This is another excellent issue of Overland. Rodney Croome puts the current debate over who’s allowed to marry whom into an Australian historical context where restriction of marriage rights has been significant for convicts and until shockingly recently for Aboriginal people. Benjamin Law tells how Twitter kept him connected with his home city, Brisbane, when he was in India during the floods. Phillip Deery gives three alarming case histories from the bad old days (we hope) of ASIO. There’s a swag of poems, of which the ones that spoke most to me are by Ali Alizadeh (a poem dedicated to the Bard of the Hawkesbury Bob Adamson that begins cheekily, ‘Rivers are all the same. Dirty water / if you’re lucky, smelly mud and silt / increasingly the case.’) and Thomas Denton (an energetic vernacular narrative that shared with Judy Durrant the 2010 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize).
Fiona Wright has an excellent, optimistic piece on the Death and Rebirth of Heat. This is the first in the Meanland series of essays about the changing world of publishing that I’ve been able to engage with, and anyone who misses Heat as it was ought to read it. The essay took an unexpectedly personal turn for me. After noting the paucity of metropolitan newspaper reviews of Heat and other Giramondo publications, it goes on:
We’ve had much more support from bloggers, many of whom have given the magazine – and the books – consistent coverage and space. They’ve often written about HEAT with a level of thought and understanding that we should have expected, but didn’t. (One blogger in particular has always taken great pains to point out any typos we missed. But you can’t expect in-depth without a few ripples.)
Oh my god, she’s talking about me! Though perhaps not, because I didn’t so much point out typos as complain bitterly, some would say churlishly, about errors that either confused or, probably more often if I’m honest, amused me: ‘gauge’ instead of ‘gage’ really did stop me in my tracks, whereas ‘vesper’ for ‘Vespa’ was to smile. It would be nice to think I have been ‘instrumental in generating and spreading word of mouth’ for Giramondo’s publications, as she says bloggers often are, because of course I love their work.
A final word, because now I have a reputation to maintain: Thomas Nelson’s poem ‘The Pirouette’, set in a ‘beach joint’ in New Zealand, includes the line, ‘New Zealanders call this kind of house a Batch’. Well, not really. That’s not a typo, it’s a spelling mistake. What New Zealanders call that kind of house sounds like ‘batch’, but it’s generally spelled ‘bach’ (as in bachelor, I think). The mistake in this case may be attributed to the poem’s narrator, of course, but this is a piece of New Zealand English, like ‘pottle’ (what yoghurt comes in) and ‘section’ (allotment) and ‘dairy’ (milk bar) that can trip up unwary Australian editors.
The 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist seems to have been announced without the usual Macquarie Street gathering for PowerPoint and photo ops. That probably makes sense, given that the Premier has a lot on her mind just now, and barring a total windfall for the bookies she won’t be Premier when the awards are presented in May. Or maybe I just wasn’t invited this year. But I’m not bearing a grudge, and I was busy that day anyhow. For those who find it irritating to have to flick back and forth to read the different short lists on the Awards site, here they all are at the bottom of this post – the links take you to the NSWPLA website’s discussion of the title.
I haven’t read, or in the case of the plays seen, very much from the list at all. Speaking from the heart of my prejudice, I don’t much want to read any of the Christina Stead titles except Utopian Man and Night Street, both novels about eminent Victorians (the State rather than the era). I’m tempted by all the Douglas Stewart titles – this is where literary awards really do serve a purpose, by drawing attention to books like Tony Moore’s history of political prisoners among the Australian convicts, Death or Liberty, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed, at least by me. I’m glad to see Jennifer Maiden’s book on the Kenneth Slessor list, but I haven’t read any of the others. In the past the NSWPLA lists have led me to interesting poets, so I’m inclined to go in search of Susan Bradley Smith, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones (of whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to read a book), Anna Kerdijk Nicholson and Andy Kissane.
Of the remaining lists, what can I say? I’m out of touch with writing for ‘young people’ (a term I understand here as designating teenagers), but my friend Misrule was an Ethel Turner judge, and I’m confident in her judgement. Though I’ve only read one from the Patricia Wrightson list, I know the work of five of the six writers, and will be delighted whichever of them becomes several thousand dollars richer come mid-May. If the other books are as good as The Three Loves of Persimmon, it’s a vintage year. I’ve seen four of the six scripts produced for the big or little screen, and wouldn’t know how to choose between them for excellence – another vintage crop. I heard Ali Azadeh read from Iran: My Grandfather at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it’s been on my TBR list since then.
After 14 years, Heat is to appear no more in book form. In this final issue Ivor Indyk, the editor and publisher, departs from his usual practice and speaks to us, explaining the reasons for his decision and sketching some possibilities for an electronic afterlife. (He spoke again to Ramona Koval on the Book Show.) The sad economic reality is that as a 240 page book, Heat is a monster to produce several times a year and then to distribute and warehouse. The community of people who are glad of its existence is much larger than the journal’s market – the people who buy it, and so contribute to its viability. As I’ve subscribed for ten years and written blog entries (I don’t really think of them as reviews), I have a twinge of smug virtue mixed with my sorrow: like, ‘It’s not my fault!’ I don’t know that I’ve ever felt part of a Heat community – too middlebrow, too whitebread, too shy – but it hasn’t been a purely economic relationship. I’ll miss this regular dose of austere high culture, and emergent/experimental/cosmopolitan writing.
Some of the culture in this final issue is incontestably high. Adrian Martin’s article, ‘Devastation’, after a wonderful anecdote about a working class man’s response to Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, goes on to discuss the films of Maurice Pialat. I’m a keen and frequent filmgoer, but I had to check with Google to be sure the article wasn’t a spoof and Pialat a comic invention – an archetypally grim French auteur whom Martin praises for daring to have sitting and standing characters in the same shot, and compares to a number of other auteurs I hadn’t heard of. It’s not a spoof: it’s the kind of article that sheds enough light on its subject to reveal the dark vastness of its reader’s ignorance. By way of contrast, Andrew Riemer’s brilliantly erudite ‘Four Glimpses of the Zeitgeist’ takes one gently by the hand and illuminates a web of connections joining Freud, Mahler, Riemer’s ancestors, conductor Bruno Walter, His Master’s Voice records, Hitler, playwright Thomas Bernhard and others, all converging in a Viennese theatre in 2010. Jeffrey Poacher’s reflection on the poetry of Peter Porter , who died last year, is likewise kind to general readers without, I hope, boring those who know Porter’s poetry well.
Cosmopolitanism is alive and well, particularly n Andreas Campomar’s ‘Uruguay Made Me’, a discussion of Eduardo Galeano in the context of his native Uruguay that makes me want – need – to read Galeano.
There’s plenty of emerging/experimental work too, mainly in the poetry. I was happy to see two typographically adventurous poems by Patrick Jones, who commented critically on this blog a while back.
But I don’t want to get hung up on classification. There’s a terrific poem by Adam Aitken dedicated to Susan Schultz – both Adam and Susan have graced my comments section recently. Ali Alizadeh and Jennifer Maiden are in fine form. Alan Wearne does some Gilbertian editorialising on the current move to form an Australian peak industry body for poetry. Amanda Simons interviews Antigone Kefala on her writing practice: Kefala says that, for her, writing and speaking are two completely different forms, and it’s delightful to encounter the conversational Antigone here alongside two characteristically non-conversational poems (there’s that austere high culture again).
I was struck by two examples of things a book you hold in your hand can do that a boundless (the word is from Ivor Indyk’s editorial) electronic creation can’t. In Nicholas Jose’s ‘What Love Tells Me’ a recently widowed man and his young son attend a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony where the ‘blasting and pummelling and smashing’ music opens them up to emotional resolution and communication. The story is moving in its own right, but it gains an extra fizz from the fact that 150 pages earlier Andrew Riemer has been telling us something of what Mahler’s music (though not this precise symphony) meant at the time it was written. In my mind at least, that mental connection is made possible by the weight of the book in my hand
The other moment is a theatrical coup in Gillian Mears’ ‘Fairy Death’. This memoir begins with a title page: a right-hand page that’s blank except for the title and a brief note on the author. When you turn over, expecting the story to begin on the verso, you find instead a striking image of what seems to be a dress-shop mannequin with a crack or join around its middle, arranged on a bed and photographed from above. The figure’s face makes you realise that it’s actually a live, extraordinarily thin woman, that what looked like a join is a string tied around her waist and attached to what you now recognise as a red balloon in the photo’s foreground. The photo, taken by Vincent Lord Long, is of the author, and her mannequin-like thinness is the result of advanced multiple sclerosis. The article is in part an account of how it came to be taken. Though the memoir is astonishingly powerful, addressing (with what in another context would be Way Too Much Information) the effects of MS on the author’s sexuality, the act of turning the first page onto that image creates extraordinary poignancy – which I don’t believe could happen in an electronic form.
One perhaps minor advantage of ceasing to exist as a physical object is that proofreading and even copy editing can continue after publication. Heat 24 is far from egregious in that department – apart from a miniscule (which is a special case as the Microsoft spellchecker ignorantly allows it), I was plunged into confusion and irritation by only one editing error, which I won’t bore you with. It looks as if the presumably underpaid copy editor had enough time and/or other resource to do an excellent job on this issue, so he can go out with his head held high.
Just to be half clever, here’s the last stanza of John Shaw Neilson’s ‘The Poor Poor Country’, slightly altered:
The New Year came with Heat and thirst and the little lakes were low, The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go; I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky, Down in that poor country no pauper was I.
Update 1 March 2011:
Over at Adam in (), Adam Aitken was kind enough to link to this page, and he asked me a question. I tried three times to respond in his comments section but for some reason my comments wouldn’t stick, so I’ll have go here.
Jonathan, I don’t know why you see yourself as “whitebread”. Are HEAT writers “brownbread”? I won’t miss the so-called austerity of HEAT, as I feel on the contrary that HEAT would sometimes verge on the too rich, too dense side of things (by virtue of each issue being such a fat book).
Well, Adam, I’m not sure where I picked up the term ‘whitebread’, but my (now former) suburb, Annandale, got described that way by some of my more hip friends. They meant that the people of the suburb were the kind who ate only white, preferably sliced and packaged bread, remaining ignorant of or uninterested in the existence of pumpernickel, sourdough, ciabatta and challah, let alone pita, roti and naan. So my implication was Heat writers (and anyone else who belongs to its community) can come from anywhere in that vast world of different breads (quite a few of which are actually white, come to think of it). I have never read an issue of Heat without having my horizons extended, and I was amusing myself by saying that in a self-deprecatory way.
I agree with you on the richness and density of Heat. It’s been admirably austere in the sense that it would never have given us a review of the latest Oprah recommendation or blockbuster movie, and in a different way I’ve thought of Ivor Indyk’s editorial silence as austere. In this final issue he speaks to us, but presents it as asking our indulgence. I for one would have happily indulged him in this way many times over.
The Sydney Writers Festival is now in full swing. I’ve managed to go to two events in the last two days, both of them excellent.
The first, cheerily titled ‘Swindlers, Doctors and Nationalists’, was held late yesterday afternoon in the Macleay Museum at Sydney University. Anyone who got bored could contemplate the huge object in the front corner of the room, probably the cast of a dinosaur’s skull. But it wasn’t the kind of event where such distraction was needed. On the contrary, the three historians on the panel pretty much fitted Mark Twain’s famous remark about Australian history in Following the Equator:
It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.
The panel was elegantly chaired by Jude Philp, senior curator of the Macleay Museum. She asked each of the panellists to introduce their books, then invited each of them to speak in turn to maybe three or four questions, a round on each question. I mention this format, because I’ve been to some deadly panels where the time is divided into blocks, one for each participant, and there’s very little opportunity for interaction. That wasn’t a problem here – possibly it helped that all three historians are in the same History Department. The first two were Penny Russell (Savagery and Civility: A History of Manners in Colonial Australia) and Kirsten McKenzie (A Swindler’s Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty), both doing the kind of colonial history that an acute filmmaker could make brilliant use of: comedies of manners just waiting to be made (it was widely insisted that the colonies should cleave to English standards of behaviour, but ideas of what those standards were varied dramatically), tales of intrigue, fraud, and idealism. The third was James Curran, whose book The Unknown Nation, co-written with Stuart Ward, deals with the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Australia’s British-based identity had been pulled out from under it and we were hunting around for a new sense of what it means to be Australian.
Then this morning, the fourth day of my festival, at last I reached the Harbour. Wharf 2/3 was humming, and I arrived just in time for a session on Creative Memoir featuring Ali Alizadeh (Iran: My Grandfather) and Rupert Thomson (This Party’s Got To Stop) talking to editor, novelist and blogger Sophie Cunningham. Again, it was excellently done. Sophie had obviously read and enjoyed both books, and other things written by both authors. They each read – well doing the voices – and then she asked a couple of questions that enabled them to talk interestingly about choices they’d made in writing the books, about how the people who feature in them feel about their family linen being aired in public. Did you know that in the UK you’re legally required to get written permission to publish a book in which you give information about someone’s private life, not because of possible libel suits, but as a result of privacy legislation?
I went to this session because I’ve enjoyed Ali Azadeh’s poetry. To judge from the passage he read to us, he is also a prose writer to be savoured.
I’m off to an excellent start. The plan is for tomorrow to be my first full day: at the Wharf by half past nine in the morning, and home from the Town Hall about half past seven at night.
[I posted about this in my old blog in 2008, and am retrieving it to this one because it mentions Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, who died in January, and whose more recent book of essays, Alive, Alive Oh! I plan to blog about soon – JS, 31 March 2019]
As I mentioned last month, I started reading Schulz and Peanuts to check its suitability for a young fan. I’m happy to report that in general it passes with flying colours. A young woman has a termination, and the break-up of ‘Sparky’s’ first marriage is gruelling, but these are both handled with a good bit more tact than you’d find in many YA novels.
Every week, for just months short of 50 years, Charles M Schulz sat at his drawing board to produce six daily strips and a longer Sunday piece. He inked every line himself, and penned in every letter until his final stroke meant that the speech balloons in the very last frames were filled by computer-generated lettering. Peanuts was the most important thing in his life; he hated being away from home, and died the day his last cartoon was published.
This isn’t a tale of heroic physical exploits or grand public gestures, but David Michaelis seems to have interviewed every living soul who had a meaningful connection with his subject, from the psychology student who gave him an impromptu – and effective – counselling session on his agoraphobia at a tennis tournament and never had another conversation with him, to Joyce nee Halvorsen, the main model for Lucy, his first wife and the mother of his many children (one of the best bits of the book could have been titled The First Wife’s Story).
The result is a fascinating, many-faceted portrait of an artist and of a man. Peanuts strips are scattered through the pages, not as decoration but as integral elements of the narrative. Cartooning was not only Schulz’s life work, the fulfilment of a central ambition; it was also, dare I say, a spiritual discipline by which he found perspectives on the difficulties and dilemmas of his life (and the lives around him) that allowed the release of laughter. While Michaelis is very bold (and repetitive) in some of his psychologising, I found his thesis persuasive: that what we common or garden readers received as Schulz’s comic reflections on life in the abstract were often if not always born out of particular moments of pain or joy. Schulz seems to have been an excellent exemplar for Neil Gaiman’s advice on how to deal with trouble: Make good art.
Michaelis places Schulz interestingly in the history of comics – though he barely mentions comic books as opposed to strips, and surely the moral panic in the 1950s epitomised by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (which led to a nun confiscating a Phantom comic from me in Grade Three, and to our teachers’ recommending that we read the boring Catholic comic Topix) had something to do with the runaway success of Schulz’s wholesome creation. It’s surely not entirely coincidence that for a time in the 1940s, before he got his big break, Schulz did lettering for Topix.
[I passed the book on to my young friend, whose mother reports that after dipping into it he said, ‘It’s not all that interesting to me, even if it is to Jonathan. But he reads everything.’ Then, softening the blow, ‘Some of it is pretty good.’]
Place is People is a strange little book, neither an attractive collection of photographs to introduce the suburb to visitors nor a quick historical overview. It’s got elements of both those, but is something more personal and less orderly than either; if it was even more personal, it might have been an extended prose poem, but it isn’t quite that either.
Mary Haire leads walking tours, and the book has something of the serendipitous feel of such tours: here’s a little girl walking to school; let me tell you about a boy that age who went to the same school a hundred years ago. I know more about my suburb’s history having read it; some errors have been corrected, and some tantalising trails laid in my mind: Cardinal Freeman was born here, for instance, and the young woman at the florist’s is a single mother. How can I put those two snippets in the same sentence, you ask? I plead that the book sets a precedent with its gloriously unconcerned potpourri approach to its subject.
Talking at Gleebooks recently, Helen Garner paid tribute to Elmore Leonard’s essay, ‘Ten Rules of Writing‘: she has his sentence, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ on the wall above her desk. In The Spare Room, she has given us a feminine Elmore Leonard story: it’s about the emotional tangles between two women, or at least those tangles provide the language for its telling, but it has the clean lines, the sure forward movement, the lack of hooptedoodle, that give such pleasure in Leonard’s tough-guy narratives from The Tall T to, say, Pagan Babies.
It’s a very quick read, and an intense one. There’s plenty of complexity, some of which I’ve found making itself known to me weeks after finishing the book. For instance, ‘Helen’ the character, who is manifestly a version of Helen the writer, claimed my allegiance and assent to her judgements while I was reading, but has since come to seem much less reliable, much too caught up in her own emotional reactions to be able to give us the full picture (some of which the book gives us in spite of her). It’s a magnificent achievement.
I doubt if David Campbell (1915–1979) is still studied in Eng Lit courses at many Australian unis, but I hope he is fondly remembered and occasionally reread by more than just me. He and Martin Johnston share a posthumous moment in John Forbes’s elegiac ‘Lassù in Cielo’; he cropped up in a footnote in the John Manifold collection I read last month; a recent Poetica featured his correspondence with Douglas Stewart; lines and images from his poems arrive in my mind unbidden from time to time.
Most of the poems in this selection are a strange mixture of the bucolic and the erudite (and just in case I’ve misused those words, I mean rustic and scholarly), and there’s a pleasant music to them. When I read the sequence of twelve twelve-line rhyming poems of ‘Cocky’s Calendar’, I found myself wondering how he managed to pick up his pen again after writing something so wonderful. Back in the early 1970s, in an Aust Lit seminar on this sequence, a student from North America totally didn’t get them: while the rest of us were being drawn into the poetry’s intensely personal relationship with the landscape, he lost patience altogether and said the whole thing read like verse you’d find on a Norman Rockwell calendar. I thought then that he was missing something, and I find I still do. This is the ninth poem, for September:
Now, here and there, against the cold,
The hillsides smoulder into gold
And the stockman riding by
Lifts to the trees a yellow eye.
It's here the couples from the farms
Play in one another's arms
At yes and no – you'd think the trees
Sprang from their felicities.
So may our children grow up strong,
Got while the thrush drew out his song,
And love like you and I when we
Lie beneath the wattle tree.
How about that present tense ‘lie’, eh?
I think the sequence as a whole speaks to me so strongly because of my father. At a family gathering once, another farmer, of a younger generation, said something about the boredom of spending a whole day driving around a paddock in a tractor (this was before the days of air-conditioned tractor cabins and iPods). When my father said mildly that he didn’t get bored, one of my female cousins asked him what he did with his mind when he was out there all day. As he drew breath to answer, my mother came to the rescue by changing the subject (‘Oh Jenny, you know you’ve been asking me about tatting, I have a pattern here I can show you’). Probably to his relief, my father didn’t get to answer the question. I like to think that David Campbell’s contemplative poems, even though his is a sheep property while my father grew sugar cane, provide some version of what my father might have wanted to say back then over tea and scones.
With The Omnivore’s Dilemma I was back to farming, in three categories: industrial, of which I read with a mixture of horror and curiosity; pastoral, which is not synonymous with ‘organic’, but tends to have the virtues claimed for it; and personal, in which the author creates a meal from things he has personally grown, hunted and killed, or foraged. I don’t know that anyone could read this tremendously engaging book without changing the way they think about food. It’s very heartening that it was a New York Times best seller. If you want a quick look at the central part of the book, which deals with ‘intensively managed grazing’ or clever grass farming, here’s a video from Michael Pollan’s recent TED talk:
The book integrates into its narrative any number of lively essays: on the ethics of meat-eating (in which Pollan engages with Peter Singer), the joys of hunting (ditto Ortega y Gasset), attempts at humane design in modern abattoirs (Temple Grandin), the US domestic and international politics of corn (in which he doesn’t discuss the so-called Free Trade Agreements that leave the US free to subsidise its grossly inefficient corn agribusinesses while preventing other nations from continuing with similar protections, but he makes their absurd brutality abundantly clear), on just about anything you can think of that’s related to his central question, ‘What should we have for dinner?’ Some of it is very funny. Some is inspiring. Some horrendous. All of it is engrossing.
I hadn’t read David Campbell’s The Man in the Honeysuckle before. As with Selected Poems, I’m fairly indifferent to the learned bits, mainly translations and imitations from the Russian, but some of the lyrics, especially the Aust Pastoral pieces, are extraordinary. The book was published posthumously, and it’s hard not to read a number of the poems as being poignantly suffused with a sense of death as imminent. ‘Crab’, ‘The Broken Mask’ and the whole ‘With a Blue Dog’ section stand out for me in this first encounter. How’s this:
Wind in Casuarinas
Camped under the she-oaks
With a dog and swag
The woman a white sapling
A straight flame
Blown all ways
And the children off
On their several roads
Lives rounding like river stones
Or washing out in wheel ruts
A high sky over tree and hill
And the clouds taking fire
I am spread out I burn
Yellow and rose – blessing and blest
A still flame in the arms of the she-oaks
Life butting into the world
With five wants and a howl
And shambles out with a blue dog.
I want to put ‘five wants and a howl’ right up there with ‘helpless, naked, piping loud’.
I don’t imagine Elmore Leonard would care much for this Heat. There’s hoptedoodle galore … though generally very high quality hoptedoodle. Ironically, the one article that seem to me to be 90 percent hoptedoodle is by a crime writer whose point seems to be that crime fiction has advantages from being bound to an absence of hoptedoodle (but maybe I was just irritated because her essay on the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction totally ignores the existence of children’s literature and science fiction).
There’s a terrific piece on blogging by Kerryn Goldsworthy, not a hopt or a doodle in sight; a lovely pairing of a story by Eva Sallis (‘Abattoir’) and an essay by Elizabeth Campbell (called ‘Why Little Girls Love Horses’ on the contents page but ‘Envy Worship and Passion’ on its own title page); chiming mentions of the catacombs of Paris, of which I’d never heard, first in one of Jennifer Maiden’s still-intriguing George Jeffreys–Clare Collins poems and then in an engrossing essay by Sarah Knox about researching historical novels, her own and Hilary Mantel’s; and a number of memorable pieces on aspects of migration: Elisabeth Holdsworth’s memoir ‘New Holland’, a short story by Hoa Pham, poems by Ali Alizadeh (on his unborn baby) and Peter Skrzynecki (on his late father). There’s lots more. I’m a happy subscriber.
I understand that it must be a nightmare to copy edit a magazine like this: so many words, so many different voices, so little time. But there are enough lapses to present a significant obstacle to the reader, at least to this one. At one point, havoc is ‘wrecked’; as something wreaks havoc just a few pages later in the same article, it seems likely that the error resulted from an editor’s dependence on a spellchecker rather than ignorance. In the sentence, “The memoir becomes a book about illness to many reviewers; a ‘survivors’ tale; a plumbing of the issue of women’s health, and the continuing masculinist paternalism of the public health system” it looks very much as if the apostrophe after survivors was misunderstood by someone who inserted another before it to make it function as a quote mark; and the comma after health almost derails the sense. I don’t want to go hunting for similar moments, but the erratic comma and absent apostrophe in ‘reconstruction, so redolent of the historian’s duty, and the re-enactors fancy’ just leapt up at me from further down the same page (p 172). This might be just the irritated snitchiness of an underemployed pedant, but in this context it becomes hard to tell if the truly eccentric punctuation in a number of the poems is what the poet intended or the product of editorial inattention.</curmudgeonly grumble>
How could I resist reopening The Branch of Dodona, my only other David Campbell book? This one had pride of place in the bathroom for a week, to allow for contemplative reading in short bursts. Again, it’s his farming poems – in this volume, the ‘Works and Days’ sequence, with its love–hate relationship to sheep – that speak most strongly to me. Even his ‘My Lai’, which I remember him reading at Vietnam Moratorium Readings in another age, works so powerfully because of the farmer-to-peasant solidarity it embodies:
I was milking the cow when a row of tall bamboo Was mowed by rifle fire With my wife and child in the one harvest, And the blue milk spilt and ruined
I’m not sure what the friend had in mind who gave me Diane Athill’s reflections on old age, Somewhere Towards the End, as a present for my 61st birthday. As Ms Athill is almost exactly 30 years older than me and still going strong, I’ll assume she wasn’t hinting it’s time I hang up my spurs.
In terms of my current reading, the book’s matter-of-factness, its almost belligerent steadiness of gaze play as a sober counterpoint to the rage and evasion of The Spare Room: both books generate what Athill calls an ‘addictive excitement of the mind’, and they speak to each other. Ms Athill’s brief reference to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety endorses Sarah Knox’s praise of it in her essay in Heat. The book has in spades a (to me) miraculous quality that I think of as Protestant integrity, a quality also displayed, ineffably, in the manner of my friend J’s leavetaking. I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. She manages to be remarkably cheerful about things usually discussed, if at all, in gloomy mode. One chapter begins, for example (the emphasis is mine):
When you begin discussing old age you come up against reluctance to depress either others or yourself, so you tend to focus on the more agreeable aspects of it: coming to terms with death, the continuing presence of young people, the discovery of new pursuits and so on. But I have to say that a considerable part of my own old time is taken up by doing things or (worse) failing to do things for people older, or if not older, less resistant to age, than myself.
Can’t you just see that paragraph, followed by the word ‘Discuss’, as an exam question on The Spare Room?