Tag Archives: Jeff Sparrow

Overland 208

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 208, Spring 2012

There’s a lovely interplay among articles in this issue of Overland: one voice picks up a theme introduced by another and amplifies it or does something unexpected with it, disagreements emerge and remain unresolved, odd harmonies and counterpoints pop up. It’s like ideas music.

Longtime working journalist Jonathan Green predicts the imminent death of the quality newspaper. Responding to the commonplace that newspapers have to develop a new business model in the age of the internet, he writes:

In truth there never has been a business model for quality journalism, only a happy coincidence in papers like the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the New York Times in which a successful platform for the publishing of classified advertising coincided with newspaper owners who saw advantage, influence, power – and perhaps even a public duty – in fostering serious, thoughtful journalism.

‘The sad truth for journalists in a commercial construct,’ he argues, ‘is that their department is exclusively a cost. It produces no revenue … In the commercial mind, journalistic content is either the plaster between the ads or something tailored specifically at attracting them. … No one ever valued serious journalism enough to pay for it.’ He doesn’t put it this way, but he’s describing the way contradictions work in capitalism – in order to make a profit, the enterprise has to provide people with something they need, and ever since the mid 18th century some for-profit newspapers have on the one hand served the ideological and commercial needs of capital but on the other provided their readers with a significant record of events and a forum for discussion,with a huge potential for fostering resistance to capitalism.

Alex Mitchell’s ‘Fatal Obsessions‘, about aspects of Rupert Murdoch’s early years, amplifies one element of that story. Murdoch as a newspaper owner has certainly fostered serious, thoughtful journalism, but Mitchell describes how, even his early years, he rubbed shoulders with ‘bent coppers, crooked politicians and illegal gamblers’, and put some of them on staff. It’s clearly a case where the ‘quality’ bit of quality journalism is there at the whim of the owner.

The veteran Green has no sooner lamented the passing of what quality newspapers have provided – ‘a mature, moderated conversation that was broadly shared and thus to be reckoned with’ – and shaken his head at ‘our more fragmented, shriller public life’, than young New Yorker Malcolm Harris pipes up with ‘Twitterland‘, describing Twitter as a terrain rather than a tool, and then, getting down to cases, telling us approvingly how Twitter can be used to lie on an industrial scale, to shout down ideological enemies, to hide from the consequences of your actions and to unleash mob actions against individuals. That these things are done, in his examples, for in order to draw a crowd to an Occupy event, counter corrupt but sophisticated arguments, evade malicious prosecution and ward off a harasser appears to render them unproblematic in his view. In the context of Green’s article, it’s hard to share his complacency.

The proximity of Harris’s article to Green’s raises another interesting question: if it is indeed, as Green says, a ‘happy little accident’, a ‘weird conjunction of advertising and reporting that has managed to maintain a healthy fourth estate’, isn’t it another happy little accident that makes commercial enterprises like Twitter available as places where progressive forces can organise?

Another set of resonances is kicked off by Anwyn Crawford’s ‘Fat, Privilege and Resistance‘, a response to an article by Jennifer Lee in the previous issue. It’s brilliant, arguing that while Lee tellingly draws attention to fat oppression, she doesn’t take readers much beyond the act of recognition. In particular, Crawford introduces much-needed class analysis into the conversation. But it’s a different bit that fits my theme of serendipitous connections. Here’s Crawford taking issue with Lee’s argument that fat women should make themselves visible as a liberatory act:

Women – fat and thin – live with a particular kind of watchfulness, a sense of always being on display …

Perhaps we lack a word subtle enough for the condition that I described in [my essay ‘Permanent Daylight’, Overland 200] as ‘a deep and systemic psychic distress … of perpetual visibility’. If visibility is a condition of women’s oppression, then why should we keep demanding to be seen? If all the billboards across the world were replaced overnight, and fat women took the place of bone-thin models advertising underwear and perfume, would this constitute victory? I wouldn’t think so: I’m still being sold stuff, and someone else – another woman – is still being objectified for the purpose of selling it to me. To demand visibility is to submit to capitalism’s strictures: to accept that being an image is more important than being a subject; to accept representation in place of participation.

I’m sure there’s argument to be had there, but the phrase ‘representation in place of participation’ is cogent. And it casts a long shadow over the article ‘Outsider Porn‘, in which Matt Cornell argues, among other things, that ‘porn can be a powerful venue for self-expression, for asserting agency in a culture with narrow, constricting ideas of beauty, sexuality and gender expression’. If you are cut off from participation, then go for representation. I remain unconvinced of the liberatory value of porn. The connection to the debate about fat liberation becomes explicit:

One of the central critiques of pornography is that it objectifies women by reducing them to specific body parts. Yet this is what happens routinely to fat people who are photographed from the neck down for moralistic news stories on the obesity epidemic.

I’m sorry, this is just about as logical as the argument that feminists shouldn’t object to sexist abuse of women in public life if they don’t object with the same passion to male politicians being insulted: ‘You say this is oppressive. Well, that over there is oppressive too.’ I love it that Overland gives space for genuine, unresolved disagreement, publishing this porn-as-liberation article after issue 207’s ‘Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ debate, which was unanimous in seeing porn as degrading. I don’t know how the editorial team would feel about my quoting John Stuart Mill in support of their practice, but I dimly remembered a quote and found it by googling. It’s from On Freedom:

though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Then Juliana Qian’s personal essay ‘The Name and the Face‘ tackles the issue of visibility, objectification and agency from a whole other angle. She came to Australia from China as a child, one of a generation that ‘was promised equality after assimilation’. That promise was broken, and the essay ruminates on the kind of invisibility that comes from being stereotyped as an Asian/non-Indigenous person of colour, and the complexity that the stereotypes ignore:

I have a lot of stories. Most of them are not about tradition, nor about assimilation. Most of my life is not about tradition or assimilation. I grew up not between cultures, but within overlapping cultures that are themselves amorphous, contradictory and changeful.

The threads of connection reach into the fiction section, to Jannali Jones’s mock Kafkaesque ‘Blancamorphosis, in which cultures don’t so much overlap as weirdly implode: ‘Jon Dootson woke up in the morning to find he’d been transformed into a long, skinny white man.’

There’s more – it’s a bit of a bumper issue really, with a report on the Goulburn Valley Food Cooperative by Michael Green, a fable-ish (I’d say fabulous, but that means something different now) short story by Jennifer Mills, which has its own Kafkaesque quality, an elegant column on Jane Austen by Alison Croggon, and a swag of poems that, though they’re kept up the back on different coloured paper, do speak to the rest of the journal in many ways. This post has turned out to be far too long, so I’ll content myself with a couple of lines from Tim Thorne’s ‘Honesty‘ that touch on the theme of the quality newspaper:

When I was a teacher
the really smart kids saw through
‘Hard work brings rewards.’ But then,
I’ve always told lies for a living:
dole forms, poetry, I once wrote
a column for a Murdoch newspaper.

Overland 207

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 207, Winter 2012

The winter issue of Overland arrived here while I was summering in Turkey, and it was still in its plastic wrapper when spring arrived with a burst of grevillea flowers and the thud of issue 208 on the front step. The spring arrival looks great – it includes a comic – but it will have to wait. Winter is enough for now.

Fat people are oppressed, says Jennifer Lee in ‘A Big Fat Fight‘, and they’re organising on many fronts. It’s a pugnacious article, which seems to anticipate a hostile response, and indeed I found myself wanting to argue with it. Anwyn Crawford responds in issue 208, and addresses the things I was uneasy about much better than I could. I recommend the articles as a diptych. It doesn’t help your argument to tell readers that if they disagree with you it’s a knee jerk reaction.

Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ is a debate between Gail Dines and Sharon Smith, which I’m happy to report doesn’t descend into name-calling, as feminist debates on this subject have been known to – as in a twitter storm around Gail Dines at a recent Sydney Writers Festival.

Jessica Whyte’s ‘“Intervene, I said”‘ addresses the vexed subject of how talk of human rights is used to rationalise imperialist aggression and other nastiness. It strikes me as a sober discussion, not looking for villains or getting lost in its own rhetoric as sometimes happens when mainstream discourses are being critiqued. I didn’t know that Médecins Sans Frontières, undoubtedly good guys in my book, played a major role in popularising the so-called ‘right to intervene’ on humanitarian grounds, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and other dubious military ventures.

Matthew Clayfield’s ‘Waiting on the Arriaga-Ixtepec‘ is a first-hand observer’s account of the ordeals of undocumented immigrants to the US from South and Central America. It’s powerful stuff. I could have done without the occasional literary flourish, especially the opening reference to Casablanca with its use of the manglish ‘torturous’ instead of the original’s perfectly sound ‘tortuous’.

Louis Proyect, in ‘Republican Democrats‘, offers an analysis of Obama’s policies that is a bracing contrast to what wishful thinking would have us believe. He argues that the time may soon be at hand when the USA’s rigid two party system yields to something closer to real democracy. In the meantime, he seems to be suggesting that African-Americans are mistaken to support Obama. Having just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant ‘Fear of a Black President‘ in The Atlantic (if you haven’t read that article stop wasting your time here and click on the link now), I found Proyect’s argument thin and unconvincing on this point.

There are three pieces identified as fiction, though the most immediately touching of them, 19 year old Stephen Pham’s ‘Holiday in little Saigon‘, isn’t fiction at all, but a meditation on the changes he has seen in his suburb, Cabramatta, in the last ten years, as it has transformed from heroin capital of Australia to tourist destination.

Sequestered up the back on different colored paper is the poetry. I particularly liked Andy Quan’s ‘Islands‘, a cool despatch from a grieving family; Mark O’Flynn’s ‘Corydalis‘, a poignant glimpse of someone else’s homesickness; Fiona Yardley’s ‘Your Bath‘, an unlikely celebration of a long lived love, perhaps an elegy; and Alan Wearne’s ‘Also Starring …‘ poem as parlor game or vice versa, in which actors arecast as dozens of Australian poets living and dead, and a couple of politicians. The pairings that I recognised in that last poem ranged from the wittily spot on, through cheerfully insulting, to gloriously inspired. My favourite is George C. Scott as Francis Webb. It’s a poem that invites reader participation: I’d add Robert Morley as Les Murray and Katharine Hepburn as J S Harry.

Undoubtedly the serious reflections in this issue on all that’s amiss in the world and the possibilities for change will have lasting impact on how I am in the world, but right now my vote for the best thing in it goes to Alan Wearne’s utterly frivolous poem.

Overland 206

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 206, Autumn 2012

I’ve just realised that this blog is largely about the vastness of my ignorance. In the years since I left full time work I’ve been reading widely and unsystematically on subjects in which I’m either uneducated,  misinformed or wildly out of date, hoping something will stick – and then blogging about it, sometimes in a shamelessly opinionated way.

Take this issue of Overland for instance.

I’ve never studied economics or political science or 20th century history, but I’ll tell you confidently that Richard Seymour’s ‘The European meltdown: Crisis across the continent‘ talks sense about the current economic crisis in Europe. He describes the European Community as ‘a project that, from inception to denouement, has evinced an extraordinary distrust of the masses’. The crisis, he argues, is brought on not so much by the fecklessness or other failings of the Greeks, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese, as by the inherent instability of a system built to give France and Germany dominance over the less powerful nations, and to foster profit over the interests of the working class (he says it much better than that). And Mike Beggs’s ‘Occupy abundance: On whether Australians are too rich to protest‘ does a similarly enlightening job of unpicking the current Australian affluence. It’s true that since mid-1997 there’s been a 10 per cent increase in purchasing power ‘over the whole consumer basket’, but:

The average hour’s pay now buys 59 per cent more clothing and footwear, 71 per cent more household appliances, and an incredible 1066 per cent more audio, visual and computing power than in 1997.

But such goods make up only around a fifth of the average household’s expenditure. Much of the rest of the consumer basket has actually become less affordable. Compared with 1997, the average hours work earns enough to buy 2 per cent less food, 8 per cent less housing, 26 per cent less water, electricity and gas, 18 per cent less petrol, 5 per cent less healthcare and 21 per cent less education.

That may not be news to people who understand economics, but it is to me.

What do I know about life as an immigrant targeted by racism? Yet I can tell you that Michael Green’s ‘Between two oceans: The life and death of Michael Atakelt‘ and The dangers of a single story: On acting and identity by Tariro Mavondo are brilliantly complementary explorations of the subject. In the former (of which an edited excerpt was reprinted in the Fairfax Age, which either takes the sheen off Overland‘s back-cover boast that it is of the loopy-Left or justifies the Australian‘s nickname for the Age, Pravda on the Yarra – you be the judge!), the writer is in touch with Footscray’s Ethiopian community as they struggle to come to terms with the drowning of a young man shortly after his release from police custody, and the extraordinarily long wait for any cause of death to be made public: ‘This has become a story about a community’s right to exist – its need to understand and to be understood – but it is also a story of grief,’ Green writes, and I would add that it’s also a story of an amazingly resilient community. Tariro Mavondo is about to become one of the first African-born acting graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts: from a relatively privileged background (‘the higher echelon of Zimbabwean society’), she is up against a different face of racism – but this article too is about the right of a community to exist – ‘”6 billion stories and counting.” But where is mine?’

What do I know about the history of sexuality? I spent the prime of my youth in a monastery, and working as a children’s editor didn’t send much of it my way. So Robert Darby’s ‘Another other Victorian: George Drysdale, a forgotten sex pioneer‘ was even more news to me than it will be to people who’ve read The Other Victorians. Drysdale’s tome, The Elements of Social Science: Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, published anonymously in the 1850s, was never mentioned by name in mainstream writing and is generally ignored or misreported even today, but it ran through 35 editions and sold some 100 000 copies in 50 years. The book ‘argued for a new religion of reverence for the human body, condemned abstinence as unhealthy and productive of misery, called for an unfettered right to intercourse among the unmarried, and recommended regular use of contraception to guard against pregnancy and condoms to avoid venereal disease’. Sex wasn’t invented in 1963 (or in my case 1970) after all. The article is seriously interesting

Now, poetry. I did study Eng Lit and have a BA (Hons) to show for it. But I got my piece of paper before postmodernism broke upon the world. I’m not quite the guy who puts his hand up at the Writers’ Festival and asks why modern poetry doesn’t have rhyme or rhythm any more, and why are modern poets so deliberately obscure. My own poetry, such as it is, probably wouldn’t please that guy. But sometimes I feel as if I’m almost as much in the dark as he is. So I was very glad that Peter Minter took a full two pages for his Judge’s report on  the 2011 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. Sadly, if I was hoping his notes on the winning poem, rock candy by Joel Ephraims, would be a guide to reading it, my hopes were dashed. But I could tell there was thought there, and a world of knowledge that’s yet to become open to me. Having said all that, it will probably not be received as a compliment if I say that I enjoyed the night-time flâneurism of ‘Constant companion‘ by the late Kerry Leves (who occasionally graced the School Magazine, with both his presence and his poetry) and ‘Sunday poem‘, an impressionistic take on a visit home by Fiona Wright.

And then there’s genre fiction. Overland doesn’t go in for it much, and nor do I, though I’m doing my best to pick up where I left off when I was 14. It’s probably fair  to say that James Bradley’s ‘The inconvenient dead‘ is a zombie story for people who don’t read zombie stories. Anyhow, it worked wonderfully well for me.
The whole contents of the magazine are readable online. All the links except the one to the Age will take you to the Overland web site.

Overland 205

Jeff Sparrow, editor Overland 205, Summer 2011

Someone in the offline world told me recently he was reading a book called The Left Isn’t Always Right. It must be one of the least controversial book titles of all time: how could ‘the Left’ be always right when lefties are forever fiercely, even violently disagreeing with each other? I mean, hadn’t the author heard of Trotsky? This issue of Overland continues in that fine tradition (of debate, I mean, not of violence). And although recent comments on this blog have described it as increasingly right wing, I think it does a nice job of bringing to bear a perspective that challenges the view that all can be well in a capitalist society.

It kicks off with Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell’s ‘Terror in the Norwegian woods‘, which places the recent killing spree in Norway in the context of the return of fascism to Europe. He moves well beyond the easy but still telling point that when the news of the killings broke, many pundits pronounced that it was the work of Muslim terrorists, but when the identity and beliefs of the killer were discovered, the same pundits said it was clearly the work of a lone madman, and not in any way connected to their hate speech – he moves beyond that point to a chilling account of the increasingly vocal and co-ordinated anti-Muslim movement in Europe and in the US, which would be an oddity if it weren’t for their influence on political leaders.

Next, Robert Bollard’s ‘ Who was Bet B?‘, tells the story of his own discovery of Aboriginal ancestry, and explores its implications. Among other things it provides a multidimensional, nuanced context to the brutish attacks on ‘light skinned Aborigines’ we’ve been hearing a bit about recently.

Xavier Rizos’s ‘Will the market save us?‘ could well be subtitled ‘The carbon tax for dummies’, and I mean that in a good way.

Brad Nguyen’s ‘Morality begone!‘ does a neat job of exposing the inadequacy of moral outrage as a tool for understanding, especially in relation to events like the riots in London in August last year. He doesn’t argue that morality has no place, but that relationships of power needs to be taken into account. ‘We can all agree,’ he writes, ‘that events such as 9/11 are the results of acts of evil. But why shouldn’t we let ourselves locate such events within the totality of global capitalism?’ He goes on, ‘If you so much as mention [US] imperialism, you open yourself up to charges of justifying the atrocities of 9/11.’ In a fabulous twist, he invokes Jesus, with a challenging reading of the injunction to turn the other cheek. (This isn’t the journal’s only surprise for those who confuse secularism with hostility to religion: Peter Slezak’s ‘Silence resembling stupidity‘ argues forcibly that the anti-Islamic stance of the ‘new atheists’ – Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins – actually plays into the hands of  those who would wage neo-imperialist and -colonialist wars.)

There are a couple of debates – Stephanie Convery and Katrina Fox on PETA’s use of pornography in its animal rights activism, Ali Alizadeh and Robert Lukins on Australian Poetry, the new peak industry body for poetry. The poetry one, as you might expect, is the more heated (‘Robert Lukins’ is … devoid of almost any substance with which to engage,’ says Alizadeh, unfairly in my view). The animal rights one has the higher moral tone (‘Let’s get our priorities right,’ says Fox, arguing that we shouldn’t object to PETA’s obnoxiousness when other people do much worse things – I guess you can tell where I stand on that one). And there’s a profound panel discussion about language and politics in Indigenous writing, featuring John Bradley, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara.

There are stories and poems, notably an excerpt from Alexis Wright’s forthcoming novel, Eileen Chong’s ‘Mary: A Fiction‘, and Angela Smith’s ‘Jennifer Maiden woke up in The Lodge‘, which I persist in seeing as a tribute to Jennifer Maiden rather than an attack.

Notice all those links! The thing about Overland  is that most of its content is online, and the Overland blog has follow-up interviews and discussions. This interview with Robert Bollard is a fine example. Still, reading it in hard copy has its pleasures, not least of which is the sense of righteousness that comes from sending money their way.

Overland 204

Jeff Sparrow, editor, Overland 204, Spring 2011

At a time where the terms of Australian political debate are set by the self-styled ‘centre-right’ Australian to the extent that vehemently anti-Communist Robert Manne is seen as left wing, everyone who’s more socialist than Ghengis Khan should subscribe to Overland. It has been appearing regularly for more than 50 years as a journal of ‘progressive culture’, unashamedly of the left from its beginnings, creating a space where dissenting voices can be heard (arguing with each other as often as not), and staying for the most part readable by people (like me) who wouldn’t know Althusser from a hole in the ground. Unlike the Australian, it has no Rupert Murdoch to prop it up. You can read most of every issue online. The point of subscribing is to help sustain it.

In this issue, in no particular order:

  • ‘The birthday boy’, a short story from an early Overland updated and retold in sequential art (ie, as a comic) by Bruce Mutard. While the story here stands on its own merits, I’d love to read the original, by Gwen Kelly, so as to follow the process involved in the updating (who were the 1955 equivalents of 2011’s Sudanese students, for instance?). I couldn’t find it on the Web. Maybe I’ll make a trip to the State Library …
  • John Martinkus, in ‘Kidnapped in Iraq, attacked in Australia’, tells the story of his capture and release by Iraqi insurgents in 2004 and the attacks on him by the then Foreign Minister and rightwing ‘journalists’. There’s nothing new here – I wrote to Alexander Downer’s office at the time and received a boilerplate reply – but it’s very good to be reminded of this shameful moment just now when Downer has been on the TV denouncing David Hicks again and one of the ‘journalists’ has been wailing about free speech after being held to account by a court
  • an interview with Afghani heroine Malalai Joya. I was glad to read this after attending a crowded meeting in Marrickville Town Hall where the acoustics and sight lines made her incomprehensible and invisible to me. The interview gives a sharp alternative to the mainstream media’s version of what’s happening in Afghanistan and it’s a great companion piece to Sally Neighbours’ lucid ‘How We Lost the War: Afghanistan a Decade on from September 11‘ in the September Monthly
  • some splendid, almost Swiftian sarcasm from Jennifer Mills in ‘How to write about Aboriginal Australia‘: ‘First, be white. If you are Aboriginal, you can certainly speak on behalf of every Aboriginal person in Australia, but it is best to get a white person to write down what they think you should be saying.’
  • Andy Worthington’s When America changed forever and Richard Seymour’s What was that all about? reflecting on the damage done to democracy in the USA and its allies by the ‘war on terror’
  • Reading coffee‘, a short story by Anthony Panegyres that reminds us of anti-Greek violence in Western Australia during the First World War (and is also a good oogie boogie yarn)
  • Ellena Savage’s ‘My flesh turned to stone‘, which I may have misunderstood (it quotes Lacan, and refers at one point to gender-based torture, which may or may not be how the academies nowadays refer to torture of women), but seems to be putting the eminently sensible proposition that terrible experiences have lasting after-effects on individuals and communities, and expecting people to just get over them isn’t realistic
  • A number of poems, coralled off together in a section up the back, printed in white on pale green, which is either a cunning way of making us read the poems slowly or a case of a designer for whom readability isn’t a priority. The ones that spoke most to me are Jill Jones’s ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline‘ and John Leonard’s ‘After Rain‘. Jill Jones discusses the former on her blog here. You may have to be fascinated by swallows to enjoy the latter – which is very short – as much as I did, but who isn’t fascinated by swallows?
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s ‘A one-man writer’s festival’, a hatchet job on Clive James’s poetic aspirations. I found myself asking why. The poor bloke’s got cancer. Leave him alone.

I didn’t read everything, which is pretty much a hallmark of the journal-reading experience. You can skip things because of an annoying turn of phrase on the first page (as in a reference to Sydney’s western suburbs as perceived as ‘some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale’ – Annandale! I doubt if that would have got past the editors in a Sydney-based journal). You might be put off because something looks too abstract, or promises a detailed discussion of a book you plan to read. Or you might be pre-emptively bored by anything about publishing in the digital age, even while admitting the subject is important.

I read this Overland in a grumpy post-operative state. And enjoyed it.

Journals: Overland 201, Asia Literary Review 18

Overland 201 (Jeff Sparrow 2010)
Asia Literary Review 18 (Stephen McCarty 2010)

A dear friend of mine was once a member of the CPA (that’s the Communist Party of Australia, not the Chartered Accountants’ thingummyjig). Years after she left the Party, a former editor of Tribune asked her what she was reading to keep up to date with politics. When she named the National Times, an eminently liberal weekly of the day, he was scathing: ‘Surely you don’t think you can get decent information from the bourgeois press!’ I thought of him as I was reading these magazines: at least part of my motivation for subscribing to them is to ensure that I have a regular injection of thinking from respectively left and non-Western perspectives, neither of which – to put it mildly – is dependably represented in the mainstream press.

So, for instance, Jeff Sparrow’s article ‘The Banality of Goodism‘ starts with a quote from Aimé Césaire on the dehumanising effect that colonisation has on the coloniser, and goes on to argue that the war in Afghanistan is actually a colonial enterprise, that colonial enterprises have always dressed themselves in the robes of what he calls ‘goodism’ (we’re in Afghanistan for the sake of the women, the peoples of Central America needed to be rescued from human sacrifice), that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (bad) used some of the same justifications as the US invasion (good). He also reminds us that in the week after 11/9 George W Bush visited a mosque and described Islam as a religion of peace, a gauge of how the dominant Western conservatism has degenerated in the last nine years. This kind of thing has to be good for the soul.

Similarly refreshing are a debate on population policy, a reply to Cate Kennedy’s anti-Internet rant in issue 200, a piece on Bruce Petty’s heroic cartoon-wrestling with economic subjects, an article that discusses the state of ‘flow’ (that focused state attained by craftspeople), a challenging argument against corporations’ providing breast pump ‘lactation’ rooms in lieu of maternity leave, and indeed the replacement of ‘maternity leave’ with ‘baby leave’. I may have come across any of these pieces on the net, but I would have skimmed them there. Here, I either read them with full engagement or skipped them altogether (I couldn’t bear to read Marty Hiatt’s rebuttal of Cate Kennedy, for example, because Kennedy’s piece was exactly the kind of intervention that an incipient Internet addict such as I needed: I don’t want it watered down).

A third of this issue is given over to showcasing the work of Young Writers. No ages are given, but it’s fairly evident that the four writers involved aren’t young in the sense that term would be used in the context of children’s literature. The introductory note by retiring fiction editor Kalinda Ashton and Samuel Cooney invokes Mark Davis’s Ganglands, thereby apparently implying that these ‘young writers’ are Gen Xers. Whatever! In my naivety I had assumed that magazines like Overland would publish work by Gen X and much younger writers as a matter of course, and I found myself reading these four stories with half an eye out to see what made them ‘young’, not a good frame of mind for enjoying a story.  They’re all good stories, but Sam Twyford-Moore’s creepy ‘Library of Violence‘ was the only one that overcame the handicap created in my mind by the pigeonholing.

This issue of Asia Literary Review focuses on China, to the extent that all but three items are on topic.  There are photo essays, travellers’ tales, expat narratives, an odd little memoir by Jan Morris, and short stories. A short essay by John Batten, ‘Cracking the Sunflower Seed’, reflects on contemporary Chinese art such as we have seen at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. There’s a poem by last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiao Bo, as well as ten or so other modern poems, with a useful five page orientation by Zheng Danyi. I miss a lot of what’s happening in Chinese poetry – Zheng quotes a quatrain that ‘infuriated Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing’, but all I can see is a lament for a broken stove. So Lord knows what’s happening in Liu Xiao Bo’s poem, ‘You Wait for Me with Dust’, besides surface action of a man in prison writing to his waiting wife.

The three pieces that aren’t about China are almost worth the price of admission: Marshall Moore’s short story, ‘Cambodia’, about three US siblings visiting Phnom Penh, Burlee Vang’s ‘Mrs Saichue’, set in a Hmong community in the USA, and Anjum Hasan’s piece on E M Forster’s time in India, which includes this glorious photo:

I think it’s fair to say that Asia Literary Review is more fun than Overland this issue. Overland, on the other hand, invites sharper engagement with issues closer to home.

Heat 23, Overland 200 and Asia LR 17

The ‘dead white male’ critique of Western Civ […] did not lead, as many of us had hoped, to a new internationalism, but rather to a new form of nationalism that emphasised hyphenated Americans. Chinese-Americans and Chicanos were now part of  the intellectual universe, which was fine as far as it went, but Chinese and Mexicans were still excluded. Multiculturalism was, and is, not very multicultural at all.
(Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Post-National Writer’ in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale)

I’ve just read three literary journals whose roots lie respectively in a rejection of Australian xenophobia, in Communism with its commitment to internationalism and in a mission to publish Asian writing in English. Although we don’t do hyphens in quite the same way as the US, it seems reasonable to see how these journals stack up against Weinberger’s complaint.
***

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 23: Two to Go (September 2010)

This issue of Heat is atypical in not including any work in translation. Multicultural themes are addressed, but very little attention is paid to the world beyond our shores. There’s not even any travel writing, unless you count Vanessa Berry’s ‘Dark Tourism: Three Graveyard Tales’, in which the author visits two graves and strolls in a London cemetery (in a piece that might have been more accurately titled ‘Mildly Crepuscular Travels with my Mum’).

Turkish born, ethnically Greek Melburnian Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Salam Cafe and the Great Burqa Debate’ might seem to fit Weinberger’s description of Clayton’s multiculturalism pretty well – a non-Muslim man joins the argument about what Muslim women should or shouldn’t be allowed or made to wear. But he puts the lie to that pigeonholing by acting as a conduit for Muslim points of view, drawing on his childhood memories of Turkey and his time as a student in Istanbul, and discussing burqa-related artworks by Muslims Shadi Ghadirian (a woman) and Kader Attia (a man, whose ‘Kasbah’ was shown in this year’s Sydney Biennale).

Weinberger’s aspersions might also seem to apply to Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s story, ‘The Hat Dance’, the piece that comes closest to the kind of hyphenation he dislikes. But this account of a dust-up in an extended family living in Western Sydney is so gloriously exuberant only some kind of Diversity Bean-counter could fail to relish it.

Of course, Heat doesn’t claim to fill a hypothetical Diversity Quota in every issue, and there’s no reason it should. Its characteristic approach to fostering diversity is by presenting crosscultural encounters, an approach I’m fairly sure Weinberger would approve of. Kakmi’s piece is an example of that approach. So is Michael Atherton’s portrait of Harry (christened Charalambos) Vatiliotis, who lives in the Sydney suburb of Croydon and makes classical violins in the manner of Stradivere, each one a unique work of art. Cassi Plate quotes from letters of Costas Tachtis, Greek novelist who lived for some years in Australia, and his friend Carl Plate, an Australian artist: ‘The letters,’ she writes, ‘take us into a cosmopolitan world within the heart of what is often assumed to be parochial 1950s Sydney.’ Maybe cosmopolitanism is a better word than diversity for the thing that Heat does so well.

Cosmopolitanism can incorporate voices from elsewhere, and also bring a sharp eye to bear on the local, as Peter Doyle’s fascinating ‘Bashful City: Sydney’s Covert Criminality‘ does to photographs from the archives of Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum.  It can also include intensely place-specific writing like  Mark Tredinnick’s review of  Judith Beveridge’s most recent book of poetry, in which, incidentally, he compares her to a shark and a Philip Marlowe thug, and convincingly means both as compliments.

I do worry about Heat‘s copy editing and proof reading. There’s curiousity, practicing (though correct Australian usage practises elsewhere), an umbilical chord. Someone is heard cluttering in his garage. In Robert Adamson’s delicately poised ‘The Coriander Fields of Long Bay Penitentiary’, a with is repeated over a line break – I know it’s poetry, but that’s just a mistake. One article has this near the beginning: ‘It is one of the great dividers between the civilised among us: those of impeccable taste.’ I wasn’t interested enough in the article’s subject – taxidermy – to endure whatever came after that.
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Jeff* Sparrow (editor), Overland 200 (Spring 2010)

The first issues of Overland, published in 1954,carried the slogan ‘Temper democratic; Bias, Australian’, hardly a promise of cultural diversity or cosmopolitanism. But as a project of the mainly Communist Realist Writers’ Group, the journal had a commitment to internationalism. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of that in this anniversary issue, unless you count a deference to Europe and the US. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that: for instance, Alison Croggon’s ‘How Australian Is It?‘ talks with her characteristic clarity and generosity about the way much of our theatre has opened out to the world, freed from constricting preoccupations with national identity but distinctively Australian all the same. On the other hand, when Clive Hamilton characterises the Australian as an agent of ‘the Republicans’ war on climate science’, he implies – perhaps intentionally – that in this matter Australia is humiliatingly no more than an arena in which US battles are being fought. There’s a fair whack of ‘theory’**, enough to create a gnawing sense of Australia as a site for the application of theory developed elsewhere – no sign of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory here. (The most theory-rich piece, Alwyn Crawford’s ‘Permanent Daylight‘, which deals with the intimate connection between capitalism and anorexia, is nevertheless compelling reading because of a ballast of passionate personal testimony.) Christos Tsiolkas is the Literary Big Gun of this issue, with a short story about the market in European art, but I found it unreadable (that is to say, I couldn’t tell what the story was trying to do, whether it was a spoof or something else very dull). There’s no non-European voice, and little interest in non-European culture: one piece, by a non-Muslim, quoting no Muslim voices, uses the Western burqa debate as a springboard for theoretical reflections on the visibility or otherwise of women in the West; Jacinda Woodhead gives us an attractive profile of Melbourne rapper-comedians Fear of a Brown Planet (there’s a wonderful YouTube clip of one of them here); Kabul is mentioned in one article, but it’s in a quote from an organisation aimed at creating a market for US cosmetics there.

So Weinberger’s kind of internationalism isn’t overwhelmingly evident in Overland. The three outstanding pieces, in fact, aren’t even particularly multicultural. Chris Graham does a demolition job on Noel Pearson in ‘Telling whites what they want to hear‘. Graphic novelist Bruce Mutard re-tells a story from Overland 1: the story is ‘Nine O’clock Finish’ by John Morrison, a marvellous socialist realist writer, and the resulting 8-page comic is to weep. Janette Turner Hospital’s short story ‘Weird People’ is a tour de force centred on the captain of a tourist boat that takes mainly US tourists out to look at humpback whales off the coast of New South Wales – I suppose it could be read as a protest against our cultural client-state identity.

In Overland, though less so than in Heat, proofreading is a worry: ‘haute bourgeois’, the Communications Minster, and at least one article written in an academic style that apparently defeated all attempts to wrangle it into English.

* In a classic example of Mruphy’s law, when I first put this up, I misspelled Mr Sparrow’s first name – immediately after whingeing about someone else’s poor copy editing. I’ve fixed it now
**  Writers referred to include Ariel Levy (North American liberal feminist), Nina Power (British philosopher and feminist), Mark Fisher (British cultural theorist), Guy Debord (French theorist), Sheila Rowbotham (British feminist historian), Edward Said (the exception that tests the rule and finds that it holds up), Naomi Baron (US linguistics professor).

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Stephen McCarty(editor), Asia Literary Review 17 ([Northern] Autumn 2010)

It’s a telling confirmation of Weinberger’s generalisation that the ALR’s web page header reads ‘Asia Literary Review – Asian American writing’, apparently promising US-ers that they can read it without danger of encountering anything genuinely foreign. Happily, it’s a false promise.

From the beginning, there’s no doubt that we’ve left the leisurely contemplation of anti-grand abstractions far behind. US-expat journalist Robbie Corey Boulet kicks off with a report on the first case tried – in 2009! –  by the tribunal set up to deal with ‘those most responsible’ for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Itself a fine combination of court-reporting, historical background and interviews with people still looking for answers about their murdered relatives, it is followed a few items later by a suite of poems by Peauladd Huy whose parents were murdered by that regime and who now lives in the USA. And it finds a grim echo at the end of the journal, in an excerpt from Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which draws on archival sources to explore the terror and violence of the Great Leap Forward (‘at least 45 million people worked, starved or beaten to death’). There are other pairings, including a story and a photo essay about floods in the Philippines. A good bit of the ALR probably amounts to armchair dark tourism – much stronger medicine than the piece wearing that label in Heat.  The one actual piece of travel writing – about Mount Merapi, a Javan volcano –  has enough disastrous loss of life for the darkest tourist sensibilities.

There aren’t many laughs, but there’s plenty of wit and imagination: ‘Youth-in-Asia‘,  a story set in Korea by Canadian Ron Schafrick, delivers on its punning title; Priya Basil’s ‘Losing Their Religion‘ is a quietly entertaining memoir of religious conversion and un-conversion that spans three continents; GB Prabhat’s ‘The Silencer‘ gives us a clever inversion of  celebrity stalking.

There is no Australian presence, apart from two full-page ads, for the Melbourne Writers Festival (featuring a Hokusai wave) and Heat (‘Australia’s only international literary journal’) respectively.  Insert your own ironic comment.

One sentence leaps out to meet my eye.  Jonathan Watts, an English journalist, moved from Korea to Beijing in 2003. His interviewer James Kidd tells us:

The signs of conspicuous pollution made an immediate impression: a keen runner, Watts found himself wheezing after a short jog; a father, he was alarmed when his two daughters were not allowed outside during breaks at their Beijing school. It was China that taught him to fear for the future of the planet.

I’m not sure I can afford to keep up my subscriptions to all three of these journals. I was thinking of letting my subscription to Asia Literary Review lapse – but it’s teaching me to think in terms of the whole planet

Journals: Asia Lit Review 16 & Overland 199

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 16 ([northern] Summer  2010)
Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland Nº 199 (Winter 2010)

Both these journals have been sitting on my desk for too long.  This is the first Asia Literary Review with Stephen McCarty as editor, which is not the hot news it would have been if I’d read it when it arrived months ago. With Overland, my tardiness is even more embarrassing – the  much awaited special 200th issue is being launched in Melbourne this weekend, making issue 199 so last season.

This is only the third issue of the ALR I’ve read, and as far as I can tell the editorial change doesn’t herald any major shift in direction.

This issue includes work from and about Thailand, Laos, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Turkey, and their diasporas. Intergenerational tensions loom large in almost every piece. Two sayings, one Indian and the other Chinese, capture something of the tenor of that looming. In Sandip Roy’s ‘No Country for Old Women‘, reporting on government attempts to reunite families where elderly parents have been abandoned or abused, he comments:

Love, my mother always says, flows downwards. You can’t force it flow the other way if it does not want to.

The fading popular singer who narrates Stephen Hirst’s ‘It’s All in the Silhouette‘ quotes a ‘lovely Chinese saying’:

one generation plants the trees, the next gets the shade.

Story after story, some very good, deals with a parent’s love and sacrifice, a child’s obedience or resentment and rebellion. There’s an awful lot of pain – grandmothers with bound feet occur in more than one story, and there are a number of guilt-pricked young men living in the USA.

There are other subjects: Gary Jones reports on the Red Shirt encampment in Bangkok earlier this year; Jaina Sanga’s story ‘The Maharaja and the Accountant‘ is a tale of politics from the dying days of the Raj; and there’s a short essay by Tippaphon Keopaseut, ‘Looking for Laos‘. In this last, the writer explores the cultural traditions of her country, beginning with the shocking observation that ‘compared to the great nations of the world, Laos seems little more than an empty space’, continuing with savage wit to give a history of colonisation and concluding:

So, I continue looking for Laos. And if it doesn’t exist? I’ll just have to invent it. After all, isn’t that what writers do?

I hope that’s not just youthful braggadocio. Certainly it’s not the words of someone obliged to stay in shade that someone else has sacrificed their life to plant for them. (The full stories behind those links are available only to subscribers, sorry!)

If the Asia Literary Review serves to expand an Australian reader’s horizons, Overland helps one see more clearly what’s happening near at hand. The entire issue is, as always, available online, so it’s a bit ironic that the first item in the real-world version is ‘Driven to Distraction‘, in which Cate Kennedy inveighs persuasively against internet addiction. As soon as I’d read it, I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone and unfollowed @annabelcrabb, @andrewbolt and the other Tweeters whose witty observations had been delighting (and distracting) me since the election. My Twitter addiction is nipped in the bud. Thanks, Cate! All the same, as with many articles here, I did have a ‘Yes, but’ response: Yes, the internet is a distraction, but I hope not all blogging grows from ‘a compulsion that blunts our capacity for reflective, private contemplation’.

Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickenson in ‘The March of the Insider‘ do a nice job of deconstructing the historico-journalism of Paul Kelly. I haven’t read any of his books, or indeed any insider accounts of Australian parliamentary politics, but I did recently read Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, and this article’s shoe fits that book’s foot pretty well:

… the claim of political journalists to a special ‘insider’ knowledge might be considered an impediment rather than a spur to full democratic participation. The ‘inside’ requires an ‘outside’. The same rhetoric that elevated the journalist and the politician thereby also positions the voter as a perpetual outsider, sending the message that there is a separate political sphere of which they are not, and never can be, a part.

Yes, but isn’t it a whole other story when journalists, political or not, write books about issues such as the Tampa, the AWB scandal, or events on Palm Island?

Tad Tietze analyses the rise of the Greens as a party attractive to the left but with a complex relationship with left politics and left perspectives. Thomas Caldwell argues against the likes of Antony Ginnane and Louis Nowra who have recently been critical of Australian films en masse, with box-office takings as their sole criteria of success or failure. There’s a trio of articles that save from possible oblivion aspects of activist history: Zanny Begg discusses and illustrates political art and the counter-globalisation movement (yes, a tremendously interesting piece which I recommend, but isn’t it odd to discuss participatory art in terms that exclude people not trained in artspeak?); Michael Hyde’s memoir ‘Getting out of the Boat‘, gives the inside story of some key moments in Australian opposition to the Vietnam war; Seb Prowse talks to Iain McIntyre about the latter’s How to Make Trouble and Influence People (Breakdown Press, 2009) which deals with imaginative Australian protest, culture-jamming and graffiti from White settlement to the present.

And there’s literary stuff as well: short stories, poems, reviews, an engagement with the controversy around the PEN/Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature and the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

I skipped the article on literary piracy, part of the Meanland project of exploring the implications of new technology for the written word. I know its important, but for now I’m very happy to get my literary journals in holdable, stainable, dog-earable form.

Recent journals (2) – Overland 197

Jeff Sparrow (ed), Overland issue 197 (OL Society December 2009)

overland 197I initially intended to write a single post about the three journals that arrived in my letterbox this month, but after rabbiting on about Heat at such length I decided I’d better split them up.

In a world where passionate anti-Communist Robert Manne  has been described as a preeminent lefty, there’s clearly a crying need for Overland, whose Communist Party origins flutter from its masthead in the slogan, ‘Progressive Culture since 1954’ (and smirk on the back cover in a quote from The Australian describing it as ‘loopy-Left’). Even before the recent online Subscriberthon I’d been thinking of subscribing – I loved (and blogged about) the biography of Guido Baracchi, Communism: a Love Story, written by current editor, Jeff Sparrow, and I have been a freeloader (ie, online reader) for some time.

After the mainly elevated austerity of Heat, Overland‘s direct speech is refreshing. You won’t find essays here that begin as dauntingly as ‘It was while reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s monumental study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, that I fell into an “epileptiform” state’ or ‘I have long associated landscape with passion and solace, and with the urge to record it’. Instead, we get ‘Last Sunday I went to church to be with my father, to say goodbye,’ or ‘Sometimes in life you get lucky.’ Not that the Overland pieces lack heft. The former introduces ‘My Father’s Body‘, Francesca Rendle-Short’s moving and, for my money, profound essay on her relationship with her father who has Alzheimer’s. The latter leads in to Fiona Capp’s ‘The Lost Garden‘, an extract from her My Blood’s Country, which promises to demonstrate Judith Wright’s continuing relevance (‘These hills and valleys were – not mine, but me …’).

There is some engaging fiction, some punchy argument (a trenchant go at Nick Cave, who is a closed book to me so I don’t mind one way or the other), short reviews, engaging essays (Sophie Cunningham, just popping over from Meanjin, visits the drains of Melbourne; Thomas Rye visits an island in Arnhem Land), a swathe of poems. There’s nothing I recognise as loopy-Left, though there are two very interesting articles – one on Ruddism and the other on education as export and its relationship to border control –  written in learned-Left language that makes for hard going (‘The CFMEU and other Left trade unionists wish to increase control of the borders of their labour markets at the point of intersection with the borders of the nation, and definitions of “Australians”‘).

The whole content is available online. I’ve linked to the articles I particularly liked.
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I’ve been lamenting the frequent copy-edit and/or proofing mistakes in Heat for a while. I kept my carping eye peeled for Overland as well. Interestingly enough, although Overland doesn’t include a credit for a copy editor (as Heat does), it doesn’t have anything like the same incidence of irritating and sometimes perplexing mis-edits and typos. There is a spot where lay and laid are used in place of lie and lay , but as this happens consistently over a number of paragraphs I’m willing to put it down to a difference of opinion (in which, of course, they are completely wrong!) rather than sloppiness or ignorance.

Books I read in May [2007]

[Originally published in May 2007 in my defunct and inaccessible earlier blog. I’ve retrieved it because a friend was looking for information on Jeff Sparrow’s book.]

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 13: Harper’s Gold (finished)
Jeff Sparrow, Communism, a Love Story (Melbourne University Press 2007)
Jackie French & Peter Sheehan, Rotters and Squatters (Scholastic Press 2007)
Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems (finished)
Susanne Chauvel Carlsson, Pitcairn: Island at the edge of time (Central Queensland University Press 2000)
John Tranter, Urban Myths: 210 poems (University of Queensland Press 2007) (started)

heat13Heat was, as always, a solid read. And as always it’s a bit of a puzzle how the title was arrived at: in this case it’s a phrase from one of the stories, with no obvious overarching thematic relevance. But it doesn’t matter. Even if there is no theme that makes the book hang together, the pieces in this issue, as in others, are free to resonate with, echo and comment on one another, so that the whole is pleasingly more than the accretion of its parts — and I did read and enjoy this issue cover to cover.

Beverley Farmer visits her former husband’s village in Greece in ‘The House on Rebirth Street’ (dropping a few too many untranslated Greek words for my comfort); Greece brings some respite to the heroine of Stephen Edgar‘s pseudo ghost story in verse, ‘The Deppites’. There are a number of nostalgic visits to family homes, and frequent references to migration.

Nostalgia for religious belief bubbles to the surface in a number of pieces. Gillian Mears is visited by the rumtitum rhythms of Edward Lear’s ‘Pelican Chorus‘ as she’s wheeled in, near death, to the operating theatre; Felicity Plunkett‘s wonderful sequence of poems ‘The Negative Cutter: An Introduction to Editing’, also deals with surgery, playing with a cinematic metaphor; Mark Rappaport, documentary film maker, has fun riffing on his connections to Catherine Deneuve, as fan and appalling collaborator. I love all this.

When I edited a literary magazine not so very long ago, it was regularly proposed to us that each issue should be organised around a Theme. Just as regularly, I resisted the proposal, as it seemed to me that it was based in a misunderstanding of what kind of creature a literary magazine is. My pleasure in Heat confirms me in my belief. Instead of corseting, regimentation, control, there is a sense of organic relationship, of many minds independently but harmoniously making story, or seeking truth, or singing, or doing whatever it is that literature does.

communismIn his introduction to Communism: A Love Story, Jeff Sparrow writes:

Communism provided an alternative. It was, in many ways, the alternative, the most important indicator that society could be remade. Between 1917 and 1989, its star shone bright and its star shone dim, but its continuing sparkle in the political firmament allowed millions to believe in a world beyond the free market. Even those who despised communism felt that while it existed, change – whether they wanted it or not – was a possibility.

Today, that feeling is gone.

The book is a biography of Guido Baracchi, a well-heeled, literate bohemian and committed Marxist/Communist who lived from 1887 to 1975, described by Stuart Macintyre as ‘the knight errant of Australian communism’. He’s a terrific subject for biography: he worked for the cause in Weimar Germany and the 1930s Soviet Union; he had intense relationships with a number of poets and playwrights (Lesbia Harford, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Betty Roland), each of whose accounts this biography has drawn on; he was widely read and wrote a lot himself, also supplying a wealth of material to his biographer.

I was telling some friends about the book, and one woman was prompted to talk of her youthful romance with a son of a leading Communist family: when they were about to go out on a date, he would say, ‘Let’s stay home tonight – the old coms are coming around and there’ll be lots of tales.’ I suspect Jeff Sparrow had a background something like that, because while this book meticulously cites its written sources (discreetly, up the back, not interfering with the flow of the narrative), and doesn’t hang back from quoting T S Eliot and James Joyce to good effect, it’s also bursting at the seams with ‘tales’, with the lore of Australian Communism: clever ploys, bastardry, romance, betrayal, nobility (like Guido’s wife Neura’s principled reaction to the news that he had taken up with another woman, from which she seems never to have wavered), tragedy (which is too pallid a word for what Stalin and Stalinism did to the hopes of the world). You can almost hear the stories being told with suitable embellishment at a smoke-wreathed kitchen table far into the night.

As the story unfolds, what today is called the mainstream media is relegated to commenting from the sidelines: for example, during the travails of the tiny Australian Marxist movement of the early 20s, bitterly divided within itself, devoting most of its energies to self-education, and discouraged at the prospect of ever being effective, we learn that Prime Minister Bruce gets headlines by accusing the Labor Party of pandering to Bolshevism, and succeeds at a stroke ‘in elevating communism into a public issue in a way that the communists themselves found impossible’. Sadly, the MSM version has become received wisdom, and a whole dimension of our history has been largely forgotten. Those who deplore ‘black-armband history’ would no doubt equally deplore this, perhaps as ‘red-tie history’. I can’t recommend it enough – for that worthy reason, but also because it is a ripping good read, another example of history written with the verve and imaginative force that some think is the exclusive domain of the novel.

An extra pleasure of the book for me was encountering a number of people I have actually met: Betty Roland, the Currency Methuen edition of whose play The Touch of Silk I edited in 1974; Eric Aarons, ‘the young branch secretary’ who banned Guido from lecturing in 1939, whom I met as a gentle old man, a sculptor and caretaker of a workshop site (and whose own memoir What’s Left sits on my bookshelf unread); Nick Origlass, Trotskyist, who seems to have used the long boring speech as a weapon just as consistently in youth as in age; Bob Gould, shambolic bookshop proprietor, who appears here as a fiery youth; a friend’s mother gets a guernsey as one of two students who defied pressure to reject Guido’s teaching in 1939. And a final personal note: one of my dearest friends and teachers, a US communist in the 30s and 40s, still preserved his hatred for Trotskyism intact 40 years after leaving the party; I wonder what he would make of Jeff Sparrow’s implied contention that it was the Trotskyists who kept the flame of communism burning clearest during Stalin’s era.

rottersRotters and Squatters is the third in the Fair Dinkum Histories series, and takes the story of the Australian colonies from 1820 to 1850. I’ve already raved about this series. Consider it raved about again. They’re children’s books, but only a bizarre age-based separatist mentality would prevent an adult from enjoying them. Maybe you need an appreciation of juvenile humour to enjoy the deliberately appalling puns in some of Peter Sheehan’s cartoon illustrations, but this book communicates without condescension or chalk-dust or scatology, and strikes a wholly attractive balance between the general and the particular, the comic and the very serious, the personal and the (discreet cough) political.

Like the previous books in the series, it doesn’t attempt sanitised ‘balance’: no doubt it will irk the haters of black-armband or red-tie history. I reckon the series, and this book as part of it, makes a significant contribution to historical writing about Australia, not least by being a quick read with an occasional laugh-out-loud moment. One of several idiosyncratic reasons for my enjoying it is that its short Recommended Reading list includes just one book by an explorer: Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions of Discovery, the subject of my aborted MA thesis in the 1970s, which in my opinion richly deserves its recommendation here. (If my thesis supervisor – you know who you are! – is still alive and reads this, I’d like my copy back, please).

0394719735 After a break, I went back to the Frank O’Hara. I still don’t think it’s my cup of tea, but I decided to read the poems as play – instead of puzzling over what he means by an obscurity, I’ll just take it that it’s there because it’s what popped into his head and sounded cool – or in some way captured the emotion of the moment. And I decided not to worry about his name-dropping and hi-falutin’ allusions. In other words, I stopped trying to understand what was going on and just let it flow. No doubt I missed a lot – because of his hurling words at the page like Jackson Pollock creating a painting, and because of the references and allusions that went past me – but I also enjoyed a lot. There are some outright reader-friendly bits like this piece of New-York patriotism from ‘Meditations in an Emergency’:

I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.

I gather he’s as hip as ever: people even use phrases from his poems as novel titles.

pitcairn I read the Pitcairn book in preparation for an editing job (which seems, alas, to have fallen by the wayside – in Pitkern, it es ay los’ bawl). Susanne Chauvel Carlsson is the daughter of Charles and Elsa Chauvel. Her interest in Pitcairn Island grew from her parents’ relationship with the island, beginning with their 1932 visit to film parts of In the Wake of the Bounty. The book is a mix of fascinating potted history, family lore, personal reminiscence and observation, and travel log.

People who read the newspapers more carefully than I do, and that’s probably most people, may already know a lot of the Pitcairn story, but even if I’m coming in late, I’m compelled to say the story is riveting. Pitcairn was settled in 1790 by a party of Bounty mutineers led by Fletcher Christian and accompanied by a number of Polynesians: nine mutineers, six Tahitian men, nine Polynesian women (all but one of them from Tahiti) and one baby girl. The first decade was rough, with quite a bit of drunken rioting and mayhem (ears bitten off and so on), murder, a suspicious suicide. After a failed escape attempt, some of the women murdered the remaining Tahitian men. By 1800 the population comprised one man, the mutineer Aleck Smith (who later changed his name to John Adams); ten women (I don’t know where the extra one came from – the book is plagued with such inconsistencies ); and about 23 children. It was another eight years before the Pitcairners had any contact with the outside world, and isolation has been a major factor in the Island’s cultural, economic, linguistic and political development ever since.

It’s a story that reads like a lost-in-space fiction: the language developed as a mixture of rough English and Tahitian; the religion grew from the one semi-literate man’s determination to read and then communicate to the women and children what he found in the Bounty‘s bible. Susanne Carlsson makes no bones about having fallen in love with the place and the people – it’s one of those unfathomable complexities that the object of her affection has also been the site of a history of sexual assault and of sanctioned sexual practices that in most other places would be condemned as paedophilia.

All that news was bad enough already. It becomes much worse when you’ve read accounts of these people playing a cheerfully innovative version of cricket (you have to innovate when your total population is about 50), sharing out Christmas presents in the town square, praying in their Seventh-day Adventist chapel, rowing longboats out to meet the still infrequent visiting ship. I imagine we’ll never know whether the evidently widespread sexual abuse has been there from the beginning or whether it is a symptom of the recent breakdown of the stern religious glue that held the community together.

Oh, and this book had an excellent addition to the Little Known Facts file: in 1838, when the Pitcairners persuaded a visiting Royal Navy ship’s captain ‘to draw up a constitution and code of laws suitable to their needs’, Pitcairn became the first place where women had the right to vote, 46 years ahead of South Australia.

Baby Boomer Reminiscence Alert. Skip to the end if BBRs drive you nuts.

0702235571

(OK, they’ve gone, but I’ll assume I’m not talking only to myself.) Back in the early 70s there were a lot of poetry readings in Sydney: there were Moratorium readings, Balmain readings, Sydney University Great Hall readings; at the 1972 Aquarius Festival in Canberra, the year before the much more famous Nimbin Aquarius Festival, there were a number of serious group poetry readings. I was a keen poetry-goer in those days. There were dramatic moments: Roland Robinson once shouted something like ‘This is muck!’ during a Chris Wallace Crabbe poem that began ‘To f**k is to move through grooves of time’. The dignified cadences of A D Hope shared the stage with the precision of Dave Malouf, the raffishness of Bob Adamson, the heady intellectualism of Martin Johnston, the drugged waifishness of Michael Dransfield, the hypnotic incantations of Les A. Murray … and so on. If I remember correctly, John Tranter was a regular at these events, but for some reason I’ve never really got his poems: back then, and on my occasional attempts to read him since, I found them intriguing but it felt as if they existed in a thicket of references and allusions and associations that were outside my experience. I thought of him as a poet’s poet.

Afflicted as I am with an indefensible, irrational and unfillable greed to know and read everything, I used one of my 60th birthday vouchers to buy Urban Myths, which includes selections from his previous books dating back to 2000. I’m now about a third of the way through it. Those early poems are still intriguing but almost completely opaque. It’s not just the allusiveness; in some way that’s hard to articulate, I can’t hear a human voice in the poems, even one I don’t understand. I’m pleased to report that we’re getting on much better by page 80: I’ve laughed, I’ve been close to tears, I’ve reread some poems a number of times until I feel I understand them, because they promised to repay the effort. The book won the NSW Premiers Literary Award for poetry a couple of nights ago. John read the poem that opens the book, ‘After Hölderlin’, and I couldn’t remember what my problem was. That poem is dated 2002 in Urban Myths, so I’m expecting the best as I read on.