Clive James’s Gate of Lilacs

Clive James, Gate of Lilacs: A Verse Commentary on Proust (Picador 2016)

The late Clive James took fifteen years to read À la recherche du temps perdu, teaching himself French as he went. Later, he read Scott Moncrieff’s translation, Remembrance of Things Past, ‘in order to see where I had been’. Though I’m just six months into Proust’s massive work, and just approaching the halfway mark. Unlike James, I’m not reading it ‘French dictionary in hand’, so I have even more reason to read something in order to see where I’ve been.

About half of this slim volume (48 pages) is devoted to the poem Gate of Lilacs. and almost as much again is given over to James’s explanation of the poem’s genesis, its form and notes on Proust and some of the poem’s more obscure references. The supplementary material doesn’t feel like scholarly apparatus or, even worse, study notes. It’s as if the publisher asked Clive for extra material to fill the book out to a decent size and Clive obliged with his usual combination of wit and extraordinary erudition. So we are treated to a brief treatise on the development of free verse in English, some splendid titbits of gossip about Proust the man, notes on Albert Speer, on the shameful relationship between the non-Jewish intelligentsia of Paris and the Nazi Occupation, on a range of artists, writers and performers, and enough suggested reading on a range of topics to keep a mere mortal busy for a year.

The poem itself is in lucid, elegant blank verse. I don’t know what a reader who hadn’t read any Proust would make of it, but it worked for me as a companion to my reading. As I’ve been reading Proust, it turns out that I’ve seized on comments made by friends who have read at least some of À la recherche. One said it was a LGBTQ+ epic; another reminded me of the description of Proust in The Hare with Amber Eyes as always the last to leave a social gathering. James’s poem corrected my misreading of moments because my French wasn’t up to it. It filled me in on the gossip about the connection between the fiction and Proust’s own life. It gave me flash-forwards to sensationalist moments that I haven’t reached yet. It reassured me that if I can’t see a structure I’m in good company. It sent me to the internet to look at images of the woman that Oriane de Guermantes was based on (and she’s every bit as impressive in her photos as Proust says she is).

Most interestingly, it explained why anyone would take seriously the extraordinary section I’m reading at present – the second part of the third novel, Le Coté de Guermantes – in describes in detail and analyses at great length the manners and mores of the very upper reaches of the French aristocracy, in particular the salons hosted by the women of that class. I’m engrossed by this description, but hadn’t realised until I read James that something serious is happening: Proust is recording a historical moment, the dying moment of those salons, which were to be completely replaced in the culture of France by friendships and connections among the creatives themselves, and any patronage was to come from the bourgeoisie, from business, from capitalism.

In James’s poem, Proust’s loving description of the death of the salon is linked to his chronic illness and sense of his own impending death. And James, in both poem and appendages, is explicit that he is writing under the shadow of his own death sentence. Always, he gestures away from himself, with shows of wit and erudition, with charm and careful exposition, but there’s a persistent undercurrent of grief at leaving all this that he loves.

I can see why this was on the remainder tables. It’s definitely for a niche within a niche market. But I loved it and will definitely read it again in six months or so when I’ve finished reading Proust for the first and probably only time.

G K Chesterton’s Incredulity of Father Brown

G K Chesterton, The Incredulity of Father Brown (©1926, Penguin 1958, reprinted 1970)

On my eleventh or twelfth birthday, my parents gave me The Father Brown Omnibus, a doorstop of a book containing all 53 of G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. If they hoped it would break my addiction to Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, they were to be disappointed, but I did love Father Brown, and once I’d read all his stories, I sought out everything I could find by Chesterton: the autobiography, essays (including ‘On chasing after one’s hat’), his books on Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, Orthodoxy, some poetry (‘I don’t care where the water goes/ If it doesn’t get into the wine’) and more. I loved his way with paradox. I thought his aphorisms, ‘Blessed is he who expecteth little, for he shall often be surprised,’ and ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing badly’ were words to live by.

Then, having not read anything by him for roughly half a century, I found this slim, yellowing paperback in a street library.

The Incredulity of Father Brown was the third of five collections, and contains eight stories. Father Brown’s nemesis Flambeau doesn’t appear, and more action takes place in the USA than I remember. Most of the stories are locked-room mysteries: someone was murdered in a room that no one else could have got into or out of. There’s an arrow, a sword-stick and a noose, all ingeniously deployed, and a couple of corpses that aren’t who or what they seem. All the elaborately conceived crimes are solved by the brilliantly pragmatic but unassuming little priest (the reader doesn’t have a fighting chance of figuring them out).

Not all the murderers are arrested, or even identified. These aren’t stories in which the detective reassuringly restores order by bringing criminals to justice. The interest lies elsewhere: first in the pleasure of the puzzle, and secondly in the platform they provide for Chesterton to preach his particular form of Catholicism. This collection (and possibly the whole Father Brown corpus – I can’t claim to remember) has at its heart a paradoxical assertion that a man of faith like Father Brown is less vulnerable to being hoodwinked by ‘spiritual’ claims than a modern ‘secular’ person. In these stories, God is real and There’s a Perfectly Natural Explanation for Everything Else. Father Brown himself, usually mild-mannered and Britishly polite, has occasional angry outbursts about ‘heathen humanitarians’. The polemic gets most explicit in ‘The Miracle of Moon Crescent’:

‘By the way,’ went on Father Brown, ‘don’t think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason’s very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief – of belief in almost anything. There are thousands balanced on it today; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something; that’s why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That’s where you all split: it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. …’

That’s rubbish of course. But the underlying paradox of a man of religion who is more immune to oogy-booginess than a wide range of hardboiled types is fun to read

My only specific Father Brown memory from 60 years ago wasn’t of anything in this book. It’s an observation in ‘The Vanishing of Vaudrey’ in The Secret of Father Brown. It took some searching, because I didn’t hve the exact words, but I found it eventually:

… there are two types of men who can laugh when they are alone. One might almost say the man who does it is either very good or very bad. You see, he is either confiding the joke to God or confiding it to the Devil.

Again, that’s nonsense, but I can testify that it’s memorable nonsense, because it lodged in my memory. I loved it for its audacity, or maybe just for its cleverness. And it’s the kind of thing I still enjoy in Chesterton. I should mention that there’s plenty of colonialism, racism, antisemitism and sexism (women being mainly absent in this volume). It’s hard to be an unqualified fan, but I’m not sorry to have revisited these stories.

Diane Menghetti’s Red North

Diane Menghetti, The Red North (Studies in North Queensland History No 3, James Cook University of North Queensland 1981)

The student of North Queensland history frequently encounters evidence of widespread political radicalism which is difficult to reconcile with her personal experience of the district.

(The Red North, the beginning of the Introduction)

Indeed! Mention that the only member of the Communist Party of Australia ever to be elected to a parliament was in Queensland, where Fred Paterson was MLA for the seat of Bowen from 1944 to 1950, and the most common reaction is, ‘What happened?’ Diane Menghetti doesn’t set out to answer that question, but her book is a solid account of the second half of the 1930s when the CPA was more of a force in North Queensland than in any other part of Australia.

The Studies in North Queensland History series ran from 1978 to the mid 1990s.* I must have got hold of The Red North, No 3 in the series, soon after it was published and then been daunted by its non-commercial feel. It makes no pretence of being other than an MA thesis, set in courier with a foreword by a professor, footnotes and 60 pages of appendices.

But it turns out to be a fascinating read – for me, and I expect for many people like me who hail from that part of the world, as well as anyone interested in the history of the labour movement and Communism in Australia. With a wealth of detail, Menghetti describes how the CPA became an integral part of the social life of many North Queensland communities, supporting non-British labourers in the face of the British-preference policies of the Australian Workers Union, raising an extraordinary amount of money for the Spanish Civil War, organising social events, providing regular entertainment in the form of public meetings featuring gifted orators such as Fred Paterson.

We didn’t hear much of the history of the North in my childhood: snippets of family lore in a family that wasn’t much given to story-telling, and nothing at all at school that I can remember. When we were taught that Australia was settled in 1788, it wasn’t just tens of thousands of years of prior habitation that were ignored, but also the reality that settlement/ invasion occurred over decades – reaching north Queensland well into the nineteenth century. Even today, people talk as if Australian was mono-culturally Anglo-Celtic during the 1950s, erasing not just Indigenous peoples but also the large number of ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Italians, Maltese, Jugoslavs who I went to school with, many of whom had been around for generations.

So there’s a particular joy for me now to read a whole book about our history, about significant struggles that took place in places from my childhood: not just Innisfail, Cairns and Tully, but Mourilyan, Goondi, South Johnstone, El Arish, Flying Fish Point and Etty Bay. I especially love the moments where this narrative intersects with the little bits of history I had from my parents. I’ll give two examples.

First: in my childhood, the sugarcane was burned before it was harvested. We loved the spectacle of the cane-fires, and were told that their purpose was to kill the rats that infested the cane because the rats carried the deadly Weil’s disease. Burning the cane was necessary to save the lives of the canecutters.

That’s accurate. What it leaves out is one of the main episodes of this book, the bitterly-contested Weil’s disease strike by canecutters and mill hands from August to October 1935. Something of the flavour of the times, and of what we are deprived of when this history is erased, can be gleaned from events in Tully on 24 September 1935. The AWU, which generally opposed the strike, had called a meeting of all canecutters and millhands for that day:

During the previous night [the strike committee] had worked to turn the AWU meeting to the strikers’ advantage, and when the hour of the conference arrived, over a thousand strikers and sympathisers formed up at the top end of Tully’s main street. This street slopes fairly steeply down to where the Plaza Theatre is situated, almost at the end of the main town area. Thus the great procession, led by the Tully Pipe Band, marched right through the business area before the start of the conference. The AWU organiser opened the meeting with a call for nominations for the chair. Eric Driscoll, Communist mill representative was duly elected, and the executive of the strike committee took its place on the platform, reflecting its control over the total strike. The expressed purpose of the meeting was the election of delegates to represent the men at a compulsory conference of millers, farmers, strikers and the AWU. Towards the end of the meeting the ‘scabs’ from the mill arrived to cast their vote. They were escorted by police and their entry was considered by the strikers to be an act of provocation. Nevertheless, at [strike committee leader Jack] Henry’s urging, the election was concluded peacefully. The conference was never held.

(page 40)

Second: When I was in my 30s my mother astonished me by saying that the Depression didn’t happen in Innisfail, that out-of-work people from ‘down south’ used to come to our door asking for work or food. I knew there had been a large unemployed camp in the Cairns showground, so I put this down to my mother’s over-protected life at the time as the fiancee and then bride of a cane farmer.

Two short quotes from The Far North are relevant. First, confirming my view:

In the far north the Depression set in early with a slump in world sugar prices. With economic hardship came xenophobia.

(page 53)

But then this, offering some support to my mother’s account:

In the years preceding World War Two unemployment remained very high. The mildness of the northern climate may have reduced some of the distress among the local unemployed, but it also had the effect of attracting large numbers of men from the south, either looking for work or merely travelling to fulfil unemployment relief conditions. For many the journey terminated in Cairns where a large unemployed camp was established.

(page 109)

After I’d written most of this blog post I discovered that a new edition was published by Resistance Books in 2018 (details here). ‘The Red North,’ they write, ‘is a fascinating episode and one deserving of serious study by all those interested in seeing the development of a serious progressive force in Australian politics.’

The Red North is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


* Other titles in the series that I’ve been able to find are:

  • 2 Peter Bell, If anything, too safe: the Mount Mulligan disaster of 1921, 1978
  • 4 Christine Doran, Separatism in Townsville, 1884 to 1894: we should govern ourselves, 1984
  • 5 Dawn May, From bush to station: Aboriginal labour in the North Queensland pastoral industry, 1861–1897, c1985
  • 6 Cathie R. May, Topsawyers, the Chinese in Cairns, 1870–1920, c1984
  • 7 Dorothy Gibson–Wilde, Gateway to a golden land: Townsville to 1884, 1985
  • 8 Anne Smith, Roberts Leu and North: a centennial history, c1986
  • 9 Dorothy M. Gibson–Wilde and Bruce C. Gibson–Wilde, A pattern of pubs: hotels of Townsville 1864–1914, 1988
  • 10 Helen Brayshaw, Well beaten paths: Aborigines of the Herbert/Burdekin district, north Queensland: an ethnographic and archaeological study, c1990
  • 11 Marjorie Pagani, T.W. Crawford: politics and the Queensland sugar industry, 1989
  • 12 Bianka Vidonya Balanzategui, Gentlemen of the flashing blade, 1990
  • 13 Janice Wegner, The Etheridge, 1990
  • 14 Christine Doran, Partner in progress: a history of electricity supply in North Queensland from 1897 to 1987, 1990
  • 15 Todd Barr, No swank here? The development of the Whitsundays as a tourist destination to the early 1970s, 1990
  • 16 Ferrando (Freddie) Galassi, Sotto la Croce del Sud = Under the Southern Cross: the Jumna immigrants of 1891, 1991
  • 17 Dawn May, Arctic regions in a torrid zone: the history of the Ross River Meatworks, Townsville, 1892–1992, 1992
  • 18 Bruce Breslin, Exterminate with pride: Aboriginal–European relations in the Townsville–Bowen region to 1869, 1992.
  • 19 Eileen Hennessey, A cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down, 1993
  • 20 Anne Smith, This El Dorado of Australia: a centennial history of Aramac Shire, 1994
  • 21 Patricia Mercer, White Australia defied: Pacific Islander settlement in North Queensland, 1995

Ruby Reads 18: buckets from the stream

Blogging about books read to Ruby could become a full time occupation. All I can do is dip my little bucket in the stream every now and then and show you what I caught in it. Here goes!

Christina Booth, Are These Hen’s Eggs? (Allen & Unwin 2020)

Mrs Roberta Kennedy, a retired school teacher, reads to children at Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill every Thursday morning. When we attended last week, the usual contingent from a nearby childcare centre didn’t arrive so Ruby made up half the young audience and this was a wonderfully intimate experience for her, especially as the other little one was sick and not that interested.

Are These Hen’s Eggs? is hot off the press, and though it’s the first book by Christina Booth that I’ve encountered, she has written and illustrated a lot (link to her website here). This one has a story of friendship and cooperation – the hen’s eggs are scattered in a storm and other animals help to retrieve them – and it slips in a sweetly amusing lesson, because as the eggs hatch we get to see a range of creatures that are born out of eggs, culminating in a very cute turtle (I was half expecting a snake, and was relieved that Christina Booth went for cute rather than scary).


Alex Barrow, If I Had a Sleepy Sloth (Thames & Hudson 2020)

Also hot off the press (after all it’s a bookshop and the merchandise must be promoted), this is great fun. I must admit that what I remember is the incidental facts about sloths: moss grows in their fur and they have very long claws. I can’t tell you if these facts were in the text or in Mrs Kennedy’s asides. But the images are splendidly friendly.


Didier Lévy (text) and Fred Benaglia (images), How to Light Your Dragon (Thames & Hudson 2020)

A child tries all sorts of tactics to rekindle his pet dragon’s fire. In the end, it’s his affection that does the trick. We’r never quite sure whether we’re on the child’s side or the dragons. Do we hope the fire will come or do we wish the child would just leave the poor fireless creature alone? Either way, we love the images.

This is translated from French, original title Comment rallumer un dragon éteint. I couldn’t find the translator’s name anywhere, sorry. Didier Lévy is a prolific creator of children’s books, and I hope this isn’t the only one that’s available to Anglophone children. many of them ringing the changes o fairytale themes. Fred Benaglia is similarly prolific in the Francophone world.


Chris McKimmie, I NEED a Parrot (Ford Street Publishing 2019)

Mrs Kennedy showed her virtuosity here. Realising that the books she had selected in advance weren’t appropriate for her audience of a solitary two year old (plus grandparents), she scrimmaged around on the shelves and chose this, and did a brilliant unrehearsed reading. The child narrator here wants a parrot and goes thought a list of the things she doesn’t want – the whale in the cover illustration is the most outlandish, but not by much.


Eunice Moyle and Sabrina Moyle, Super Pooper and Whizz Kid: Potty Power! (Harry N Abrams 2018)

This wasn’t part of Robbie Kennedy’s repertoire. It was in the board book shelf at Marrickville Library, and some inner demon prompted me to pick it up and read it with appropriate gusto to Ruby. It’s a rude and irreverent explanation of the use of a potty with adventurous typography and wealth of synonyms for bodily functions. I don’t know that the synonyms did much for Ruby, but she stayed interested. The bit I liked best was where the child, once sitting on the potty, has to wait … and WAIT …and WAIT.


Julia Donaldson (words) and Axel Scheffler (images), Tabby McTat (Alison Green Books, Tenth Anniversary edition 2019)

This Tabby McTat is a busker’s dear friend. When Tabby is distractd by a beautiful female cat named Sox and the busker gets into serious trouble they are separated. It’s a book about love and loss and change and hope. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are one of the power partnerships of current children’s literature, and this is my favourite of their books. Donaldson makes rhyming look easy and her wit is brilliant as well as age-appropriate – Ruby loves the song that Tabby McTat sings with his human busker friend:

Me, you and the old guitar,
How perfectly, perfectly happy we are.
MEEE-EW and the old guitar.
How PURRRR-fectly happy we are!

Or at least, she quotes it when the book is picked up and has told me I can’t do the song: ‘No song, Poppa!’ I must be doing it differently from her father, who is a very good reader of children’s books.


Are These Hen’s Eggs? is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jeff Lemire and others’ Black Hammer vols 3 & 4

Jeff Lemire (writer), Dean Ormston (pencils), Dave Stewart (colorist) and Todd Klein (letterer), Black Hammer Volume 3: Age of Doom Part 1 (Dark Horse Books 2019)
Jeff Lemire (writer), Dean Ormston (pencils), Dave Stewart (colorist) and Todd Klein (letterer), except for 46 pages with art, colour and letters by Rich Tommaso, Black Hammer Volume 4: Age of Doom Part 2 (Dark Horse Books 2019)

Early last December I announced that I didn’t want any superhero comics for Christmas. My second son’s alarmed expression made me think I’d spoken too late. But it turns out that he correctly intuited that the Black Hammer series was an understood exception. He knew I’d enjoyed the first two volumes of this series (though I doubt he read my blog post, here, which ended. ‘I’m patiently awaiting Volume 3’). Vol 3 was a Christmas gift from him, and I bought Vol 4 hot off the press.

Black Hammer isn’t so much a superhero comic as a commentary on them. In the first two books a band of superannuated heroes is on a weirdly unreal farm somewhere in rural USA: the last thing any of them remember is defeating the ultimate comicbook villain, the Anti-God. Everything looks normal, they have relationships with people in the nearby town, but they can’t leave. Black Hammer, their former leader, did manage to escape, but is now almost certainly dead. In the second volume, Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy, an investigative reporter, turns up but can’t remember how she got there. She finds her father’s fabulous titular black hammer, she wields it and becomes the all-new Black Hammer. In the final frame of Vol 2, she announces that she remembers everything and knows where they are and then …

… at the start of Vol 3, which is the beginning of the Age of Doom sequence, she vanishes, SHRACK!!

We follow Lucy/Black Hammer’s travels through weird meta-worlds incuding a version of hell and a mysterious castle called Storyland inhabited by characters who could be parodies of Neil Gaiman’s Endless. And we follow those left behind as they try to unravel the mystery. About halfway through this volume the bifurcated paths reunite and the mystery is solved. But the solution reveals that things are actually much worse than anyone imagined. At the end of this volume, a couple of frames after someone says:

without so much as a SHRACK!!, everything goes white.

[In case you’re interested, the characters in that frame are: Madame Dragonfly, mistress of the macabre; Golden Gail, a potty-mouthed adult frozen in an eleven-year-old’s body; Colonel Randall Weird, who knows past, present and future all at once and spends a lot of time on the Para-Zone (don’t ask); Abraham Slam, whose name says it all; Barbalien, Gay warlord from Mars; and Lucy/the new Black Hammer. Missing is Walky-Talky, the robot who intervenes at key moments.]

The next volume, the end of the Black Hammer series (apart from a number of spoin-offs carefully adumbrated in this story, including Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil), begins with 48 pages of art by Rich Tommaso, reminiscent of the comicbook art of the 1950s and strikingly different from the moody heroic style of Dean Ormston in the rest. These pages follow the adventures of Colonel Weird in another unreal world, this one inhabited by ‘unrealised characters from never finished stories’. (You can tell the creators had a lot of fun with this story, and there’s potential here for any number of spin-offs.)

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew are back to normal life in Spiral City – a life where they have never been superheroes. One waits tables, one is a guard at the museum reading superhero comics, one is Gay in homophobic Martian society, and one is living with dementia in a nursing home. But thanks to the magic black hammer, a well-placed KRA-KOOM!!, and some intense recriminations, the original group is back together in time to face down one more threat to the entire universe.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it all works out in the end, in a ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started’ kind of way, with a door left ajar for further adventures of Lucy/Black Hammer.

I enjoyed this a lot. It’s not part of the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe so you don’t have to be a cult insider to follow it and enjoy it. According to Wikipedia, Black Hammer’s crew are going to team up with DC’s Justice League heroes this year, and a film and or TV series is in development, but I’m happy to stick with this odd bunch as they are, in the page.)

Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work

Annabel Crabb, Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap (Quarterly Essay 75, 2019) – and correspondence in Quarterly essay 76

Women’s surge into the workplace has been profound over the last century. But it hasn’t been matched by movement in the other direction: while the entrances have been opened to women, the exits are still significantly blocked to men. And if women have benefited from the sentiment that ‘girls can do anything’, then don’t we similarly owe it to the fathers, mothers and children of the future to ensure that ‘boys can do anything’ means everything from home to work?

Men at Work, page 65

In this Quarterly Essay Annabel Crabb addresses the ‘baked-on’ cultural assumption that mothers must be the ones who do the real parenting while fathers are meant to help and support, and the economic, political, social and industrial structures that hold that assumption in place, and to some extent enforce it. She points to a number of examples of departures from this norm, harbingers of change: apologising for the predictability, she describes parental leave regimes in Norse nations, but also to developing policies closer to home in For example, at Medibank, in the context of general flexible working provisions, the notion of primary and secondary parents has been shelved and parental leave and other possibilities have been implemented – and are turning out to be good business practice.

Like some of the correspondents published in the subsequent Quarterly Essay (Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag), the essay led me to reflect on my own experience as a parent. I’ve been a father for nearly 42 years and belong to what Annabel Crabb says – and I have no reason to doubt her – is a tiny minority of men who have spent time as ‘stay at home dads’. My sons were born in 1978 and 1983, and with the exception of the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act passed by the Whitlam government in 1973, none of the legislation, policies or studies referred to in the essay existed yet. Because the ways the Emerging Artist (then the Community Worker) and I dealt with the challenges of parenthood differ so radically from the norm described by Annabel Crabb, I hope it will be OK to spend the rest of this blog post telling part of that story. (Some of my readers were there – please correct any errors and feel free to add to the story.)

The EA/CW was a feminist who had been in consciousness-raising groups, worn overalls, worked in women’s collectives and, significantly for this story, shared money and futures (that’s how they expressed it) with another woman. I’d been thrilled by the emergence of Women’s Liberation at Sydney University in the late 60s, and had taken to heart the words of a teacher of mine: ‘If as a man you want to counter domestic sexism you have to decide you’re going to do all the work in the home; that way you may end up doing a fair share.’ He’d also said, ‘Fathers can do everything that mothers can do except breast feed.’ So from the beginning we thought of ourselves as a parenting team – I got up when the baby cried in the night, and brought him to his mother. I was still at work in those first notoriously exhausting weeks, and I’d slip away to the toilet to snatch a couple of minutes sleep with my forehead resting on the roll of toilet paper.

The EA/CW had no maternity leave, so went back to work three months after the birth. My workplace – in the NSW public service – was flexible enough that I could take three days a week unpaid leave for an extended period to look after our baby. We lived a quarter of an hour from the EA/CW’s workplace; for the first couple of months when he gave signs of needing a feed I’d bundle him into the car and take him to the breast, usually arriving before he was desperate. While his mother fed him I’d sit on the verandah of the centre – often with a group of women talking animatedly in Italian at the other end. I was able to reassure them, ‘Non capisco niente.’

I looked after the baby three days a week. We weren’t well off, but the times and our circumstances (see mention above about sharing money and futures) were such that we could afford to pay friends the going rate to look after him the other two days. I don’t remember them doing the breast-feed dash, so some bottles of formula must have been involved.

As a man looking after a baby in public, I was a rarity. At the local playgroup I was treated as something rich and strange, and congratulated for looking after my own child. I don’t think I was ever rude in response, but I was nonplussed. Once, long haired and – I guess – not obviously male from behind, I was struggling with baby, stroller and nappy bag up a flight of stairs at a railway station. A burly chap helpfully grabbed the stroller, and was obviously a bit shocked to realise he was being gallant to a bloke.

As there was virtually no accessible childcare at the time, a number of parents in the inner west of Sydney banded together to form what we called the Kids Co-op. We took over an abandoned house with an empty lot next door belonging to the Princess Alexandra Children’s Hospital, and they were eventually happy to let us have it for a peppercorn rent. For every child, the ‘parental unit’ had to do two half-day shifts a week, and there was a very small fee. We were a mixed bunch, and men were well represented: a couple of tradies, a baker, a Qantas steward, a drop-out lawyer, a telephone exchange operator, an editor who managed some casual work (that’s me). The women were equally varied. What we had in common was an openness to finding collective solutions to the collective problem.

The Co-op was often chaotic. The weekly meetings ranged from tedious to hilarious. Some people would come to one meeting or do one shift and then never be seen again. The food was basic, and maybe that’s praising it too highly. But the young ones formed strong bonds: at the end of the day, our two-year-old son would plead to go home with one of his friends, or vice versa. And as the parents had generally worked with each other on shifts, their pleas were often enough successful. This little constellation of families meant there was rarely any difficulty finding babysitters.

As the young ones turned three and four, we started a ‘co-op preschool’. Here there was one paid early-childhood educator, and once again parents did shifts as assistants.

In later years, the EA/SW and I lived for a time with former Co-op members, and many friendships that began there – among both generations – are alive and thriving.

I don’t think the Co-op could happen today. Health and safety regulations would be an obstacle, and new parents are much more isolated. The pressure to work long hours is more intense, and the neo-liberal worldview’s emphasis on individualism is still a powerful force in the culture.

Annabel Crabb gives a string of examples of men whose lives have been enriched by the opportunity to be actively engaged with their children, as full-time or part-time ‘stay-at-home dads’, sometimes sharing the joy with the ‘stay-at-home’ mum. She also writes of ‘a storm-cloud of resentment building among millennial men’, who see themselves as ‘lumped with the transgressions of an older generation, while missing out on entitlements that should reasonably be theirs’. The park playground near our flat is full of fathers and small children on sunny weekends, something that we just didn’t see 40 years ago: the men are willing, but the system, though it has softened, is tight.

Men at Work is the third book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (17): Mardi Gras

I haven’t blogged about Ruby-related reading for a while. Many wonderful books have been read, but I wouldn’t dream of trying to catch you up on them all. The Sydney Mardi Gras is coming up, so here are a couple of LGBTQ+-related titles.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

I’ve mentioned this a couple of times on this blog (as in this recently retrieved post). I first met it in the early 1970s when I gave it to my niece, and have loved it ever since. I even quite like the movie. The Emerging Artist, aka Nanna, read it to Ruby recently. I don’t think Ruby got it: What is this thing called mischief that Max makes? Come to think of it, maybe we should give it another go, because although R doesn’t wear a wolf suit, she often says, ‘I’m a doggo!’ and gets a mischievous/rascally look in her eye. But I don’t think she has any idea what’s going on when Max’s mother sends him to bed without eating anything: punishment isn’t yet part of her moral universe.

In case you don’t know, after Max makes mischief and is sent to bed supperless, a forest grows in his room, and an ocean tumbles by. Max sails to where the wild things are and though they threaten to eat him he becomes their king, tames them, has a rumpus with them, and sails home to his room where his supper is waiting for him, ”And it was still warm.’

I don’t know what else to say about Where the Wild Things Are beyond that it’s a work of poetic genius, and if you haven’t seen the images, or other images referring to them, you haven’t been paying attention.

And why blog about it in connection with Mardi Gras? I don’t think there’s anything particularly queer about the book itself, but Maurice Sendak came out as gay towards the end of his life.


The Family Book (Todd Parr 2003)

The next three books were read to us at rainbow-themed events in a nearby library.

The Family Book is a straightforward celebration of diversity in families: heterosexual parents, same-sex parents, single parents, mixed race, many children, single children, adoption, and so on. It culminates in the statement: ‘There are lots of different ways to be a family. Your family is special no matter what kind it is.’

Like Sophie Beer’s Love Makes a Family (my blog post here), it’s fine, would irritate some culture warriors on the right and its illuatrations are lively enough to hold a young audience’s interest


Lesléa Newman (words) and Laura Cornell (pictures), Heather Has Two Mummies (2001)

First published in the USA in 1989 with a different illustrator and mommies rather than mummies, this is regarded as a groundbreaking book about a non-heteronormative family. According to Wikipedia (here) it is one of the most often banned books in the USA.

It’s a baldly didactic book. Heather goes to school, or perhaps it’s daycare, and discovers that all the other children have a mother and a father. When the teacher realises Heather doesn’t have a father, she sets up a number of activities to teach the children – and the readers – that having two parents of the same gender is fine, that what matters in a family is that people love one another ‘very much’. Someone, in recommending this book for early-childhood educators, says that you can do the activities that come with the book without actually reading the book.

The illustrations bring a lightness of touch to a text that is resolutely didactic though not, to be fair, completely humourless.


Mel Elliott, The Girl with Two Dads (Egmont 2019)

Matilda is new at the school. Pearl is excited to have a new friend, and even more excited when she discovers that Matilda has two fathers. In her family, the mother is the disciplinarian, so a family with two fathers must be a lot of fun. It turns out that Matilda’s parents are just as boring and full of rules as Pearl’s own.

Unlike the story of Heather and her mummies from 30 years ago, this one allows room for the readers to have a range of responses: they may identify with Pearl in thinking it’s odd to have two fathers, they may think that Pearl is a bit silly to think that, or they may see the whole same-sex parents thing as peripheral to the main story of friendship. I don’t know how this went down with the two- and three-year-old audience, but I liked the passionate friendship between the two girls, and the humour of Pearl’s disappointment worked for me.


Joe Brumm (creator), Bluey: Fruit Bat (Penguin Australia, 2019)

This book has got nothing to do with Mardi Gras. I just love Bluey and wanted to mention her. The book is a glow-in-the-dark version of an episode of the Bluey TV animation series, which you can watch online here.

Bluey is a blue cattledog who lives with her father (Dad), her mother (Mum) and her little sister Bingo in a suburban home, probably in Brisbane. The adults know how to play with the children. The children, er, pups are clever, affectionate, cooperative (mostly), energetic. Since seeing a little of this show, Ruby has taken to spinning around on the spot, which Bluey can do without getting dizzy. She’s also requested drawings of Bluey (which are much harder than Peppe Pig) and occasionally announces that she herself is Bluey, or Bingo.

This and Bluey: The Beach may be the only spin-off books from a children’s television cartoon show that I’ve enjoyed.

(An apology: I don’t have the book with me, and can’t find name of the book’s – as opposed to the cartoon’s – author.)

Vicki Hastrich, Charlotte Wood, Night Fishing on the Weekend with the Book Group

Before the meeting: This month’s designated Book Chooser gave us two books to tide us over the summer break, a collection of memoir essays and a novel. The author of the novel makes a brief appearance in one of the essays, and it’s possible that the novel is set in a version of the locality that is the focus of many of the essays.


Vicki Hastrich, Night Fishing: Stingtrays, Goya and the Singular Life: A Memoir in Essays (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the Meeting: I reserved both books at each of the two libraries I belong to. Night Fishing became available within a day, though I was unable to renew my loan because seven people joined the queue while I was reading it. By contrast, there were 50 and 80 people respectively in the queues for The Weekend, but I was saved by the Emerging Artist, who bought it as a Christmas present to herself.

Night Fishing is a collection of thirteen essays that range from 4 to 34 pages in length. They don’t really amount to a memoir, as the title page claims, but they do have memoir elements. They are personal essays, most of which explore aspects of the waters near Woy Woy, where Vicky Hastrich’s family had a holiday house in her childhood and which she now visits often.

The first essay, ‘The Hole’, is filled with rich childhood memories of the place, and the excitement of rediscovering a favourite fishing spot with her brother. They go out in the author’s much-patched fibre-glass dinghy, the Squid, and are just about to pack up for the day, crowded out by half a dozen fancy, gizmo-laden boats, when she gets a bite:

The rod bent. I pulled the big, slow thing up and Rog got the net. It seesawed, it yawed, it took forever, but finally a dark shape materialised. Rog leant out and the shape nosed serenely into the net, though only its head seemed to fit; simultaneously Rog lifted and in a heavy, dripping arc in it came, landing thickly in the bottom of the boat. A huge flathead. Biggest one we’d ever seen – by a mile. Adrenaline pumping, we whooped and screamed.
 Suck eggs, you plastic heaps! Go the mighty Squid,’ I hollered.
We were grown-ups.

There are many moments like this in the essays. Hastrich’s deep love of that place is infectious, and it’s the best thing about the book – in ‘The Hole’ and ‘From the Deep, It Comes’ (in which Western writer and deep-sea fisher Zane Grey makes a guest appearance). She also writes engagingly about her writing life, including an unfinished colonial gothic novel that seems to haunt her, and about the way her past as a television camera operator affects her way of seeing (both in the same brilliant essay, ‘My Life and the Frame’). There’s a wonderful essay, ‘Amateur Hour at the Broken Heart Welding Shop’, about her grandfather, who was a ‘first-class amateur’ engineer – Hastrich describes herself as an amateur writer.

Less successful for me are the essays that are in effect reports on experiments: going fishing at night with only a non-directional lantern on the dinghy (‘Night Fishing’); taking the dinghy out at low tide to The Hole with a bathyscope (‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’); filming herself as she sleeps two nights in a row and taking 112 selfies on the day in between (‘Self Portraits’). The contrived set-up of these pieces stops them from quite taking off.


Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Three women in their seventies meet at a beach house for a weekend over Christmas, but not to celebrate the holiday. Christmas just seems to be a non-event. None of them has family to celebrate with: Wendy is a widow with alienated adult children, Jude is the long-term mistress (old-fashioned term, but accurate) of a wealthy man who spends the holiday with his family, Adele is a once-famous actress who has become increasingly unemployed, alone in the world, and on the brink of homelessness. Nor have they taken refuge with each other as Waifs and Strays. The beach house belonged to Sylvia, the fourth in their little group of friends, who has died recently. They are there to sort out her stuff and prepare the house for selling – for the benefit of Sylvia’s partner, who has left the country,

We are told that these women have been friends for forty years. We are told they are feminists. But as they arrive at the hut, separately, they barely greet each other. Each is allocated a section of the house to clean up, and they proceed to do it in isolation. No calling out from one room to another – ‘Oh my God, look what she kept!’ ‘What should we do with all these gorgeous clothes?’ ‘That’s my saucepan that she borrowed and never gave back!’ – let alone any shared whingeing about the partner who has skedaddled and left them to do what should be her work. They do think such thoughts, but there’s no commonalty in the task. No sense of solidarity in grief either. And only the sketchiest idea of who the recently deceased woman was apart from the her role in keeping the friendship group together. When the three go for a walk on the beach, no one waits for anyone else but each remains wrapped in her own thoughts.

Not a lot happens in the first two thirds of the book apart from reports on the internal monologues of each of the women, and descriptions of the undignified deterioration of Wendy’s deaf, arthritic, incontinent dog. Towards the end, each of the three is delivered a devastating blow, they stumble into a Christmas midnight mass, and they find some solace and forgiveness with each other, but though there’s a terrific evocation of a storm as the blows are delivered, by then I was past caring.

I was so looking forward to this book, because I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (my blog post here). It can’t just be the subject matter that led me not to like it – I’ve been known to be very interested in women aged 70 or thereabouts, and I was enthralled by Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (blog post here). I think it’s something to do with the way the narrative generally works. To take a passage pretty much at random, here’s Jude after she’s realised that Adele has claimed the best bedroom without any discussion:

She didn’t care about the bedroom at all – she wasn’t fussed by trivia like that – but still, a fleck of disdain formed itself: how had Adele not, in all these years, developed a shred of restraint, of self-discipline? It was how and why she was an actress, Jude supposed. They were all children, the men too, as far as she could tell. She could see the appeal, when you were young, the liberation of it. But what did it mean when you were old? What were you left with, still a child at seventy-two?

(page 75)

This is the kind of writing I meant by ‘we are told’ in the earlier paragraph. It’s shaped as if it’s giving us Jude’s internal monologue. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that no one thinks like that. Take the generalisation about actors. It’s mean and judgmental, and absurd, but that’s not my problem with it: why shouldn’t Jude be meanly, absurdly judgemental? My problem is that the omniscient narrator is giving us a rundown, an abstract, as if the writer has figured out what Jude’s character is, and is giving us little snippets to illustrate it. We’re not inside Jude’s head, which is where we need to be if we’re to get lost in the story. Sadly, this is pretty much how the narrator’s voice works for most of the book. It feels as if these characters created no surprises for their creator. This reader remained generally disengaged.

Many people have said The Weekend was one of their favourite books of 2019: Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers, for example, have both written elegant, well-argued, positive reviews of what’s recognisably the same book but seen through very different lenses from mine. I’m glad, because I don’t want any book to be unloved – well, hardly any book. I’m sorry this one isn’t loved by me.


After the meeting: We met in the carport of our host’s newly purchased and not yet completely habitable house in Balmain with a spectacular view of the Sydney skyline, and had pizza. Once we’d got over the splendour of the setting, and tales of cricket from this summer and summers long past, and one or two fabulous tales of adventure in the city involving weddings and mistaken identity (though not in the same tale), we had an animated discussion of the books.

My sense is that no one was as negative about The Weekend as I am. Where I missed the casual back and forth of old friends, the book’s main proponent said he had read that sort of thing as understood but not part of the book’s focus: that the narrative was interested in the characters’ internal lives. another chap said that the main thing the book did for him was to have him reflect on decades-old relationships that are full of obligation but not much else; in particular, there are people who are nominally his friends but are really his wife’s friends, and if she were to disappear he wold gladly never see them again. He wasn’t saying that the three women in this book were like that, but he certainly read their lack of mutual warmth as having a similar source: Sylvia was the glue that held the group together, and no one was sure it could continue to exist without her. Yet another said he wasn’t fazed by the lack of communal grieving: that had already happened, as he read it, and now each character was withdrawn into her own individual grief.

It’s interesting that my main misgivings – which I’m not sure I even articulated – were addressed from so many fronts.

Night Fishing provoked some interesting discussion. Notably, towards the end of the evening, one chap said he was embarrassed to realise that this was the first thing he’s ever read about a woman fishing. His embarrassment was widely shared, and led to some interesting surmise about fishing and gender: men often fish in order to indulge in reverie, that is to say, be alone and do nothing. Is it the same for women? Or does it tend to be a more practical task for women. Today someone sent us a link to Lyla Foggia’s 1997 book Reel Women: the world of women who fish (link here).

On a more general readerly level, while the word ‘patchy’ evoked some head-nodding, we liked the book. A couple of passages were read out to general approval. One of our younger members said the book tapped into a vein of nostalgia. He didn’t get to enlarge on that thought, and I didn’t get to reply, but I think it’s not exactly nostalgia in these essays: the author revisits a place she loved as a child and explores it in a number of ways as an adult, deepening and enriching her understanding of it, and so of herself.

Someone said that they felt that Night Fishing was written by a person, and The Weekend was written by a writer. Obviously Wood and Hastrich are both writers, but there’s something to what he said. Hastrich describes herself as an amateur, which is a different thing from a dabbler or a learner – it points to the elements of vulnerability and lack of subterfuge that make her writing so attractive. The Weekend is Wood’s sixth novel, and even though I was disappointed in it, I didn’t ever want to give up on it.

One last thing: Charlotte Wood has put up on her podcast The Writer’s Room a wonderful interview with Vikki Hastrich that provides fabulous insights into the kind of beast Night Fishing is. Here’s a link.


Night Fishing and The Weekend are the first two books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Journal Blitz 5

I guess I’ll never be up to date with the journals I subscribe to. This is my fifth catch-up blog post, and I’m still reading things about a year after publication. Here they are: one from a university, one from the left, one from an organisation of poets and one from an island.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor) and George Kouvaros (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 2 2018: The Lives of Others (2019)

This issue of Southerly, the back cover tells us, ‘is concerned with the debts and obligations that accompany the passing of the generations’, a way of saying that it has a theme of family – personal reminiscence, family history, lines of cultural genealogy.

Here are some of my highlights.

In ‘The Other Life’, guest editor George Kouvaros explores his childhood feelings about a photo of a cousin about his own age who stayed in Greece when Kouvaros’ family moved to Australia. He builds fascinatingly around the notion, borrowed from Marsha Gressen, that migrants are often haunted by a sense of a double life: the one they are living and the one they would have had if they stayed.

Brendan Ryan’s memoir ‘John Forbes in Carlton’ paints a vivid picture of Forbes (dobbed ‘God on a bicycle’ by a Melbourne wit ) as mentor, and is a sweet account of how the creative baton was passed down the generations.. It would have gone well as a chapter in Homage to John Forbes, edited by Ken Bolton in 2002. I’m a fan of both Forbes and Ryan (blog posts, here, here, here and here), but I don’t think you’d need to be to find joy in the essay.

Maria Griffin’s ‘Benjamin’ is a poignant, elegiac meditation on death and extinction. Her immediate subjects are her younger brother, who died aged 32, and the Thylacine / Tasmanian tiger. With a light but dagger-sharp touch she allows the subject to broaden to include the climate emergency. (One small cavil: she imagines Australia during the last ice age as covered with sheets of ice, whereas – correct me if I’m wrong – the archaeological evidence suggests that, though bitterly cold, it was covered in dust.)

Meera Atkinson’s fiction ‘Necropolis Drive’ makes brilliant and powerful use of archival material – her protagonist is researching the history of women incarcerated as insane in colonial times, and correspondence from the NSW Government State Archives and Letters leap from her pages to grab the reader by the throat.

Sharryn Ryan’s memoir ‘The Miracle’ is as powerful a story of growing up with an emotionally unstable mother as you’re likely to read anywhere. Its story of wildness is told with extraordinary restraint, and all the more effective and affecting for it.

Katherine Maher’s ‘One of Your Family’ reads as a fragment from a much broader piece of research. It approaches the issue of the Stolen Generations with a narrow focus, discussing a four-minute video of one Thupi Warra man’s response to Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Maher tells us that this is one of 25 videos of this nature held in the State Library of Queensland. ‘I’m not sure,’ her essay concludes, ‘how to truly hear the history he tells.’ Essays like hers help the rest of us clean out our ears.

Three reviews inspired me to do some rereading, and re-savouring: Naomi Riddle on Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior (my blog post here; I think Wright is funnier than Naomi Riddle seems to); Peter Kirkpatrick on Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes (my post here) and Brigitta Olubas on Sarah Day’s Towards Light (my post here).


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 235 (Winter 2019)

This is the eighteenth and last issue of Overland edited by Jacinda Woodhead. The woman on the cover isn’t her, but a ‘friend and fellow anti-fascist organiser’ of the guest artist Tia Kass. Still, that woman’s confident fist isn’t a bad emblem for Woodhead’s – and Overland‘s – work.

I don’t usually read editorials, let alone quote from them, but as this was Jacinda Woodhead’s farewell, I made an exception (link here). She asks, ‘So what is a left-wing literary magazine today?’, and replies in part:

Now more than ever, we need projects like Overland: we may not always agree with the positions and experiments published in its pages, but it’s critical to build spaces where collective alternatives, where collective futures can be articulated.

I subscribe to Overland to support the building of such a space. Then I read it because it generally includes news and thinking that I don’t easily get elsewhere. Here’s how the journal starts (with links to the articles online):

In ‘La mina no se cierra’, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick walks one of the variants of the Camino de Santiago in Spain (definitely not the walk with guides advertised in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that costs $25 thousand a head). The essay’s title – Spanish for ‘The mine will not close’ – is from graffiti she saw in Asturias referring to a major struggle early last decade. The graffiti, and the history that gave rise to it, is a springboard to rich and complex reflections on the current move against coal mines in Australia and the need for a just transition to renewables.

In ‘On grief’, regular columnist Tony Birch, as always, avoids grand rhetorical statements and takes us briefly into his own recent experience of bereavement.

Restorying care’, a PEN essay by Ellen van Neerven writes about the struggle of many First Nations people to ‘feel heard or tell our story’ in the health system. A brief quote:

Data is used to build, and claim, story. Recently, the term ‘data sovereignty’ has been used to describe mob’s sovereign right to their own data: all data should be subject to the laws and governance structures within the Indigenous Nation where it is collected. This data should be accessible to the community. Unfortunately we are a long way from that.

Then there are nine pages of poetry, including ‘Report on Norman – after Vigan’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (the title is mysterious to me, but the poem itself is terrific), ‘Walis tingting’ by Ivy Alvarez (which finds poetry in a Philippine palm-leaf broom), and ‘The hymen diaries’ by Eileen Chong (a set of four short poems that stands up on its own, but becomes much richer when seen alongside the stunning works of art it references – by Katie Griesar, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy and Juana Francés).

But I won’t go on listing the whole contents. Here are some of the rest:

  • The gunboat nation in a lifeboat world’, by Scott Robinson, subtitled ‘On the militarisation of climate change’, wins my prize for the most telling metaphor in a title
  • Alison Croggon ruminates ‘On art‘ in times of crisis like ours
  • Giacomo Lichtner celebrates Primo Levi’s hundredth birth year by singling out ten fragments of If This Is A Man, in ‘One hundred years of Primo Levi
  • There are five short stories, of which the one that stands out most for me is Jem Tyley-Miller’s ‘The island’, which imagines a surreal solution to the refugee crisis involving those vast collections of garbage in the ocean
  • The most natural thing’ by Natalie Kon-yu is a peer-reviewed personal essay that introduced me to the parthood model of pregnancy, as opposed to the container model
  • Enza Gandolfo’s ‘Making & shaping’. which would have fitted nicely into the Southerly‘s theme, is a moving meditation on her mother’s crocheting artistry and  her own changing understanding of it
  • and regular columnist Giovanni Tiso strikes an intimate note in ‘On not moving to Australia‘, linking his decision to stay in New Zealand because he has two children who live with autism with Australia harsh rules for New Zealanders who come here, and it’s even harsher treatment of some refugees.

Yvette Holt and Magan Magan (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 7 (2019)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s seventh annual anthology of members’ poetry. In the words of one of its editors, it hosts ‘a focus on poets heralding from the Northern Territory, from the Top End, Western Desert, Utopia, Barkly, and of course Central Australia’. Those poets aren’t corralled into a special section, but take their place alongside others, including some whose books have won prestigious prizes. There are plenty of First Nations voices, including some writing from in prison and some who are household names. A fair number of the poems come from the Spoken Word milieu. It’s a beautifully democratic, diverse collection.

Having said that, I’m reluctant to single any individuals out. I’ll just quote some lines from a handful of poems that deal with fire, drought and flood, perhaps surprisingly many given that this anthology was published well before the current bushfire season,.

Kaye Aldenhoven’s ‘Cleaning the Country – April in Kakadu’ is about fire as a benign tool for land management:

Cool Dry season wind shifts the wind chimes
sending clear bell sounds out over fire-cleared land.
On the tongue the metallic smell of yesterday's smoke.
In the burnt area
an invisible wind spirit
raises puffs of dust as she sweeps ashes of grass.

Kelly Lee Hickey, ‘Notes from a Heatwave’, captures the lassitude of hot dry weather in five short stanzas:

All the nests are abandoned.
The pea chick dies
in my hands.

Peter Mitchell, ‘Forgotten Sparks’, recalls a 1968 bushfire:

We were surrounded by tongues, the speech of flames: shouts,
clamour and argument. Their babble charged our homes.

Fiona Dorrell’s heartbreaking image from a drought, ‘Forty Horses at Santa  Teresa’:

One horse lies down
crosses and tucks its legs
up close to its body.
Others stretch heads back in dirt
almost smelling of algae
and sieve hot air through
yellow spade teeth.

Not quite on topic is Michele Seminara’s ‘Family Tree’, which laments the loss of a tree that has been part of her life since childhood:

They amputate the limbs
to make it easier to fell; 
I know that feeling.

Vern Field (managing editor), Island 157 (2019)

I don’t have a subscription to Island, whose web site describes it as ‘celebrating ideas, writing and culture from our base in Hobart, Tasmania’ since 1979. I bought this issue because it features a poem by Jennifer Maiden (who isn’t from Tasmania).

Compared with the other journals in this post, Island is a lavish affair, with full page colour illustrations and advertisements for theatre events.

It’s a good read, with a preponderance of items that are excerpts from longer works (from Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which I intend to read; from a graphic novel, Islands and Ships by Joshua Santospirito, author of The Long Weekend in Alice Springs (my blog post here); from a lecture by Sharon Rider, which introduced me to some basics of Kant’s philosophy), and author’s notes on works in progress (Laura Elizabeth Woollett doing research on Norfolk Island; two separate accounts of artist and writer visits to Iceland; Rohan Wilson musing on the ethics of setting a climate-change (‘cli-fi’) novel in the Maldives).

Burnt Out’ by Liz Evans is a tale of not losing her home to bushfire in the 2018–2019 summer. Though the experience she describes is harrowing, it feels oddly tranquil when read in the aftermath of the recent mammoth fires, as it places the fire events in the context of the writer’s London background and is illustrated by gorgeously dramatic photographs.

There are short stories, of which Anne Casey’s comedy of teenage errors set in a cake shop, ‘What I’d Do If I Was in Charge’, stands out.

Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Pollock, Whiteley and the Critic: Seven Layers‘ isn’t the only poem, but it’s the one that spoke most strongly to me. (Perhaps I should have listed it as one of the excerpts above, as it’s included in Maiden’s The Espionage Act recently published by Quemar Press.) It’s one of her imaginary dialogues: the two painters of the title and an art critic stand in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, and their conversation ranges over an early self portrait by Brett Whiteley (I looked it up, it’s real, there’s an article on it here), the CIA’s program to back abstract expressionism as a counter to social realism, the effect this had on Pollock’s art and life … As is generally the case with Jennifer Maiden’s dialogues, it works as a strangely surreal encounter among recognisable characters, with a strong undertow of not-quite-pindownable meaning.

Thanks for reading this far. It’s not the last of my journal catch-up posts …

Proust Progress Report 6: halfway through the third book

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

Exactly six months into reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and I’m halfway through the third volume. I have now finished the first part of Le côté de Guermantes, which was originally published separately.

If you’re looking for sizzling action, this book isn’t for you. The narrator has dinner with the military friends of his friend de Saint-Loup and is fascinated by military theory. He meets de Saint-Loup’s mistress, whom everyone except de Saint-Loup knows is a prostitute. He attends a salon where people are variously snobbish, uncouth, bien-pensant, antisemitic, evasively diplomatic and pretentious. He goes for a walk with the extremely creepy and probably predatory M de Charlus. At home, he finds his beloved grandmother is sick. He goes out for a walk with her and she has a heart attack.

Much of it is wryly funny, and there is one belly laugh. At least, I laughed out loud when after about twenty pages in which the narrator is a fly on the wall at the salon, the object of his infatuation who has not deigned to utter a single word to him when introduced, finally – after the narrator’s dear friend Robert de Saint-Loup whispers in her ear – turns to him and says, ‘Comment allez-vous?‘ Your mileage may vary.

I think of Proust as the Anti-Twitter: no proposition goes unquestioned, one’s immediate interpretation of a word or action is more likely than not to turn into its opposite when subjected to sustained, complex explication. No one ever gives a straight answer to a question. We know that Proust and his narrator are dreyfusards*, and the anti-dreyfusard characters are mocked mercilessly, but there’s no sign of Twitter’s door-slamming outrage. And yet Patrick Alexander, author of a guide to Proust, is rewriting In Search of Lost Time (in English) as a series of tweets. Sadly, my computer wouldn’t go far enough back in his Twitter timeline to give me his version of what I’ve just read, so I can’t tell whether he’s making a point of the impossibility of the project.

It turns out, though, that skimming @ProustTweet‘s timeline gave me hope that the endless conversations in this volume are about to give way to something a little more active. The account of grand-mère’s heart attack holds out that promise as well: it happens offstage while the narrator is paying attention to a silly conversation between the ‘marquise’ who attends the public toilets and a caretaker of the gardens they are visiting. The important things, it seems to be suggested, happen when the narrative is engaged elsewhere.


* Proust assumes that his readers are familiar with the Dreyfus Affair, which Wikipedia informs me divided the republic from 1894 to 1906. In essence a Jewish army officer was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for treason, and even when evidence of his innocence came to light the high-ranking office who had actually committed the treason was found not guilty and Dreyfus was again, against the evidence, and went to prison. In Proust, and I assume in the actual world, conservative, Catholic, antisemitic people of the upper classes tended to be antidreyfusards.