Tag Archives: Sydney Morning Herald

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 3

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The view from outside the Bar at the End of the Wharf

On Friday the sun was still shining. My only event of the day, in the Wharf Theatre 2, confusingly located on Pier 4, was

4.30: The Big Read

This is story time for a big room full of big people. It’s not quite as comforting as dozing off on your mother’s lap to the sound of a Hans Andersen horror story. Dozing is not unheard of, but the main point, at least for me, is to sample bits from writers who are new to me or who, as with two of this year’s line-up, I’ve developed a prejudice against (I’m not saying which).

But first, the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awards were presented by Linda Morris, who writes for the Herald on literary matters. These awards, instigated 18 years ago by Susan Wyndham who was and still is  Herald‘s literary editor, carry no monetary prize – each of four young(ish) people was presented with a certificate and what looked like a bottle of wine. They were: Luke Carman (An Elegant Young Man), who has been appearing in this blog for some years now; Balli Kaur Jaswal (Inheritance); Hannah Kent (Burial Rites); and Fiona McFarlane (whose The Night Guest won a money prize at the NSW Premier’s Awards). They stood in a row looking awkward while we applauded, then politely melted into the darkness to make way for the older writers, introduced with her trademark enthusiasm by Annette Shun Wah.

Lian Hearn, the novelist of mediaeval Japan formerly known as Gillian Rubinstein, author of much loved children’s books such as Space Demons and Beyond the Labyrinth, read to us from her latest Japan novel, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, a smooth, lucid excerpt that was mainly about writing.

Dara Horn from the US read from A Guide for the Perplexed – her book, not Maimonides’ – giving us an intriguing glimpse of a book in which tales from two different eras explore the idea of having a total record of a life: in one, a character develops software that records everything; in the other a late 19th century scholar discovers a comprehensive trove of documents in a Cairo synagogue that had not been cleaned out for a thousand years.  Such a trove of documents really has been found, and such software isn’t entirely implausible

Alex Miller read from Coal Creek. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of the book from this reading. It was largely a mundane recount of a man and a horse called Mother and it went on well over its allotted time so that everyone else had to whip their readings along.

Eimear McBride read from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. In the bit she read the character was a 13 year old girl who may or may not have been contemplating suicide by drowning. The uncertainty was in the character’s mind, rather than mine, I think. The precise meaning didn’t matter so much: as Annette Shun Wah commented, it was like listening to jazz with, I would add, a beautiful Irish/Joycean accent. (The ABC has uploaded an earlier session of Eimear McBride in conversation with Michael Cathcart.)

Adam Johnson finished us off with a chilling bit from The Orphan Master’s Son. ‘You won’t understand this,’ he said, ‘because it’s an extract.’ It was the session’s only piece with a clear, strong narrative, and I would have rushed out to buy the book only two of my companions said they had read most of it, thought it was  really wonderful, but couldn’t finish it because it was so unremittingly grim. I still might give it a go …

We were on the train home before the Opera House and Customs House lit up for the Vivid Festival. We’ll look at the lights tonight, after a full day at the festival.

Page Nine

A young Tamil man who has been seeking asylum in Australia heard that he had been definitively been denied refugee protection. and on Wednesday night he doused himself with petrol in Balmain and set himself alight. He’s in hospital now, very badly burnt. Sarah Whyte had the story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Minister Scott Morrison in partnership with the Sri Lankan High Commission have a focus ‘to ensure for the proper care and support of this young man’. And also the SMH cares, enough to carry it on page 9 of the hard copy edition.

This is already being spoken of as a ‘mental health’ issue. But it was also surely a political act. Martin Kovan had a challenging article about politically-motivated self-immolations in Overland a couple of years ago. Speaking in the Tibetan context, he wrote:

The immolations aren’t acts of terrorism, nor even of despairing disempowerment, even though it is clear that they emerge from decades of deep frustration. Their dramatic increase appears to demonstrate an absolute and unconditional commitment to freedom. All the existing written statements of the self-immolators make this clear. They are also a form of radical self-determination: no authority can take such sacrifices away from the community on whose behalf they were performed. They are what Oxford University sociologist Michael Biggs calls a legitimate part of the ‘global repertoire of contention’, a form of principled if morally painful action ‘intended to appeal to bystander publics or to exhort others to greater efforts on behalf of the cause’.

‘The immolations,’ he says later in the essay, ‘depend upon global real-time exposure for their influence to be felt; a purely domestic response remains all too vulnerable to internal silencing.’ The most obvious way to silence this young man, whose first name is Janarthanan, is to talk about it as a product of ‘mental illness’. No, it’s a statement about vicious cruelty in Sri Lanka and brutal indifference in Australia.

The media and March in March

I wrote this to the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday morning:

Dear Sir
So Prime Minister Tony Abbott was correct after all when he said, as shown on the ABC News last night, that the only big march happening in Sydney was the St Patrick’s Day march. He must have been correct because that’s the only march reported in today’s SMH, and the SMH is a journal of record, or at least it was once.
The March in March demonstration by people wanting their voices to be heard in opposition to the many ways in which the Abbott government is attacking the common good evidently didn’t happen. Their numbers, ranging from 8 to 40 thousand depending on whose estimate you take, were an illusion that took up the whole of Broadway from Railway Square to Victoria Park. The illusion evidently was sufficiently realistic for you to publish two accounts online, the first a derisory and derisive AAP report [sorry, I couldn’t find it on the Fairfax site] saying there were hundreds of people and mentioning a couple of ‘wacky’ placards, the second mentioning a more realistic  figure of 8–10 thousand and giving a somewhat more accurate account of the demonstrators.
A couple of the speakers at this non-event spoke of the terrible effect of cynicism on our public life. Your total silence about this event, and other marches all over the country – not even a by-the-way in your account of the St Patrick’s Day march – is certainly doing its bit to foster cynicism.
Yours
Jonathan Shaw

Today’s paper did publish a letter from Antony Mann of Lawson (scroll down at the link) making the same general point much more succinctly. I wonder how many they received?

Paradoxically, I found the Herald‘s near silence oddly encouraging. If they can minimise or ignore what was probably more than 50,000 people in the streets all over Australia, then what else are they not telling us about? How many small acts are being performed in the community every day, invisible to the newspapers, that contribute to a swelling movement to bring some kind of sense to Australia’s responses to climate change, the international refugee crisis, predator capitalism and so on? Maybe the future is brighter than the Fairfax press makes it look. (Pardon me if I don’t mention Murdoch.)

And then there’s this, which I’ll write in spite of Godwin’s Law:

At Belmore Park on Sunday, I met an old friend who had come out in the pouring rain to be part of the march. She was going home before the speeches were finished, because, as she said, she was pooped. She’s 89 next week and the effort had taken its toll, but she said she was greatly heartened by the big turn-out. She was a girl in Austria at the Anschluss, the daughter of secular Jews. It matters to her to see people making their voices heard against injustice, even when the injustice is perpetrated by a democratically elected government.

A young woman with rainbow hair asked to take our photo. As we smiled for the camera, my friend surmised that she wanted us for our white hair. The young woman said she was sending the photo to her parents to show that there were respectable people at the demo – something, it turns out, they wouldn’t have learned from the Sydney Morning Herald.

(Also, thank heaven for the publicly funded SBS and ABC television.)

Alan Connor’s Two Girls, One on Each Knee

Alan Connor, Two Girls, One on Each Knee (Particular Books 2013)

1846148413Let me start with a factoid, a movie anecdote and a memory, all crossword-related:

  • Ronald Knox (1888–1957), Catholic convert scholar and single-handed translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English, is said to have completed The Times crossword each morning, first the across clues, then the down.
  • In the 1961 movie Very Important Person (also known as A Coming-out Party) the James Robertson Justice character arrives in a German prisoner-of-war camp and is left alone in a hut while the other prisoners are all on work details. He sees a copy of The Times on the rough wooden table, and turns to the crossword. His hut-mates arrive to discover that in a matter of minutes he has deprived them of their week’s only pleasure.
  • I once did a cryptic crossword in which the answer to each of three clues – referring respectively to a little pig, a village and a Shakespearean drama – was HAMLET.

None of those appears in Two Girls, One on Each Knee. but they could have: Alan Connor gives us a wealth of similar crosswordiana: gossip about famous solvers; scenes from movies, television and novels; great moments in setting. He also tells the history of crosswords, introduces us to some of the outstanding setters, and goes down the kinds of byways you would expect from someone who writes a regular column on crosswords for the Guardian. The book would be a useful guide to someone wanting to find out how cryptic clues work, or a student researching the history of crosswords, but its main mission seems to me to be to communicate the pleasures of the pastime. It fills this mission brilliantly. As something of an addict myself, I found the book immensely enjoyable.

Due homage is paid to The Times crossword, which appears in The Australian. For years I’ve been a fan, and I confess that in the past I have given money to the Murdoch empire in order to enjoy the crossword. These days I frequent a cafe where the staff tolerate me defacing the complimentary copy. I used to wish someone would edit it for Australian solvers, replacing the more parochial London references with more generally accessible ones, but really, it’s not broke so better not fix it.

There’s a chapter on The Listener, the most difficult crossword in the world, which a friend introduced me to in my 20s. The Listener went out of print decades ago but its crossword lives on in The Times each weekend. Though I rarely have access to it, it’s always a challenging pleasure. I’ve even completed it occasionally. The Spectator crossword comes closest to it in my experience, and has the advantage of being available in Australia and closer to humanly possible.

Connor compares UK and US crosswords. I once subscribed to the New York Times crossword online for a couple of months. The difference from English and Australian puzzles was striking. Apart from the shocking way brand names and capitalist enterprises appear with the same nonchalance as cities and famous people, the US puzzles have a very different kind of playfulness. I enjoyed it, but not enough to keep up my subscription.

Just one of the many clues Connor includes is by David Astle (DA), doyen of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s puzzles, and I’m surprised he rated even one, as in my experience when DA and his minions are not being annoyingly imprecise or obvious, they mosyly offer challenging exercises, but little by way of the pleasure that this book celebrates. And what can you say about a quick crossword in which eastern is clued as ‘from the east’ and pensive as ‘nervous’, or a cryptic with surface meaning as awkward and cryptic play as obvious  as ‘Spoil in a mooring site’? David Astle’s book Puzzled may have been as much fun as Two Girls, One on Each Knee. I hope so, but I doubt it.

One startling fact emerges from the book: there is no evidence for the frequent claims that doing crosswords, especially cryptic crosswords, is a way of staving off cognitive decline. The same can be said for the book itself: I doubt if there is any evidence that reading it will improve the reader in any way. But like the puzzles it discusses, it’s fun anyway.

Jennifer Maiden in the Age

In yesterday’s Age, and in the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jennifer Maiden has a new poem, ‘The Reflection’ (scroll down quite a way at that link). In it a re-awakened Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer chat on a plane as they did in the earlier poem, ‘Deep River’ (you need a sub to the Australian Book Review to make that link work).

The earlier Rudd–Bonhoeffer dialogue took place soon after Rudd’s replacement by Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, and as in many of Maiden’s poems in which politicians converse with their proclaimed models it has a sense of moral jeopardy, sympathy for the one who is in jeopardy, and a respect for the enigma of their humanity. It ends with the observation that Rudd’s ‘strangely stylised’ slang seems to say:

‘Okay:
So we’re all self-constructed out of trauma.
Standing here,
I defy you to file me away.’

In ‘The Reflection’, the sympathy and enigma have receded, and the moral jeopardy intensified. Do read it.

What do you want to do when you grow up? Create?

On the front page of today’s Sydney Morning Herald, there’s an article by Rachel Browne on a survey of 6200 children aged between 10 and 12 in 47 countries asking them what they want to do when they grow up. Cathy Wilcox’s cartoon gives the gist of the article – two white children are chatting: ‘Lots of kids in developing countries want to be doctors’ says one, and the other replies, ‘They don’t have the luxury of squandering their education on a sporting career!’

You have to read to the seventh paragraph to discover that, while ‘professional athlete is the highest ranked career choice for Australian children’, the second rank is ‘entertainer and professional artist or creative professional’. The latter is immediately dismissed by someone associated with the study as ‘probably influenced by popular TV shows’. Lisa Power’s article in the Telegraph, presumably based on the same press release, includes a table that seems to indicate that Rachel Browne got it wrong:

If you combine ‘Entertainer’ with ‘Artist/creative professional’ you get 26%. What’s that? More Australian children want a career in entertainment and the arts than in sport. But that doesn’t fit the media narrative, so let’s bury it.

Has it occurred to anyone else that our governments are willing to back young people’s sporting aspirations with millions of dollars, but leave their artistic aspirations unresourced so that for most of them it remains an unrealistic dream? It’s not just that winning gold at the Olympics is seen by the press and politicians as more important and newsworthy than making things ‘with which the soul of any witnessing human being can resonate and conceivably find comfort, catharsis, awakening, provocation, solidarity, beauty and, perhaps, enlightenment,’ as Clare Strahan put it recently on the Overland blog. Young people’s desires to do the latter must also be trivialised and marginalised. The current precipitate withdrawal of funding from fine arts education in TAFE is symptomatic. So is the Sydney Morning Herald‘s almost total silence about the cuts.

And now a quick sonnet:

Sonnet 8: To children who responded to a survey
We ask you what you want to do
and what you fear. It’s no surprise
if drought, rape, kidnap threaten you
you don’t desire a glittering prize
but want to build the general good,
to teach or heal. And in a land
where gold and silver most command
acclaim, of course it’s understood
your heart goes bling! Celebrity
can look like meaning when you’re ten.
The headlines mock you: Sport! again!
Oh child! child! We’ve corrupted thee!
They don’t hear that your brave young heart,
wants to make, give, create art.

We almost missed it …

.. but the Art Student made an appearance in the print version of the Sydney Morning Herald today. ’24 Hours’, the arts diary has a para on the ‘Rabbit Proof’ exhibition at the Hardware Gallery. I couldn’t find it online, so here’s a little phone photo:

Rew Hanks’s stunning print featuring Kim Jong-Il scrapes in with an ‘even’ but the Art Student appears in bold and has her image reproduced!

She’s given me permission to upload a clearer, though still small, version of the image:

Oh the fame, oh the recognition!