Tag Archives: memoir

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race (Hachette Australia 2016)

haterace.jpgI finished reading The Hate Race on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated in Australia as Harmony Day, and this year the day on which the Turnbull government put forward legislation intended to make it legal to insult, offend or humiliate someone on the basis of their race.

As a result, soon after finishing the book I read Adam Liaw’s Twitter thread being ‘a bit frank about race’ (well worth reading), and some of the painful contributions to the thread #FreedomofSpeech initiated by Benjamin Law. These read almost as continuations of the book, placing it as part of a vast, continuing, necessary conversation. The connection became explicit when Benjamin Law tweeted a recommendation to ‘read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia. Utter punch in the guts’. And it’s true that Clarke’s book gives devastating heft to the abstractions ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’.

But it would be a mistake to think of The Hate Race as an extended tweet about racism, whether micro-agressive, casual, everyday, or viciously intentional. It’s a beautifully written memoir about growing up as an Caribbean–African-heritage girl in suburban Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on racism gives it power and coherence, but doesn’t stop it from being very funny in places and heartbreaking in others, from having a satisfying (and surprising) overall narrative arc, and any number of story-telling pleasures along the way. The narrator tells us again and again that she is making a story out of her experience. ‘This is how it happened,’ goes her refrain, ‘or what’s a story for.’

There’s a wonderful tale involving Cabbage Patch Kids, and Maxine’s time on the debating team in high school is a source of complex humour. There are stories of teenage love, of intellectual adventure, of defiance, smart-arsery and righteousness. I expect that anyone who has been to school in Australia will recognise the truth of the playground politics.

There’s one passage I’m tempted to quote as most vividly transcending the extended-tweet form and exemplifying the book’s complex honesty – for those who’ve read it, I’m thinking of the ‘incident with Baghita Singh’ from Chapter 19. But I’ll avoid spoilers. Here’s a taste, from Chapter 7, of the world as seen by little Maxine, one of many such tiny gems:

I have only one memory of entering a church with my mother. In it, I am about four years old. We are walking, my mother and I, along Wrights road on the way home from preschool, when the heavens unexpectedly open. Sheets of freezing rain pour down on us. Umbrella-less, we huddle under the small awning of the nearby white-painted timber Anglican church. But the rain seems to be chasing us, curving in under the church awning in piercing darts, as if directing us into the arms of the Lord.
—–When my mother eases open the heavy wooden church door, rows of polished pews with plush red cushioning reveal themselves. Light streams through the pretty stained-glass windows.
—–‘What is this place?’ I am breathless with awe. ‘It looks like the inside of a Pizza Hut restaurant.’

At about the halfway point, I was filled with vicarious terror for the people whose names are named: Carlita Allen, Maxine’s vicious nemesis from the first day of preschool; Mrs Kingsley, the preschool teacher who smilingly refused to believe that a little black girl’s father could be a mathematician; Mrs Hird, who turned a deaf ear to racist taunts and objected furiously to the use of the word racism;  the vile bullies Derek Healey and Greg Adams; all the abusive children and adolescents, the obtuse or collusive teachers. It was a relief to read in the acknowledgements that all names apart from the author’s have been changed. But I do hope that Carlita and Greg and Derek and the rest read the book and are inspired to do some hard thinking. As a white man, I’ve been pushed to face at least bystander behaviour on my part. Perhaps even John Howard and Pauline Hanson, offstage characters whose names are not changed, might have their worlds expanded if they open these pages.

aww2017.jpgThe Hate Race is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Gary Ramage’s The Shot

Gary Ramage with Mark Abernethy,  The Shot (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

y648.pngGary Ramage, currently News Corp’s chief photographer at Parliament House in Canberra, won the Nikon Walkley Photo of the Year last year. Once a soldier himself, he has photographed soldiers in action in Somalia, Bougainville, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. In between stints in conflict zones, he has shot politicians in Canberra, visited Buckingham Palace and  done the paparazzi thing for Murdoch. This book is his story.

Let me state my prejudices here: I know that to earn a living in a capitalist economy almost inevitably   involves supping with the devil, but working for News Corp is supping with a short spoon; I’m suspicious of the practice of embedding journalists with troops in conflict zones, because it seems likely to lead to reports that uncritically support the war effort; I loathe even the idea of paparazzi, particularly since the death of Diana Spencer. So this book is way out of my comfort zone.

And it’s fabulous.

It’s a funny, dramatic and at times powerfully poignant account of a man discovering his calling and learning his craft, meeting challenges with ingenuity, courage, compassion and a touch of swagger. Ramage’s commitment to documenting the experiences of soldiers in conflict zones transformed my understanding of ’embedding’: this isn’t about backing the war effort, but about making sure that the men who are sent to kill or be killed aren’t consigned to oblivion. And as for the paparazzi action: I confess I shared his glee when he managed with great cunning to invade the privacy of some royals, and I was barracking for him in a long sequence towards the end of the book when he endures great personal discomfort and inveigles News Corp into spending vast amounts of money on semi-legendary equipment in order to get a single blurry forbidden shot that serves no purpose beyond tabloid titillation.

I’ve been photographed for the newspapers a couple of times myself – when my high school results were deemed newsworthy by the Catholic Weekly, when my younger son and I provided cute visuals for a report on a childcare demo, and recently for an article reporting, not 100 percent accurately, that I’m on a solar powered gravy train that will soon grind to a halt. Each time has involved an awful lot of fiddling with light and positioning, checking and re-checking. Ramage’s art of (mostly) getting himself in place, equipped and ready to catch the shot, is a matter for awe.

And the photos scattered through the text and especially those on the sixteen-page centre section are brilliant.

Colleen Z Burke’s Waves Turn

Colleen Z Burke, The Waves Turn: A memoir (Feakle Press 2016; for availability see here)

waves turn.JPG

Colleen Z Burke is a Sydney poet whose work, as David Brooks says in his introduction to her Home Brewed and Lethal (1997), ‘has not received the attention and awards it’s deserved’. She is a poet of place, particularly inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains; a poet of domestic life, feminist and fiercely maternal; a historical poet, exploring the stories of working class Australians  and her Irish heritage. I’ve blogged about a couple of her books (here and here) and our paths have crossed in a number of contexts. The word that comes to mind is ‘staunch’. The Waves Turn tells the story of her first three decades.

Colleen was born in the early 1940s into a tight working-class Irish Catholic community in Bondi, not a hundred miles or many years from the world of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. She was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, whose treatment of their young charges in Colleen’s day would not have helped the cause of their founder Mary MacKillop’s canonisation half a century later. Leaving school at 15 to help with the family finances, she landed a public service job, but was already snatching moments to write poems and read widely. With a friend she dared to venture into Sydney’s bohemian milieu, but remained enough her mother’s daughter not to plunge into their pre-feminist sex and drugs lifestyle. From there it was small dramatic step into the thriving folk music scene, where she was courted by singer Declan Affley, whom she eventually married, and began to discover her deep connections to Ireland.

Declan’s personality dominates the second two thirds of the memoir, as they negotiate their relationship, travel together to North Queensland, to Melbourne and to Ireland and England, struggling to earn enough money to live on (mostly it’s Colleen who earns while Declan’s work as a musician is paid pathetically), joining causes, and making music. In an extraordinary range of contexts, almost in the shadows, Colleen finds a place for her typewriter and works away at her poetry. This was before the days of creative writing courses, and it was a lonely enterprise, requiring a heroic determination to hold to her own course against all expectations – from bohemians and folkies as much as from Catholics – that she would make a man the centre of her life.

In 1975, which is as far as the book takes us, Colleen was in her early 30s. She had finally gained a university degree, the first in her family to do so. Her mother had died, her first book, Go Down Singing, had been published in the feminist Khasmik Poets Series, and half a dozen of her poems were included in Kate Jennings’s landmark anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted. We know from occasional mentions that she will have children, and from her poetry that Declan will die young and unexpectedly, that there will be more hardship, so it feels as if the book just stops rather than coming to an end point. The final sentence reads:

And as waves turn I’m unsure what the future holds but look forward with anticipation.

Where some memoirs read like novels that claim to be factual, The Waves Turn is more like a careful accumulation of facts in which a story can be discerned. The image of an archaeological dig comes to mind: Colleen Z Burke has delved patiently into the layers of memory, brushed the dirt from the innumerable artefacts she found there, labelled them and arranged them chronologically. Sometimes, in talking about the folk scene for example, memory has almost certainly been helped by festival programs or similar documentation.

There were places where I found the accumulation of detail fascinating, such as the points of similarity between Colleen’s childhood and my North Queensland Catholic childhood half a decade later: the same bottles of milk curdling in the sun at school (why?), the same ‘worms’ made by Vegemite in biscuits with holes (which I read just the other day will soon cease to exist), the same songs of Irish nostalgia. In my 20s, I followed in some of Colleen’s paths: to the edges of the Push and the folk music scene, to protest against the US and Australian war in Vietnam, to the ferment of women’s liberation, to the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University (though in that case I was there half a decade before her) … the list goes on. There’s pleasure in recognising the names of people, streets and buildings, in being reminded of forgotten rituals (Oh, that’s right, on Friday nights people would ask, ‘Where’s the party?’). I don’t know how it would be for someone who hadn’t been there. They might do a lot of head-scratching (as with the passing reference to some Catholics not buying Sanitarium breakfast cereals) and skipping (as with the list of performers at numerous folk-music events).

An edition of the book that included footnotes on all the musicians and big personalities mentioned would be spectacular. I recognised only a handful, but if the ones I didn’t recognise were as interesting as that handful, each list of names in this book is a flag pointing to a trove of stories.

We do get the stories of Colleen and Declan, or rather many of their stories.

For example, Declan Affley is perhaps the only good thing in Tony Richardson’s 1970 movie Ned Kelly. (In a nostalgic moment, I recently downloaded ‘The Wild Colonial Boy‘ from the soundtrack – Mick Jagger reduces it to passionless rinkydink, but Affley’s tin whistle fights to give the song heart, and wins.) The book takes us behind the scenes, not to juicy celebrity gossip, but to how the film gave economic relief to Affley and Colleen, and how, having the rarity of a decent amount of money, they splurged on luxuries.

More than fifty poems are scattered through the book, many of them dealing with events or places that have just been described in prose. So, not just in general but very specifically, the memoir gives a valuable insight into the relationship of the poetry to the life, into things that can only be said in poetry. For example, towards the end of the book, Colleen is employed on a survey to assess the health and welfare needs of people in the suburb of Glebe. In prose:

The health/welfare survey had its limitations, all surveys do, but talking to people in the open-ended section, I gleaned interesting information about their lives. The diverse community included students, transients, pensioners, professionals and more affluent residents in wealthier parts of Glebe Point. We interviewed people from the Glebe Estate in houses owned by the Catholic Church. The Glebe Estate wasn’t bought by the Federal Labor government’s Department of Urban and Regional Affairs, under the radical leadership of Tom Uren, until late 1974.

And so on. In typing that out, I’m reminded of something that nagged at me, though it might be of no significance to most readers. Feakle Press clearly operates on a shoestring, with little money for professional copy-editing, and my blue-pencil finger twitches to fact-check and clarify. In this paragraph, for example: the Glebe Estate was owned by the Anglicans, not the Catholics; will readers from elsewhere understand the reference to Glebe Point (perhaps ‘more affluent residents who lived close to the water at Glebe Point’ would cover it)? is the government purchase relevant, or a distracting complication? But these editorial questions are beside the point here. Colleen then gives us her poem, ‘The questionnaire’, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing in full:

The questionnaire

walking through Glebe
these summery days
of nearly autumn
of nearly autumnI move
through street shadows
of paperthin _ March trees
________to arrive
_____________ anywhere.
Knock on doors
by young people
as spring to answer
____________ _anything.
But older rustier men
__mostly nod their heads
like old clocks
__listening somewhere else
and pensioners
___________warm as sunlight
___________caught in old brick walls
look at my papers
____________ my well-chosen words
then shut their doors kindly.
And clutching empty questions
I run home
through thin pools
of March trees
__________ singing

And we’re there.

AWW2016The Waves Turn is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Craig Munro’s Under Cover

Craig Munro, Under Cover: Adventures in the art of editing (Scribe 2015)


‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.

That’s from E M Forster’s essay, ‘Aspects of the Novel’. The point he’s making is that plot is about causality rather than mere sequence, that plot engages readers’ imaginations: they have to ‘remember incidents and create connecting threads between them’, and that sustains their interest over the long haul.

A memoir needs some element of plot as well, but perhaps inevitably it will include quite a lot of detail just for the record. Under Cover  has a central theme, announced in a epigraph quoting Beatrice Davis, perhaps the most famous of all Australian book editors: ‘It is essential that authors and editors are capable of being temperamentally in tune, even of becoming friends: to be otherwise would be damaging or disastrous.’ We follow Craig Munro’s editorial career, mainly at University of Queensland Press, as a story of friendships, of what Munro, quoting Melbourne editor Mandy Brett, describes as intense affairs-of-the-mind. And then there’s the broader sweep, the history of the publication of Australian literature as seen through the lens of the part played by the memoirist.

In some ways the backbone of the book is the relationship of Peter Carey with UQP and Munro: Munro was responsible for bringing Carey’s first book to print, and the memoir maps the ups and downs (mainly ups) of Carey’s career against his changing relationship with the publishing house and the editor-become-friend. The small independent publisher discovers and nurtures a writer, who out of economic necessity moves to a better resourced London publishing house. As he becomes more successful, his books are published simultaneously in the US, the UK and Australia, sometimes typeset separately for the different editions: we get to see some of the inner workings of that set-up, including one spectacular error that took years for anyone to notice. (Did you know that if you read an early Australian or UK edition of Oscar and Lucinda you missed out on a whole chapter that was in the US edition and later Australian and UK editions?)

It’s not a kiss and tell memoir. There are no scandals, no grand revelations. But we get personal glimpses of David Malouf, the famously touchy Xavier Herbert, Barbara Hanrahan, Olga Masters in a marvellously magisterial moment, and others. Munro’s account of the infamously disorderly 1985 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner is just wonderful, names and packdrill included.

Sometimes the fine details on print runs, quotes from Munro’s and others’ reports on manuscript that were to become wildly successful books, and from reviews of those books on first publication, become cumulatively tedious. And really do we care that Peter Carey was mildly sarcastic to a reviewer who described Illywhacker as old-fashioned? But these moments are easily forgiven.The queen doesn’t die of grief, but Australian publishing lives on in spite of adversity. The authors of the recent Productivity Commission Report on book publishing would have done well to read this book.

Adam Aitken’s One Hundred Letters Home

Adam Aitken, One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond Books 2016)


Just a short post on this book: no disparagement intended, it’s just that the Sydney Writers’ Festival is here and if I don’t get this post done now there will be too much time between the reading and the blogging.

One Hundred Letter Home is Adam Aitken’s memoir of his parents and his own youth. It has been a long time in the making – earlier versions of two of its chapters were published in the late lamented Heat in 2004 and 2009. In it, Aitken goes in search of his parents. Not the actual parents,with both of whom he is still in contact in the course of the book, but the young people they once were. He explores letters and photographs from more than 50 years ago to gain some understanding of how these two people met, married, and separated. His father was a white Australian advertising man posted to Bangkok, who after enjoying the nightlife for some time fell in love with a university graduate from southern Thailand, and after some vicissitudes married her.

Their son knows more about these events than most of us do about our parents because the young advertising man wrote detailed letters home to his mother, including notes on his alcoholic excesses, the taxi dancers and other women he was drawn to, and then – all others falling by the wayside – his great love. And Airken makes wonderful use of this resource. There are also photos, which he squeezes for their narrative potential, and on his mother’s side some wonderful sketches of Thai culture.

The story continues: the couple leave Thailand to live in England for some time, and eventually come to live in Australia – first in Perth and then in Sydney. The source material tends to be sparser, especially for the English period, until the writer’s own memory comes into play. Along with his father’s time in Thailand, the most gripping part of the book is Aitken’s account of his own visit there in his early 20s, in search of his Thai identity – where he finds that questions of identity are a lot more subtle than that.

Launching this book at Gleebooks recently, Beth Yahp commented that whereas mostly these days we want to rush through things we read, this book forces us to slow down, dwell on moments, go back and reread or have another look. She’s right. My impression is that it was written as a group of more or less stand-alone essays, and the joining of those essays isn’t seamless. The occasional rough edges, however, mean that the reader is made aware of the work involved in making the book. It’s not an entertainment in the manner of Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!): you can feel the wrestling involved in getting these stories told.

I found myself itching to interrogate the received versions and silences about my own heritage. Thanks, Adam

Biff Ward’s In My Mother’s Hands

Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014)

1743319118When my Book Group were picking our next book, someone asked about In My Mother’s Hands, which was on my teetering to-be-read pile. ‘It’s a misery memoir,’ I said, and we moved on to other possibilities

I was wrong. There’s misery in it, but there’s a lot else. Biff Ward, born in the early 1940s. gives us a lovingly detailed portrait of family life in suburban, regional and Canberran Australia. Early in the book, she describes how her mother would wash her hair when she was little:

She began by folding a towel around my neck in an efficient, nurse-like manner to stop drips and breakaway runnels creeping down in my neck. The water was a delicious, perfect temperature and it streamed over me. She believed in rubbing the scalp with her strong fingers, making sure not even a tiny spot was missed. I closed my eyes, I gave myself to the warm wetting, the soaping, the rubbing, the rinsing, the divine sense of clean. Next she flopped the towel on my head and scrubbed vigorously before saying, Bend over.
She then wrapped the towel around my head, tight at the neck behind, a turban twist on top like a woman in a magazine, the way I still do today. I walked or sat carefully for five minutes until my hair was dry enough for the towel to come off. Sometimes, she then sat beside me saying, I’ll just give it a bit of a squiggle to get the curls going.

Not a lot of misery in that! I don’t want to give a false impression, though. This benign intimacy is a long way from representative of the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of the book: in fact, it’s a memory that might never have been recalled if it hadn’t been triggered by a companion washing the writer’s hair in her 30s. The passage does illustrate the book’s loving attention to detail, an attention that is shot through not just with the need to tell (a defining feature of misery memoirs?), but also with the need to know, to understand, to deepen the writer’s grasp of things and to take the reader with her.

This could be a beautifully written memoir of any child’s family life from that time and place, except for two major differences. First, this child’s father is Russel Ward, eminent historian, best known for The Australian Legend, a one-time member of the Communist Party, a man of the word. This means that Biff Ward’s recollections and those of the friends and family she interviewed are supplemented by a formidable archive, including numerous public statements made by and about her father, and also his extensive personal correspondence – including agonised letters to his parents about his wife’s condition. Which is the second major difference: her mother, Margaret, was  delusional and self-harming, and Biff and her younger brother ‘breathed it in, the irrational in her, the grief in him and the unpredictability all around’.

The book’s title deftly signals a double concern of the book. First, it tells what it was like to grow up in the care – in the hands – of someone who spent most of her time withdrawn into a private world of suffering and delusion, whose behaviour was often bizarre and sometimes deeply alarming, and who may well have drowned her first baby in the bath. Second, it seeks to fathom the story of someone who continually gouges at her hands with sharp implements and keeps the damage hidden by wearing gloves. It’s a book of deep compassion, not just for the mother, but also for the father who, far from faultless, struggles heroically to provide a stable life for his children, while protecting his wife as long as possible from the depredations of the psychiatric profession.

The children felt that the were living with a huge, terrible secret. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the story is the writer’s discovery much later that there was a whole circle of friends who knew the situation, and tried to help in the inarticulate and largely ineffectual way of the time. A fellow academic even wrote a short story based on the Ward family.

This is a truly marvellous book. I ought to say that I have met Biff Ward a couple of times, and have been close to some people who appear in these pages. But the books makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of  families, of Australian intellectual history, and of the horrifying ordeal known in the medial profession as mental illness.

aww-badge-2015This is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Irfan Orga’s Portrait of his Turkish Family

Irfan Orga, Portrait of a Turkish Family (©1950, Eland & Galeri Kayseri 2004)

This was my letting-go-of-Turkey read. We bought it at Galeri Kayseri English Bookshop right next door to the McDonalds within shouting distance of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. Evidently the Galeri Kayseri had decided it was ideal for tourists wanting to read an Istanbul story, as there were big piles of it near the counter. They were right.

It’s a memoir. Irfan Orga was born in 1908 into a wealthy family in Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. His mother, a great beauty who had married at 13, hardly ever went out into the world, and when she did she went veiled and chaperoned. His grandmother was the dominant personality of the household, and of the whole neighbourhood – an early chapter gives a richly comic account of five year old Irfan accompanying her on a trip to the Turkish baths.  The family lived a blissfully entitled life within sight and sound of the Sea of Marmora (as he spells it) until the First World War, when Irfan’s father, previously a successful businessman, was conscripted and killed. That, plus a fire that destroyed the family house and all their savings, completely overturned the family’s fortunes, and what follows is a chronicle of terrible poverty and struggle. Nobody and no relationship emerges from the years of struggle unscathed, and the final scenes between Irfan and his mother are devastating.

Meanwhile, Turkey itself was going through major upheaval: poverty was widespread, the Ottoman empire was defeated and in disarray, and by 1923 Kemal Atatürk had led the revolutionary forces to establish the Turkish Republic. The fez was banned and the introduced hat, seen by many as offensively Christian, led to violence in the streets. (Incidentally, I was in Turkey in the summer and don’t remember seeing a single Turkish man wearing a western hat, which makes me wonder about the success of Atatürk’s cultural change.) When Irfan’s mother went out alone and unveiled, boys threw stones at her in the street. One day, in Ottoman Turkey, school students were beaten for arriving late at prayers; a few days later, in the secular Turkish Republic, the few who remained devout were likely to be beaten because prayers made them late for class.

The story of this family is heartbreaking, and though there is much hilarity and some high melodrama, the general trend is towards devastation and disintegration. Not that there’s any nostalgia for the days of the Ottomans, but the human cost of the radical changes – political, cultural and economic – that happened in Turkey between 1914 and 1940 is made painfully real. An afterword by the author’s son, Artes Orga, in 1988 makes it clear that the pain continued for the rest of his life. (He formed a liaison with a non-Turkish woman, whom he eventually married, and as this was somehow illegal he lived in exile, raising his son in a kind of cocoon of Turkishness in London. This book was a big hit, but he never really prospered or found contentment.)

I find it hard to think how a book could be better at giving a reader a way of getting behind the cheerful tourist façade of the old city of Istanbul. Reading it, you become aware of the ghosts of women behind the latticed windows of those old wooden houses latticework, hiding from the gaze of the street. You get that the muezzin calls were once the unamplified sound of human voices. You realise that today’s sleek, crowded trams are luxurious compared to the rattling, swaying ones of yore. And you realise that the prosperity of modern Turkey, and for that matter the modernity of Turkey, didn’t fall as a gift from the sky.

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.

A Life Like Other People’s

Alan Bennett, A Life Like Other People’s (Profile 2009)

Probably inspired by the success of Alan Bennett’s little hardcover, The Uncommon Reader, the publishers have given us this physically similar book. But where the earlier was a whimsical piece in which the Queen discovers reading for pleasure, with mildly catastrophic results, this is perfectly serious memoir. Originally published as part of the 650 page volume Untold Stories, it explores the themes of family secrets, depression, dementia and suicide in the lives of Bennett’s grandparents, parents and aunties. It’s a testament to his skill, and to the depth of his affection for his family, that for all its grim subject matter the book is a joy to read. The prose is unfailingly urbane, and he manages to convey multiple perspectives with apparent ease: for example, when one of his aunties (a term whose class connotations he carefully spells out) decides to take apart his mother’s stove to give it a thorough cleaning, we are amused at the spectacle of Bennett’s father flying into a rage (a very uncommon event) at this dire insult to his wife, and at the same time we realise that it was a dire insult.

Perhaps partly because I’ve tried something similar in the predecessor of this blog, I was taken by his attempt to convey the conversation of a demented aunty. His description is quite long, but this little bit may give you an idea, both of its truthfulness and of its elegance:

Embarking on one story, she switches almost instantly to another, and while her sentences still retain grammatical form they have no sequence or sense. Words pour out of her as they always have and with the same vivacity and hunger for your attention. But to listen to they are utterly bewildering, following the sense like trying to track a particular ripple in a pelting torrent of talk.

As I was reading, I found myself thinking of AD Hope’s lines about Yeats (see, the poems you study in your youth hang around in your brain forever): ‘To have found at last that noble, candid speech / In which all things worth saying may be said’. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it seemed that Bennett could write about a huge range of  human experience without his prose ever stumbling. We know, for instance, the kind of emotional tumult involved in the experience referred to in this sentence: ‘While sexual intercourse did not quite begin in 1974 it was certainly the year when sex was available pretty much for the asking … or maybe I had just learned the right way to ask.’ What did Freud say about jokes? Not that this is unconscious – on the contrary. And it’s not that he’s hiding anything. It’s just that the prose is not about self-revelation, but about elegant, usually witty communication. I wasn’t sure this was entirely a good thing, whether a little raw emotion mightn’t have made a more interesting book. But he was ahead of me. Towards the end of the book, when Bennett’s mother, after decades in and out of psychiatric institutions, ECT, is in advanced dementia in a nursing home, he winces at the way the employees address her, calling her loudly by a diminutive that was never hers, kissing her lavishly, who was always physically reserved. He observes with irritation that his mother seems to enjoy it, and goes on:

But then taste has always been my handicap, and so here when in this sponged and squeegeed bedroom with an audience of indifferent old women I do not care to unbend, call my mother ‘chick’, fetch my face close to hers and tell her or shout at her how much I love her and how we all love her and what a treasure she is.
Instead, smiling sadly, I lightly stroke her limp hand, so ungarish my display of affection I might be the curate, not the son.
The nurses (or whatever) have more sense. They know they are in a ‘Carry On’ film. I am playing it like it’s ‘Brief Encounter’.

There are photos of the Bennett parents scattered throughout. Almost as much as the prose, they convey the deep current of love that flows through the book.

Did I mention that it’s very funny?

Coetzee’s Youth

J M Coetzee, Youth ( 2002)

This is the second of three (so far) novels in Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life series, which are fiction, but also by strong implication unsparing autobiography. It takes up our hero as an 18 year old student and aspiring poet living in a one-room flat in Capetown and drops him again as a 24 year old computer programmer living in an upstairs room in a house in the depths of the Berkshire countryside, convinced that he is a total failure.

It’s the 1960s. The young Coetzee is committed to escape being defined by his family, trapped in the dullness of colonial life, and torn apart in what he sees as the impending revolution in South Africa. He aspires to the status of poet, and theorises endlessly to himself about how he should live (as opposed to write) to achieve that aim. He agonises over his incompetence in relationships with women, over which writers and artists he should emulate (Ezra Pound presides over his pantheon, and Beckett the novelist is a late apparition), over how to shake off his colonial identity. He rationalises his moments of appalling behaviour and then berates himself for his rationalising, and for his general coldness. He aspires to Angst, but realises his sole talent is for ‘misery, dull, honest misery’.

I loved this book. There are two possibilities: either Coetzee’s interior life as an adolescent/young adult was uncannily like mine, or he has turned a searing light onto his experience of that time of his life and laid bare something essential about the collision of adolescent romanticism with the demands of reality. Given that the externals of his life weren’t noticeably similar to mine, and I never had his overarching sense of destiny, I’m guessing it’s the latter. Young Coetzee’s misery, confusion about sex, self castigation, romantic theorising and bitter disillusion are all presented without commentary, but with a gentle irony – which may derive partly from the reader’s knowledge that this pathetic youth went on to win the Nobel Prize (and possibly that an idea that comes and goes on page 138 was the seed of his first novel), but which also simmers in the prose, bubbling to the surface as humour often enough to suggest, without invalidating the character’s intensely felt experience, that an older, wiser head is constantly there, shaping the story. My favourite bubble pops up when young Coetzee, who lives alone and feeds himself with classic adolescent male incompetence, is ruminating on Ford Madox Ford:

Ford says that the civilization of Provence owes its lightness and grace to a diet of fish and olive oil and garlic. In his new lodgings in Highgate, out of deference to Ford, he buys fish fingers instead of sausages, fries them in olive oil instead of butter, sprinkles garlic salt over them.

We do wonder if he misses the point about so much else by quite so wide a mark.

Young Coetzee was writing an academic thesis on Ford. The paragraph after the one I just quoted describes the thesis as involving ‘the task of reducing his hundreds of pages of notes in tiny handwriting to a web of connected prose’. My sense is that this book has achieved something very like that: whether Coetzee has drawn on actual diaries from the period or on the virtual pages of his recollection, he has created from the material a shiny, elegant narrative web.

Early in his stay in London, young Coetzee hears a BBC talk about the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and is enraptured by his poetry. He reflects on what Brodsky and a handful of other poets mean to him:

they release their words into the air, and along the airwaves the words speed to his room, the words of the poets of his time, telling him again of what poetry can be and therefore what he can be, filling him with joy that he inhabits the same earth as they. ‘Signal heard in London – please continue to transmit’: that is the message he would send them if he could.

If in my early 20s I could have received this book as a signal, I would have responded, I’m sure, with a very similar joy. As it is, confident though I am that J M Coetzee won’t be reading my blog, I’m sending him a belated message on behalf of my younger self:  ‘Signal heard in Sydney 40 years later – please continue to transmit.’
I read Youth in a library copy. A previous reader had ‘corrected’ the text:

  • on page 53 s/he fixed a simple typo, inserting be in ‘It would nice to write’ (‘Thank you,’ I thought)
  • on page 72 s/he altered pay to pays in ‘But none of the girls on the trains pay him any attention’ (‘Hmm, you are an old-fashioned pedant, but at least you left that But alone’)
  • on page 85 s/he changed oneself to one’s self in the sentence ‘Only love and art are, in his opinion, worthy of giving oneself to without reserve” (‘Someone please take the pen away from that person’)
  • on page 95 s/he changed the phrase to eat packet soup, possibly because one doesn’t eat soup, then – sensibly – scratched  out the alteration
  • thereafter, s/he presumably resigned themselves to the probability that Coetzee and his editors were competent after all.