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.