Saturday 31 May 2008

Watching Fairytale, Ai Weiwei, 2007Ai Weiwei's Under Construction, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, poses - says curator Charles Merewether - questions about artistic originality.

Ai himself - a smooth bear of a man with overhanging eyelids, like counter-culture filmmaker extraordinaire Rainer Fassbinder - is more laconic.

About a 2000 Beijing sculpture, In Between, the 50-year-old artist said he "wanted to make something they couldn't take down easily" (p 68). My friend agrees Ai is humble.

He's come out of the wilderness, like Deng Xiaoping, into the mainland mainstream. But, she says, not many Chinese will understand his Modernist referents.

In the early 1980s, while working as a house painter in New York, Ai was "influenced ... by the spirit of Dada" (Ai Weiwei: Under Construction, UNSW Press, 2008, p 49) and "anti-art practices based on dismantling ... traditions that privileged subjectivity" (ibid). "[T]here is no particular skill on display" (p 36).

In front of Feet, Ai Weiwei, 2003To Merewether Ai's attitude here is "[r]edolent of the Surrealist fascination with the structure of the fetish and everyday objects" (p 37). It is "a question of nomination" opposed to the 'bourgeois' ethos of art as "distinguish[ed] from the functionality of the commonplace and commodification of everyday life" (ibid).

Early work was "modest in scope and ambition" (p 38). In 1994, Ai expanded his palette by snapping his wife, Lu Qing, in Tiananmen Square, with her skirt raised and her white underclothes visible - even to the taxi driver waiting alongside. The snapshot "suggests an irreverant association between Mao and sex" (p 52).

It also recalls the savagery of Ekwilist boys and girls intent on destroying subjective culture - and Adam Krug - in Nabokov's Bend Sinister (1947). A heady mixture of power, sex, and destruction renders a striking guise in the book.

In front of Chang'an Boulevard, Ai Weiwei, 2004Ai's audience is not just Western - though his main font and spur is here. His references are not only obvious but curiously pointed.

Ai attains the striking image. This calligraphy-based way of thinking (Chinese is a paratactical language, and is unlike European languages, which are hypotactical) emerges from the artist in such expressions as: "just one hit you know", "very strong and precise", "this was needed for mankind's progress" (p 85).

Provisional Landscape (2002-05), for example, elicited this from my friend: "The government should regulate the appearance" of the buildings going up at such speed in big Chinese cities. Ai makes his point.

But hidden among the mainly large-scale pieces - Bed (2004) and Bench (2004, pic below), for example - is the astonishing Ruyi (2006).

While Bench is made from Qing dynasty ironwood removed from a temple destroyed to make space for apartment blocks, the ceramic Ruyi self-consciously derives from New York's pasticheur Jeff Koons. Merewether says Ai also points back to early Western patterns of luxury consumption.

Bench, Ai Weiwei, 2004At that time, Chinese products held a high value. The critic says that Ai uses a repressive dynastic structure as a referent. It could, on the one hand, produce very beautiful objects in volume and, on the other, keep its people in thrall (p 87).

A ruyi is not often found in China now. In times past, however, it would make a special gift signifying wealth in its form as a pure display object. It also signified 'good wish' since earliest times when it was the accoutrement of a special kind of Buddha. One that could bring people good wishes.

Ai's work shocked my friend "because he changed the meaning". "It's disgusting." Really? "Yes, of course it's disgusting." Why?

"I can feel the feeling but I don't know how to express it. I feel very bad. People want to hold ruyi and put it in their living rooms.

"Just imagine, during Christmas, that you hang chicken guts on a Christmas tree. What is he trying to say? It's related to the name of the exhibition. He's trying to say that China must sacrifice something to get fortune." What?

"I told you my feeling. Organs are disgusting. Ruyi is a gift from god. They show it to all their relatives and friends. It means: 'I can get good fortune in the coming year'. But now, he's put organs ... it's ..."

Ruyi, Ai Weiwei, 2006, porcelain

Wednesday 28 May 2008

La Stampa’s Giovanna Zucconi is English-language expert on culture pages of the Turin-based national daily berliner. I translated several items from the website:

  • Zadie Smith’s fanship with Eminem (26 December 2006)
  • An interview with Haruki Murakami insulted by his country’s ‘radical nationalism’ (26 July 2006), and
  • An interview with Zadie Smith while she sojourned in Rome (25 June 2006)

The ‘Che libro fa…’ (“What book did…”) column offers regular antipodean items. Her 23 May 2008 column covers the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

‘Shoes for the aborigines’

We must still account for terrorism and fascism, caught up, as we are, with the dilemma: memory or reconciliation; but it isn’t as though they’re any better off in the other hemisphere. The opposite is true. Last Wednesday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival they showed a moving documentary about the aborigines or, rather, about the thirtieth anniversary of the push by a great poet in the yawuru language to obtain justice for his people, and at the same time to lay down the foundations of a peaceful settlement between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

And also we see, only now, the release of an anthology - the first - that collects letters, poems, novels, manifestoes, in sum the literature of the aborigines from the end of the 18th century to today. “You are very good, madam, thank you madam .. You give me two pairs of shoes madam …”: in 1796 Bennelong, who had been sent to England to be exhibited as a circus curiosity, writes humbly what is the first document in English addressed by black Australia to white Australia.

The first work of literature came out in 1929: Native Legends by David Unaipon, famous as the ‘Leonardo of Australia’. Only that it was filched by a white anthropologist, who republished it in England under his own name: a crime repaired only a few months ago, with a new edition. The first book by an aboriginal woman is from the second half of the 1960s, the most famous of these works are war songs.

While the country is just now, so late, facing up to itself and its misdeeds, Australians are still reading the usual international bestsellers, from Jodi Picoult to Paulo Coelho. Prescribed books, real-life crime and television spin-offs for essay writing. “In Italy culture is pride and status,” writes a literary blog. By comparison, is it true?

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Life In His Hands, Susan Wyndham's account of the death of Aaron McMillan, a young Sydney pianist, and the neurosurgeon who helped him, covers six years.

From first awareness of illness in 2001 it covers a lot of ground up to the end in 2007. Helen Garner called it "fast-paced" and according to Sydney PEN it was "full of heartache and joy and scientific marvels".

Sandra Lee writing in The Daily Telegraph ('A medical superhero' 23 March 2008) labelled Charlie Teo "the go-to neurosurgeon for the worst-case brain tumour patients, a modern-day medical superhero with a cowboy persona and a can-do attitude".

Others were less enthusiastic. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer (11 April 2008) noted that "Aaron's experience was now a more realistic case study of the neurosurgeon's work".

Antonella Gambotto went further. She said "[t]he dialogue in general reads like the transcription of an ESL exam" and that the book ends with "quadraphonic mediocrity". She also has issues with Wyndham's bias in favour of Teo: "Wyndham could have addressed the rigorous medical training that conditions surgeons to function in intolerable situations."

Nevertheless, "[t]he very lovely Aaron McMillan was gifted with six more years of real living thanks to the maverick neurosurgeon," Lee wrote. As Garner said, the book is "warmly sensitive" and possibly that's the main sticking point. We find no rough edges on Aaron or Charlie; both emerge smelling like roses.

The book cannot, for this reason, be labelled literary journalism. If anything, it's a chronicle. The huge response to its publication, including a huge 1800 words on 5 April 2008, again in the SMH, by the author, should sound a warning. This article notes many new books on dying including ones by Debra Adelaide and Helen Garner.

The anti-Charlie line should have been followed up. In an interview she gave The Wentworth Courier, Wyndham said "I had always hoped to write a book, I thought I'd probably do it about 20 years ago and I've always been looking for that subject matter I just had to write about".

"Being in their presence and hearing them talk, I always felt optimistic," she went on. It should have made her more curious. She started research in June 2002 but the main thread of interest to a journalist - and the Telegraph's headline underscores this - is the animosity toward Charlie in a very small pond.

Gambotto's rider is welcome and Wyndham should have anticipated this kind of treatment because the other side is just not canvassed at all. When Helen Garner is rebuffed by a protagonist, she tries every avenue several times before giving up. And she still strives to see from both sides. Wyndham has taken a series of comments as gospel.

As a result, we are not drawn toward Charlie, as we should be. "When you get people rewriting the textbooks they are usually frowned on by society," says Neil McKenzie (p 172), a New Zealand GP, and a patient of Charlie's. "Charlie thrived in the bigger, less conservative and highly competitive American neurosurgical community" (p 31).

These items are titillating, but apart from a few paragraphs about Charlie getting few referrals from certain insitutions, and a 'campaign' to have him deregistered, we are largely in the dark after almost 300 pages.

The other appealing element in the book is the effects of surgery, as Aaron experienced them. Possibly Wyndham is unqualified to comment too fullsomely, but there is scope here for development.

Sunday 25 May 2008

Christos Tsiolkas and Gideon Haigh read from Tolerance, Prejudice and Fear commissioned by Sydney PEN. Published in 2007 by Allen & Unwin, it is a purely Australian product.

There is plenty of scope for platitude with such a topic, and the audience got what it came for. Haigh wryly introduced recent events in the Sydney art world, however, and with Tsiolkas added a rider to relief at the federal leadership transition. Nobody actually mentioned "working families" but it hung in the air, a palpable presence.

Haigh didn't need "moral guidance from Kevin". Tsiolkas: "as writers, we should be giving support to" Bill Henson. The audience stayed mum.

They hadn't come for this and knew what to expect. In some ways the session (4 - 5pm) was a bonding exercise, a meeting of like minds similar to Apocalypse Now screenings at the old Valhalla in Glebe.

I mentioned the danger of ignoring the aspirations of the Australian middle class in the light of the shame felt, even a hundred years after transportation stopped. I didn't mention that appeals to the Privy Council in London only stopped in 1986, but the panelists got the drift.

Haigh caught the idea on the full and immediately flipped to a spot in the book where his essay talked about - I'm not sure. It means that I'll buy the book to find it. Some, like Isobel Crombie at the NGV, are discussing it but it never enters the mainstream.

Haigh had mentioned the "benign nationalism" characteristic of Australia. And asked why it changed. They said how grateful Australians are for a mention of Australia in global media. Haigh mentioned there was "no history of revolution or a radical left" that had morphed into fascism on Continental Europe in the first half of last century. "We got off lightly."

But similar xenophobic sentiments were present at the time. And not only in the White Australia policy, that dominated narratives of identity until the sixties. Beer posters and advertising art for decades borrowed the same clean, efficient aesthetic Nazi propagandists used. This translates into fear of anything new.

Tsiolkas said Australia was "not a mirror image of Britain" and, in his family growing up, they easily discussed a republic and a new flag. British identity didn't reach the kitchen table (a glare at me).

But the cultural cringe is real and it is due to the same historical precedents. Australia fears any innovation. I walked up to Robert Manne and we chatted for five minutes. He mentioned that it was impossible, since the French Revolution, not to talk in terms of left and right.

I mentioned the 1840s colonial push for a representative legislative assembly and we discussed the Burkean fear of 'innovation' and avoidance of 'party' in the discourse of such as Henry Parkes. It's a short leap to averring that 'cultural cringe' is from the same font.

Tsiolkas told a story about how he and his friend Spiro went to the AFL one day and refused to stand for the national anthem. He said they feared a bashing. This would not have happened, he said, when he was a kid - things were more relaxed. Singing the song had an ironic undertone.

I bumped into Helen Garner and said how I enjoyed The First Stone (1995). She fixed me with a steely eye and said "is that all you want to ask"? "Are you from Ormond?"

I told her 'no' but said I was struck by her noting the 'passivity' women experience in that kind of situation. I also mentioned that in both this book and Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) she had not managed to speak to some of the main protagonists.

"It's a small country," I said. "Yes," she said. "People are afraid of damaging their futures," I said. "Yes," she said.

Garner is diminutive but an enormous presence - it is felt physically. Her sharp grey eyes set on you as she prepares a speech act. You feel a strength here.

So when I asked if she was researching the Mildura car accident case or the Diane Brimble case for her next book, she just said: "There are so many rumours."

I also spoke with Danny Gardner and the people from Auburn who performed at the Bangarra Theatre (the same program as I blogged about last week). This is their third year at the festival.

And I spoke with David Brooks and got a copy of Susan Wyndham's new non-fiction title, Life In His Hands: The True Story of a Neurosurgeon and a Pianist (Picador), signed by the author. I mentioned my liking Atul Gawande and asked how the book came about.

Tsiolkas' next novel is out in November. Garner is working on a new non-fiction book that will be based, like her last two non-fiction titles, on a court case. Robert Manne says his upcoming The Monthly essay on Wilfred Burchett will be labelled 'right wing'.

Friday 23 May 2008

Nicholas Jose - The Red Thread, faber and faber, 2000Nicholas Jose's The Red Thread (2000) has many subtle surprises and one of these is its similarity - in tone, topic and structure - to a Henry James novel. I think, particularly, of The Golden Bowl (1904).

In a nutshell, The Red Thread is a palimpsest: a love story in 'real life' superimposed - uncannily - onto a fictional one. Shen Fuling, an art dealer, meets and falls for Ruth, an Australian artist exhibiting in Shanghai, where Shen works with a number of aspirational (read: money-hungry and crass) natives and the Oxford-educated poof Ricky Chittleborough.

Shen comes across an old 'masterpiece' called Six Chapters of a Floating Life (written in the 19th century but with a title all Westerners will associate with Japan in its Edo period). Bought from the back-country seer Old Weng, Six Chapters comes to obsess Shen so much that he pulls it from sale on auction night.

He starts to read his - and Ruth's - lives in the mesmeric old text.

Eventually, their floating life comes crashing down - it appears. To get there, they must 'float' - and they do. They bump into Han, a poor Shanghinese karakoe singer with large breasts, and the three of them intertwine their hours and minutes so effectively that they are in danger of becoming totally disassociated from the world around them.

They escape, after Shen loses his job, into the countryside - to Mrs Ma's hotel in a dank, fragrant, rotting burg crisscrossed with canals.

It's Ricky, ironically, who descends to treachery - the paintings are clearly forgeries (Shen discovers) - because their owner is the deputy mayor of the city and the art house needs patronage to survive. There's money involved.

“He’s asking me to betray my own ability to discern quality, the difference between real and fake. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s the biggest thing in the world. It's what art is all about. And life too.” (pp 89-90)

His very being is at stake. And it's ironic because, when the last two chapters of Six Chapters surface (thanks to Old Wang), Shen is the one to handle it.

Once word was out about the find, the news would spread like wildfire among those with a penchant for such things. So I donned my suit and tie and returned to work. (p 184)

Instead of writing about corruption in China, however, Jose has been very clever. Not only do we get a taste of the Orient (as it really, in fact, is) - the poverty and helplessness, the small pleasures and beauty, the dynamism of the city and the desperate charm of the old parts of the country - we also get the 'system'.

Shen's apartment, for example. He loses it, of course (he must lose everything to find his true self). But the way it happens is realistic.

Shen's brother gets into trouble. Shen's father, whose own family had lived in the same house Shen inhabits now (though only one apartment on the top floor) for generations, asks Shen to sell. They need to get Shen's brother out of the clink. In any case, the municipal government wants land for construction.

Shanghai is losing itself and doesn't realise it. The way Shen's two, beautiful imperial Ming stem cups are stolen in a cheat and then resurface in the last pages of the book, is highly poetic. This is because they bring Han together with her husband.

But I'm going too fast. This is the problem, though. There's so much happening. And, because Jose has stolen James' thunder he uses James' tactic: slow development with minimal shock. Some key items can be introduced right at the very end of a section, in a seemingly off-the-cuff subclause. It's like watching an ace tennis champion play.

The Orient has allure and Jose obviously spent time there. In addition, he translated his own passages from Six Chapters (a real work of fiction). And he avoids the big sin of James: a simplistic 'us and them' attitude. James' everlasting curse on the Old Continent - it's corrupt and so are its people, while Americans are "young and free" - is not here. Thank god!

The story of Ruth and the story of Shen and the story of Han work themselves out with passion and creativity but, also, with a solemn inevitability that matches Jose's tone and pace.

This is an unsung masterpiece. Please to read, sir. Whoever you are.

Thursday 22 May 2008

Auburn Letters with 28 writers from Western Sydney, was launched on Tuesday at the council town hall in Susan Street, Auburn. You can park in an odd-looking multi-storey garage and you pay nothing. The food arrived post-event but I was too busy chatting - with Stephen Brooks - who dubs himself "Cape Coloured" - and missed out.

By chance I met a poetry friend - Bhupen Thakker - and we sat watching Alissar Chidiac's organisational skills bear fruit. Her choreography plus darkness - most lights went down - we were warned beforehand - resulted in an epic performance.

The 'town square' metaphor Chidiac designed worked well. Auburn is a slow sort of place and many of the performers have arrived in Australia from countries where civic life would persist in the town.

The preliminaries were a wee bit long but organisers - Salem Naja key among them - found the way to entice both the mayor - Le Lam - and the minister - Barbara Perry - to the event. A camera was set up among the chairs, which numbered possibly 150 in several rows facing a 'stage' where poets spoke.

It was a bit slow at first - stage nerves - but Bhagavadas Sriskanthadas upped the juice with his powerful voice and deep reserves of - something...

Is it resentment? My friend in Phoenix is from Jordan and when I revealed the photos she said: "Like the hijabs." Many women were covered. Some performers spoke in their first language. But the power was not less for it.

In fact, the singsong voice of Omeima Sukkarieh cut right through any reserves audience members may have had about the professionalism and sincerity displayed on stage. He had Turkish members of the audience chuckling and chatting like love birds.

Other notables on the floor were Stephen Brooks (already mentioned) and young Farid Farid. Danny Gardner - who lives not in Auburn but even further out - in Wentworthville - animated the scene with his gangly frame and serious mien.

Fadeel Khayat, who is Iraqi, is always good value. He often appears around the traps and specialises in poetry about the marshes in the south of his native country.

Funded by Auburn Council, NSW Arts and the Auburn Migrant Resource Centre, Auburn Letters is a nice, neat package featuring script, both English and others.

Inside, it's not all English. Fadi Deeb, the MRC's promotions officer, did a nice job on the cover. The paper is not high-quality. There's a bit of confusion as two poems by the same writer will not be adjacent - this suggests an editorial plan but to me it is slightly irritating.

Notables on stage noted that this year is the International Year of Languages. Barbara Perry, among them, brought forward the necessity of giving first-generation Australians a chance to "find a voice". It is true. Auburn Letters - it's also the name of a group - has about 30 members.

Hearing the Oud on arrival cemented an idea - multiculturalism - that some here may feel to be under seige. Since the December 2005 Cronulla riots, many Arabic-speakers have felt - so many negative stories in the mainstream - isolated by the twin allegiance: to country and to adopted country.

It's not hard to see why. If you're Lebanese or even Chinese it will happen - not infrequently - that walking on the street a car full of young hoons slows down and one passenger leans out the window and screams: "Fucking Chinese!"

This is Australia. Language, said Perry, "often seems as a barrier rather than a bridge". It "defines our worlds" and the event, she hoped, would "put Auburn on the world map".

"Western Sydney is a hotbed for artists and writers," she said. And it's true. The problem is that - if you want to buy or view - you need to go to the centre. To Paddington, Redfern, Surry Hills, Glebe, Darlinghurst. If you want performance poetry or to buy visual art, these suburbs are the place to go.

"I belong to nowhere, nothing, no-one," said one of the poets. "Must I fit my limitless self to your limits?" asked another. "I am my own promised land." "I am enough." Credible and true words, these - but scope for participation in the public sphere is, for many, limited.

At some point I'll read and review the book. For the moment the photos must suffice. Unless you can get to Hickson Road on Saturday 24 May: starting at 9.30am the performance I saw on Tuesday is to be repeated as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival.

The event is - again - free and to take place at the Bangarra Theatre.

Auburn Council Town Hall
Mohamed Youssef

Salem Naja, Auburn Migrant Resource Centre
Mayor of Auburn City, Le Lam
Barbara Perry, Minister for Western Sydney
Choreography by Alissar Chidiac
Stephen Brooks
Fadeel Khayat
Bhagavadas Sriskanthadas

Dorothy Makasa
Ten Ch'in U
Farid Farid
Omeima Sukkarieh

Monday 19 May 2008

Michael Temman, keynote speaker at The Japan Times-University of Tokyo Symposium 'Challenges for English-Language Newspaper in East Asia' is the very epitome of the ex-pat.

Short-cropped hair, dark skivvy, grey jacket, no tie. Hands - note the cropping; mine is slightly closer but the visible hands are a give-away - in motion. A noisy foreigner, the image says. You don't need to listen to him, because we'll protect you.

His attire is pure cliche: TV comedian out for golf. Sure, he can drive his Lexus, his black-glassed BMW - like a yakuza operative - but he's not one of us. He's outside the system. He can't vote. He can't have his name on a 'head of household' certificate.

But we'll label him the 'keynote speaker' - that'll make him feel important. Seattle Jew is watching, too:

[T]he World University Rankings for 2006, issued by The Times Higher Education Supplement, the weekly education magazine published by an affiliate of The Times of London, shows that only three Japanese universities are in the top 100. They are Japan's top-notch national universities — University of Tokyo (ranked 19th), Kyoto University (29th) and Osaka University (70th)

And if you want to download the PDF on the broadsheet's website, don't worry about getting up and fixing a cup of coffee. You might even have time to go to the bathroom. Don't be uncomfortable! These shots show the lamentable download speed - taken about a minute apart.

When it comes to racing cars, Japan makes the fastest, the most fuel-efficient, most robust cars. Ditto for laptop computers. Most LCD factories are either owned by Japanese companies or are built under license.

When it comes to information - Temman tells us - the Japanese are slow. They have no interest in faster, more accurate, more investigative stories. That would only upset people.

The journalist's maxim: If it's news, somebody's bound to get upset. Nothing could be further from the mind of a Japanese newspaper editor, according to Temman:

Now I would like to explain why Japan is ranked about 30 or 40 in the [annual press freedom index].


[T]he closed nature of the "kisha" (press) clubs. Kisha clubs ban foreign journalists from getting news from government organisations. Despite harsh criticism from foreign correspondents, the European Union, the European Business Council and a lot of American organisations, the Japanese government shows no interest in reforming this archaic system.

Temman then points to other blocks to the free flow of information:

  • Strong nationalism causing self-censorship
  • Editors won't take responsibility for stories on the emperor
  • Difficulty in writing about war history, or
  • Teachers who refuse to sing the national anthem
  • International divorced couples - the foreigner (especially men) have no visitation rights

Temman notes the death, in 1987, of journalist Tomohiro Kojiri, killed by rightists in the Kobe office of Asahi Shimbun, a major daily. He had written about emperor Hirohito's wartime responsibility. The two men "were never arrested. The investigation ended after 15 years (when the statute of limitations expired)."

Sunday 18 May 2008

Bad Faith, Carmen Callil, book coverBad Faith, Carmen Callil's 2006 threnody for her psychotherapist, has a dangerous title.

It is unlike Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas' 2005 novel about anti-Semitism and exploitation, or Anna Funder's 2002 Stasiland, a work of literary journalism that probes deep because it includes the author's persona.

It is also, unfortunately, unlike Nabokov's 1959 biography of Gogol (New Directions, San Francisco), and chapter four of his The Gift (written between 1935 and 1937, published in Russian in 1938, and in English in 1963), which deals - hilariously and effectively - with earnest Russian late-19th century writer Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky.

Nabokov's animus coalesces with Fyodor's enthusiasm - those hours spent in the Berlin library! - to forge one of the great moments of twentieth century pastiche.

Once read both books - as well as Tsiolkas' and Funder's - are with difficulty forgotten. In the case of Chernyshevsky, the chapter will characterise the man. The same may not be true for Gogol but here, too, is clever writing.

The problem with Callil's book is the strident deprecation. Again and again - we hardly need reminding - we're told what a loathesome coward and "mountebank" Darquier was.

It is unnecessary because telling the story shows it. The main issue is not that Darquier facilitated the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, many just children.

It is the complicity of so many - unnamed - 'collabos' including (and this could be further stressed but is probably dealt with in other books) Francois Mitterand, the past president of the republic.

Like the British sugar industry and the millions it contributed to both state and private coffers, French involvement in anti-Semitism is still largely unacknowledged in the broad public sphere. Darquier

was the natural inheritor of generations of anti-republican attacks by the old order, of ideas borrowed from strangely revered French intellectuals such as Charles Maurras, of centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism and nationalist myth-making. (p 443)

The epithet "strangely revered" is slightly unpleasant. It suggests there is - you only have to ask! - a 'correct' canon of French history that right-thinking Frenchmen (and others) should consult.

The complicity of others - individuals, nations - in the global community must also be recognised.

The next move would be to investigate our own, home-grown and fierce, monarchists - such as Myrtle Jones' family in northern Tasmania - whose "aspirations were similar" to Darquier's. "[N]o one ... could match [Myrtle's] devotion to the British royal family" (p 413).

"The upward climb of the Jones family and their insistence upon respectability" (p 425) may, in fact be the problem. Indeed, Darquier's amazing ascendancy is nothing if not astonishing: from debt-ridden hack to government minister in a few years. The right man at the right time, perhaps.

But perhaps Darquier is also something of a poet. One propaganda script reads (p 363):

A reporter visits a working-class suburb. He is standing in the courtyard of one of the housing blocks. The text and the sound evoke the lack of light, the poverty and the dirty, miserable games which keep the children entertained.

He exhorts people to save the race and make this plague disappear.

Other sounds and words show that children need sunshine and fresh air.

The soundtrack evokes life in the country, open fields, campfires at night, singing, gymnastics and a balanced life. 'That,' the reporter concludes, 'is youth enjoying life.'

The thing here - and Callil misses it - is that this kind of 'imagining' the future was routine, and not only in France under Petain or in Germany under Hitler. Identical messages gained support of elites in Australia. There are certainly instances in the United States, and probably also in Britain.

Callil need only consult Isobel Crombie's Body Culture (2004). I bought an American magazine at a Queensland junk shop recently (Physical Culture, July 1919) with an essay by George Bernard Shaw entitled 'Morality and Birth Control'.

The stench of hypocrisy whispers a soft but insistent chord, reading Callil's book. It's not just the aborigines (p 444: "Remembering has to do with justice, and as there is no justice, acknowledgement has to do."). Crombie shows that such entities as Darquier's Scientific Commission for the Study of Racial Biology and Institute of Anthropo-Sociology were the norm in the West.

Similar "guardians of racial purity" (p 316) enabled people - this is before Darwin's 'mechanism' (DNA) was discovered (1960) - to understand how to improve themselves, and to ensure the strength of the nation.

Notions such as "the quality of the human being" and "healthy individuals rather than imbeciles and the physically handicapped" and "improving cultivation, breeding and race" (p 316) are part of the global background noise of the Depression years. Steinbeck's years.

Maurras' entreaty - "to sort out - to judge, to condemn, to execute" - simply contains one clause too many. Otherwise, it could apply anywhere in those lean years.

At some point in the book - I forget where - Callil also mentions the dangers inherent in the times when politicians start using words such as "the family". This points to the present; not only Rudd but Obama, too.

Callil is 'sorting out', 'condemning' and 'judging'. Not unfairly. But it is too easy to shift blame wholesale to the vanquished. In fact, it may even be dangerous.

Most students of 20th century history now regret the punitive nature of post-WWI sanctions and penalties. Applied to Germany - an ancient enemy of France - it became easy for a demagogue to make mischief.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Soldiers "just for show" says John Garnaut (in Szechuan) for The Sydney Morning Herald. The article is hilarious and in stark contrast to the official images that emerge from the depths of western China.

With 500,000 homeless and an official death count still below 30,000, we can be sure there will be more stories - of a New Orleans type - coming out of the middle kingdom. image from website front page image from online video
Some buildings, obviously, survived. The image below screened on and shows a very recent construction - evident in the rounded windows (dormer), green-blue glass, and overall elegant conception.

It would be useful to know the name of the contractor in this case, as in others - most tragically schools - the materials (they're calling it 'tofu' concrete; note that 'tofu' has another connotation - a woman's breasts - in China) are substandard. image from online video
SMH 17 May 2008, story by John Garnaut and Hamish MacDonaldGarnaut has been busy filing at least one - more often several - story daily from Szechuan. In the SMH's News Review supplement (which doesn't make it online) he teams up with Hamish MacDonald (erstwhile China correspondent for the broadsheet).

Here, the story is one of genuine concern and anguish. Unlike the soldiers (getting in the way), in this story there are real heroes.

And because the media has been let in - it was a different story in 1976 when the last big earthquake hit China - better stories are getting out. And so we get a more nuanced and credible picture of how Chinese people really are.

Away from the centre, it is possible to get closer to the truth. It's a truism about China that the further south you go, the more, different voices are heard in the public sphere.

These voices do not recreate officially-sanctioned stereotypes but, rather, tell simple stories of average men and women taking care of each other.

It's moving, really.

Friday 16 May 2008

Gary Redding is no longer a suspect in the death of "Sydney model" Caroline Byrne - Gordon Wood is - but his April 2004 conversation with The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Kate McClymont is striking:

"We used to congregate at [Joe's] cafe at 9 o'clock in the morning and have some breakfast before Rivkin used to go off and do his jobs. I'd set the alarm for half seven every morning, grab a coffee, jump in the shower and go over there at 9 o'clock.

"So, I wakes up, put the coffee on, just about to jump in the shower and George Freris phones me. 'Gary?' - 'Yes.'

"'There's been a tragedy.' - "'Who? What?'

"'Gordon's girlfriend Caroline was killed last night.'

"And I said, 'What?' I said, 'How?' And he said, 'a car accident'."

Later that day Redding was told it was suicide.

"I said, 'I don't believe she would commit suicide.' And they said, 'Yeah, she jumped off The Gap'. And I said, 'No way'."

Wood has just (2008) been granted access to legal aid so that he can be adequately represented. He has been living with his mother in Sydney since being extradicted from Europe a couple of years ago.

This is a very Sydney story. It is alleged that Wood threw Byrne over The Gap (pic) because she was able to reveal information about his involvement in a case of arson - the Offset Alpine fire - that netted Rene Rivkin a fair amount.

In another story, also from 2004, the main problem is clear:

Byrne's body was found just over nine metres from the base of The Gap. Physicists from the University of Sydney conducted tests for police, using a mannequin, and concluded that she was probably thrown, most likely by two men.

The Gap is sandstone - like most of Sydney. In fact, the only granite is found west of the mountains. Sydney's warm, yellow stone was used by early builders for their most serious constructions.

The Gap, too, is famous. Actually, it's notorious. When I lived around there thirty years ago you heard sirens not infrequently, attached to cars and ambulances speeding along Old South Head Road - one of two major arteries. It runs along the cliffs past Macquarie Lighthouse, the WWII gun emplacements, and eventually down the hill into the - once - quiet hamlet of Watsons Bay.

The Gap, Watsons Bay, photo by Peter Rae, SMH, Friday 16 May 2008
In the photo the shattered rock facing the Tasman lies tumbled as if broken off with a giant hammer. Those blue ladders were placed there by emergency crews who abseiled down the face of the cliff. It is easy - in this spectacular photo - to see that a woman jumping off the verge at night could not have landed where she did.

Or could she not? Perhaps, tumbling and bouncing off the ledges, she just eventually got to this point through the agency of natural forces. Crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC thought otherwise when he addressed Burwood local court (from The Australian, 13 June 2007):

He said experiments conducted by Professor Cross would show that a "spear-throw" - where a person is grabbed by the groin and neck and thrown from chest height using a shot-put action - was the only way Byrne's body could have achieved the necessary speed and orientation to land so far out.

It all comes down to (a) physics and (b) motive (money, of course).

Professor Cross said a body of 61kg required a launch speed of 4.5m per second to reach 11.8m away from the face. Byrne weighed 57kg.

Dense foliage at the top of the cliff in 1995 meant there was only a 4m run-up, effectively preventing a jumper from reaching the necessary speed.

Professor Cross said a two-person throw or an underarm throw by one person would not reach the required launch speed.

In the old days, they were just jumpers. Maybe. This case puts in a different light all those quiet nights by Gibsons Beach, waiting to fall asleep. Sirens in the distance. Were others thrown? As children, such thoughts never occurred to us as we pitched our tents, boiled our billies, or rambled through lantana and wattle.

The cliffs on the Bay side - cut onto the rock to make way for trams that once terminated here - were climable. And there was one, particularly secret, cave - almost invisible from outside - you just saw a shadow under a rock. But inside we would find, from time to time, traces of others' pastimes: fire ash, pornographic pictures, food wrappers.

If you went up the hill a bit you came to the crematorium (in fact, it's still there) where granny's interred.

Caroline Byrne, an attractive blonde, has been dead 13 years and still the case rumbles along, like a swell crossing the Tasman.

Thursday 15 May 2008

Rhona Harris migrated to Australia in 1920 when the young woman - her dark eyes troubling, serious, austere - was 17. Her father was an artist, a professional artist at that, and the young woman began publishing drawings and paintings in 1925, aged 22.

The book, The Pixie O. Harris Fairy Book (Adelaide: Rigby) includes poetry by the artist. It also has stories and poems by other, Australian, women writers. "She was asked to do drawings like Ida Rentoul Outhwaite," says my mother, who would know because we lived next door to the Pratts for some ten years.

Already, in this book, the style she would use for her professional work, is mature and the line confident. If we see a dozen fairies perched along a branch, they are all correct (though they follow the, admittedly, attentuated elegance already well established during the previous century by the Pre-Raphaelites).

They are talking to one another, too. This is what kids like: friends. There's a feeling of community, and this comes across equally strong in the poems. Somehow, this young woman is suddenly mature beyond her years and, despite the antipodean translation, none of her innate confidence is lost.

In her autobiography, Our Small Safe World, Pixie finishes the narrative at the moment of arrival, so (unfortunately) there's nothing here about this first book. Which is a pity - even Monash University's curt bio page has errors.

Surely Pixie - undoubtedly one of the first Australian women to earn a living by art - deserves a more thorough and painstaking appraisal? Surely, too, as the aunt of Rolf Harris, she could be invited to take a place closer to the spotlight of general acclaim. We've got a Miles Franklin prize - why not a Pixie O'Harris prize for children's literature?

"This is one Fairy Tale come true," writes Pixie in the brief dedication to her sister Pat. Fairies, she adds, "now-a-days are few". She's knowing, but her audience is not (they're unlikely to read this bit). The illustrations are not only in line but also "in Color" and "Half-Tone" (five shillings).

The first poem, 'The Spell', is stamped with antipodean emblems: wattle, ti-tree, golden wattle, baronia. But in the drawings, we don't see the kind of local flora Outhwaite made into a kind of brand - an antipodean antidote to climbing roses and lilies.

In addition to the trademark butterflies she would continue using for the next sixty years, we've got kookaburras (several - clearly the bird struck young Rhona) but that's about all. It would take a few more years before Pixie integrated local fauna and flora into her narratives.

The book cost about 70 dollars on eBay. The covers (back and front) have come away. The paper is dark with age. The corners are not crisp. Obviously, a well-loved copy.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Lessing in 1949Less Nobel is more, says laureate Lessing, talking with the BBC. "All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed," says the nonagenarian author who has been "in constant demand".

Born Doris May Tayler in Kermanshah, Persia, Lessing is not well covered online, at least in terms of the number of photos available. Regrettably, most are recent. The few shown here can be supplemented by numerous others on a website full of Lessing detail.

It is scandalous, the paucity of visual record for Lessing, who in December inveigled against the Internet. Now, she's inveigling against her lack of drive. Her recent novel will, she says, be her last. The full BBC interview will be broadcast on radio.

The break with tradition - she's a force of nature - is deplorable. In a 2003 interview with PBS, Lessing told Bill Moyers that she was "compulsive". So how does she cope? "I don't have any energy any more," she says, mimicking Marquez. "Use it while you've got it because it'll go, it's sliding away like water down a plughole."

The Columbian writer has produced a memoir and a novella (short novel?) in recent years. But at the beginning of 2006 said he'd "dried up". I wouldn't suggest this in Lessing's case, but it does appear that her drive has slipped a disc. She tells younger writers "don't imagine you'll have it forever".

As in the case of many writers, the idea of writing came from reading. "I never stopped reading," she told Moyes. "It was what saved me. And educated me." Her mother helped by ordering "bushels" of books from England. A "child of World War I", Lessing told Moyes she knew "what it's like to be brought up in an atmosphere of a continual harping on about war".

She became a "Red", she says because "the local Reds were the only people that ever read anything".

Sunday 11 May 2008

Hoi Polloi, Craig Sherborne's memoir, covers 10 years - from about six years of age to his late adolescence - by which time his parents moved from a small town (the name's undoubtedly false here) in New Zealand to their 'true' place amid Sydney's petit bourgeoisie.

Scots College, where Sherborne studies (he names it 'the Mansions') is here, as are the races at Randwick, the Western Line - boys out to row for a cup - and a small flat in Watsons Bay where Genevieve, the mistress (Heels, the boy's mother, titters at the appellation but forgives it for the sake of the social access the woman provides - her keeper's a judge) lives with her illegitimate son.

Helen Garner endorses the book in its cover, but this is indeed a cracker, a rip-snorter, a rum-roarer, a fine piece of writing. The boy's feelings in his early years are as acute as they would be later.

The miracle is that, even in short pants, Sherborne remembers.

Not every moment of every day. The book is episodic, like a collection of short stories. Each has its own arc and tone.

Together, they constitute a must-read for Sydneysiders interested in the times, especially the mid-70s evoked in the second half.

Sex, death, love, honour, betrayal. The boy is serious and intelligent beyond his years. His parents are quite uncultured, fretful of 'place' and absolutely preoccupied with status.

There's a wonderful scene when - it's a two-bedroom flat for a family of three - Winks (the dad) exits the bathroom doing up his trousers. Heels and the boy have been talking heatedly. Winks is suddenly suspicious and asks what the loud voices are about.

This paranoia, a fear of being 'common' (only plebs shout things in the street, have arguments you hear three floors down) infuses the relationship between the intelligent boy and his fretful parents.

The Mercedes in NZ becomes a Torana in Sydney, and the boy prefers to go to school by bus.

Diamond Bay, where they lived, is close to where my mum had a gift shop for thirty years, and many customers had apartments fanning out along Military Road.

The area is exclusive, but in those days you didn't mix. Not that we 'mixed' with anyone especially; dad was busy sailing and in business, mum and gran ran the shop.

The book - unlike Robert Adamson's memoir, reviewed below - does not touch on the beauty available - even around rocky Diamond Bay and the cliffs that drop to kiss the endless swell of the Tasman.

Sherborne is uninterested in the natural environment. It's his parents he wants to understand, and the book goes a long way to helping us get a clear picture of life in the 70s.

It was not all rock'n'roll and protests, long hair and dope-smoking in inner-city squats.

The two people are described in loving detail. From NZ, Sydney was their ne plus ultra. The book's title will resonate broadly, as it was the kind of word many parents got wrong.

The school experience is wonderfully correct and perfectly written. You are amazed at how clearly the voices of the boys emerge from the page. In one scene, a nasty character called Gary Blackwood is persecuting a Jewish boy. After he finishes, a prefect arrives and blames Richard Burns (the Jew):

"Next time I'll send you to the school sergeant." The prefect jokes to Gary Blackwood that he should save his knuckles for the regatta.

I see, hear and feel the anger and resentment Sherborne's protagonist experienced. And because it was Scots College, we know - the statistics prove it - that such boys as these would go on into professions like the law.

The book is a snapshot of Sydney in the 70s, a perfect 'imagining' to serve generations to come as a guide. It deserves classic status, like AB Facey's A Fortunate Life. Hopefully the sticker price - shown in the pic going down from $27.95 to $12.99 to $6.99 - will one day hold firm.

It would be fitting if it did (although admittedly this copy was purchased at QBD on the Sunshine Coast): with Sherborne you are in safe hands.

Saturday 10 May 2008

Attacking the canon is always dangerous, especially if, as in Maurizio Calvesi's case, you are cultural establishment.

And especially if you are Italian. Or French. Or German. In such nations culture is a point of pride, a distinguishing referent shared by all, a sign of ‘developed’ status.

It is taken seriously.

There is one unfortunate aspect of the public sphere in these countries, however. Especially in countries such as Italy and Germany where the fascist era coincided with post-industrial Modernity. (In Britain it coincided with the Renaissance.) A cultural product associated too closely with the period is automatically stigmatised.

It’s not surprising that in his 1973 Boccioni monograph Calvesi starts apologising in the first sentence of the first paragraph on the first page.

Self-censorship is political. Here it’s the knee-jerk submission - doff your cap when you pass the seigneur - required within democracy’s subtle realpolitik.

As is the belief that eugenics were practised and studied only in fascist countries during the mid part of last century. There is a taint of participation simply by saying ’Futurist’.

The colour of the label - the yellow of shame, the green of sickness, the black of collective blindness - is not always deserved. It is true that some Futurists, like Marinetti, prospered under Mussolini. Others, like Boccioni, died in WWI.

Ironically thrown from a horse, as he would have preferred crushing by a tank or bombing from the air. I'm sure.

There are many layers in any art movement. Often the reason for the original impetus - frequently political or nationalistic - is lost in time. We just don’t remember, or else nobody told us.

Joyce was undoubtedly influenced by Futurism - exposed to such artefacts as Boccioni’s ‘movement’ drawings - included in the monograph - and which are part of classical Modernism. While living in Trieste he also made a careful study of the reclusive Ettore Schmitz. He went further, into the realms of narrative (whence all things spring).

The relationship would blossom in Bloom - the Ulysses character - but the style is outlandishly Modernist. It shows the fragmentary, synchronous perception Futurists conflated into their boyish enthusiasm for the products of modernity: aeroplanes, trains and cars.

But Joyce showed us how expressive are our imperfections. He made this into a universal virtue. The Futurists, on the other hand, overawed by London’s inherent dynamism, associated their aesthetic response to modernity only with its technology-rich cultural artefacts.

In the same way, people today from developing countries automatically recognise ‘progress’ in a big bridge, but will not be aware of the reason for its existence.

The futurists visited London - the ‘engine room’ of advanced capitalism - and, struck with elemental ideas of ‘speed’ and ‘movement’, would bring home new doctrines. They fashioned an image of modernity for the purposes of participation in the public sphere. They felt it was 'their' time.

Sure, Mussolini appropriated Modernist aesthetics, but pity poor Calvesi in 1973. Why an apology at all? A Boccioni design is struck on the Italian 20 cent Euro. Some sort of rehabilitation, at least.

Calvesi may have helped by writing:

[T]his vision of movement as an absolute, as energy that is latent in the body, whether mobile or at rest, can be set against the narrow idea of movement as displacing a body in space, from one fixed point to another: what Boccioni calls ‘relative movement’, but he allows for it only as a complementary representation, not a mandatory one, of ‘absolute movement’. He privileges a universal dynamism, and simultaneity ...

That Futurism was reductively interpreted as a pure representation of ‘relative movement’ was, in fact, intolerable for Boccioni. He looks askance at colleagues who, like Balla in 1912, adopted as the keystone and justification for his futurist figurations the cinematographic principle of the persistence of images on the retina, depicting a small dog passing with a disproportionate number of feet, in homage to their pictorial manifesto’s clause - one that Boccioni must immediately have thought very dangerous: “a galloping horse does not have four hoofs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular”.

Calvesi excuses the good boy from a classroom filled with miscreants.

He talks of Boccioni’s “idiosyncrasy” (a 'plus') in a context coloured (positively, for us) by the presence of Henri Bergson. The philosopher, Calvesi says, opposed (such tendencies as Boccioni’s) “schematic or successive reproduction of the static and the moving” with the “so-called” “spacialised time” of the scientific positivists.

“A pure dimension of consciousness” Calvesi calls it, referring to Bergson’s 1922 ‘Duration and Simultaneity: Bergson and the Einsteinian Universe’.

Boccioni was not interested, says Calvesi, in "merely" physical phenomena (the duration of images on the retina). Rather, he looked at how ‘duration’ manifested itself in memory. This (possibly bogus) distinction shifts the reader's focus away from ‘bad’ mechanistic and utilitarian notions of Modernity.

And brings it to bear on mainstream Modernism: Proust, Joyce and, even, the seminal scene at the end of Anna Karenin - here the doomed heroine is in a cab watching streets and shops pass, on her way to the train station and death.

In Proust, a world comes to life via flavour. In Joyce, every artefact (verbal, visual) has a political connotation and it is linked to the personal - linked deep.

In Tolstoy’s 1877 book (which drew heavily for its plot on Flaubert’s 1856 Madame Bovary) the individual suddenly becomes important - truly a revelation for a Russian intellectual.

It was this revelatory thing that inspired the writer to empathise - on the page - to see the world - ‘through Anna’s eyes’.

But Calvesi is drawing a long bow when he tries too hard to 'rehabilitate' Boccioni. The fact is that the artist escaped most of the stigma of Futurism because of the good luck (!) to die before 1922 - the year of (then-socialist) Mussolini’s inaugural piece of street theatre: The march on Rome.

When we look at Boccioni’s drawings, we see a youthful attempt to do something worthy of his social position, but we don't see more existential angst than, say, Bonnard.

We will not find a visual analogue of Joyce, Proust or Tolstoy.

Boccioni is like, in an Australian context, the artist Charles Conder. Conder revered French paintings, as of course did others at the same time. But he never really ‘got it’; it was always pure display - superficial and ultimately trite.

Nothing that Boccioni drew - Calvesi puts the date 1911 on the meeting of Futurists and Cubists - outdid the Parisians (Braque, Picasso). The latter is infinitely superior to such as Boccioni.

What these young Italians did - ultimately - was to show the rest of the world their excitement. The thrill of untold wealth and advanced technology. The fruits of democracy; but this last connection they didn't really understand. Few do now, even.

It is unfortunate that their sense of identity was sullied by association with the purely political. We blame them for not foretelling the future.