Friday, January 30, 2009

Adelaide heatwave: day 4

Last night I went out to dinner with my regular dinner-having crew. We ate at a Greek place in Glenelg (old beachside suburb), so after we left at about ten pm I took a detour down to the beach to see who was still out and about on a weeknight, cooling down. There were hundreds of people on Jetty Road and down towards the beach, including lots of kids, all in shorts and sarongs and thongs (the foot kind; I wouldn't know about the other), many of them queuing at the ice-cream shops, all of which were open. The pub was heaving. I had to drive at walking pace for about a kilometre to get out of there.

This morning I got groggily out of bed and staggered down to the baking back half of the house, and this was the sight that greeted my eyes:

She's waiting for me to get up, tip a bucket of water into it and turn it on, which I immediately did. (This should answer Skepticlawyer's question a few posts back about how the cats are coping.)

Early in the afternoon I went outside and flung a large, ultra-lightweight cream-coloured cat rug over the lemon tree to try to stop the leaves scorching and shrivelling any more than they already have. The minute I got into the sun I could feel the skin burning on my face and arms.

Mindful of the 14 old people who died suddenly at home over a twelve-hour stretch in Adelaide yesterday, I rang my dad this morning to see how he was and to discuss the arrangements for Sunday, which is his 82nd birthday. 'I'm fine,' he said. 'I'm getting quite used to this heat. In fact, I rather like it.' I had a sudden flashback to his 80th birthday dinner, at which he sat back expansively over a plate sparsely scattered with cake crumbs, drained the last of his champagne, and said 'Right. Now I'm striking out for 85.'

Q: What's the difference between Australian literature and a woolly mammoth?

Peter Carey has a really excellent, impassioned piece in today's Age on what the elimination of territorial copyright will mean for Australian writers and writing, here.

I am reminded of a passage in Other People's Words, the memoir of former Australian publisher, general enabler and all-round legend Hilary McPhee of McPhee Gribble as was, who apprehensively noted the straws in the wind back in 2001. If the reader will forgive a bit of egregious self-quoting, here's a summary from my review of the book for Australian Book Review:
... she deploys single, sharply focused images as motifs to link up different epochs in her life and different eras of cultural history, motifs positioned in the text both to herald and to echo its central concerns and themes ... there are the immigrant children at primary school in the late 1940s, 'the boys with their straight backs and red cheeks and the girls in full skirts and wooden clogs' being encouraged to sing and dance in national dress for their classmates -- an image in sharp contrast to the flattening-out of cultural differences that she finds herself fighting against forty years later.

And her image for that erosion of local difference in writing, the effect she fears globalisation has already begun to have on literature, is the glittering annual party thrown by the publishing giant Bertelsmann at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair: 'And the food tastes of nothing at all.'

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pollyanna and her half-full glass have a shower

Here's an unforeseen advantage of temperatures in the mid-forties: free solar heating!

Just had a lovely refreshing yet non-heart-stoppingly-cold shower in pleasantly cool-to-lukewarm water that ran maybe fifteen or twenty degrees below body temperature for the whole six minutes I was under the shower. Without burning any gas at all.

Gecko Central: life keeps on happening

Last night late I went outside with the big torch to see if my frantic watering of the lemon tree (after falling into an exhausted early-evening sleep under the aircon in my bedroom and waking just in time to do what my father calls 'throwing some water around' in the tiny window the water restrictions allow, just before dark) had revived it at all. As I'd peered at it in the half-light of dusk (crepuscular, it was) I could half-see that many leaves had been burned to a crisp and feared for the actual life of the tree.

Here's what I found a few hours later, lolloping about in whatever moisture remained, six or seven feet off the ground:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Leonard Cohen in the Southern Vales

Following the lead of Laura from Sills Bend, I am not going to say too much about the content of the concert, in order not to spoil it for people who have yet to see it. But here are some things I learned.

-- Ten musicians who can all hold the stage individually can also merge seamlessly into one breathtaking performance.

-- It is possible to perform for almost three hours, with a lot of physical activity including kneeling and effortlessly getting up again, and for some of which you have been looking straight into the setting sun, even if you are seventy-four years old.

-- It is possible to be seventy-four years old and neither decrepit nor in any other way out of date. Au contraire in spades: Cohen's knees, fingers and memory all seem to be in perfect working order, and his voice is utterly engaging and compelling -- musical and beautiful still, as well as charismatic. The ears are an erogenous zone, what can I say.

-- Rehearsal is a beautiful thing, especially when all ten of you are artists enough to inject passion and spontaneity into music that you have prepared and rehearsed to a hair's breadth.

There's one song I really do want to single out, though. 'The Partisan' was one of my favourites back in 1970. Apart from loving the song for its own virtues, I loved it that a Jewish Canadian from bilingual Montreal who had his fifth birthday a few weeks after World War 2 broke out should write such a song, with so deep a knowledge in it of war, and of western Europe, and of the French language, in which some of this song is sung, and most of all of being hunted and haunted and steadily resisting:

There were three of us this morning
I'm the only one this evening
But I must go on

On the original recording, if memory serves, there's just him and his guitar, possibly plus the little chorus of angel voices he has favoured all through his long career. Last night, though, it was ten brilliant musicians whipping up a perfect storm: its dark imagery and driving beat brought to mind the word duende, about which Alison Croggon did so brilliant a post, with reference to Paul Capsis, at Sarsaparilla some time ago [will link to that as soon as Sars is contactable ... No, wait, here it is at Alison's own blog Theatre Notes]. And here's Christopher Maurer, courtesy of Wikipedia:

... at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca's vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence ... who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca's lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call 'angel'), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, 'on the rim of the well,' in 'hand-to-hand combat.' To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca's words, 'a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience...

Landscape and weather, taken as the queue inched forward, glacierlike, at Leconfield Wines as they searched everyone's bags before they let us in. If only it had been glacierlike in other ways. You can see how hot it was from the depth of blue in that sky.

The heroic Glenn Richards from Augie March, on whom some kind punter took pity and bestowed the hat. For reasons best known to themselves, the promoters had set up the stage facing due west, and the sun went down in a white and blinding blaze of heat. 'My hair is melting,' said Richards plaintively, not long before the hat donation. They were great.

Paul Kelly had been warned to wear his cap and sunnies so came prepared. His nephew Dan Kelly did likewise, in a shirt that matched his uncle's hat and Leonard's giant muse backdrop. They were great, too.

First sighting of Leonard.

This guitarist is from Bareclona. He was sitting in a capacious and luxurious fuchsia-coloured chair. I like the way he appears here to be bumping the muse's giant but shapely and diaphanously draped breast with his head. Leonard played to, with and off him all night, often kneeling as he sang to be on eye level.

Leonard's years in a Buddhist monastery showed very clearly, in the spareness of his disciplined frame and the relaxed stillness of his body when standing back and listening to the other musicians. Obviously some of this is pure showmanship but I have never seen the Buddhist notion of 'mindfulness' acted out in such a protracted, exposed and practised way.

After performing for about an hour, Leonard and the band took a break. By now the sun was well down and there was a dishevelled, festive, heat-drunk air about the crowd that made us look like a downmarket Antipodean 21st century version of Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Leonard and his 'angels'.

'Famous Blue Raincoat.'

Monday, January 26, 2009

Off to see Leonard


'To-night's the night ...'

*Does little dance*

I'm spending the morning packing the picnic supper and the other things we hippygrandmas need to survive outside for six or seven hours on a 35 degree day/evening: 30+ blockout, litres of mineral water, Nurofen Plus, personal Aerogard, a good big hat, and, since my mates are driving down from the other direction, a novel and an Itty Bitty Book Light for the wait to get out of the car park (thanks to Laura for the tip). Because at around 2.30 I'm hitting the road for the drive down the coast to the paradisal landscapes of the Southern Vales for the Leonard Cohen concert.

In 1970, when I was seventeen and he was thirty-six, I bought my first Leonard Cohen Songbook and learned a lot of fairly easy chords (you want hard chords, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell are the go-to persons; I still have the bloodstained guitar from that era) to accompany the wild imagery of his early lyrics. I had very little idea what I was singing about, but the songs had a sort of reach into the subconscious that I now think of as Jungian; they appealed on some level well beyond, or perhaps above or possibly below, personal experience.

The music I listened to that year was Cohen and Mitchell, the Beatles, a young Jimmy Webb, a very young Elton John, and Fairport Convention with the quite incredibly young Richard Thompson already writing even-more-visionary lyrics than Leonard's. I learned more about how to use language from their lyrics (well, in Elton's case, Bernie Taupin's lyrics) than I had thus far taken in at school. When I think of being seventeen I'm always in my bedroom with the door shut, sitting on the floor with the record player on, and Joni is singing 'I could drink a case of you / and I would still be on my feet', or Leonard is singing 'No moon to keep her armour bright / no man to get her through this very smoky night', or -- the clearest moment, one of those defining memories -- the 23-year-old Elton John is singing
And I came down to meet you
in the half-light the moon left
while a cluster of night-jars sang their song out of tune
and the bright light shone down from the room
It was from these people that I also learned some things about how to be an adult, and what to expect all the way through my 20s and 30s, and oh dear these people did not lie. Or perhaps their prophecies were simply self-fulfilling.

For some mad reason I was not expecting to spend this morning being haunted by 1970 and all its works, but there you go. I haven't followed Cohen's career in the way I've followed Mitchell's, but every now and then he has popped up and I've thought Oh my yes, he's still got it -- 'First We Take Manhattan', 'Dance Me to the End of Love', 'Alexandra Leaving', 'Hallelujah'.

Photos tomorrow.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Penis envy alive and well: who knew?

In today's Age there is an account by sports writer Greg Baum of the terrific tennis match last night between teenage rocket Caroline Wozniacki, the eleventh seed in the Australian Open at only 18, and Jelena Dokic, of the tragic and dramatic history thus far. The article will be read on and offline by tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of people.

I watched the whole match and it was full-on, played with great pace and power but also featuring a lot of the delicate touch and mixed-up play that players such as Hingis and Henin won all their Grand Slam trophies with.

Greg Baum's take?
The match was a beauty, a slugfest, played at take-no-prisoners tempo, worthy of the men's draw.
Now if slugging and imprisoning are your favourite things then yes of course the men's draw will be your cup of tea, along with rugby, ice hockey, heavyweight boxing, the AFL in melee mode, and gladiators v. lions and bears. If not, if you prefer different aspects of the game of tennis -- precision, skill, quick thinking -- then perhaps you won't think to make evaluative gender comparisons but will rather take each kind of spectacle, and each kind of player, of whatever gender, on her or his own particular merits.

The match was indeed worthy of international competition at the highest level. It was worthy, at its very best moments, of past greats like Navratilova and Court. But is 'worthy of the men's draw' really the highest compliment you can think of? Give me a break, Greg Baum. Shift your great fat lazy paradigm.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Momentous testing!

From my iPhone ...?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Chaos on the blogroll

Blogger has rolled my blogroll.

Actually I don't know whether it's Blogger or me, but it's not you. I mean I'm not offended with anyone or anything. (There's a PhD thesis in this issue: online bullying with particular emphasis on blogroll contents and their implications and effects.)

Normal blogroll services will be resumed shortly, ie as soon as I've been to the vacuum cleaner shop to replace the last bag, now filled with tiny lethal fragments of glass left over from the deplorable Locked Out of the Car in the Middle of Nowhere episode, and written and filed my weekly copy.

Lights out: 5 am

And thank God I work for myself, at home. Probably would have stayed up to watch the Inauguration regardless, though, I think. (And be paying for it now in spades.)

Well. Great speech, of course, although he almost lost me when he overloaded the water metaphor early on and changed it in, if you will forgive me putting it like this, midstream -- from rising tides to still waters vs. raging storms, all in one sentence -- which I put down to the youthful indiscretion of speechwriter Jon Favreau. Actually it would be fun to fisk the speech but one must get on and earn one's living, and in the meantime I thought the delivery was flawless as per.

Loved all the shots of the crowd, one by one and en masse. Thought the First Lady carried off the OTT dress (which I hope hid thermal underwear), with the aid of her own radiance and of the brilliant combination of contrasting heavy, dark, saturated colours on and in her hands and hair. And as for Aretha Franklin's hat: if you look like that, dress up to it, I say. I loved the way people's clothes reflected the cold: the crowd in ear-flap caps, Franklin all bunnyrugged up below the hat in a matching soft all-enveloping winter cape, even the pianist (of all people) complementing her speccy three-string pearl necklace with a fetching pair of fingerless mittens.

Apparently Teddy Kennedy collapsed at lunch after the inauguration and was taken out on a stretcher, but I was glad he saw the important bit and I bet he was too. Clinton, Bill not Hillary, looked monumentally pissed off about something right up until he walked outside. Jimmy Carter looked almost unchanged since the 1970s. Bush Senior looked scarily doddery and perhaps should not have been outside and walking around. Bush Junior looked haunted, miserable and scared. As well he might.

After I decided to stay up, I went to the great big 24/7 servo up on Grand Junction Road for an early paper and some strengthening snacks and the joint was jumping at 2 am, including a couple of graveyard-shift coppers with blood sugar issues. Back home again, I settled down to watch, determined not to get all emotional no matter who said what, but didn't even get as far as Obama's speech; I was reduced to a wet mess the minute the ranting-Baptist-type chappie who made the Invocation mentioned Martin Luther King, and again at the end when the Navy launched into four-part harmony one verse into the Star Spangled Banner. There is something visceral about that harmony moment in choral music, the moment when the music spreads out sideways, like the opening of a fan. Or, as the great Dorothy Dunnett once remarked, 'Music, the knife without a hilt.'

Also loved the poem after the oath. Obama commissioned poet Elizabeth Alexander, Harlem-born and now a professor at Yale, to write the poem for the inauguration ceremony. It was not the usual official state-commissioned stuff but a beautiful, simple set of clear images celebrating the value and virtues of ordinary people's everyday lives, their capacity for dignity and beauty. Oh and with, in the middle, a sharp truth and another wet mess moment. 'Say it plain: that many have died for this day.'

What was even more fabulous than the poem was the fact that thousands of people shut up and listened to it, as they did when that quartet of legendary musicians played John Williams' intriguing arrangement of 'Simple Gifts' (from traditional Shaker music via Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, and that article suggests the extraordinary depth of reference that characterised almost every segment of the inauguration ceremony), which is one of my favourite pieces of music. I was reminded of the two things I love most about Americans in general: their beautiful courtesy, and the fact that they love and respect music and poetry.

Apparently the cello was made of special cold-resistant carbon fibre. And speaking of the cello, never mind how cute Obama is; I think I'm in love with Yo-Yo Ma.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Baby animals!

As Pav's IQ drops to a single digit in the face of intelligence-erasing adorabilification, we bring you Zooborns. And thanks to the Bookface Friend who alerted me to this site, shortly available in Blogroll.

Because too much critter content is never enough.

Australian Open, day 1: the good, the bad and the ugly


-- Alicia Molik's commentary. Possibly the most intelligent, articulate and personable player Australian tennis has ever produced, Molik has played most of the women on the tour and is very familiar with their games. I've been watching big chunks of boring matches in the lead-up tournaments just to listen to her.

-- Todd Woodbridge's commentary. He's also very smart, and pulls no punches.

-- The sight of 16-year-old Bernard Tomic winning the first set of his Open debut game. Australian teenage boys have been getting publicity for all kinds of stupidity and excess over the last year or so and it is very refreshing to see a tough, talented, focused, hard-working kid playing controlled, thoughtful tennis on his first big day out.

-- The return to form of Jelena Dokic, and, one hopes, the continued absence of her daddy.

-- John Fitzgerald.


-- Lame second-string TV 'journalists' doing the rounds with their mics looking for 'features', which mostly means asking incredibly lame and vapid questions of people like Bernard Tomic's father and coach John, who obviously just wanted to sit and watch his kid play tennis but answered the inane questions politely and calmly.

-- Channel Seven's apparent indifference to the basic courtesy of pronouncing other people's names properly. They ought to research the pronunciation of the name of every player in the draw and then drill all the commentators in all the names until they can pass a test. NB this applies in particular to Russians and Frenchpersons. NBB Cricket commentary would also benefit from this practice.

-- John Alexander's apparent inability to notice, much less mention, any other player on the court if Lleyton Hewett is present.


-- The cod-French pronunciation of sponsor Garnier of its name in its ads as 'Garny-air', to which one must listen approx 10,000 times a day if one has the telly on to follow the tennis while doing other things. But I have whinged about this before.

-- The appalling sexism that infests every level of Roger Rasheed's commentary. This is a hangover observation from last year, and one can only hope that Channel Seven sent him to re-education camp over the winter, or at least keeps him away from the women's games this year.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I never know what the appropriate response is to those road signs. I always wonder whether I'm supposed to say 'Oh, OK, I'll just turn round and go home again.' Of course, on the kinds of roads that have signs like that, turning round is a proposition more hypothetical than realistic.

This, reader, is a metaphor for Life, which too often holds up signs saying 'Wrong Way, Go Back!' even though the ageing process does not have a reverse gear. And so when I see economists sagely saying 'The next few years are going to be tricky' and sounding like they think they deserve a special cookie for knowing that, I reflect that I've been telling myself that the next few years are going to be tricky since about August 1969. And I have never yet been wrong.

'AMA v nurses' says

Well, there's a no-brainer.

Carn the nurses.

So what are you doing in July?

The Minding Animals conference in Newcastle looks like an absolute blinder: interdisciplinary, international, brilliantly well organised if the website is anything to go by, and featuring a number of seriously heavy hitters from a number of different disciplines. I'm having a major think about going to this; my biggest problem will be, erm, abandoning the cats for a whole week. I mean, I'll be abandoning them to the tender mercies of the sweet young vet and his nice nurses and his doubtless superior boarding facility. But still.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Don't like what they're saying? Hack them to death with sharp objects!

I love blogging. I do. But as someone who's been reading blogs of various stripes for over four years now and therefore knows more than she used to about the depths of misogyny and hatred that can be plumbed when women speak fearlessly of what they know, I have to say that this surprises me less than it would have in 2005.

Only two weeks into January and this could be the LOLcat of the year

'Becoming milder during the evening'

... says today's Adelaide weather forecast. Yesterday the temperature got up to 41.3 degrees, some time in the early afternoon, and most of that heat is still swirling around in my high old roof. Approximate time this morning at which it began to feel hotter outside than inside and I closed all the doors and windows again accordingly: 7.40 am.

Roll on the evening.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Quadrant and Wimminz: Lies, damned lies, and statistics

In the wake of the Windschuttle hoax there's been a lot of discussion around the online traps, in the course of which I observed as part of an argument about something else that Quadrant was not a particularly woman-friendly space.

Along with other people who have been familiar with Quadrant for decades, I should have though this observation on a par with 'The sky is blue' or '2+2=4', but of course there was angry reaction from the sorts of people one expects to react angrily to any mention of gender whatever, a phenomenon fascinating in itself.

One of these people worked himself up into such a monumental tis-was that one would think he had been personally insulted, though he has no visible connection with Quadrant apart from reading it. So much so, in fact, that he could have done (as we all so often could in life) with a gentle reminder that this was not all about him.

Then, in the course of a discussion with a far more reasonable chap whose interest is in statistics rather than in defending Quadrant, I discovered that Quadrant does in fact publish more poems and fiction by women than I would have expected, although the same names recur again and again even within single issues, and I retracted accordingly. The reasonable statistics chap used a comparison with Meanjin to make his point, saying that in the respective current issues of Meanjin and Quadrant there were more poems by women in the latter than in the former, which was true.

In the course of this exercise I spent a bit of time at the home pages of the respective magazines, and it gave me an idea: each mag has a 'current issue' page listing all contributors, and it was reasonable to expect that other magazines would as well. So here are some numbers I gathered, as at last night, from the 'current issue' pages of Australian magazines -- monthly, quarterly, bi-annual -- that are partly or wholly literary in content.

In one or two cases there was one name on the page whose gender could not be determined by even the most assiduous Googling -- but no more than one, which is nowhere near enough to skew the order in which the mag titles appear here. Each contributor has been counted only once, though occasionally the same name appears twice or more. Let me repeat that these numbers are based on the contributor names listed in the magazines' own online home pages, on the evening of 12 January 2008 2009.

(*Sighs and reflects that one always does this at least once in the first week or two*.)

Please note that this does not claim to be an exhaustive list of magazines.

The numbers show the ratio MEN:WOMEN. I offer them in a spirit of scientific curiosity, without comment.






MEANJIN: 23:16





Monday, January 12, 2009

The moving finger types, and, having typed, goes back and fixes it

Ever since I spilled champagne into the (white) keyboard of this now-venerable eMac, thus rendering it un-usable, I have instead been using the old (black) keyboard from my superannuated but still fully functional and therefore never-thrown-out iMac. The iMac is a strawberry one, christened Pink Patty by the Bloke, who said all computers must have names so you can talk to them and beg them to do things, so naturally when I bought the white eMac, which seemed somehow male, it was immediately christened Patrick White.

So with Pink Patty's keyboard plugged into Patrick White, and my goodness me that does sound a tad unwholesome, I find that at certain times of the day the light strikes the surfaces of the black keys in such a way that I can't see what they say. And, never having quite learned to touch-type accurately, I have spent most of this morning writing about a biography of somebody called Miles Granklin.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

A very long post about Charmian Clift

Over at Pea Soup, Suse has a lovely holiday post including a snap of her summer reading, Nadia Wheatley's superb biography of Charmian Clift.

I reviewed this book for ABR, along with a couple of reissued volumes of Clift's writing, back in 2001. Because I am currently too mired in work to blog properly and because I quite like this review and because Suse's post has reminded me that I think everybody should read Clift's writing and Wheatley's biography, here it is again.

No Comfort in the Stars

'At night,' wrote Charmian Clift one summer in the late 1950s on the Greek island of Hydra where she lived with her husband and children, where the harbour village had been invaded by summer tourists, where teams of local Greek matrons invaded the kitchen in relays to monitor the foreign woman's housework and mothering techniques, where the water supply was rapidly drying up, where she and her husband George Johnston worked too hard and worried too much about the inadequate royalty cheques that continued to fail to arrive — `At night,' she wrote,
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.
`Pagan' was one of Clift's husband's favourite words for her, and one of her favourite words for herself. But it was precisely her own passionate capacity for nature-worship that made her such an empathetic observer of Christianity as practised in Greece. Transcendence and ecstasy were real things for her and, when she uses words like marvel and mystery, that is exactly what she means. `In the strange, still world of hot noontime,' she had written on Kalymnos three years before,
the burning grey beach is deserted, and the sea is still … Brilliant against the dazzling stairs a barefooted woman climbs slowly up from the sea, her head erect under a pile of black and crimson rugs … Without lifting my eyes I can look directly at the gilded cross surmounting the green dome of Agios Nikolas. The sound of chanting that wells up with the wide ascending stair seems inevitable, a vocal utterance of worship to the source of this pure incandescence that is pouring down on the world — Be still and know that I am God! The fringed brazen standards, the spindly black-ribboned cross are molten gold, drawn to the source of light, defying gravity, flowing up the cracked concrete steps.
Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959) are Clift's two `Greece' books, generic hybrids somewhere between `travel' and `autobiography'. She wrote them in time stolen from her duties and pleasures as the mother of three small children and the junior partner in the marital, collaborative writing team. These two books have now been published together to form one of two companion volumes to Nadia Wheatley's biography. The other, Selected Essays, contains an assortment of Clift's columns and articles written between the family's return from Greece in 1964 and her death five years later. Most of them first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, where her weekly column rapidly acquired cult status. In choosing eighty from Clift's 225 published essays, Wheatley has tried, she says, `to give a representative sample of her concerns and interests'.

This must have been more easily said than done, for Clift writes about everything from conscription and the Vietnam War and the shabbiness of the education system and the repressive and sexist liquor licensing laws (she was passionately opposed to all these things) to the sight of her old friend Sidney Nolan unpacking paintings he hadn't seen for years:
I had one of those strange flashbacks that everyone has some time, to a hot, dusty, workaday street in the Piraeus in 1959. There was a big trench dug in the street, and shovels leaning everywhere, and out of the trench … came an archaic Apollo, lost for two thousand years.

It wasn't Apollo who came out of those wraps, though, but Sergeant Kennedy, dead at Stringybark Creek. Mr Nolan looked surprised, as though that wasn't what he had expected. He said the pink hill had got a lot pinker in the twenty-one years since he'd seen the painting last. He ran his fingers exploratively over Sergeant Kennedy's spilt blood and suddenly grinned and said `Still fresh'.
Reading these essays, it's easy to see why Clift became a cult figure. The chatty, charming and sometimes slightly dippy persona distracts attention just enough from the steely intelligence, the sophisticated sentence structure and the passion for causes that characterise these pieces but might otherwise have rather alarmed her readers.

As it was, she showed them that it was possible to be properly `womanly' and at the same time to care passionately about things beyond your house, beyond your city, beyond your borders, and not just to care but to do something. In an era that hadn't yet thought too much about these things, her columns demonstrated that a woman, even a comfortable Australian woman hedged about by the legal, social and cultural restrictions of her time, could and should be an active citizen of the world.

Towards the end of Nadia Wheatley's massive and complex biography, she comments on the critical response to Garry Kinnane's George Johnston: A Biography (1986):
A tendency to retell the myth would emerge in reviews of Kinnane's book, in which the subject under review would by and large be the life of Johnston and Clift, rather than an assessment of the biographer's presentation of it.
Wheatley is referring here to the accumulation of sensational stories that grew up around Johnston and Clift; her comment is part of a larger argument about the way that media representations of them have always tended to focus on the sensational material at the expense of their achievements as writers, helping to produce and prolong the `myth' to which the title of her biography refers.

And it's clear, though she doesn't spell it out, that Wheatley fears not only a similar reception for her own book, but — even worse and even more ironically — that it might have the opposite effect to the demythologising one she has worked for two decades to produce: that it might precipitate yet another round of rehashed tutting in reviews and articles, a further reinforcement of the myth.

As a reviewer of this book and a reader who honours the gifts of both Clift and Wheatley, I am determined not to fall into this trap. Unfortunately, the sensational material needs to be sketched in order for the story to make sense, so let's get it over with. Clift was a beautiful young woman who in 1946 began a scandalous affair with her journalist colleague George Johnston — an older man with a wife and child — which resulted in their joint departure from the staff of the Melbourne Argus (later The Age). Four years earlier and long before she met Johnston, Clift had already, at nineteen, given birth to an illegitimate daughter who had been adopted out. Clift and Johnston married and left Australia; they were away, living mainly in Greece, for ten years, during which time Johnston was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would finally kill him in 1970.

They wrote a number of books, some collaboratively and some individually; they had three children; they were often desperately worried about money; and progressively wilder stories came drifting back to Australia with returning travellers about the marriage disintegrating in a fog of alcohol and infidelity.

They returned to Australia in 1964, partly to capitalise on the runaway success of Johnston's novel My Brother Jack. With Johnston critically ill and in hospital for long stretches of time, Clift was obliged to run the household on her own and largely to support the family; for four years, she wrote a weekly column which rapidly acquired a huge readership and generated a flood of fan (and, occasionally, hate) mail. On 8 July 1969, at the end of a day of heavy drinking and bitter argument with her sick husband, Clift took an overdose of his sleeping pills and died at the age of forty-five.

Wheatley evokes the complexity of Clift's character with the care of a mosaicist, and often with much the same technique: she builds up a portrait partly by amassing and arranging fragments of testimony in patterns of complement and contrast. `I mean,' says a female colleague from her days at the Argus, `every man who looked at Charmian just, you know, wanted to go to bed with her. You didn't put it like that in 1946, but that's how it was.' The ABC's Storry Walton, who worked with her on the production of the 1965 television series of My Brother Jack, said: `Had she lived longer, Charmian Clift would have been one of the best screenwriters that Australia has ever produced.' And Leonard Cohen's memory of the Johnstons on Hydra in the late 1950s, when he was a poverty-stricken and unknown young poet, places Clift somewhere different again from these extremes of siren and genius:
They had a larger-than-life, a mythical quality. They drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more and they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration. They had guts.
Their `mythical quality', however, was something at which they both worked quite hard, for both Johnstons were self-mythologisers from childhood. Clift wrote and rewrote an idealised version of her childhood all her life: the story of the wild little girl running free on the beach at Kiama, her small home town on the south coast of New South Wales. Johnston's myth of self is the Golden Boy of My Brother Jack, the oppressed child from a shabby suburban Melbourne house who became the glamorous, much-travelled war correspondent. They both kept the habit of incessantly rewriting the stories of their own and each other's lives and selves. They dramatised what was already dramatic, romanticised what was already romantic, and edited out the bits that didn't fit the stories they wanted to believe about themselves.

And it's this dense accumulation of different versions — and the multiple Clift-masks those versions produce — with which Wheatley has to deal, quite as much as with the periodic waves of sensationalising media interest. The prefatory Author's Note is itself an intriguing piece of intellectual autobiography that could easily have been three times as long as it is, and still have done this already excellent biography nothing but more good; but, as Wheatley explains in it, she was determined to keep herself off the pages of the book as much as she could.

This biography has been a long time in the writing; after its genesis in Wheatley's partnership with the Johnstons' older son Martin, with whom she lived for seven years, there were numerous setbacks, dramas and unexpected developments. One can only guess how Wheatley felt (for she honourably does not say) when Clift's first child, the adopted Suzanne Chick, discovered her birth-mother's identity and decided that she wanted to write a book about Clift herself; Chick's Searching for Charmian was published in 1994, predictably provoking another round of tutting in the press.

Wheatley is a trained historian and an award-winning writer for children, which means, among other things, that this book is both eminently readable and exhaustively researched. She makes no rhetorical fuss about her own politics beyond stating what they are in the Author's Note and making the occasional quiet point in the course of the story. She explains her position and her methodology in a way that reveals just how much intellectual sophistication went into the decision to write a traditional biography with an invisible narrator and a straightforwardly linear chronology, a `sober accumulation of information'. Her Author's Note manages to indicate the complexity of her position while remaining lucid, modest and brief. The book glows in a subdued way with the intelligence and style of its author quite as much as with those of its subject; the writing itself is as finely crafted as Clift's own.

The final section, the fifteen-page Epilogue, is a brilliant feat of lucidity and compression: Wheatley sums up the stages of the `myth', managing neither to shy away from nor to be judgmental about the fact that Clift herself was the myth's first and most ardent architect, beginning with the idealisation of her childhood. One of the things Wheatley has had to struggle with in the task she has set herself of disentangling myth from fact is that most of the myth is factual; it's not a simple case of, to pinch an image from Peel Me a Lotus, `sorting through the lentils for the stones and black beetles that always make up a quarter of the weight'.

But the thing she's stuck with, the thing that will not go away, is that Clift's whole being — the things she said, the things she did, the way she looked, the effect she had on other people — lent itself irresistibly to myth-making. What else are you to make, after all, of a child in small-town Australia in the middle of the Depression who would go down to the rockpools at night while her father and brother fished, take off all her clothes, lie down in the water under the clear night sky and `starbake in the confident expectation that she would turn silver'? The starbaking ritual, says Wheatley:
expressed the sense of being at one with the universe, which was part of Charmian Clift's own pantheistic religion of childhood: throughout her life she would remain to some extent a spiritual mystic, who worshipped the elements of the landscape around her.
I remembered this passage when I came to read Peel Me a Lotus, where Clift records that in March 1956, heavily pregnant with what almost everyone assumes is her third but is in fact her fourth child (and how haunted a woman like Clift, or indeed any woman, would have been by her absent first-born), wide awake in the middle of a Mediterranean spring night, she finds herself back under the stars:
My face is cold turned up to the cold stars. Inexorable and orderly they move across heaven, star beyond star, nebula beyond nebula, universe beyond universe, wheeling through a loneliness that is inconceivable. Almost I can feel this planet wheeling too, spinning through its own sphere … There's no comfort in the stars. Only darkness beyond darkness, mystery beyond mystery, loneliness beyond loneliness. Wrapped in its own darkness and mystery and loneliness the child in my body turns, as though to remind me of mysteries closer to hand. And I go spinning on through space ...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I would if I could

It's way past time for Very Serious Post to prove I am Very Serious Blogger. What should it be? The Middle East (about which I know far too little to have an interesting opinion and yes I know that doesn't stop some people)? The Windschuttle hoax (chortle snort clasps hands over mouth: two words, Windy, 'hoist' and 'petard')? The approaching presidential inauguration? Poor old Matt Hayden? The water crisis, brought home to me anew on the day after Boxing Day in the form of a stench so appalling when I got out of the car at the end of a 2 km gravel road to look at the almost-dead Coorong that I was sufficiently discombobulated to lock myself out of my car in the blazing sun in the middle of nowhere? (That one's a blog post all by itself. Smashing a tinted car window with a rock isn't as easy as you'd think.)

So much to blog about, so little time.

*Goes back to the 20-minutes-each alternating between the 1500 pages of proofreading and the 700-page biography for review, now both overdue*

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Uh oh

Ouchy tooth.

Just quietly and intermittently, but it's ominous. A long way back, and a long way down.

I gravely fear we may be talking root canal.

A regular dentist is something I do not have; I've been occasionally to this one and that one, and have heard good things about a third. So here is my dilemma: of three possible dentists, should I go to

-- the nice older man whose surgery is as far across town as it's possible to get without actually having to stop for petrol?

-- the young Greek woman, somewhat less far away, to whom I want to give my business because she's young and Greek and a woman, and by whom two dentist-phobic family members swear, but whose up-loud commercial-station telly, sprightly but vacuous chatter and unsympathetic hygienist all distress me, in a situation where distress is already a given?

-- the 40ish man who practices much closer to home than either of the other two but charges an arm and a leg with one's firstborn thrown in, whom I've never consulted myself but by whom another close dentistphobe swears, and who will apparently knock you out as hard as you like if you ask nicely?

Or should I just resort to prayer and my good friend codeine?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Perversity: we has it

If I've sounded a tad snitchy around here lately it's partly because I think my head asplode. Don't ask me why anyone would give any date in early January as a deadline but lots and lots of people, I've discovered, do.

There are currently (ie this week) three urgent work tasks, two of them huge and difficult, one still demanding but regular and comparatively easy. The deadlines are all, um, around nowish.

So can anyone tell me why, to the neglect of the two big bad ones, I'm powering through the relatively manageable one, the one whose deadline is furthest away (like, not for whole days yet) and the only one I am totally unlikely to get a Please Explain hurry-up email about, an email that asks that unanswerable question 'When do you think you'll be finished?', some time between now and the end of the day?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Thought for the week

The number of people in the world who would ever dream of picking up a hitherto unfamiliar musical instrument and expecting to be able to play Mozart on it is presumably very small, so why is the number who think they can write a good novel without ever thinking or bothering to read up on the history, the theory or the techniques of novel-writing, or indeed without ever (apparently) having read a novel at all, so very very large?

This is a constant and undiminished source of astonishment.

Then again, a constant and undiminished capacity for astonishment is one of the paths to a happy, or at least a non-disappointed, middle age. So at least there's something in it for me.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Memo to publishers esp publicity/media staff

Dear all,

Never mind all the blurb and puff and comments solicited from patient and put-upon established writers and heavily edited extracts from old reviews (especially when permission to quote has not been sought and said reviews were written by moi*): could you please, please, please include some actual information -- RRP, total number of pages, ISBN and name of Australian distributor -- in the media releases you send out with review copies? I am sure you all read the reviews pages and journals and are therefore aware that reviewers and literary editors and the librarians who rely on them all want/need this information. It would save this reviewer and no doubt many others an average of 10-15 minutes' Googling, emailing and telephoning, plus associated costs, per insufficiently informative unit of publicity.

Lots of love,
Pav xxx

*This has happened at least half a dozen times to my knowledge. If you must do it, could you at least identify the reviewer by name instead of just naming the paper or journal?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

Just back from a wonderful New Year's dinner for sixteen, heavy on musical and literary types, where everyone brought a course. After an unprecedented double mayo disaster much too late in the afternoon, my promised crudités with aïoli were replaced by crudités with a flung-together substitute dip I dubbed Post-Apocalyptic Pantry Surprise; can't remember quite what was in it but Paul Newman featured, as did Beerenberg, and a bit of sharp mustard and a lot of fresh garlic and some leftover whipped cream. Astonishingly, it tasted quite good. Food Award of the Night went to the lovely Deb's duck with beetroot blinis and spiced cherries, but her husband's palate-cleansing sorbet (good bought lemon gelati whipped up with lime juice, re-frozen, and garnished with lime zest to serve) was pretty flash as well.

Nor did I get breath-tested on the way home, though I'm sure I would have been okay, in spite of that final slurp of Drambuie.

Need to be up bright and early in the morning to trot puffing after two more deadlines as they whoosh by. This year I resolve to improve my health, keep my temper, spend less time mucking about online, and say No to the occasional offer of work in order to be a better and more attentive friend, neighbour, home owner, family member, love interest, cat owner servant and gardener.

And a happy, healthy, hopeful New Year to all.