Tag Archives: Don Watson

Don Watson’s Enemy Within

Don Watson,  Enemy Within: American politics in the time of Trump (Quarterly Essay 63, September 2016)

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This Quarterly Essay is closer in form to the classic essays of Addison and Lamb than to the engaged argument of most issues. It doesn’t so much push a thesis as offer a series of ruminations and perspectives.

Don Watson is a lugubrious bemoaner of abuses of the English language, so visiting a US election campaign must have been a melancholy experience for him. One of the joys of this essay is the attention it pays to language – my favourite moment being this comment on Bernie Sanders’ repeated use of the word ‘incomprehensible’:

An election processes reality into platitudes. Even the images become platitudes. It grinds all the tendons and marrow and flesh of history, and all the cultural overlays of Los Angeles, and the ukuleles and ‘You bets’ of Janesville, into something universally digestible. Hearing a word like ‘incomprehensible’ in the middle of it is like finding a bone in a fish finger.

More substantially, Watson is also a historian. Rather than give us a blow-by-blow account of Donald Trump’s tweets and other provocations or Hillary Clinton’s emails, he turns to the past for perspective. He likes Hillary Clinton best when she delivers a history lesson rather than a stump speech at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund meeting. He sees Bernie Sanders’ popularity as a resurgence of ‘a much assailed and greatly debilitated, but unbroken American tradition of democratic socialism’, which he presents to us by way of a sketch of the history of Wisconsin, where Fighting Bob La Follette ‘took on the elites for forty years’ and the current mayor, Paul Soglin, continues in his footsteps. He discusses Trump in the context of twentieth century fascism,  concluding somewhat reassuringly:

[Were] he to win the presidency in ways resembling Hitler’s or Mussolini’s, it’s inconceivable that Trump’s next steps would resemble theirs. His brutish and ingenious destruction of the country club Republicans, and the capitulation of most of the remainder, are shameful and concerning, but even if this means the end of the Republican Party, that is not the same as the end of UIS democracy. The Germans of 1933 had had a decade of democracy. The Americans have had a a lot more than that.

Then, less reassuringly, he asks:

And if Trump doesn’t win, will he walk away? Will his followers? He is telling them if he loses it means the vote was rigged. He doesn’t need to be an actual fascist for the day after election day to be a worrying prospect.

What oft was thought but is here so well expressed.

I’m glad to report that most of the essay is about the US rather than specifically about Trump. Not that Watson is reluctant to repeat witty take-downs of either main candidate, but the ‘time’ of the title was also the moment of Muhammad Ali’s death, of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, of Bernie Sanders’ speaking – about all of which he writes beautifully.


Roughly two thirds of this QE is devoted to correspondence on the previous issue, in which James Brown put a case for greater public engagement and debate in Australia’s approach to the possibility of war. Two elder historians lament young Brown’s apparent historical ignorance, other correspondents take exception to aspects of his argument. But there’s a general consensus that more thought and discussion is needed. Brown acknowledges some criticisms as ‘bracing, but useful’, and utterly rejects others. It couldn’t be more different from the way argument is too often conducted in the social media.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Weekend

The weather turned on its traditional gorgeousness for the Festival’s weekend. A number of speakers drew attention to the way the sun made itself known – submitting audiences to a third degree, or blinding panellists to the obvious. There’s something exhilarating about being part of a sunlit crowd of book-lovers.

I spent Saturday with the Art Student. We did non-literary things in the morning – walked the dog, bought food, hung out the washing, then caught the train to town in time for:

1.30–2.30: Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know
Zia Haider Rahman is a youngish Englishman of south-Asian heritage who has written what sounds like a brilliant first novel. He spoke with an Oxford drawl, which sat oddly with his account of growing up in poverty. He explained: ‘This accent is completely phony, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I spent hours listening to tapes of BBC announcers and imitating the accents because I understood very young that if you want to make your way in England, trivial things like accents matter hugely.’

Louise Adler was an excellent interlocutor, mainly because of her unabashed enthusiasm for Zia’s novel, In the Light of What We Know. There was a lot of tiptoeing around certain plot points, so I may not know what was being said in a good deal of the conversation until I’ve read the book. There was also a lot of tiptoeing around things Zia wanted to say about the British literary scene – Louise encouraged him to be explicit (‘This is Australia. We can deal with bluntness.’), but he remained vaguely and tactfully disparaging.

I said this was his first novel. But maybe not. He said that he’s been writing all his life, but not with any intention of being published. Partly this is because his ideal readers were his parents, neither of whom would ever read his books, published or not. When his father was dying he had a copy of In the Light of What We Know on his bedside table, and would touch it proudly, but he was past being able to read it. And he has written a short comic novel in the last couple of months, which can’t be published because it would bring on at least five law suits.

3–4 pm: Back to the Wild
This session had an extraordinary collection of writers: lugubrious, droll Don Watson, whose The Bush sounds like compulsory reading; measured, scholarly British falconer Helen Macdonald, whose H is for Hawk has won all sorts of awards; and Leigh Ann Henion from the USA, travel writer turned nature-evangelist whose manner ranged from rhapsodic to over the top. Richard Glover in the chair made it look easy to keep the conversation on even keel – helped by the fact that the three panellists were manifestly interested in each other. While Henion whooped it up for a sense of wonder at the awesomeness of the natural world, Macdonald spoke of her connection to a particular bird and how a scientific understanding deepened her connection to nature more broadly, and Watson was full of rich anecdotes of things he had seen in the bush.

One fabulous fact has stayed with me: according to recent research, some parrots are given names when they are chicks – that is, they are known by a distinctive pattern of clicks – and this ‘name’ stays with them all their life.

In question time, an audience member observed that we are currently approaching a possible environmental disaster, and asked if these writers’ books included calls to action. Henion said her call was to rekindle our sense of wonder. The questioner, in a slightly driven manner, said, ‘But unless we take action there won’t be any nature for us to wonder at.’ Richard Glover, bless him, pointed out that Henion was actually answering the question, and Henion made the point that to reclaim a respectful connection with the natural environment is a significant action in a time when many children in the West have never seen a horizon line, and many adults haven’t seen one for a long time: if we could ensure that our political leaders each had such a connection, things would change.

4.30–5.30: The Secret State
This was another disparate panel that worked remarkably well. Nick Davies, Guardian journalist who played a central role in bringing the Murdoch press’s crimes to light in Britain and worked with Ed Snowden’s disclosures, Michael Mori, who was David Hicks’s legal representative and whom the other speakers addressed as ‘Dan’, and George Williams, a constitutional lawyer from UNSW, were wrangled by Monica Attard, distinguished ABC journalist, in a discussion of surveillance and state secrecy.

These guys all know their onions. Surprisingly, the star of the event was George Williams. Balding, bespectacled and with a slightly pedantic manner, sitting between Mr Cool from the Guardian and Mr Fight-the-Power from the US Marines, he was the one who gave us hard facts about legislation that has been passing almost unnoticed through the Australian Parliament over the last few years, using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to extend government power and curtail people’s rights. It’s not that there’s a conspiracy, he explained: politicians on both sides dread being held accountable for some future atrocity, and so they wave through any measure that is put up by the security forces. Because the measures become law without debate, the press pays little or no attention, and so we now have laws on the books that could send someone to gaol for two years for praising Nelson Mandela in his freedom-fighting days.

Sixty percent of Australians, George told us, believe that we have a Bill of Rights (we don’t). A similar percentage said they were confident that they couldn’t be wrongfully found guilty of an offence, because they could always take the fifth: that is, most Australians form their mental models of how the law works from US TV shows.

It was a chilling panel, that came interestingly alive in a different way right at the end. Nick Davies mentioned that David Kilkullen, author of the current Quarterly Essay, was at the Festival, and said he was hoping to talk to him about ISIS. Mori’s affable poise fell away for a moment and he said, ‘He wants us to do more bombing.’  Someone from the audience shouted, ‘That’s not fair!’  And we were suddenly in a spontaneous, heated argument about whether it was arrogant for the US and its allies to move in on Iraq and Syria believing we could resolve the situation (Mori) or whether failure to intervene was immoral, and based on a mindless assumption that because it was a mistake to invade Iraq once it would be a mistake now (Davies). We were out of time, and Monica Attard, who had done a brilliant job up to that point, continued her brilliance, saying something like, ‘And that’s all we have time for.’ Applause. Animated conversations about ASIO files overheard on the exit stairs.

We went to the bookshop, to a tapas bar where we celebrated a friend’s birthday, and then home through Vivid once more.

I only went to one thing on Sunday:

10–11 am: Her Body, Her Choice?
This was my first all-woman panel – most of the panels I attended had three men and one woman, the woman being in the chair for two of them.

Once again, the title didn’t reflect the content of the panel with any precision. It was a discussion about the situation of women, mostly in the non-Western world, between Ayu Utami (from Indonesia), Leila Yusaf Chung (a Sydney woman who was born in Lebanon and is still deeply engaged with the plight of Palestinian refugees), and Xinran (a Chinese journalist who has been living in England for 18 years and writes over her personal name only, because non–Chinese speakers reliably mispronounce it).

(Digression: Jane Park from Sydney University, who chaired the event with charm and intelligence, said something at the start about all the women speaking several languages. Ayu Utami said, ‘I only speak Indonesian.’  No one commented on the fact that she said that, and went on to say a lot more, in perfect English: it’s as if, from one perspective, English is no longer a language like other languages.)

Jane Park asked if they thought of themselves as feminists – because, as she said, feminism has been critiqued as a western phenomenon. Ayu said she was a feminist before she encountered the theory: as a young girl she observed that the ‘killer teachers’ (that is, teachers who were particularly harsh) were all ‘old virgins’ – that is, unmarried women as distinct from nuns, who were in a different social category. Her realisation then that unmarried women were treated badly by the society and took it out on their students was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to women. Leila said she had been a feminist all her life. History, she said, was not only written by the victors, but almost entirely without acknowledging the central, vital contribution that women have made to every society in every era (she said this much more beautifully than I can reproduce). Xinran brought a whole different perspective: as a child of Mao’s China from an urban location she grew up with the knowledge that women hold up half the sky (rural China, she said, lags hundreds of years behind the cities in many respects, and women there are lucky to hold up any sky at all); it took her years in England to respond to small courtesies from a man to a woman as anything other than arrogant tokens of superiorities. Her feminism, she realised, had a harshness to it, that cut her off from being a woman.

There was a lot more to the panel – I hope a podcast turns up.

And that was it for me.

The Art Student went with a friend to a session in the afternoon: The Cold War on Sex. She came home enraged. Evidently a mutually respectful difference of opinion between Kooshyar Karimi, who has written about his mother’s oppressive experience of the veil in Iran, and Sahar Amer, who was defending Muslim women’s choice to wear the veil, was in effect shouted down by Dennis Altman, the participant chair, who declared that he was completely intolerant of an argument that Sahar Amer was putting. Young women from the audience called on him to let her speak. The Art Student said she would never go to another event that Altman was chairing.

My mind is still buzzing from those few days, and even though we were very restrained in Gleebooks I’ve got some tempting new books beside the bed. And sessions I missed are already turning up on the ABC Books and Arts podcast. I’m looking forward to more from the Writers Festival’s own podcast. But for now, it’s back to life as she is lived.

[Added later: Helen Macdonald gave the  Festival’s closing address. It’s available on podcast.]

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night, 2015

The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards were presented last night at the State Library. At one stage I thought I might be able to go as a handbag, but it turned out handbags had to pay their own way, so you won’t see a pic of me in cocktail attire on Twitter. But speaking of Twitter, it’s now possible to participate in such events by proxy and non-simultaneously. Here’s my version of the evening.

The earliest interesting tweet was from someone worrying about the dress code. I could have told her not to worry. This is an event for writers, and though some of the pics that began to appear at hashtag  at about 6 o’clock were decidedly glam, there were plenty to put the worrier’s mind at ease.

Uncle Allan Madden did the welcome to Country, playwright Ross Mueller delivered the Address (in which, as well as saying some wise things about the arts he made an AFL joke or two and commented, amicably I hope, on recent events to do with literary awards in Queensland), Acting Premier and Arts Minister Troy Brampton spoke briefly, so did Richard Neville the Mitchell Librarian, and the show was on the road.

John George Ajaka, NSW Minister for Multiculturalism, announced the winner of the biennial Prize for Translation and the inaugural NSW Early Career Translator Prize. Brian Nelson won the former, and Lilit Zelukin the latter. Few if any other literary awards include prizes for translation, so these are a win for all translators.

Multicultural NSW Award. I saw Donna Abela’s Jump for Jordan at the Griffin Theatre Company last year with the wonderful Alice Ansara, and would have been happy to see it win. The winner, Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond, is a book I hope to read.

Of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting shortlist I’d only seen Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts, featuring Hunter Page-Lochard’s terrifying performance of a young man on the edge of self-destruction, at Belvoir. The smart money was on Tom Wright’s Black Diggers, about World War One’s Aboriginal soldiers. The smart money had it right.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was taken out by The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. I’m glad on two counts: it’s good to see a genre piece being gonged, and this film in particular has been much more honoured abroad than at home. Jennifer Kent’s acceptance remarks were recorded on Twitter as mentioning the joys of libraries.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature was shared by Tamsin Janu’s Figgy in the World and Catherine Norton’s Crossing, both published by Scholastic Omnibus.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature went to The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty, who shared some letters from her readers..

(At about this point in the evening, the ABC Book Club’s Twitter account decided that the embargo was lifted and revealed the remaining winners. This would have been the moment to lay bets on David Williamson.)

The favourite for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry was surely David Malouf’s  Earth Hour, which happens to be the only shortlisted book I’d read. It won. David was described on Twitter as ‘wonderful’, ‘amazing’ and an ‘Australian icon’. A text sent to me from the room described him as ‘ever gracious and lovely’.

How do people possibly choose among the range of books shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction? Intimate memoir, passionate court reporting, grand history, cultural essays: it’s a lot harder than apples vs oranges. However, choose the judges did, and gave the gong to Don Watson’s The Bush. In accepting the prize he said, no doubt with his usual gloomy demeanour: ‘You need encouragement when you’re young, but also when you’re old.’

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: I’ve just finished reading Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs (blog post to come after the book group meets) and was backing it to win. The actual winner, An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, is a worthy recipient of whom I am a fan, though I expect the judges did some soul searching when they realised he was the only white man on the shortlist. Omar Musa congratulated Luke on Twitter within minutes.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, generally regarded as the big prize of the night, went to The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw, who compared writing a novel to running a marathon.

The special award was given to David Williamson. The State Library’s tweeter described his work as laconic. Is that the sound of pedants writhing? Laconic or not, the tall man is giving his prize money to the Ensemble Theatre to ensure the production of new Australian work. [Later: My mistake. The tweet in question said iconic, not laconic. I’m not sure how DW is iconic, but that description fits him better than the other.]

The book of the year went to Don Watson for The Bush, who Twitter said was dumbstruck.

Voting for the People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels – so Helen Garner and Biff Ward aren’t in the running – closes at midnight on Thursday. The prize will be announced on Friday.

So there you have it. Congratulations all round. People in the room acknowledged the Auslan signers. I acknowledge the tweeters. It was almost like being there.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.