Category Archives: Books

Benjamin Law’s Moral Panic 101

Benjamin Law, Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal (Quarterly Essay 67, 2017)

qe67.jpgIn conversation with David Marr about this Quarterly Essay at the Seymour Centre in Sydney recently, Benjamin Law produced a wad of A4 paper at least 4 centimetres thick printed on both sides. It was a print-out of articles published in the Australian covering, or at least mentioning, the Safe Schools program over a single year, roughly one every two days. The stories, he says in this essay, ‘were at best inadequate or misleading, at worst simply false’.

The essay summarises the Australian‘s campaign and its effects. It attempts to correct the record about the nature of Safe Schools, which was not a vile, child-corrupting Gay Marxist propaganda program, but a well-thought out, minimalist initiative to help schools counter bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer children, launched by the Abbott government in 2014, having been committed to by the Gillard government in its last weeks. The essay lays out much-needed information about where the medical profession and the law in Australian stand in relation to young people who identify as transgender, about queer theory, about the significance of same-sex marriage in combatting the systemic oppression of LGBTIQ people. Perhaps most tellingly, it reports on conversations with some of the young people whose wellbeing Safe Schools sought to protect (and still seeks, though not in all states and without federal funding) – something not done by any of the Australian‘s 200 or more articles.

Moral Panic 101 could be a sequel to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation (2011), which provided an epigraph for one of its sections:

In these campaigns, [the Australian‘s] assigned journalists appear to begin with their editorially determined conclusion and then seek out evidence to support it.

Here, extracted from Law’s essay, is a dishonour roll of journalists who, either as right-wing culture warriors or as uncritical relayers of the RWCWs’ ‘facts’, contributed to the News Corp’s campaign:

  • Miranda Devine, ‘the Daily Telegraph‘s resident prophet of doom’
  • Rita Panahi, ‘Herald Sun columnist and Twitter firebrand’
  • Natasha Bita, ‘a Walkley Award–winning journalist who has worked across News Corp’s mastheads since the 1990s’
  • the Herald Sun‘s Susie O’Brien
  • The Australian‘s Rebecca Urban, who wrote thirty-one stories and 17 thousand words about Roz Ward and Safe Schools in one year, ‘all of which were critical’
  • Andrew Burrell, who co-wrote at least one of Rebecca Urban’s articles.

No one was surprised when News Corp went after Benjamin Law the week this essay was published. Given that he’s such a sweet presence they had to search, but they found an ugly tweet, misinterpreted it to make it infinitely uglier, and banged on about it for days, to the extent that Lyle Shelton could give him as an example of the ugliness of the Yes campaign (few reasonable people would see the goodlooking, charming, witty and intelligent Mr Law as in any way ugly). The most astonishing moment in the Marr–Law conversation at the Seymour Centre was that both men revealed that they still subscribe to the Australian.

It’s easy to become fascinated by the illogic, hypocrisy and dishonesty of some commentators, journalists and public figures (I don’t follow @realdonaldtrump on Twitter but I regularly go looking to see what he’s tweeted). What Law has done in this essay, in carefully documenting, analysing and refuting the misrepresentations, goes well beyond that fascination, and has earned our gratitude.

We can also be grateful for his discussion of transgender issues, based mainly on interviews with young transgender people and with Dr Elizabeth Riley, who has worked with gender-variant young people for about a decade. Contrary to what some parts of the press might imply, for example, medical experts in Australia will not prescribe irreversible hormone treatment before puberty. And no Australian minor can commence irreversible hormone treatment without a determination from the Family Court that ‘the child had sufficient intellectual sophistication to understand what was involved, and all the possible consequences’.

Few things can trigger emotional responses more than the accusation of harm to children, especially harm that involves sex. It’s an extraordinary achievement of this essay that, while it leaves you in no doubt where it stands, it remains judicious, calm, reasonable and open to complexity. It doesn’t feel like the last word on the subject, but it’s a good one.
—–
A final note. Like  most current or retired editors or proofreaders, I tend to be distracted by my own pedantry. If I hadn’t been a fan of Benjamin Law and editor Chris Feik before, I would have been when I read this sentence, talking about queer theory, which says ‘discomfort’ where far too many people would have ‘discomfit’, thereby depriving us of the other useful, but now dying meaning of ‘discomfit’:

After all, one of its central tenets is that it’s supposed to discomfort people by upending how we perceive norms, and by interrogating the social scaffolding around gender and sexuality we take for granted.

Nicola Knox’s Green Light Running

Nicola Knox, Green Light Running (self published 2012)

glr.jpgThis is not one of those self-published books with a chip on its shoulder about the publishing industry.  It’s much more modest than that – so modest that I can’t find any information about where to buy a copy. Mine was a gift from the author, an honour to which I owe a number of Nicola Knox’s poems having appeared in The School Magazine when I was editor. My impression is that she only ever intended a small, intimate circulation. (Maybe I’m projecting: my own three self-published books of verse are glorified end-of-year greeting cards – though of course I’m delighted whenever someone buys one from Lulu.)

The book is a witness to the value of creativity, of making in response to experience. Where one person might take out a sketch book and pencil or paints, another will reach for pen and notepaper. Poems here have been inspired by travel, by family life, by childhood reminiscence, by works of art, by ancient and modern history. They are the fruits of life lived with an active mind, a mind that it’s a pleasure to spend time with.

Just to give you a taste, here’s a poem that speaks softly but carries a big stick to one of the big issues facing us at the present moment:

Refugee Boat

The heart of Pharaoh
was dry and shrivelled
as an old walnut.

But his daughter
dove gentle
beautiful and kind
was loved as her father
was feared.

On a morning
splashing with court ladies
in the Nile, she did not hide
her pity for the plump infant
found in a coracle
rocking gently
among river reeds.

So the princess
and the alien child
gazed upon each other
and from that moment
all things changed.

A second volume of Nicola Knox’s poetry, Verandah Man, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2016, and is available from the Ginninderra website.

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Green Light Running is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ali Alizadeh’s Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc

Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)

jeanne.jpgI have a number of St Joans in my head.

Joan of Arc was one of the array of saints who populated my Catholic childhood. She did stand out from the crowd, but I don’t remember being much impressed that she was a cross-dressing, gender-bending, sword-wielding, authority-defying young woman – her armour was no odder than the flowing robes of many male saints, her defiance of authority was mild compared to Jesus’, and even her death was no more terrible than, say, St Laurence roasted on a spit or St Maria Goretti stabbed 14 times when she rejected a young man’s sexual advances.

joan.jpg

I loved George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (first performed in 1923) which I read as an 11 year old in the Collected Plays I sneaked from the top shelf of the china cabinet. (I also loved Man and Superman, despite its disappointing lack of superheroes.) I was thrilled that a Big Name Writer was acknowledging someone from Our Team – Team Catholic. I probably read it again or saw a performance as a young adult, but I don’t remember any change to my sense of the play. Rereading it just now, I realise that Shaw was actually trying to poach Joan for Team Protestant (or at least Team Proto-Protestant).

In a Sydney University Film Group screening in about 1970 of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Maria Falconetti’s silent tears as the flames rose  left an indelible imprint. The first (and only?) night of Dorothy Hewett’s musical Joan in Canberra in 1978 was a fabulous feminist event, complete with bonfire:

Mother, I’m rooted
spurred and booted,
fucked, and far from home.

Jeannd'arc.jpgWhen we visited Rouen in 2002 I insisted on being photographed at the Eglise Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc. I’m the tiny black-clad figure to the left of centre.

So, I’ve got lots of Joans. And I’m not the only one. An essay on the Overland site by Ramon Glazov, ‘The Maid of Orleans, sacred and profane‘, has a wide-ranging survey of Joans, including Shakespeare’s calumny in Henry VI Part I (news to me) and some bizarre French science fiction/fantasy.

When I heard that Ali Alizadeh, raised in a majority Muslim country and a formidable presence in Australia’s poetry scene, had written a Joan novel, my ears pricked up.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc gives us a Joan for the early 21st century.

For a start it acknowledges that it occupies a territory somewhere between known fact and informed invention. It insists on Joan’s historical reality, and her status as a great military leader who changed the history of Europe. A lively sixteen pages recount highlights of hostilities between England and France from 1329 to 1429, when the young peasant girl Jeannette Darc first visited the court of Charles VI and offered to drive the English out of France. At a number of points elsewhere, the narrator reminds us explicitly that historians have been arguing for a long time about aspects of Joan’s story.

Issues that were of little interest to Bernard Shaw – which might be summarised as sex and violence – loom large in our culture now, and Alizadeh’s novel attends to them. It engages with the tactics of war, and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of medieval European warfare: Jeanne has to face the hideous slaughter her idealistic mission unleashes. Her English prison guards are as predatory as the elite footballers who these days regularly make headlines. The book faces the now obvious question of Jeanne’s sexuality, and where lesser hands might have made something tacky or bandwagonish of this, Alizadeh makes something deeply affecting: at the heart of his story is Jeanne’s deep, troubled yearning for intimacy with another woman – sinful in the eyes of the Church, though less unambiguously so according to Jeanne’s Voices. The love story is complex, joyous, devastating, harshly cool-eyed and – in a brilliant final twist that takes us forward in time to the church in the photograph above – supported by evidence.

Another thing that makes the book very much of our time is the language. Here’s a typical passage from the early chapters outlining the back-story:

1413
In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their new ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty that his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of Frances. Raises an army of ten thousand men and a fleet of 150 ships for the journey across the channel.

It would be hard to find a paragraph in the early part of the book that doesn’t disregard schoolroom rules of syntax in this way. The early pages that deal with Jeanne in her prison cell are similarly syntactically non-conforming (‘Two men enter. Agitated, brusque. Steel helmets and steel kneecaps.’). The effect is unsettling: who knows where the next full stop will fall, or whether there will be a verb in the next sentence? You just can’t skim these pages.

Later, during the love story, there’s a daring device where point of view changes frequently and without warning. There are at least two narrators in these chapters: Joan in her cell telling own story to Piéronne, her absent confidante; and an omniscient narrator who describes events in the present tense, as if creating them in his imagination as he writes. Here’s a taste, from a scene where Jeanne has just had an awkward encounter with a fanatical friar:

I knelt, ate, crossed myself and rose to my feet. She feels tipsy, giddy and a little disoriented. She nearly trips over a pew and falls against the chapel’s arched entrance. She pushes disorderly locks of hair off her face. My hair was getting too long. It almost reaches her shoulders. I wondered if you would cut it for me.

The voices alternate, sometimes just one short sentence each at a time. I found myself experiencing something like vertigo. There’s probably a better technical term for this, but Brechtian is the best I can do. (Perhaps it won’t be so disorientating in the audio book, where I expect there will be at least two readers.) Paradoxically, the effect is to underscore that Jeanne’s story is real, including and perhaps especially the parts that are explicitly invented.

There’s a new Jeanne in my head. None of the others have been damaged, but this one – at least for now – is more recognisable than any of the others as fully human.

Giramondo sent me a review copy of The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, and when I lost the bag it was in I spent my own money on a replacement.

Jennifer Maiden’s George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies

Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives Four: George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies (Quemar Press 2017)

pwk4The first page of this short novel –– just over 157 pages – drops the reader in medias res, that is to say into the middle of a long-running story. Arguably that’s what any decent novel does, but in this case you could go back and read a lot of what has gone before. See my post on Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker for one synopsis.

In the first few pages, George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, once Probation Office and convicted child murderer (that is, convicted when nine years old of murdering her three younger siblings), now lovers thirty odd years later, are languishing in a heatwave in Mt Druitt in Sydney’s western suburbs. In a break from working on a report for their NGO employer about Indigenous children in custody in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, they chat about a draconian policy at the Cobham Juvenile Detention Centre (a real place, real policy), and then Clare looks up an extract from William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris on Project Gutenberg and reads out a passage, which makes them both cry – and which they then discuss in erudite terms, before indulging in some erotic play.

pantherThe book continues as it has begun: whatever else may be happening, George and Clare are always good for a bit of literary chat, some sharing of random information (George refers to his ‘op-shop mind’), commentary on international politics (the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 is particularly upsetting), plenty of erotic carry-on (the word ‘foreplay’ features frequently), and lots of mutual introspection. Quotes from poetry and references to visual art abound: in this book, prints from Rosaleen Norton, the ‘Witch of King’s Cross’, play a significant role (there’s an example on the right, and you can click on the image for more). Not everyone would agree with Clare’s description of Roie’s work as mostly sweet and pretty.

The story unfolds in chapters that mostly alternate between prose narrated by George, and third person narration in verse. The baby great granddaughter of their Aboriginal friend Ruth has gone missing, and the quest to find her, alive or dead, involves, among others, a bikie gang (the Warriors of Hell), a super-criminal named Schmidt and his three diverse lovers, a number of George’s former Probation clients, an inmate of the juvenile detention centre (up on the roof, echoing recent real-world headlines), Idris the Grey Hat Hacker from the previous book now in Moscow, and George’s contact in the CIA in Langley. There’s a boxing match between two men who are old enough to know better (in which Jennifer Maiden, through George, reminds us of the second line to Muhammad Ali’s ‘Floats like a butterfly stings like a bee’), a witchcraft ceremony, a fabulously tense shoot-out in the Jenolan Caves, a number of deaths and a birth.

It’s good fun, it sticks to the tropes of the thriller genre, and could make an excellent movie. Some difficulties are solved a little too easily, and some of the connections between events aren’t clear, but I can’t say I mind. It’s full of surprise twists, not in the plot so much as in the telling: you never know where George and Clare’s minds will go next. For just one example, here’s George in the middle of the climactic cave scene, where people are dead and dying and things could hardly be more urgent:

… in front of me was a formation of such irresistible fineness that it stopped everything else in me for a second. The plain clear light was floating on a white inclining bank of intricately furrowed but luminously smooth limestone, with a cluster of long tasseled objects like sea plants embedded in the top. These showed delicate tints from iron, but in the sweet colours of skin, not its usual salty rust.

I remembered Proust writing that one can’t appreciate beauty when in severe sadness, but I wanted to add something about that point in which one is wracked with anxiety, and beauty is the only thing one can experience, perhaps just as those in grief always obsess on details. I wanted to tell that to Clare, and the need to do so reincarnated me – or maybe disincarnated me enough for me to continue.

Through it all, George and Clare’s relationship develops and though it may be a bit prim of me, I’m not going to say how. I will say that the last two short chapters, while completely within the conventions of the genre in having the world back to normal now that the threat has been dealt with, are deeply satisfying in terms of Clare’s long story arc: she can never forget that she killed her younger siblings when she was nine, has never asked forgiveness, but she does seem at last to have found a possible way to move on.

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George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2: Skin (2016)

apj71The cover of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal features a brilliantly eye-grabbing Destiny Deacon photograph, Escape from the Whacking Spoon (2007). As the first issue covered by the new policy of having different guest editors for each issue, this one is edited by two leading Aboriginal poets, which ensures that it follows through on the cover’s promise.

There are three sections:

  • Skin 1: 34 poems by 25 Indigenous writers
  • Skin 2: 16 poems by 13 non-Indigenous writers
  • Transforming My Country (edited by Toby Fitch): 12 poems responding to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’,

The selection is very rich, for many of the individual poems and for the extraordinarily valuable dialogue created by placing them between one set of covers. I dog-eared the pages with these poems from the first two sections in my copy (your mileage will very – I recommend you get hold of your own copy via Australian Poetry Pty Ltd’s web site):

  • Claire G Coleman, ‘Strawberry Juice’: starting from the image of spots of strawberry juice staining her writing paper, the poet plays with the notion that directions for colonial killings and records of them were written on paper. Ink stains, like blood stains, can’t be removed, and the lines that bring it home:
    _
    __Notice how paper covers rock
    __Covers
    __My country, my people are one
    __Notice how easily paper tears
    _
  • Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, ‘Love comes in many colours’ The poet greets her granddaughter:
    _
    Her blonde hair cool against my black skin her whiteness grabs my heart a new day dawning for this land Australia as we dance to the sounds of the oldest culture in the world. Love comes in many colours.
    _
  • Kate Adler, ‘Sorry’. A non-Indigenous person at a Sorry Camp:
    _
     __Hard to witness wounds like these
    __but love is deeper than skin.

The third section includes work by some heavy hitters of Australian poetry, including brilliant poems by the editors of this issue, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. Eileen Chong (‘My music is wrong – nothing / has been written down right’) and Hani Abdile (‘Opal-hearted country / I’m now one of your unwanted beings / I’ve come to love you sunburnt’) write from immigrant and refugee perspectives. The poem is deconstructed, thesaurised and anagrammatised. Toby Fitch’s introduction describes Lisa Gorton’s conceptually and concretely thrilling poem as an ‘almost-epic’ that ‘explores in microscopic detail the history of the grounds of Royal Park, Melbourne’. I’ll end with some lines from each of the Indigenous takes on the Mackellar poem:

Alison Whittaker (‘A love like Dorothea’s’):

I’m sorry, sweet Mackellar, that it famished all your cows,
y’paddock’s yellow-thirsty-sudden-green; no telling how.
That the gold-hush-rainy-drum hard to your violence and your plow.

Natalie Harkin (‘Heart’s Core Lament’, which is hard to represent accurately here, as it depends on justifying the text on the page, and includes quotes from colonisers’ texts in the margin, but here goes):

harkins.jpeg

Ellen van Neerven (‘My Country’):

my country
is between two rivers

two ribs
two hip bones

Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘Transforming My Country’, which plays with Mackellar’s words to produce radically different meanings):

Who pays back to Earth?

Not she and soft-hearted love
What a hush of her heart, and her
I have her share, her jewel
Though not her land
Your love of my land is tragic

——-

(I won’t repeat my own favourite anecdote about ‘My Country’ and Dame Mary Gilmore, If you’re interested you can read it here.)

 

 

Jennifer Maiden’s George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker

Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker (Quemar Press 2016)

pwk3This is the third novel in the Play with Knives series, and like the earlier volumes it’s not a straightforward thriller as the title might seem to imply.

As well as the earlier novels, it is preceded by more than a decade of poetry featuring its two main characters. You probably don’t need to have read any of the previous novels or poems to enjoy it – a teasing curiosity about the back-story would be part of the enjoyment, and anyway parts of the history referred to in the text exist only in those references. But just for the record, here’s a chronology (I’ve listed the 25 poems in order of publication at the bottom of this post).

Chronology:

1990: George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first appear as the leads in Jennifer Maiden’s novel Play with Knives. He’s  a probation officer and she’s his client, a young woman who murdered her three younger siblings when she was nine years old. There’s a serial killer on the loose in Western Sydney, George gets involved with Clare in an ethically dubious way, and they begin an apparently endless conversation.

1991: A sequel, Complicity, is written but only excerpts are published in literary magazines. George and Clare’s relationship as lovers and conversers firms up, and there is more violence. (Quemar Press published it as an ebook in 2016.)

2005: After a fourteen-year absence the characters reappear / are resurrected in Friendly Fire (Giramondo). Maiden says in an introduction that soon after 11 September 2001, she thought, ‘What are George and Clare thinking?’ The question begins to be answered in a prose narrative set in Lower Manhattan on 9 September 2001, and then in six ‘George Jeffreys’ poems, each beginning:

George Jeffreys woke up in [xxx].
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad.

The first four of these poems pretty much sticks to the question of what George is thinking – about post–911 events up to and including the invasion of Iraq. Then, in the fifth and sixth poems, he moves beyond just thinking, to chat with George W Bush (in the White House, in #5) and Saddam Hussein (in Baghdad, in #6).

2010–2016: Another 14 ‘George Jeffreys’ poems appear in Jennifer Maiden’s next five books. There are also four poems named for Clare: ‘Clare and Paris / Manus / Thessaloniki / Nauru’. Both characters make an appearance in ‘The Year of the Ox’ in Liquid Nitrogen (2012) – George watching Obama on TV, Clare in contact with the ghosts of her murdered siblings, both watching Gillard on TV. George w Bush fades from the scene, and so eventually does the TV set.

While George and Clare continue to provide a medium for reflections on world events, they also assert themselves as characters, turning up at hotspots all over the world working for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience. They are great talkers, to each other of course, but also with political figures ranging from the Master of the Crossroads in Louisiana and a brace of ancient Chinese philosophers to a CIA operative and, in a poem published the day after his electoral victory, Donald Trump.

The poems are embedded in a compelling body of work, only one of a number of conduits for reflections on the constellation of themes in each book – war and violence, ‘ethical security’, government surveillance, Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’, culling of feral animals, and more. Other pairs of characters appear in similar series, including Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt in 14 poems, Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria in six. But only George and Clare’s poems develop progressively into more rounded fictions*. There are Hitchcockian shoot-outs in spectacular settings, dramatic rescues of abused women, a spot of arson on Manus Island. People and animals rescued by Clare become part of their domestic life back in Mount Druitt.

2016: It seems a logical progression, almost a response to pressure from the characters themselves, when the novel series comes back to life. Quemar Press reissues Play with Knives, publishes Complicity for the first time, and then Play with Knives Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker, all as ebooks in PDF format.

End of chronology.

This third novel in the Play with Knives series differs from the previous two by being mostly in verse. It differs from the poems of the previous decades by having room to focus on the characters’ intimacies (which it does in explicit detail) and space for their conversations to veer off down innumerable byways.

After a brief prose prologue from George (all the prose sections are George speaking in the first person), the first chapter begins in the well-established way, ‘George Jeffreys woke up’: he’s in Thirroul, just south of Sydney, house-sitting with Clare, in a house filled with Gary Shead prints of D H Lawrence and Frieda. (Thirroul is where Lawrence wrote Kangaroo. A number of the prints are lovingly described in the text: you can see images of them on this Pinterest site). As well as Lawrence on the walls, they share the house with a pet rat named Johnny Depp, canaries (Lily and Snape) and a blue tongue lizard (Hello Kitty).

It’s the night of a scheduled execution in Indonesia strikingly similar to the real-world killing by firing squad in April 2015 when of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and six others are to be killed by firing squad in Indonesia. Clare and George have (of course) been involved with one of the prisoners and their emotional preparation for and then response to the executions is the central action of the first two chapters, which constitute more than half the book. Seeking distraction and human contact, they have quite a lot of explicitly negotiated and described, not entirely conventional sex, they swap stories about D H Lawrence and Norman Mailer, come close to using Assange as a term for a sexual practice, criticise Freud and de Sade, discuss Trump’s policies, quote A E Housman, Nye Bevan, A J P Taylor, and a lot more. There’s a recurring sentence:

The clock by the bed went round, but it wasn’t time.

This is all so absorbing that one hardly notices that some time in the night, they learn by phone that George’s grandson Idris is heading their way from England, where his hacking activities have put him in danger. The next night, still exhausted by events in Indonesia, well past the halfway point of the book, George and Clare go to bed:

They slept there for an hour, then George woke to a noise.
It was like a cat tapping to get out, except that he saw it was
actually his grandson, tapping to get in. He thought: If he
calls me ‘Dude’, I’ll kill him. He unlocked the door quickly,
admonished, ‘Don’t wake Clare.’ Idris hugged him, no different
to his exuberance as a child. George had always been his
favourite male relative. George locked the door. Idris still
hadn’t let his arm go, exclaiming, ‘Dude, how are you? You
look great.’ George hugged him back: ‘I’m fine. You seem in
quite good shape, yourself, boy.’

That’s the start of what in a conventional genre novel would be the central action (and the echo from the poems in ‘George woke’ suggests that we are indeed at a new beginning). But, once everyone has said hello and Idris has said he’s being followed by some ‘weird dudes’, everyone goes back to sleep. When Clare wakes in the morning she muses on one of the Shead paintings, remembers a Civil War song, looks at the sleeping George …

Sure, there’s a story to be told, but life is full of moments. Idris’s partner Sophie (whose life Clare saved in Paris years earlier) arrives with baby Florence, and there is a wonderful sequence of extended family domesticity.

In chapters 3 to 4, George picks up the narration in prose, and in what is only slightly less leisurely (there’s still time for a lit-crit discussion of Peter Pan, some wine-snob chat and a brief reflection on infant circumcision), the tension mounts to a climactic shoot-out on the Bulli Pass. That too, as much as the sex and the images on the wall, is the subject of Clare-and-George conversation. Clare asks:

‘How did you shoot that Frenchman?’

‘Apart from using withdrawal symptoms to concentrate? I remembered what you said about empathising. I knew where to aim for in his arm, and I didn’t feel as if my own arm existed. Fortunately, by the time his mate killed him, most of the empathy was over.’ Although I instantly remembered, very accurately, the screaming.

In [redacted to avoid spoiler], her eyes were lightning on rockpools. I thought of my finger in the sea anemone: that temporary sudden small ridge appearing from nowhere after the opening, testing itself against an invader, making the whole map change. She asked, ‘But how did you shoot him?’

I answered, ‘I am descended from the Hanging Judge, you know. It was easy. I just forgot everything I ever knew.’

Some novels are blatantly written with the Hollywood machine in mind. This is not one of them: it ignores the genre rules about structure, and its pleasures are in the detail of relationships – in sex, in play between adults and small children, in the joys of conversation, in the grief and rage of seeing state machinery destroy lives, in engagement on many levels with art, literature and politics. There is a twist at the end, in the last two short chapters, chapter 5 in prose and chapter 6 in verse,  which makes the whole hacker plot seem a little like an elaborate misdirection. The clock by the bed still goes round, but in these final chapters we have a different understanding of what that means.

I won’t spoil things by telling you if Idris escapes safely to Moscow.
—–
Jennifer Maiden poems featuring George Jeffreys and Clare Collins 2005–2016
In Friendly Fire (Giramondo 2005):
George Jeffreys 1: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kabul
George Jeffreys 2: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kandahar
George Jeffreys 3: George Jeffreys Woke Up in London
George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin
George Jeffreys 5: George Jeffreys Woke Up in the White House
George Jeffreys 6: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Baghdad

In Pirate Rain (Giramondo 2010):
George Jeffreys 7: George Jeffreys Woke Up in New Orleans
George Jeffreys 8: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Rio
George Jeffreys 9: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beirut
Clare and Paris
George Jeffreys 10: George Jeffreys Woke Up in a Pirates’ Ship

In Liquid Nitrogen (Giramondo 2012):
The Year of the Ox
George Jeffreys 11: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Langley
George Jeffreys 12: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Oslo
George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beijing
George Jeffreys 14: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Sharm el Sheikh

In Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)
George Jeffreys 15: The Fourth Terrace
George Jeffreys 16: George Jeffreys Woke Up in South Iceland
Clare and Manus

In The Fox Petition (Giramondo 2015)
George Jeffreys 17: George and the Holy Holiday
George Jeffreys 18: George Jeffreys Woke Up on Kos
Clare and Thessaloniki

In The Metronome (Quemar 2016, Giramondo 2017)
Clare and Nauru
George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo
George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Washington

There are more to come, in Appalachian Fall, due out from Quemar in October.
——
aww2017.jpgGeorge and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

Overland 226

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 226 (Autumn 2017)

226 cover.inddI’m an issue behind in my Overland reading, but I’m glad I resisted the temptation to skip this one.

Over the dinner table last night, someone complained that the left is obsessed with identity politics. Well, that may true of the left as understood in the mainstream media, but Overland is probably as close as we’ve got to an official organ of the left in Australia, and I can report that identity politics are a long way from dominating this issue. Article after article sheds light and brings precision to areas that are too often discussed in dim and befuddled terms.

All worlds die’ by Angus Reoch is the stand-out piece for me. Responding to what the article’s subtitle calls ‘the politics of despair’, he argues:

Chomsky was correct when he argued that climate change is an unprecedented crisis and that mankind’s potential for destruction is unmatched. Yet culturally, the twenty-first century does not have the luxury of claiming ‘the end of world’ as a unique historical moment. We have no other choice than to fight climate change, but we are not unique in human history to be living in an apocalyptic predicament. Many societies have seen ‘the end of history’. The First World War was only the final gut-wrenching body blow to the old world, upon the corpse of which the Second World War was fought, and the new world order erected. Many of the great writers before these events, from Leo Tolstoy to Natsume Sōseki, directly grappled with the realisation of a passing era, and the decline not only of aristocracy but of the old world itself. These writers were highly aware of the passing of their era and realised that in the modern age of European hegemony there was no choice but to adapt. […]

I recommend the whole article. Here’s the second last paragraph:

Perhaps we should not celebrate the demise of this world, for we do face the very real spectre of barbarism, but we should recognise the brutal and limiting nature of the world in which our societies have flourished. The fall of the neoliberal era is a necessary condition of a more peaceful and prosperous world.

There are at least four other articles that would have justified the price of the journal. And they’re all available on line for free).

In ‘It is still the Balanda way‘, Amy Thomas argues that while some Aboriginal languages such as Wiradjuri and Marra are being retrieved, this does not mean that Aboriginal languages are generally being respected and resourced. On the contrary, living languages are threatened with extinction by Northern Territory government educational policies and the continuing Intervention (aka Stronger Futures).

It is important not to overstate the way that language shapes our worldview. We create language, rather than the other way around. Yet what is lost when a language dies is more than just a linguistic curiosity; a community’s history and ways of viewing the world are lost with it. Losing your mother tongue through the forced imposition of a dominant language is disempowering, at least partly because it is an attempt to reshape your identity to suit someone other than yourself.

C J Chanco, a Filipino/a living in Toronto, addresses the phenomenon of Duterte in ‘Law and order’, in particular the question of how his murderous ‘drug war’ command such widespread support, not just from the churches and the far right, but also from the general population and until recently from the Communist Party of the Philippines.

The quest for primordial whiteness’ by Ramon Glazov exposes the weird theoretical underpinnings of contemporary white supremacist ‘thinking’, beginning with Arthur de Gobineau’s 1853 opus, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, which now reads as outright deranged. Sadly events since this Overland was published have increased this article’s relevance:

How should we respond to the spread of ‘race realist’ arguments? Moral condemnation is not enough; it does not faze alt-righters to be called ‘racist’. Their ideology already assumes that racism is true, so accusing them of it is like accusing a Trot of being unpatriotic. What is more likely to give the ‘redpilled’ pause is the suggestion that they are being naïve, that their newfound politics is just as gullible as the liberal ‘cuck programming’ they have allegedly shed, that race realism is not a suppressed Grand Theory of Everything but a useless red herring

To be a queer teacher’ by Elizabeth Sutherland lays out the enormous burden placed on the shoulders of LGBTQ+ teachers. I guess this could be called ‘identity politics’, but I read it as bringing much-needed specific experience to current debates (though the marriage equality debate was still on a distant horizon when the essay was written).

The regular columnists all shine: Giovanni Tiso laments the way social media mean we can never escape ‘the unbearable closeness of others’; Alison Croggon writes a personal tribute to the late great John Berger; Mel Campbell talks about wanting to be liked as a writer, particularly a female writer; Natalie Harkin offers a dense reflection on kinds of responsibility and accountability at play for Indigenous writers, and – citing Kerry Reed-Gilbert – she  challenges non-Indigenous readers to understand multiple ways of belonging; to act and engage in the political struggle with Indigenous Australians.

Then there’s the literary / creative content, a strong feature of Overland from its beginning.

Each issue these days showcases the work of a different guest artist. The striking cover and all the internal artwork of Nº 226, including title pages for each of the fiction pieces, are by comics artist, illustrator and bag designer Nicky Minus (link is to Minus’s website). It’s a pleasure to be introduced to this artist’s work.

Overland sequesters poetry and fiction in separate sections rather than having them punctuate the rest of the journal, and they usually incorporate the results of at least one competition. The ten-page poetry section in #226 features the winner and runners-up of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, with a judges’ report from Toby Fitch and Jill Jones that’s a bit of a lesson in how to read poetry; and there are some startlingly erotic poems by Omar Sakr. The 22 pages of fiction comprise five short stories, including the winner of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, Katy Warner’s ‘The Trip‘, a which deals with family relations in a way that made me want to cower under the bedcovers, in a good way (the runnersup are online). The other story that stands out for me is Afopefoluwa Ojo’s ‘A consequence of things’, a tale of teenage pregnancy told in Nigerian English, with a twist where what looks like an awkward metaphor becomes a literal reality.

Then at the very end of the journal, as if it’s an afterthought, there’s ‘Through the eyes of a humanist’ by Subhash Jaireth, a discussion of the work of 2015 Nobel Literature Laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Someone in my book club recently proposed that we read one of her books. If I had read this article, I would have been an enthusiastic seconder. Jaireth says:

It can be hard to imagine a book or work of art helping to topple a dictator, stop a war or shield a person from a bullet. But I (perhaps naively) believe that the strong moral imperative driving Alexievich’s work, and the chorus of voices given space to bear witness to human-made tragedy, create what are, effectively, works against war, brutality and tyranny – if only we seize the moment to listen.

Jenny Blackford’s Loyalty of Chickens

Jenny Blackford, The Loyalty of Chickens (Pitt Street Poets 2017)

chickensLike Jenny Blackford’s earlier book, The Duties of a Cat, this is beautifully presented collection of poetry. This one’s bigger – there are more pages and more poems, and it has a broader scope of subject matter and tone.

As in the earlier book, there are sweet celebrations of pet cats (‘All that he asked / was total control’) and a range of animals wild and domestic, including the chickens, which, according to the title poem,

show no loyalty. It seems that any girl
who’ll delve a scoop of free-range mix
is She Who Brings the Grain,
or close enough for these
red-feathered hens
to worship her.

Jenny Blackford’s biography mentions that her work is published regularly in The School Magazine. One of the attractive features of this book is the way poems that are eminently suitable for children are mixed in with poems of mature sensibility, with no sense of incongruity. The lovely imagistic ‘sweeping’ (‘the wind is sweeping / the tide out to sea’), is followed by ‘South Steyne’, which recalls childhood events from an amused adult perspective (‘The South Steyne ferry was heaven / for me, though doubtless hell for parents’), and then by ‘Some slight redemption’, a meditation on Coventry Cathedral as a monument ‘not to war / nor even peace / but to forgiveness’.

It seems inevitable that any collection of poems by a person of a certain age that touches on domestic life will at some point touch on dementia. This collection manages to subject with tenderness and humour in ‘Dipping into that Lake’: ‘There are fairies at the bottom of Mum’s garden now / and butterflies, and owls.’

The poet lets slip at one point that she graduated in Classics from Cambridge, and classical references are scattered through the book, but the erudition is lightly worn. A personal favourite of mine (for reasons that you can easily guess) happens to be an example of this. There’s the whole poem:

Earth-shaker, bed-shaker

According to inscriptions
in a lost Poseidon temple
soon to be discovered
somewhere in southern Greece
Poseidon Earth-shaker is patron
and protector of snoring men.
Without his godly nasal power,
so many men of twenty, forty, sixty
would be discovered (in soft morning silence)
smothered by bed-pillows,
domestic earthquakes
permanently stilled.

The temple vaults hold tributes
from his snoring worshippers:
gilt effigies of elephants,
yellowed tusks of snorting walruses,
and woolly mammoths’ freeze-dried trunks
as fat as anacondas,
all given to the god
by grateful bed-shakers.

I would happily have the poem end there but of course it goes on:

In Aphrodite’s nearby temple of love,
ears of silver, gold and clay
are mounted on the walls
or heaped in shelly stacks,
donated by the snoring men’s
sleep-deprived bedfellows.
May the merciful goddess
muffle our night-time senses
forever and ever. Amen

aww2017.jpg

The Loyalty of Chickens is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a gift from Pitt Street Poets and the author, whose work I first met, and published, when I was editor of The School Magazine.

Alan Wearne’s Things Are Real

Alan Wearne, These Things Are Real (Giramondo 2017)

things (1)

Despite the increasing frequency of narrative poems, the work of Alan Wearne is unmatched. Nobody has even begun to approach the complexity of his portraits of life in post-war Australia.

That’s Martin Duwell in 2013 reviewing Alan Wearne’s Prepare the Cabin for Landing. He could have been introducing the five narrative poems that make up the first 70 pages of These Things Are Real. The book’s title doesn’t so much make a claim of non-fiction status for these narratives, as insist that the kinds of stories they tell, stories that don’t make the headlines, and that are unlikely to make it into the history books or best-selling novels, are nevertheless poignantly human.

A widow renews her friendship with a friend from her youth, but they drift apart after some years when she rejects the overtures of her friend’s husband, all in Menzies-voting suburbia. A Ceb (which, as the poem had to spell out for me, is argot for a member of the Church of England Boys Society) tells the story of his multiple coming-out. A young woman, single mother, has a relationship with a musician who turns out to be abusive. A school teacher, a ‘happy-go-usey’ drug addict, struggles with his moral compromises and worse, including an involvement with squalid and murderous criminality. A ‘recently retired femocrat’ recalls the contradictions of her middle-class radical youth.

These are five complex yarns, told in irregular verse that occasionally breaks out into rhyme. There’s a strong sense of an idiosyncratic speaking voice, rough around the edges and often assuming shared knowledge that isn’t always there (not necessarily a problem when Google is at hand). The narratives don’t offer easy resolutions to the uneases and tensions they raise. In fact, mostly they don’t offer resolutions at all. Maybe that’s another meaning of the book’s title – in the real world things stay complex and unresolved.

Just a taste of how the language works, from ‘Anger Management: a South Coast Tale”

His screaming’s recommenced. The kids are home.
And you are bruised, walking-into-a-door bruised,
like you’ve seen enough before except
now it’s his, his bruise and possible fracture.
You saw the good man (if nobody else did)
the one who rolled you your White Ox,
the one who actually wrote songs,
the man you were loving who disguised
so much (no doubt from himself).
Well, it is all out now with a sort of noise
that’s heading to your kid’s guts
to stay for decades. But it’s when
he starts up, ‘Don’t you get it, I love kids,
I love them!’ you grab yours and lock away
the three of you, three hearts deranged
with thumping, with him outside the toilet
howling, whilst you phone your girlfriends.

The remaining 50 pages of poems are grouped under the general heading, ‘The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre’. They range from throwaway couplets (an unkind ‘Elegiac Proposal’ for Cardinal George Pell, a note on being a runner up to Lily Brett in the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize, a gleeful skewering of an error in something written by Les Murray), through several songs of praise to AFL personalities and others who remain mysteries to me, to longer rhyming poems about Australian politics, religion and, in particular, poetry: ‘For Chris Wallace-Crabbe at Eighty’, ‘The Ballad of 68 or I Was Dransfield’s Dealer’ and ‘Ode for Johanna Featherstone & Fiona Wright’.

My copy of These Things Are Real was a gift from Giramondo Publishing.

Madeleine Thien and the Book Group Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)

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Before the meeting: This book tells a story of three generations of a Chinese family in the 20th century. It includes a graphic evocation of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the purge of ‘Rightists’ that preceded it, and an equally graphic account of the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, as gleaned by a young woman of the Chinese diaspora who was born and brought up in Canada.

I found the first 50 pages hard going, as the different time periods were introduced, with no clear indication of how they were related. But once the several stories were up and running, I was engrossed.

Of the vast amount that has been written about this period in China, I’ve read Han Suyin’s Wind in the Tower, in which the Cultural Revolution is seen as a brilliant strategy to save the revolution from living death, and William Hinton’s Fanshen (1966) and Shenfan (1984), brilliant accounts of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural revolution as they played out in a single village (I saw David Hare’s play of the former at the Pram Factory in Melbourne and then at Belvoir in Sydney). I haven’t read any of the famous memoirs such as Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, so I can’t say how this novel compares to them, but I can say that it makes Han Suyin look like a PR spin merchant, and gets horrifyingly deep under the skin of the kind of events William Hinton describes.

It doesn’t come across as anti Communist propaganda; it’s more a terrible tale of a dream betrayed. Even as people’s lives are being destroyed they stay firm in their belief in the revolution. Partly this is a survival mechanism – if you can say the correct slogans with sincerity your chances are greatly improved. Partly, though, it’s also a result of the power of the Maoist dream. The shattering of that dream as the People’s Army turns on the people in 1989 is among the most heartbreaking writing I’ve ever read.

Like any powerful novel, this one doesn’t let the reader imagine that the events it portrays are safely of another time and place. Call-out culture on the internet these days may not be as savage as the criticism sessions in the Cultural Revolution, but it shares some of its structure of feeling. The power of slogans to block complexity is having devastating effects on lives in Australia – or more precisely offshore from Australia – as I write this. The term ‘climate change’ is being expunged from Donald Trump’s US agencies as surely as ‘counter-revolutionary’ knowledge was erased under Mao. [Added next day: not to mention ‘fire and fury and – frankly – power’.]

I cried a lot.

After the meeting: The conversation stayed with the book for most of the evening, and even when it departed it was still tangentially related.

Not everyone loved the book as much as I did, but I came away from the evening with an enriched appreciation for its complexity. I think it’s true to say that everyone had at least one scene or character that had struck them. A couple of us said we found the descriptions of music didn’t work; someone said that these descriptions were clearly important to the characters, but not really to the reader. One chap said he had got out his recording of Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations – the same recording as features in the narrative – and put it on it while he read, and that this had worked brilliantly.

So not only is this a terrific novel to read, but judging by our experience it’s also a terrific book club title.