Jeff Sparrow’s Fascists Among Us

Jeff Sparrow, Fascists Among Us: Online hate and the Christchurch massacre (Scribe 2019)

The central character of this book is the man who murdered 51 people in Christchurch mosques in March 2019. He is never referred to by name, but is called ‘Person X’ throughout. This is partly in deference to Jacinda Ahern Ardern’s plea, ‘Speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them.’ But it is also a strategy to turn the reader’s attention away from the murderer’s personal psychology and towards his broader social and political context, to see him not as some kind of lone madman, but as part of a small but thriving fascist movement, ‘an anonymous young man who emerges from the shadows, gun in hand, already committed to an evil ideology.’ To use the terms of Jennifer Maiden’s The Cuckold and the Vampires (my blog post here), Jeff Sparrow is interested in the macrocosm rather than the microcosm

Person X (as I will also call him) wrote a 74-page manifesto that was (and probably still is) available on the internet, linked to the video he made of his rampage. Journalists mostly dismissed this manifesto as unhinged ravings. Jeff Sparrow has read it, and argues that it expresses ‘with stark clarity’ a distinctive political platform. I don’t have even the slightest urge to read that manifesto, but I’m grateful to Jeff Sparrow for reading it for us.

Sparrow argues that Person X’s manifesto wasn’t intended for a general audience, but was/is part of a conversation and a culture which this book sets out to explicate. Person X is a real fascist – not a generic right-wing extremist, but a follower of actual fascists, particularly Oswald Mosley, who unlike Hitler and Mussolini survived the Second World War and preached a Europe-first fascism for the post-war era.

One of the distinguishing features of fascism is the upholding of violence not just as an acceptable means to an end, but as a good thing in its own right. Sparrow gives a fascinating account of the repellent debates among the online fascist groups, mainly in the USA but also in Australia. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 in which men with tiki torches chanted, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and anti-racist Heather Heyer was killed, most of these groups decided that their movement wasn’t ready for mass action in the streets. Donald Trump’s famous ‘fine people on both sides’ comment wasn’t enough to fortify them – and Trump himself was no fascist, though he provided a favourable context for fascism to grow. Many of the keyboard warriors weren’t up to having their photos made public, and the sheer size and energy of counter-demonstrations whenever they planned a further demonstration made them look ridiculous.

So they generally withdrew to the internet, where they infiltrated – or rather coalesced with – troll culture and ‘shitposting’. They would post horrific things in a way that you couldn’t tell if they were serious or just joking, aiming to ‘own the libs’. They became expert in developing and circulating memes. This was Person X’s home ground, and – Sparrow argues – the stuff in his manifesto that some commentators took to be incoherent ravings was really in the vernacular of The Daily Stormer and 8chan. He wasn’t prominent in Australian fascist groups, but he was known as an active participant. (Sparrow’s account of Australian fascism should bring a blush to the cheeks of many journalists who have described key fascists as activists and given them a platform.)

Person X’s murderous spree was a deliberate intervention in the debates among fascists. Acknowledging that the time was not ripe for organised action, he offered a model of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism. He took the form of the ‘autogenic mass killing’ – a lone man with a gun who lashes out – and recast it as a political act. It’s not violence against significant political targets, like assassinations or even the 9/11 attacks, but it sets out to intensify the existing sense of crisis (including the climate emergency crisis), and push towards total destabilising of society and the recovery of some sort of ethnic purity:

Person X presents a systematised manifesto calling for racist terror in the name of a social disruption he thinks will culminate in ethnic cleansing and genocide.

It’s an evil program, the wickedness of which is not diminished by its self-evident impossibility. But impossible programs still attract followers, irrespective of their wickedness.

(page 92–93)

And already when Sparrow was writing this book there had been a number of imitators who explicitly mentioned Person X and his manifesto in their own utterances.

Fascists Among Us was written and published well before the events in Washington on 6 January this year. It does seem that the strategy of organised street violence hasn’t been relinquished as thoroughly as Sparrow believed. But his warning that it’s important to understand people like Person X stands. This is a short book, a quick read, and though Person X has been tried and sentenced, Donald Trump is no longer President of the USA, and almost certainly the debates and practices of fascists in Australia and worldwide have moved on, it offers important insights into a clear and present danger.

The Book Group and David Williamson’s Removalists

David Williamson, The Removalists (Currency Press 1972)

Last night the Book Group had an extracurricular outing to see David Williamson’s play The Removalists at the New Theatre (which is about as new as the Pont Neuf in Paris).

Written before the outing: I have a soft spot for this play. I saw the first Sydney production at the Nimrod Theatre in 1971, an astonishing 50 years ago, as part of the exhilarating resurgence of Australian theatre at the time. In early 1973, the first copies of the book arrived in the Currency Press office soon after I started working there in my first real job – it was a big seller for them, and as far as I can tell is still selling well. I visited the set of Tom Jeffreys’ film in 1974, and was in awe of the intense inner focus of actor John Hargreaves as he waited for the cameras to roll.

Before our theatre outing I revisited the book – a first edition, stiff and yellowing on a shelf near Alex Buzo’s Macquarie and Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous. In a successful bid for the educational market, Currency’s founders, theatre critic Katharine Brisbane and her scholar husband Philip Parsons, prefaced the text of the play with two essays, ‘Reflections on Violence’ by historian Ian Turner, and ‘Authority and Punishment’ by eminent defence lawyer Frank Galbally (who is mentioned in the play) and Kerry Milte (who was soon to become the subject of interesting dramas of his own). John Bell, who directed the Nimrod production, has an afterword, and the front and back covers fold out to reveal cartoons by Bruce Petty. I haven’t seen the current edition of the book, but the image of the cover on Currency’s web site mentions Galbally and Turner, but not Petty.

This prefatory material is all about violence and authority. Ian Turner sums it up well:

The Removalists raises three questions: one sociological (is Australian society violent of its essence?); one political (do the forces of ‘law and order’ rest on violence?’); one psychological (do all of us have the kinds of aggressive instincts or behaviour patterns which Williamson depicts?).

The essays talk about the streak of male violence in Australian culture (what would today be called toxic masculinity), and they talk about historic violence against First Nations peoples and Asians, especially the Chinese on the goldfields. The domestic violence at the heart of the play is barely mentioned. John Bell does offer an early version of what has become a common observation abut Williamson’s writing: strong women actors are necessary to stop the female characters from ‘degenerating into stilted, unconvincing types’. The edition of the book currently on sale may have been updated. Certainly, in 2014 Currency published ‘The Unexpected Feminist’, a feminist reading of the play by Van Badham (online here).

In case you don’t know the plot: two women, sisters, turn up at a two-man (sic) police station asking for a document establishing that the younger woman has been assaulted, in order to legitimise their plan to move her and her baby out of the marital home while her husband is out at the pub; the older policeman, with sleazy motivation, offers to come and help the move; the younger policeman, fresh out of training, goes along unwillingly; at the home, the husband comes home unexpectedly, and the situation escalates into lethal violence.

Reading the text, I imagine that a successful staging in 2021 would have to take into account our much better understanding of domestic abuse and violence, and our (I hope) intolerance of having it minimised. Though the play doesn’t endorse the way the sergeant and the husband make light of the DV here, it isn’t much interested in it except as precipitating violence among the men. Some of the minimising language could have come from the pages of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do (my review here). John Bell’s comment about how much depends on the women actors has become much weightier with age.

The outing: Nine of us, including two ring-ins, had a cheerful Thai dinner across the street from the theatre. When we crossed over 15 minutes or so before lights down, fate decreed that the third row from the front, in my opinion the best seats in the house, was empty. There was a sizeable audience, almost all of whom I’d guess were high school students who have the play as a set text. It was kind of exhilarating to be in a big live audience full of youthful energy – for some of the Book Group it was the first time they’d sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a theatre since the beginning of Covid days.

I had been wondering how the play would deal with #MeToo. It turned out that Johann Walraven, the director, was more interested in how it relates to #BlackLivesMatter. This was announced in the first moments. As the lights come up, while the two policeman are seen in the shadowy police station on stage right, an Aboriginal man watches a flickering TV screen in his living room on stage left. He turns off the television and walks out of the room, the lights come up on the police station, and the play as written, in which all the other characters are white, begins. The production doesn’t take any liberties with the script, but the power plays of the other characters in relation to Kenny, the husband (by Alfie Gledhill), are now seen through a racialised lens. In a climactic moment there’s a George Floyd reference that feels absolutely integral to the play, and is gutting.

The misogyny was still unsettling. It’s there from the opening scene in which the Sergeant gives voice to the myth of false rape claims, through Kenny’s minimising of his violence against Fiona (Eliza Nicholls), to a sleazy discussion of sex-workers towards the end. It’s meant to be unsettling: it’s the thing about the Sergeant that makes us realise he’s something much uglier than a harmless scallywag who plays the system. And Kenny’s talk of ‘love-taps’ is echoed by the Sergeant later in reference to his own ferocious assaults on Kenny – no minimising possible there, as we’re seeing it for ourselves. I imagine it would have to be written differently today, but the audience is left in no doubt that this is a scene that the two women are smart to be getting out of.

My abiding impression from the 1971 production at the Nimrod Street Theatre is of Max Phipps as Ross, the young constable. It was his transformation from gormless innocence to rage, violence and cunning that burned the play into my memory. Last night, the play belonged to Laurence Coy as the Sergeant. Lecherous, self-righteous, bullying, vicious, self-pitying, out of control, blustering, I’d thought of the character as little more than a crucible for Ross’s transformation, but in this production he’s a tortured human being, and Ross (Lloyd Allison-Young) is pretty much collateral damage. Possibly the most powerful moment last night wasn’t in the big, horrifying violence, but a small moment that almost didn’t happen. In the middle of a rant about self-control as the test of manhood, the Sergeant shouts that his wife had twenty-seven kidney fits after childbirth. Kate (Shannon Ryan), the obnoxious older sister, moves towards him, and says gently, ‘Twenty-seven kidney fits. That’s terrible.’ In a fleeting moment of humanity, the Sergeant says, ‘Yes, We gave her up at one stage.’ In classic David Williamson style, the moment is undercut with some rough humour, but the actors caught this tiny wisp of tenderness and vulnerability and made sure we saw it.


Full disclosure: Laurence Coy is a member of the Book Group – but he really is that good in this play.

Laura Tingle’s High Road

Laura Tingle, The High Road: what Australia Can Learn from New Zealand (Quarterly Essay 80) – and correspondence from Quarterly Essay 81.

The High Road is Laura Tingle’s fourth Quarterly Essay, making her possibly the series most frequent contributor. Great Expectations (QE 46 2012) dealt with Australian expectations of government, Political Amnesia (QE 60 2016) with failing institutional memory, and Follow the Leader (QE 71 2018) with political leadership in the modern world (links are to my blog posts). The High Road presents an abridged comparative chronology of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand: both began as colonies of England, and both were cut adrift when the UK joined the EU, and they have taken very different, though parallel paths since then, while for the most part doing their best to ignore each other.

The essay begins with the stark contrast between Jacinda Ahern’s decisive response to the Covid crisis and Scott Morrison prevarication and ambiguity, and goes on to make broader comparisons between the two leaders that are all unflattering to Morrison. But when the essay goes back to sketch the histories of the two nations, the comparisons don’t always favour Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Aotearoa/New Zealand doesn’t have a written constitution. It does have the Treaty of Waitangi, which laid the basis for a mutually respectful relationship between Māori and Pākehā. The treaty was largely ignored by settler society until the second half of last century, but it has been since taken seriously and provided a basis for major advances in Māori status and conditions, and for compensation for past injustices. Compare this to Malcolm Turnbull’s offhand dismissal of the call for a makaratta and a Voice to Parliament in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In Aotearoa/New Zealand politicians of all stripes speak of ‘honour’ in relation to the Treaty, a word we will wait some time to her in the Austraian Parliament.

Neo-liberalism has come like a plague to both countries. It hit Aotearoa/New Zealand harder. Because there is only one house in their Parliament, and there are no states, a Prime Minister with a majority can override opposition to an economic program, which is what happened with ‘Rogernomics’ – a ‘deregulatory frenzy’ in the 1980s, which has made New Zealand ‘a stellar example for those wanting less government, less tax and more markets ever since’, and has also brought about a huge amount of human suffering. On this side of the Tasman, when Hawke and Keating set out with similar aims they had to compromise and set up a certain level of protection for the vulnerable.

On the other hand, because Aotearoa/ New Zealand has an electoral system that makes it less likely than in Australia that any one party will have a clear majority, and though Jacinda Ahern has one currently she chooses to work collaboratively in the manner to which she has been accustomed. Their electoral system means that parties that appeal to the centre are more likely to gain power – unlike in Australia, where the major parties (especially the LNP?) can be held captive by their extreme elements.

Laura Tingle’s starting point is that most Australians are fairly ignorant about the history of our most similar near neighbour. She’s certainly right about me, and I’m less ignorant for having read the essay.

The correspondence in the following Quarterly Essay, Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero – from historians and journalists from both sides of the Tasman, economists, lawyers and politicians – largely amplifies the thesis of this one, with some minor disagreements and several pointed anecdotes. Historian Frank Bongiorno, for instance, reminds us of the underarm bowl by Australian Trevor Chappell in a 1981 cricket match, saying this ‘ugly’ tactic was ‘the emblematic event in the trans-Tasman relationship’ of his childhood, even after New Zealand took a stand against US nuclear weapons and Australia remained supine. The most telling pieces of correspondence are from First Nations writers.

In particular, Bain Attwood from Monash University and Miranda Johnson from the University of Otago argue ‘that relations between white settlers and indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand did not actually follow a significantly different course after their beginnings’, that in both cases indigenous people lost their resources or autonomy or both. As to the difference in the degree to which each country has sought to address historical injustice:

Rather than simply attributing this to the presence or absence of normative, moral, legal, philosophical and political forces in the governments, as Tingle does, it makes more sense to take note of the role played by material factors – for example, the fact that Māori are a much larger minority in New Zealand than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in Australia or that there was less post-war non-British migration to New Zealand than to Australia. Unforeseen consequences of government policies and practices must also be taken into account. For example, the New Zealand Labour government in 1985 had no inkling that granting the Waitangi Tribunal the authority to hear cases about historical breaches of the treaty dating back to 1840 would lead to a veritable sort of claims and the compensation of many Māori iwi (tribes).

In her reply to the correspondence, Tingle focuses on the Covid pandemic and the difficulty of landing ‘a definitive portrait of my fleet-footed and shape-shifting subject, Australia’s prime minister. Someone said journalism is the first rough draft of history. Laura Tingle is a top-ranking political journalist, and this essay is an excellent draft of significant history.


The High Road is the eighth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Jenny Blackford’s Fil and Harry

Jenny Blackford, with illustrations by Kristin Devine, Fil and Harry (Christmas Press 2021)

Christmas Press is a small, Armidale-based publishing house set up about seven years ago, initially intending to publish ‘beautiful picture books for children, featuring traditional tales — folk tales, fairy tales, legends, myths — retold by well-known authors and stunningly illustrated in classic styles that reflect the cultures the stories come from’. Since then their list has expanded, and in 2018 they began to publish chapter books/junior fiction. The world of Australian children’s literature is all the richer for their existence.

In the chapter book Fil and Harry, Fil has to negotiate the perilous world of primary school relationships, deal with an oblivious older brother, resist an over-zealous quasi-stepmother named Elspeth, and cope with life in general. Then her cat Harry starts talking to her. He not only talks, but he lends a sympathetic ear (not something I would expect of a cat, but I suppose I’m more of a dog person). And then he intervenes in ways that are definitely catlike – accidentally on purpose making life hard for those who deserve it and seemingly effortlessly make things go better for the afflicted.

The pencil drawings by Kristin Devine that are scattered through the text add depth to the tale’s sweet warmth. I especially like the double spread of Fil’s empty room with light and breeze billowing the curtains.

It’s a quiet, companionable tale that is just the wrong age for any of my young friends and relatives, so I get to enjoy it just for myself.


Fil and Harry is the seventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021. My copy of the book is a gift from the author. Full disclosure: when I was editor of The School Magazine we accepted a short story, ‘Barry’, that was published in the magazine in May 2006. Since then the cat’s name has changed and the story has grown longer and deeper to become this chapter book..

Jennifer Maiden’s Cuckold and the Vampires

Jennifer Maiden, The Cuckold and the Vampires: An essay on some aspects of conservative manipulation of art and literature, including experimental, and the conservatives’ creation of conflict (Quemar Press 2020)

This essay opens with a story about the great Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez:

When Márquez realised that the new avant-garde periodical that was serialising his novel was a project of the CIA, he wrote to his friend, the editor, that he was withdrawing the work and felt like a ‘cuckold’. *

Hence the cuckold in the essay’s title. The titular vampires come from a traditional tale in which a visitor to a village suspects the presence of a vampire, only to discover that all the villagers are vampires. For Márquez, as Maiden spells it out, the ‘betrayal was not confined to that particular incident, but continued to pervade his sense of hope and his sense of self-trust for the rest of his life’.

That opening does three things. First, it provides a striking and incontestable example of reactionary political forces exerting influence and having a destructive effect on creative enterprise. It’s one of many in the essay. Others include the funding of Australia’s Quadrant and the promotion of abstract expressionist art during the Cold War. The body of the essay gives many examples of less tangible kinds of manipulation as well, including the CIA’s Cord Meyer’s injunction to ‘court the compatible left’ – that is, to win leftist and liberal artists and writers over as propagators of the CIA’s positions.

Second, the opening provides a gloss on one of Maiden’s poems, in this case ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ from The Espionage Act (Quemar 2020, my blog post here). It’s one of many such glosses that I expect will make the essay indispensable to scholars of Maiden’s poetry. Several of Maiden’s poems are quoted in part or in full in the body of the essay..

And third, in the manner of its telling, it helps to define the tone and the ideal readership of the essay. Márquez appears without personal names or any orientating descriptors. We are expected to know who Márquez is, or rather which Márquez is meant – the Wikipedia disambiguation entry for ‘Márquez’ lists hundreds of people. It’s an essay for people who are reasonably well read in modern literature and, given that the first page mentions, in passing, the United Fruit massacre, Simón Bolivar and Fidel Castro, they are also reasonably well informed about Latin American (and by implication other) struggles against capitalism.

The essay that follows ranges widely, and sometimes wildly, over the cultural landscape and over the centuries. It covers personal experiences that writers generally don’t talk about in public: books pulped without the author’s permission, outrageous copyright arrangements, duplicity on the part of critics. Many of the stories are told without naming names, but in most of these cases the anonymity is skin deep. There are plenty of AustLit anecdotes, including a personal spin on well known ones such as A D Hope’s famous dismissal of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, and direct reports of Maiden’s own experience. There are excursions into literary criticism – including of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Henry James. The essay takes issue with some strands of feminism, going back to fifteenth century France for an example of a proto-feminist whose writings served the interests of the ruling class, and is troubled by conservative patronage’s current ‘predilection for ostentatiously supporting Indigenous and Women’s art, often both together’.

One of the essay’s key points is the need to look beyond the ‘microcosm’ to the ‘macrocosm’. The microcosm is the detail of interpersonal relations; the macrocosm is the broad political forces behind the personal interactions. For example, when talking about the early death from substance abuse of John Forbes, an outstanding Australian poet whom Maiden classifies as of the left, she rejects the romantic notion of the self-destructive poet:

The suicidal depression in substance addiction of some left-wing artists … seems to me clearly related to their internalisation of right-wing social pressures to succeed, and an inability to disentangle those pressures from the valuation of their art – and, indeed, their lives. It’s a lethal business. The nature of competition and criticism in capitalist art has the characteristics of a battlefield, and drugs can seem the only method to tolerate it. There appears to the artist no issue of long-term survival, only a short-term negotiation and acceptance of the microcosm. Drugs provide the conflicting comforts of temporary transcendence, tunnel-vision and indifference all at once. They are a short-cut to the creation of the type of intoxicated persona that the Right Wing insists is the hallmark of art. And they also destroy the artist’s own critical faculty, making the artist more dependent on external right-wing critical criteria.

(pages 36–37)

That phrase, ‘It’s a lethal business’, recurs often. The microcosm–macrocosm shift is crucial, Maiden argues, when we look at conflict among artists and writers. How much of it is encouraged, if not confected, by the forces of reaction in order to defang creativity? The essay sails close to just that sort of conflict at times, though even when Maiden is describing how a particular artist or art movement has been used by the right-wing, she generally makes it clear that it’s not the artist or the movement she is criticising.

I doubt if anyone will read this book nodding agreement all the way. I was perplexed by the argument that only right-wingers invoke Marx any more, and though I’m interested to learn that the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was first developed by the right to dismiss concerns abut the assassination of John F Kennedy, I can’t agree that the term isn’t appropriate for, say, Pizzagate and the Great Replacement.

But for anyone who agrees with Jennifer Maiden’s contention that writers and readers who think of themselves as ‘non-political’ are very likely to be conservative or reactionary, this essay is a lively and challenging read. For anyone interested in her poetry and/or the circumstances in which poets have worked and been published in Australia over the last half century, it’s richly informative.


A small gripe: I was desperate for some white space as I read The Cuckold and the Vampires. I need an indent or a half-line space between long paragraphs. I need white space to mark a new phase of an essay-argument. If poetry is quoted at length, I need the actual line breaks rather than slashes to show where they ought to be. My eyes need these occasional rests, and my (ageing) brain works better when my eyes are rested.


The Cuckold and the Vampires is the sixth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

500 people: Week Nine

Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. Eileen Chong tweeted about my post on this challenge last week – it was her book launch where two of my encounters happened. And one of my encounters did a blog post about the event – here. From now on, I’ll give a little detail if the encounter happens at a cultural event.

  1. Sunday 11 April, the Emerging Artist and I went shopping for new kitchen lights. When I gave the very helpful saleswoman our address, she said, ‘Oh I’ve just moved to near there, in Dulwich Hill.’ The conversation progressed from the geography of Marrickville (we live at the other end of it from her), to the similar work fields of our sons, to her reasons for moving, her previous work and her feelings about her current employer (positive). Afterwards I wondered aloud how much of the conversation was a product of her training as a sales person – ‘Rule Nº 3b: Establish common ground with the customer’ – and I mentioned The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983), a book about air hostesses that I’ve never read but think about often. The EA dismissed my concerns and said that if we ran into that person in, say, Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill, we’d be pleased to see each other. Of course she’s right.
  2. Monday afternoon in the sauna, there were a couple of encounters. The first was pretty insubstantial, but I need to keep my numbers up. When I came in for my second 20 minutes, a man was lying on the top seat along one wall. He immediately sat up as I entered. I said not to worry, it was fine by me for him to lie down, but with Asian politeness, he persisted in staying upright. We lapsed into companionable silence.
  3. A few moments later, a young woman came in, only the third or fourth female I’ve seen in that sauna, including the EA. She was wearing a high-cut bikini, perfectly OK for the beach but arguably underdressed for the sauna. We all said hello and went back to ignoring each other. The other man left after a minute or so. I started to think about this challenge, and had pretty much decided that in that circumstance it didn’t make sense for me to start a conversation. Then I coughed, and I had to speak: ‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘I’ve got asthma. And I’ve been vaccinated.’ She laughed, and said something about how Covid–19 had made so many things feel fraught. We chatted a little and soon lapsed back into silence, me reading my book.
  4. Thursday morning in Gleebooks in the previously mentioned Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill, Granddaughter and the EA were at loggerheads over a Bluey book that we already own but GD wanted to buy. As the emotional temperature began to sky rocket the EA reminded GD that we were in a bookshop and it would be a good idea to take a deep breath and say what she wanted calmly. By sheer good luck I saw a Bluey book on the shelf that we don’t have. ‘Ooh, look,’ I said with genuine delight, ‘there’s a Bingo book.’ Suddenly everyone was happy. The talk-to-a-stranger happened next. A woman, probably also a grandparent, caught my eye as she passed by and grinned a conspiratorial congratulations.
  5. Thursday afternoon, two women were wandering around in our complex of units. I asked if they were considering moving in, and the older woman explained that she had lived here when she was a student and was showing it to her daughter. I was a little surprised at her nostalgic tone, given that our main building, a beautiful Italianate mansion, was a home for ‘girls who gave their affections unwisely’ run by the Salvation Army. But no, that wasn’t her, she said. In her time, 1995, it was a boarding house for women students. No men allowed in the rooms, and there was always a Salvation Army chaperone on duty in the parlour. When her mother told a neighbour in Bathurst that she was staying at this address, the neighbour burst into tears and said, ‘That’s where we got our adopted daughter!’ The section where I live was a parking lot in 1995. The daughter stayed silent throughout: ‘Why is my mother talking to this stranger?’
  6. Thursday evening, I took our recycling out. A woman was going through the bins that had been put out for collection. I stood beside one and asked if she had already looked in it. She misunderstood and came over to check the contents of my two small bins. ‘No,’ she said, ‘only cans or beer bottles.’ As I emptied my bins, she went on: ‘So many cans today and I didn’t bring a trolley. Usually there are other people here but I’m the only one today.’
  7. Saturday early afternoon, at the National at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a group of maybe 10 women were sitting quietly on straight-backed chairs around the edge of a circular rug. On the walls near them were a number of projects involving quilting and knitting. I asked one of them if they were somehow part of the artwork. She ignored me, but a gallery attendant explained that they were waiting to be joined by Kate Just, whose work Anonymous Was a Woman took up two of the walls: the idea is that women book in to sit and chat with Kate while she continues to knit panels for Anonymous, and the other women work on their own knitting projects. I asked another woman about her project, and she was happy to explain that she was holding a loom: ‘Not actually a loom, but that’s what it’s called. I.m making a beanie.’ She explained a little about the technicalities – like complex French knitting. We chatted a little until interrupted by the artist’s arrival.
  8. Saturday mid afternoon, I chatted to a baby on the tram. The baby in question, close to a year old, was in his stroller facing away from his mother and older sister. When he dropped his bottle, his sister scrambled around on the floor and retrieved it, but quite rightly gave it to their mother. He was left unable to see them and without his bottle, and started to fret. I was standing right beside him, so I said, directly to him, ‘It’s all right. Your mummy’s got the bottle and she’ll give it back to you later.’ He calmed down, and looked interested, so I kept taking. ‘You’ve got something stuck in your hair.’ I picked a small piece of purple paper from his hair and put it on the rail of the stroller in front of him. Even more interesting. I said something to the mother, she smiled the wan smile of the exhausted.
  9. Saturday evening, at a performance of Jonathan Biggins’s The Gospel According to Paul in Parramatta, with 10 minutes or so to spare before the show started, I asked the young man next to me if he was a Keating fan. It was a genuine question. He can’t have been more than 20 in an audience that was mostly at least 25 years older than him and was solo, so he must have had a particular treason to be there. Yes, he said, he was a Keating buff. When he asked, I said I wasn’t a buff, but an admirer. He’s studying politics, at Sydney Uni I think he said. He’d been intending to see the show the previous night with his parents but had to finish an assignment, so came tonight instead. We chatted until the lights went down: he was impresssed when I told him I’d been the editor of a magazine he’d enjoyed in primary school (though I realised I had already left the job by that time). At the end we agreed it was a terrific show and exchanged names.

Running total is now 81.

Bitter Root One and Two

Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Rico Renzi & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sanford Green (cover artist), Heather Antos (editor), plus backmatter by John Jennings, Kinitra Brooks, Regina N Bradley, Qiana Whitted, Stacey Robinson, Ceeon D Quiett Smith and fan artists, Bitter Root Volume One: Family Business (Issues #1–5, Image Comics 2020)

Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Sofie Dodgson & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), John Jennings (backmatter), Shelly Bond (editor), Joe Hughes (editor), plus Daniela Miwa, Lisa K Weber, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Daniel Lish, Chris Brunner, Rico Renzo, Khary Randolph, Matt Herms, Dietrich Smith and Anthony George as artists and color artists for individual stories, Bitter Root Volume Two: Rage & Redemption (Issues 6–10, plus Red Summer Special, Image Comics 2020)

You probably have to be a horror fan to enjoy this Eisner Award winning comic series. I’m not one. I find the award-winning art by Sanford Greene repulsive, as I’m meant to, but I’m also meant to enjoy it, which I don’t. I’m not the target audience.

But there’s a lot to appreciate. The storytelling is richly complex.The opening spread shows a nightclub in Harlem, 1924, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, where a crowd of African Americans are dancing exuberantly to jazz. A young couple head home across a park. In the final frame of the spread they are terrified by a pair of nasty claws looming over them. And we’re away.

If you plan to read these comics and prefer to let them unfold the story for you in their own intriguing way, stop reading now.

In this world, when people are infected by greed and hate, especially race-based hate, they become monsters called Jinoos. The central characters, the Sangeryes fight them, try to subdue them and where possible use compounds prepared by Ma Etta to cure them. There are other monsters, perhaps even more dangerous, created by pain and misery, and demons that come outside this world. We have no doubt of the goodness of the Sangeryes, but they too are vulnerable to infection, and one of them, a huge man with a penchant for big words, is flicking back and forth between being a monster and a decent human by the end of this book.

So there’s complex play of good and evil, characters you can feel for, plenty of violent action and horror gore, and underlying it all a non-too-subtle perspective on racism. Then there’s the ‘backmatter’. John Jennings, a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside, kicks it off with a learned article on Afrofuturism and the EthnoGothic, placing this comic in a context that includes Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. There are articles on African American history, folk traditions and popular culture, and on key figures from the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke and Zora Neal Hurston. Some might find this serious discussion to be awkwardly inappropriate for a comic – you know, ‘Can’t we just enjoy a bit of gore without being told how worthy it is?’ Tastes will differ. For me the backmatter made the gore almost enjoyable. John Jennings’s first piece ends:

The Bitter Root team should be very proud. Not just because they’ve created this ‘cool’ cultural artefact but because they’ve created a new thread in the ever growing and evolving tapestry of the American story, as told through the veiled and weary eyes of the black American citizen.

I find it reassuring that among the fan art that proliferates on the back pages is a powerful image of the matriarch Ma Etta by the scholarly John Jennings. He’s not writing from arm’s length.


I persevered with Book Two mainly because I’d been given these books as a birthday present and felt a kind of obligation to the giver.

I’m still not enamoured of the story, and I still find the artwork and colouring almost unreadably horrible. (The awards that these things have won indicate that my distaste says more about me than it does about the books.)The back cover informs us that there’s a movie in development with Ryan Coogler and Zinzi Evans, who have Black Panther in their show reel. Maybe the movie can transcend the horror genre just as Black Panther pretty much transcended the superhero genre. Maybe I’ll even go to see it.

Again, this volume has copious backmatter, thanks to which I know that the fantastical world of this comic has its basis in historical events: the Red Summer of 1921 and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. These events included not just lynching, arson and general violence against African Americans, but the destruction of 35 city blocks in Tulsa when incendiary devices were dropped from planes. The unleashing of hideous demonic forces makes a lot of sense as a metaphor for those events, and the struggles of the Sangerye family to deal with the consequences. (In this volume, Chinatown in New York City has a similar demonic invasion.)

I can imagine a horror devotee picking up these books and being launched on a journey of discovery by the historical and literary information packed into the back pages. They might explore rootwork and conjure; Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Hamilton and W E B DuBois; the Harlem Renaissance and the Tulsa Race Massacre. That can’t be a bad thing.

Proust Progress Report 20: Getting to the point

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2217–2272

I was away for a couple of weeks over Easter and didn’t take my whopping great copy of À la recherche with me. On top of that, I’ve been reading fewer pages at a sitting because, well, eyes. So I’m slowing down as I approach the end. All the better to savour it (le goûter), I suppose.

At the end of last month’s report I wrote:

According to the IMDB, a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people buttonhole each other on street corners or something is about to change in the next pages.

Well, something changes. Once M De Charlus goes on his way, the narrator is left to wander the dark wartime Parisian streets alone and with a fierce thirst. He enters a seedy hotel, the only building that shows signs of life, and there he overhears a group of young men speak of beating a chained captive. So of course, suspecting that a crime is in progress, he joins them for a chat. His suspicions confirmed, he goes snooping and fairly improbably gets to witness some consensual S&M that, if I grasped the tone accurately, has a broadly comic shock effect. Assuming that I don’t need to worry about spoilers nearly a hundred years after the book was published, I’ll just say that we get to see the dark side of M De Charlus at a ludicrous extreme, and at the same time feel compassion for his misery.

Then, after a time slip, the narrator has what I’m guessing is his final encounter with M De Charlus, who is at an even further and more pathetic extreme, having had a stroke.

At the point I’ve reached this month, three more things have happened: avoiding a carriage in the street, the narrator has stepped on two paving stones of unequal height; he has pressed a starched cloth to his lips; and he has heard a spoon tapped against a plate. Each of these events has triggered a spontaneous, vivid recall of a moment from the past, and has flooded him with intense, joyful emotion. He has been experiencing an overwhelming sense of failure and gloom at his impending death; these three tiny events completely change his mood and restore his confidence. On his way to a social engagement, he pauses to reflect on this transformation, and I guess these pages contain the heart of his thinking about memory and creativity. These triggered memories, quite different in kind from those that are like flicking through the pages of a picture book (feuilleter un livre d’images), allow one to transcend time and make contact with eternity, if only, paradoxically, for a brief moment. It speaks volumes that I’m no longer impatient with Proust’s longwinded and repetitive expositions: I’m now following their twists and turns with avid concentration.

Such unbidden flashes of complete recall, he muses, are like the things one finds in ‘the internal book of unknown signs’ (livre intériieur de signes inconnus), and it is the work of a writer to decipher these signs. This is where today’s reading ended:

Seule l’impression, si chétive qu’en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et à cause de cela mérite seule d’être appréhendée par l’esprit, car elle est seule capable, s’il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l’amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie. L’impression est pour l’écrivain ce qu’est l’expérimentation pour le savant, avec cette différence que chez le savant le travail de l’intelligence précède et chez l’écrivain vient après. Ce que nous n’avons pas eu à déchiffrer, à éclaircir par notre effort personnel, ce qui était clair avant nous, n’est pas à nous. Ne vient de nous-même que ce que nous tirons de l’obscurité qui est en nous et que ne connaissent pas les autres.

Here’s my translation, leaning heavily on Stephen Hudson’s first translation:

Intuition alone, however insubstantial it seems, however hard to grasp, is a criterion of truth and so it alone deserves to be seized by the mind because it alone is capable, if the mind can extract its truth, of bringing it to greater perfection and of giving it unalloyed pleasure. Intuition is for the writer what experiment is for the learned, with the difference that in the case of the learned the work of the intelligence precedes and in the case of the writer it follows. That which we have not had to decipher, to clarify by our own personal effort, that which was made clear before our arrival, is not ours. We ourselves produce only what we extract from the darkness within us which is unknown to others.

Things like the Dreyfus affair or a world war are just excuses for writers to avoid this hard work of figuring out what is actually going on in their own minds.

I imagine whole PhDs have been written about that contention. I’m just going to note it as an interesting and provocative author statement about this massive novel. Or I should say, the beginning of a complex, labyrinthine author statement which I will be reading over the next couple of days.

Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers

Kristen Lang, Earth Dwellers (Giramondo 2021)

I started reading Earth Dwellers when coming up for air during the horror stories of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. and then again during those in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. Each of those books included its own relief from the horrors – one by cool-headed analytic journalism, the other by an intriguing structure and a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for digression – but I can’t begin to tell you what a relief Kristen Lang’s poetry was, what balm for the soul, right from the dedication:

For the wombats and the slime moulds ...

And for all who work to protect the entanglement, the networks of lives, billions of years in the making, by which the earth is more than stone.

These poems take us away from the troubled world of humans harming humans to intense, specific, tactile engagement with the non-human world. They take us to the tops of mountains, in Kristen Lang’s home state Tasmania and in the Himalayas; they take us on bush walks and visits to the ocean; to caves and the stars. They deal with the sublime and the intimate, sometimes in the same brief poem. They grieve and rage for the damage being inflicted on the planet by human activity, but always with a deep love and respect for this world. In these poems, the non-human world isn’t there as a metaphor or a mood indicator: there’s a consistently humble attempt to be present, to be aware of being part of it all: ‘We were never alone’ is how she puts it in ‘Wading with horseshoe crabs’.

As usual, I want to talk about just one poem. I’m picking ‘A small child finds a ladybird’:

(page 62)

This poem must surely strike a chord with anyone who has spent attentive time with a small child. Certainly I’ve been privy to many moments like this one, and felt a similar appreciative, possibly envious, awe at the intensity of a child’s gaze.

‘A small child finds a ladybird’ may be the only poem in this collection that focuses on a human character. Other poems have people in them, but they are companions to the speaker, neither addressed nor looked at directly, experiencing, observing, and being part of the natural world along with her. Here, it’s as if the poem’s speaker takes a step back, to observe the person experiencing, observing and being part of something.

The title of the poem sets up a strong mental image. A web image search on “small child ladybug” (‘-bug’ rather than ‘-bird’ in deference to US cultural dominance) gets you a cartload of cuteness, much of it cloying. That might be attractive to some readers but, for me and probably you, it establishes a central challenge for the poem: how to put words to that image that don’t regurgitate the pre-digested cutesyness. You might say that that’s a version of the central challenge for any poem, something to do with T S Eliot’s ‘tradition and the individual talent’, and I wouldn’t argue. This one meets the challenge like this in its opening lines:

Her squat-bodied
walk
crumbles under her –

Three things snag my attention: the words ‘squat-bodied’ and ‘crumbles’, and the way ‘walk’ has a line to itself. each of these things is sightly jarring, but if you hover over them you discover how well they communicate: the shape of a toddler, the kind of attention a toddler brings to the act of walking, and what happens when that attention goes elsewhere. It’s the walk that crumbles, not the child herself. This poem observes the child with the same precision that other poems in the book observe a platypus or floating filaments of gum blossom. If the reader wants to go down the cuteness path, the poem won’t stop them, but nor does it require them to go there.

In the next nine lines, the child is absorbed in the ladybird. She doesn’t simply have it on her fingertip. She is ‘all’ there with it. She hasn’t just stumbled when she sees the insect, she has taken on its qualities: the fall is red/ and black-spotted’. The way ‘fall’ has a line to itself, and gets extra emphasis from its rhyme with ‘all’ in line 4, prepares us for that interesting word ‘crux’ – as in crucial. This crumbled walk, this fall, hasn’t been an accident: it’s as if the rest of the day has been moving towards this crucial moment, and will emanate from it. ‘Bug-eyed’ takes on a richer meaning in this context: not just wide-eyed, but with eyes filled with the fascinating bug.

And then there’s ‘We’ – the poem’s speaker and us, the readers. We’re behind her, at a distance from the ladybird. And the last three lines are the second reason I wanted to write about this poem: it’s a kind of ars poetica. The wish expressed here, to have

________ even
half
of her gaze

is what Kristen Lang’s poems in general strive for. I know that as a reader I sometimes (often?) miss the metaphorical dimensions of poetry. So when someone writes that the world is grey in the moonlight, I take them at their word and have to be told if they’re talking about a terrible betrayal. But I don’t think I’m missing that kind of thing in these poems. In these poems, a mountain is a mountain, an iceberg an iceberg, a ladybird a ladybird. And there’s something profound in that


Earth Dwellers is the fifth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021. I’m grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

500 people: Week Eight

Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. We were on the road this week, and though I must have talked to strangers I didn’t start keeping track until half way through the week. Still, here’s what I’ve got:

  1. Thursday 5 April, late morning at the fabulous Gunyama Park Aquatic Centre, Ruby was holding back from the small water slide, not willing to challenge the cheerfully rough surges of older children. I protected one set of stairs for her a couple of times and she clearly loved the slide. In a lull, a small boy, hardly any bigger than her and not at all aggressive, came to the other set of stairs, and this was enough to make her back off. The little boy’s mother saw the problem and, after a little bit of explanation from me, asked Ruby’s name. We introduced the little ones to each other, and for a little while they did some parallel sliding – until the big ones came back.
  2. Thursday afternoon, while sitting for 15 minutes after receiving my first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine, I noticed that the man in the nearest chair had taken out his phone to photograph his documentation. I broke the prevailing silence to say what a good idea that was. He more or less grunted. I said something else inane, and photographed my document.
  3. Saturday morning, as we were walking by the Cook’s River, the Emerging Artist was expounding on the crucial importance of breath in competitive swimming as explained by her physiotherapist. My attention was grabbed by a woman and a roughly three-year-old little girl, who were doing something that involved a water bottle, sitting in the grass beside the path and some kind of cheerful negotiation. I said to the EA, ‘Sorry, I was distracted.’ The woman we were passing heard me, and asked, ‘By cuteness?’ That wasn’t a word that had been in my mind, but, well, she was right.
  4. & 5. Saturday midday, in a small art gallery in Chippendale having given up on the White Rabbit because of a huge queue, we heard loud conversation and laughter coming from a small room off the main exhibition area. It didn’t look like a private area, so we went in. Two people were standing in front of a photograph of a woman in a red skirt and heels (if you like, you could click on this link before reading on). ‘But because the background is dark,’ said a youngish woman, cheerfully browbeating a bearded man, ‘it could be lower than she is. She’s definitely about to jump.’ A quick look at the photo, and I could see what she meant: the woman in red was standing on the edge of a rail platform. The bearded man expressed good natured but definite disagreement. The youngish woman looked over her shoulder to include us, and said, ‘He’s the artist,’ which explained why there had been so much laughter. On closer examination we could see that the woman in the photo was actually standing in front of a newsstand – what we’d taken for railway tracks made much more sense as indistinct magazine racks. The artist, clearly delighted with the conversation, told us he had given up ever telling people where his photos were taken when someone was bitterly disappointed to learn that one of his images was created in Coogee and not, as she had thought, in Venice. As she left the room, the youngish woman called back over her shoulder, ‘Definitely Anna Karenina.’
    6. Saturday evening, arriving at what was to be a joyous and convivial book launch, I asked a young woman in a hijab if the seat next to her was empty. She said yes, and we had a brief conversation after I sat down. Basically I said we had the best seats in the room and she agreed. I almost asked her if she was a friend of the poet but opted for amiable mutual ignoring.
    7. Saturday evening a few moments later. A young white man (everyone under about 65 is young to me, apparently) asked if it was OK to sit in the chair on my other side. I was a lot less diffident with him. I asked him if he knew the work of the poet whose book was being launched. It turned out he had met her when she came to his school. She had become a mentor to him in his own poetry. We talked about the relationship between his poetry and his cherishing of his two young sons. I told him my anecdote about David Malouf saying that three-year-olds are the most interesting things in the world just now. And we chatted on pretty much until we were called to order.
    8. Saturday evening, after the readings, the signing queue was too daunting and I decided to take my book home unsigned. But instead of slinking off into the darkness, I stopped to speak to the launching poet’s father. I congratulated him on his daughter’s success and he graciously accepted my handshake. I asked an awkward question about how he felt about featuring or not featuring in her work, then faffed around until I managed to make it somehow amusing. He looked vaguely relieved when I said goodnight.

Running total is now 72.