Tuesday 31 July 2018

Book review: The Football Solution, George Megalogenis (2018)

Basically a tiresome rant by someone who should know much better, this book is meant to say something meaningful about Australian rules football and Australian politics.

It contains a potted history of the sport (which the author wants to portray as the ultimate expression of the residents of the world’s most prosperous and most egalitarian society) that just didn’t do it for me. I stopped reading at about 11 percent through the book, well before Megalogenis had a chance to divulge to me his wisdom about how the Richmond football club has valuable secrets to offer to an eagerly waiting nation.

This is silly dross for empty-headed AFL fanboys.

Book review: The Bootle Boy, Les Hinton (2018)

This graceless memoir is unreadable. The author was for many years a lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch, who is famous for having made money out of publishing news for the stupid and the uneducated (sometimes readers of his papers were both stupid and uneducated). Hinton got a spot on the ABC’s Breakfast Couch to spruik his production to the supine masses.

The title points to the author’s origins in a town near Liverpool, or a suburb of Liverpool. (Honestly, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse.) It’s deliberately aimed at highlighting his working-class origins, which is a part of the boast of Murdoch’s papers: that they cater to the honest people at the bottom. (When in fact they actually promote views that are conducive to the endless pre-eminence of a greedy, rent-seeking capitalist oligopoly.)

Despite having worked in the news business for many years, Hinton has a tin ear and can’t structure a narrative to save his life. The story runs on monotonously like the endless monologue of a paranoiac in the midst of a psychotic episode, with no logical points of reference and no end to the delivery in sight. It’s truly horrifying how dull this book is. I managed to read a tiny fraction of the whole and that was far too much. A complete waste of good money.

Book review: You Jump to Another Dream, Yan Jun (2012)

Occasional bits of interesting stuff emerged when I read this book of poetry but they were rare. In ‘February 14th, Going to the Hospital with my father’ (2008) there is a solid ending and a clear focus, but in the majority of the poems the abrupt juxtapositions of images, tropes and metaphors reveal no insights worth noting.

It’s not clear when Yan was born. The book says that he started writing poetry when he was 14 and the earliest poems in this collection date from 1991, so we know at least that he belongs to the post-Deng generation that has grown up in the new China of unfettered capitalism and record economic growth. He lives in Beijing and does other things as well as writing poetry: music critic, organiser, producer, sound artist.

The lines of poetry are often disjointed and broken off before they reach the end of a sentence. There is little punctuation. A new sentence will start in the middle of a line after the fragment of an earlier phrase has finished. All very avant-garde though ultimately pointless. In the prose pieces you get the feeling there’s an iconoclastic political identity here that might serve to explain the poet’s appeal to overseas critics, as though he represents something about an emergent progressive class in China. Perhaps this explains his appeal to the publisher. The book did nothing much for me.

Monday 30 July 2018

Intolerance and incivility on social media

On Friday Julia Baird, a host of the ABC’s program ‘The Drum’, published a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about what she called “silos” in the public sphere. The article regrets the kinds of statements that are commonplace on Twitter among certain parts of the political left, which see the mainstream media (shortened to a compact acronym, “MSM”, that functions as a deprecatory epithet) as complicit in a campaign to discredit the leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten. For such people, the result in the “Super Saturday” elections on the weekend were sweet vindication.

In har story, Baird brought attention especially to the phenomenon where people criticise the public broadcaster for inviting representatives from the Institute of Public Affairs onto the show to add their views to debates it sponsors. But, she countered, the IPA (which is funded by such oligarchs as Rupert Murdoch and Gina Reinhart) had only been on the show a few times over the period under discussion. In fact, she went on, she had tried to get other conservative voices (Janet Albrechtsen, Rita Panahi, both from News Corp) on panels, but had been rebuffed by them. Such people are often seen on Sky News, which is also Murdoch-controlled.

Hence the talk of silos. Last month I reviewed a book by ABC journalist Michael Brissenden, ‘The List’, a very good thriller in which social media makes an appearance. He used the word “echo chamber” to talk about the internet. And again, in Guardian journalist Katharine Murphy’s ‘On Disruption’, which I reviewed this month, the term “echo chamber” appears.

They say that there are "echo chambers" online where people just see views that conform to their own, because people only follow people with views that are similar to theirs. But especially with Twitter hashtags, you now get to see what people of all walks of life are thinking and saying. And often tweets from people you follow might be in the form of a retweet from an ideological enemy accompanied by additional commentary refuting what the original tweet had said, but you still get to see what had been written. I think there is actually more awareness now than ever before of what people on the other side of the fence think and do.

But what is true is that the conversations that happen across the divide are very low-quality. Flame wars erupt, sarcasm is used, and people just dig in, refusing to budge an inch from cherished positions. It’s not at all like a collegiate forum where robust academic debates take place in an ambience where the right of everyone to express themselves unobstructed is respected, but more like the schoolyard, where hurtful things are said casually to exclude, to wound, and to objectify without considering the consequences.

It's not just commentators on the right of politics who have thin skins (like refusing to come on the ABC which they collectively view as biased in favour of the left). It’s the same with people on the left. I was blocked by journalist Ben Eltham for merely questioning something he had said in a tweet about immigration. And Van Badham, the progressive journalist, also blocked me, although I have no clue as to why. What people basically want online is validation of their ideas, not conversations. What they want is for their team to win, not necessarily for good policy to result from public debate. We support political parties in the same uncritical way that we support sports teams. We barrack for our own side and cheer when a player in the opposition gets sent off for a foul. We are hyper-partisan and aggressive and rude and disrespectful. And we see everything happening now because it’s all out in the open. It’s not the ABC we should be critical of, it’s ourselves.

Richard Flanagan in his piece in the Guardian yesterday about writers’ festivals and their unwillingness to tolerate unpopular views, talks about the rise of intolerance in that sector of the public sphere. But along with intolerance there’s a disturbing rise in incivility that results in people blocking one another if you merely ask a question.

We know from the record that most sexual abuse of minors is perpetrated by normal men who see an opportunity and do illegal things when they think they can get away with it. Opportunistic abuse is the general rule, not men who are exclusively attracted sexually to children. Similarly, online people will say things to other people if they are hidden behind an anonymous account that they would never admit to to their partner or parent or friend. People behave like 13-year-olds when talking to other adults on occasion in ways that a teenager would be embarrassed to admit to their mum. They do it because they can get away with it, with no negative repercussions to their life in the real world.

Combined with intolerance, this incivility has resulted in a public sphere that is often toxic and even hazardous. We know that people feel good when they support others who say they have a mental health problem but in fact they behave in ways that are inimical to good mental health. They use ad hominem attacks, they impugn unworthy motives to others under the guise of rational critique, they denigrate and shun, they mock and use sarcasm when it suits them. And their followers reward them with likes and retweets if it looks like the argument is being won, regardless of the cost to civility.

We know from election results that probably 15 percent of the electorate of Longman is made up of bigots and xenophobes because One Nation polled that high in the weekend’s election. People who would never say anything racist to anyone they meet, a friend of a friend say, in the normal course of daily life. But in the privacy of the voting booth they let rip with everything they’ve got. Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump are the price society pays for a core freedom of pluralistic democracies everywhere they exist. Incivility and intolerance are the price we pay to enjoy the benefits available through social media.

A final word on the subject of criticism of the “MSM” online. It’s very disturbing to see, when the media is more and more vulnerable each year, people putting the boot in. When someone from the opposing team is injured on the field after a particularly nasty clash, you give him your hand to help him get up to his feet again, you don’t start kicking him in the face.

Honestly. If people want better media, they have plenty of opportunities to use their cash to support a media outlet of their own choosing. There are more options now than ever before. Back on 26 March 2013 I wrote a blogpost about the Australian media scene. Now, things have changed. APN News and Media has been renamed Here, There & Everywhere and is now controlled, to all intents and purposes, by Murdoch. And then we have the Fairfax acquisition by Channel Nine. But now you also have the Guardian, the New Daily, and the Saturday Paper all doing good journalism and employing journalists with enough time to give stories the attention they deserve. The message I offered people in 2013 is the same now: use your money wisely. But now I also want to add: put up or shut up.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Book review: For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, Takashi Hiraide (2008)

This book of poetry was first published in 1982 in Japanese as “Kurumi no sen’i no tame ni”, which translates directly as “for the fighting spirit of the walnut” or “because of the fighting spirit of the walnut” and it’s a curious collection that has echoes of surrealism and also of the type of poetry that was appearing on the west coast of America after WWII. This English translation was brought out by New Directions, which is based in San Francisco. I forget where I learned of the book, it came to me by some process similar to magnetic attraction on the internet. As things tend to do.

But it’s not very good. Poetry is unmistakeably present but you are not often able to settle on anything that closely approximates to a distinct meaning. Meaning is something that seems to emerge as your eyes scan each line but which ultimately eludes your grasp like a mirage on a road in the outback as you pass through in your car. The heat haze entices the imagination but doesn’t deliver much in the way of images. Nothing solid enough to want to shake hands with at least.

There is the odd line of signal beauty, such as “One who looks into a single pair of eyes has already drowned in all of the waters” (verse 64) but overall the poetry resists the lure of daylight and stays in its burrow like a wild animal too shy to venture into the realm of the sun. It has traces somewhat like the poetry of Fernando Pessoa but without the consistency and strength of purpose and fey brilliance of the Portuguese writer.

The verses mainly reminded me of those climbing vines that send out tendrils that rotate on their axis as they seek out supports that will allow them to grow upward or outward into new areas. As I jogged along the river in the mornings before work when I lived in Japan I would see these forsaken green arms that had twined around themselves grotesquely as they ineptly attempted to enter new territory in an effort to help the plant propagate itself.

Trains however form a nexus of meaning in the collection. In Tokyo, which is the largest single urban agglomeration on earth, with around 30 million people living in an unbroken suburban sprawl laid out across several administrative areas all connected by train lines that are operated by both private companies and by the national government, people largely keep to their customary areas. If you live in northern Yokohama and work in western Tokyo, as I did for nine years, you will mainly go between the stations that demarcate the terminals of the journey from one end of the week to the other. Your horizons are severely circumscribed and you are mainly territorial in your habits, keeping to yourself and not bothering people who live in other areas.

The same political parties get elected into office every time an election is held. The quality of the public debate is very low because journalists are prevented from asking probing questions by arcane structures (“kisha clubs”) that are set up to protect from scrutiny the people (mainly old men) who are in office. Political leaders are remote from the concerns of the people, especially from minorities, and serve out their time without bringing in the kinds of changes that society needs to progress.

This kind of supine, domesticated existence characterises the lives of the majority of people living in Japan today and this collection has the air of the production of someone who lives in such a community. One bounded by known markers that in their nature and in their proximities offer up all the necessary aids to living, from shelter to food, and from companionship to the occasional restaurant meal. A quite life, if you will. A car. A house. A wife. A salary. It is in this context that the title seems to offer up the maximum available quantity of signification. A gently irony. A promising simplicity. A plenitude within the confines of a nutshell. But a dud.

Saturday 28 July 2018

Book review: The Mess We’re In, Bernard Keane (2018)

This book is written in basically three parts (with two smaller bits added on to ensure completeness and in the interests of transparency). The first part is a brief catalogue of the contemporary malaise that Donald Trump exemplifies. The second part is a longer, more detailed expression of the main reasons why we’re in the mess we’re in. Then there’s a short sidetrack taking us to some of the historical precedents for the anti-intellectualism that characterises much of the debate in the contemporary public sphere, especially on the right. Then there’s a list of what we need to do to fix the problem. The finale is a short summary of the author’s own position. I read the first part of this book impatiently but it wasn’t until about 25 percent of the way through that the word “inequality” first appeared (or so it seemed to me).

The next quarter of the book is the best part, in that it deals with the crisis in neoliberalism, and the way that this particular right-wing ideology tends toward instability and requires government intervention to repair it. Much of the book is written in a way that makes it often specific to Australia but this part is of global relevance. People in other countries are therefore able to take away a lot of good insights from this fascinating book. (It might surprise Americans, furthermore, that the right-wing populism that they see now engulfing their own country as well as Europe, has roots in Australia in the 1996 election to federal Parliament of Pauline Hanson on the Liberal Party ticket. Populism is very well-entrenched in Australia and journalist Royce Kurmelovs has written a book about it.)

We can only hope that the ALP, when it finally wins power in 2019, will take Keane’s book and use it as a legislative template, especially in terms of establishing a federal ICAC and implementing a Bill of Rights. I thought that the bits in the last section about recognition of Aboriginal Australians in the Constitution was a bit off-point, as was the bit about a UBI, which Keane does not support.

But the bits about the way that government has been hollowed out and taken over by professionals who produce policy, rather than relying on a strong grass-roots membership, is good to remember. Also salutary to read is the part about the decline in support for business and in the administration of government itself. More government transparency, more power to unions, and the establishment of more independent statutory authorities (and better funding of the ones we already have), are all good points to make.

On the historical bits, I thought that Keane made a good point about the anti-intellectualism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but this particular writer of the 18th century was not the only proponent of the cult of feeling that led to the emergence, in the final decade of the century, of Romanticism (with its irrational bias). Furthermore, most of the first- and second-generation Romantic poets were big readers of books of philosophy, science and current affairs, unlike Rousseau, who hated thinkers and politicians.

Coleridge and Cowper were arguably just as influential in Britain, as Rousseau. The Victorians who succeeded the Romantics in the period following this, which saw the emergence of Modernism and the writing of the works of Karl Marx (both in the 1850s), were also big on learning. The terms “Enlightenment” and “Renaissance” that we use today with such wild abandon were invented in his period. A new emphasis on history had arrived with the antiquarian fad that people at the time pursued energetically (going back to the future), and in fact this led to the founding of the world’s first art movement, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Very serious young men and women joined it. The big changes however that you see in this period are the major political reforms that expanded the franchise and removed restrictions on the lives of religious minorities, both of which were good for freedom.

Rousseau was probably not representative of his type. But he was such an oddball so it’s not saying much that is particularly original to deny Keane full points in this regard. I think Keane’s drawing a bit of a long bow on this particular point but he deserves credit for having a go.

Friday 27 July 2018

Book review: The Way Things Should Be, Bridie Jabour (2018)

I had some reservations about this very fine domestic drama at the outset but I persisted and the emotions provoked by the novel’s excellent characterisations washed over me and took me along for a ride like a dumper at one of Australia’s roughly 10,000 surf beaches. But I have to admit that I felt old when the denouement arrived because I just wasn’t convinced by it.

It doesn’t really matter because so many ideas are explored in the narrative, especially in the relations between Claudia, who has arrived back in her home town somewhere in regional Australia near the coast to get married (to Dylan, her boyfriend), and her two sisters Poppy, who is the youngest and is gay and struggling to find her feet in the employment market for journalists and copywriters in the city, and Zoe, who is the eldest and who runs her own metropolitan business. Zoe is the stable one, Poppy the tearaway. In between all these mobile elements is Rachel, the mother of the three girls and Phinn, their brother.

Complicating the resulting ensemble is Mary, Rachel’s unmarried sister, who the children do not like, and George, the four young people’s father, who lives in his own house elsewhere in the town. You are given plenty of material to use to work through many issues, and Jabour does this thing in her storytelling where she’ll suddenly change the zoom on the lens you are looking at the characters through and take the focus away from the particular to the general, making universal statements that can apply to any family, or to any person. These interludes give your imagination time to relax (the drama is a bit rapid-fire at the beginning and you have to be a bit patient) and I think there were never too many of them.

While I have heard comparisons to Jane Austen, what I think this novel reminds me more of is the types of dramas that you get when family members are brought together suddenly for unusual events. In this vein, of course, you have the excellent ‘Muriel’s Weddding’ directed by P.J. Hogan and released in 1994. But even more than this I was reminded of Juzo Itami’s inestimable ‘The Funeral’ from 1984. In this second film, the members of a family are brought together by an unexpected event, the death of Shokichi Amamiya. His daughter Chizuko (played by Nobuko Miyamoto) and son-in-law Wabisuke Inoue (Tsutomu Yamazaki) have to organise and lead the funeral that takes place at the deceased’s house outside the city.

What happens with these works is that the dynamics of the family that have endured for ever tend to outweigh the importance of the signal event that brings people together, and so drive the interactions between the people in the scenes portrayed. This is certainly true of Jabour’s novel, where Poppy’s simmering resentment combusts under the stress of having to deal with all her siblings at the same time. Zoe, especially, tends to rub her up the wrong way.

The other story that is told here is that of Nora, Claudia’s best friend, who comes and stays in a cheap motel while the rest of the attendees are gathering (Dylan’s father and step-mother eventually turn up for the event as well). At the beginning of the novel, it seems as though Nora has broken up with her boyfriend Tom but later there’s another email that arrives from Tom that is kind of hard to parse and then it turns out that Nora gets upset so you wonder if you had been mistaken in your initial surmise all along. I wasn’t really on top of the intricacies of this thread in the novel, and by the end considered that it needed a bit more editing to clarify.

To sum up: while I think this is a very good novel that competently covers many interesting themes I would have preferred a different ending. The politics of certain social media platforms lie very much outside the orbit within which I normally live my life, however. Having said that I have to aver that I think Jane Austen would have chosen a different way to end things. Given what you know having read the book, the title in the end appears to be ironic, but then you can do Jabour’s zoom thing and telescope out to view the whole country as a dysfunctional family that, seen from without, offers outsiders a distinctly unedifying spectacle.

The book cover reminded me of those artworks where a number or letter is hidden within a matrix of dots that change colour subtly at certain coordinates to form an outline. People get challenged on Facebook to see if they can identify the number or letter hidden in the matrix. I’m not exactly sure how the cover keys in with the content but life is often a messy and confusing business and sometimes the people who end up getting hurt are not the ones you really need to fear. It can be hard to see the wood for the trees.

Jabour grew up in the NSW town of Grafton, went to uni on the Gold Coast, and has worked in Brisbane; she is currently on leave from the Guardian, which is based in Sydney. They say every journo has at least one book in them. Last month I reviewed the very good thriller, ‘The List’, by the ABC’s Michael Brissenden.

Thursday 26 July 2018

The standard postcolonial narrative inhibits development

This blogpost delves back into the distant past to make its points. Or the relatively distant past, I should say. Memory takes me back to a Jane Austen conference that was held in Melbourne in November 2007 that was organised by La Trobe University. Germaine Greer made an appearance at the event, but there was also a man named Harish Trivedi, a professor at the University of New Delhi, who gave a talk that really annoyed me. The complaints about colonialism were heavy with learned purpose but I found the experience alienating and left the lecture hall he was talking in before he had finished addressing the gathered delegates.

Outside on the walkway, I told one of the other delegates what had happened and she and I talked about Trivedi’s talk a bit. I couldn’t square the content of his talk with what I had learned as a result of my readings around Austen. The thing is that she had a family connection with India. Her cousin Eliza Hancock was also her sister-in-law, marrying Henry Austen in 1797. Eliza was the goddaughter of Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India.

The British had been trading in India since around 1600 when the East India Company was first established in London. By the middle of the 18th century (or 150 years after trading began) there was a need felt in London that relations between Britain and the local potentates who rules different parts of the subcontinent, should be rationalised because of the complexities inherent in conducting and protecting trade with Europe. Hence the step to appoint Hastings as GG, which took place in 1773. He had already served as the governor of the presidency of Fort William (Bengal).

Hastings was an interesting man who had risen up through the ranks in the East India Company from being a trader at a factory (what they called the trading depots that the company maintained in these locations), assessing the quality of cloth and making sure it was safely stored and despatched to England by ship. He spoke Hindi and made the decision as GG to use local laws as the basis for legislation that was passed through Parliament in London to regulate the conduct of people living in areas under his dominion. This was the first time that such laws based on Hindu texts had been codified for use in India.

The first British monarch to be labelled “emperor” of India was Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837 but didn’t take this additional title until 1876. So it took another 100 years from the time a governor-general was appointed for India until the country was even formed as a part of the British empire. In the meantime, trading that benefited the locals as well as employees of the East India Company continued unobstructed.

The history of the British in India is a long and varied one, and aggressive condemnations of things that happened over the centuries based on the jottings of latecomers with a partial understanding of the truth such as Mahatma Gandhi are simply not helpful. But India now has tens of thousands of intelligent academics who are busy teaching their students about the ravages of colonialism and politicians there borrow strength from the debates that result in order to continue to conduct themselves corruptly while in office, to the ultimate detriment of the Indian people. Those academics are also used to provide guidance for politicians as they go about their official business, further compounding the problem.

Trivedi and I had an occasion to talk about the things that separated us, however. One day near the end of the conference, there was a dinner organised as part of it at a restaurant far out in the suburbs to the east of the city. I drove my car to get there, and some of the people at the conference made sure that the Indian academic got a lift back to the city with me in my car. I dropped him off at his Ormond College lodgings later, but I also told him about the non-fiction of Orhan Pamuk who, I felt, had a more nuanced understanding of the significance for the developed world of western civilisation.

The conference's tagline was, ironically, '"I dearly love a laugh": Jane Austen and comedy'.

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Book review: Saint Antony in His Desert, Anthony Uhlmann (2018)

This experimental novel has on its cover a photo of a hand with the palm opened upward and a burst of sand leaving it, as though someone had had their picture taken while they were throwing dirt in the air. The image is fitting for many reasons, all of which are explored in the book, which is made up of interwoven narratives. One is the account of a night spent on the town in Sydney by a young man from Canberra, Frederick, and a DJ at radio station Triple J, Louve. There is also an account of the meeting of minds that took place in the first decades of last century when the philosopher Henri Bergson met with the mathematician Albert Einstein. This part of the book has been written by Antony Elm, a man who is somehow marooned in the Australian desert.

So you have the reality and grit of a Sydney night, when it’s most likely Friday; a discourse about the nature of the universe as it emerges from the meeting of ideas of two notable thinkers of Modernity; and the relentless abyss of the outback. To underscore this last item, Frederick and Louve at one point in their adventures have to go in Louve’s clapped-out VW Beetle to Redfern to give the brother of Hilary, a singer in the band that Louve’s boyfriend Kheiron plays synth in, his asthma medication.

Now, here’s the thing. You have to be patient. The drama unfolds at the beginning of the novel with all the speed of a lava flow. The stuff trickles out of a source of inspiration that lies buried within the recesses of the book in a slow stream that lets you gradually pick up on the relationships between the different people who appear in the narrative. At each cut of the frames (sudden and emphatic) there is more of the Bergon-Einstein narrative interspersed that you have to get through. The suspense however builds up to stratospheric levels if you wait for long enough, and so by the time you near the end of the book you cannot wait to turn the pages. This is a very interesting novel indeed.

It is somewhat like a snow-globe, one of those plastic objects that contain a diorama or some kind of “scene” that is enclosed in a transparent plastic dome. The white plastic flakes of “snow” fall to the bottom when the water-filled globe is shaken. Many places form the backdrop to the story in this novel, from the Salvation Army’s People’s Palace in Pitt Street to the Block in Redfern, and from the Triple-J offices in Darlinghurst just off William Street to the Sydney Tower development on Market Street. There are even appearances from a left-wing activist office on Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, and Christ Church St Laurence on George Street in the Haymarket. The novel is also one that looks in some detail at the Post-Punk era (the action takes place during one evening and night in the autumn of 1981), and it is important here to note that, like Charles and Frederick in the novel, the author grew up in Canberra (his brother Chris is the TV news journalist).

I wonder how Uhlmann managed to get the cadences and personalities of his characters so close to the truth? You feel as though these are people who actually lived. There’s something of the ventriloquist’s art taking place here. Perhaps he used a personal journal kept when he was a young man. Furthermore, two of the main characters in the book, Frederick and Charles, are outsiders who pick up on details about Leviathan that someone brought up in the city might have missed because they are too familiar.

Where the action takes place in and around the city (Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Chippendale, Redfern) is exactly where I spent time when I was a young man, places that were then largely still raw with the interwar poverty that has since been driven out by a process of gentrification. The streets that Uhlmann invokes from his imagination were therefore redolent with meaning for me. As I was reading I could feel the fear and hear the footfalls on the pavements and smell the lingering stench of a thousand cigarettes smoked in closed rooms.

Frederick is an unlikely hero. He is a no-hoper when it comes to small-talk, and he is aware of this shortcoming but he is a serious, intellectual type who tends to books and avant-garde music. Charles ends up getting drunk on vodka even though his friend warns him not to, and Louve and Frederick end up going off as a pair on a quest to deliver the inhaler. Louve exploits the glamour inherent in her job and flirts energetically with Frederick who is often nonplussed. She is arch and sometimes cruel. Redfern, where they are headed at one stage, is locked down by police because of rioting by local residents.

The things that are touched on in this novel include the changing nature of the relationship between the sexes, Aboriginal land rights, the fight of the proletariat against Capital and its conniving State, AIDS, and religion and the nature of existence. Big themes. To illustrate aspects of the last of these, there is a lot of discussion about suicide and God. Heavy subjects, to be sure, but the young in that era were nothing if not serious. Joy Division features in one scene in the book. Frederick is in many ways a fitting hero for the times depicted. (The author has a small joke at his expense near the end when Frederick jumps a wall to escape detection by some people walking on the street.)

The echoes of Joyce in the night scenes are unmistakeable, but there are also traces here of Claude Simon and his speaking artefacts of the material world. The objects might be solid, but you know what happens when lava hits water? It forms pumice. Which floats. A floating rock: two contradictory things in one.

Uhlmann teaches at Western Sydney University and this novel is deliberately difficult to access in many respects that I do not feel at all qualified to articulate. The meshing of the different narratives serves, in my mind, a primary purpose of highlighting debates that have raged about the nature of existence since the middle of the 19th century. This is not only the point where Modernism starts to appear in the literary arts (Melville, Whitman, Flaubert, Baudelaire), but it is also when Marx was writing his famous books. The device also provides a certain drama-inducing lag in the signal conveying the main story that involves Frederick and Louve. In this second sense the breaks have something about them of the intercut black film separating scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film ‘Stranger than Paradise’. There are also occasional flare-ups of meaning when words and themes in the two narratives happen to intersect.

Other, better-educated critics than me will be able to make more of the twinned narratives and what they portend when analysed together. But you certainly don’t need a university degree to enjoy this brilliant book.

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Book review: Eggshell Skull, Bri Lee (2018)

This outstanding piece of literary journalism is a memoir that recounts a period of the writer’s life from when she starts working as the associate for a judge of the District Court of Queensland after graduating in law, until the end of her own court case. You’re halfway through the book by the time Bri decides to tell someone else about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a friend of her brother’s named Samuel Levins when she was still in primary school.

The drama builds slowly over a period of about three years, with bits of the puzzle being dropped into the plot at strategic moments in order to generate a feeling of suspense. Bri’s time as an associate primed her for her final decision to have recourse to the authorities. It brought her into contact with many cases where children and women had suffered sexual abuse. It is in the context of these cases, and Bri’s thoughts about them, that her determination to see justice done in her own case started to grow.

Bri’s dad was a policeman and her boyfriend is a law student, and along with her mother and brother they support her through the stressful weeks of waiting that precede the trial that Levins brings on because he won't submit a guilty plea. The denouement is dramatic, like the moment in the middle of the book when Bri decides to seek justice for the wrongs done to her when she was a girl. The people around her are part of the drama, of course, and much of the forward momentum in the book derives from the rich characterisation that she achieves with them.

Characterisation is not the only thing that is done well. In addition the plotting is tight, with new information introduced in small increments so that you have a minute-by-minute grasp of the importance of even the smallest event. No doubt Bri kept good journals to aid her in this work.

She also takes you on little journeys into her mind. A single event might cause a specific action or reaction to take place, and then you are wafted away on a new loop of the narrative that adds to the depth of characterisation that is constantly taking place, and which also stretches your understanding. You are asked to empathise with things that you might not immediately understand perfectly. Bri is there holding your hand at each step, making sure you are still with her but not treating you like a complete idiot. You are allowed to imagine, to expand your horizons, and as a result you see things that you might never have had the opportunity to see before.

This is all about the talent of the writer. She is consummate in her command of the facts, the drama and the plot. What you also get of course are insights into what it is like to be a woman or girl who has been abused by a man who thinks nothing of her feelings, who demonstrates contempt for her sense of worth, and who believes that he should simply be excused from the consequences of his selfish acts.

The portrait of Brisbane that Lee provides is redolent with significance for me as I lived on the Sunshine Coast for five-and-a-half-years. The drenching downpours and the swollen river in the wet season, and the crushing humidity of a summer’s day are here on purposive display.

This book is an antidote to the ceaseless deluge of bad news on the domestic violence front. If ever a book had to be written to demonstrate the deleterious effects this scourge has on Australia, this is it. The title is explained inside it. It’s a legal principle but it is almost too difficult for a mind as dull as mine to understand. It means that in court the defendant has to take the victim as they are, and cannot use for their defence that she should have been more robust than in fact she was. The cover of the book is pink in the printed version. It shows a human skull with a representation of a cicada where the mouth should be. The cicada is an insect that can live underground in a dormant state for up to seven years before emerging on the trunk of a tree to fill the summer air with noise.

Monday 23 July 2018

The plasticity of poetic language

At 5.57pm on 18 July, ABC Perth tweeted: “The parents of student Mehreen Ahmad say they are trapped in a ‘never-ending darkness’ after she suffered brain damage at the hands of a Brazilian man in an attack in a Perth apartment block stairwell.”

The drama in the words of the parents is present and the feeling of helplessness is palpable but on second thoughts the expression used is a little overblown. Parents of a child who has just been killed are supposed to express feelings like this, right? But it’s hard to imagine anything in this life being “never-ending”, for a start. “Darkness”? Certainly, things seem pretty bad right now but given a few years and the restorative action of justice the world will look a lot better at some point in the future, surely. It can’t rationally be all that bad. Forever and ever.

It’s not. But this is the thing about language: its plasticity. It is malleable and casual expressions using language, even carefully thought-out incidents of it such as poetry, can be made to do things that more stubborn artefacts of civilisation, such as the law or the economy, cannot. (Even though language is in both of these cases the medium of communication.) This is the great blessing of poetry: that it fits whatever shape we design for it without complaint or resistance.

Almost. There is the matter of style. You have to get other people to believe what you are saying, otherwise the strength of the words is reduced. Or annihilated. People who write poetry experiment with style never-endingly as they seek out ways to engage with the community, in order to amass wealth. If they are very good, their fame will outlast even their own lifespan, and they will be recognised as a minor poet by posterity, if not a great one.

The thing about poetry (literature in general) is that it can be produced in almost any conceivable circumstance. Regardless of the nature of the freedoms available in the country you are writing in, you can write anything you want. Publishing however might be a different proposition. Many great writers have had to live in countries other than their native land in order to publish their work. But in the main, poetry is tolerated by the authorities even in oppressive regimes because it is seen to be a harmless type of writing not linked to political activism, as journalism might be thought to be.

Which brings me to the point of my post. Some of the best literature we have was written at a time when the political settlement was inimical to the types of freedoms that people in the developed world today take for granted. This brings me back to the opening of this post. Strong, affective language that is designed to highlight the cause of your pain, such as the words used by the Pakistani parents of Mahreen Ahmad when speaking to the media in Perth, are characteristic of what you can hear in places where basic freedoms are not available. There, you are forced to overstate your case because you know, from the outset, that you are going to come away unsatisfied unless you appeal to the something buried deep inside the person you are talking to. Official channels will not bring redress and so alleviate your burden. Your only hope of relief rests with a sense of pity that might be possessed by the man standing in front of you. So verbalising hyperbolic claims to emphasise the strength of your feelings is a way to cut through official obduracy.

I want to take a small detour here. People who grow vanilla beans know that in order to get the plant to produce them you have to restrict the amount of water the plant receives. The judicious application of stress to the plant in this way results in the desired outcome: dozens of the delicious, pungent beans that we have used to flavour food since the plant was brought back to Europe by the Spanish in the Renaissance.

With literature, the same rule might apply. The high-toned, pathetic literature that we like to read in our leisure hours might be possible only in repressive political climates. Take Rimbaud, for example, who lived mostly during the period of the Second Empire during the second half of the 19th century in France, under Napoleon III. There was no free press in the country at the time, as there was of course in Britain, and the French legislature, which had very restricted powers, was ultimately controlled by the executive headed by the emperor. But Rimbaud’s poetry is far more interesting than much of what was appearing in England at the same time, although Swinburn is an obvious contender in the originality stakes. Great strides forward in literature were therefore made under inauspicious conditions. But it might have been precisely the lack of individual freedom in France at the time that led to Rimbaud’s extraordinary inventiveness.

Look for contrast at what appeared in Australia in roughly the same era: poetry such as the verse of Banjo Paterson (1864-1941), that we nowadays consider to be practically indistinguishable from doggerel. In the colonies of New South Wales, Tasmania, and Victoria, voting for members of part of each of the legislatures was introduced in 1856. South Australia gained the same privilege in 1857, Queensland in 1860, and Western Australia in 1890. And the press in each of the colonies before federation in 1901 was highly vocal and influenced government policy. Having the freedom to decide your destiny does not necessarily lead to the production of a fine quality literature.

In fact it might impede it. Look, for another example of attitudes held by people in the Australian community, at the motto of the University of Sydney, Australia’s first university. The plan to establish the institution was first mentioned in the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1848 and the University of Sydney Act was signed into law by the governor in 1850. ‘Sidere mens eadem mutato’ is the motto, and it translates from Latin as “The constellations change but the mind stays the same”. In other words, the new university would be made on a model already established by the two universities that existed at the time in the UK: Oxford and Cambridge under the Southern Cross. The poetry being published in the colonies was just like this: pale copies of what was appearing “back home” in the British Isles.

Under such oppressive conditions (from the point of view of the arts), strange episodes might however result, such as the Ern Malley hoax that was carried out by conservative writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart. They cheekily wrote some “Modernist” verses one day in 1943 and submitted them to the magazine Angry Penguins, which was edited by Max Harris and John Reed, who printed them in an issue of the magazine along with enthusiastic commentary. The hoax became public knowledge, Harris was put on trial for and convicted of publishing obscenity, and the magazine folded in 1946. Nowadays, no-one reads McAuley’s poetry. Rimbaud is a star.

Sunday 22 July 2018

Book review: Out of Time, Miranda Sawyer (2016)

Sawyer is five years younger than me so I could understand some of what she talks about, although I personally never had the same difficulty with middle age as she says she did. I was never a music journalist, of course. My case is anyway a bit different because when I was 38 my life started to fall apart when I separated from my family then a year later I developed a mental illness, lost my job and had to come back to Australia with my tail between my legs, without even a home to go to. That was just before the planes hit the Twin Towers. I got my act together eventually, found a new job, bought another property which I moved into, and went back to university to study journalism. So I had to cobble together a life from the ashes of the previous one, which sort of killed any sense of coherence my middle age might otherwise have had.

I read about 20 percent of Sawyer’s book, by which time she had got up to her 40s, before giving up, bored with it. The premise is sound: people do think that 40 is the new 30 and expect to be able to have all the same things at the age of 50 as they did at the age of 20 (even though, by the time you reach 50, you probably don’t really want them much anymore). And the book starts well. The initial letters used instead of names for people close to the author are confusing however: you lose track of who is who because of the gaps that separate mentions. There are some confusing Britishisms (“blag”, “goggle”) that pulled me up a bit short at times. The chapter on her 20s was a whirlwind of band names that meant exactly zero to me, and I found it tedious in the end. But it was mercifully short.

There is a lack of structure in the book however that is fatal to its purpose of conveying useful information. Insights. The reason you pay the price that appears on the Kindle store sales page as you sit, comfortable and fed, in your living room in faraway Sydney. There are few worth paying attention to, unfortunately, but more than that the sense that Sawyer thinks she’s writing a 2000-word story for a magazine instead of a book is difficult to square with the demands of your literary taste. These tell you that the book has been inadequately thought through.

The prose has a skittish fluidity but it skates over the surface of things at a rapid pace, not unlike the patter of one of those old-school touts who used to stand on the pavement outside the dollar shops in the CBD calling out the names and prices of goods on sale inside as they tried to entice people to walk through the doors, or like the tenor delivery of the caller of a horse race you would listen to when you went to get your hair cut at the barber’s as a kid.

The book is heavily under-cooked. The author might have had a good idea at the start of the project but its implementation is weak. It is not really worth the time spent reading it.

Saturday 21 July 2018

The left-right tango is a dead end

The problem won’t go away. Even if Trump is defeated in 2020 by a Democratic candidate, the Democrats will certainly lose another election at some point in the future. Then, who will the GOP bring out to furnish material for their party’s chances at government? If we are being primed for fascism with Trump, how much worse will be the next person who wins the party’s nomination for president?

The internet is becoming increasingly shrill on both sides, with people on the left and on the right reacting with hyper-partisan fever to things that are published to furnish material for the debates that rage online. It’s not quite an echo-chamber, but it does involve narrow-casting by politicians keen to reach their target audiences. What is incontrovertibly true however is that the quality of the discussions online is mostly very low-quality, with people digging into entrenched positions and using sarcasm to make points, and often releasing ad-hominem barbs, rather than dispassionately addressing the issues at hand.

In this environment of claim and counterclaim there is no quarter given. People reward the figures in the public sphere who take the most extreme positions possible, and unthinkingly share their productions as they strive to defeat their enemies and create cohesion with others who have similar views as them. Rewarding extreme views on both sides just serves to further polarise the public sphere and the people in the middle are ignored or shouted down. Like Narcissus at the pond in the forest, people only admire their own image, and give recognition to others if they conform to a single, narrow stereotype. It’s a world as chaotic as the one foretold by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his now-famous lines, published in 1920:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The best are the people with moderate views who are ignored in this frenzy of consumption, where the most execrable junk food, laden with carbs and sugar, is devoured with the same relish as some rare delight from a fine eatery located in the swanky end of town.

This is no way to conduct debate, and it will just result in governments that make poor decisions in order to fulfil election platforms that take form in a maelstrom of extremist rhetoric. We need a better way, a slower pace of news, and more considered development of informed opinion. But people don’t share stories that ask them to think for themselves. They just react to idiocy and sensationalism, like a leg when the doctor strikes under the kneecap with a rubber hammer: a reflex action. No wonder so many people are unhappy.

In the US, generations of poor decisions, privileging the elites over ordinary workers, due to idiocy inspired by the Cold War, have hollowed out the left to a point where it is quite ineffectual, resulting in the sort of entrenched inequality that readily finds solace in xenophobia and other artefacts of nationalistic exceptionalism. Overseas, conservative think-tanks and politicians take infantile ideas bred within this crucible of neoliberalism and wrap them in notions of “progress” in order to sell them to their electorates in the months and years between elections. And every eight years or so they get a chance to implement them as law.

A story by Owen Jones that appeared in the UK on the website of the Guardian on 19 July said that the only antidote to the rise of the far-right is to have more radical left political solutions. He applauded the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn and regretted the demise of the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders in the US.

But you need angles to achieve anything lasting and useful on the policy front. When I lived in Queensland looking after mum she told me one day that a man had climbed to the top of her garden wall. The wall is about ten feet high and is made of Besser blocks that have been rendered with cement and painted. But it’s not perfectly straight. At one point in the middle of the street frontage, there are two right-angles made where the wall has been built to accommodate a planter space on the footpath side. The man had used the soles of his sneakers on the angles created by these perpendicular sections of wall to leverage himself up to the top of it, where he had sat, looking in. Mum told me that she just happened to be at the front window at the moment he appeared out of nowhere at the top of her wall. She shooed him away with her hand, she said, and he dropped back into the street and left her alone.

Getting to the top of the policy wall that separates the left and the right, so that productive policy decisions can be made for the benefit of everyone living in the community, and not just those who have paid lobbyists looking after their interests, should be the goal of politicians, the media, and the electorate that supports them. That means compromise rather than the endless left-right tango that we usually favour. Because the next iteration from the right might be bigly challenging.

Friday 20 July 2018

African gangs: must be something in the water

On 15 November last year I wrote about the results from the marriage equality postal vote. In that poll, 17 electorates voted ‘No’ when asked if they thought the law governing marriage in Australia should be changed to allow people of the same sex to marry. Of those 17 electorates, 12 were in the Sydney metropolitan area. Of those, nine electorates had large concentrations of people who had stated in the 2016 Census that their religion was either Islam or Hinduism. These were the electorates of Barton, Blaxland, Chifley, Fowler, Greenway, McMahon, Parramatta, Watson and Werriwa.

Of the remaining five electorates that voted ‘No’, two were in Melbourne’s metropolitan area: Bruce and Calwell. Both electorates have significant concentrations of Muslims.

The other electorates that voted ‘No’ were all rural seats in Queensland.

If you look at the 2016 Census figures that show ethnicity, Sydney has more people born overseas.
  • Both parents born overseas: 60,420
  • Father only born overseas: 150,269
  • Mother only born overseas: 108,726
  • Both parents born in Australia: 798,863
For Melbourne the figures are similar but not as large.
  • Both parents born overseas: 47,126
  • Father only born overseas: 136,637
  • Mother only born overseas: 99,278
  • Both parents born in Australia: 779,973
So it seems that in Sydney the heavy concentrations of migrants in specific areas (go to Lakemba or Auburn for Pakistani or Lebanese food; to Hurstville or Ashfield for Chinese; to Harris Park for Indian; to Blacktown for Filipino or Punjabi) serve to give people a more solid sense of identity that sustains them in their daily lives. In Melbourne, migrants tend to be more evenly spread out in the broader community, and seem to be less concentrated in small enclaves. That might be the reason for the African gangs panic. Or else there’s something in the water in the southern capital that makes the place prone to unwarranted panic. It should also be noted that the numbers of Africans in Australia is so vanishingly small that the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not even single them out for counting in their figures unless they were born in South Africa. In which case they are more likely to be white.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Book review: Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata (2018)

This gentle comic novel yet contains trenchant social commentary aimed at the core of the contemporary Japanese urban experience, dealing as it does with sex, marriage and children. It was originally published in Japanese in 2016 as ‘Konbini ningen’ (“convenience store people”) and won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in the author’s home country. This is her tenth book but the first to have been translated into English. I read the book in one afternoon. It is quite short and a ripping yarn that keeps you turning the pages.

Since the asset bubble burst in 1992, Japan’s economy has performed sluggishly and its population is actually shrinking as there is virtually no immigration to speak of. Poor economic performance has meant that for many young Japanese only part-time work has been achievable. It is hard to save money to buy a house and start a family when your income is limited and you have little job security. In the post-war period of rapid economic growth prior to 1992, Japanese men had traditionally entered employment and stayed with the same company for the whole of their lives before retiring on a pension furnished by the employer. This compact between employer and employee is a rarer commodity now than it had been previously.

It is in this context that the book should be read. The strange Furukura and the lazy sociopath Shiraha are also broadly analogous as types to the disaffected, dreamy young men who muddle through life in the novels of Haruki Murakami.

For women in Japan, finding a job and working was always something that you did before getting married and settling down to perform the essential role of looking after children and a household. For many it still is and often women are expected to quit their jobs after they marry. But the long period of economic weakness that has burdened Japan since the bubble burst has disturbed conventional patterns of living for many people in the community.

Keiko Furukura (“furui” means “old” and “kurai” means “dark”) is single and 36 and works in a low-status, temporary job as a convenience store sales clerk. As a child, she had been impetuous and unconventional and the life of a worker has given her existence a structure that fulfils her even though other people think she is strange not to have a “proper job” or a husband. But she thinks that the store “fixed” her when she had been broken. People’s prying questions trouble her although she doesn’t know what to do about them until she meets a new employee named Shiraha (“shiroi” means “white” and “ha” means “tooth”).

During the day, Shiraha goes about performing the tasks of stocking the shelves and serving customers with a lacklustre attitude that grates on the conscientious Furukura. He has a chip on his shoulder and believes that the world has treated him unfairly. He starts to stalk a customer after he is fired from the store and Furukura finds out that he hasn’t been able to pay his rent. She invites him to her home and he takes up residence there, sleeping in the bath and coming out to eat when he is hungry. He has an idea for an internet business but is not interested in getting a job. Shiraha convinces Furukura that his living there is good for her, and she finds when she talks with friends and family that they agree. They are curious about the new guy in her life and she begins to see benefits from having Shiraha around.

The way that convention determines how people conduct their lives is essentially the lesson that this book conveys. Peer pressure and pressure from family are so powerful in determining whether we feel satisfied with the choices we make as our lives progress, especially, the author wants to say, in conformist Japan. The book moves inexorably toward its crisis as the leech-like Shiraha manipulates the oddball Furukura for his own selfish purposes, and the denouement is very funny. It is laden with echoes of what many Japanese really think deep-down: that work serves an essential role in furnishing the individual with important facets of his or her personality. The stresses that the fraying of the fabric of the traditional worker-company relationship has put on salary-men has been difficult for many to navigate.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Book review: and my heart crumples like a coke can, Ali Whitelock (2018)

There’s an ABC sports newsreader named Catherine Murphy who has a Scots accent. What is she doing here, in Australia, telling us about ALF and soccer? And how did a Scot come to have an Irish name? And haven’t we already got Katharine Murphy (the political correspondent for the Guardian)? Did we really need another one?

Ali Whitelock comes along with her stream-of-consciousness narratives like some sort of improved version of Molly Bloom made real in the world, complete with a laptop, a dog and a house by the sea. In his foreword to the book, poet Mark Tredinnick works very hard to get us to like her, comparing her favourably to Charles Bukowski, the American poet who found popularity in the 80s and who still seems to have a readership despite some unpleasant rumours. I’m not sure the analogy quite fits the case, although Whitelock strikes me as being as observant of society’s foibles as Chuck was while he was alive. Her satire and deadpan delivery frequently made me smile.

Some of the poems, furthermore, are quite perfect, such as ‘o fair and gentle leek’, ‘please do not pee in the sink’, and ‘the shit we are in’. In these, the story rumbles on comfortably like any old stray set of diurnal thoughts until it reaches the end, and then stops just at the right moment. Not all of the poems have this degree of precision and focus, but all share a down-home sagacity of a kind that we certainly need more in the public sphere. Whitelock might be a marooned Scot who has touchingly made a home for her mortality in the ungainly sprawl of Australia’s feckless suburbia, but she is not without a healthy strain of snark that she deploys to noticeable effect when occasion demands.

This reliance on the day-to-day to help create meaning does however kerb the poet’s ability to isolate larger truths for the benefit of the reader. There is a stubborn domesticity here that works very well to furnish trenchant material for social commentary, but that yet means that the poems for the main part are tethered to the mundane. They are hymns to the everyday that will suit any denomination or creed, but more rarefied truths are infrequent visitors to the lovely sallies contained in this slim volume. Even the book’s title serves to gently link the spirit tightly to the secular realm, but you wonder if Whitelock might one day reach past the drink container, the commercial forces that support its existence, and the social relations that are influenced by them, to ponder things lying beyond the margins of the world as it appears in newspaper headlines. I wanted to say more in this vein, but I had second thoughts. It’s not that I want to pull my punches, but I want to wait for more evidence before making bald statements.

To finish up, I almost whooped when she flagged the Robbie Burns statue that sits optimistically on its granite plinth near the Art Gallery of New South Wales, between an Angel’s trumpet to the south and the Police Service Wall of Remembrance to the north. The Latin name for the tree is Brugmansia. It’s a poisonous introduced species related to the tomato and the potato. On sunny weekdays, joggers who work in offices in the towers situated just past the western edge of the Domain run past the statue of Scotland’s favourite son, complete with its plough, as they take time out from their busy schedules to get some air into their lungs and to work the kinks out of tired muscles. But few people notice this bit of civic art, a relique of a simpler time, the age of Henry Lawson and the White Australia Policy, although many certainly wish that we could turn the clock back and make the country conform to its values again. It would be nice if we could just keep the good bits, though, without the nationalistic exceptionalism and all the other disreputable baggage that went along with it.

Tuesday 17 July 2018

Book review: District and Circle, Seamus Heaney (2006)

Heaney loves the feel and sound of words, there’s no question about it, and he has a certain fluency with them, along with a distinct breadth of vocabulary at his command, but I found this collection obscure and disappointing. It’s the first time I’ve ever read any poems by the Nobel Prize-winning author.

He has trouble with his referents (the things he’s actually trying to talk about) and this seems to me to be a critical kind of failing for a poet, whose work ultimately floats or sinks on its ability to convey meaning. But in these poems meaning evades your grasp. It’s sort of like the feeling you get when, out walking, you see a car approaching on the carriageway but there’s a pole on the footpath ahead of you. The distance between you and the pole, and between the car and the pole, and the speeds at which the two of you are moving, mean that you never see the car, just the pole. That’s how I felt reading this collection of mature poetry (Heaney got the gong in 1995). There was always something getting in the way.

With the prose pieces in this book you find the same threadbare quality as with the verse. In the section titled ‘Found Prose’ there are a number of pieces, ‘The Lagans Road’, ‘Tall Dames’ and ‘Boarders’. In these, even though the poet has all the room in the world to work with because it’s prose not poetry he’s writing, the referents still evade your grasp. Unaccountable! And where you can make sense of what he’s writing about in these prose pieces, the poetry is thin and unsatisfying. So even where there are enough words to convey the meaning the poet has in his mind, the effect of the ideas contained in the language is pale.

It furthermore never escapes the bounds of the wonky, haphazard syntax that is placed by the author on the page. And the very physicality of the language, which is meant to be a feature, makes the words resist the type of suggestive sense-making that flares up like ideas in some contemporary poetry through the material of the language itself. As you find for example with the excellent work of the Australian poet Les Murray, a contemporary of Heaney’s who is still with us.

When it comes down to it, Heaney’s work is simply just not very good. Certainly not good enough for a Nobel Prize for Literature. The apposite word in Japanese is “gutai-teki”: “physical”, “of this world”. I use it to mean that things here are shackled rigidly to the material world. No chance of anything escaping the tug of gravity and flying up into the air. Nothing abstract or theoretical to upset the punters, although there is a certain cloying nostalgia that like a cranky uncle inhabits some of the poems in this collection.

What most forcibly cemented the idea of the materiality of the poetry in my mind was reading ‘The Harrow-Pin’, which is about a part of an agricultural implement that is towed at the back of a tractor, and that intrudes into the earth to help farmers break up clods in order to prepare the soil for sowing seeds for crops. The tool is made of iron and is large and hard. I had to look up “harrow” on the internet in order to understand what the object is used for. Here, at a glance, rest the poetics of Seamus Heaney.

He savours his words, rolling them around in his mouth like a piece of hard candy as he sucks the goodness out of them before offering up the consequence, like a thin trail of spit sent up against a wall, for the appreciation of the reader, as though he were offering the viscera of a slaughtered goat to be read by a soothsayer. “See how far it goes!” you can almost hear him shout as he checks out where his latest gob has started to run down the vertical of the painted surface toward the horizontal of the patient dry ground. (“Use the hose next time you want to water the plants.” You’re only being helpful.)

Heaney desperately wants to sing, you can feel the passion inside him, even in his dotage, but he just chants like a tired old monk. Much better, from a slightly earlier generation, is R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman. 

Monday 16 July 2018

Book review: Crudo, Olivia Laing (2018)

This refreshing roman-a-clef is one of the best things that I have read for many a long day. And like the Australians Maria Tumarkin and Melanie Cheng, who are both from migrant backgrounds, and whose books about Australia I reviewed recently, Laing is British and so here an outsider’s point of view is brought to bear on the political scene in the US.

‘Crudo’ is focalised entirely and thrillingly through the character of Kathy Acker, the 1980s punk novelist and popular culture icon, who is here transported to a later era – she is 40 and about to be married in the northern summer of 2017 when the novel takes place (13 May to 22 September), although Acker herself died in 1997 and was born in 1947 – so that she can glom onto the logic of social media and the debates that are happening in this particular historical moment. It’s a deeply humorous premise betraying the girlish elan buttressing the whole enterprise.

A novel with bite. Like a Shakespearean sonnet, it is full of allusive energy. The way the prose works brought to my mind the way Hideki Gondo, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki in Juzo itami’s outstanding 1987 film ‘A Taxing Woman’, described what it was like to enjoy the wealth that he had accumulated in his lifetime. He said that consuming it was like sipping the excess liquid from the top of a cup full of water, that is held there by mere surface tension. You sip and you sip at the water’s convex top but the glass always remains full because the drops of water keep falling into it from above. Laing’s prose is like Gondo’s metaphorical cup. You read and you read and you are always presented with a full cup no matter how much of the whole you consume. There is a rich plenitude here that in its poetic adequacy defies even the most deft analysis. The words simply do not run out. (Itami of course was the brother-in-law of the peerless Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe.)

The pace of Laing’s novel reminded me of ‘Helter Skelter’, a song from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ of 1968. A full-on rushing tempest of a tune that carries you along with it on an unhinged trajectory to the very core of human experience, a place where the seeping tempers of the vital organs meld organically with the inner-most thoughts of the outcast individual, a woman alive on the cusp of the future.

In the novel, Kathy empties out the apartment she has lived in alone and moves all her stuff to the home of her husband-to-be. It is a liminal moment rendered all the more poignant because of the age at which it is accomplished, a moment in a woman’s life when she has cause to contemplate from a rational distance the outlands of the human span, places where people don’t always voluntarily go in the daily round of business. It is a moment that comes close to the period when the menopause intrudes, a point in time that threatens to bring changes and unique burdens, things that promise to test the integrity of a woman alive in the world. A moment full of exquisite promise.

There is something elemental about Kathy in this novel so that she stands for the eternal feminine, one prone to irrational rages and sudden enthusiasms, with a fierce certainty of her own intelligence along with a devouring scepticism at the stupidity of the age of Trump, and furthermore a consuming tenderness when confronted by the weakness of the marginalised who dwell with us in the world. A person for whom a husband is a necessary part of being alive, although whether you agree with everything that he says or not is another thing entirely.

And more: Kathy is here like a female Leopold Bloom of ‘Ulysses’. A remarkable analogue if you tjhink about it a bit since the original model for Bloom was the Modernist author Italo Svevo, who Joyce had tutored in the English language during his Trieste years before WWI. Acker and Svevo: twins busy in a single enterprise. The interior monologue reimagined in 2018, this time with a feminine cast. In Joyce’s case, the two men, the Irishman and the Italian, had been brought together by pure chance but nevertheless in the meeting lay submerged within the loam of humdrum reality the seeds of one of the great fictional efflorescence’s of the 20th century.

There are furthermore echoes in Laing’s novel of the eye-opening promise of the revelatory definite article as used by Joan Didion, a chronicler of another moment of change when two historical continents rubbed together for the first time to create a new sound. Coming down fast!

Whereas Didion chronicled a time when mores and laws were changing to adjust to the demands of the big post-war baby boom, with its new ideas about how to organise society, Laing chronicles the passage at the terminal point of the period of broad consensus that followed from that modulation of the parameters defining both the good and the bad, at a time, now, when the right has finally found its collective voice. In our age, the pendulum risks swinging back to fascism.

But the American people appear to be oblivious, and still don’t know that what Trump wants to do will make their situation even worse than it is now. Draining the swamp in the way he has in mind will just deepen the inequality that shackles the lives of so many in that country. The movie ‘Solo’, the most recent in the Star Wars franchise, was, like this novel, an artefact of the era of Trump, a time when everything has nothing but a money value. It is in this light that this novel has to be read. Appeals by contemporary politicians to the ugly xenophobia simmering beneath the surface of society in the US are a ruse designed to distract voters’ attention from the true purpose of the government: to further entrench inequality in favour of the few at the expense of the many. Laing shifting the dates to situate Kathy within the locus of public debate in the era of tiki torches and Pepe the Frog is an inspired move.

Sunday 15 July 2018

Book review: The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016)

This rather tendentious speculative thriller posits a world where women are endowed with a mysterious power that gives them a physical advantage over men. Starting with a scattering of girls, women start to realise that they have the power to generate electricity from their hands. Some older women are shown how to use the power by the younger ones. In some women, the power is stronger than it is in others.

The plot develops as women use the power they have been given to change the political settlement in countries around the world. It is driven by a handful of major characters – Tunde Edo, a male Nigerian reporter who disseminates news of the phenomenon using the internet; Allie Montgomery-Taylor, a young woman who lives in the American south, who hears voices in her head and who launches a cult, adopting as her own the epithet “Mother Eve”; Roxy Monke, a young British girl whose father is a gangster and whose mother is killed by thugs one day; and Margot Clearly, the mayor of a city in the USA.

The narrative courses along at a breathless pace and the characterisation is good. You get to understand the people whose lives are being laid open to your scrutiny and you can empathise with their stories. The pathos embodied in the story of Allie is thick. Sexually assaulted by her adoptive father, Allie kills the man one day at the beginning of the spate of electrocutions that proliferate suddenly throughout the world, just as things start to escape the control of the authorities, and flees her house, ending up in a convent. It is here that she is able to build her reputation as a woman who has been touched in some way by God, a being that she formulates in her utterances as a female, but one whose essence lies beyond the conventional categories used to classify people in the secular world.

The way the novel works reminded me of ‘Blindness’, the 1995 novel (translated from Portuguese and published in English in 1997) by Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, which when I read it I also found to be tendentious. That novel also deals with an unexplained phenomenon that afflicts a large number of people, in its case when a number of people in the community suddenly go blind for no discernible reason. The political process in the society being described is impacted as the government takes steps to contain what they think is a contagion.

But you feel cornered by the inexorable flow of events, events that restrict the area within which your imagination has available for movement, and as though there were only one way that things are able to be interpreted. Allegory can be airless and claustrophobic like this: this is an entirely artificial place, the world of this novel, where the author seems to have autocratic control over people and events that are depicted. If you screw down the story so tightly, the imagination has no place to wander. The language itself has to provide places where the reader can roam free like a lion on the veldt. I’m a big fan of Saramago but this novel of his I consider be a failure.

Another failure (in my opinion) this book reminded me of is J.M Coetzee’s ‘The Childhood of Jesus’. There’s the same strangulation of hope and a sense of futility that pushes aside a sense of impending disaster the author wants to convey, because you feel as though the cards are completely stacked against the hero from the outset.

The internet and social media get some play in this novel by Alderman, who is British, but more could have been done in a similar vein. The author is on Twitter but for whatever reason she didn’t see fit to use it as a device in the novel for advancing the plot or for developing character.

‘The Power’ is a competent novel but it’s one that is probably more interesting for women than for men. I read about a third of it before putting it down, bored with it. I felt a little exploited, and in the end came to resent the underlying narrative where men are forever complicit in the abuse of women, despite the undeniable fact that there is no doubt that this is true in many cases. But more than this, the novel’s entire premise lies in the fact that the interests of women and men are somehow inimical to one another. There is a great scene that offers a counterpoint to this theme that takes place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the women start to take over the streets vacated by the suddenly powerless authorities. Here Tunde meets Noor, who takes him to witness what happens and at the end of the day leads him to an apartment where they make love.

So there are moments when men and women complement each other in ways that are elemental and that in normal daily life underpin the coherence of society. But these moments are vanishingly rare in the context that the book maps out for us. For the most part, the book visualises women and men as inhabiting separate spheres of interest. This is what I found a bit alienating, because the logic of this structural device is all-encompassing, affecting every part of the book in the same way, I imagine, that a woman’s whole life is impacted by the need to look after her safety on the streets and at home, in any place where she is likely to encounter a man.

Saturday 14 July 2018

Book review: The Agonist, Shastra Deo (2017)

This prize-winning collection contains a few good things: ‘Honestly’, ‘Road Trip’, and ‘When I Think of My Brother’. Otherwise, the substance of the work is rather thin, much like a piece of cloth with not enough weft to support the fabric for the purpose of making clothes out of it. Certainly, little of what I mentally tried on that I found here fit my experience of what good poetry is, although there were echoes at times of something published by a female poet in the middle of last century. In this vein, much of the collection regrettably brought to mind T.S. Eliot’s later poems, where any quality that might have survived the complacency brought on by his dotage is replaced by verbiage added by someone who has not been told often enough what is good.

Deo’s good poems are full of life and are animated by memory. They have a clear focus, easily-comprehensible referents, and a satisfying narrative structure. ‘Honestly’ is a love poem and the other two good ones are about the poet’s childhood (although it’s not clear if ‘Road Trip’ is a non-fictional account of an event or a fabrication).

In many of the poems the word “palm” (the body part) recurs with a frequency that has something disconcertingly deliberate about it, as though the poet were repeatedly trying on a favourite eyeshadow, in search of ways to generate a broader set of meanings encompassed by the totality of the poems in the collection. There is a lot of medical language that the average reader will not understand without the notes. This is a shame, as it impedes the process of comprehension. In fact, it is not only alienating it is quite unwarranted, there being no effort made to balance the burden these words make on the integrity of the poems by giving any other (ordinary) words the kind of weight and substance that good writing can impart. The words “blood” and “tendon” also appear a lot. One poem in particular, ‘Concerning Divination’, has more incomprehensible words per line than an obscure medieval theological tract. And is about as good.

The love poetry could have been better but the subject is often mixed up with things that lack any specific gravity and seem introduced into the narrative merely for the purposes of poetic effect. Meaning tends to get lost in the onrush of words. The person who is her love interest - I presume it is a man or men - has no discernible personality, and the play of feelings that these complicated poems should elicit is absent. If her lover remains largely faceless it’s hard to decide whether you agree with what the poet writes, for a sense of the poet’s own feelings is also so qualified and questioned that it is indistinguishable from journalism.

I felt reading the book that Deo is a young woman with a lot of good words and some sophisticated ideas who hasn’t sufficiently lived the things she cares about most, and so finds it difficult to encapsulate a vision in understandable verses. There is a rawness here that might have been leavened through the deployment of passion, but that emotion is missing too, the poet being an intelligent and educated young woman with opinions. You feel as though she probably belongs to the tribe who believe that recorded history started in 1848, and who like reading postmodern theory.

Reading the undercooked poems in this book made me sad and my mind involuntarily reverted to an image of the pathetic Senator Leyonhjelm in his contretemps with feisty Senator Hanson-Young: what right do I have to critique such things?

Friday 13 July 2018

Unfettered capitalism is suboptimal

I find people who stick to a rigid party line tiresome. People on the left are mostly gung-ho about redistribution of wealth through taxation and welfare. People on the right are mostly gung-ho about the wisdom of free markets. But I think there is a third way. In fact, most successful countries use this third way to run their operations.

The title of this blogpost should remind people of the sermon given by Bishop Michael Curry at Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle, that took place back in May.

In my family, there are the seeds of both free-market and redistributive traditions close to the surface. My mum’s dad, Harry Dean, was a card-carrying Communist. He would say if asked that Communism was “living Christianity” and spent his life giving things to people, including the love he gave to his daughter, who adored him. She married a man who would vote Liberal all his life and who said that his family was his “favourite charity”. I’ve written about my father on this blog on a number of occasions. I’m a bit of a chameleon when it comes to ideas about economics and inequality. I prefer to take the best words from the lexicons used by people on both sides of the political fence. My background means that I am more flexible than many other commentators who participate in debates in public.

Capitalism is good at distributing resources for the purpose of feeding the community but unfettered capitalism is suboptimal. A rational quantity of government intervention enables the community to find the coherence it needs for all members to thrive. We all benefit from living in healthy communities that are free of crime and pollution, so regulation of behaviour, either by corporations or individuals, is necessary to ensure the wellbeing of all people who live in them. None of us can survive alone, so quarantining all wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many is dangerous because it is not only unfair, it incites people to break the law.

We all need clean water, clean air, and safe streets to be able to enjoy the freedoms that the earth and human ingenuity embodied in technology and democracy have bequeathed to us over generations. These things can only be provided through government and taxation. But we know from experience that centrally-planned production systems absent private enterprise cannot compete with free markets. Texas has a population about the same size as Australia’s, but its economy is measurably larger. But to what purpose? We need the best of both worlds in order to live good lives.

Thursday 12 July 2018

Book review: Tilt, Kate Lilley (2018)

This slim collection of poetry and prose makes for good reading. Many of the poems in it are autobiographical in nature, and some of them talk about the author’s adolescent experiences. She has written about them elsewhere. The man who she has previously named as a sexual predator was progressive author and speechwriter Bob Ellis. Lilley says that her mother, the poet Dorothy Hewett, knew about the abuse but said nothing at the time. Ellis died two years ago. Hewett died in 2002. Lilley herself teaches at the University of Sydney.

But the poems about these experiences, while they might constitute an interesting chronicle about growing up in the 1970s, fail to completely engage the reader’s imagination. All the words are there and they are in the correct order but the spark that should animate the images they want to convey fails to ignite when you read them. At Gleebooks where I bought this volume, the sales clerk I spoke with told me that their initial stock of the book had sold out, and they had had to order new copies in for me, so I know that Lilley has a readership. But I was not moved by the writing in the book, not by the poems.

There is some journalism in here as well, however. It deals with the gay screen idol Greta Garbo. To write this piece, Lilley visited the archives in the United States where Garbo’s papers have been saved for posterity, and did extensive original research. It is a valuable piece of work that many people will be curious to read because Garbo was so famous for such a long time, over decades spanning both the silent- and the early talking-picture eras.

The cover image for the book is a photograph by Brian Bird dated 1948 that is titled ‘Luna Park lighted windmill’. The title of the book refers to the mechanical locking mechanism that is built into pinball machines to halt operation if excessive violence is employed when using them. Players would bump the machines they were on in a stabbing motion using the heels of their hands as they manipulated the buttons controlling the flippers, in order to gain high scores and keep the ball in play for the maximum amount of time possible. If a machine tilts, then its flippers stop working and you lose the ball down the chute in front of you.

The title of the book and its cover image bring to mind the work of the Australian artist Martin Sharp, who spent years making screen prints and paintings that used images of Tiny Tim, a British vaudeville singer who had a distinctive falsetto voice, and Ginger Meggs, an Australian newspaper cartoon character, a street urchin with read hair. He also made images of Luna Park and was vocal in support of the entertainment destination when it went through a rocky period in the late 70s and 1980s after a fire in the Ghost Train ride led to the deaths of seven people. His artworks are collectibles of pop now, but it recently came to light that, like Ellis, he had had sex with underage girls in the 1970s.

In the title poem in the book, Lilley talks about an entertainment destination she worked at in the 70s on Oxford Street. The piece underscores the distance that might lie between anodyne myths about an idealised past and the more confronting realities that can sometimes reside beyond the borders policed by the daily newspapers.

But knowingly signalling approval for tropes that are familiar to subsections of the community is not necessarily the same thing as writing worthwhile poetry, although the two things may sometimes appear to share things in common. A poem is not an ad, although people who in past eras might have written and published poetry these days do work in the advertising industry. To be fully realised, poetry must flame up in the imagination at points, usually at the end of the piece, and convey new awareness the reader didn’t have before. In exchange for the cost of the book and the time spent reading it, a poet owes us at least insight, if not revelation or a guide to attaining some sort of transcendence. But Lilley’s poetry seems to concentrate on narrow concerns in a way that suggests they lie wholly within a space circumscribed by the outlines of her public persona, or her identity. There might have been more space set aside for the expression of the individual’s perception of things that come before the reader and the feelings they provoked.

The poetry here is sometimes predictable but rarely really edifying. Poetry has to be stimulating in a way that prose does not have to be. A poem without its own quotient of energy, without some fire, cannot honestly be said to be good.

I had many concerns about writing this review after I had read a number of the poems in the book, because Lilley chose one of my own poems to be included in Southerly, the literary magazine that her university publishes four times a year. That poem appeared in 2014. So I had qualms about writing a negative review of her book. But I had only last month written a blogpost about the incestuous Australian literary ecosystem, so I felt it incumbent on me to be completely open and honest in my dealings with this book, for the ultimate benefit of my readers.

If reviewers hold back their true opinions about work that is published and made available to the wider community, then people who live in it are deprived of valuable information that might help them to purchase work that is really worthy of their dollars and time. Pulling your punches might give a temporary fillip to a writer but ultimately doing so corrupts the entire literary ecosystem because then you are skewing it to favour people you know rather than people whose work truly deserves to be read and shared. Reviewers have the same responsibility to be truthful as the media does. Truth is morality. A biased newspaper is corrupting the political process and should be shunned. Biased reviewers should also take a long, hard look at themselves before writing their next piece for publication.