Tag Archives: essays

Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!: and other things that matter (Granta Publications 2016)

I’m one of the many readers who first met Diana Athill’s work near the end of her long career as editor and writer. The title of her 2008 essay collection, Somewhere Towards the End (link is to my blog post), accurately describes the feel of the book. They were lucid ruminations in the shadow of approaching death.

Eight years later when Alive, Alive Oh! was published, death was still imminent, and in fact Diane Athill died in February this year. If we can judge by this book, she was ready to go – not because life had become unbearable, far from it, but because she had achieved a marvellous sense of equanimity in the face of the inevitable.

You may have to be of a certain age and ethnicity to recognise that the book’s title is from the song ‘Molly Malone’. You can see a haunting version by Sinéad O’Connor / Shuhada’ Davitt on YouTube, but be advised that the eerie melancholy of that song doesn’t reflect the tone of Diana Athill’s twelve short memoir-essays. In her Introduction, she writes that somewhere in her seventies she stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being, and after a short period of shock found that very restful:

I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it. In the course of the ninety-seven years through which I have lived I have collected many more images of beautiful places and things than I realised, and now it seems as though they are jostling to float into my mind.

(p 2)

What follows are some memories of that sort to be sure: the first essay is a loving description of her grandparents’ garden – really an estate, where she spent much of her childhood; the second rejects the common view that the post-war 40s and 50s were a dreary time, and tells of the joys of her life as a twenty-something in those years – the swinging 60s, in her experience, were just an extension of her privileged 50s; and third begins with a brilliant description of the beauties of the island of Tobago, and tells how as a young woman there she came to understand that the pleasurable existence of British tourists and expats was built on the many-faceted exploitation of locals. So the book may be full of beautiful places and things, but it also goes to dark places.

The title essay, ‘Alive, Alive Oh!’, comes fourth. I was expecting a celebration of life in one’s nineties (those essays come later). But no, it’s a vivid account of a pregnancy when she was in her 40s, unmarried but in a solid relationship with a married man. I won’t say more about this essay, other than that it’s a narrative full of suspense, and an outcome that is both expected and surprising.

After that, there are short essays on

  • the ‘peculiarly English middle-class technique for dealing with awkward facts … : if something is disagreeable let’s pretend it isn’t there’, and how it played out in her relationship with her mother
  • clothes and similar luxuries including, in her current life, a wheelchair
  • a wartime romance, which she frames by saying that two valuable lessons life has taught her are ‘avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’ – enough to say that the story she tells, while complex, is not an illustration these lessons
  • favourite books – the ones she lingers on are the letters of Boswell and Byron.

There’s a substantial account of her decision to move into a home for old people (a very posh one, it turns out). This is full of elegant reflections on ageing. For instance:

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. what happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. Iin my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts. A shared sense of humour is necessary, together with some degree of curiosity. Given those, we become for each other wonderfully interesting stories, which arouse genuine concern, admiration and affection.

(p 112)

And this, from the final essay ‘Dead Right’, on the prevailing attitudes to dying among her fellow residents:

Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now. You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare. One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible, practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of. When a death occurs in the home it is dealt with with the utmost respect – and also with a rather amazing tact in relation to us, the survivors.

(p 159)

When I blogged about Somewhere Towards the End, I said I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. Make that 97.

Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look and November Verse 3

Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look (Text 2016)

1925355365.jpgI’ve recently been surprised to hear a number of people refer to Helen Garner as ‘one of our great writers’. My surprise doesn’t come from disagreement. It’s just that hers isn’t writing that invites one to bow down in the presence of greatness. She’s less a Great Dane (or Grande Dame) making magisterial pronouncements than a terrier who keeps on at her subject until it yields some truth, her truth. She passes judgement often enough, and definitely enough, but not dogmatically, and not looking for a stoush either, but ready in case one comes along. A striking feature of Sotiris Dounoukos’ movie of Joe Cinque’s Consolation is the absence of the book’s persistent questioning – so when the end titles announce that, against the strongly implied judgement of the previous 90 minutes, one of the real-world characters was exonerated by a real-world jury, one tends to simply distrust the movie. When the book calls that verdict into question, you can disagree, but you can’t honestly dismiss it out of hand: the judgement has been honestly, and I would say humbly, worked for. (Perhaps its relevant that some of the harshest critics of Garner’s The First Stone refused to read it, or so I’ve been told.)

One of the pieces in this collection is titled ‘While Not Writing a Book’. That could have been a working title for the collection as a whole. It and a couple of others, including ‘Before Whatever Else Happens’, are presented as excerpts from the writer’s diaries/notebooks: overheard snippets, chance encounters, family moments, brief reflections. Another writer might have called them flash fictions or prose poems. Other pieces are more sustained: the product of a week locked away with CDs of Russell Crowe movies; reviews; sketches from the courts; wonderful pieces on her friendships with Jacob Rosenberg, Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolly; glimpses of family life with grandchildren and, once, a dog; a revisit to her relationship with her mother; reflections on the ukulele, the ballet, suburban life; and more, enough to keep her readers interested between This House of Grief and whatever big thing may happen next.

Everywhere she looks and listens, from conversations about farting with small children to a teenager who has bashed her newborn baby to death, Garner finds stuff for her mind to grapple with, and she knows how to communicate the grappling with grace and vigour.

And now, because it’s November, a versification of one of the diary entries (see page 85 for the original):

Verse 3: At a conference
Supreme Court Judge and Helen Garner
chatted over tea and dip.
‘My home,’ the judge said to the yarner,
‘was once the scene of Monkey Grip,
your novel, and we’re renovating.’
‘My novel, and some devastating
and elating life. But how
do those old rooms look to you now.’
He listed them: ‘… and one so dinky
my daughter’s desk was there before.
It’s soon a bathroom, nothing more.’
‘The one with wooden shutters?’ Inky
flash from hippie days divine:
‘That tiny room was [humbly] mine.’

AWW2016Everywhere I Look is the twelfth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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.

Judith Ridge’s Book that Made Me

Judith Ridge, The Book that Made Me (Walker Books 2016)

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tl;dr: This book would make a brilliant gift for a teenager (what the book trade calls a young adult) who loves reading. And part of the money you spend on it will go to the Indigenous Literary Fund. Also: I tell my own story.

Judith Ridge has been a tireless worker in the field of children’s literature for decades, organising, promoting, debating, judging, studying, editing, writing, teaching, networking – oh, and reading. This is her first book. Characteristically of Judith’s commitment to young people and literature, it’s a labour of love: she and the contributing authors have agreed that all royalties from the book will go to the extremely worthy Indigenous Literary Foundation. Also characteristic of her, it’s a showcase for other people.

It’s a showcase in the first place for the 31 writers, mostly of YA fiction, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, who were invited to write about a book that ‘ made’ them. The invitation allowed for wide interpretation. As Judith says in her foreword, she was asking what book

made them fall in  love, or made them understand something for the first time? Made them think. Made them laugh. Made them angry. Made them feel safe. Made them feel challenged in ways they never knew they could be, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Made them readers, made them writers – made them the person they are today.

Readers get to know a little more about writers whose work they know and love – in my case Markus Zusak, Shaun Tan (who couldn’t confine himself to anything like one book, but in effect gives a whole reading list of sophisticated picture books and comics, as well as having line drawings throughout the book), Benjamin Law, Alison Croggon, Ursula Dubosarsky (the only verse contribution) and Simon French (one of two pieces that brought tears to my eyes). And we are introduced to new writers we may be interested in – in my case all the rest. To name half a dozen:

  • Will Kostakis, who writes about a book he put down after reading six pages and decided to write his own story
  • Queenie Chan, who writes of the joys of manga, telling part of her story in comic frames
  • Ambellin Kwaymullina, one of the Aboriginal contributors, author of a dystopian series of books, who writes eloquently about the non-written stories that ‘made’ her
  • the late Mal Peet, who tells a wonderful story about turning up at a Moby-Dick tutorial at university with the Classics Illustrated comic
  • Kate Constable,whose piece featuring Tom’s Midnight Garden is a lovely essay on how a reader’s circumstances affect how she reads.
  • Jaclyn Moriarty, who explains beautifully what Roald Dahl can do for his young readers.

As well as the contributors, the book is also a showcase for the 200 or so novels, series, picture books, comics, plays and poetry anthologies that rate a mention, ranging from Homer and Melville to Dr Seuss and Archie comics. In a neat bit of mise-en-abîme, some of the contributors wrote books that some of the others say ‘made’ them. No one mentions Harry Potter.

Something the book does for me which it’s unlikely to do for most of its intended readership – the difference being that I’ve been reading for half a century longer than any teenager – is make me wonder how I would answer the book’s question.

The rest of this post is today’s version of the book that made me.
—–
I was a compulsive reader as a child. I remember lying with my mother on her bed after lunch and watching the words as she read to me – from among other things a Hans Christian Andersen collection – correcting her if she got a word wrong. I loved Donald Duck (though not so much Mickey Mouse) and Superman (rather than Batman) and Classics Illustrated comics. I had Kingsley’s Heroes and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia at home, Enid Blyton, W E Johns and Richmal Compton from the town library, the Queensland Reader and Bible Stories at school. I had to be told not to read at the table during meals. I read in bed at night by the faint light from two rooms away (our North Queensland house wasn’t big on internal doors). When I reach double figures I took on the likes of Great Expectations, Ivanhoe and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

The worlds of books fascinated me. They had snow. A child could look out his bedroom window and talk to another child sitting at her window in the house next door: my nearest neighbours were a sugarcane paddock and a cow yard away. Moss grew on the south side of trees in books: in the tropics the sun comes from either the north or the south, depending on the time of year, and moss grows anywhere it can in the rainforest. In books it can be broad daylight at nine o’clock at night and no one has heard of bandicoots, or cane toads, or sensitive weed, or cane fires, or pomelos, or bagasse, all of which were ordinary parts of my life.

I’d like to be able to write about the wonderful moment when I picked up a book and found my childhood world reflected there. But no, that didn’t happen – and still hasn’t, really. When an aunt started giving me Australian books for birthday presents – Ash Road, I remember, and Simon Black in the Antarctic, both by Ivan Southall – the worlds I found in them were only slightly less other. They weren’t exactly foreign, they just didn’t show the world as I experienced it, where it would rain heavily for days on end, where houses were on stilts, where we guzzled mangoes on our back veranda and where Aboriginal people came occasionally to use our phone to call for a taxi. I grew up feeling that books were never about the real world, but were completely made up – either that or the world of my actual experience was somehow invalid.

What comes to mind when I ask myself if there is one book that set me on a literary path is not a book at all, but an after-dinner talk.

One Sunday a month was Holy Name Sunday in our church. Members of the Holy Name Society, all men, would sit together in  Mass, away from their families, and at one point they would all stand and make the church ring with a rousing anthem:

We stand for God and for his glory,
The Lord supreme and God of all.
Against his foes we raise his standard.
Around the Cross we hear his call.
____Strengthen our faith, Redeemer,
____Guard us when danger is nigh.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we’ll live, for God we’ll die.

I was totally in awe of the display of full-throated masculinity. And when I was thirteen I was allowed to join the Society. (Girls joined the Children of Mary and wore pale blue cloaks, which was cool, but boys got to bellow in church.)

I was only in the Society for a year and don’t remember doing anything apart from singing on Sundays, but I did attend that year’s annual dinner. It must have been exciting to be there as one of the men, no longer a boy, but that’s not what I remember. What I do remember is that as we were finishing dessert, someone tapped a glass with a spoon and introduced the speaker, Vince Moran. He wasn’t a family friend, but I had seen him around – Innisfail was a small enough town.

His talk wasn’t an inspirational address. Basically, he told three jokes. What was exhilarating for me was the way he told them: not one after the other, but intertwined. He got to a certain point in his main story line, which had something to do with a cat who was a great tennis fan, then went off on a digression, then from that digression onto another digression, and circuitously back, jumping from one story to another in what seemed random moves, until, just when it seemed the whole thing had become hopelessly muddled, he brought all three strands home with three punchlines in quick succession. The cat, I remember, lost all interest in tennis when he found out what racquet strings were made of.

For all my countless hours of reading, and though I knew from the ABC Children’s Hour that it was a good thing to remember the names of the people who wrote books, this was the first time I realised that stories were made by people – by people who eat food, and go to the toilet, and have to tie their shoelaces like the rest of us. An ordinary man standing at the front of the room had just presented us with a fiction he had crafted himself. (I think he was the same Vincent Moran who wrote for Homicide in the 70s and The Flying Doctors in the 80s.) I don’t think I quite got as far as realising that Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton were also mere mortals (I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised that reality even yet), but a door swung open in my mind. Books might not reflect my world, but people who lived in my world could make them.
—–
AWW2016I won’t count The Book that Made Me in my tally for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge, but the editor and by my count more than half the contributors are Australian women, so I’m adding the logo here.

Lily Brett’s Only in New York

Lily Brett, Only in New York (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

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This book is not to be confused with Lily Brett’s similarly titled New York, published in 2001, even though both are collections of essays about New York. There are similarities of course, but whereas New York‘s essays were each exactly three pages long, and geared primarily to a German readership (they were first published as columns in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, translated by Melanie Waltz), the essays here are much less constrained, ranging from two to 10 pages, and don’t have any sense of the deadline pressure that’s often found in newspaper columns (though at least one of them, ‘Falling in Love in Cologne’, has appeared in Die Zeit). Many of the essays read as if they were partly written in Lily Brett’s head as she went on long walks in Manhattan. Not that she’s a flâneuse, as her opening sentences make clear:

When I go for a walk in New York, I like to have a destination. Actually, I like to have a destination wherever I am when I go for a walk. I am not one of those aimless walkers, people who can stroll around from place to place without a plan.

Many of the essays start with naming a destination: Grand Central Station, Spandex House in the Garment District, Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, her father’s apartment block. Occasionally, as when her eldest daughter is in labour, there’s no destination, but it’s still not aimless wandering, but walking ‘around and around the block, with increasing speed. For hours.’ Apart from the streets and people of Manhattan (the other boroughs don’t get a look in), the book returns to a number of subjects: Brett’s family – mother, father, husband, children – her Australian connections, her many neuroses and anxieties. Much of the book’s considerable charm comes from the way the essays veer off in unexpected directions – like a purposeful but totally distractable walker.

In an essay that starts out apparently about Brett’s incompetence at sewing, she confides that she  is ‘not the kind of person who can lounge around the house in a sweatshirt’, and goes on:

My mother was well dressed all the time. Even when she cleaned the house. She polished the floor and scrubbed the kitchen in a silk blouse, pleated skirt and high heels.

Then, without missing  a beat:

After her world cracked and splintered when the Nazis invaded Poland, my mother was never the same. She could never relax. She was always on guard. It was as though she needed to be prepared for any eventuality. And I have inherited that need.

We can enjoy the image of Brett’s mother’s eccentricity. But we’re not to trivialise her. And that’s true of the book as a whole. I laughed a lot. Brett’s nonagenarian father is very funny, but he is a triumph of the human spirit. New York is full of absurdities (customers are called ‘guests’, dogs wear shorts, psychics abound) but you never know what you’ll see if you keep your eyes open.

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Inga Clendinnen said that whereas a novelist plays Catch-Me-If-You-Can with the reader, an essayist invites the reader to come for a walk. She could have had this book in mind.

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Only in New York is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge,