Tag Archives: Gleebooks

Dog Ear Cafe

Andrew Stojanovski, Dog Ear Cafe: How the Mt Theo Program beat the curse of petrol sniffing (Hybrid Publishers 2010)

Despite the subtitle, this is not a how-to book, but nor is it straightforward memoir. The author lived for more than 10 years at Yuendemu, a Warlpiri settlement in Central Australia. He worked for a number of different employers during his time there, but from the first months he saw his job as being to fill the whitefella (Kardiya in Warlpiri) functions in the campaign against the petrol sniffing that was devastating the young people, and imperilling the future, of the community. A number of qualities equipped him well for the job: he was young, and evidently possessed huge amounts of energy; he had studied anthropology, and was open to cultural differences; he had a deep seated, quasi spiritual yearning to know Indigenous Australia intimately as a way of understanding his own Australian identity; he wanted passionately to make a difference in the world. The book is as much his personal story as the story of the program.

Stojanowski says somewhere in the book that he has written it to fill his obligations to the people he worked with, so other people can learn from the Mt Theo success. I imagine any whitefella planning to work in a remote Aboriginal community would find useful information here: how to make sense of cultural attitudes and practices that derive their rationality from hunter-gatherer ways, and to come to see their counterparts that might seem like they’re simply rational as rooted in millennia of agriculture; the importance of non-violence if a white worker is to keep the confidence and trust of a traditional Aboriginal community; a little on the workings of Warlpiri skin-name system; how indispensably useful it is that a whitefella has ‘diplomatic immunity’ from the intricate web of avoidance and can’t-say-no obligations that bind initiated Warlpiri adults; that what a distant, bureaucratic perspective might see as ’empowerment’ can look like abandonment when seen up close; and much more.

The book is very readable. Its potential usefulness is fleshed out in wonderful anecdotes – yarns in fact. There are dramatic confrontations with young people out of their minds on petrol fumes, privileged visits to significant cultural sites, one or two ceremonies lyrically described, revelatory conversations with old men and women, places where Warlpiri and whitefella senses of humour are a perfect match.  We get a richly textured picture of what it’s like to be a whitefella living and working closely and respectfully with Warlpiri people – elders and young people – in a Central Australian community. Stojanovski married soon after becoming moving to Yuendemu, and his two daughters were born during his time there. He gives an unsparing, though tactful, account of the strain that his heroic dedication to the work placed on his marriage. I would have loved a chapter in which his wife told her story. As it stands, it’s hard to tell how much she was an equally heroic member of team Stojanowski, and how much she was a sufferer of collateral damage – though it’s fairly clear there were elements of both. I would also have liked a chapter from Peggy Nampijimba Brown, the old woman who challenged cultural norms by undertaking to look after other people’s children at Mt Theo, without whom nothing could have happened – but the detail of whose story Stojanovski can’t tell us. Those, of course, are other books.

In the shadow of the Howard–Brough–Rudd–Gillard–Macklin Intervention, which gives the message that Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are so dysfunctional that only military force can bring order, and in the more specific shadow of recent headlines about payback violence and exile from Yuendemu itself, this book is a challenging source of genuine light and realistic hope. It’s also a ripping good read.

Dog Ear Cafe Launch

Last night we went to another brilliant launch at Gleebooks: Rachel Perkins doing her first book launch,  of Andrew Stojanovski’s first and he says only book, Dog Ear Cafe. It was a surprisingly intimate affair. Many members of the author’s family were there, including a couple of charming twin nieces who were just tall enough to reach the snack foods, and relaxed enough about the surroundings to keep up a sweet background noise during proceedings.

Stojanovski lived at Yuendemu in Central Australia for 11 years, and was part of the Warlpiri community’s successful campaign to wipe out petrol sniffing there. As he said, all through his time in the Centre Aboriginal elders would say, ‘Don’t write a book about this.’ They were sick of whitefellas blowing in, spending a bit of time there, and then going away and making a quid or getting jobs by writing anthropological or other treatises about them. But then, toward the end of this time there, one friend said to him, ‘You should write a book about this.’ The idea was that he should write a history or a manual to show other whitefellas how they could be useful. When he told a young friend – a former sniffer and active participant in the regeneration of the community – about the idea, the young friend said no one would read a history/manual, he should write it like an adventure with all the funny and dramatic incidents left in.

Rachel Perkins did a lovely job as launcher. She was there as an Aboriginal Big Name who could give the book her blessing, of course,  but she let us know from the start that she had a friendship with the author dating back decades – she communicated her pleasure (and relief) in the excellence of the book, he affection for Andrew, and her own deep appreciation of the creativity, resourcefulness and above all compassion of the people of Yuendemu. Given that it’s been in the news recently as a place of violence and lawlessness, this was a refreshing perspective from one who has strong connections there.

So much of this launch was heartening. Andrew Stojanovsky told poignant stories (he cradled a glass of red wine under his nose, to illustrate the habitual posture of a petrol sniffer). He explained the benefits for Aboriginal communities in having white people there to perform functions that would be rendered extremely difficult if not impossible by the complex demands of avoidance and can’t-say-no kinship obligations. He relayed many conversations with friends young and old at Yuendemu. In one of these he was talking to a Warlpiri man about the challenge of making friendships between whitefellas and Warlpiri. He said that sometimes it felt as if there was a Grand Canyon between the two. The old man said, ‘Yes, but I see tightropes across the canyon.’

Inevitably, I thought of Seven Seasons in Aurukun, my niece Paula Shaw’s account of a much shorter time in a remote Aboriginal community. Rachel Perkins spoke of the importance of books by whites that move beyond the anthropological or ethnographic perspectives to portraying individual people – Paula’s book does that. And Andrew Stojanovsky described the conditions endured by school teachers when the community was still home to petrol sniffers – as Aurukun was during Paula’s time there – and commented that it was no surprise that few teachers managed to stay more than two years.

Dog Ear Cafe has already been reviewed by Will Owen in North Carolina. He would have enjoyed the launch. We bought a copy.

Wasted launch at Gleebooks

Tonight we went to hear Bob Ellis launch Ross Honeywill’s Wasted, the true story of Jim McNeil, violent criminal and brilliant playwright. There wasn’t a huge crowd – after all it’s nearly 30 years since Jim McNeil died,and his four plays haven’t had a production on a main stage for a long time. But it was a great launch, and looks like a very interesting book

1wastedJim McNeil (1935–1982), according to the Gleebooks web site, quit school at thirteen. Despite his love of reading and philosophy, as a teenager he lived among thugs and thieves. (When we showed him a draft biographical note for one of his Currency Press books in the 1970s, he crossed out the word ‘criminal’ referring to his early milieu and replaced it with ‘knockabout’.)  In 1967,  shot a policeman during an armed robbery. He was convicted and began a seventeen-year prison sentence. In Parramatta maximum-security prison he joined a debating group known as the Resurgents. Though he’d never seen the inside of a  theatre he wrote one-act plays for the group to perform: The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice. These plays were given productions at the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, were a big success, and were published by The Currency Press (the first book I ever copy-edited). He wrote another, full-length play, How Does Your Garden Grow, and part of a fourth, Jack, while still in prison, and then was released ten years early thanks at least in part to lobbying by members of Sydney’s theatre scene. As Ellis said tonight, people were imagining him as being like other badly behaved writers like Brendan Behan, but he was something else altogether. Once he was released he never wrote anything decent again, and his life was a slow descent into violence, alcohol-related illness, and eventually death.

I hesitate to say I knew Jim, but I did visit him in Goulburn Gaol with my then boss, Managing Editor of Currency Press Katharine Brisbane, and he came to  our office more than once after his release. I remember one memorable lunch when he and Peter Kenna, author of A Hard God, told anecdote after anecdote in fierce competition, to our great entertainment. I wasn’t there when, in response to some imagined insult, he broke a bottle on the edge of the kitchen table and threatened to use it on Philip Parsons, Katharine’s husband – but I heard the story from the horse’s mouth the next day. Katharine said she laughed and said, ‘Oh Jim, put it down,’ and he did.

Katharine was there tonight. So were a number of others who knew Jim, including David Marr, who gave him a roof on his release from prison. Ellis also shared a flat with him for some time. Bob Ellis read a piece that sounded as if he had written it soon after McNeil’s death, conveying his charm, his brilliant use of language (‘Dustbin of the Yard here. How are ya, Bobby?’), the ever hovering possibility of violence, and his chaotic alcoholism. Then he read from Wasted, and there was no doubt we were talking about the same man. I’d rate it just about the most moving launch I’ve ever been to. It didn’t turn away from Jim’s truly ugly qualities (Honeywill said that the thing that most surprised him in researching the book was how very violent Jim had been – a far cry from the charming ratbag one would wish him to have been). But there were people who loved him, and still hold a tender place for him. A number of people from the audience told anecdotes, both about his charm and his dangerousness. His story was one of redemption through discovering the life of the mind in prison, then returning to the damned space, almost by an act of will. It made me think – and someone may have said this – that the damage inflicted by the prison system runs very deep: he had lost the ability to make the kind of quotidian decisions necessary to a decent life. Ellis did say that imprisonment has been an experiment in dealing with criminal behaviour, and it has failed.

Itstorm

It’s a long time since the Art-Student and I have been to a Gleebooks event. Tonight we went to a discussion of a book (pic on the left leaves off the first two letters of its name) about Kevin Rudd’s handling of the Australian branch of the Global Financial Crisis. As we arrived the A-S observed that it was a different crowd –  men were wearing ties, and women were coiffed. That plus the fact that Malcolm Turnbull was chairing the discussion should have warned us to sit next to the aisle instead of right against the wall where early exit was virtually impossible.

As Upstairs at Gleebooks was filling to capacity, Malcolm Turnbull took the microphone to do a bit of a warm-up. He asked how many of us knew the original owner of Gleebooks and when only a couple of us raised a hand he said he’d give us a bit of history. After a couple of disparaging hyperboles about Tony Gallagher’s body, he told is that he had been a teacher at Malcolm’s high school, where he had produced King Lear with young Malcolm in the role of Edgar. End of history lesson, beginning of anecdote about young Malcolm getting into a scrape.

The authors of the book, an economist and a political journalist, joined Turnbull on stage. I can’t say that the conversation that followed was very enlightening. We were told, for instance, that the global financial crisis was brought about by government being too much at the centre of the US economy (it was Turnbull the corporate warrior who said that), that Rudd exaggerated the severity of the crisis (that was Turnbull the politician) and that Rudd deliberately downplayed the severity of the crisis (that was the journalist). I suppose the A-S and I had gone there naively hoping for some kind of insight into what had happened to Kevin Rudd’s government. Instead, it was the kind of crowd where every time one of the panel referred to him as the former prime minister they successfully invited widespread sniggering. The book may be interesting and insightful, and there were indications that at least one of the authors had a more nuanced view than Turnbull’s (in short: ‘Rudd did it all wrong, except overseas. and he should have listened to me’). But the evening left a bad taste in the mouth – and to judge by the questions, there were a number of people in the audience who shared out response.

I’m pleased to report that when a woman asked the panel’s response to her sense that Rudd and Co had deliberated talked up the financial crisis and swine flu to scare her, both the authors disagreed, and even Malcolm could tell that truth ought to take precedence over an opportunity to denigrate a political opponent.

A Raffish Experiment launch

In my mid 20s I worked for The Currency Press. It was my first real job, and it spoiled me forever. Our offices were frequently visited by luminaries from Australia and beyond. David Williamson ducked to get under the lintel; Jim McNeil and Peter Kenna duelled with anecdotes over afternoon tea; Alex Buzo described one of his leading ladies as having a face like the back of a bus; Richard Eyre (whose Stage Beauty I watched on TV last night) dropped by on a visit from the UK; Aileen Corpus chatted about developments in Aboriginal theatre; Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley moved in just up the road. I don’t remember if I actually met Rex Cramphorn, but his Performance Syndicate was one of the most exciting things happening in Sydney theatre at that time. I remember editing a short piece he wrote for a little newsletter that Currency used to produce, in which he imagined a production of Don’s Party in which the actors wore masks and high platform soles. More to the point, his productions made a deep impression on me – I still find myself humming snatches of song from Muriel, a play he directed about a young woman with developmental delay.

Tonight at Gleebooks Louis Nowra, another occasional visitor to our office back then, launched A Raffish Experiment, a collection of Cramphorn’s writings, edited by Ian Maxwell and published by Currency Press. I got there early, bought a copy and sat in a corner browsing it, sipping on a glass of water (the only non-alcoholic drink on offer) while the crowd gathered. I didn’t see anyone I knew to talk to, though there were a number  faces familiar from stage, screen and the photographs in the book. I spent a lovely 20 minutes reading reviews of plays I saw more than 30 years ago. In 1970 Cramphorne (as he then spelled his name) described Hair as ‘the only doggedly good value in theatre here’, and ‘enjoyed the texts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Little Murders – though not the productions’. He describes the overture of a production of Reedy River as ‘a blackout in which the sonic hum of the air-conditioner contested for precedence with a medley of tunes hummed offstage’. Oh how one yearns for such a fearlessly opinionated reviewer these days.

As the speeches were about to begin, a tall silver-haired man sat next to me. we exchanged pleasantries, and then I recognised him and said, ‘Oh hello Arthur!’ It was the great Arthur Dignam who of course doesn’t know me from Adam. By the time we’d established that, the lights had dimmed and the launch was on.

Louis Nowra told charming tales of his collaborations with Cramphorn. Unlike almost everyone else in the theatre he didn’t pay much attention to opening nights – the show would come good eventually, and it didn’t really matter if that eventuality was three weeks into the season. (I must have been one lucky punter, as I have nothing but good memories of his shows, and looking at the list up the back of the book I can see that I did see quite a few.) Ian Maxwell read some excerpts from the second part of the book, which deals with Cramphorn’s own practice in the theatre and said he hopes it’s a book that will prove useful to anyone starting out on a career in the theatre – he wished he had been given a book like this when he was starting out to be a director: we can learn from Brecht and Artaud, and also from Rex Cramphorn.

Speaking as one whose role in the theatre is to put a bum on a seat, I do hope a lot of them on the supply side read the book, and are infected with its disdain for the dull. The launch was a muted celebration of exactly that infection.

Alan Ramsey at Gleebooks

When Alan Ramsey retired in December last year he left a gap in the Saturday morning ritual at our house. Reading his Sydney Morning Herald ‘column’ (usually a whole page) aloud, with all its grumpy vehemence, its aggrieved sense of history (he’d been writing from Canberra for more than 20 years), its long screeds quoted from other people, its telling glimpses behind the scenes at Parliament House, had become as habitual as poached eggs on Vegemite toast. To judge from the mood of the crowd last night at Gleebooks we weren’t unusual.

The occasion was the recent publication  by Allen & Unwin of A Matter of Opinion, a collection of 150 of his columns. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, I imagine this book will be an invaluable resource to historians of Australian politics, because Ramsey wrote without fear or favour, and did it with formidable intelligence and intelligence-gathering savvy. Last night he was ‘in conversation with’ Monica Attard. I suppose I had been hoping for some behind-the-scenes stuff, the goss as one woman put it – not who-did-what-with-whom-and-in-what-bedroom goss, but how-it-all-works-in-Parliament goss. Instead we got an hour or so of largely misanthropic and eminently crowd pleasing opinion (I count myself one of the pleased). Monica Attard started off setting up a game: ‘I’ll give you a name, and you give me one word in response.’ But Ramsey is probably physically incapable of a one-word response, and the ‘conversation’ consisted for the most part of Monica Attard and then audience members throwing him a name or a phrase and him ripping into it until he was thrown the next one: Bob Hawke (‘I couldn’t stand him, he was a narcissist, but he was the best Prime Minister of post-war Australia’), Kevin Rudd (‘a prim, prissy prick’), John Howard (‘Let’s move on’), Peter Garrett (‘Whatever you think of his performance, you have to realise that no one in his position would do any better, and he fights for what small victories he manages’), Peter Reith (‘one of Howard’s thugs’), the best politician he observed in his time in the press gallery (John Button, an excellent politician and an attractive human being), and so on.

It was all good fun, with frequent flashes of insight, but if you didn’t already know the broad story, there wasn’t a lot of information to help you orient yourself. And much of the game could easily have been renamed, ‘Say something definite to confirm my dislike of/contempt for X.’ I It was a relief when towards the end someone asked why he referred to asylum seekers as ‘queue jumpers’. ‘Because that’s what they are,’ he snarled, and just like that we’d moved beyond show-pony opinion to what could have become a heated debate if there’d been time. My impression was that Alan Ramsey welcomed that prospect.

Hard copy

I was in Gleebooks this morning buying yet another copy of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, this one for a friend who has just gone into hospital for a longish stay, when I saw a stack of the new issue of Going Down Swinging:

GDS-FrontCover

Not only is it very beautiful, its contents include two poems by me. I didn’t buy a copy because I’ve pre-ordered six which I’ll pick up at a launch. But don’t let such considerations prevent you from splurging. There are a couple of hundred pages and a CD that feature stuff not by me, and my first quick impression is that it’s fabulous.