Sunday, September 27, 2009

In which two specialist vocabularies collide

Forms of tiredness

Between 7 pm on Friday night and 7 pm last night I had four separate conversations with four different people whom I've known for thirty years or more. Every one of those conversations was long (one hour, two, two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half, respectively), intense, wide-ranging and tête-à-tête, if you count the phone one which was more properly a case of oreille-à-bouche.

All of these people are very dear friends. One was a little bit tired and emotional; one was visiting from another city and up for the marathon professional and personal catching-up that we get the chance to do maybe once a year, if that. And one had had some truly dreadful news.

By 3 am this morning I was in that horrible state known only, I think, to people over about 35: of feeling at once exhilarated (in an overwhelmed sort of way) by the complexity of life, with specific reference to lifelong friends and all that we know about each other, and completely flattened by life's unexpected weights, by the pianos it drops on you while you're thinking about something else. I was exhausted to the marrow and far too wired to sleep. You know you're really at some extremity of feeling when you're reading Val McDermid in a desperate attempt to calm down and fall asleep, and it works. But not a lot of work is going to get done today.

Friday, September 25, 2009

'Dejected but not hopeless', or, Are you absolutely sure you want to be a writer??

Over the last week I've had two emails marking literary anniversaries and quoting bright stars in the literary firmament. September 18 was the 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's birth, September 23 the 120th anniversary of Wilkie Collins' death.

A member of VICTORIA, a longstanding Victorian Studies email discussion list I've belonged to for many years, posted this on September 23:

On this day 120 years ago 23 September 1889 Wilkie Collins died. He wrote his last letter just two days earlier to his doctor. "I am dying old friend. WC." and on the other side of the paper "They are driving me mad forbidding the [hypodermic]. Come for God's sake. I am too wretched to write."

Five days earlier on September 18, an old friend, an academic and regular reader of this blog, sent me this, and has very kindly given me permission to quote the email he circulated round his department on that day:

Subject: Happy birthday Dr J

Today is Dr Johnson’s 300th birthday. I feel a bit sad that a Department which once boasted a very impressive 18th-century research output, including John Wiltshire’s wonderful work on Johnson, now doesn’t teach him any more. Just thought you would like to know. Don’t break out into congratulatory whoops, though, as Dr J spent most birthdays regretting his sins and vowing to do better the next year. For example, I rather like this one, given that I’ll turn 56 this year:
Sept. 18, 1764, about 6 evening.
This is my fifty-sixth birth-day, the day on which I have concluded fifty five years.

I have outlived many friends. I have felt many sorrows. I have made few improvements. Since my resolution formed last Easter I have made no advancement in knowledge or in goodness; nor do I recollect that I have endeavoured it. I am dejected but not hopeless.

O God for Jesus Christ's Christ's sake have mercy upon me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Action, acting, and re-enactments

This morning there's been some serendipity; I began reading a novel by a young writer whose exploration of a sexual harassment incident and its aftermath at a girls' school veers back and forth between the formality of an actual stage play and the notion that everyone in life spends a lot of time acting a part, especially adolescents trying out adult personae. At least I think that's what she's doing, I'm only on page nine. It's very good so far, blackly funny and very original, with at least one character (a saxophone teacher) whose dialogue comes express from her id, and very startling it is too.

So it was odd to get my email newsletter just then from Médecins sans frontières, a fixture in my charity budget (though I think the aggressive campaign to get people who are already regularly giving them money to give them more money may prove counterproductive and I wish they'd stop), with the announcement that their 'Refugee Camp in Your City' exhibition? experience? re-enactment? show? was on in Adelaide this week and coming to Melbourne in October.

On the one hand it's good that they're publicising their activities, and yes I think schools in particular should take kids on the tour, and yes its aims are admirable, and yes I like the upbeat approach that focuses on the sorts of help that aid workers in the field can provide.

I can see, as I say, that their reasons are uniformly excellent, and you couldn't call it exploitative, but there's something about this idea of cheerfully replicating sites of human misery that just doesn't ring quite right. And yet it never bothers me when people do it in literature, or onstage (and yes yes, of course drama is literature, don't get me started), or even in movies (except for the Holocaust, which I don't think people should make movies about, but at least I have a worked-out line of thought on that).

This reaction to the MSF project is defective thinking, I know, but somehow it's not about thought, more an instinctive shrinking away. Does anyone else feel a bit squeamish about this whole idea?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In case you missed it

It's all true. Especially #8.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Longtime readers of this blog might remember my astonishment on discovering, in the course of an enthusiastic rummage through the online NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages records, a pair of five-greats grandparents who were both First Fleeters -- one convict, one Marine -- and who married on Norfolk Island in 1790, had a bunch of sprogs, were given some land and lived to a ripe old age. I'd always thought that my dad's family were the serious pioneers and I was a bit sad that my mum didn't live long enough to discover that her family, via her own father, was several generations more Australian even than my dad's.

Googling around to find out as much about them as I could, I came upon the Jane Langley Descendants Association -- apparently there are something like twelve thousand such descendants -- and immediately joined, and have been getting their newsletter plus information provided by other genealogy enthusiasts ever since. Today I fished a full envelope of this stuff out of the mailbox. Usually when there are photos in it, they are baby photos of tenth-generation members, taken less than a year ago, but today I was leafing through the various family trees and came upon a Depression-era photo of four women: my second? third? cousin Eileen, my great-aunt Florence, my great-grandmother Ellen aka Granny McGuinness, and my great-great-grandmother Caroline.

I'd never seen photos of any of them before. Florence, even in a bad reproduction of an old photo, is unmistakably my Grandad's sister: same tall stature, long face, swarthy complexion and thick, curly, wild, dark hair. (My mum inherited this hair, except in her own mother's flaming red.) The transcript of Jane Langley's trial for theft at the Old Bailey in September 1785 says

(The transcript suggests that Jane wuz framed by this drunken "gentleman" trying to explain how he'd lost his money, but I would say that, wouldn't I.)

The girth of Granny McGuinness explains a lot.

Oh well.

A process of continuing negotiation

Life for most thinking people is a daily battle of the various principles, large or small, that for one reason or another are mutually exclusive. You need to negotiate, constantly, the place where they collide. Feminists who are continually chided (I think I mean chidden, actually -- comp hide/hidden -- but let's not get sidetracked, as I say to my father in conversation more and more these days) ... Ahem. Feminists who are continually bashed criticised for their so-called "silence" on the subjugation and worse of women in various Islamic countries, and who are in fact simply trying to resist joining a chorus of mindless, racist hatred and aggression by continuing to express their longstanding resistance to said subjugation in more general and less targeted dog-whistling ways, will be particularly familiar with this one.

But it manifests in tiny daily domestic ways as well. I like to support as many charities as I can, and I like to support the local independent fruit and veg shop in their struggle against Woolies and Coles. But I noticed the other day that said fruit and veg shop was selling little transparent containers of nasturtium flowers, displayed with similar boxes of mesclun and herbs. There would have been about half a dozen flowers in each container. And they were charging $2.99 for them, which is to say, 50c per flower. They're charging that much for flowers currently growing wild everywhere, simply because there are people stupid enough to pay it. Ah, the free market. I've got a self-seeding, self-tending nasturtium patch growing up the fence outside my study window, two metres high and three wide, with at least a hundred flowers on it as we speak and twice as many buds. I could retire.

As for the charities, here's an announcement. To all cold callers ringing up in the middle of the day because the thinking is that women at home are just sitting round doing nothing with no structure in their day: the moment you address me as "Mrs Goldsworthy", you have done your dash. No money for you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On weather, fear and reading

The Weatherpixie in the sidebar there, at this moment anyway, is telling me that at Adelaide Airport, 20 minutes south of here, there is currently a totally clear blue sky and the sun is shining brightly with his whole face. Yet chez moi all is dark and gloomy both inside and out. Thunder rumbles roll past in waves. Whistling and pattering, not unlike the whistling and pattering in the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows, is coming from outside, and I do so hope it's just the irritating wind and the small rain. It's the sort of day that makes you think you should go straight back to bed and stay there, but if I did that I'd have to finish reading my current bedside book, the new Val McDermid, and that's much much scarier than any scary weather.

My other fear is that the next book in that pile, the new Kathy Reichs (bedtime reading is strictly non-work-related), is going to continue the downward slide that began two or three books in from her debut when her publishers (or so I surmise; maybe her agent too) first told her to dumb down the science, bland out the prose and ramp up the lerve story, which is getting INCREDIBLY TEDIOUS. It's probably too much to think she might have defied them, at this level of success, and write however she damn pleases, the way she did when she first started. But we live in hope.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

In which she admits defeat

I haven't seen my watch for over two weeks, maybe three, not even in the wake of a fairly major (for me) cleanup. It has a stretchy band, so it couldn't have come unclasped and fallen off unnoticed. No, I have taken it off and put it down somewhere.

But who can say when, or why, or where? I have retraced my steps; I have meditated, trying to dredge up a memory; I have moved furniture, thinking a cat might have batted it somewhere out of sight; I have had a Girl's Look every day since I realised it was missing. On the advice of a Facebook Friend I have even prayed to St Anthony, patron saint of lost objects, without result. It was a nice watch and it wasn't cheap and I had only had it for about six months.

But I can't manage without one any more, so in a minute I'm going into the city to see if I can find a new one that I like and can afford. And there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that if I do that, the old one will turn up before sunset.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Words and phrases I would like to ban: an occasional series

Number of times during a 32-minute drive this afternoon that I heard, across 3 different radio stations, the expression 'rolled out' used to mean 'introduced', 'set up', 'set in motion', 'put in place', 'established' or 'carried out': eight. Eight times. That's once every four minutes.

And here's another thing I heard today that I would like to ban: 'The problem must be under the pavers.'

Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot.

Not content with having introduced a magnetic tag/toll system that so baffles the bejesus out of hapless non-Victorians (me, for example) that they are too intimidated to drive there any more (me, for example), the Victorians, I see, have now introduced a public transport ticketing system so complicated that they have to spend five million bucks hiring six hundred people to explain it to confused commuters, as reported in today's Age.

Dudes. If your bus tickets require an interpreter, perhaps you need a new Transport Minister. And if you just had to have such a system (as a character in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury puts it: 'Why? Because the technology exists.'), could you at least have picked one whose name's pronunciation can be deduced from the written word? Is 'myki' pronounced Mickey, Mikey, my-ky, or (yes, I fear this is the one: trust a state government department -- any state government department; SA is just as bad -- to embrace a bit of incompetent wordplay) My Key?

Never mind, look on the bright side: at least it's a reversal of the usual classic Industrial/Digital Revolution pattern of technology putting people out of work. Still, that's five million bucks you could have spent on not killing the River Murray. There's not much point in having a job if you die of thirst while you're doing it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

... and a bad bad review ...

There are four kinds of book review. There's the good good review, which is both favourable about its subject and skilfully, knowledgeably written on the basis of a careful, thorough reading of the book in question. There's the good bad review, which is well executed in all respects but unfavourable. There's the bad good review, which is favourable but a bad example of the book review genre.

(There are many ways of badly writing a review: not reading the book properly, making opinionated and magisterial assertions instead of properly arguing your case, getting your facts wrong because you haven't actually read the book, pushing your own pet writers and ideas at the expense of the book you're supposed to be reviewing, blowing your own trumpet about your own achievements, not distinguishing between your personal opinions and the actual facts, making wildly offensive statements, and so on and so forth.)

And finally there's the bad bad review, which is ... Well, you know.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a forum at the University of Sydney on the subject of book reviewing. Allotted a generous amount of time for my talk, I needed to come up with an infinitely expandable structure for it, something with a strong backbone that I could sketch out and then amplify here and there, both at the keyboard and then again, if called for, on my feet.

In the end, I came up with a way of doing it that meant I had a single central line of argument and organising principle: the text of the talk was a heavily annotated list of the people and entities to whom/which I believe a book reviewer has a responsibility. It was a list whose length surprised even me (for over the decades I have given these matters a great deal of thought), as I thought about just how many people and things I have at the back of my mind, or even halfway to the front, whenever I review a book. The list looked something like this:

1) To the readers of the review, to

(i) describe the book accurately,
(ii) tell the truth as you see it, and
(iii) provide entertainment and useful information.

2) To the potential readers of the book (some overlap there, obvs),

(i) not to mislead them about its contents, and
(ii) to save them $30+ if that's what you think.

3) To the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of the book,

(i) to read the book carefully and comment on it thoughtfully,
(ii) not to misrepresent it, and
(iii) not to say anything that will actually make them want to slash their wrists.

4) To the literary editor who saw fit to commission the review from you, to

(i) justify her or his faith in your (suit)ability and expertise,
(ii) write to the word length you were given,
(iii) provide clean copy in the requested format (e.g. not phone it in, say) and
(iv) provide said copy on or before the deadline you were given.

5) To the publication for which you are writing,

(i) to pay attention to its house style,
(ii) to fit in with its general editorial approach and standard of writing,
(iii) not to write anything that will either require extensive and expensive legalling, or, in the absence of said legalling, get the publication sued, and
(iv) not to compromise, or indeed trash, its reputation.

6) To the people who are paying you to do a decent job of work, to be worthy of your hire.

7) To the literary culture in particular and indeed to the culture in general, to make a worthy contribution to it and not demean or devalue it by adding junk rather than good useful stuff.

8) To yourself,

(i) to maintain your standards, not just professional but also moral (say, turning down editorial requests to review books by friends, rivals, enemies or old lovers),
(ii) to refuse to say anything you don't mean, and
(iii) not to make yourself look like either a wanker or a dickhead, or both. 'Both' is possible but not attractive.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Casting nasturtiums

What would Charlotte think, I wonder, if she knew people were not only still reading her masterpiece nearly 200 years after she was born, but enshrining it in an international publishing house vintage logo on coffee mugs?

There is something oddly satisfying about the combination of Charlotte's immortality with the fragility and mutability of flowers that'll be dead in a couple of days -- but will come back next and every Spring, with, bless them, no help from me apart from the odd caterpillar massacre.

Also, the yellows and oranges are nice, don't you think? And I do love that stripy one.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On not writing about s*x*

*Yes, that is a joke.

I've been seeing a fair bit lately, online and off, about this book: Krissy Kneen's Affection: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Intimacy. I have not read it and this is not a review, just some brief thoughts about the idea.

The review in that link refers to Kneen's quest for 'essentially innocent pursuit of pleasure without harm'. I don't know whether that's what she says herself and am responding only to that notion, with which I take issue on more than one count. Here in my mid-fifties I've come to the conclusion that there is no bodily pleasure without harm: sex, drink, drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, they all involve risk, if not to oneself then to some other poor sod. The only truly harmless pleasures are those of the heart, the mind or the soul and sometimes not them either. And as far as casual sex is concerned there is very rarely, if ever, pleasure without harm at all. It is not 'essentially innocent', indeed it is not innocent at all. I don't mean 'not innocent' as in 'guilty'; I mean it as in 'knowing'.

I'm not saying don't do these things, oh my goodness me no. Goddess forbid. What I'm saying is don't kid yourself that there is no harm done. Rainy Day Men #3, #7 and #9 please note, and #7, no, you did not say you were sorry, and you are not forgiven and will never be forgiven.

The other thing, as suggested by that last sentence, is that I cannot imagine writing such a memoir without in some way identifying the men involved, if only to themselves and that would be quite bad enough, thank you, unless of course I was doing it out of revenge. (Even if he read this blog, #7 wouldn't recognise himself there, which of course was part of the problem.) One would have to circumlocute and vague out to the point of blandness in the writing and extreme frustration in the writer. And they are not my secrets to keep.

But one positive thing. How wonderful that a woman can write such a book. Not only that she can write it and have people engage with it seriously, without shaming her as a slut (well, only the religious nutters and the very old will do that these days), but that she can even bring herself to write it at all. Here's Virginia Woolf in Professions For Women (1931):

... she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist's state of unconsciousness. She could write no more. The trance was over. Her imagination could work no longer. This I believe to be a very common experience with women writers - they are impeded by the extreme conventionality of the other sex. For though men sensibly allow themselves great freedom in these respects, I doubt they realise or can control the extreme severity with which they condemn such freedom in women...Telling the truth about my experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.

Monday, September 7, 2009

In which she finally sees why people kept telling her to read Salley Vickers

She was wondering whether it would be nosy to ask Miss Foot why she was on the ship when her companion said, 'I am travelling to New York to visit my sister. We've not met for fifty years. She has cancer and would like to see me again. I shall try to help her but I fear she is resistant to help. That is the true sin against the Holy Ghost -- the refusal of grace and mercy.'

'Yes,' said Vi. 'I think you might be right about that.'

'She is intense,' Miss Foot went on. 'But intensity is not an index of spiritual depth.'

'Certainly not.'

'I would not be surprised, though naturally I shall not say this, if it were not the intensity that led to the cancer. Misdirected it can be malign.'

'I am sure.'

'Well, I'll be off to my bed. I am reading Moby Dick. I felt I should acquaint myself a little more with the Americans in preparation for this trip. The writing is very energetic -- the Americans are energetic, I admire them for that -- but it could do with some editing. There is far too much about harpoons.'

'Yes,' said Vi. 'I agree with you about that too.'

'Well, goodnight, dear.'

-- Salley Vickers, Dancing Backwards (2009)

Friday, September 4, 2009

There is a routine, of sorts

Every third or fourth Friday is Money Day, on which one pays any outstanding bills and chases up every little bit and bob of money one is owed (long, long gone are the days when they just automatically sent you a cheque), that number of bits and bobs today being, hmm, five, and let me tell you that the bigger the institution the harder it is to get your money out of them and the longer it takes. If the invoices add up to more than the bill payments, one is allowed to buy oneself a nice bottle of something.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Me and Leonard Bast, we're like *that*

For those of you who may not remember Leonard Bast, he is the failed aspirational with whose shabby umbrella the heedless Helena Bonham Carter Helen Schlegel makes away from the Beethoven concert in Howards End (both the film and the book and yes, no apostrophe there, can't think why), who later fathers Helen's baby in a peculiarly bloodless and as it were offstage encounter*, and who comes to a highly symbolic end when a Wilcox** attacks him with the flat of a decorative ceremonial sword, whereupon he has a heart attack and grabs a bookcase to stop himself falling, and the bookcase falls on him and showers him with books.

Which is to say, he is hit in the head by an out-of-control swarm of the books he so loves, and his heart fails him. And I know exactly how he felt.

Nonetheless, I have been out into the garden for long enough to report, on this second day of Spring,

the following eruption of yellow, white, and yellow-and-white things:

Banksia roses
Climbing white roses
Honey-eaters' chests
Lime blossom
Lemon blossom

* Later ridiculed by Katherine Mansfield, who concluded that the baby had been fathered by the umbrella.

** The pragmatic, business-minded 'telegrams and anger' and 'panic and emptiness' family, later recalled in the name of Vic Wilcox in David Lodge's 1986 (?) novel Nice Work, which, like some of Margaret Drabble's from that period, recalls and formally echoes the narrative mode, characters and concerns of the 19th century 'condition of England' novel, in which the urbane, cosmopolitan, well-off South of England is contrasted with the struggling industrial North.