarterly Essay Nº 73

The cover of the quarterly essay, which includes a small inset image of the  Mona Lisa's smile.

I postponed reading this Quarterly Essay for months for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand the guilt if I read one more well articulated argument about the dangers of social media. And second, I’ve discovered that I prefer to read a Quarterly Essay after its successor has arrived, so that I can read the follow-up correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind.

The guilt factor decreased when I quit Twitter a couple of weeks ago (I haven’t missed it), and then Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (to be read in a couple of months’ time) arrived in my letterbox. So there was no need for further delay. Sebastian Smee’s essay turned out to be a delightful read. If, for reasons of your own, you haven’t read it, it’s not too late for you too to change your mind.

Like many of us, Smee is attached to his fruit-based or other device and a constant user of social media, and feels uneasy about it, not just because of the emergence of what Shoshana Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism, though that looms large in the essay, but also because of how it affects his sense of himself, and his relationships to other people and to the world – what he calls his inner life. ‘Can we protect ourselves,’ he asks

from corporate incursions into our private life by telling ourselves we have some hidden, impregnable inner life to which the algorithms can never gain access? Is this even realistic? It’s very hard to say. One thing we do know is that individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think. That’ in part because perception itself is almost infinitely fluid.

(page 24)

In a nutshell, that’s the question the essay addresses and the response it comes up with.

The most startling single phrase in the essay is ‘the commodification of our attention’. It’s not Smee’s coinage – a quick web search finds the phrase cropping up in many places. But it encapsulates the way we are being influenced and exploited to contribute to the unimaginably large profits of Facebook, Google and the like.

What Smee does is to embody the kind of attention that has not been whittled down and shaped by social media. He’s a self-described arty type, and here he elucidates the subtleties of passages from Chekhov, explains how a particular painting by Cézanne represents a revolution in ways of seeing, describes and spells out the implications of video works by contemporary artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. He uses language in a way that invites thoughtful consideration, and stands as a living contradiction to his argument that we have entered an age of distraction.

The correspondence up the back of QE73 is, as always, excellent. The closest thing to a disagreement is a beautiful piece of writing by Fiona Wright, a string of cameos illustrating how her life is enriched by social media. There’s some heavy-duty philosophy from Raimond Gaita. Imre Salusinszky indulges some high-level nostalgia for, of all things, John Hughes’s movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Smee responds with the same grace and generosity that permeates the essay itself.

Added 18 April 2019: I’ve just listened to the podcast of David Gillespie talking with Richard Fidler the effects of iPhone and social media on especially teenage brains. It amplifies and makes urgent the gist of Sebastian Smee’s essay. You can get it here.

Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!: and other things that matter (Granta Publications 2016)

I’m one of the many readers who first met Diana Athill’s work near the end of her long career as editor and writer. The title of her 2008 essay collection, Somewhere Towards the End (link is to my blog post), accurately describes the feel of the book. They were lucid ruminations in the shadow of approaching death.

Eight years later when Alive, Alive Oh! was published, death was still imminent, and in fact Diane Athill died in February this year. If we can judge by this book, she was ready to go – not because life had become unbearable, far from it, but because she had achieved a marvellous sense of equanimity in the face of the inevitable.

You may have to be of a certain age and ethnicity to recognise that the book’s title is from the song ‘Molly Malone’. You can see a haunting version by Sinéad O’Connor / Shuhada’ Davitt on YouTube, but be advised that the eerie melancholy of that song doesn’t reflect the tone of Diana Athill’s twelve short memoir-essays. In her Introduction, she writes that somewhere in her seventies she stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being, and after a short period of shock found that very restful:

I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it. In the course of the ninety-seven years through which I have lived I have collected many more images of beautiful places and things than I realised, and now it seems as though they are jostling to float into my mind.

(p 2)

What follows are some memories of that sort to be sure: the first essay is a loving description of her grandparents’ garden – really an estate, where she spent much of her childhood; the second rejects the common view that the post-war 40s and 50s were a dreary time, and tells of the joys of her life as a twenty-something in those years – the swinging 60s, in her experience, were just an extension of her privileged 50s; and third begins with a brilliant description of the beauties of the island of Tobago, and tells how as a young woman there she came to understand that the pleasurable existence of British tourists and expats was built on the many-faceted exploitation of locals. So the book may be full of beautiful places and things, but it also goes to dark places.

The title essay, ‘Alive, Alive Oh!’, comes fourth. I was expecting a celebration of life in one’s nineties (those essays come later). But no, it’s a vivid account of a pregnancy when she was in her 40s, unmarried but in a solid relationship with a married man. I won’t say more about this essay, other than that it’s a narrative full of suspense, and an outcome that is both expected and surprising.

After that, there are short essays on

  • the ‘peculiarly English middle-class technique for dealing with awkward facts … : if something is disagreeable let’s pretend it isn’t there’, and how it played out in her relationship with her mother
  • clothes and similar luxuries including, in her current life, a wheelchair
  • a wartime romance, which she frames by saying that two valuable lessons life has taught her are ‘avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’ – enough to say that the story she tells, while complex, is not an illustration these lessons
  • favourite books – the ones she lingers on are the letters of Boswell and Byron.

There’s a substantial account of her decision to move into a home for old people (a very posh one, it turns out). This is full of elegant reflections on ageing. For instance:

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. what happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. Iin my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts. A shared sense of humour is necessary, together with some degree of curiosity. Given those, we become for each other wonderfully interesting stories, which arouse genuine concern, admiration and affection.

(p 112)

And this, from the final essay ‘Dead Right’, on the prevailing attitudes to dying among her fellow residents:

Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now. You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare. One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible, practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of. When a death occurs in the home it is dealt with with the utmost respect – and also with a rather amazing tact in relation to us, the survivors.

(p 159)

When I blogged about Somewhere Towards the End, I said I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. Make that 97.

Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes

Martin Langford, Neat Snakes (Puncher & Wattmann 2018)

This is a book of aphorisms, hundreds of them, most less than two lines long, the longest edging up to 10 lines. A book to be dipped into, perhaps, rather than read in a sitting, and probably only for people who have a taste for that sort of thing.

Which I do. As a teenager I loved G K Chesterton’s one-liners – ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised’ was a favourite. Around about that age (I was a religious teenager) I encountered the wonderfully contradictory advice in Proverbs Chapter 26 verses 4 and 5:

4. Do not answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear you grow like him yourself.

5. Answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear he imagine himself wise.

(Jerusalem Bible translation)

More recently I used to enjoy the daily quotes on the government-issue desk calendar at work, especially after I learned (from Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, I think) that most of them became more interesting if you added ‘in bed’: ‘Forever is composed of nows in bed,’ for example.

Martin Langford’s aphorisms don’t share Chesterton’s (or Oscar Wilde’s) showy love of the unexpected; he doesn’t contradict himself as blatantly as the author of the Bible; and he doesn’t invite his readers to play innocently risqué games, though he may once have played the ‘in bed’ game himself, because on page 7 he demonstrates that the process doesn’t work in reverse:

The word and the body must search for each other in bed.

The general tone of these aphorisms is serious. Many of them fit Alexander Pope’s definition of true wit: ‘what oft was thought but n’er so well expressed’:

War will not go away if we promise not to think about it.
Banter is a way of exploring which claims will be allowed.
I am not bored by other people. But I am bored by the 
limited nature of our interactions.

There are some that hint at narratives, that could be lines from lost movies:

Together we domesticate the silence.

At least, I first read that as a line from a possible love story, but on reflection, it could be a general statement about the nature of communication. Maybe that’s part of the pleasure of the book – individual pieces change their nature when you come back to them a second or third time.

Some could serve as invitations to readers to write their own essays:

The weigher of hearts keeps a list of the things we have laughed at.

Some are just plain enigmatic:

In some prisons, there is an answer on every door.

Useful insights abound:

When people defend a narrative, they are usually
defending their role in it.
The journalists are reviled for telling the lies that
we pleaded for.
Few believers can articulate their beliefs.

There are succinct reflections on art, particularly narrative art, on death, on sex, on power and competition. Though most of the aphorisms are couched as generalisations, there is a vulnerable intelligence at work in this book. These aren’t words of wisdom dispensed from on high, but insights rooted in experience and thoughtful observation.

I am grateful to Puncher & Wattmann and Martin Langford for my copy of Neat Snakes.

Ruby Reads (7)

Ruby doesn’t necessarily read every book I mention in this series of posts. In fact just now, as an assertion of agency, she will wave a cheerful ‘Bye bye’, her way of calling an end to any activity from eating zucchini to talking to her grandmother on FaceTime, after just one page. But I have read them all in connection with Ruby. This week I rediscovered a cache of picture books we found in a street library about a year ago, and donated the ones from the younger end of the spectrum to her library. And we were read to at Rhyme Time at Leichhardt Library.

Airlie Anderson (illustrator), Cows in the Kitchen (Child’s Play International 2014)

This is the Rhyme Time book. Evidently its text is traditional. At the Library the parents were invited to join in the chanting as one group of farm animals after another created chaos in an inappropriate place. The illustrations are cheerful and silly. I’d recommend this as a fun participatory read. (The other book read to us on Thursday this week was The Wheels on the Bus, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but please, not again.)

Mem Fox and Vladimir Radunsky, Where the Giant Sleeps (Harcourt Children’s Books 2007)

Probably too old for a 15 month old, this is a fine addition to the genre of picture book spoofed in Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep, which is also on Ruby’s household’s bookshelves, but which I haven’t read until I listened to Samuel Jackson’s rendition just now. Everything in the world is animated, and sleeping, except the elves who are weaving something magical for the child who is being read to.

Marcia K Vaughan and Pamela Lofts, Snug as a Hug (Scholastic Australia 2014)

Another excellent addition to that genre, distinguished by being full of native Australian animals sleeping soundly at night. There’s a note in the early pages to the effect that the book is largely lying – most of the animals it mentions don’t sleep at night at all. Perhaps this points to the desperation of the adult world when faced with a baby who won’t sleep. The gorgeous illustrations are by Pamela Lofts, the friend of Kim Mahood who features in Position Doubtful.

Pamela Allen, Shhh! Little Mouse (Penguin Australia 2009)

Ruby is yet to see the whole of this totally beautiful book. She saw the first page, a black ink drawing of a mouse, and climbed down off my lap. I can wait! You could say this is the opposite of a ‘Go To Sleep’ book. While the scary ginger cat is sound asleep, a little mouse goes on the hunt for food and finds quite a lot, lovingly drawn in brilliant colour, before the cat wakes up and becomes a terrifying vision in orange. But be reassured, the mouse makes it back to safety.

Where the Giant Sleeps, Snug as a Hug and Shhh! Little Mouse are the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

Sarah Day’s Towards Light

Sarah Day, Towards Light and other poems (Puncher & Wattman 2018)

There are probably a hundred reasons why so few non-poets (I am one!) read poetry. One of them is the general belief that poetry is difficult, and that contemporary poetry is more difficult than most. And if you have stumbled across a poetry reading at a literary festival where someone stands up front to cool applause and reads, for example, the proofing marks on a business document galley, you may well decide that contemporary poetry is not only difficult but pointless.

If you’ve been avoiding poetry for reasons like this, and yet have a niggling worry that you might be missing something, then maybe you could try reading Sarah Day. The poems in this book are eminently accessible, and they attend to things worth attending to.

Many of the poems read as the equivalent of a visual artist’s pencil drawings of beautiful things and places – a Lisbon tiled wall depicting St Anthony preaching to the fishes, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitane, many moments in Tasmanian landscape, an amateur-built rocking horse, a caravan park campground, a ‘fugitive budgie / in a democracy, or an empathy / of sparrows’, a cow looking out from a concrete stall in Galicia. In poem after poem, there is a sense of close, acute, patient attention. There are some narrative poems, especially dealing with childhood memories, though ‘Overcoat’ makes a rich narrative from an elderly couple observed leaving a cafe. The book ends with a powerful sequence, ‘The Grammar of Undoing’, about the poet’s mother’s Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

I usually pick a single poem to talk about in some detail when I blog about poetry books, and I generally go for one that fits on a single page. The poem in this book that keeps demanding my attention is a little longer than that. It’s ‘Lens’:

We were on the bridge
gazing into the marsh creek
whose waters, filtered by sedge
and ribbon grass and samphire,
threw light on the motion of worms
and the whims of small clams.
Somewhere in the landscape,
a harrier circled, a crane stooped,
each intent on its own business.
A short eel hovered in the current,
swallows dipped under the bridge
and back. Then from upstream
a bow-wave, pushed by a long gaze
that seemed to take us in:
two humans on a bridge.
Liquid, it looped, fur swaying
through figures of eight
ruddered by a long tail with
a white tip like a ring-tailed possum.
It snatched up a crab in small front paws
and with one motion was a creature
of the land whose supple, lean length
bent into a pot-hook
like a bandicoot but its feet
were half wading bird, half rodent.
The cracking of carapace and legs
revealed strong teeth. A comb
or two with the thin clawed toes
and the slate fur stood up softly
in air, mottled with auburn.
The water rat vanished as we blinked.
Since then, nothing much has changed;
the day's news, like any other's,
is filled with grief and fear and fury.
The water rat has not appeared again
under the wooden bridge
but the landscape is altered
beneath that cool, brackish lens.

See what I mean about close, acute, patient attention? The poet’s gaze, perhaps. The scene is created so deftly in the opening lines – and the words used to convey the transparency of the creek (‘the waters … threw light on the movement of worms’) introduce the book’s pervasive motif of light as something almost magical. Certainly there’s restrained wonder at being able to see such detail on the creekbed. Three kinds of bird, an eel: I don’t know about you, but by the time we reach ‘Then from upstream / a bow-wave’ I’m pretty well identified as one of the ‘We’ who are standing together in companionable silence on the bridge pausing, I imagine, in the middle of a bush walk.

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I noticed the repetition of gazing: ‘We’ are gazing into the creek, and the bow-wave is pushed by a ‘long gaze’. The landscape looks back, and for a moment the poem too turns back on the viewer. I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that at this moment, the poet (and her companion) become as much part of the scene as the harrier or the swallows: worms, clams, birds, eel, and ‘two humans on a bridge’.

Having made its entrance, the poem’s hero occupies the next fifteen lines of wonderfully engrossed description. Engrossed, but not all romantic-lyrical: the animal is like a bandicoot or a ring-tailed possum, and even more prosaically a pothook. Like the harrier and the crane it’s intent on its own business, which is cracking open and devouring a crab, doing a bit of grooming and then clearing out. Only when it has vanished can it be named, because up until then it was all colour and movement – and long gaze.

The last seven lines echo two much-quoted lines about poetry: William Carlos Williams’s famous one-liner lines, ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,’ and W H Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. The water rat held the poet’s attention for a moment. That’s all. The actual news – of looming environmental catastrophe, perhaps – is no less horrible. But … but what?

I find the last two lines enigmatic. We’re back with the transparency of the creek, now a ‘cool, brackish lens’ – the notion of the water throwing light has condensed into the single word that gives the poem its title. Is it that this moment with the creek and the water-rat has provided a way of looking at the broader landscape, the domain of ‘the news’? The landscape is altered, perhaps, in the sense that the speaker has been reminded that there are other ways of looking at the world than through the lens of ‘the news’, as in newspapers and social media. (I speak as someone who stopped looking at Twitter, hopefully for good, 10 days ago.) Once you’ve seen a water rat, really seen it, can you keep on being obsessed with the doings of Fraser Anning or Donald Trump, or the self-nicknaming Prime Minister of Australia? Maybe there’s also a faint echo here of another famous line, this one from Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo‘: ‘You must change your life.’

Towards Light is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Brown and Leos-Urbel on Anti-Semitism

Cherie R Brown & Amy Leos-Urbel, Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone’s Concern? ( 2018)

I wasn’t intending blog about this little book. Its publisher is identified only as the US-based project Jews and Allies: United to End Anti-Semitism, and it has something of an in-house feel: that is, it reads as if it’s intended for readers who are already engaged with the project or are considering engaging with it, a kind of summary of its theoretical base.

Then I listened to ‘Why does anti-semitism cut across the political spectrum?‘, an episode of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens’s thinkfest podcast The Minefield, and realised that the pamphlet talks with remarkable clarity about things that felt like unresolved paradoxes in the podcast.

The Minefield‘s guest was Deborah Lipstadt, the woman who took on Holocaust-denier David Irving in real life and was the main character in the Mick Jackson–David Hare movie Denial. Deborah laid out longstanding distinguishing features of anti-semitism – of the stereotyping of Jews: it has to do with money (the myth that all Jews are rich), power (the belief that somehow Jews wield enormous behind-the-scenes power), intelligence (as in wiliness). Unlike most other oppressed groups, Jews don’t escape being targeted by achieving social status and wealth: anti-semitism is generally imagined by the perpetrators as ‘punching up’.

This booklet offers an interesting insight into this phenomenon, by describing anti-semitism as cyclical in nature. Here’s the description of how the cycle has worked historically:

Living as a minority without a homeland for nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people had to rely on the good will of rulers in each country where they settled. In exchange for a promise of protection for the Jewish community, a few Jews would serve as money lenders, tax collectors or other pubic officials. The majority of Jews who settled in each country remained as impoverished as the general population. Jews were also prohibited from owning land and barred from joining craft guilds, which would have allowed them to integrate with their non-Jewish neighbours.

When the people of the area were ready to resist the oppressive conditions of their lives, they were encouraged to direct their hatred and resentment at the Jewish community – rather than at their actual oppressors, the ruling classes. […] After the violence subsided, the surviving remnants of the Jewish community would be ‘apologised to’ officially in the original country or welcomed in new places of exile as martyrs. They would be given some assistance to rebuild their communities, and once again a few Jews would be encouraged to assume the same roles in relation to the rulers. […] In exchange, the whole Jewish community would be given temporary protection, and the cycle of toleration followed by attack would begin again.

(pp 3–4)

In the part of the cycle when Jews look safe and some are in position of apparent power, explicit anti-semitism bubbles away in the margins, or is limited to dog-whistling. And so it’s often invisible or denied – and Jews get to be seen, sometimes even by themselves, as over-sensitive, paranoid, etc. And some are in fact set up to be the visible agents of oppression. (I’d just written that sentence when I turned on the television to see Josh Frydenberg uttering half-truths in his federal budget speech.)

This scapegoating mechanism is used by both right- and left-wingers. The booklet answers the question in its title by arguing, with evidence, that anti-semitism is regularly used to divide progressive movements.

There’s a lot more in the book. I got my copy through a chain of personal contacts. The imprint page gives an address for more information, and I assume copies for sale, as ircc@rc.org.

The Book Group, Goodall and Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience

Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People and Sydney’s Georges River (New South Books 2009)

Before the Meeting: I was the Designated Book Chooser this month, and seized the opportunity to read and discuss this book – Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy (1996) does a brilliant job of un-erasing the long and continuing history of Aboriginal dispossession and struggle for land in New South Wales, and a friend recommended this more localised history. I came to it with high expectations.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Nine of the book’s eleven chapters are filled with stories of Aboriginal people living, working, fighting, building families, organising – being resilient – on or in connection to the Georges River. These stories draw on early settler accounts (in the case of the Bediagal warrior Pemulwuy and the less famous, but charismatic Dharawal man Kogi), petitions to government (beginning with Kogi’s grandson Jonathon Goggey in 1857, and appearing regularly from then on), reports of governmental inquiries (beginning with the colony’s ‘Select Committee on the condition of the Aborigines’ in 1845, where a man named Mahroot told how a number of Aboriginal men and women made livings from fishing on the river, in what the authors call ‘effective cultural negotiation’), the diaries and newspaper articles of white people (including those guided, and fed, on fishing and hunting expeditions by Dharawal-speaking Biddy Giles in the 1860s; and, as transport improved, tourists), the records of the Aborigines Protection Board and other government agencies, and, as the twentieth century progresses, newsreel footage, records of the Housing Commission, Land Rights claims and interviews with Aboriginal people with living connections to the river.

It’s necessarily a piecemeal story, and I can’t tell whether anyone from outside Sydney, let alone outside Australia, would find it interesting. But as a non-Indigenous Sydneysider who has crossed the Georges River many times and walked along the upper reaches of Salt Pan Creek, a tributary that features significantly, my internal map of the world was being radically redrawn as I read.

The opening chapter places the stories in the context of some major ideas about ‘land, indigeneity and change, about environment and about cities’. To give you some idea of this fifteen-page section:

  • The authors reject the idea that ‘Aboriginal “traditional” cultures were unchanging and static, consisting of a closed and fully formed parcel of knowledge and stories which could be handed down intact across generations for thousands of years – and which therefore could not cope with changes’. Even on the Georges River, which flows through heavily industrialised parts of Sydney, they argue, Aboriginal cultural process have been maintained.

  • They argue that the cultural practices that establish strong links to a place need not be effective only for people with a traditional affiliation to that place.

  • Since 1788 and even earlier, mobility has been ‘as much a defining characteristic of Aboriginal cultures as affiliations with meaningful bounded places’. The river has served as an ‘important corridor of mobility’.

  • Discussions of conservation emphasise native local species, treasuring them as national emblems, and paradoxically often ignoring ‘the role of Aboriginal people in the cultural and material work of actively managing, cultivating and changing the native species on the river and its banks’. The declaration of the Georges River National Park, contested among non-Aboriginal people, is even more complex for Aboriginal people.

It would do an injustice to the book to reduce it to a single argument, but there’s a thread of argument running through it: the established way of thinking about sacred sites and Aboriginal people’s connection to land is inadequate. People from many language groups and many parts of Australia have been part of the Aboriginal communities along the Georges River. They have been allocated land, have bought land as individuals and as collectives, and been moved off it repeatedly, sometimes with promises of the right of return, promises that were invariably broken. Because for a long time the land along the river was inaccessible or useless to the colonisers, they were able to make homes and livings there. Whether or not it passes the official criteria for a Native Title claim, it’s indisputably Aboriginal land. The book ends with a quote from the Tharawal Land Council:

Each Aboriginal site has its place; every Aboriginal place has its story in the life of an Aboriginal family. Country is alive with stories.

After the meeting: We had audiovisual aids. Alec Morgan and Rose Hesp’s Australia in Colour is currently screening on SBS, and the second episode includes a colourised version of a 1933 newsreel clip that opens the book, featuring Joe Anderson (‘King Burraga’) standing in the bush near Salt Pan Creek and declaiming in a strangely plummy accent:

Before the white man set foot in Australia, my ancestors had kings in their own right, and I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line … There is plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want … The black man owned Australia, and now he demands more than charity. He wants the right to live!

(You can see the whole episode here. Joe appears at 17:35.)

We opened the evening with that clip. And a group member who is a heritage conservationist who had gone walking in the Georges River National Park on the weekend shared some beautiful photos, including one of a plaque marking the site of Joe Anderson’s family’s home.

We had an animated conversation, though there was less laughter than usual. It’s a heavy subject, and the mildest-mannered of the group said he was quivering with rage at some parts. There was some discussion of what it meant that two white women had written the book: some felt that the authors were very careful not to overstep because of their outsider status – not something I was aware of.

Most of us had got hold of a copy from a library, but one chap get a print-on-demand copy from the publisher – with just a two-week wait.

Rivers and resilience is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (6)

This instalment of posts about books I’ve read as Ruby’s grandfather consists of two kinds of books: two that have been read to the audience of 0–2 year olds at Leichhardt Library Rhyme Time, and three that she requests on repeat.

Gail Jorgensen & Patricia Mullens, Crocodile Beat (Simon & Schuster 1989)

This starts with a scary image of a crocodile who is waiting for his prey to come to the waterhole. Then, page after page, a procession of animals arrives, making at least this reader very uneasy: it’s set up as a macabre variation on Who Sank the Boat?, something like ‘who will the crocodile eat?’

Happily, no spoiler really, everyone ends up alive, though it’s thanks to an extremely improbable intervention, and only for today. Tomorrow the crocodile may well get lucky. It was, however, beautifully read to us with lots of animal noises to match the colour and movement of the book itself.

Jessica Spanyol, Clive and His Babies (Child’s Play International 2016)

Clive is a little white boy who plays with dolls, one of whom is brown. He also plays with a number of other children, some of them also brown. This was read to us at the library. Its message of diversity and flexibility about gender roles, explicitly named on the back cover, is overwhelmingly front and centre and there’s no story to speak of, but who am I to complain? I joined in with gusto all the nursery-rhyme singing and gesturing, motivated at least in part by the desire as the only man there to set a model of gender-role flexibility.

Ingela P Arrhenius, Where’s Mr Duck (Nosy Crow 2019)

No author is named for the text in this lift-the-flap, and there’s no reason why one should be. The reader is simply asked to lift a flap on each spread to see if Mr Duck (not Mr Drake) is under it. Eventually, after finding Mrs Worm, Mr Frog and so on, we do find the duck. End of story.

What makes the book stand out is that the flaps are made of felt, which resists the deliberate or accidental depredations of little hands. The images by Ingela P Arrhenius, described on the publisher’s website as a ‘Swedish homewares designer’, are attractive in an impersonal, Ikea-ish way. The book is definitely designed for 15-month-old people.

Peppa Pig: Creepy Cobwebs (Ladybird 2014)

I’ve never seen an episode of Peppa Pig, and as far as I know neither has Ruby. On the strength of this little board book, we’re not missing much. It’s nominally about creepy things, but includes – among other non-creepy things – an image of Peppa Pig and family riding in a space ship. There’s no narrative line, and I find the images crude and uninteresting. Ruby, however, took the book from me after a couple of readings and proceeded to turn the pages while giving voice to what might have been a Martian rendition of the text. A big success for the unnamed author.

Kimberley Barnes (illustrator), The Wheels on the Bus (Hinkler Books, First Steps 2017)

Not so much a book as merchandise to accompany a song, this is one of several musical ‘novelty books’ we read/play. One of the buttons on the right plays the tune, the other three play the sounds of windscreen wipers, a baby crying and a car horn respectively. (I do wonder if Verna Hills, who Wikipedia says wrote the song, receives any royalties.)

I am reading on my non-grandfathering days. Some posts about that coming soon.

Brian K Vaughan’s Paper Girls Book 5

Brian K Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colorist) and Jared K Fletcher (letterer), Paper Girls, Volume 5 (Image 2018)

So many books to read and, assuming I don’t live to much past 100, so little life left. Yet here I am writing about another instalment-compilation of a comic about a gang of young teenage girls taking on cosmic time-travelling forces. I plead in mitigation that this blog is a record of every book I read, however embarrassing or daunting the book. And this one has jumped to the front of the reading queue because it came as a birthday gift with invisible strings attached: the giver expects to be able to read it himself, soon!

The girls are in the future, dealing with time-travel paradoxes, particularly the ones generated by Tiffany having met her older self in Volume 4. The nature of their enemies is becoming clearer, and with it our hope that they will survive. There’s a terrible death, some incipient, awkward romance, and in the last pages a big twist that ensures that the story will continue for quite some time yet.

I didn’t warm to the artwork at all at first. In particular, the colouring seemed kind of drab. But I’ve not just acclimatised, but come to respect and even love the stylish near monochrome of much of the book.