Tag Archives: A C Grayling

Books I didn’t finish

This post is a sop to the obsessive being that occupies part of my mind and insists that if I’m going to blog about my reading I should Leave Nothing Out. So here they are, the books I didn’t finish:

A C Grayling, Descartes: The life of René Descartes and its place in his times (2005, Pocket Books 2006)

1416522638 We started this as a read-aloud on a medium-length car trip, perhaps Sydney to Canberra, after hearing A C Grayling speak at a Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Art Student had previously read his polemical Against All Gods, and regaled me with some of the good bits. Neither of us knew all that much about Descartes: the AS had come across him in her Art History course and wanted to know more, and all I had was dim memories from second-year University French: ‘Je pense, donc je suis,’ a long night sitting in a stove, etc. And the cover blurb offered us revelations involving a spy story.

It’s not that the book wasn’t interesting, but the combination of philosophical seriousness and careful assembly of evidence for the hypothesis that Descartes was a spy was far from riveting. We hadn’t got much further than 50 pages (again) when we agreed that conversation or the radio would be a better option, and later neither of us felt any urge to read on solo.

Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What dogs see, smell, and know (Scribner 2009)

1iadThis was read-aloud for a relatively short drive, discontinued because the book was a loan rather than because of any failure on its part to hold our attention. We knew we weren’t going to read the whole thing, so as reader-aloud I was given licence to pick and choose. I read the chapters towards the end about dogs’ theory of mind – asking the question whether dogs have versions in their minds of what is going on in our minds. It’s lively, fascinating stuff. Just as interesting as the dogs are the people who construct meticulous experiments to determine what dogs are actually doing when we project so much onto them.

Manuel Puig, Pubis Angelical (1979, translation by Elena Brunet, Random House 1986)

1paThis book begins with a woman waking up alone in sumptuous surroundings the night after her wedding, having been drugged and subjected to sexual violence by her bridegroom. In the following chapters, written variously as diary entries and unannotated dialogue, a woman – not, it turns out, the same one – is in a hospital recovering from cancer surgery. Manuel Puig wrote The Kiss of the Spider Woman, and this novel has some kinship with that and the movies of Pedro Almodóvar. Evidently this style of febrile introspective suffering doesn’t do it for me in a novel, but I struggled on joylessly to page 50, where an arms dealer entertains some nasty images of brutally humiliating and killing his wife. Then I I gave up.

This post is about books I have no intention of returning to each of them when the urge strikes. There are others where my reading has stalled – Byron’s Don Juan, Grayling’s The Good Book, the Lehmann and Gray anthology of Australian poetry – but I’ll return to each of them in the fulness of time.

SWF: A C Grayling, curtain raiser

‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’, a lecture by A C Grayling

This was the start of my 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve become accustomed to starting the Festival with the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner, which is always a good night out, though the last two had become a bit corporate. This year the awards evening has been moved to later in the year (not, as feared by some, cancelled altogether), so my Festival begins with this 90 minute event at the Angel Place Recital Centre a month or so ahead of the Opening Address. I’m calling it a curtain-raiser because that ‘s how Peter Shergold (from the SWF Board) described it when introducing the talk, but really it was more of an advance scatterling.

A C Grayling is the very picture of an urbane philosopher. He spoke lucidly for an hour without notes, and fielded questions deftly and courteously. Sadly I slept for maybe as much as half the talk, so I’m not a reliable reporter. But I quizzed my four companions over dinner at the nearby Wagamama and my impression is that I didn’t miss a lot by dozing off. Basically, Professor Grayling told us, we are being watched by Internet corporations who track our online activities for commercial purposes, by government for security purposes, and by journalists for partly public interest and partly commercial interests, and that this isn’t a good thing. I have listened to his interview with Richard Glover on the ABC, which is an excellent 18 minutes of radio and includes everything that the $25 lecture had to offer, including the teasing references to the Professor’s impressive hair. What we got for our money was the sense of occasion, a chance to play Spot the Famous Person (both the Art Student and I saw David Marr and Annette Shun Wah, but some of our other companions hadn’t heard of either of them, which rather spoiled the thrill).

If the purpose of a talk by a philosopher is to prompt one to think, then this one was a big success for me. During the question time, Professor Grayling talked about a village in southern Italy where, when a husband and wife have a quarrel the woman runs out into the street and the couple proceed to shout at each other, while all the neighbours come to their doors and windows to listen. These people, he said, live with a strong sense of community but at the cost of losing their privacy. That raises a much more interesting question about ‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’ than the question of intrusion by the state, corporations and the press. I would have thought that that kind of intrusion is obviously a bad and dangerous thing – and of course that it’;s a good thing to have the dangers pointed out. But don’t we then need to think carefully and precisely about what it is that we’re protecting. Are we protecting our right to be isolated individuals, to have secrets and present a conforming face to the world? Sure, those young people who give out far too much information on facebook or twitter may be laying themselves open to attack, but isn’t also worth asking if there’s not something utopian about that rather than simply foolish? That’s what I’d have liked to hear him talk about.

Ruby Blues in the car

Jessica Rudd, Ruby Blues (Text 2011)

This was our read-aloud on the car trip from Melbourne to Sydney, and it served well enough. I had a sinking feeling at first, as I was required to deliver a number of strained comedy routines that didn’t quite work, but by about page 20 I found I was laughing aloud quite a lot. It’s a genre piece, chick lit: much description of clothes and make up, a touch of Feminism 101, quite a bit of embarrassment of the heart and loins (I was reminded of Marieke Hardy’s TV creation Laid). The eponymous Ruby is the chief adviser to an Australian Prime Minister whose popularity is plummeting, and the chick lit adventures are supplemented by a plot involving political intrigue and blackmail, which manages – just – to provide a central thread.

One of the selling points of this book is that the author is Kevin Rudd’s daughter. This creates an expectation that though it’s manifestly fiction, the book will build on insider knowledge. Well, I wouldn’t put much store by such an implied promise. For example, fairly early on someone reminds Ruby that she has to prepare the PM’s briefings for Question Time, and 30 minutes later she has the folder ready. Um, without wanting to make too much of it, I’ve heard the odd anecdote from a PM staffer, and I’m pretty sure that job takes something closer to four hours. And Ruby’s intern- assistant Bettina, the source of most of the laughs, is a vastly improbable creation.

That, plus little things like poignant being used by Ruby, presumably with Jessica’s approval, where in English we would say pertinent, and a stretch towards the end where nothing is happening except some characters renting fancy dress, makes me slow to recommend the book. But we did laugh. And we did read the whole book, which is more than I can say for AC Grayling’s Descartes, a much more substantial text that just couldn’t keep the driver awake and was discarded after about 30 pages.

SWF2011: Sunday

I didn’t get to the Festival on Sunday morning, so missed out on A C Grayling’s session, The Good Book, which the Art Student said was superb. I plan to listen to the podcast. We bought a copy of the book, which describes itself as a secular bible, and the Art Student is threatening to organise a bible reading circle among our atheist friends.

I was back on deck in the afternoon for

2:30: Poems on Pillows
Australian Poetry Ltd, the new ‘peak industry body for poetry’ (I didn’t make that up!) ran a competition in the lead-up to the Festival. People were asked to submit 10-line poems on the theme of Sweet Dreams. Seven poems were selected, printed on postcards and placed on the pillow of every bed in the hotel where Festival guests were staying. At this session the seven winning poems were read to us, six of them by the poets.

My guess is that the audience was mostly friends and relatives of the winners, and losers who had come to see what they’d been beaten by. It turned out I belonged in both categories. My submission, which I’m too embarrassed to reproduce here, played around with  Daisy Bates’s phrase ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’ and amounted to a little squib about genocide. I’d failed to notice the Sweet Dreams theme and wasn’t surprised when I didn’t make the cut.

I would have been delighted to find any one of winning poems on my pillow, and it wasn’t surprising to hear that at least one distinguished writer was seen addressing his postcard poem to his mother.

Five of the winners are connected in some way with writing for children or young adults: Tricia Dearborn, Bill Condon, Libby Hathorn, Laura Jan Shore and Richard Tipping. I don’t know about the others, Scott Chambers and Josh McMahon. When I pointed this preponderance out during the brief question time, one of the panellists recognised me and replied by drawing attention to me as a benefactor of children’s poets in my past life as editor of the School Magazine, which was good squirmy fun.

4.00: David Hicks and Donna Mulhearn
This was my last Festival event, David Hicks’s first public appearance since the publication of his memoir, in fact since his detention in Guantanamo Bay. He was in conversation with pacifist Donna Mulhearn, who had gone to Iraq as a human shield. She did a very nice job of shepherding him through what must have been a gruelling event, even though the audience was demonstratively sympathetic. She kicked off, for example, by saying she was going to ask him the question that was on the forefront of everybody’s mind: was it true that he had been invited by Channel 7 to appear in Dancing with the Stars? Yes, he said, it was true, and his wife had wanted him to wear the costume to this event, but it’s purple with sequins.

For the most part, things felt very raw. Talk about terror and pity – and shame and rage! Mine, I mean. Hicks said at the start that during those years of being kept incommunicado, thankfully unaware that he had been abandoned by the Australian government, he had learned to detach from his experience, and that was how he was managing this experience. He spoke pretty much in a monotone, but did manage to say he was ‘annoyed’ by the way the press had bought into the lies and distortions told about him. He has never been convicted by a legitimate court of breaking the US or Australian law, and has received no compensation, explanation or apology from either government, not even an acknowledgement of the extraordinarily harsh treatment. The press received his memoir with almost total silence. And Donna Mulhearn told us of something Miranda Devine said in her review that went beyond her normal level of vicious contrarianism to pure evil. The current Labor government, having decried the treatment of Hicks when in opposition, has made no moves in his support in government.

‘This shouldn’t be about me,’ Hicks said. He got passionate describing the sufferings of the people of Kosovo as they were told to him when he went there to join the KLA, and reminding us that people are still being killed in Kashmir. Julia Gillard’s statements about Julian Assange sound very like John Howard’s about Hicks: both seem perfectly content to abandon an Australian citizen to a dangerously extra-legal fate in the US.

One tiny grace note: throughout, Donna Mulhearn pronounced the Gitmo prison’s location as Guantamano Bay. Of course this was inadvertent, but I imagine angels rejoicing at this tiny act of disrespect.

I plan to buy David Hicks’s memoir. It feels like a duty to give the horse’s mouth a go, given all agenda-driven stuff I’ve read about him elsewhere.
I haven’t mentioned the absence of PEN Chairs this year. At past Festivals theere has been an empty chair on the stage at some events, representing writers who are imprisoned or harmed by governments. At each session where there was a chair, details about one such writer would be read out. It’s a shame that the tradition was abandoned this year, when Liao Yiwu, invited to appear here, was prevented from attending by the Chinese government. And I haven’t mentioned the busker who sat hunched over a clickety-clackety typewriter offering to type a word portrait for five dollars. I haven’t said much about the weather (glorious), the crowds (big), the volunteers (orange-shirted and everywhere), the app (fabulous), the serendipitous encounters (constant), but I imagine you know the sort of thing.

Now it’s all over bar the reading.

SWF 2011: Bombs and Poetry on Thursday

After I uploaded my sketchy report on last night’s SWF event at the Town Hall I searched for #swf2011 on Twitter and saw that everything I’d quoted had been tweeted to the universe within seconds of being uttered. Undaunted, here I am again, lumbering along with my antiquated longwindedness to bring you My Thursday at the Festival Part One: 10 till 2.

10 am: The Poetry of War with Daniel Swift and A C Grayling
Daniel Swift’s grandfather flew in planes that dropped bombs on German cities in World War Two. He failed to return from a bombing mission in 1943 when Daniel’s father was four years old. The book, Bomber County, tells of Daniel and his father visiting the grave. Daniel, by my calculations now 34, wanted this small story to open out into a bigger picture. He sought out and interviewed participants in bombing missions, and people who were in the cities bombed by his grandfather on the nights of his missions All this, plus an exploration of World War Two poetry, which anyone (else) will tell you barely exists, fed into a project of considering the bombing campaign, not to praise the heroism of the men or condemn or defend the atrocity involved, but to try to imagine – resurrect was Swift’s word – the human experience.

A C Grayling , when he’s not busy being the nice one of the current crop of aggressive British atheists, is an ethicist. His book, Among the Dead Cities, deals with the ethics of those same missions. The focus of this session was on Swift’s book, which Grayling clearly loves. They claimed to disagree on the ethical question, but I couldn’t spot any disagreement. The conversation was lovely in many ways, not least for the spectacle of an eminent professor putting his considerable intellectual heft into recommending the work of a much younger man. The air fairly crackled with respect – mutual between the speakers, from both of them to the men who flew on the mission, and during question time to the rambler and the autobiographer.

11.30 am: Antipodes: Poetic Responses
Antipodes is an anthology, edited by Margaret Bradstock, of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal poets addressing the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and settlers – the survivors of genocide in conversation with the perpetrators, descendants and beneficiaries, as it were. The facilitator, Martin Langford, said it was the first book of its kind, and warned us that some of the sentiments, especially in the early settler poems, might be repugnant to modern readers – the book is meant to be read as whole. In order of appearance we were read to by:

Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, who read a number of poems from Possession. It was good to hear them read, though my impression was that the poet was intimidated by the context. I wouldn’t have objected if she’d explained the universally cryptic titles of her poems, but she just read and then sat down.

Lionel Fogarty: again I was very glad to hear him read, as I have a copy of his New and selected poems : munaldjali, mutuerjaraera but haven’t been able to read very much of it. Now that I’ve seen and heard him I may have a better chance. He read a semi-rap, ‘True Blue, Didjeridoo’, which he and his son wrote when Nicole Kidman was culturally insensitive enough to play a didjeridoo on television.

I don’t know the work of either Margaret Bradstock or Brenda Saunders. They both read well, but I have trouble absorbing non-narrative poetry that I’m hearing for the first time. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a little of whose work I’ve read in anthologies and journals, read us excerpts from an unpublished verse novel, Killing Fields, a massacre story. ‘You’re privileged,’ she said.

Anita Heiss read last. With her brilliant control of tone she had us laughing and devastated from moment to moment. A woman of many talents, she thanked the organiserd for calling the writing in her book I’m Not racist, But poetry. ‘It’s not really poetry,’ she said, ‘but it’s not prose because it doesn’t go to the end of the line.’

I’m not sure what this anthology is. It may be intended for schools. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, but it does make me hesitate to rush out and buy it for myself.

1 pm: The Poetry of Three
This was Mark Tredinnick, Kim Cheng Boey and Cate Kennedy. Mark is a nature writer, and the poems that worked best in this context dealt with the nature of a parent-child relationship. I particularly liked ‘House of Thieves’. Kim Cheng, whose work I know only from his readings last year, was again delightfully urbane. Cate’s poems are narratives, and went over like a charm. I plan to buy her book.

Probably the strongest visual image from the Festival is the huge queues, all of which today seemed to have Bob Ellis in them. The queues for poetry were all short, and at each poetry session one of the readers expressed gratitude and surprise that so many people turned up.