Category Archives: Retrieved from ‘Family Life’

Vale Les Murray

Les Murray died yesterday. On the ABC News last night, David Malouf said,

He could be very funny. He could be very harsh. But we all listened to him, and we all needed to hear what he had to say.

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has posted an excellent summary of his life and career, and I expect that over the next couple of days there will be many learned accounts of his vast contribution to the culture of Australia and the world.

I was going to write a brief personal piece, but then I found in my old blog, Family Life, a 2006 review of the collection of his poetry intended to introduce him to US readers, and realised it said everything I’d want to say now, except how crushingly sad it is that he has died, and that as literary editor of Quadrant he first rejected a poem I submitted with generous marginal comments, and then, also in 2006, accepted a revised version, informing me of the acceptance in a handwritten note on a postcard of a bush shack.

Here’s what I wrote in 2006 about Learning Human, beginning with a reference to a review in the New York Times.

The review sees him as aspiring to be the poetic voice of Australia. In so far as he seeks to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s any nation, but a class, the rural poor, and perhaps another constituency – the non-human world.

Some of Les’s descriptions of the natural world are extraordinary: it’s like walking beneath the trees, sitting and watching the birds, strolling among the cattle. But he’s an incredibly uncomfortable read. You never know when he’s going to lash out at some aspect of the modern world, and I for one often feel I’m being unfairly attacked. I found this time – I’d read most of these poems before – that it helped to take him at his word and think of him as writing from the point of view of someone with Asperger’s. There’s an odd sense of alienation from other people, of not quite being part of the human race that underlies his conservative contrarianism: ‘Demo’ comes close to identifying its disdain for political rallies as a neurotic consequence of having been bullied at school; in what can be read as an acknowledgement of his own lack of empathy, the narrator of ‘Suspended Vessels’ turns away from a hot-air-ballooon accident where 13 people had a ‘hideous’ death to mutter what seems to be a big-abstract-word equivalent of ‘Serves them right, the spoiled rich kids.’

That is to say, even though I suspect Les Murray, at least when in his poet state, wouldn’t be sorry to see me and my kind wiped from the face of the earth, I am still grateful for what he gives me in his poems. I do feel a personal affection for him. I met him at a Sydney Push party in the 1970s. He was a big man then, and wore a badge, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ We were talking about Taoism, and he said to me, words I should have taken to heart, ‘There is no tao for stumbling in the dark. If you had the tao you’d walk.’

I’ve just remembered another part of that conversation. It was early days of the Women’s Liberation movement. Les said, ‘Mine is the only profession where men and women are truly equal.’ Obtuse as ever, I said, ‘You mean translators?’ (He was working as a translator in Canberra at the time.) ‘I mean poets,’ he said and that was prabably the end of the conversation.

Bookblog #68: The joys of non-fiction

[This is reposted from my earlier blog because I want to link to it from a 2020 post. It first appeared on 19 May 2009 – JS]

Bernhard Schlink, Guilt about the Past (UQP 2009)
Theodore Seifert, Snow White: Life Almost Lost (©1983, translation into English, Chiron Publications Illinois 1986)

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It’s a truism that as men get older we prefer non-fiction to fiction. I hesitate to say that that’s true me in particular, but this collection of lectures by Bernhard Schlink thrills me much more than The Reader did some years ago. The Reader was a bloody good, thought-provoking read. Guilt about the Past strikes sparks from my brain with just about every paragraph.

These essays/lectures deal with the question of collective guilt: is it a legitimate concept, and if so what is to be done about it? Who has the right to forgive? How can a valid reconciliation be achieved between those who inherit a shared history of monstrous deeds in which their forebears were perpetrators and objects respectively? Bernhard Schlink has recent German history in mind and refrains from talking about his subject in universal terms, but what he manages to articulate is powerfully relevant to all manner of situations. He talks in terms of law, and morality where it’s not covered by law. I won’t try to write a proper review here, but recommend that you read the book. It’s short, clear, and lively. Every time I picked it up, as I flicked through the pages looking for my place, sentences would leap out at me. At random:

The notion that the past could be brought into form and order is foreign to the law.

… simply stated, everyone whose relationships have been damaged can reconcile. While forgiveness lifts the burden of guilt from the guilty parties, reconciliation merely makes it a bit lighter.

… understanding does not have only positive connotations.

… my mother was right. If a person does not believe in a forgiving God, then they have to live with their guilt when they can no longer obtain forgiveness from the person they injured.

The book is very readable, but I’ll need to re-read it and meditate on it.

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Snow White: Life Almost Lost, on the other hand, does the meditating for you. It’s a discussion of the fairy story from the point of view of a Jungian therapist. Much wisdom is dispensed about the challenges of the inner life, and the Grimm Brothers’ 1859 version of the tale provides a mostly plausible springboard for it, but Herr Seifert surely sets a record of some kind by taking 32 pages of discussion to get us through the first 45 words of the story – and that’s without any attention to ‘Once upon a time’! The words themselves, in case you need reminding:

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven; a queen was sitting at a window that had a frame of black ebony, and she was sewing. As she sewed and looked up at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle.

You’ll have to read the book to discover what profundities about life and death, hope and despair, belief, imagination, love, law and deprivation those words contain – assuming that like me you can’t see these profundities unaided.

My favourite couple of sentences, from much later in the book (remember there is no married couple in the story, until the wedding in its last paragraph):

Even after many years of marriage, going to bed at different times is still a problem for many couples. Every evening they suffer the same irritation: The one has to go now, the other can’t go yet. Each always experiences this as a form of a seeming demand; and without exception the mate is accused. We talk only of what the other did to us; we do not talk of our own lack of readiness to risk corresponding conflict and stand up for our own wishes. Ultimately all these poisoned thoughts suffocate our soul, just as the bodice laces suffocated Snow White.

Leaving aside the incomprehensible phrases, which can probably be laid at the translator’s door, this measures up fabulously against some of the most ingenious of mediaeval biblical hermeneutics. And for all that, and for all the preoccupation with marriage as the one road to a fully human life, I have come away from the book with a much deeper appreciation of the Snow White story.

Posted: Tue – May 19, 2009 at 11:57 AM

NSWPLA Dinner [2009]

[Retrieved from 18 May 2009]

Tonight writers, translators, illustrators, publishers, agents and fans put on their glad rags and turned up for a glittering evening in the Art Gallery. The occasion was the annual NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner. This year’s dinner cost $15 more than last year’s.

In previous years the dinner has been organised by staff of the Ministry of Arts. This year it was in the hands of the Department of Arts, Sport and Recreation. The transition was seamless, though there was a slightly awkward moment when the Department’s Director General, who was our MC, said we were doing very well for an arts event and only running half an hour late. There was no hiss of indrawn breath, but I did think it indicated she was much more familiar with sporting events than with arty ones, where my experience has been there is an obsession with punctuality. And at times, as she urged us to resume our seats after a break, her tone was reminiscent of what one would hear over the loudspeaker at, say, a netball tournament. But these were amusing foibles that in no way took away from the pleasure of the evening.

Nathan Rees, more famous for his stint as a garbo and for having inherited a train wreck of a government than for his Eng Lit Hons degree and likeability, gave the impression that he was much happier here than in the bearpit of politics. In his welcome (which followed Aunty Sylvia Scott’s Welcome to Country, in which she said, ‘Your books let me travel’), he spoke of his own passion for books, and told us that some left him cold, surely a mark of a genuine book lover. And he said, interestingly, ‘The examined life is only ever the turn of a page away.’

This was the thirtieth year of the awards, and there was slightly more reminiscence than usual. Neville Wran, the first Premier of the Literary Awards, was there and gave a brief talk on their genesis. Success has many parents, he reminded us, but failure is always an orphan. Of the many people who have claimed m/paternity of these awards, he assured us in his ruined voice, the one who could truly claim parenthood was his wife Jill, who insisted that Sydney should have a writers’ festival distinguished by literary awards. He mentioned the legendary Night of the Bread Rolls in 1985 when the guest speaker Morris West was pelted with bakery products. I’d heard that it was because he droned on. One of my dinner companions was there on that night, and he assured us that it was because the literary types were envious of Morris West’s best-seller status.

Marieke Hardy, of Reasons You Will Hate Me, gave the Address, with a tattoo on each shoulder and a large red flower behind one ear. She spoke of Twitter and quoted Stephen Fry to good effect. In the past, I’ve referred to these dinners as the Oscars of the introverted. Marieke went several steps better and, referring to booklovers out and proud, called it ‘our Mardi Gras’.

As in past years, it’s my pleasure to list the winners with random observations:

The UTS Prize for new writing: Nam Le, The Boat
There’s no short list for this prize, so the announcement was a bit of a surprise. It’s a wonderful book. The award was accepted by Nam Le’s publisher, who read out a short speech Nam had sent him from Italy.

The Gleebooks Prize for an outstanding book of critical writing: David Love, Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution
Nathan ‘s script described this as an accessible account of important economic matters. I’m afraid I didn’t understand a word of the brief acceptance speech after the initial ‘This is one for the true believers!’

The Community Relations Commission Award : Eric Richards, Destination Australia: migration to Australia since 1901
Eric Richards spoke of how Australia’s immigration program has been an outstanding success, yet has been and is still a cause of widespread anxiety. He was expecting the book to provoke ‘historical warfare’, but so far there has been none.

The Translation Prize and PEN Trophy: David Colmer
He seems to be a nice man – he translates from Dutch.

The Play Award: Daniel Keene, The Serpent’s Teeth
I saw the STC production of these plays, and was less than impressed by the production, though the plays as written seemed to be marvellous. I approve.

The Script Writing Award: Louis Nowra and Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole, First Australians
In announcing this prize the Premier said, quite rightly, that it was hard to go past this show, but then he went and spoiled the moment by feminising Mr Nowra’s first name. When Rachel Perkins took the mike she pointed out the error. Our Nathan looked suitably abashed, and Louis clearly couldn’t help himself: ‘How long do you plan to stay in government?’ he asked, trying to make it sound good-natured. Ow!

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for a book of poems or for a single poem of substantial length published in book form: LK Holt, Man Wolf Man
Possibly intimidated by the compere’s reminders of the importance of being brief, LK Holt simply thanked her publisher and took her prize. She did stand at the microphone long enough to enable those of us close enough to read the enigmatic tattoo on her left shoulder: ‘MCMLXN’.

The Ethel Turner Prize for a work written for young people of secondary school level: Michelle Cooper, A Brief History of Montmaray
At this stage I began to feel very under-read.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for a work for children up to secondary school level: Ursula Dubosarsky & Tohby Riddle, The Word Spy
And then I started to feel like an insider again. Tohby and Ursula have both worked at The School Magazine. I read this book in its first incarnations as a series of columns in the magazine, and I was sitting at the same table as both of them – along with two other generations of Ursula’s family and Tohby’s wife Sally. This is the fifth gong Ursula has collected from NSW Premiers. Though it’s no longer a gong.: to mark the 30th anniversary, a new trophy has been created, by Dinosaur Designs: a hefty, transparent, book-shaped objet.

The Douglas Stewart Prize for a prose work other than a work of fiction: Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island
I’ve read this too, and think it deserves any prize anyone chooses to give it.

The Christina Stead Prize for a book of fiction: Joan London,The Good Parents
I haven’t read this, but it’s been very well reviewed in my house. Joan London gave a sweet speech, acknowledging , among other things, her debt to her children.

The People’s Choice Award: Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
I hadn’t voted, because I’d only read two of the books, and this wasn’t one of the ones I’d read. The same man who had accepted Nam Le’s award accepted this one, but Steve Toltz, who couldn’t be there, hadn’t tweeted him anything to say, so he just looked pleased.

Book of the Year: Nam Le, The Boat
Then the poor guy had to get up for the third time, and gave us the second half of Nam Le’s emailed acceptance speech, in which he thanked his readers, ‘both professional and normal’. As one who used to be a professional reader who is striving for normality, I loved this.

The Special Award: Katharine Brisbane
Katharine was my first employer, when she was Managing Editor at Currency Press, and I couldn’t be more pleased at her receiving this recognition. She adlibbed an elegant speech about the importance of recognising achievement in the arts. She has received a number of awards in her time, she said, but this is the first one to come with money attached. She closed by saying that she too had been there in 1985. ‘We pelted Morris West with bread rolls because he warned us that we had to be prepared for bad things. The Baader Meinhofs were in the news, and he was warning us against terrorism. We thought he was ridiculous, but he was right.’

And then it was all over bar the networking …

… and the journey home. As I was walking back towards the city from the Art Gallery, I drew alongside a rough looking man going in the same direction. He said hello and asked how the evening had gone. ‘We’re homeless, you see, we sleep just beside the porch there.’ We chatted for a couple of minutes. He told me who had won the People’s Choice at the Archibald. I tried to tell him about the Literary Awards, but I think he still thought I’d been at something to do with paintings. As we parted, he said, in an eerie echo of Nathan Rees’s comment about the examined life: ‘People don’t realise it, but you’re always just one step away from the gutter,’ and we wished each other good night and good luck.

Again a little while and we will see it

It’s Passion Sunday. The statues in the Catholic churches are swathed in purple (or used to be when I was a frequenter of churches). We’re in the countdown to Easter. If you’ve been following the saga of our corner shop, about to be a cafe, you’ll undoubtedly remember that Easter is the latest of a series of promised opening dates. There’s been definite movement. I don’t know if you can tell from these phone photos, but the balcony with its bullnose awning is coming along well. A stylish grey paint job is under way on the upper outside of the building. We’ve had some heavy rain – who can complain? – but the two or three guys who’ve been up on the scaffolding for weeks now seem to be cheerful about progress. I’m not banking on an Easter rising, but I’ll be surprised if Revolver (as the shop is to be named) fails to be there by the Ascension Thursday. A little while and we won’t see it, but again a little while …

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Bookblog #61: Voice from the north

[Retrieved from ‘Family Life’ 1 April 2009]

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Last October I wrote a little blog post about Nicolas José’s address at the NSW Premier’s History Awards, in which he spoke of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, due for publication in August this year. José talked about Taam Sze Pui’s bilingual memoir, My Life and Work, published in Innisfail in 1925, taking it as an exemplar of the process by which:

As a piece of writing becomes literature, it is read and re-read by different people, discussed, digested, dismembered, recovered, until it enters a continuum of creative experience and expression that joins with where we are now. It speaks and we listen; relationships with other texts are revealed; it is valued for itself and contributes to something larger.

On my recent visit to Cairns I laid hands on a photocopy of Taam Sze Pui’s book in the rooms of the Cairns Historical Society (the helpful woman at Cairns Library had tracked down a solitary copy on the Australian Libraries Network, at the Australian National Library, not much good to me), and read the English in less than half an hour. It’s a modest work, elegant and spare, a kind of combination of Bert Facey good fortune, exhortations to Confucian virtue and sound business sense. There are a number of pages towards the end that are not translated into English, each containing a delicate pen drawing, probably from the author’s own hand, and what I take to be a poem. I photocopied one of them, as well as another untranslated page from the front of the book. I wonder if anyone who comes across this might be able to translate.

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Added 3 July 2020: Many thanks to Wang Shu-dong, friend of Jim Kable, regular commenter here, for the following translation of the script in that image. Shu-dong comments that something seems to be missing at the beginning of the final sentence, but offers this translation:

店伴姊妹兄弟, 倘有偶尔误会冲突, 忍之为上。
All people in the store are brothers and sisters. If occasionally misunderstandings and conflicts occur, the best response is tolerance

事后开解,使其意悟,和好如初,方为上策。
After the incident,  we had better let them self-examine and then they will be able to reconcile to each other.

(九)戒凡事以和为贵,苟能此道焉, 生意之隆, 可立而待也
Abandon the perception that harmony is the most important thing. If such a principle  is followed, blooming business can be expected.

Dispatch from the corner store

A couple of days ago:

scaffolding

Today:

Broken

You don’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Posted: Fri – February 20, 2009 at 07:45 PM

Waiting for Latte, episode cxxvii

[Because the older version of this blog has become unreachable, I am retrieving at least occasional posts from it that I see people trying to click on. This is one from January 2009.]

As you may recall, a cheerfully apologetic sign in the window promised wistfully that our corner shop would be opened for Christmas. The sign is still there, and though there has been much progress on ‘the residence’ out the back, there has been no grand opening, indeed no sign of progress in the shop itself. The same sign is there, and cobwebs, dead leaves and dust have accumulated on the window sill.

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L’aspetta continua.

Title thanks to The Witty Knitter

The corner shop opening day recedes again

[Because the older version of this blog has become unreachable, I am retrieving at least occasional posts from it that I see people trying to click on. This is one from November 2008.]

Many besa bricks are being assembled into walls in the back yard of the coming corner shop, to be part of the residence. Meanwhile, the shop itself remains opaque to the passerby. This morning an A4 sheet of paper had been wedged into the frame of the boarded-up window:
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By any other name

[Retrieved from ‘Family Life’ 28 October 2008]

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald published Nicolas Jose’s address at the NSW Premier’s History Awards. It’s an interesting address, worth reading in its entirety. My reason for blogging is that Jose begins with this:

When the landmark Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature appears next year, it will include, among many other things, an extract from an early Chinese Australian memoir, My Life and Work by Taam Sze Pui, first published in a bilingual edition in Innisfail in 1925.

Taam tells how he journeyed from southern China to North Queensland in the 1870s to search for gold. When he failed as a prospector, he opened a store to meet the daily needs of those in the far-flung district. Later a wife came from China to join him and their family grew with a business that was still flourishing in family hands a century later.

He goes on to describe the influence of Taam Sze Pui’s book on later artists, such as William Yang and Tony Ayres.

The work has been revalued retrospectively, given new meaning and life in a way that subtly reconfigures our understanding of Australian literary history. It forms a connective tissue between past and present that also points forward.

Innisfail exerts its powerful influence on the world of letters once again.

Taam Sze Pui’s name was not forgotten when I was a child in Innisfail, and his shop was still a significant landmark. As I remember it, he was known as Tom See Poy (which is how he’s named in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Version), and the shop was See Poy’s, the Grace Brothers of our town. The Macquarie PEN anthology is definitely on my list of books to be acquired.

Asymptotic movement at the corner

[Because the older version of this blog has become unreachable, I am retrieving at least occasional posts from it that I see people trying to click on. This is one from October 2008.]

As promised, here’s an update on the corner shop. It’s something like 21 months since it began its painfully slow rise from the dead. Like the June deadline before it, the September deadline has come and gone.

A new bulletin has appeared in the window:

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I don’t know if it’s significant, but Chie has moved to the front of the list of signatories, and she and Rod have been joined by Ron. I’ve not yet met Chie, and Ron is probably the older man I’ve seen about the place fairly regularly, though given the amount of time that’s passed, it’s quite possible that our prospective storekeepers have a baby or even two. Oddly à propos, Penny and I were talking to an old friend last night who has transformed from a leftist university student into a property developer, and he evoked for us the agonies caused by paperwork sitting for weeks, even months on a desk somewhere in a bureaucracy waiting for someone to pass it on for gazetting. It sounds as if our ever closer but never quite here corner shop may have had its share of such experiences

The back yard has been opened up and is in the process of being paved, or perhaps built on.

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And here’s a bonus photo, found in my phone, of a plastic omelette as seen at Narita Airport. Mmmmm!
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