500 people: Week 29-31

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

Lockdown continues. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world. Unlike the lockdown last year, there doesn’t seem to be any camaraderie amidst the social distancing this time round: people seem to be much more stuck in their own worlds, as if wearing a mask makes you invisible. Nevertheless:

1. Sunday 29 August. On our daily walk, we went into unfamiliar territory, still inside our 5 k radius. We came across a young man who seemed to be training his dog to run up very steep slopes to place and then retrieve its lead. The dog, a bull terrier, was an enthusiastic learner. We – the humans at least – exchanged greetings

2. Thursday, we were having lunch on the grass in Callan Park with the granddaughter. Just like a couple of weeks earlier, there were two people doing extraordinary things on a low rock overhang – a woman and a man this time. Again I approached them for a brief conversation. My opening gambit was to ask how long they’d been doing it. ‘About five years,’ the woman said. Just like the two young men the first time, they assumed I might want to have a go: ‘The best place to start is in a gym,’ the man offered. I said I was quite happy to watch, hoping I didn’t sound too much like Chance the gardener (as in this movie).

4. Wednesday or Friday that week. Near the Marrickville Metro there are sections of footpath that are paved rather than concrete. This is generally very attractive, but vulnerable to disruption by tree roots and other underground forces. Over the last couple of weeks some rough patches have been under repair. On this day, I passed a man who had pulled up 50 or so pavers that had bulged up in a line stretching from the base of a small fig tree. I stopped to chat, and he happily explained that he wasn’t doing anything to the root – no harm would come to the tree. He was covering the root with sand to create a level surface, then relaying the pavers on that. Next time walked that way, there was no sign of the former trip hazard.

3. Sunday 12 September. While almost all the encounters I’m recording in this series, this conversation was with a new person who I can reasonably expect to see more of. On a carefully orchestrated walk, where there were only ever two of us together at the same time, the Emerging Artist and I met up with one of our sons and a woman he has recently got close to. He had primed her well, and with social eptitude far outstripping mine she drew me into conversation about, among other things, this challenge. We talked about the way ubiquitous mobile phones have drastically reduced serendipitous encounters. She had read a book about dating that said the first rule for successful dating in the offline world (which, as she said, used to be called ordinary life) was to turn off your phone.

5. Thursday morning the car had a very flat tyre. I couldn’t budge the nuts on the wheel so called NRMA Roadside Assistance. The chap arrived in good time, jacked the car up, removed the tyre and replaced it with the spare in no time at all. He did all this without saying a word, remaining pretty much inscrutable behind his Covid mask. He wasn’t rude or hostile, just businesslike in the way he steadfastly ignored my feeble attempts at small talk (‘I haven’t jacked it up because I knew you’d have a pneumatic jack,’ etc.). Finally, though, as he was leaving, I said, ‘I hope all your calls today are as straightforward as this one,’ and he unbent enough to say, ‘Yeah.’

6. Saturday, on our morning exercise outing the EA and I went to the Sydney Fish Market, where a long section of footpath is currently closed because of the new, bigger, better market under construction. As we arrived back at the lights with our fish, there was some kind of kerfuffle. I happened to catch the eye of the the traffic control warden on duty Assuming I’d seen what just happened, he said, ‘There’s always one,’ and we had a pleasant chat about human folly and the need for safety regulations. (He had his mask around his neck.) I hoped he was getting time and a half. He said, ‘That’s the least of my worries. I’m pretty much retired and this gets me out of the house. I’ve only got so much I can talk to my wife about.’ (Pause.) ‘And vice versa.’

Running total is 215.

The Book Group and Mark McKenna Return to Uluru

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (Black Inc 2021)

This was a very welcome birthday gift in March this year, but somehow I didn’t get around to reading it until it became the September title for the Book Group.

Before the meeting: It’s a terrific, powerful, history that reads partly as a thriller and partly as a prose poem.

Mark McKenna has previously written two books that focus on the history of particular places: Looking for Blackfellas’ Point (2002) and From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories (2016). His recent Quarterly Essay, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (2018) takes its readers on a visit to Cook’s landing place at Kurnell. Return to Uluru similarly has a place for its main subject. It tells many stories about Uluru: stories from settler Australia that change radically over the decades, stories from Aṉangu culture and from First Nations people more generally, culminating in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The central strand is a compelling narrative, what McKenna calls the ‘biography of one moment in one man’s life, a moment that encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past’ (page 25).

The man in question is Bill McKinnon, a legendary Territorian policeman, who travelled in the steps of the explorers in the 1930s, taking camels on long journeys through what non-Indigenous Australians saw as the harsh and inhospitable terrain of central Australia, climbing what was then called Ayer’s Rock and adding to the cairn at its highest point, dealing with hostile ‘Blacks’ and doing the heroic work of bringing murderers to justice in the face of enormous odds. He was celebrated in newspaper articles and by writers like Frank Clune. A representative of an heroic Aussie type, a Crocodile Dundee without the comedy, he was also accused of brutal mistreatment of Aboriginal people, and in particular of the unlawful killing of one prisoner.

That killing is the moment that the book revolves around. It happened in a cave near Kapi Mutitjulu, a waterhole at the southern end of Uluru. McKinnon claimed that he fired blind into the cave where an escaped prisoner was hiding, and that he did so in self defence. An official enquiry found that he had done no wrong, but Aṉangu witnesses – and some non-Indigenous people – said different, and in the course of writing this book McKenna stumbled on some damning evidence written in McKinnon’s own hand. The image of the legendary outback bushman evaporates in front of our eyes to be replaced by something much darker. Deeply gruesome details emerge.

There is a story that is left mainly untold: the story of the man shot by McKinnon, whose name was Yokununna. In whitefella versions of the story he was a murderer who was captured by McKinnon, escaped, and was killed while resisting recapture. The murder of which he was accused, we are told, was a matter of tribal law. In an endnote, McKenna explains that he has ‘refrained from reproducing these details due to their ongoing cultural sensitivity’, but we are left in no doubt that Yokununna was no criminal, and that when he died he was drawing McKinnon’s attention away from his fellow escapees. The book ends with some of his remains being returned to this descendants.

My copy is a hardback, and its many photos are reproduced with wonderful clarity. These photos, beautiful though they are, serve as more than decoration. Among photographs from other sources, including the view of Uluru from the International Space Station on the cover, are many taken by Bill McKinnon, and others by the book’s author. So there’s a pictorial dialogue that spans the decades. We get a sense of how McKinnon saw himself. We feel the romance of the centre (in 1932, McKinnon commissioned a dozen mulga wood plaques from Albert Namatjira, making him one of the first whitefellas to encourage, and pay, Namatjira fo an artwork). And we see the descendants of the men brutalised by McKinnon, now back on country. We see Uluru’s senior custodian, grandson of one of the men arrested along with Yokununna, pointing to the opening in the rock that McKinnon fired through.

At the meeting: I had expected this to be one of those meetings where we are united in appreciation of the book and spend the time reminding each other of bits we made special note of. But it was much more interesting than that.

For some, the central idea of the book – that the killing in the cave could be taken as telling the tale of central Australia in miniature – just didn’t hold up, and the telling of it was irksomely longwinded and repetitive. They would have preferred more about people who made cameo appearances, such as Ted Strehlow, Charles Mountford and Olive Pink, and perhaps more about early non-Indigenous encounters with Uluru in the 19th century.

The descriptions of Uluru and the surrounding countryside, some felt, was uninspired. At times, the reader was expected to share assumptions and accept generalisations that some of us just didn’t accept or share – for example, at one stage ‘the Commonwealth was deeply embarrassed’ by McKinnon’s behaviour, but we aren’t told who ‘the Commonwealth’ was or what the evidence was for their emotional state. (This didn’t bother me, partly because I gave a lot of weight to McKenna’s brief account of the Coniston massacre and subsequent exoneration of the perpetrators, so understood that Canberra administrators of the Northern Territory didn’t want further bad publicity.)

One man said he read the book as a foreword and three short stories, which he enjoyed. The aim, as he saw it, was to write a whitefella myth of Uluru, and while he felt the appeal of that (we’re all whitefellas in our group), he was uneasy – I think I heard this right – that there may be some coopting of Aṉangu culture.

Those of us who had got that far all agreed in being moved and impressed by the passages where McKenna meets with the families of McKinnon and Yokununna. At least one man found the most powerful moment in the book to be when McKenna tells McKinnon’s grandson what he has discovered and says he understands the distress this may cause to the family if he publishes it. The grandson, for whom McKinnon has been a family hero, gives his blessing: ‘All of the family, Mum included, are on board for reconciliation, we wouldn’t want anything else.’ Even those who felt that the ‘reconciliation’ offered by the book is largely illusory (I’m not one of them) were moved by this. The passages where Yokununna’s skull is returned to his family and they have their version of events vindicated are equally powerful.

In an inspired moment this month’s Book Selector had invited us all to bring our own photos of Uluru, so the evening ended with a bit of show and tell. The images ranged from a picture of someone’s friend at the top of Uluru in the early 1980s, a photo very like one of McKinnon’s fro the same time, to a photo, also from the 1980s, of the photographer’s family posing cheerfully in a burnt out landscape with a number of old Aṉangu women holding up prize goannas.

Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets

Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, 1OO Bullets, Book 1 (DC Vertigo 2014)

A man calling himself Agent Graves approaches someone and gives them an attaché case containing absolute proof that a particular person has done them a great wrong. The case also contains a gun and a hundred bullets, which Agent Graves asserts can be used with complete impunity to kill the one who has done the wrong.

Will the person receiving the case take revenge, or will something other than fear of the legal consequences stop them?

That’s the set-up for the first issues in this series of 100 comics that were published from 1999 to 2009.

This book is a compilation of the first 20 issues, and it turns out, as you would expect, that this fairly crude moral dilemma broadens out in unexpected directions. Is Agent Graves a supernatural figure and does this turn out to be in the horror genre? Well, no, at least I don’t think so at this stage. This is one of those stories where a hidden cabal wields huge power in the world, and Agent Graves is somehow either their enemy or their enforcer. A group called the Minutemen is involved and perhaps the attaché case is a recruitment device …

It’s stylishly done, with too much traditionally ‘sexy’ female flesh on display. For my taste, it’s more interesting than superhero comics, and I may read on …

Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero

Alan Finkel, Getting to Zero: Australia’s Energy Transition (Quarterly Essay 81, 2021)
– plus correspondence in QE 82

Alan Finkel was Australia’s chief scientist from 2016 to 2020, and among other things he is currently special adviser to the Australian government on low-emissions technologies. So an essay on ‘Australia’s energy transition’ written by him carries a certain weight.

On the face of it, it’s hard to believe that the current Australian government is serious about taking effective action about the climate emergency. It’s not so long since Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament to make puerile mockery of concerns about fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change, and he now conspicuously refuses to commit to a zero-emissions target by any given time. The Minister for Resources is a fervent advocate of the Adani coal mine in Queensland. The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction want to spend vast sums to keep coal-fired generators open. A gas led recovery or a hydrogen valley sound more like amateurish marketing slogans than indicators of any serious policy. So when one of their key advisers writes an essay whose title implies a goal (getting to zero) and a plan (transition) it inspires hope that he will spell out whatever seriousness lies behind the politicians’ sloganeering and obfuscation.

Ian McAuley says in the correspondence in QE 82:

With a little editing – if he replaced his personal anecdotes with the language of bureaucracy, for instance – this essay could serve as the government’s green paper on ‘Australia’s Energy Transition’ – that is, if our government were willing to engage with the public on difficult public policy problems through the traditional green paper/white paper process.

This may be so, but Finkel makes it clear that he has very little to say about politics, policy or politicians. He writes as an engineer: ‘Just as technology has got us into trouble through its propensity to generate carbon dioxide emissions, it is technology that will save us.’ He does acknowledge that technology doesn’t live in a vacuum:

It lives in the policy-driven world of markets, fiscal settings, taxes, government decisions and consumer preferences. This essay is about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine. Governments have to balance competing priorities across economic growth, scientific advice and community values.

(page 27)

The essay delivers on that promise. After a very readable outline of the science, it outlines the technological challenges (‘The task is, quite simply, immense’) and the processes already well under way to meet them: the huge uptake in solar energy, progress by way of batteries, hydrogen generation and other means to making wind and solar dependable, electric cars, and so on. He clarifies his modified support for continued use of gas as part of a transition to zero-emissions; he champions hydrogen as the hero of the story. He emphasises that the challenges are huge (‘a mountain to climb’) but is optimistic. He ends with these words:

We can do this, but it will take considerable effort and will take time. So remember: be ambitious; be patient.

(page 97)

I was heartened to read Finkel’s lucid, careful, methodical argument that the challenge of the climate emergency can be met – with difficulty, but successfully, and without significant sacrifice (‘No trade off, no dichotomy. Prosperity and low emissions.’). I was also uneasy. Surely something has to change as well as our technology. There was a herd of elephants in the room. The essay starts with a quote from Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I imagine the ‘alternative society’ enthusiasts of the 60s and 70s who had Buckminster Fuller as a kind of guru would consider it close to blasphemy to invoke him in this way.


This Quarterly Essay demonstrates the brilliance of the series’ practice of including in each issue extensive correspondence on the previous one. And it confirms me in my practice of postponing my reading of each issue until the next one arrives.

Alan Finkel can be read, roughly, as explaining the government’s position on the transition to a zero-emissions economy. The correspondence in Quarterly Essay 82 is appropriately heavyweight. Starting with Tim Flannery (Finkel ‘tragically fails’ to identify the real problem, which is ‘that unless we take timely action and view cost as a secondary consideration, we seem destined to precipitate a new, dangerous climate that will threaten our global civilisation’), Scott Ludlam (‘This is a fight that won’t be resolved by reasoned argument alone’) and Ross Garnaut (‘Public expenditure on technological development is wasted unless it is accompanied or followed by a carbon price or by regulation mandating its use’), the line-up of scientists, scholars, researchers and activists engage respectfully and forcefully with that position. If Black Inc were to publish the essay with the correspondence in a single volume, it be a useful, and very readable, overview of the state of climate politics in Australia.

A new IPCC report has been published since the essay and responses were written. Who knows what Alan Finkel would write now?


Added much later, Alan Finkel’s carefully reasoned case has trouble holding its own against the Juice Media’s version of things:

Zadie Smith’s Intimations

Zadie Smith, Intimations: Six Essays (Penguin 2020)

This tiny book was written in the first half of 2020, when Covid-19 was running wild in New York City, where Zadie Smith teaches creative writing. It comprises six personal essays, which their author describes in her foreword as ‘small by definition, short by necessity’. They are written in the spirit of what she learned from the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: ‘Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.’

It’s a tiny book, but it’s not slight. As I read it, I could feel my personal understanding of the word ‘intimations’ changing to include an element of intimacy. These essays ruminate intimately on life, art and relationships in the middle of a pandemic. The first essay, ‘Peonies’, sets the tone:

Just before I left New York, I found myself in an unexpected position: clinging to the bars of the Jefferson Market Garden looking in. A moment before I’d been on the run as usual, intending to exploit two minutes of time I’d carved out of the forty-five-minute increments into, which back, then I divided my days.

She was transfixed by the sight of a bed of garish tulips, wishing they were peonies. That moment leads into reflections on the concept of a ‘natural woman’, the nature of creativity (‘Planting tulips is creative. … Writing is control’), the ‘global humbling’ that was to happen a few days later, on creativity and submission. She quotes a parable from Kierkegaard about the difference between how we actually are in the world and the stories we tell about ourselves in the world. You can make them peonies in a story, but they are still tulips in the real world. With the lightest of touches, the essay takes us into the deep challenge that April 2020 – ‘an unprecedented April’ – presents to our sense of ourselves.

The second essay ‘The American Exception’, also has a brilliantly enticing first line: ‘He speaks truth so rarely that when you hear it from his own mouth – 29 March 2020 – it has the force of revelation.’ We know exactly who she means. Paradoxically, the truth he spoke is that before that date ‘we didn’t have death’. The essay goes on to justify the paradox beautifully.

All the essays tackle big themes, and do it lightly. The longest, ‘Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus)’ is the one where the author brings her gifts as a novelist most strongly to bear. I think the Berger in brackets is John Berger, and there may be a reference to his famous quote, in Understanding a Photograph: ‘I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.” The essay offers six portraits, mostly of people peripheral to Smith’s New York life, though one, subtitled ‘An Elder at the 98 Bust Stop’, is someone who has known her since childhood back in London. Each of the portraits has a twist at the end, as the pandemic leads the person to reveal something unexpected about themselves. After the portraits, there’s ‘Postscript: Contempt as a Virus’:

‘The virus doesn’t care about you.’ And likewise with contempt: in the eyes of contempt you don’t even truly rise to the level of the hated object – that would involve a full recognition for your existence.

The brief essay-within-an-essay ranges over racist micro-aggressions, Dominic Cummings’s cavalier violations of Covid restrictions, and, most compellingly, the look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he murdered George Floyd.

I haven’t read anything by Zadie Smith before this. I haven’t even seen White Teeth on TV. I’ve enjoyed her brother Ben Bailey Smith’s occasional stints on the Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, but that’s as close as I’ve got. I brought this book home from the Book(-swapping) Club, and Im very glad to be introduced to this fine writer.

500 people: Week 26-28

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

Lockdown continues. I’ve restrained myself a number of times from yelling at chin-mask wearers, and I’ve been sharply reminded to put my own mask on twice. None of these count as warm communication with strangers. I have been communicating with people on line, including some new people, but it’s been slim pickings in the non-virtual world.

1. Saturday 21 August. There’s a circular patch of grass in the grounds of our complex of 43 units. Nothing much else can grow there because there’s just a shallow layer of soil on top of the cement roof of the garage. As I went out for my state-sanctioned daily walk to the shops, I passed two young women reclining on the grass, playing cards and chatting. Seizing the moment, but keeping my mask on, I stopped and said how good it was to see the space being used. ‘Yes,’ one of them said. ‘It seemed a pity not to take advantage of it.’ It would have felt rude to prolong the conversation, but this was warm and neighbourly.

2. Monday in Callan Park, which is just inside our 5 k radius, we passed two young men doing extraordinary feats on a low overhanging rock, probably what’s called bouldering. While one of them clung to the underside of the rock and found handholds and footholds to pull himself along, gecko-like, the other moved a couple of thick mats to catch hm if he fell. Then they swapped roles. The Emerging Artist and granddaughter weren’t diverted from their mission to find the little beach, but I was transfixed. In a break in the action I expressed my awe. One of the young men invited me to have a go. He may not have been joking, but there was no way. I again expressed my awe, and one of them said, ‘There are a lot who are better than us.’

3. Tuesday afternoon – I don’t know if I should count this – I had my first session with a cardiologist. (Nothing to be alarmed about, as far as I know.) We managed some non-transactional chat, partly because that’s clearly her approach as a medical specialist, but also because I was open to it. She commented on my bright striped socks. I said I mostly wore them to please my granddaughter. She, on the other hand, changes into woolly socks as soon as she gets home from work, partly because they’re comfortable and partly because they were a gift from one of her teenage children and she wants (needs?) to show her appreciation.

4. Thursday morning, as the Emerging Artist and I were walking in Newtown, we were hailed by a man emerging from a house across the narrow street. Because of mask-related hearing impairment, I wasn’t sure what he said, and thought perhaps he’d mistaken us for someone he knew. As I moved towards him questioningly, he said, ‘I said buon giorno, good morning,’ and was hunting around with German-sounding words when I said ‘Buon giorno’ back to him. Then I said, ‘Buona giornata,’ and he gestured to indicate that he was pleased I understood enough Italian to muster a reply.

Running total is 209.

The Prelude Progress Report 2

William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, in William Wordsworth Selected Poetry, edited, with an Introduction, by Mark Van Doren (Modern Library College Edition 1950), Book Fourth line 339 to Book Seventh line 618.

I’ve now been reading ‘The Prelude’ for two months, 70 lines first thing in the morning every day except one, when an an early doctor’s appointment messed things up.

It has been a pleasurable enterprise – nothing like a dose of beautifully crafted language to start a day well. The first four books dealt with Wordsworth’s childhood, his school days, his time at Cambridge, and a summer vacation from Cambridge. At the end of Book Fourth, after pages about the pleasures of summer holidays, these lines struck a chord when read during our Covid lockdown:

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude;
How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre—hermit,
Deep in the bosom of the wilderness;
Votary (in vast cathedral, where no foot
Is treading, where no other face is seen)
Kneeling at prayers; or watchman on the top
Of lighthouse, beaten by Atlantic waves

The next three books – Fifth, Sixth and most of Seventh – are handily titled ‘Books’, ‘Cambridge and the Alps’, and ‘Residence in London’. He constantly plays off the natural and rural worlds against the urban, busy or frivolous world. There are some satirical passages, but the best bits are the ones that celebrate the beauties of the natural world or works of the imagination. When he was about 20, he took time off from Cambridge for an epic walk across France to the Alps early in the French Revolution: Book Sixth documents the joy that filled the countryside at that time, and leads to some wonderful passages about the Alps.

And now, he’s in London, enjoying the theatre, including music hall, and being less than impressed by the way language is wielded in parliament (‘Words follow words; sense seems to follow sense’), in the pulpit, and all around him (‘Lies to the ear, and lies to every sense’). But he is struck by ‘individual sights / Of courage, or integrity, or truth / Or tenderness’, and my reading this morning finished with such a sight – a working man sitting in the sun with a sickly baby on his knee:

Of those who passed, and me who looked at him,
He took no heed; but in his brawny arms
(The Artificer was to the elbow bare,
And from his work this moment had been stolen)
He held the child, and, bending over it,
As if he were afraid both of the sun
And of the air, which he had come to seek,
Eyed the poor babe with love unutterable

Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters

Catherine Menon, Fragile Monsters (Viking Penguin 2021)

It’s 1985. Durga’s relationship comes to an end when her lover returns to his wife. She leaves her job as a maths lecturer in a Canadian university and takes her wounded heart back to her native Malaysia where she gets a job at a university in Kuala Lumpur. When the novel opens she has left KL for Diwali to visit her cantankerous grandmother in the village of Kuala Lipis where she grew up. A gift of fireworks goes badly awry, the roads are shut by floods, she stays in the village much longer than expected, and while she’s there confronts the ghosts – fragile monsters – of her past.

In alternating chapters we read the story of Mary, Durga’s grandmother: her childhood, her experience of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the Malayan Emergency, her relationship with her daughter Francesca, who was Durga’s mother.

The two narratives come together in the climactic final chapters. Durga makes some deeply disturbing discoveries about her family history, and the great miasma of stories that she grew up with are resolved into some kind of reality.

Throughout, there’s a contrast between Durga’s world view and her grandmother’s. Durga is thoroughly westernised, and loves the world of mathematical exactness and consistency. Her grandmother is a wild woman who tells stories that differ with each telling. Durga finds herself being drawn back into her childhood world of ghosts and half-truths.

I’m glad I read this book. The characters, especially the grandmother in the present time, feel real, and there are rich insights into Malaysian traditional culture and history. (The university in Kuala Lumpur is an offstage presence that tries to pull Durga back to westernised, mathematical reality, but without a lot of success.) But it didn’t sweep me away. It was as if I could always feel the work that was going into the writing – a symptom of this is the occasional reflection on mathematical concepts. These feel like scaffolding the helped the writer create the work, but needed either to be more fully integrated or designated as darlings to be killed.

Ruby Reads 26: More Catwings and amazing Australian women revisited

Ursula K Le Guin, illustrated by S D Schindler, Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings (© 1994, Orchard 2006)

–––––––, Jane on Her Own (© 1999, Scholastic 2007)

Inspired by the success of the first two Catwings books, we bought the other two online (not from Amazon). They arrived a week apart and in the wrong order, so Ruby got the story in a nonlinear fashion, but it didn’t seem to matter. Here they are in their correct order.

Alexander is a kitten who believes in his own wonderfulness, and is tremendously brave in his home environment. He ventures out into the world where he meets with actual danger and finds himself stuck up in a tree and terrified, when along comes little black Jane-with-wings from Catwings Return to help him down.

The two kittens develop a strong bond, and (spoiler alert!), Alexander is able to help Jane face the early terrifying experience that has left her functionally mute, and having faced it regain her capacity to speak

After having this read to her once, Ruby cast her Nana and Pop as various cats and herself as Jane, and then Alexander, but mainly Jane, and a good time was had by all. The book was then read several more times. Thelma, who barely features in the narrative to my mind, is firmly entrenched as Ruby’s favourite character, possibly because she is the oldest of the Catwings siblings, the big sister, a role Ruby revels in in real life.

Jane takes centre stage here. Bored with the safe life on Overhill Farm, she sets out on an adventure. The others all warn her that if human beings (not ‘beans’) see a cat with wings they’ll either put her in a cage or take her to a laboratory. As it happens, Jane finds herself for a time a captive TV celebrity.

When I saw the title of this book, I thought it was going to be about the Catwings’ mother, Mrs Jane Tabby, and I’m a little ashamed that I wasn’t all that interested. Mrs Jane Tabby does make an appearance at the end, and the whole series finishes, like the first book, with human-to-cat kindness.

I hope Ruby keeps on loving these books, because at the moment I’ve got them on a par with where the Wild Things Are or The Sign on Rosie’s Door for enduring readability.


Pamela Freeman and Sophie Beer,  Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women Who Shaped History (Lothian 2018)

I blogged about this book some years ago, here. It was a gift from the author to Ruby, back when looking at pictures of cats was what Ruby did by way of reading.

She asks for it often just now, and a measure of her engagement with it is a question she asked last week as we were out walking: ‘Poppa, do you think Rose Quong is a beautiful name?’ Rose Quong makes a bigger impression than Nellie Melba, and she’s very interest to know if Edith Cowan had babies.

Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen

Toby Fitch, Sydney Spleen (Giramondo 2021)

There are four poems with the title ‘Spleen’ in Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857). Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen is roughly structured around those poems – its first three sections begin with his version of one, and the third section finishes with his version, or perhaps re-imagining, of the fourth.

The translations are a long way from word-for-word French-to-English transcriptions. Only the first of the four preserves Baudelaire’s conventional line-by-line layout, but even in it the Fitch version moves the action from Paris to Sydney, and in its final couplet, rather than two court cards muttering sinisterly about their defunct loves, the looming climate catastrophe disinters ‘whole centuries of fear’. On close reading, though, these versions astonishingly true to the originals – recreations of the same mood of disgusted melancholy in a different cultural, geographical and ecological context. (I have had quite a bit of nerdy fun comparing these versions with other more conventional ones. If you’re also inclined that way, you can find Baudelaire’s first ‘Spleen’ and a handful of English translations at fleursdumal.org. The Fitch version is online here.)

In the rest of the book, poem after poem vents its spleen on this city and this country, articulating – to quote the excellent back-cover blurb – ‘the causes of our doom and gloom: corporate rapacity, climate change, disaster capitalism, the plague, neo-colonialism, fake news, fascism’. They do it with gusto, with dazzling wordplay, and with the engagement of a parent of small children and owner of an ailing small black dog.

I’m not a critic or a scholar. Mostly, I read poetry for pleasure, and even though in a number of the poems in this book I have no grasp of their organising principles or structures, there is almost always something to give pleasure. I feel a little the way I did on first hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ or ‘Desolation Row’ – the words have a magic that doesn’t depend on me understanding them. For example this, from ‘New Work Metaphorics’ (page 19), which seems to be the inspiration for the book’s cover:

I've got over 73
tabs open in my hot
skull right now, one of which
on death-cult capitalism says, There
are more important things than living and
I agree with the whole of my man-o'-war
heart still beating its stung drum.
Skeletal, diaphanous, I am
traversed by grace,
a windowpane

The image of multiple open tabs in one’s hot skull is fabulous. I don’t understand that man-o’-war image, but I love it.

There are poems that play around with the n + 7 game invented by the Oulipo poets in the 1960s – you take a passage and replace every noun with the one that comes seven after it in the dictionary. A pretty soulless activity you might think, but when you do it to a certain kind of public utterance, and tweak it a little, the results can be savage, as in this mangled mash-up of Scott Morrison’s ‘I will burn for you’ and ‘This is coal’ speeches (in ‘Captain’s Cull’):

I will burnish for you every deadbeat, 
every single deadline, so you can achieve,
your amnesties, your assemblies, your destinations.
That is what's at the torch of my aid. 
And this is coalface. Don't be afraid. Don't 
be scared. An ideological, pathological 
feedback of coastline won't hurt you.

There are poems that use homophones to similar effect, like this, from ‘The Last few Budgets in a Nutshell’:

Wort I'm swaying is, Barry, the primonastery
has my combpleat confit dense. It's imply
inTrumpting bracket creep and I tink the sir plus
is a goner schtick. HoWeber the diss royalty of sum
has been outray juice.

So many levels of splenetic wonderfulness in ‘the sir plus is a goner schtick’!

There are found poems, including one that claims to have been copied verbatim from the label on a bottle of water, and others that play around with found texts. There are prose poems that may be accounts of dreams, especially a sequence titled ‘Pandemicondensation’. And there are poems that take us on a ride through conversations with the poet’s young daughters, online idiocies, dire environmental news, encounters with the police, and more, all tossed in together but somehow making a whole.

The part of the book I really love is the fourth section, a single prose poem in 25 parts called ‘Morning Walks in a Time of Plague’. It’s exactly what the title says. The poet goes for a morning walk during Covid lockdown with his partner, their two young daughters and their little black dog. In the first eight parts they go to the lovingly evoked ‘chicken park’. I’ve been to that park with a little girl more than once, and am delighted that it has been immortalised. Here it is:

In the rest of the poem, they go to Camperdown Cemetery, whose celebration in verse I’ve already blogged about (here).

Both these places come wonderfully alive in what purport to be – and I believe mostly are – straightforward accounts of daily visits to these locations. Sometimes the adults join the girls’ imaginative play, which mostly involves unicorns, or alicorns to be precise. Occasionally they yell at them. Sometimes they get lost in their phones, reading news about the pandemic or plague-related texts from Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus and contemporary scholars, the latter via Twitter. The narrator is aware that the late John Forbes lived nearby (I’m guessing it was in the sunlit brick building in the photo above), and quotes lines from his poetry. The two imaginative worlds co-exist easily with the natural world of high winds, dropping pine cones and orgiastic lorikeets. Once the poem moves to the cemetery, the context broadens out to include precolonial and colonial history, as well as a pervasive sense of mortality, and, oh, a hint of Lovecraftian horror. All this happens in unforced prose narrative, so that one barely notices the dark, melancholy undertow: the dog’s body is failing, the girls have little accidents, there are countless tales of the buried dead, they come across a dead bee, and all the time the pandemic looms just outside the poem’s frame.

It’s hard to find a short passage that conveys the pleasure that this poem gives, but here’s an attempt, from the 17th part, featuring the poet’s daughters Evie and Tilda:

Once we reach a clearing, Evie spots an alicorn flock in the 
sky. They eat the belly-sized candlenut leaves we offer them.

When we reach the other swamp mahogany, in the 
northwest, it's clear the lorikeets are coming and going 
between the two, raucously. The tree's think chunky brown 
bark looks super tough but up close is pliant, squidgy.

Tilda needs to do a 'bush wee', which ends up going down 
the backs of her legs into her gumboots.

On the way home Evie finds a feather which I decide is
from a pigeon, though she says it has too much shine.

In the back alleys we meet, perched on a back gate, a black-
and-white cat adept at keeping his distance from our loose 
hands. 

It is forbidden to spit on cats in plague-time, writes Camus.

See what I mean? This is funny, affectionate, and melancholy all at once. The play between adult and children is fresh and respectful. There are notes on nature and some acute social observation – the cats of Newtown are notoriously self-possessed. These paragraphs quote The Plague, feature My Little Pony figures, and arguably allude to Bluey. With apparent effortlessness, they invite us into an intimate world. The tiny hints of something being amiss, in the description of the tree’s bark and the trouble with Tilda’s wee, are unstrained, and we could almost forget there’s a pandemic on, but the cat sets off an association that reveals the pandemic is always hovering in the poet/father’s mind.


For quite a few years now I’ve enjoyed the fruits of Toby Fitch’s labours as organiser and MC of poetry readings, editor and critic. I’ve heard him read, I’ve read a number of his poems in journals, and I’ve tagged him in this blog a number of times (here’s a link). I used to see his distinctive unruly head of hair behind a stroller in the local park (not the chicken park) accompanied by the small black dog. But though he has had seven books of poetry published, Sydney Spleen is the first I’ve read. I’m very grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.