Category Archives: LoSoRhyMo

Katharine Murphy’s end of certainty

Katharine Murphy, The End of Certainty: Resources, climate and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay Nº 79, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 80

One of the chaps on the Book Group told us that he was a year behind Scott Morrison at school – I think it was Sydney Boys High. We all fell silent, expecting a revealing anecdote, but all he could come up with was a story about a football team to which both he and the current Prime Minister of Australia belonged being left to fend for themselves in the wilds of Bondi Junction, having illegally partaken of alcohol. The worst my friend could say about Scott Morrison was that he was there.

The derisory nickname Scotty from Marketing didn’t come from nowhere: almost everything we know about the Prime Minister has been generated by his personal publicity machine, including his self-bestowed nickname ScoMo and photos of him at prayer, building a cubby for his daughters or working from home in jacket, shorts and thongs. So even more than for other prominent politicians it was a good idea for Black Ink to commission a Quarterly Essay profile. And who better than Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia and a member of the Canberra press gallery for more than 20 years?

Murphy does deliver. But intervening events meant that the account of Morrison’s personality and political modus operandi had to shrink to make room for a detailed narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia and federal and state governments’ responses to it. As a political journalist, Katharine understands in her bones that a week is a long time, and the essay feels as if it is catching the moment by the tail, getting an account down on paper (or screen) even as the moment becomes something else. It makes for fascinating reading, especially from the vantage of several months into the essay’s future, which is when I’ve read it. Even the correspondence in November’s QE 80 was out-of-date before it left the presses (as in a fair bit of conjecture about the findings of the inquiry into Victorian hotel quarantine – none of it, incidentally, to be proved way off course by the actual findings).

So, what does Murphy make of Morrison? She has more access than most of us, and he did grant her an interview even in the midst of the pandemic. She acknowledges that he’s a master of controlling the narrative, in particular the narrative that concerns himself (going on what she calls ‘yes mate’ outings on talkback radio rather than granting interviews), and so she has to dig hard for her own independent observations.

Sadly, my post-it-festooned copy of the essay has disappeared along with the backpack I was carrying it about in, so I can’t quote from the essay with any confidence. One of the telling anecdotes that I recall came from Nick Xenophon, who had worked with Morrison to get some piece of legislation through the parliament. Once the thing was done, Xenophon suggested that they meet to have a cup of coffee or similar social interaction. Morrison rejected the invitation, saying something like, ‘I’m purely transactional, mate.’ Murphy argues that since becoming prime minister he has been learning to be a little more relational – that his disastrous handling of the bushfire disasters a year ago may have been a learning experience for him. Tentatively, she holds out the possibility that the man who forced bushfire survivors to shake his hand may do better next time. He’s a manager, a fixer, rather than an ideologue, and that has been Australia’s good luck, as he was able to cooperate with his ideological enemies in responding to the pandemic. The question, back in August, and again in November when the correspondence was written, was how far could that pragmatic non-ideological approach work before everything snapped back to the old battle lines.

The correspondents in QE 80 include other journalists: David Marr and Philip Coorey basically applaud the essay as necessary and well done; David Kelly is much less optimistic about Morrison’s lack of ideology. There are scholars: Damien Freeman of the Australian Catholic University categorises Murphy as a progressive commentator and says she just doesn’t understand ‘the conservative approach to public life’. Social researcher Hugh Mackay engages elegantly rather than argumentatively, suggesting that Murphy’s passing references to her own sense of local community deepening in small ways during the pandemic might usefully have been given greater prominence, as his research indicates that this has been a more general phenomenon. Celeste Liddle, self-described as ‘an Arrente woman living in Melbourne’, ‘a union organiser, social commentator and activist’, is refreshingly blunt, and complex, in her discussion of the Victorian lockdown, and the relationship between Scott Morrison and Premier Dan Andrews.

In her Reply to Correspondents, Katharine Murphy says that it was her first Quarterly Essay, and she found it ‘desperately hard’, but, she says:

the times are important, and I reported honestly, and shared what I saw. I hope the record stands the test of time.

The essay is a reminder of the crucial role played by serious. responsible journalism. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. If you found the backpack with my copy in it, feel free to read the essay before you bring it back to me.


The End of Certainty is the 22nd and last book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

SWF 2020, 11th and final post

I’ve been blogging about the online 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival (I almost forgot the apostrophe) most of the year. The Festival is still going on, and its website is listing events to mid-January next year. I’ll keep listening, but I won’t blog any more. Here are links to the Festival podcasts currently on my phone, in case you’d like to check them out.

Drawn from Life: Alice Oseman in Conversation 21 October: YA phenomenon and graphic novelist Alice Oseman chats with media phenomenon Jes Layton.

Secrets and Lies: Donor-Conceived Rights 21 October: Dani Shapiro, USA-based author talks to Australian author Bri Lee about issues raised in her memoir, Inheritance, including those related to children conceived by sperm donation.

Griffith Review 68: Getting On 28 October: Tony Birch, Andrew Stafford and Jane R. Goodall talk with Griffith Review editor, Ashley Hay, about getting older.

Trent Dalton: All Our Shimmering Skies 4 November: Trent Dalton in conversation with Annabel Crabb bout his second novel

Guardian Australia Book Club with Helen Garner 6 November: No elaboration needed from me. The interviewer is Michael Williams, now artistic director of the SWF.

Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch in Conversation 11 November: Again, no elaboration needed from me about either of the participants. I will mention that Tara June Winch acquitted herself admirably in Hard Quiz recently.

Tony Birch: The White Girl 18 November: Tony Birch is here again to talk with Evelyn Araluen about his novel The White Girl.

Julia Phillips: Disappearing Earth 3 December: The author of the excellent Disappearing Earth talks to Tam Zimet, until recently associate director of the SWF.

It’s nice to finish with one of the rare books that I’ve read that also features in this year’s Festival

November verse 20: Approximately fourteen ways to start a stanza

I’ve well surpassed my quota of 14 stanzas for this November but, though I’m being called to attend to pressing matters involving the vacuum cleaner, storage shelves and other important things, I’m squeezing in one more to make it a round twenty:

November verse 20: Approximately
fourteen ways to start a stanza
Take a phrase that makes you cranky,
melts your heart, or stirs your mirth,
from politician being wanky
or tweeter somewhere else on earth.
Steal the first words of a novel.
Quote a tiny friend's sweet waffle.
Parody a famous line
from Hamlet or source less divine.
See dead words that serve transactions –
shake them, turn them upside down.
Lay bare your heart and find a noun
or verb that lurks there. Let distractions
be your helpers. Take a thought
and tie it in an eight-word knot. 

That’s it for 2020. Normal transmission will resume tomorrow.

November verses 18 & 19: 29/11

November verse 18 &19: 29 and 30/11
Using the rhyme words from Vikram Seth's
The Golden Gate, stanza 11.29 and 11.30

As 2020 nears completion,
gurgling swiftly down time's drain,
and leaves behind its vast accretion
of damaged lives, despair, rage, pain,
let's build our souls some insulation,
not give way to desperation,
put our faith in humankind
and the power of the mind.
May politicians' treachery
be no more wrapped in pious sighs
(no way to hide their lyin' eyes),
buffoonery and lechery
in office meet with decent scorn
and find they are no longer borne.

Greenhouse gas accumulation
challenges the world's combined
resourcefulness. The fermentation
of bullshit would leave us resigned
to dying off without compunction,
but we can overcome disjunction.
The clock is nearing 12 at night
but tunnel's end shows flicking light:
I'll join a crowd, not be a stranger,
join hands, write letters, march, and then
do it again, again, again.
It's hard to face how real the danger,
feel climate grief, but then the lust
for life kicks in. In science I trust.

November verse 17: Homonyms

November verse 17: Homonyms

A crash and panic in Vienna.
Eyemouth, many fishers died.
Women beaten at a demo.
Perfect storm Lake Erie-side.
King Zog vanquished by Il Duce.
Allied planes shot down in Norway.
Flood, tornado, bombs and fire,
scandals, massacres – all dire,
all sharing in this nomenclature.
Why choose this term to sell us stuff?
Why don't we shout, Enough's enough!
Why take it on as second nature?
What next, merchant brotherhood?
Yes, why not call this Friday good?

When I started writing this, I had the Black Friday bushfires in Victoria in mind. But a quick look at Wikipedia made me realise that Black Fridays are legion. Here’s the link if you want to know more.

Also: if anyone knows the James McAuley poem whose last line is echoed by by my last line here, please tell me its title and where I can find it. [Added later: It wasn’t James McAuley at all, but TS Eliot, the last line of Part 4 of East Coker in Four Quartets: ‘Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.’]

November verse 16: A walk to the shops

In a creative writing class I took part in years ago, we did an exercise of walking around the block then coming back and writing down everything we saw. It would be impossible to do that in 14 lines for my five minute walk to the shops, but here’s a partial account.

November verse 16: A walk to the shops
Dotty silver snail trails, roses,
skittish skinks and lorikeets,
gardeners, leaf blowers, hoses,
cafe tables on the street,
three crossword collaborators
(quick, not cryptic), Uber waiter,
handless Lady of La Vang,
cloth monkey left to hang,
stroller, skateboard, backward trolley,
taxi revving at the rank,
homeless regular, eyes blank,
child who's spilled a bag of lollies.
In my ears Waleed and Scott
untie existential knots.

Maybe line 7 needs explanation. Here she is, in someone’s beautifully tended front garden:

November verse 15: An initial response to a work by Danie Mellor

November verse 15: An initial response to
Danie Mellor's A time of the world's making
Born on stolen Mamu Country
where the Johnstone River flows
(Robert Johnstone brought the guns, ey?),
where the cash crop sugar grows,
I loved that place, its rich volcanic
soil, the heat, and the titanic
rainfall – the rainforest too.
The place was old, and I was new.
I didn't hear its age-old stories.
Now tiny men, ropes, floating shell,
and women with their pile of skulls –
in crayon-blue, no dark green glory –
all alive, a dream unfurled:
is now a time to make the world?

Danie Mellor’s stunning work, A time of the world’s making, 2019, features in Real Worlds: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2020 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (next door to the huge Arthur Streeton exhibition on the same floor, and a floor below the Archibald).

Here’s a video walk-through of the Dobell with curator Ann Ryan. She talks about Danie Mellor’s two ‘landspaces’ from 11:16 to 12:58:

November verse 14: On waking from a dream of a friend

November verse 14:
On waking from a dream of a friend
who has been dead for many years

You left a note and neatly folded
clothes beside the famous cliff;
left the life and loves you'd shouldered;
vanished. But you left a whiff
of disbelief, and time's a traitor:
someone found you decades later,
now not Damien but Bob,
in Tassie with a uni job.
No note this time, a rope your chosen
tool: your mother mourned you twice.
This time there was no artifice.
Yet last night to my dream, unfrozen,
fugitive from death you came,
with warnings not to say your name.


November verse 13: Maggie Thatcher’s Curtsey

November verse 13: 
Maggie Thatcher's curtsey
Insiders know to give a little
bob (or bow if you're a man). It's just
that she's the queen, no need for fiddle-
faddle-flum – no need to bust
a gut. But this is some production:
a creaking almost-genuflexion,
shuttered eyes and head bent low,
lips pursed as if to kiss a toe.
Such obeissance for the monarch
speaks centuries of grocers' love
for rulers blessed by God above,
but also sounds a note sardonic: 
This curtsey, queen of all we see, 
is all you'll ever get from me.

This is of course prompted by the fourth season of The Crown, in which Gillian Anderson gives us a scarily believable, and loathsome, Margaret Thatcher. If you enjoyed that show, and maybe even more so if you didn’t, you might enjoy this brilliant set of impressions from British comedian Kieran Hodgson:

November verse 12: Post-procedure

November verse 12: 
After a colonoscopy and gastroscopy
as a public patient

Would this have sent Narcissus crazy – 
sight no Ancient Greek has seen,
these gleaming tunnels, pink and mazy,
fleshy caves, mine, on a screen?
From uvula to pre-pylorus,
caecum down to anal torus,
contours of the GI wall:
the tiny camera sees all,
and it's all lovely. But aesthetics 
aren't the reason we're all here.
Snip! Snip! Polyps disappear.
And all for free, no big dramatics.
Britons love their NHS.
It's Medicare that I will bless.

I couldn’t work this into the verse, but I learned the wonderful word dolichocolon, as in, ‘The colonoscopy was somewhat difficult due to [sic] dolichocolon.’ The word has nothing to do with chocolate, as I almost hoped, but signifies an abnormally long large intestine, which now we all know I have.