Tag Archives: Martin Langford

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley n Search of America (Penguin 1962)

Before the meeting: Neither of the two libraries I belong to had a copy of this, and my local bricks-and-mortar bookshop took a couple of weeks to get it in. But my impression that it was an obscure enthusiasm of this month’s Book Chooser was modified when a young woman behind the counter, seeing it in my hands, said cheerfully, ‘I’ve got a red poodle.’ I realised the Charley of the book’s title must be a dog, so I smiled, and she went on, ‘His name is Steinbeck.’

The book was published in 1962, the year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s an account of a road trip he took in late 1960, in a truck with an odd little house on its back that he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He describes the countryside he drives through and devotes very little ink to the cities. He recounts conversations and draws conclusions, but if one was looking for a coherent journalistic ‘narrative’ one would look in vain.

The election that made John F Kennedy president happened during the course of his travels, and is mentioned in passing, mainly to say that people generally aren’t talking about it. The Cold War is raging and there’s a pervasive anxiety about nuclear weapons. The US War in Vietnam has not yet happened. State troops haven’t killed university students. Richard Nixon hasn’t disgraced the presidency. Oral contraceptives have arrived but not so you’d notice, and the sexual revolution is over the horizon. The women’s liberation movement may be fermenting, but the news hasn’t reached Steinbeck: for the most part he converses with men, women are either relatives or monsters of one kind or another, and his version of masculinity is unreconstructed US warrior-macho. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing in the southern states, but until he reaches New Orleans in the second last section, there’s no African American voice. That section turns out to be brilliant, rising to visceral disgust and rage in its account of the Cheerleaders, the women who led the harassment of small children in the desegregation of schools in the south, and its account of his brief encounter with a young man who supported them.

Until that chapter, the book felt to me like a museum piece, its humour quaint rather than funny (Charley ceremoniously salutes a lot of trees), its charm decidedly of a bygone era. For my taste, it was a case of too late, too soon: too late to be current, too soon to be historical. The Book Chooser this month is an actor, and there’s a splendid encounter with an actor in North Dakota, one of the very few people who are accorded a reasonably rounded portrait.

Having recently read Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes, I had an eye out for embedded aphorisms. Here are a couple I noted:

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.

(page 83)

Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.

(page 121)

It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time comes nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry.

(page 157)

The edition I read has an Introduction by Jay Parisi and notes for further reading. What with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and other distractions, I didn’t get a chance to read them.

After the meeting: Over an excellent dinner of pea soup cooked to an Ottolenghi recipe using fresh peas and spaghetti vongole with some prawns tossed in, followed by Messina gelato, we had a terrific evening, even though two people hadn’t managed to get hold of the book.

My impression is that others enjoyed it much more than I did, and by the end of the evening I thought more highly of it than I had, Someone read out a passage about small towns becoming antique-shop strips and what had seemed laboured humour was revealed as beautifully crafted sentences foreshadowing the whole fake heritage thing that afflicts many small country towns these days. Other readers enjoyed the dog much more than I did, and his account of waste and environmental degradation had impressed. It turned out to be a book full of interesting bits that give pleasure when recalled in conversation: the description of Montana, a hilarious encounter with bureaucracy at the Canadian border, the Cheerleaders of course, and the list goes on. There was some disagreement over the personality of Steinbeck as projected in the book: a preening boaster about his masculinity or a decent, serious man? Others had read the introduction, and were able to place the book in the context of the rest of Steinbeck’s life: there’s palaver at the beginning of the book about how he felt removed from the America he was writing about and this was an attempt to reconnect, which was more serious than I ha rad it to be – contemporary critics were saying that his writing at that time of his life lacked the power of his earlier stuff, written when he was living geographically close to the people he wrote about. A number of guys had gone to visit places from last month’s book.

Someone else had loved The Chaperone, which I thought was basically a telemovie. Someone had been in New York (in this group it seems that every meeting someone has been to New York) and bought their copy of the book at the fabled Stand Bookstore in Manhattan. I seem to be the only one who had made it to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which happened about 200 metre from where we met. Excellent books and forthcoming theatre productions were promoted. We had an impassioned conversation abut Israel – Folau, not the state – and resolved the issue of hate speech, freedom of speech, workplace responsibilities and the status of Australian Rugby Union when compared to New Zealand’s.

Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes

Martin Langford, Neat Snakes (Puncher & Wattmann 2018)

This is a book of aphorisms, hundreds of them, most less than two lines long, the longest edging up to 10 lines. A book to be dipped into, perhaps, rather than read in a sitting, and probably only for people who have a taste for that sort of thing.

Which I do. As a teenager I loved G K Chesterton’s one-liners – ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised’ was a favourite. Around about that age (I was a religious teenager) I encountered the wonderfully contradictory advice in Proverbs Chapter 26 verses 4 and 5:

4. Do not answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear you grow like him yourself.

5. Answer a fool in the terms of his folly for fear he imagine himself wise.

(Jerusalem Bible translation)

More recently I used to enjoy the daily quotes on the government-issue desk calendar at work, especially after I learned (from Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, I think) that most of them became more interesting if you added ‘in bed’: ‘Forever is composed of nows in bed,’ for example.

Martin Langford’s aphorisms don’t share Chesterton’s (or Oscar Wilde’s) showy love of the unexpected; he doesn’t contradict himself as blatantly as the author of the Bible; and he doesn’t invite his readers to play innocently risqué games, though he may once have played the ‘in bed’ game himself, because on page 7 he demonstrates that the process doesn’t work in reverse:

The word and the body must search for each other in bed.

The general tone of these aphorisms is serious. Many of them fit Alexander Pope’s definition of true wit: ‘what oft was thought but n’er so well expressed’:

War will not go away if we promise not to think about it.
Banter is a way of exploring which claims will be allowed.
I am not bored by other people. But I am bored by the 
limited nature of our interactions.

There are some that hint at narratives, that could be lines from lost movies:

Together we domesticate the silence.

At least, I first read that as a line from a possible love story, but on reflection, it could be a general statement about the nature of communication. Maybe that’s part of the pleasure of the book – individual pieces change their nature when you come back to them a second or third time.

Some could serve as invitations to readers to write their own essays:

The weigher of hearts keeps a list of the things we have laughed at.

Some are just plain enigmatic:

In some prisons, there is an answer on every door.

Useful insights abound:

When people defend a narrative, they are usually
defending their role in it.
The journalists are reviled for telling the lies that
we pleaded for.
Few believers can articulate their beliefs.

There are succinct reflections on art, particularly narrative art, on death, on sex, on power and competition. Though most of the aphorisms are couched as generalisations, there is a vulnerable intelligence at work in this book. These aren’t words of wisdom dispensed from on high, but insights rooted in experience and thoughtful observation.

I am grateful to Puncher & Wattmann and Martin Langford for my copy of Neat Snakes.

SWF 2011: Bombs and Poetry on Thursday

After I uploaded my sketchy report on last night’s SWF event at the Town Hall I searched for #swf2011 on Twitter and saw that everything I’d quoted had been tweeted to the universe within seconds of being uttered. Undaunted, here I am again, lumbering along with my antiquated longwindedness to bring you My Thursday at the Festival Part One: 10 till 2.

10 am: The Poetry of War with Daniel Swift and A C Grayling
Daniel Swift’s grandfather flew in planes that dropped bombs on German cities in World War Two. He failed to return from a bombing mission in 1943 when Daniel’s father was four years old. The book, Bomber County, tells of Daniel and his father visiting the grave. Daniel, by my calculations now 34, wanted this small story to open out into a bigger picture. He sought out and interviewed participants in bombing missions, and people who were in the cities bombed by his grandfather on the nights of his missions All this, plus an exploration of World War Two poetry, which anyone (else) will tell you barely exists, fed into a project of considering the bombing campaign, not to praise the heroism of the men or condemn or defend the atrocity involved, but to try to imagine – resurrect was Swift’s word – the human experience.

A C Grayling , when he’s not busy being the nice one of the current crop of aggressive British atheists, is an ethicist. His book, Among the Dead Cities, deals with the ethics of those same missions. The focus of this session was on Swift’s book, which Grayling clearly loves. They claimed to disagree on the ethical question, but I couldn’t spot any disagreement. The conversation was lovely in many ways, not least for the spectacle of an eminent professor putting his considerable intellectual heft into recommending the work of a much younger man. The air fairly crackled with respect – mutual between the speakers, from both of them to the men who flew on the mission, and during question time to the rambler and the autobiographer.

11.30 am: Antipodes: Poetic Responses
Antipodes is an anthology, edited by Margaret Bradstock, of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal poets addressing the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and settlers – the survivors of genocide in conversation with the perpetrators, descendants and beneficiaries, as it were. The facilitator, Martin Langford, said it was the first book of its kind, and warned us that some of the sentiments, especially in the early settler poems, might be repugnant to modern readers – the book is meant to be read as whole. In order of appearance we were read to by:

Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, who read a number of poems from Possession. It was good to hear them read, though my impression was that the poet was intimidated by the context. I wouldn’t have objected if she’d explained the universally cryptic titles of her poems, but she just read and then sat down.

Lionel Fogarty: again I was very glad to hear him read, as I have a copy of his New and selected poems : munaldjali, mutuerjaraera but haven’t been able to read very much of it. Now that I’ve seen and heard him I may have a better chance. He read a semi-rap, ‘True Blue, Didjeridoo’, which he and his son wrote when Nicole Kidman was culturally insensitive enough to play a didjeridoo on television.

I don’t know the work of either Margaret Bradstock or Brenda Saunders. They both read well, but I have trouble absorbing non-narrative poetry that I’m hearing for the first time. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a little of whose work I’ve read in anthologies and journals, read us excerpts from an unpublished verse novel, Killing Fields, a massacre story. ‘You’re privileged,’ she said.

Anita Heiss read last. With her brilliant control of tone she had us laughing and devastated from moment to moment. A woman of many talents, she thanked the organiserd for calling the writing in her book I’m Not racist, But poetry. ‘It’s not really poetry,’ she said, ‘but it’s not prose because it doesn’t go to the end of the line.’

I’m not sure what this anthology is. It may be intended for schools. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, but it does make me hesitate to rush out and buy it for myself.

1 pm: The Poetry of Three
This was Mark Tredinnick, Kim Cheng Boey and Cate Kennedy. Mark is a nature writer, and the poems that worked best in this context dealt with the nature of a parent-child relationship. I particularly liked ‘House of Thieves’. Kim Cheng, whose work I know only from his readings last year, was again delightfully urbane. Cate’s poems are narratives, and went over like a charm. I plan to buy her book.

Probably the strongest visual image from the Festival is the huge queues, all of which today seemed to have Bob Ellis in them. The queues for poetry were all short, and at each poetry session one of the readers expressed gratitude and surprise that so many people turned up.