Wednesday 31 December 2008

The good time of the return trip was when the concrete roadway screamed and hummed under the tyres in the final 150 kilometres down the Pacific Highway.

It was also good early in the morning on the New England Highway when the magpies just outside Armidale reluctantly relinquished the road to my oncoming car. The bad times were earlier, the day before, in the first, flat expanse of the highlands, when the rough macadam thundered under the wheels.

I'd fought my way free of Brisbane without major mishap - the missed turnoff turned out to be alright if a little slow - and shed Ipswich along the Cunningham Highway. I'd ascended the tablelands at Cunningham's Gap, through the echoing blips of the bellbird forest.

But I hadn't counted on the harrassing of my rear bumper by recent model Commodores. There was one FWD, in particular, that I recall with gritted teeth. He was not content to travel at the specified maximum of 100 kilometres per hour, and he hummed along a few metres from my car until I finally let him pass. It was mid-30s in the shade. I was ready to stop and take a breather.

First we had to negotiate his passing. A few miles down the road, in the steep approaches to the tablelands up the second 'step', I passed him, staying at 100 km/hr while he, trailer pulling, slowed to 85.

It was sweet only for a time, and many others would pass me in similar circumstances before I got to rest that evening. I landed in the motel at about 4.45pm, bushed and frankly screaming with fatigue.

Next morning I woke before 6am and straightaway hit the road. The weather was hot, again, but the grass was green and the pastures a comfortable colour, not like a year ago, when the brown expanses stretched away to grey-olive mountains. They were cutting grass this year, and spraying weeds, by the side of the road just north of Tamworth.

The Lower Hunter is still brown, however. Down in the great bowl of arable land beside the sea, from Newcastle to Gosford (and which is all forest, and untouched by pastoral work) the short, salty-coloured scrub bears the heat. The screaming of the concrete roadway was the only thing indicating movement. Everything else was asleep, dulled into somnolescence by sun and still air.

Sunday 28 December 2008

By the time Wendell Willkie's One World was published in Sydney, in July 1943, over 2 million copies of the short book had been sold. There seem to be two audiences, an internal (American) one, and an external (global) one. A Republican nominee for the 1940 US presidential election, Willkie was a lawyer and the first such nominee to run without previously holding public office.

A Republican ex presidential nominee writing, in 1940, about WWII and the plan for "winning the peace" (as he frequently phrases the scope of potential post-war scenarios), should give us some idea of the nature of the content, even before reading starts.

Willkie travelled, in preparation for writing the book, to several countries - most notably Russia and China - and spoke with world leaders, including Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek. He tried to get a 'feel' for politics and opinions among people outside his - traditionally isolationist - United States. In this he is frequently successful, but more often than not gets bogged down debating - as a politician tends to do - the specifics of recent events, rather than a long-term strategy designed to ensure no future world war would occur.

For this is - or seems to be - Willkie's purpose: to find a method whereby future war can be avoided. He also asks questions about abolishing colonies, which appeared to him to be a major preoccupation when talking with individuals on the ground. The omission of India in his itinerary must have galled him.

The other purpose would have been a purely tactical one of garnering support among his target audience for the United Nations (which he calls the 'Alliance' ranked adgainst the 'Axis' powers; a curious use of the title since the UN wasn't officially founded until 1945).

In support of his purpose, Willkie draws in a predictable way on the classical American narrative of freedom (in fact, the final word of the book is, precisely, 'freedom'). The 'colour' provided also aids in this method. While he singles out American soldiers for praise the most he can say about British ones is that their officers seem to all smoke pipes. They are in America's debt, clearly.

But apart from the more predictable ranklements such a book must provoke, it is an interesting read in that it gives you a chance to participate in a debate that, at the time, had no predictable outcome. India, Indonesia, malaysia, Vietnam - none of these countries had, in 1942 when, presumably, the flight of the Gulliver occurred, a clear future.

The goodwill demonstrated wherever he went, toward America, has, now, of course, been largely eclipsed by narrow nationalisms such as he wanted to fight against. But the exclusionary, American narrative of freedom, so heavily relied on here, has failed to support the aspirations of individuals and collectives around the world.

In this light, it would be advisable for American statesmen to try to find an alternative narrative. The problem here would be, of course, that to abandon their treasured 'history' would be to welcome the splintering of America itself. Perhaps.

We'll see. The most striking thing about the book, apart from the enormous sales, is that Willkie signally fails to predict any of the major developments of the following ten years. He says nothing about the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. He says nothing about the Cold War - not a word.

So despite flying completely round the globe, the earnest author - certainly an enlightened man - will fail to achieve closure in so many of the areas of debate he chooses to open up.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Thomas Tryon's 1974 Lady is a type of murder mystery and coming-of-age story mingled within a morality tale about intolerance, which ends after WWII. Starting with the 8-year-old Woody's meeting with Adelaide Harleigh on a partially frozen lake during the Depression, we see through young eyes a perfect world change into a garden filled with dangers.

There are many serpents, but the most terrible by far is greed. Old Man Harleigh wants an heir by his feckless son Edward, and Old Mrs Strasser wants a comfortable life by her lovely daughter Adelaide. Only the old woman wins but, in the end, neither do, for Lady will puncture the fragile respectability of the Connecticut town's old guard by doing the unthinkable: she will fall in love.

As Germany waxes robust in Europe, Woody discovers how thin is the veneer that Lady has built up around herself over the years. Her affair with the man who now works as her housekeeper is more than scandalous. He is black and, although Woody loves Lady, he will betray her by proxy, even though it wasn't Woody who blew the whistle.

That distinction belongs to Mrs Sprague who, wheedling information from a young handicapped girl, unearths a secret a 1940s New England town cannot stomach. Yet, despite it all, and despite Woody's innocence and subsequent feelings of anger and betrayal, Lady doesn't buckle.

Her early life with Edward was more difficult than this. Forced by her mother to marry the young man who, in turn, was forced into marriage by his father, Lady suffers abuse and insult for years, along with two miscarriages. Finally, recovered with the help of Jesse, a Caribbean medical student working as an orderly in the sanatorium she went to after losing her second baby - and her power of speech - she gets rid of Edward by infection - the war brought a deadly influenze to the world.

Lady has a long story, and a sad one. She seems to overcompensate through kindnesses bestowed on Woody and his brothers and sisters. Their own father died and their mother struggles to keep food on the table. Thanksgiving and Christmas are celebrated with Lady. Woody grows up, enlists in the Navy, and goes off to fight the Japanese.

After the war, he returns and, with the help of Miss Berry - now in her nineties - discovers all the details of Lady's story.

Tryon, born in 1929 and initially a movie actor, weaves a strikingly good tale using both mystery, romance (the young boy and the unreachable, ethereal, true-friend Lady), and morality to excellent effect. He uses events in the town to create drama and suspese. He makes a credible plot with substantial characters who are true to form, if not always to life.

The wonderful storm scene, coming at a critical point in the novel - Woody's admission that it was not him who told the town Lady's secret - adds suspense and drama.

Especially in the early parts, the novel is written in the same sort of form as a childrens story, or series of story books. The same characters reliably appear, act out parts in a way that is consistent with their characters, and retire to leave the centre of the stage to Woody and Lady.

The form is reassuring. It is also suitable for the nature of the book, the majority of which takes place during Woody's childhood. There is plenty of real art here and I wonder why this extremely talented writer does not have a higher profile. This may have something to do with the fact that Tryon left acting to write.

It's hard to imagine how an actor could become a successful novelist (he died in 1991). But, then again, it's hard to credit the amount of praised allowed Pynchon, also a New Englander, though still alive.

Friday 26 December 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a movie starring Keanu Reeves as the doom-sayer, the alien in a dark blue suit whose ultimatum is actually a foregone conclusion. The fate of the earth is sealed by a step mother and her child as they huddle under a Central Park pedestrian bridge, waiting for the swarm of silver gnats to disperse.

The film's low-key ending reflects the film's overall charm. Like Independence Day, it is an end-of-world story. But unlike the earlier film, The Day the Earth Stood Still is not tied up in patriotic knots. In fact, the supremacy of the United States is, here, deeply questionable.

Once he's emerged from the placental blubber that had helped him survive the trip to earth from somewhere in deep space, enclosed in a gorgeous designer bowling ball with a surface marked by swirling clouds and patches of light, and accompanied by a 'guardian' of milennial height and super powers, Clotu, played by Reeves, gets to talk with the secretary of defense in the US administration.

Clotu wants to talk with the totality of world representatives assembled at the United Nations. This explains the choice of Manhattan for the arrival. "Do you represent a civilisation?" asks the woman. "I represent several civilisations," replies Clotu. "Are you aware of an imminent attack on the Earth?" "I want to speak to all world leaders." "You can speak to me." "Do you represent all the countries of the planet?" "I represent the President of the United States."

It's a nice moment of irony, a distinctly post-Iraq moment. It reflects today's world of emerging, non-Western powers. Subtle irony replaces bravado and it's a welcome change. Where, in Independence Day, the aliens were rather ugly and supersized - truly alien - in the new film the alien is clad not in fighting trim and mounted in a space ship but is dressed in a plain, blue serge suit.

The story unfolds and, it's soon clear, Clotu is not out to conquer for gain or glory. He's here, rather - and the following will spoil the ending if you haven't already seen the movie - to inform the Earth that they have been selected for extermination in view of their deleterious effect on the environment. "The Earth is one of a very small number of planets that can sustain complex lifeforms," Clotu explains to the astrobiologist (step mom) in vindication of the decision to wipe out humanity.

Animals love the glowing spheres that have descended at different locations throughout the globe, collecting specimens. Madam secretary is perspicacious enough to recognise that the purpose of the spheres is to be an ark for all terrestrial life.

Another nice touch is the fact that events unfold in public, whereas in so many sci-fi flics with similar scenarios the government (usually the US government) is able to keep it all a secret for years, until the catasrophe. Here, images are grainy because "taken from the Internet" and show how people around the world react to the sphere come among them.

John Cleese, as a Nobel Prize winner, executes a pivotal role nicely. His elegant home, with paintings on the walls, low-slung and minimal furniture, and Bach playing on the stereo, is pure elite kitsch. Nevertheless, Cleese pulls off the cameo really well, providing the justification for Clotu's decision to finally spare the human race: people only change when they are at a crisis, and never before.

Visually, the movie is also quite restrained. The highly engineered robot that accompanies Clotu is made of an attractive silvery material, and it has one shining beam of a red eye that tracks from side to side within a Ned Kelly like opening where its face should be.

The method of destruction - which actually starts near the end of the film - is ingenious, involving tiny, replicating insects that are what the robot is actually constructed out of. The observing men try to 'flash' the robot to cinders, as he stands captive in a specially designed underground bunker for alien observation. But he remains unscathed.

Lifting his grey hands, palms inward, the robot's fingers begin to shred and powder, then swirl in a grey cloud. Slight tracks, as though an insect were eating away at it, appear in the glass of the observation dock. Panic sets in amoung the men observing the robot and the cloud of grey gnats cracks through the glass, explodes out of the fortress-like bunker and then proceeds to eliminate the manufactures of mankind.

The swarm is massive and goes in all directions. Like the Internet, there is nothing to attack, nothing to hit. It is ubiquitous, and cannot easily be contained.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

A review of Murray Walkabout by Archer Russell (1953) must include, at some point, an expression of wonder at the complete invisibility of this writer in our standard Australian pantheon. Part Steve Irwin, part Xavier Herbert, this non-fiction writer and serial wanderer perches mid century like the girl who foung the bear's house, and discovered it was difficult to choose the right seat for her diminutive frame.

Russell would always come down right in the middle just as did Goldilocks. But about one thing he was not backward in emphasis: his love of wild places, the thrill of sleeping under the dome of the night sky, the sense of peace available only to a man alone on a hot, burning plain.

As a young man, Russell was early conscripted into such a kind of life. He had worked on sheep stations in the lower Murray region, in South Australia. The best sections of the book, which rather unstylishly ends in a slow paddle from the river's headwaters in the high country, treat the lower reaches of a usually slow-moving river.

It was for many years one of the prime joys of my life that no place was ever my anchorage, and that I was usually free to drift out over the great countryside wherever the spirit moved me or wherever I should wish to extend the range of my studies. And how I revelled in that!

High adventure, for Russell, somehow began to include a stint at the writing desk. There's not much available online about this curious, but no doubt typical mid-century, man. One NLA entry uncovers a few facts of his life, which began to be published in 1936 and also included a rare biography of the horticulturalist William Farrer.

Ask anyone if they know the name Archer Russell, apart from a no-doubt knowledgeable second-hand bookseller, and you'll definitely draw a blank. "Archer who?" will be your most likely response to the question. "Archer? Surely that's just a pen name?" But it's not, and the lack of awareness of this pre-TV David Attenborough is a striking feature of my reading and subsequent investigation.

There's basically nothing about the man online.

He dedicates this book to his late wife 'Miranda' - a name of affection deriving from her real name. By the time the book was published the lady was gone and we learn that he began wandering along the lower reaches of the Murray before WWI, which means he had around thirty years' experience of the region before he got in his canoe with 'The Captain' to shoot rapids up- and downstream of Albury.

Russell knows his stuff, that's for sure. His short chapters are themed and just right for about fifteen minutes' reading. One chapter will be about willy wagtails, another about reptiles. Sometimes his wife camps with him - notably at one time during the Depression - sometimes he is alone and footloose.

The best bits chronicle areas made familiar in his youth, not the later digression on the upper Murray, by which time he was a mature man with a rather more conservative outlook on life.

His affection for wildlife and his deep knowledge of it marry with an abiding interest in the poetic. The language is used inventively and poetic tropes familiar to many appear regularly as well as linguistic forms such as alliteration.

Russell's dismay at the treatment of aborigines is, like his love of wildlife over mere commercial gain, ahead of its time. But there's an inherent contradiction between approving of the early explorers, say, or the woodsmen who came in their wake, and lamenting the passing of the native tribes. You can't have both, you'd want to mutter.

But Russell the rationalist is undaunted. His use of the exclamation point mirrors a sincere love of wandering. So everything seems fun, from camping by the billabongs of the lower Murray to admiring the vastness of the submerged valleys upstream of the Hume Dam. Russell's energy is infectious and his opinions somehow feel 'clean' and unadorned with false sentiment.

This sensation in the reader may stem from his belonging to my grandfather's generation. It is difficult to criticise the sensibilities of someone you didn't play cricket with, or accompany to Luna Park on a summer Saturday afternoon with its reek of hot chips and with the screams of girls spinning in the air on some monstrous ride echoing in your ears. We are most critical of our familiars.

One thing's for sure: Russell deserves greater notoriety. He's now out of print, and possibly has been for half a century. Maybe a series on Australian nature writing could help to reverse this total eclipse by more recent naturalists such as Irwin and Attenborough, with whom he deserves a closer affiliation.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Arriving by 2.30pm at the northern extremity of the temperate zone, I unpacked a few items and then went out to buy a bottle of wine and a selection of delicacies - prawns, cabanossi, potato salad. A solitary feast but I was still wound-up, having been in the car since just after 5 in the morning. I would regret it later or, at least, my stomach would regret it. Even this morning it would be touch and go at times.

I hadn't expected to be alone but the person who was to accompany me was offered something impossible to resist that clashed with the trip. This meant that I would savour the pleasures of daytime travel by car without the company which can break up the long stretches between towns or between meal stops.

Often, in the past, we had ridden in silence as we traversed the dusty, green-grey Australian bush, where it is so easy, in any case, to lose oneself. But even silence shared can be companionable.

One difference in being alone is that I could stop and fossick among humanity's left-overs peacefully and without any curb on my use of time, which can be chaotic.

In the Upper Hunter Valley, a large tin shed full of knick knacks and sanded rustic tables offered up a selection of books, some of which I bought. Later, once arrived over the Queensland border, a similar shed with many similar items on display would give me such satisfaction as can only be met with in the life of a booklover. For 15 dollars I picked up Archer Russell's Murray Walkabout (Melbourne Univ Press, 1953) and a dozen others.

Nobody knows who Russell is. He's in fact a Leyland Brother at heart, but born a century too early to make it to the small screen. Even in the 1920s, Archer Russell would get up one day, pack a knapsack and and leave home to trek along the Murray River between its debouchement and the high country. The result of twenty five years of such trekking is in the book.

Its silver-coated prose echoes in the mind with slightly archaic tones at times, but overall it is a sensitive and fascinating account of a river that has seen better days. A book like this can only be found in such places as the Aratula tin shed 'antiques' mart. It once belonged, the gold sticker on the title page tells me, to a farmer in Warwick - a cattle-country town just over the border from New South Wales.

I had driven up the New England Highway before. This time I stopped in Tamworth, which was reached at about 1pm, after I had started driving around 6.30am. This time I was exhausted. I usually make it to Armidale. After sleeping away most of the afternoon, I showered and drove to Peel Street, Tamworth's shopping precinct. Being a Sunday not much was still open in the late afternoon.

I bought a cooked chicken, a bucket of Greek salad and a pack of chopsticks at Coles and returned to my tiny motel room, where I ate the poultry without a knife.

I ripped the flesh from the bones with the sheer force of the combined shaft-ends of my kwai-tsu. It was a satisfying repast and kept me happy until the next morning, by which time I was surfing the tarmac through New England, headed further north.

New England, like the Hunter Valley, is now tinted a fairly green colour. The slopes of the Great Dividing Range recently received a fair amount of rain. November gave Tenterfield "the whole year's allowance" according to the woman who made me a flat-white coffee.

As you go north the vegetation thickens and becomes taller, and the dry sclerophyl gives way to sub-tropical cover where, just before Cunningham's Gap and the drop into the plain of Brisbane, tall eucalypts house unnumbered birds giving out a bell-like, drippingly sweet call.

When I stopped with my steak burger in a picnic spot, a handfull of green birds with powerful beaks and purple eyes jostled with a Currawong for precedence in the fossicker's stakes. They stood atop a row of short wood poles, placed strategically to keep the cars off the grass, and eyed my burger greedily, hopping on the grass as occasion presented the troop with the opportunity to snap up a beakful of bread or a scrap of lettuce.

I felt like I was in the most gorgeous McDonald's parking lot in the world. The feeling would morph into disgust, however, after entering Brisbane's concrete surrounds and ever-under-construction motorways. It is true that I didn't stop at a traffic light for 200km, but the crowded, rapid-moving, truck-filled freeways skirting Queensland's capital city are not for the faint hearted.

Saturday 20 December 2008

Twilight the movie - A Review

Visually interesting and structurally complex, Twilight the movie zones out of its opening genre as a teen flic to become a super hero romance with Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) playing Jane to Edward Cullen's (Robert Pattinson) Tarzan. He and she fall in love, they plight troths in a weird way overshadowed by his 'condition' with its predatory overtones, the family accepts her, a 'tracker' arrives (a classical 'other') who wants to 'turn' Bella, and the movie zooms toward an 'interesting' denouement.

But what the movie reviews I have read don't really get to is the real point: the visuals. The movie is gorgeous, if a good 30 minutes too long. Its target demographic is young women, and the love story contains adequate fodder for them. But the slowness, which derives from some awkward explanatory scenes, is a drag.

Edward's strength becomes his frailty. The throwaway line "My family considers themselves to be vegetarians" is not as goofy as it first sounds. The self restraint imposed by the Cullen clan aims at minimising harm to humans. The sustaining narrative is an ethical issue, just as vegetarianism is.

Human life is precious, we're told. The alternative to this self restraint is a punked-up psychopath with dreadlocks and a fur cape. There's really no choice if you aspire to the kind of playful elegance of the Cullens, who live in a magazine-perfect house surrounded by trees displayed through floor-to-ceiling windows, and hung with numerous artworks.

The choice is to consume in a sustainable manner. The Cullens are well aware of the alternatives, just as Bella becomes savvy in time. It's hard for a girl in love to be responsible, but Bella derives some sort of inspiration from the Cullens, Edward especially.

She can't not do so - she loves him and, it is clear from his words, he loves her. The trick is to live a life of fellowship. Sex is out of the question. Bella's just too yummy for poor drooling Ed. Children likewise. Possibly they'd produce half-glittering offspring instead of the full monte: Edward's skin glistens in the sunlight and the soundtrack mimicks the effect with tinkling bells.

It's almost like a scene from Peter Jackson's Tolkein adaptation: the elves in the green glens of their realm. Edward and his ilk are more odd-looking, but the ethereal nature of their combined appearance is akin to the elvish squad headed by a long-locked Cate Blanchett.

In Twilight the humour works against a too-sweet rendition of perfection. And Bella's dad Charlie (Billy Burke) plays a too-good-to-be-true amalgam of small town ordinariness and cool dad who doesn't talk too much but who also puts new tyres on the ute when the snow arrives.

Bella's mum Alica (Ashley Greene) also adds humour as the divorced parent who takes up with a minor league baseball player and then follows him around the country on his travels. Her applied affection is reasonable as well as tender. She's a trooper, if deluded.

God, parents can be so embarassing!

The movie needs a good cut but otherwise the extant reviews don't do justice to its striking visual aesthetic and the considerable commonsense that plays out between the devotedness of teenage love and the humour of a teen romance.

Three stars.

Friday 19 December 2008

In a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, The Sydney Morning Herald, our ostensibly liberal broadsheet, gives broad coverage to a blonde, blue-eyed HSC student (page 7, 17-19 December 2008 issue) over students from Asian backgrounds, while reporting (page 17) on French President Sarkozy's aim of improving the representation of his country's migrants among the elites.

"We cannot ignore the ever-bigger gap between the diversity of French society and the social and cultural samesness of the elites that our education system produces. ... Or selection process bars entire parts of our society from reaching positions of leadership."

It's hard to defend the SMH, where 95 percent of journalists are of Anglo-Saxon background, which approximately mirrors the reality among public office holders.

The story on Kate Bones (pic), a blonde, blue-eyed girl from Lane Cove who attended the North Shore school, Abbostleigh, is about the fact that 23 students in NSW gained a perfect 100 in their matriculation exams this year. She is one of the 23, "close to half [of whom] were from James Ruse Agricultural High School" near Parramatta.

James Ruse, a selective school, is well known to be popular with students from Asian backgrounds. And while Kate Bones gets an entire newspaper column detailing her other activities, the nine from James Ruse - Sen Lin, Christine Zhang, David Pham, Nathan Wong, Caroline Banh, Ruby Kwong, Jane Xu, Victor Chan and Melissa Chen - get nothing.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Dorothy Porter’s funeral gained notice in the two main broadsheets of Sydney, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, but in the former (page 3) Porter’s story fell underneath a splash photo of Kylie Minogue and in the latter it only achieved page 5 coverage (images at bottom of this post).

Since her death, announced last Wednesday (10 December), most coverage has mentioned The Monkey’s Mask (1994), a verse novel (more, a verse crime novel). This is the 2001 Picador cover, showing a man and a woman in bed together, the woman on top of the man.

Both have their arms stretched out and their hands touch.

But who knows this work? It’s about a lesbian cop who meets a lawyer and falls in love. It’s not about a man and a woman.

Porter’s scenario is not too farfetched but how often in the past 15 years has such a scheme shaped a cultural product in our mainstream? Porter, and writers like her, influence things in ways that are not always immediately evident.

The truth will out. We see a trend occurring and remember that it was THIS poet who first sung that tune, or THAT novelist who had the idea before anyone else. This way of seeing the world, not so much at second hand but more as the echo of a conversation heard years before, should be more well thought of. Unfortunately, inspired poets with eccentric lifestyles do not often say things that gain instant admission to the nation’s living room.

Steve Irwin did, so did Peter Brock, because their way was completely uncontentious. Irwin married a nice, geeky Midwestern American and Brock had a cut out marriage with a lively blonde who was always going to be successful.

Porter still exists on the sidelines, as it were. We can hear her earthy cries as she eggs on a player who may or may not be talented, but she’s dressed funny and she may even be drunk. Can’t have that.

You get more prominence in the broadsheets if you’re a first-tier TV actor or a second-tier sportsman. When Peter Brock died, the papers went full pelt. When Steve Irwin died, they entered a state of frenzy usually associated with prehistoric sea creatures. Online, the SMH gave more prominence to Porter’s father, Chester, a Queen’s Council, than to her life partner, a novelist.

The SMH followed up on the page 3 story with another item, by resident book doyenne Susan Wyndham, in the ‘Arts & Entertainment’ section (page 12). This piece chronicles future tributes, with which the action moves from Melbourne (the city Porter moved to “for love”) to Sydney, and the Opera House. A film Porter helped write, The Eternity Man, will screen on the ABC on 9 January. A week from now the same TV station will screen “a tribute” to Porter.

The images below demonstrate the importance, as reflected in the national press, we as a nation have decided to give to Porter’s death. May she gain greater acceptance in future. May she finally, one day, be a head on a banknote.

I like Porter. I like her writing and I like her persona. In an interview recorded for the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, Porter said that Pynchon is overrated. Yeah, babe! I second that.

Monday 15 December 2008

In Lust, Caution (2007), Eileen Chang's posthumous short story collection - the pieces were originally published during her youth in Shanghai, and she was well-known within two years of her authorial debut - we can experience more than a mere contemporary panorama. There stories are very good in their own right.

The story that provides the title for the collection, Lust, Caution, is different from the others in its energy levels, concision and structure. It is a high energy story about betrayal and weakness, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet where, in contrast to the original, the woman stakes a greater claim to loyalty.

This story also furnishes the image for the book's cover, which shows Tony Leung as the despicable Mr Yi and Wei Tang as the extremely beautiful, doomed heroine Mak Taitai.

Ang Lee's 2007 film captivated sudiences but its treatment is much longer and more detailed than the original 34 page story.

Julia Lovell, who teaches Chinese literature at Cambridge University, and who edited the collection, says that Chang "obsessively reworked" the story and descibes the reader as often "struggling to keep up".

Ang Lee's cinema treatment is chronologically based, starting at the beginning apart from the brief telephone scene in the Shanghai cafe, which also appears in the story. Chang's version jumps around like a brain stimulated by too much coffee.

Both are good, but the two expositions of the story do not 'feel' the same.

I said that Lust, Caution is different from the other stories because there is no other story like this in the collection, which is excellent.

Chang's style is sort of Jane Austenish. Lovell tells us that, following the post-Mao thaw, Chang was 'rediscovered' by Chinese (much in the same way that another great Chinese writer, Shen Congwen, was rediscovered). She also suffered due to her reluctance to write straight 'political' stories.

Austen's choice of "a little piece of ivory" with "three or four families" was of a similar nature to Chang's focus on the ordinary and the personal, which she believed are suitable sites for literary exposition.

One suspects that Chang's stories will continue to attract filmmakers' attention while contemporaries' 'big issues' stories will become black spine oddities in much the same way as books by, say, Jane Austen's contemporary William Godwin have. So while post-thaw critics, says Lovell, "belittled" Chang's democratic method, future generations will become addicted to her knowing, slighly hilarious renderings of 1940s Shanghai.

Chang veers between the intensely personal, psychological drama of the individual and the laughter of the Shanghai main street. In the service of the latter impulse, she uses culinary metaphors (a person will be compared to a dumpling made from flour provided via food rationing). She also verges on the obscene: one woman's face is said to be "like a fat man's knee".

Ang Lee calls Chang "the fallen angel of Chinese literature" and the devil is verily present in massage parlour waiting rooms, dress shops, kitchens and parlours that she creates.

Of particular note, for me, is Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao's Unhappy Autumn, where the amah whose name appears in the story's title goes about her business of looking after a foreigner, Mr Garter.

Ah Xiao is a dark, brooding character whose miserable life is punctuated by scolds aimed at her small son, Baishun, the sporadic appearances of her separately domiciled husband, and chats with neighbouring amahs, with whom she complains about her employer.

Ah Xiao's soft side manifests itself occasionally, however, as when she donates part of her own flour ration for the purpose of making pancakes for Mr Garter and his Chinese partner of the night, who is a bit run off by romance where all the amah sees are dirty sheets and traces of venereal disease.

There is also much about the complex and slighly claustrophobic Chinese extended family. The position of the individual within this system of obligations is not always a settled and happy one. Mrs Lou in Great Felicity (the title is drawn from traditional marriage celebrations) compensates for her unhappiness by a hilarious stoicity that becomes gradually less amusing as the story unfolds.

But unlike the title story, Mrs Lou's story never descends into the tragic. That fate is reserved for the most favoured of Eileen Chang's creations. Chang, who died in America in 1995, is a very good writer and this book, with the work of a handful of translators, is a very good read.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Three notable Australian men are outlined in three different vehicles: a newspaper and two magazines. Who said newspapers were irrelevant? Both the mags are supplements to The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Australian newspaper carries an article on Justice Micheal Kirby, "the great dissenter", and his lover Johan Van Vloten. Actually, it's really 'about' how the other justices on Australia's High Court found out that Kirby was a homosexual.

More interesting, because less well known, however, is Kon Gouriotis (pic from the (sydney) magazine, January 2009). Gouriotis runs an arts centre in the outer Western suburb of Liverpool.

This is about as far away from the visually rich area around Paddington/ Darlingurst as you can get without crossing any mountains, fording any major rivers or slaying any dragons. It's called the Casula Powerhouse and Gouriotis, the article, which is very short, says had an early ambition to work in the arts.

Like Wendy Were's 2007 Sydney Writers Festival theme ("I want people to argue"), Gouriotis' aim in his managerial method is to 'change minds' because "people ... have a very fixed view on certain issues or communities".

He most probably wants to help migrants by persuading locals to tolerate newcomers. At least that's my spin. Why? Because of what Gouriotis says next:

Too often a lot of people who migrate from oppressive environments are highly educated and they require space to perform.

This is true, as I personally found in Auburn in May this year, when I heard a number of people from non-English speaking backgrounds read their poems.

Christos Tsiolkas - Australia's best novelist currently IMHO - is featured in GW magazine this weekend. Tsiolkas is said to frequent Melbourne's Greek clubs where he dances.

"It reaffirms his roots, his identity, allows him to celebrate others, and lose himself in the moment," says Ana Kokkinos, one of the writer's collaborators on ongoing projects.

Including Blessed, a movie to screen in the near future. Caroline Baum, who wrote the magazine article, asks whether Tsiolkas is "one of the finest writing talents of his generation" or "a potty mouther provocateur".

Well, both actually.

Baum retails that Tsiolkas has "a hot temper" and that he admits to it. She tells us that The Jesus Man, which I maintain to be one of the best Australian novels of the last 20 years, was inspired by the writer's ambivalence about pornography.

Tsiolkas, who works in a veterinary clinic when not writing, also admits that fears about parental presuppositions - his partner is Wayne van der Stelt - helped steer him away from a career in school teaching.

This is sad, but Michael Pelly's The Australian story about Justice Michael Kirby - who is to resign in February - reveals similar fears. It took ages before he would reveal that he had a male companion to his benchmates.

Oddly, both Tsiolkas and Kirby have companions with Dutch names.

Reading about Kirby brings forth some interesting items.

Among the most interesting is possibly that it was originally Justice Lionel Murphy who "found there was an implied freedom of political communication in the Constitution" in 1977.

The High Court finally handed down this opinion in 1992 and it is a cornerstone of liberal democracy in Australia. This view goes that in order to have "responsible government" (which the Consitution mandates) there must be a broad freedom to voice opinion on political leaders and government.

Friday 12 December 2008

Review: Elliot Perlman, Three Dollars, 1998

There is enough visual action to justify a dramatisation but the book is strikingly literary. It’s opening chapters also contain a strong autobiographical element that would furnish material for a different type of treatment.

In his many dogs, Perlman unearths a metaphor for community. It is an unsurprising one, true, but he pulls it off with flair.

From the dogs seen from the bathroom window (the bathroom with recalcitrant tiles) to Helen, Nick the divorced Greek’s dog - canines provide a link between people, between people and place, and between the temporal moments of Perlman’s narrative.

There are other moments, too. The nine and a half year hiatus between encounters with Amanda constitute a leitmotif. Once again, Perlman is not embarrassed to be explicit. Amanda is a thread woven into Eddie’s existential fabric. So is Gerard - the dark prince on the far side of the lists.

Kate and Tanya, Abby and Eddie’s mother, and the woman with the dog who is a friend of Helen - all these elements are deployed with the aim of creating a suitable matrix within which Eddie’s story - and Eddie’s thoughts - can make sense to us.

And they do. But there’s also Perlman’s prose: scintillating, sharp, sinuous, sensitive, assured. He writes like an angel in Dante’s empyrean would write if said angel were a mature man writing a novel in Australia in the nineties.

There’s something old here, something borrowed from the great writers of fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. There’s even a touch of Henry Fielding (though never as lusty) and Tobias Smollett (though never as cruel) and Laurence Sterne (though not quite as whimsical).

Above all there’s the shame. It’s the kind of shame that is engrained so deeply into a country’s psyche that nothing would ever serve to remove it.

It’s not an American shame. It’s the shame of a settler society where indigence is more horrible than any other sin: the shame of helplessness.

Perlman kindly places the clue to Eddie’s mortal weakness in the first page, though not in the first words: “It was not that I was not interested in things but rather that I was interested in too many things.”

The kind of child who would grow up to admire the elegance of scientific certainty at the same time as he admired the brilliance of a clever young woman. The same man who would feel it his duty to comfort a fellow human found distressed in the street. The man who would be bound to protect his child from a mother about to succumb to depression.

He is a whole man, and his life is hard. Perlman’s achievement is to have been able to depict this complete human being in such a confident way.

This is a book for the ages.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Consul general Hu Shan may not have caught the trope that bolted, like a startled horse, from Joe Tripodi’s mouth as he fronted the mic at the Cabramatta function centre.

At a dinner in honour of Mr Shan’s assuming the role.

NSW wants to “ride off the back of the prosperity of China,” said Tripodi, so that everyone could hear. No simultaneous translation. There frequently is at these things, but tonight there was no reaction. He was playing to the crowd. They were being made to feel important.

The message is clear but the method of delivery is probably a bit sharper than the - mostly - Chinese guests are used to. Maybe Mr Hu is used to this kind of appeal to sovereign pride.

(China news is known for its long and sinuous sentences that seem to say everything but often say little.)

There were very few ethnic Caucasians present. I cannot imagine Tripodi using these words in front of a hungry pack of Oz journos.

Not in this lifetime, Joe.

For the majority of us, food was less forthcoming than Tripodi‘s unlucky metaphors. Lucky for those of us at the media table most of our tablemates left early, before the fish, and so we were able to eat a sufficiency of fried rice and noodles undisturbed by competition from alien chopsticks.

Photos were arranged at a speed only equalled by the busy waiters and the lion dancers, members of the Indo-Australian Sport Association.

The lucky white lion got the cabbage that had been tied to a nail in the ceiling.

Politicians trundled up the parquet ahead of the ballroom dancers and Canton opera singers. They mounted the dias to deliver anodyne addresses to an audience made up of members of the 36 Chinese associations who paid for the bash.

“We have much to learn from one another.” Chinese investment in NSW amounts to $16.4 billion. Three quarters of all Chinese tourists come to Sydney - of all tourists who visit Australia? And 50% of Chinese students study in Sydney.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the sister state relationship between NSW and Guangdong. NSW was the first state to have a sister-state relationship with a Chinese province.

Gough Whitlam, Premier Nathan Rees told us, established diplomatic relations with China in 1973. Tripodi obediently echoed his leader, though with an energetic flourish. Whitlam “ignited and reestablished diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China,” he thundered.

As the music sped up and the crowds filed downstairs to John Street I yawned. It had been a night and the drive was in the future - 10 kilometres up the Hume Highway to a place with a comfortable couch, a balcony washed by breezes, and a two-litrre flask of juice.

To serve with ice. Not only on account of the afternoon’s sudden and soon-ended rain. But to get rid of a mortal rictus due to cramped seating, slow food, and a very young bottle of cab sav.

Not everything was slow. Memories came fast and thick as I had taken toward Liverpool, just prior to the Cabramatta turn off. The trees and the concrete carriageway had reminded me of my days with a book company.

The hotels past Bass Hill and the flatlands leading up to our destination had attracted images and feelings. Not quite deja vue. Fondness.

Back home, with the clothes removed and the body showered, I turned off the computer and thanked log I did not have to go to such a function every day. Before the clock struck one, I was sound asleep, dreaming of scallops and other shellfish.

Or was the that the servo at Lansvale coming back to haunt me?

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Aaron Gurevich, The Origins of European Individualism (1995), Blackwell Publishing.

Gurevich’s approach to this seemingly insurmountable topic involves fairly close readings of texts mainly from the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in other words, the Middle Ages.

Mainly the High Middle Ages. He does touch on Augustine with great tenderness, as though - in fact he says this - noone else would talk about themselves in this way until the Renaissance (thinking here of Montaigne).

But Gurevich’s challenge here has to be to whip the tablecloth of ‘great men’ theory out from under the feast of renaissance cultural produce, baring the table beneath it. The table is, to use an allegorical frame that would have been sympathetic to a person of the Middle Ages, the Middle Ages - the platform upon which the Renaissance is served up to us.

Gurevich has little time for the ‘great men’ approach to history that was pioneered in the Romantic era and still serves as a surrogate for knowledge today. Three quarters of the way through the book, when he is in full stride, Gurevich spells this out: “[I]f we concern ourselves only with great people, we shall not learn very much about the life of medieval society,” where

Individuality is not valued or approved: rather it is feared, and not only in others - people are afraid of being themselves. Manifestations of originality or idiosyncrasy have a whiff of heresy about them. People suffer if they feel that they are not the same as everyone else.

Preoccupation with originality is not “a characteristic mark” of medieval times. Rather, “essence lay in the fact that the person embodied certain ‘vocations’, ‘offices’ or varieties of ‘service’.” “Individuals did not seek inner satisfaction by contrasting themselves with everybody else: they found it in subordinating their egos to preselected prototypes.”

Gurevich is Russian, and this should be kept in mind when contemplating the task he has set himself, and that he undertakes to fulfil. In addition, the works he refers to - approvingly and dismissingly - are also mainly by Russians. These are the works he would have read in his early years, at the time he was developing the archetypes that would enable him to hit the ground running, in a work like this.

Like another popular historian, London-based Englishman Peter Ackroyd, Gurevich has a firm grasp on a broad range of material. Intriguingly, he begins the book not with a glance in the direction, say, of the Provencal poets of the 11th century, but by looking at pagan literature, specifically the sagas and skaldic poems of Norway.

Because this part of Europe didn’t adopt Christianity until the 11th century, whereas Ireland, for example, converted in the 4th century. Gurevich seems to seek an alternative, early and for tonic reasons, to the ‘confessio’ method that he will examine starting around page 100.

Gurevich’s book introduces the reader to a series of interesting ‘characters’ who broke away from the typical ‘confessio‘ using one of other different methods, including autobiography. His main point is that the ‘individual’ did not exist, then, as it does now.

(It was not until the 1920s, in New York, that the ‘profile’ emerged as a short, concise and colourful appraisal of a person.)

In the Middle Ages even the notion of something being ‘personal’ was yet to attain a consistency and meaning that could, today, be discerned.

Yet he digs deep and, interestingly, starts with pagan literature.

The characters of Sverrir, a king of Norway and an innovator (originally from the Faroe Islands and a commoner - no other king would have such a name!), Egill the skaldic poet (and hence warrior too) whose appearance was so terrifying he had magical attributes attached to him, Abelard the poet and scholar who was so irresistible to women his lover’s uncle had him castrated, and Guibert de Nogent, who had visions.

This was the traditional technique for depicting the inner world of the individual: these visions are a reflection of the individual’s attempts at self-identification.

Sverrir’s saga also contains visions but, here, the purpose is to establish just claim to a throne he took by armed force. There are other differences between the pagan and the Christian sense of self. One of these is the place of tribe or clan. While monks in Western Europe were secreting themselves away and mostly tried to expunge traces of their provenance, Northern bards wrote almost exclusively of the situation of the individual as part of a society characterised by clans.

Vengeance for a clan member was a personal matter of vendetta, whereas in the Christian ethos vengeance was a matter for God, who would punish the wicked and reward the virtuous at the Last Judgement. No wonder that early Church Fathers desired to convert pagans to their religion.

It may be possible to estimate this desire as geopolitics. If clan wars disturb trade or security, the best way is to remove vendetta from the clan. How? By converting those people over there beyond the mountains or the lakes to a religion wherein vengeance is a monopoly, not a franchise.

Not unlike the modern state, where violence is a monopoly held by the police force (the state arm of legal action). In Europe's north, Gurevich writes, this was happening, however:

The complete absorption of the individual into the group and his subordination to ritual give way to the emergence of individuals who are more separate and more distinct.

It is Gurevich’s point of concern to delineate the transition from a purely clan-based, to a personality-based culture. In this new type of locus for action, the individual can exist apart from his (or her) group apparatus. But it wasn’t instantaneous.

[Egill the skald] does not doubt for a moment that [his actions] were justified or inevitable. While, for Christian authors, life and its generalised representation in literature are two separate things, for Egill they are one and the same. He is not confronted by a moral dilemma: he acts in accordance with a code of ethics transmitted to him by his clan or group, and he derives profound satisfaction from the fact that he is capable of carrying out the group’s requirements in the most effective possible way.

This sounds remarkably similar to a description that someone living today might make for the public sphere in modern society. The persona of the individual is stripped of its methodological existence and the politician or businessman becomes a means of promoting common aims.

The media participate in this struggle by promoting or detracting from the effectiveness of the individual so ‘framed’. Their own ‘frames’ are part of the ‘system’ of motivation and justification within which the individual must seem to share goals while developing a persona equal to one-on-one conflict.

Going back to Egill, who is part of a tradition of skaldic poetry that is “emphatically and blatantly personal poetry and, in this respect, it is radically different from the epic [of saga] variety”. As for the skald himself: he ‘extolls [his] own poetic ability or discuss[es] and criticis[es] poems by other skalds”. A skald is

… a person who turned particularly frequently to poetry and mastered his art, was a warrior in the service of a Norwegian or other Northern king who, from time to time, would compose poems. Thanks to his extolling of his lord’s martial exploits and other deeds, he enjoyed the lord’s favour and would receive rich gifts as reward for his poems. … [The] skald’s songs of abuse … could have the most disastrous effect on the reputation of the man against whom they were directed, even so far as to undermine his health and prosperity.

At the same time, in France, along with the beginning of the existence of men devoted purely to study - which would lead to the establishment of the university - and the building of the first gothic churches, there is the “subordination of the uniquely individual to the typical”.

Georg Misch calls this ‘morphological individuation’ and compares it to, what would come later, in the Renaissance, ‘organic individuation’, in which “the centre of … personality was to be found within itself”.

But Gurevich is not content to focus only on literates or literary men, and toward the middle of the book takes a step into the locus publicus by examining sermons recorded in Germany in troubled times - in the 12th century the Holy Roman Empire was disintegrating. However, the contents of sermons delivered in the region of southern Germany (the nation know so known) do not differ radically from others printed elsewhere, and at other times.

This is a good move. I enables Gurevich to look into the hearts and homes of the average person who, we are told, did not possess a distinct ‘individuality’ at this time.

This is the common view, held out as a foil to the developments, later, in the Renaissance, when the ‘individual’ is considered to have become possible in society broadly.

Eventually, Gurevich alights, with some pleasure, to be sure, on the figure of Petrarch - the man who climbed a mountain for a purely aesthetic reason - the first European to do so in a distinctly ‘modern’ way (although Chinese poets had been doing it for some time).

Yet Gurevich does not let his interest in what makes an individual get clouded by aesthetic considerations. Sure, Petrarch was a great poet, but Gurevich’s goal lies elsewhere.

This is a fantastic book but it requires a good deal of spare time and quiet to do it justice.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Tibet: Education, Foreign Language Press, Beijing (ISBN 978-7-119-05248-9), begins where Michael Parenti and Bill Mathew stop. On page 1:

There wasn't even one formal school in the modern sense in all Tibet before liberation. The illiteracy rate reached 95 percent and the school enrolment rate only 2 percent. Through efforts of more than 50 years, a comparatively integrated education system, elementary and secondary education, higher education, vocational education, special education and adult education, has been shaped.

The figures continue on page 4:

The enrollment rates of primary schools, junior and senior high schools and institutions of higher learning reached 98.2 percent, 90.7 percent, 42.96 percent and 17.4 percent, respectively.

They say that the truth will out but in this case, apart from Mathew (a letter writer whose letter was published, at the height of the pre-Olympics ruckus, by The Sydney Morning Herald) and Parenti (a U.S. journalist and writer) the only credible voice I've heard speaking about Tibet has been - occasionally - the Dalai Lama's.

Beijing cannot fault Western commentators and journalists for bias. If Beijing were to open up the country to free media the problem of Tibet might - eventually - die away.

As it is, as long as Beijing stifles debate bias will remain in Western media. Western media are, we all should know, run by people of a mainly liberal mental cast who are also prone to beleaguer their vocation's susceptibility to the action of capital. So they are not likely to let up on China as long as they are allowed to give tongue to uncomfortable truths, in terms even of their own employers.

In the 'Press and Publication' section of Tibet: Education we read that "the publishing sector in Tibet realized sustainable, fast, healthy and orderly development" "centering on medicine, folk handicrafts, animals and plants on the plateau, environmental protection and economy".

Given the lack of books or periodicals 'centering on' politics or history, for example, it's hardly surprising that Western journalists take little notice of such 'development'. It's not enough, I would hazard, to feel proud of the fact that newspaper sheet printing increased by 50.6 percent over 2006, nor that magazine printing increased by 45 percent.

It's not the capacity of the vehicle that counts we would want to say to Chinese administrators. It's what they carry.

The Foreign Language Press' booklet comes with more than just facts and figures such as these. The frequency of photos of smiling children, happy women with mobile phones, and whirling 'traditional' dancers, is not something we can easily tolerate. Even given that pre-"liberation" Tibet was a feudal society where the only education was that provided by the Buddhist Church.

It's not good enough, and the Chinese authorities know it. On the other hand, Western journalists should try to convince editors to allow stories that do not call for an accompanying photo of the current Dalai Lama. Balance is required from both sides if we are to really progress.