Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tigers in Literature and Popular Culture

For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.

-- Christopher Smart, from 'Jubilate Agno', 1759-63


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

-- William Blake, ‘The Tyger’, from Songs of Experience, 1794


   "The Wolves are a free people," said Father Wolf. "They take orders from the Head of the Pack, and not from any striped cattle-killer. The man's cub is ours—to kill if we choose."
    "Ye choose and ye do not choose! What talk is this of choosing? By the bull that I killed, am I to stand nosing into your dog's den for my fair dues? It is I, Shere Khan, who speak!"
    The tiger's roar filled the cave with thunder.

-- Rudyard Kipling, 'Mowgli's Brothers', 1893


But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder

-- Herbert Kretzmer’s English adaptation of French lyrics (J’avais revé) by Alain Boublil, Les Misérables, 1980. 


Warfield lifted a great paw and put it in her hand. She felt the roughness of the pads and smelt faintly the cage floor. He pressed a toe to make the claw slide out. The heavy, supple muscles of the shoulders filled her hands.
She felt the tiger’s ears, the width of its head, and, carefully, the veterinarian guiding her, touched the roughness of its tongue. Hot breath stirred the hair on her forearms.

Last, Dr Warfield put the stethoscope in her ears. Her hands on the rhythmic chest, her face upturned, she was filled with the tiger heart’s bright thunder.

-- Thomas Harris, Red Dragon, 1981


But I couldn’t completely shake the idea that there really was something out there. I gathered my courage and tried to open myself, to extend my senses out into the night, to feel the tiger as it burned. It was nearby, I could tell, breathing softly, waiting. Somehow knowing me, knowing all of us, hungrily accepting the touch of my thoughts, purring like distant thunder with anticipation.

-- Tom Wright, What Dies in Summer, 2012

Which I am just this minute reading. I guess the softness and the brightness and the night and the burning and the thunder just go on and on and on.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Still here

So very much to blog about, so very little time. Since the last time I posted here, there's been Adelaide Writers' Week, the Adelaide Festival, a very nasty bout of reportable food poisoning, assorted family obblos and a fun quick trip to Melbourne.

But the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist comes out tomorrow, and if anything is guaranteed to get some sort of blog post out of me, it's probably that. Au demain.

Friday, March 9, 2012

If Sylvia Plath were a LOLcat

 Oh dear oh dear, long time no blog. I've been working hard over the summer but hope to be working less hard as of about today and to come back to the blog. Here in the meantime is something I've been meaning to do for a while now.

Having only just discovered the LOLcat translation of T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land', a mere 5 years after it was written, I'm reminded that someone once asked me for a similar translation of Sylvia Plath. So here it is.

The Shorter 'Daddy'

I'm in ur shoe

Papa Cat is marbl stachoo
marbl harbls
toe as big as walrus, no haz bukkit

Papa Cat is Jerman, or possbly Polish.
Girl kittehs luv Cats That Look Like Hitler WTF?

Oh hai, Ted Hughes

Whoops, Ted Hughes is vampyr, wait, what?
Not sparkly, DO NOT WANT

Papa Cat is Ceiling Cat
Ted Hughes is Papa Cat
Papa Cat is Basement Cat

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sexual assault prevention tips

1.  Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behaviour.

2.  When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone.

3.  If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them.

4.  Never open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

5.  If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, don’t assault them.

6.  Use the buddy system. If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.

7.  Always be honest with people. Don’t pretend to be a caring friend in order to gain the trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them that you plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the other person may take that as a sign that you do not plan to rape them.

8.  Don’t forget: you can’t have sex with someone unless they are awake. If they are asleep or unconscious, it’s not called ‘having sex’.

9.  Carry a whistle. If you’re worried you might assault someone accidentally, you can hand the whistle to the person you’re with so that they can blow it if you do.

From here, via Facebook.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In which Papa Cat seizes the day. Again.

Any long-time readers might remember this post from five years ago, when my dad, having blown out the candles on his 80th birthday cake, said 'Right: now I'm striking out for 85.'

Today's the day.

I spoke to him on the phone earlier: he was looking forward to a fancy lunch out with his daughters, followed my garbled account of my not-yet-written conference paper and asked a couple of pertinent questions, reassured me that I would get everything done, asked me what was coming up for Writers' Week, and gave me a thorough and lively description of Lleyton Hewitt's commentating skills as demonstrated during the Australian Open men's final ('I mean, I can't stand the little bastard, but he did a fantastic job') and a quick rundown on the latest in Adelaide's bikie wars. Still driving; stayed up with me last week till after 1 am watching the tennis, with no ill effects the next day; blood pressure 120/70 and the cardiologist doesn't want to see him for another twelve months.

Here he is, with the dog of the moment, 65 years ago.

Monday, January 30, 2012

More thoughts on writing, gender and statistics

Here's a thing I've just noticed about this week's copy for the column of short book reviews I'm currently writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (what I'm writing, this week, I mean -- won't be published till early Feb).

It's something I think to check from time to time and I'm glad to say that even when I'm not doing it consciously I usually manage, over the course of four book reviews, to mix up genre, gender and nationality pretty evenly. The literary editor does the first cull of the books that come in for review and sends me more than I need, and then I choose from them.

(I'm always startled to realise how many people think reviewers choose their own books, at least for hard-copy publications. Books for review, and reviewers for them, are chosen by the literary editor, though reviewers will often make a pitch to review this or that book.)

Mostly when people are counting statistics about whether men or women are getting more coverage, they don't look any further than the numbers. This week's copy features three women writers and one man. With four books to review per week, the most frequent gender ratio in my own columns (as I say, not often deliberately: frankly I'm proud of having internalised this to the point where I usually don't even think about it) is 2:2. Sometimes, as this week, it's 3:1, one way or the other. Very rarely is it 4:0 but when it is, again, the all-male and all-female weeks are pretty equal in terms of numbers.

Recently I compared stats with a fellow writer of multiple short reviews per week, over a period of months, and was astounded to see that of 88 books I'd reviewed in that time, 45 were by women and 43 by men. Not chosen deliberately; the cards just fell that way.


Part of my job is to select a Pick of the Week, which gets twice as long a review as the others. It's usually pretty easy to do, especially in a weak week. Sometimes a book just leaps out at you; other times it's a tossup between two, or even more. Usually I pick the one that has the largest number of positive things to be said about it, which would seem to guarantee that the largest number of people won't feel as though they have been misled if they ever get round to reading the book.

This week, I happened to notice that the Pick of the Week is the only book out of the four that was written by a man. It's a clear winner, though the others are fine and none of them is downright bad -- although this isn't always the case. I have no problems with this choice at all.

But if I looked at my column for, say, four weeks in a row, or over a period of six months, and noticed that I had reviewed more women writers than men but that the men's books were consistently being featured as Pick of the Week, I would. I would have a problem with it, and with myself. There'd be some ferocious self-interrogation going on. But it's not a thing that the raw stats would pick up.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


To the best of my knowledge, the technology doesn't yet exist for blogging smells. So you'll just have to infer the scent of this lovely stuff from the photo, and more specifically from the words Rose sauvage beurre nourrissant pour les mains.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ten more legendary bad girls of literature

One knows, of course, that sequels never play like the original any more than backlash does, but the original Bad Girls of Literature post here last week seems to have had such a positive and widespread response here and elsewhere that I thought I'd post another ten.

Please note that these are in no way the B team. The original post was in response to a 'Ten Bad Boys' article and I was simply riffing off that, writing down names as I happened to think of them. Same with these. Like the first ten, they are names that came to mind readily without having to be thought about. I have, however, been offered a couple of inspired suggestions that chimed with my own taste (Carter, Clift, Wollstonecraft) and I've added them here AS YOU WILL SEE ...  

Simone de Beauvoir

'The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.' 

Angela Carter

'Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives woman emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.'

Charmian Clift

'At night, the water slides over your body warm and silky, a mysterious element, unresistant, flowing, yet incredibly buoyant. In the dark you slip through it, unquestionably accepting the night's mood of grace and silence, a little drugged with wine, a little spellbound with the night, your body mysterious and pale and silent in the mysterious water, and at your slowly moving feet and hands streaming trails of phosphorescence, like streaming trails of stars. Still streaming stars you climb the dark ladder to the dark rock, shaking showers of stars from your very fingertips, most marvellously and mysteriously renewed and whole again.'

Sylvia Plath

'And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.'

Dorothy Parker

'There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind ... There must be a magnificent disregard of your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it.'

Dorothy Porter

'Brooding from the reflective fastness of middle age, I wonder if some of the most deeply passionate experiences of my life have happened between the covers of a book.'

Jean Rhys

' of those long, romantic novels, six hundred and fifty pages of small print, translated from French or German or Hungarian or something -- because few of the English ones have the exact feeling I mean. And you read one page of it or even one phrase of it, and then you gobble up all the rest and go about in a dream for weeks afterwards, for months afterwards -- perhaps all your life, who knows? -- surrounded by those six hundred and fifty pages, the houses, the streets, the snow, the river, the roses, the girls, the sun, the ladies' dresses and the gentlemen's voices, the old, wicked, hard-hearted women and the old, sad women, the waltz music -- everything. What is not there you put in afterwards, for it is alive, this book, and it grows in your head. "The house I was living in when I read that book," you think, or "This colour reminds me of that book."'

Marguerite Duras

'Before they're plumbers or writers or taxi drivers or unemployed or journalists, before everything else, men are men. Whether heterosexual or homosexual. The only difference is that some of them remind you of it as soon as you meet them, and others wait for a little while.'

 Anaïs Nin

'I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.'

Mary Wollstonecraft


  'Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.'

And another flash mob

This is the classiest one I've ever seen. I love the bewildered-looking woman at the end, who seems to think she has been bewitched and wonders where all the fairies have suddenly gone. And I wonder how many people missed their trains, and didn't care.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Beit Shemesh Flash Mob

Beit Shemesh Flash Mob

Imagine what would happen to these girls and women, most of whom are identifiable in the video (and no doubt from countless other recordings), under an Israeli government dominated by the ultra-Orthodox who have so much power and influence there already, and who are, in their attitude to women, barely distinguishable from the Taliban.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ten legendary bad girls of literature

Publishers Random House have just posted to Facebook a link to an article called '10 Legendary Bad Boys of Literature', which features such little charmers as Amis père et fils, the oddly unattractive Michel Houellebecq, and a stomach-churning shot of Norman Mailer in his favourite legs-spread pose, which would have obviated the need for his tailor ever to ask which side he dressed.

Personally I think the Bad Girls of Literature were infinitely more charming without being in any way less talented or less Bad. I'm sure there were more, especially in other cultures and literatures, but here's a list for starters.

Germaine Greer

'I have always been principally interested in men for sex. I've always thought any sane woman would be a lover of women because loving men is such a mess. I have always wished I'd fall in love with a woman. Damn.'

George Sand

'The trade of authorship is a violent and indestructible obsession.'

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

'Nature has not placed us in an inferior rank to men, no more than the females of other animals, where we see no distinction of capacity, though I am persuaded if there was a commonwealth of rational horses... it would be an established maxim amongst them that a mare could not be taught to pace.'

Aphra Behn

'Fantastic fortune, thou deceitful light,
That cheats the weary traveller by night,
Though on a precipice each step you tread,
I am resolved to follow where you lead.'

Rebecca West

'I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.'

Katherine Mansfield

 'Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.'

Jane Bowles

'I am so wily and feminine that I could live by your side for a lifetime and deceive you afresh each day.'

Gertrude Stein

'When I go around and speak on campuses, I still don't get young men standing up and saying, How can I combine career and family?'

Emily Bronte

'I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.'


'When she raises her eyelids it's as if she were taking off all her clothes.'

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Of research and vaudeville

The item on top of the work pile at the moment is a now very battered advance proof copy of a novel called The Little Shadows by the Canadian writer Marina Endicott, published in Canada last year and due for release in Australia in February. It's about a family in vaudeville, working the circuits along the border of the US and Canada; set from 1912-1917, it shows how their lives are affected by the forces of history.

With my curiosity piqued about vaudeville and its history in Australia -- obviously such an 'American' thing was going to make its way to Canada, but did it have a substantial history here? -- I went looking in the astounding new(ish) resource provided by the National Library, Trove, which -- well, go over there and have a look.

I spent many happy hours on this site last year and the year before when I was researching Adelaide and found, among other things, a great deal of family history buried among Family Notices and roundups from 'The Country', where the ferocious rivalry between my Scottish grandma and her bossy sister-in-law regarding the organisation of fund-raisers for the War Effort in Curramulka can be seen between the lines of often profoundly corrupted text.

Apropos of which, I decided early on that since this magical resource had been provided to me then the very least I could do was take an active part in the way it works: crowdsourcing to correct the scanned text, since obviously the resources don't exist for it to be done professionally. I decided that I would correct every article I used. There's no measuring this, but my guess is that, as with Wikipedia, the longer it goes on the more accurate it will be, as more and more people use it and contribute.

Anyway, vaudeville. Oh yes indeed. There's a thesis in this topic alone: 'Racism in the content and language of journalistic reportage of vaudeville in Adelaide, 1920-1940.' Here, for example, is a paragraph from The Advertiser of September 30, 1926:

Special interest is attached to the Southern Revue Company, which will be appearing for the first time in Adelaide at the Theatre Royal next Saturday, under the J. C. Williamson management. Many of the members of Joe Sheftell's revue are even blacker than negroes are usually painted, but this is not true about the chorus girls, who are much fairer than their men folk. One of the members of the company remarked while in Sydney "how mighty good every one has been to us." This is the first impression gained of Australia by one of the darkest of the members. He also explained that in the Land of Liberty "culled" folk have to travel in their own special "Jim Crow" railway carriages, and are segregated in special hotels and restaurants. This company includes many talented performers, who have been a great success in both Melbourne and Sydney — Minta Cato, the colored soprano; Joe Sheftell, the producer; Bob Williams, the comedian; McConn, Saunders, and Williams, the nifty steppers, and the chorus girls.
Did you blanch over that word 'culled'? Language is a wonderful thing when it come to the return of the repressed. It took me a few seconds to work out that it was merely an attempt at phonetic approximation of the accent of the unnamed  'dark member' (oh dear, it just gets worse and worse) and his pronunciation of the word 'colored' (interesting that the Advertiser was using American spelling in 1926).  I also enjoyed the snide reference to the Land of Liberty, implying that we in Australia have no such unenlightened attitudes, oh my wordy lordy no.

And as for the forces of history, I couldn't help noticing the tour dates on this one, from The Advertiser of September 21, 1929:

Trixie Wilson, the well-known ballet teacher, announces that the annual concert to be given by her students will be held in the Thebarton Town Hall on October 22. The programme will contain several spectacular ballets, solo dances, and vaudeville acts.
(And for anyone looking for ideas for fiction, there's a whole novel for you right there in the phrase 'Trixie Wilson, the well-known ballet teacher.') Unbeknownst to either the journalist or Miss Trixie, the 1929 Wall Street Crash was imminent: Black Thursday was October 24th, two days after the concert.

Vaudeville was a notoriously unstable and insecure profession even at the best of times, as Endicott's book makes clear, with acts being sacked and theatres closing down and impresarios going broke left and right. I wonder what happened to everyone in the wake of Black Thursday: to Miss Trixie, whose pupils' parents must have hurriedly reassessed whether the budget could stand ballet lessons? To those 'culled' troupers from three years before? To all vaudeville everywhere: the performers, the backers, the managers, the theatre owners, and the audiences, many of whom may have abruptly decided that going to the vaudeville was a luxury they could definitely do without? What happened to the nifty steppers, the Men of Mirth, the chorus girls, the acrobatic violinists and the 'Gypsy' dancers, in the wake of October 24th, 1929? Whatever did they do? Wherever did they go?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The everlasting strangeness of others

Overheard today in the shopping-centre carpark, a fragment of an exchange between the youngish parents of two little girls:

HIM: ... but why do you have to bring everybody else down with you?
HER: Why not? If I'm down, why shouldn't everybody else be down too?

He had no answer to this. He merely looked hang-dog and got on with wheeling the trolley. The power she had over him was not pretty-girl power, for she was not a pretty girl, but you could see it was one of those relationships in which, for some mad reason, the bloke somehow courts and welcomes being emotionally controlled by some soi-disant princess and her bitch-from-hell ways. Think Brett in Kath and Kim. There's a profound psychological truth to that marriage.

In the supermarket, on a whim, I had bought some trash mags, entertained as I perennially am by the letters to 'psychics'. ("My mother died in 1976. Is she all right?") One of this week's letters begins like this:

'My eldest daughter is driving me crazy. She will be 18 soon and we fight all the time about her career choice.'

You do say what? Just exactly who is driving whom crazy in this scenario? Back off, mama. Back off and mind your beeswax.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Something you might not know about John Clarke

I was lucky enough to meet John Clarke once, maybe fifteen years ago. Clive James was launching a big poetry anthology at the Melbourne Writers' Festival; Clarke was at the launch, and by sheer good luck I was talking (after the speech, not during it: one of my resolutions for 2012 is to go up to anyone who's talking during a speech, concert, movie or any other public performance and give them a good hard smack upside the head. No jury would ever convict me) to a dude who knew a dude who knew him, and finished up talking to him myself. He is a lovely, lovely man, and he loves poetry and is extremely knowledgeable about it.

He's just posted a link on Twitter to an 'appreciation' of Auden that he wrote in 2007 to mark the centenary of that great poet's birth. The poem with which he finishes this post is one of the few poems I know by heart. It's here.

 Photo from the ABC TV Blog

Anxieties. We has them.

What shall I worry about today? There are a number of choices. [NB: the state of the world is an ongoing given, no surprises there.]

Will the New Year's Eve dessert -- cherry and roasted almond ice cream for 17 -- get safely shopped for, made, frozen, transported and served intact, in the 37 degrees being forecast for Saturday?

Will I get my column done this morning in time to get to the market before all the cherries are gone? [Not if you sit here writing blog posts about fretting about it -- Ed.]

Will my pathological untidiness and I get the house cleaned up by Sunday when a dear friend is coming to lunch? She has a get-out clause about staying home in the cool, as Sunday will be even hotter than Saturday -- if the definition of a heatwave is five consecutive days over 35 degrees, as I believe it is, then Adelaide is cruising into one as we speak, according to the BOM -- so this one is flexible, but I must clean up anyway as a New Year thing. Just woke up out of a horrid dream about past crimes against tidiness. I see domestic detritus, in my case 95% paper products, as a sort of rabid, feral, malignant, hyperactive octopus that lives in the house and hates me.

Will I get next week's column done on time?

Will my father's 85th birthday be an easy, happy day, and what of my sister's hand surgery two days later?

Will the full afternoon of running writing and editing workshops for cluey postgrads be a success, or have I forgotten how to teach?

Will I be able to get access to everything I want at the library to write my conference paper? Never gave a keynote speech before. Anxiety coming in waves. Is this a good argument? Do I have enough examples and are they interesting enough? Do I even have an argument, and if so, what is it? (All Hons and postgrad students to whom I have ever sternly said 'But what is your actual thesis?' have my permission to snicker at this point.)

Will I be able to find my way to the Aldinga Library to give a talk about the Adelaide book, will I melt on the way if it's filthy hot, and if it's filthy hot will anybody turn up, and will I then be able to find my way home in the dark? (NB not worried about talk qua talk, but give me time.)

Have I got time to read all the books I haven't read yet by all the people whose sessions I'm chairing at Adelaide Writers' Week, and will those sessions all work out well?

Will I get my column done promptly every week in between all this stuff?

Will the ice cream go well? Will the lunch go well? Will the birthday go well? Will the surgery go well? Will the teaching go well? Will the conference paper go well? Will the Aldinga excursion go well? Will Writers' Week go well?

Look at that. Fretting fully booked till well into March.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Carols by Candlelight, Adelaide, Christmas Eve 1944

67 years ago tonight (thanks to Persiflage for the correction to my always-shocking arithmetic), at Adelaide's first-ever Carols by Candlelight, a population depleted and exhausted by the war and its effects went streaming down to the most beautiful place in the city, which apparently the current government is about to wreck, to spend the evening by the river and sing some carols. Not tacky 'Christmas songs', just proper traditional carols.

Fifty thousand. That's one-twelfth of the 1941 population figure for the entire state.

From the Adelaide Advertiser, December 26th 1944:

Amazing Christmas Eve Scene In Elder Park

Fifty thousand people celebreated Christmas Eve in Adelaide by attending the carol festival held in Elder Park in aid of the Adelaide Children's Hospital and the Somerton Sick and Crippled Children's Home.

Adelaide has never before see such a great gathering at night [although it was to see a bigger one less than a year later when the war ended -- Ed.]. Fifty thousand is the police estimate, but the number may have been even larger. Long before the festival began all the 30,000 admission programmes (£1,500) had been sold, and thousands of people unable to obtain one gave a donation at the gates, and sang carols from memory.

"Carols by Candlelight" was arranged by the Commercial Travellers' Association and [radio] station 5AD. It gave the city a Christmas scene of unique size and setting. Elder Park on the banks of the Torrens was solidly packed with people sitting from the City Baths almost down to the water's edge, and from King William Road more than halfway to Morphett Street bridge. The footpaths in King William Road were dense with latecomers unable to find room on the lawns, while down the road cars were parked in places two deep, in unbroken lines stretching beyond St Peter's Cathedral in one direction, and filling Memorial and Victoria Drives, and most of the adjoining streets. At one time the cars were three deep opposite the rotunda until the police compelled the line to move on.

Although the festival did not begin until 8 p.m. the crowd began to gather in the late afternoon. Many people brought tea [ie dinner; doesn't that take you back? -- Ed.] and picnicked on the lawns. By 6 o'clock they were beginning to arrive in thousands.

By nightfall the lawns had become black with people dotted red with the glowing ends of thousands of cigarettes. They sat outside the light cast by the band rotunda and a platform that had been built in front of it for the orchestra and 100-voice choir. The platform was lines with 7 ft. candles and floodlit from below.

The orderliness of the crowd was remarkable. There was no jostling or scrambling despite the great numbers. A single rope barrier round the platform was so respected that the police did not once find it necessary to patrol it. Everyone on finding a place sat down and remained seated till the end. St. John Ambulance officers had not a single case to attend to all night.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

"If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes across the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. The post-Kennedy period is often written up as a 'loss of innocence', a judgement which admittedly depends for its effect on how innocent you thought America had been until a quarter of a century ago. But, while Presidents had been slain before, they had generally been shot by political opponents of an indefinable if extreme sort, like Lincoln's resentful Confederate or McKinley's inarticulate anarchist. Moreover, the culprits were known, apprehended and questioned. With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where informative technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicized; where the bias is always in favour of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza."
-- Christopher Hitchens, 'Where Were You Standing?' TLS, November 1988.

I remember exactly where I was standing: in the living room on the farm where I grew up. The news had just come up on the teeve as a 'News Flash' (remember them?). I was ten. I also remember exactly where I was when I read this paragraph. It was the winter of 1992 and I was sitting in the living-room of my friend R's flat in Balmain, overlooking Sydney Harbour, with the sun coming in through the window. R was in the kitchen making coffee, and I had idly picked up the copy of Hitchens' For the Sake of Argument that was lying on the table and opened it on the page where this paragraph appears.

I thought I had been struck by lightning. I really did. This, it seemed, was what writing could do if it tried.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

'Conscience vote'

To use what might be considered an unfortunate expression, I have no dog in this fight. I'm a straight woman in her late 50s with no interest in marriage. (Been there, done that, threw up on the t-shirt.)


I think the people who say the ALP's national conference is being hijacked by the 'unimportant' issue of gay marriage aren't thinking hard enough about what importance is, or indeed about what politics is. To my mind this goes to two absolutely fundamental issues in politics: the quality of ordinary people's daily lives, and the question of who has power over whom, and to what end.

So the idea that it has anything whatever to do with Person A's 'conscience' when Person B and Person C decide that they would like to formally and legally celebrate their commitment to each other in the manner in which such commitment is most usually celebrated in our society is really just a case of a power struggle being dressed up to look like something nicer.

For whatever sense does it make, really, that Person A should wrestle with his or her own better angels about something that Persons B and C might want to do? No sense, that's what. Person A, if she or he genuinely believes this to be a matter of his or her own conscience, needs a bit of a lesson in how to recognise his or her own beeswax. And everyone knows that the Prime Minister's taking of the 'conscience vote' road is a totally cynical move in any case. And I can't be alone in finding something particularly rank and icky about dressing up a bit of pragmatic and strategic political gamesmanship as an issue of individual conscience.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Journalists I Have Known

I originally wrote this as part of the comment conversation on the last post, but I'd quite like to say something positive about journalists in a more accessible spot so here it is again. RIP Hume. (The other one's still alive.)

Such a strange profession.

I owe most of what I know about the art and craft of writing to one journalist, a man called Hume Dow, who was older than my parents, and who had worked on the Age, which I think was back then still the Argus, with George Johnston and Charmian Clift during WW2. Whenever he talked about the gorgeous and brilliant Clift, he was unable to finish any given sentence. He would just waver off in mid-syntactical construction and gaze off into the middle distance. Hume taught me how to proofread properly and what good 18th century prose looked like and why Hemingway in A Movable Feast, but not in his fiction so much, was a miracle of writing.

Another of my major mentors, whom I knew intimately and won't name (grounds, incriminate, etc) was also an exceptional journalist before he moved on to other pursuits. I have great respect for a number of contemporary Australian journalists (Megalogenis, Tingle, Marr, Grattan, Colvin et al), not to mention the legendary international ones, and I have just finished reading a novel about two heroic journalist-photographers, Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, who both died in the service of their vocation. And I think all these things may be why I hold the bad ones in such contempt.