Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The chugger

In Redfern yesterday the sun was shining and we had brunch in a small café on the corner of Pitt Street. The food was tasty and reasonably-priced. I sat facing the direction the sun was shining from and people walked along the footpath where the table had been placed with chairs that had backs and metal legs. After eating, we left and walked down the street.

At the traffic light a tall thin man holding a disposable coffee cup in his hand was waiting for the light to change. At his heels was a black cavalier King Charles spaniel that had paralysed legs and wore a device on its lower body that had wheels on it, allowing the animal to pull itself along the pavement using its front paws. We crossed when the signal went green and walked the same way as the man. He stopped at a café near the corner and the dog came up to the step that separated its interior from the pavement. The man then turned to walk away and called the dog and the animal did not move, but kept facing into the shop. Then a woman holding a white plastic bag came out of the depths of the café and squatted down on her haunches in front of the dog, which had a diaper attached to its lower body, presumably to prevent waste from escaping unchecked.

The woman spoke to the dog in her native language; it sounded like Tagalog or Thai. She took some cooked bacon out of the bag and gave it to the dog, who greedily ate it, dropping part of the snack onto the pavement as it wolfed the food down its throat. The woman also spoke in English to the dog's owner who answered, “I got a free coffee from the park.”

Next door to the café an old woman wearing a printed dress and a black cardigan sat on the small verandah at the front of her house next to the door that led inside it. On her feet she wore socks and plastic slippers. Behind her the window of the front downstairs room had bars over it fashioned into a shape like a Christmas tree and images of Christ embellished the window for people in the street to see. The woman got up from her chair and came to the kerb where her wheelie bin stood. She did something with some newspaper and opened the top of the bin, then turned and walked back to her house. The garbage truck had just gone past, with a man driving and another man attending business at the back of the vehicle, collecting rubbish.

We walked through the streets and looked at the trees with their leaves changing colour with the season. The shops were open and people were eating and drinking at tables set on the pavements. The sun was warm where the trees did not shade the street from it. After a while we walked back toward the city, through Prince Albert Park along the paths that curve through the grass there. We separated at the train station and I continued alone toward home, through Belmore Park where a chugger said something to me as I approached him on the path. He kept facing me as I walked along intending to ignore him. “I have to ask you a question,” he insisted. “I don’t think so,” I answered without stopping. “Enjoy yourself today alright?” he replied passive-aggressively as I stalked past him in the waning sunlight, making my way northwest.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Cross-cultural threads embellish the royal wedding

A bearded Prince Harry wore a plain, dark military uniform and his fiancé Meghan Markle wore a white, off-the-shoulder Givenchy gown to get married in. Harry’s brother William was best man. William wore a uniform which matched his brother’s but it had an additional aiguillette on the right shoulder.

Yesterday’s ceremony borrowed from both American and English traditions to give spectators around the world some idea of the kinds of themes that the pair, now styled the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will observe in their future careers as members of the royal family.

The measured, temperate tones of a royal event such as this were thoroughly ruffled when Bishop Michael Curry, the first African American to preside over the Episcopal Church in America, took to the pulpit.  Curry had been installed as leader of the US-based member of the Anglican Communion in 2015 and he gave the attendees – and, through the medium of television, the global audiences – a glimpse into the distinctive preaching styles used in the American south. The spicy sermon was full of striking images and evocative rhetoric.

He spoke about the invention of fire as a watershed moment for humanity and noted that he had harnessed fire to get to the event by flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane. His main message was that people should embrace the logic of love in their daily lives. Love, he said, was as powerful as fire and could change the world. It was a reminder for the audience of how Harry’s mother had embraced the humanitarian elements of the job when she was a royal. Harry’s championing of the Invictus Games demonstrates that he also is a conviction player who is motivated by his passions as much as by a sense of duty.

Meghan, who is 36 years old, was born in the same year in which Diana and Charles were married. In another nod to Meghan’s heritage, a gospel choir based in England, the Kingdom Choir, led by Karen Gibson, performed a vocal rendition of 'Stand by Me' with no musical accompaniment. It is a 1961 hit song written by Ben E. King (1938-2015). I wrote about the roots of pop in gospel music and its own roots in the hymns of the 18th century on this blog some years ago. In that post, I pointed to hymns written by William Cowper and John Newton for use in Evangelical churches during the years when some Protestant denominations were still discriminated against by the Anglican mainstream.

It was impossible to become a government employee, for example, if the dictates of your conscience rendered you unable to subscribe to the articles of the Church of England. Those laws, which had been put in place in the years after Charles II returned to England in 1660 at the end of the republican Commonwealth, would eventually be repealed in the first decades of the 19th century. However what is more important to remark on here is that the enthusiasm that had animated the Evangelicals in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries would eventually be leveraged for the purposes of improvement by reformers of the established church in the 19th century, which was also the era when Victoria pioneered the family-centred model of royalty that is still followed by the Windsors today.

After the ceremony, which both the young people negotiated without mishap, musician Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who has been on TV in the UK, played some tunes on a cello. There was ‘Sicilienne’ by Austrian composer Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), ‘Apres un reve’ (‘After a dream’) by French composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), and ‘Ave Maria’ by German composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

A nice moment occurred when Prince Charles, dressed in a plain grey suit, was on his way to the exit of the chapel. As he was walking, he held out his hand as an offering of companionship to Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, who had been standing waiting in front of her seat in the choir stalls near the altar. The two parents walked out of the place together. It was an impromptu gesture that showed a fitting level of solicitude for a king. Charles had also walked Meghan down the aisle before the ceremony started.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

There are many religions but we all worship for the same reason

As a species, humans everywhere are consistent in their need for religion in order to ensure the strength of their societies. Humans are communal animals and need societies in order to survive. We are also descended from apes, which are hierarchical animals. Apes live in small groups that are led by a dominant male.

In his 2009 book on democracy, Sydney University academic John Keane points to the pantheism of Mesopotamia to find the origins of the dominant political structure of today. In those ancient cities, which were built next to rivers and were surrounded by fields filled with ripening crops and healthy cattle, people worshipped a family of gods and they used the stories that arose from the interactions between the family members to animate their daily lives, give form to their thoughts, and regulate their societies.

In the absence of a deity that all people in the community can worship, people tend to become homicidally competitive. They need a god or a set of gods at the top of the hierarchy in order that all men (and of course women) can live as equals.

The religions of the book, which were monotheistic, took the idea of cosmogonical justification to a new level. Starting with Judaism, the beliefs and moral codes of the group were codified, regularised, and written down so that they could be easily transported and spread to other groups that the original group might trade with. Writing was another invention of the Mesopotamians that allowed this to occur. The stories that the Jews told each other about the origins of the earth, their tribal histories, and the stories of their leaders and notable community members formed the basis for the new books.

Christianity and, later, Islam, drew upon this influence in order to make a claim for the dominance of their own cosmology in the face of the pantheism of Rome, which however adopted Christianity as its state religion in about 300AD. Stories continued to be told to children in order to educate them in the ways that a man (or woman) should live in society. The books also helped communities enact the symbolic rites that they relied on to periodically underscore their shared interests. When Europeans arrived in Australia they saw Aboriginals conducting corroborees that constituted their own communal rites, although they did not take the time to sit down and learn about the stories the original inhabitants of the land were telling each other during those dances.

In short, religion is the sharing of stories to form a community that sustains lives. It has a critical function in every society on earth because of the advantages and difficulties of people living in communities. We need to live together, but we also need something to enable us to treat each other as equals. Religion is a species habit of human beings, a type of cognitive artefact that in different forms is common to all of us, wherever we came from and wherever we live. Where people form a community they will naturally establish stories of origins that enable them to flourish together, and thus be strong in the world. In modern times, in the absence of a revealed religion, people often rely on such things as nationalism to buttress the fabric of their communities.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Book review: The Leveller Revolution, John Rees (2016)

This unsatisfying book takes us back to 1641 and the years running up to the decapitation of Charles I, which took place in 1649 and which preceded the establishment of the English Commonwealth. We know what happened after that, of course. The favourite son of the Parliamentary faction, Oliver Cromwell, who had won the wars, eventually up and died and instead of it putting at the head of government his son, who turned out to be a bit of a dud, it brought back the next available Stuart king, Charles II. To borrow a trope from one of Jane Austen’s works, this king is notable for reopening the theatres and for establishing the Royal Society. But English history continued to be tumultuous at least until 1688, when Parliament unceremoniously turned his brother James II out of the palace and installed in his stead the Protestant William of Orange, imported from Holland. The long period of stability that is the 18th century followed until the again-tumultuous years at its end that were riven by discord sparked by aspirations for reform that had been stoked by the French Revolution.

This is a very rough sketch of the United Kingdom in modern times up to the start of the Victorian era, and in a substantive way this story begins in 1641, the year Rees opens with in his book, when certain parts of London began to chafe against religious strictures imposed by the tin-eared Charles I under his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Charles’ predecessor, James I, had famously said, “No bishop, no king,” and Charles seems to have taken this tenet very much to heart, but the times were changing. With the Henrican settlement of the middle of the previous century, all boys had been taught to read and write in parish schools. Hence we have Shakespeare emerging out of the bucolic wilderness of rural Warwickshire. Moveable type had been invented in around 1440 and books by this time were relatively cheap.

The appearance of cheap printed books had proven too much of a challenge for the established Catholic Church, which had for centuries successfully fought heresies threatening its formidable structure. Now, starting in Germany, Protestant denominations (originally considered by Catholics to be mere sects) started to appear and England was not immune to the fever that access to the gospels in the vernacular and in printed form offered to those who wanted a more personal relationship with their God. Henry VIII, who had established the Church of England, had said that all boys should read and so now they were reading their Bibles obediently. What the authorities in London had not predicted however was that people would start to disagree with official interpretations of the Bible, on which at least part of the law of the land was founded.

Elizabeth had led a broad church after her father died but Charles seems to have thought that a more rigid application of the fashions of the church he led was necessary in order to successfully govern. Where Rees comes in is to introduce the Levellers, who were Protestant enthusiasts often coming from among the ranks of the apprentices in London. The big trade companies that organised labour there formed a substantial element in the basic fabric of English society, and these young people had a sense of identity that tied them together and that could be exercised even to violence by individuals in their group given the right circumstances. Religion formed a key part of the social fabric, and the apprentices reacted to broadsheets clandestinely published in London with the aim of discrediting Laud and inciting them to public acts of civil disobedience. It was the king and Laud against Parliament. In the end, Parliament defeated Stuart kings not just once but twice and religion lay at the core of the matter in both cases.

What brought me to this book was curiosity about the way that religion functioned as part of individual identity, and this book provides some clues as to how those things worked together to bring about political change. Of course some people suffered. Others even died. Many lost other things as well, including their livelihoods. This creation of scapegoats when the authorities crushed popular disaffection continued throughout the 17th century and even into the more temperate 18th century as the king tried to maintain his power in the face of community opposition. But scapegoats can also serve the purposes of your enemies too, such as John Lilburne, who lost his ears in the process that was launched as a result of his public disagreement with Laud and the king. He became a modern martyr.

I think that the history of the civil rights movement begins before this point in time, but certainly from a modern point of view the year 1641 must stand as a sort of watershed with regard to the relationship between the government and the governed. In terms of the literature, the eventual victory of the party of Parliament over the party of the king forms well-trod ground for many Australians, and I wrote about it in a bit more detail when I reviewed Peter Ackroyd’s book on the 18th century a week ago. But it seems to me that a history of British radicalism has to incorporate a view that includes modern times at least from the rift with Rome started by Henry and going up to the importation of the Hanoverian kings after the death of Anne, the last Stuart monarch. The story would then recommence in the 1790s as the UK entered a war against France, and then include the appearance after the war’s end of the Chartists. Under this chronology Victoria would be the first truly modern monarch of the United Kingdom, the one who set the ground rules for kings and queens to follow, down to the present day.

Where this book falls down is in its use of ancillary facts that serve to illustrate broader points the writer wants to make. They impede the dramatic flow of seminal events and interfere with the reader’s ability to follow the plot. In short, the pacing of this book is very poor, making it a hard slog. Another failing is the structure of the book. I would have started the narrative right in the middle of things, at the moment of greatest drama, after the establishment of the Commonwealth, when Parliament had to crack down on innovations favoured by the Levellers once the king had been removed from the scene.

After I had written the first draft of this blogpost yesterday I went out for lunch and headed to Enmore to get some Egyptian food. On the way, I walked through Victoria Park and passed by St Paul’s College, a residential college attached to Sydney University. St Paul’s is an Anglican establishment and has come under fire in recent years for the hazing rituals it continues to tolerate and for the sexism exhibited by senior residents.

In 1981 I was at Paul’s. Even then, it was a riotous establishment, with drinking heavily favoured as a pastime by residents, who were however saturated by counter-culture favourites such as the 1971 song ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean, which they would sing when guzzling beer and spirits late into the night. The dining hall stank of beer at all times. Periodic toga parties would take place there during which young men drank to excess and had what they thought of as “fun”. Late at night they would occasionally “raid” Women’s College, which is situated just behind Paul’s on the main campus of the university, harassing the young women who lived there by barraging through the corridors and making a disorderly ruckus. I left Paul’s after a year. It evidenced the same kind of lax moral standards that the Levellers and the Roundheads objected to among the establishment supporters who fought for the king during the Civil War that started in 1642.

Further up, I passed by Moore Theological College, another Anglican establishment. Its crest has four elements:  an open book with a shepherd’s crook, a dove holding a twig of leaves in its beak, an arrangement made of two stems of olive branch, and a clipper ship with two masts under sail. The crest is visible on the King Street frontage. Down on Enmore Road, past the beggars with their outstretched cups, I stopped at Cairo to have my lunch and they sold me a bottle of Camperdown Ale to drink with it. The meal included two types of meat, two types of salad, and two dips with a piece of flatbread to eat them with. I wonder how the military in Egypt will view the events of recent years in the years that are sure to come. Surer, certainly, than their temporary hold on the levers of power is that down the line there will be some red faces.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

When identity politics start to fail

The other night I was driving home in my car. It was late in the afternoon and James Valentine was on the ABC talking to a woman who represents a local Aboriginal land council. The Coalition government has said it wants to give $50 million toward the construction of a new monument to James Cook, who had sailed up the eastern coastline of Australia in 1770, thus claiming the continent for the United Kingdom.

Valentine was being fair and exhibiting interest in what the woman, who I presume would classify herself as Aboriginal, had to say. He asked her about the stories that Aboriginal people tell themselves about the discovery and settlement of Australia, especially the people who are descended from the Eora people who lived in the Sydney area at the time. What she said made me listen intently.

She said that Aboriginal people still teach “culture” to their children, in order to pass on their civilisation from generation to generation. She also said that the survivors of the Eora people who still live in Sydney have been asked for their opinion about the planned memorial. Valentine had asked for quite different information, however. He had wanted to know what those same people, the Eora, tell themselves about the discovery and settlement itself. But she brushed him off and at length gave him some bland pabulum that contained little or nothing of interest to listeners. What she said was merely what everyone already knows about Aboriginal people. It was as though the stories that Aboriginal people tell themselves about the dispossession were somehow sacrosanct, not to be revealed to outsiders, and especially not to white people.

The response told me something that I already knew: there is little trust between the two communities. Or at least there is little trust in the Aboriginal community for the mainstream. Because the Aborigines only account for about three percent of Australians, they find themselves in a besieged minority, where everyone outside the circle is a potential enemy. The stories they tell themselves might be different from the ones people in the rest of the community tells itself, but there’s no need for this.

The response also told me that Aboriginal identity is more important for them than any other consideration. They cleave to their Aboriginality as if their lives depended on it, rather than a good job, an education for their children, or any other one thing that might make their lives better. It further told me that the stories that Aborigines tell each other are probably different from the ones they share with the rest of the community.

We see from the protests in Palestine that what you teach your children determines the future of your people. Palestinians teach their children to hate Israelis, which means it is easy for those young people to break the law in Israel. For Palestinians, as for Aboriginals, the whole system is stacked against them, and there is no incentive for them to apply themselves to any metier or calling, and to thrive as families or as a people. They fail from the outset but because of the way identity politics work the blame falls not on them, but rather on the mainstream they oppose.

It is time for the Aboriginals to lay aside their special claims to a unique identity. Or at least to stop defining themselves purely in opposition to a monolithic mainstream. Only a small minority of the mainstream holds an animus against them. Even in her home state of Queensland, Pauline Hanson only got about 13 percent of the primary vote in the 2017 state election. The vast majority of Australians have changed their way of seeing Aborigines and most of them disagree with the measure of building a new commemorative memorial for James Cook. The majority of people teach their children in schools that the Aborigines were the original inhabitants of the continent, and that they were treated very badly by the settler population for generations. But that political settlement belongs to the past. Things are different now. Being black should not be more important than being successful and happy, and giving your children every opportunity to be successful and happy.

Aborigines account for a significant proportion of those who are incarcerated in Australia, so we know that the identity politics that they have so greedily consumed from birth no longer do anything for them. They also die earlier than people in the broader population and have poorer education outcomes. Instead of seeing themselves as a besieged minority, Aborigines should spend more time looking after their children, so that the young people can grow up to live successfully within the community. Identity politics doesn’t keep working in the same way forever. Once equality has been achieved, it merely serves to separate you from the mainstream, and thus reduces your chances of being successful.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

In which I declare a debt to my mother

In the middle of 2012 I stopped writing journalism for publication in magazines because it was taking up too much time looking after mum. I had to take her to doctors’ appointments and make sure she got to see the specialists who had become critical for her continued wellbeing. Older people need more medical care than younger people. But what I didn’t foresee is that this pause in my published output as a journalist would usher in a period of sustained creativity for me as a poet.

Looking back now it is extraordinary how much verse I produced in 2013 and in the first months of 2014. I see poems of sustained quality appearing in those months and I am astonished at my productivity then. Mum was doing well, although she was old. We had made out her power of attorney to give me the ability to make decisions on her behalf if anything happened that necessitated it. The diagnosis of dementia which would bring a close to all of this creativity wouldn’t happen until March 2014. In the meantime, I was pumping out the sonnets like a man possessed by some form of salutary demon.

I was living at the time in an apartment overlooking a park where men would come several times a week to practice sport. There were rugby union teams playing on weekends and American football teams practicing on Thursday nights. When the men came to play their sports they drove up in their utilities and parked them in the bays next to the field. I would walk down to mum’s place in the late afternoon every day by way of the local streets. There was a man on a balcony of some housing commission units on one corner who would call out to me rudely if I didn’t answer his greetings, so I had resorted to using a different route. On it, the bush turkeys were often out and about, stalking along the footpaths and the grass verges like bishops in their dark livery, their red wattles flopping about like little sacks in which they kept their prayers. With their big claws they would make huge mounds out of leaf litter in which to deposit their eggs, and stalk down the street every evening looking for food.

At mum’s place I made dinner for the two of us. I had part of a bottle of wine while cooking as mum sat on her easy chair watching the TV. She had favourite programs. When the time came she would watch ‘Midsomer Murders’ and we would laugh at the strange sound the editors put in the soundtrack when some invisible, fungible bird would cry out at night in the forest and make an eerie, forlorn sound like a man calling out at the moment of his death. It was always the same bird call at some dramatic moment at the beginning of an episode that was designed to elevate the sense of drama for the viewer. Some nights, mum’s housekeeper would join us for dinner and she would stay the night in the spare room in mum’s apartment. On these nights after I left, the two of them would sit watching TV together. The ABC’s ‘Doctor Blake’ would form part of their evening schedule.

For me, after eating I would walk home down the street, which was darkening with the advancing hour as the stars came out to light my way. Once home, as often as not, I would have some more wine and write poetry. But the best time for writing was in the early morning. I would wake sometimes before dawn and sit in front of the computer tapping away as the sky brightened in tone and as the birds emerged to stir the day into being like a posse of cosmic cooks intent on preparing a special dish for the world’s delight. Some of them would sit in the paperbark tree that posed loftily in the middle of the park, and sing loudly as the sun rose in the east over the ocean that my room faced, beyond the park’s confines.

There are astonishing poems appearing as a result of the lucidity produced as a result of this peaceful daily regimen. I would sit typing away in solitude, while mum slept on and took advantage of the early hours to embellish her dreams with otherworldly insights I would never hear about. In the mornings at a certain hour every day I would arrive at her place via my usual route and eat the breakfast that her housekeeper had prepared for us, and plan out the day. Between June and July 2013 I wrote a longer poem of over 1600 lines in heroic couplets but most of the poems were sonnets in the traditional Shakespearean style.

The Adobe Acrobat file the following poem was made in appeared on Christmas Day in 2013 and the poem itself had been written on 28 July 2013. It is titled ‘Dawn (after Donne)’.
Since the clouds are moisture in the sky’s eye
we can see the universe has a fond
regard as it gazes relentlessly
on the world today; its purview surrounds 
the entirety of things including
you there asleep as the pale dawn unfolds
like an expectant flower that holds you in
its must: the petals red, the pollen gold. 
Since the clouds are tinted pink we can see
that the universe seeks to emulate
your face still soft with sleep; your dreams decry
its bothersome interest in your fate 
and fly up to darken the horizon
so the clouds drift along urged by birdsong.
The repetitive phrase beginning with “since” emphasises the formal structure of the poem, with the classical volta at the beginning of the third stanza employing the same grammatical formulation as the poem’s initial point of entry. You can see the trope of the birds entering at the end in the final couplet, which is linked to the preceding narrative without any punctuation, reinforcing the poem’s dramatic energy and strengthening the final image.

The poem is compact, neat, powerful and evocative. It belongs to the family of love poetry but it manages its inheritance in a self-conscious way, revelling in the work that its predecessor brought to the cannon, but building on Donne’s achievements by mastering the trope of the poet addressing an artificially embodied element, in this case the clouds and by extension the whole universe. Donne had only addressed the sun in his famous poem. By describing the dawn as a flower, the poet furthermore takes possession of the visible world in an imaginative and ambitious way. The poet is at the centre of the universe in the poem, just as every person is at the centre of their own.

The second sonnet I wanted to show here in order to illustrate the productivity of those months, approximately 15 months in total, leading up to March 2014, is titled ‘Shower and light’ and it is dated 5 February 2014. The file it was taken from is dated the same day, showing that by this time I had become accustomed to making PDF files from the poems I wrote in MS-Word as soon as they were written.
And when the sun comes out the wet roadway
turns into a mirror like flesh, dimpled
with irregularities, to display
the sky in blue and white like a simple 
word, self-evident, comforting. Below
the earth’s skin resides the organism
that foments the confusion that we know
from all the things that we cannot fathom 
and so it is showers that best reflect
what it is to be alive: the dull flow
of small events that confuse the prospect
and congregate like moths to fool the glow. 
A moment in time can bend like a bow
and aim at a form the earth may not show.
The initial theme of the sun making patterns on the roadway is broken with the beginning of the second sentence, beginning with the word “below”. The volta at the beginning of the third stanza is insistent, starting with the conjunction “and”, introducing the conclusion. In the final couplet, this conclusion is led to its logical end-point, using a metaphor from hunting: a person holding a bow that contains an arrow pointed at a target.

The image of the aftermath of rain showers that the poem contains, which had been inspired by my walking down the street looking at the wet roadway, constitutes a fine analysis of the complexity inherent in the partial understanding of the universe that is bequeathed to us by our senses and by our limited understanding of the world. I see this poem, which contains a range of metaphors and turns of phrase, as neatly summing up the point in time in which it was written: a time still filled by my mother’s love and her stabilising influence. She was the point on the existential compass I oriented myself to at the end of every day, the point I directed my steps to when daylight started to fall. In the years since I have been bereft of such a stable focus.

But it strikes me that the other thing that is different in my life now from those months is the presence of nature up close. Then, the magpies and kookaburras and banana birds would come to my balcony as part of their daily rounds. A possum would sometimes greet me in the dark in winter if I came home after the sun had gone down, and near the back gate it would traverse the horizontals of the block's superstructure on its padded feet. After writing the first draft of this post, I went to bed and in the early morning just before I woke up, to employ the trope of bird life once more, I dreamed I was an eagle flying around a room. Two men put me in a cage and I woke up to my usual surroundings and the light coming in through the lowered blind over the window that faces the city to the east.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Demolition hoarding for 39 Martin Place

About a month ago I took a photo on Castlereagh Street of a diesel powered jack hammer demolishing part of 39 Martin Place, which I had written about on the blog at the end of December. Today, on Elizabeth Street, I snapped this photo of the black wooden hoarding that has been put up around the building so that it can safely be torn down without hurting anyone walking past it. It sits on one of the busiest and toniest corners of the city. The cranes were busy today when I was up there. I dropped into  the MLC building’s food court after seeing the doctor and had a chicken schnitzel wrap for breakfast.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Naming is a serious business

I wanted to find an image to go with this post and I decided to reference William Blake’s ‘Adam Naming the Beasts’ of 1810. I bought a reproduction of the work in 2006 and wrote about it here at the time:
My impression of the painting, my visual image of it before opening the package, was different from the reality. For some reason, I had pictured in my mind Adam turned three-quarters on to the viewer, facing the marching procession of animals traversing the picture space of the middle ground. But, in fact, he’s facing directly toward the viewer, finger raised, eyes unfocused and aimed off to the left, into the distance, as he conjures up the mystical names from his subconscious. “Whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2.19). Of note is the fact that Blake painted a sister picture: ‘Eve Naming the Birds’. This is typical of Blake’s inherently irreverent attitude: although he was very religious, it was an idiosyncratic belief that he nurtured. He saw spirits. So he needed to embellish on scripture for his own ends. It’s fitting that he made a twin for his great painting, so that he could include women in his cosmology: the other half of the sexual equation.
The second picture shows a young, naked Eve pictured from the waist up and facing three-quarters on to the viewer, in the fashion that I had incorrectly conceived Adam had been positioned in the complementary painting in the set of two before I had received that image in the post in 2006. In her picture, Blake has drawn Eve with her hair down, and the fingers of her raised right hand are tangled in its strands. Above her shoulders, in the background, three birds are shown flying, their wings extended. The movement created by the birds’ wings, Eve’s hair and the spread fingers of her raised hands form a single dynamic motif that make you think that the wind is blowing in the scene pictured. As in the picture of Adam, her eyes are rendered in such a way that pulls your attention to them.

On 31 January 2013, I wrote a sonnet about Blake’s painting of Adam. The sonnet is reproduced here:
He stands, a faraway look in his eyes,
reviewing the beastly procession,
a hand raised as if impelled from the skies,
attendant on the human concession 
in Eden there, nature’s sovereign, Adam,
a busy man naming the animals.
A pen and tempera mise-en-abime
that illustrates your mind’s wondrous spirals, 
this later work might portray you a mage
thus: how you sought to engage with the world,
to manage it roundly with paint and page,
eternity on linen to remould. 
Unhappy man the artist who sits down
to happily fix jewels to the crown.
Blake was a proto-Romantic in that his works anticipated in their themes and style the work of the first-generation Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge. But he was a bit of an outlier as well, like Turner would be later. He was a true original, intently dedicated to his strange work, labouring away year after year in total obscurity until, in the years after the war against France ended, he started to be paid court to by young aesthetes who had grown up in the shadow of the first-generation Romantics. They had been taught to appreciate Blake’s strange art. The post-war moment also saw major political changes in the UK, with the franchise extended to a larger number of its residents (although not to women, of course). Later, the Pre-Raphaelites emerged in England, the first art movement. Unlike the Romantics, to whom the label was as often as not applied by their enemies in order to discredit their work, the Pre-Raphaelites took the name and applied it to themselves, in a self-conscious effort to change society.

Naming has always been a contested thing. I’m reading a book about the English Revolution of the 17th century at the moment and it depicts the struggles of often religious dissenters to impose the will of Parliament against that of the king. Charles and his followers would refer to such people, often apprentices employed in any of the large number of registered trades in the city, using derogatory terms. Naming is part of the political struggle, and it has always been so.

I saw a tweet by a man on Twitter who routinely criticises the media for being too close to government. He was retweeting a tweet by someone else that was critical of Latika Bourke, the Fairfax journalist, for this reason. In her tweet, which was included as an image in the tweet, Bourke said that she had on several occasions suggested to government members that Australia should set up an Asiavision Song Contest, instead of sending singers every year to Eurovision. I wondered how that would work considering the political sensitivities involved in the issue of Taiwan. Would China participate in such a contest if Taiwan was listed as a separate entity?

What you call things determines, to a significant degree, how they are viewed. In the study of history it was in the years after Blake died, in the Victorian era, that scholars started to use terms such as “Renaissance” and “Middle Ages” to talk about different periods that had passed by in time. Reform was in the air, and notions of progress were being fuelled by scientific advances. The world was changing and it suited people alive at the time to use new words to talk about it.

But that doesn’t mean that terms that are once used should be used in the same way forever. We need to occasionally revisit the nomenclature to see if it still suits our purposes. It might be that new terms are needed to replace the old ones. The notion of “intersectionality” which enters discussions of social relations, specifically with respect to feminism, is a case in point. Young people are apt to neologise as they struggle to mould the world according to their own ideas of how it should be structured and governed.

Getting to decide what things are called is part of the business of government, after all. We know this because of the large investments in marketing governments make for different policies that are introduced into the thorny thickets that often impede movement in the public sphere. Who gets to name things is the person who decides the terms of engagement and people fight bitterly over the right to assign names to things. “Fake news” is a case in point in contemporary discourse.

Naming has a symbolic value that converts to real power. The name that Prince Harry will be assigned by Buckingham Palace after he marries Megan Markle has real political relevance, for example. Will he be the Duke of Somerset? Will his wife be called the Duchess of Somerset? Such decisions remind us that giving names to things assigns them a value from the outset, even before people have started to use those names in their conversations.

In Blake’s case, it is hard to guess what he wanted to achieve in his paintings of Adam and Eve, though no doubt by 1810 the controversies about the role of the Church in the system of government in the UK had been comprehensively discussed in the public sphere. Being a Christian as well as a mystic, Blake may have seen it as his role to protect the originary mythology of the Bible, but he was also alive to discussions current at the time about the role of women in society. Blake wrote several original poems that posit a new mythology based on an alternative cosmogony and the unorthodox ideas he held about God. More study needed.

This morning I saw another tweet, this time from Cutter Streeby, an American who often tweets about poetry. The tweet said, “’On the whole, I don’t want to think too much about why I write what I write.’ —Joan Didion.” I responded saying, “I've heard that robots using AI are unable to describe the processes that lead to the conclusions they reach in their calculations ...” Streeby didn’t respond. Didion is one of my favourite writers, although not all of her works are equally good, in my estimation. She was certainly original in her heyday in the 60s and 70s.

It remains to be seen whether self-consciousness will be programmed into robots. For the moment, they seem to be under control, although some people on social media seem to be constantly on the lookout for signs of the legendary “Skynet” (the AI system that is in a war against humanity in the dystopian future of the 1984 movie ‘Terminator’).

Friday, 11 May 2018

I’m in favour of keeping the Windsors

Donald Trump changes everything. With his election in the US, all bets are off. Democracy takes one in the guts. I have a friend I meet with at the pub every couple of weeks and we have been talking a lot recently about the Windsors and their relationship with the Australian political settlement. We both agree that Charles, who is next in line (he’ll be Charles III) and William, his son, who is the next in line after that (and will be William V) are pretty sure bets. Nothing fancy. Good family men. Safe pairs of hands. Raising their children with dedication.

The monarch who pioneered the art of raising children well was Victoria, in the 19th century. Her hatred of the proto-modernist painter Turner is as famous as her dedication to her family. The monarchy in the United Kingdom had taken a few hits over the centuries and Victoria was as wise as she was long-lived. If you can’t have real temporal power – by her time most power had devolved to Parliament – you can at least be a good parent. Her family had a reputation for poor relations between the generations. In the hundred years or so after the Hanoverians were installed on the UK throne, none of the Georges got along with their fathers. But Victoria put her energies into making a good family. Following the death of his first wife in a tragic traffic accident, Charles has done the same thing.

There’s no comparison between Charles and Trump. I gave my opinion to someone on Twitter and the republican movement’s account picked up on the tweet and told me that according to the model they favour a proposed governor-general for Australia who is not one of the Windsors would still be appointed by Parliament. The current settlement where the prime minister is appointed by the party room of the party that wins the most seats in the lower house in a federal election, would be retained. The prime minister would still be head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

I don’t have much of a problem with this kind of settlement but I still think that party should be eliminated from the role of governor-general. The way the governor-general is currently appointed, by the ruling party under the prime minster, seems to me to be a doable solution. It’s the same way that the governors of the states are appointed. When the ruling party loses an election the governor-general does not change. And the governor-general has no involvement in party activities. The only way that I would agree to abolishing the Windsors would be under such conditions.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Book review: Revolution, Peter Ackroyd (2016)

The big problem with this book is that Ackroyd is a fierce and dedicated patriot. When I look at his Wikipedia page I see something else that troubles me: he publishes a book every year, will-he-nil-he, like a large piece of brass clockwork, ready to oblige the consumer, but which turns out in the end to give little satisfaction to the truly discerning reader. Everything to everybody and an expert on nothing.

You can see which way this is going. I bought this book because I wanted to read more about the 17th century – the “revolution” of the title is the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 – because I wanted to know more about the confluence of religion, politics and identity. I thought that England could teach me something about the modern world that I was struggling to understand. But this was not really the place to go to find help.

Starting in 1688 with the installation of the Protestant William of Orange on the throne in London was a way to learn about the way that identity switched from the flavour of your church to that of your political party. And there are indications in this book, in the early chapters, that show that passion for party within the broader community ran just as high in the 1710s as passions for church had in the 1640s. The change seems to have been almost seamless. But Ackroyd is not a deep enough thinker to provide the guidance I was looking for. He is more interested in congratulating the “middling classes” for winning out in the political battle that ensued over the next 100 years or so. It’s short-term and teleological.

The Whig version of history has enough supporters, and I don’t need to participate in that particular fight for it to feel confident of its continued success. The American middle class has an interest in this fight as well. I’m much more interested in the nuances and contradictions that appeared as a result of the progress of history. What, for example, about the Tory satirists of Martinus Scriblerus (Pope and Swift among them) who denigrated the budding discipline of science, a field of endeavour that would later be characterised specifically by the participation of religious dissenters? But Ackroyd ignores the border districts of the territory he covers, and sticks stubbornly to the main drag, like a bus with a handful of passengers that hogs the carriageway and fills the air with its noise and noisesomness as it ploughs relentlessly onward to its predetermined goal.

I don’t mind learning about the rise of the middle classes but it’s something that likely involved a lot more subtlety than someone as obtuse as Ackroyd might ever guess. In later years, for instance, Jane Austen would come to represent the middle ground. But Austen was a notable Tory, not a Whig like Edmund Bourke, friend of conservatives through the ages. The delineations of identity, when it comes to the middle classes, are not as clear-cut as someone as doltish as Ackroyd insists in books such as this. More shopping malls, Peter? Sure! Let’s open a dozen of ‘em!

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Book review: Border Districts, Gerald Murnane (2017)

In this careful and contemplative book the author from time to time refers to what he calls “idea-images” but that I would refer to as “cognitive artefacts”. These are things such as feelings elicited by certain distant memories, such as the text on the pages of a book, or by meetings with different people in the distant past. Murnane also makes much of chromesthesia – the correspondence between different colours and different feelings – as he tries to explain how his mind works.

The title of the book refers to the places that demarcate things, especially in this tome the glass that separates the inside from the outside, or vice versa. There is a constant looping back to the matter of glass in the book as the author tries time and time again to bring the reader into contact with the mysterious world within his own mind. It is as though he were reciting passages from a liturgy designed to bring the spectator into closer contact with God.

But the title also refers to the physical location within which the author is writing, a place near the border between South Australian and Victoria, near the state border. At various times in the book Murnane has this habit of referring to the physical location where things happened, and these apparently casual mentions are in fact redolent with memories for him as he writes.

The book starts, to illustrate the way that glass functions in it, with a scene where the narrator walks past the stained-glass window of a small church, and this sets off a thousand correspondences between things leading back to the Reformation in the 16th century when men in England would go around to churches and out of religious enthusiasm break their stained-glass windows. Such memories in Murnane’s world are as present today as they were on the day after they occurred. There are also memories of Queen Elizabeth I evoked when the author talks about marbles he collected as a small boy, and which he still has in his home. I seem to recall the word “ice maiden” appearing time and time again as these points of mythological exceptionalism are vivified in the narrative. Under Murnane’s ministrations fables spring to vivid life.

He sets up the superstructure for a kind of “species memory” that can be triggered by ideas and even colours belonging to certain things in the real world. He hesitates to call the book a “novel” and on several occasions just refers to it as a “report”. Clearly, it is mean to be non-fiction. But it reads like a novel. There is the attention to minute detail, focus on the shifting boundaries between the material and the immaterial, and the drama that we have come to learn are the particular province of literary fiction.

The other author this book reminded me of is Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese Nobel-laureate, whose autobiographical novels also tend to be highly self-referential. Oe has the same habit of including insights in his narratives that were evoked originally by books on his bookshelf. Murnane brings into play even the photograph of the author on the back dust-jacket of a biography of English novelist George Gissing. In particular, in this case it is the eyeball of the face that receives most prominence in Murnane’s imagination as he is looking at the book, the eyeball transmogrifying into a marble that brings to mind his own collection of the objects.

This is a small masterpiece, and the Swedes have done Australia a good deed by bringing Murnane to our attention. I bought the book last night on the Kindle after watching the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program’s segment on the author and agree now that he deserves the Nobel, although the news is that they won’t be awarding the literature prize this year due to some sexual assault allegations that are still being worked out.

It also strikes me that two of the authors of consequence in Australia are now Catholics. The other of course being Les Murray, the poet, whose slightly inaccessible and verbally-complex poems are not to everyone’s liking.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Lunch in Springwood

On this trip to the mountains, we took the M5 because it was the most convenient way to get there. We entered the tunnel at the airport ramp and went with the heavy traffic to the exit, near Bexley, after which the pace picked up a bit and the traffic flowed smoothly. There are roadworks that make the carriageway narrow for a stretch further west. I drove at well below the speed limit, as is my wont, and kept an eye out for indications informing drivers of the distance still to go before the right-hand turn onto the M7. There was a sign over the roadway I think near Bankstown that told me how long it would take driving to the turn-off.

The ramp to the M7 is approached from the left-hand lane and proceeds in a gradual curve up over the approaching lanes, leading north into the two-lane M7, which is considerably narrower than the M5. The roadway here is better-quality and there is a gateway with cameras and RF sensors attached that takes the tollway fee from your ROAM account. The blue lights that light up the roadway at the gate are distinctive and are the same colour as you get on other parts of the tollway.

As before, there are indicators showing the time left to elapse before the turnoff to the M4, which leads out to the mountains. I was driving defensively, as usual, expecting someone else to do something stupid that I would have to immediately react to. I have learned to drive this way after years of experience on busy roads and streets. When I lived in Queensland it was a particularly useful habit for keeping out of trouble because of the way some people abuse the freedom they have on the Bruce Highway, which is a terrible road for driving.

We crossed the Nepean and headed up the hill into the mountains, stopping at Springwood to have lunch in a café. The corn fritters were fresh but the food took a long time to arrive. When we had finished, I paid using EFTPOS and we got back in the car and kept going up the hill to Katoomba. Once there, I parked the car on the main drag and we went for a walk, heading down to a steep park that lies in a valley near the train station. The steps leading to the grass at the bottom were wet with stray moisture from small rivulets exiting the rocks at various points on the hillside. The grass at the bottom of the valley was lush and green, and the soil underneath was damp and spongy. It is a natural amphitheatre with houses all around the outside.

We climbed back up the hill to the shopping centre and bought coffees at a café then got back in the car and drove down to the lookout, where I managed to find a parking spot. The parking here is paid for using slightly unorthodox metering machines that are planted every so often on the footpath. You have to insert your credit card with the magnetic stripe facing upwards in order to get the reading properly done. After looking at the spectacular view we got back in the car and attacked the traffic. At the train station the cars were bumper-to-bumper all the way across the bridge over the tracks to the traffic lights on the highway.

Once we got onto the highway the traffic was start-stop all the way down the mountain to the river. The blinding sun shone straight into my side- and rear-view mirrors as we descended slowly to the plain that is bounded by the mountains, where Sydney lies spread out like a crazy quilt. After crossing the river, we drove through the late afternoon on the M4. My palms sweated with the sustained effort involved in controlling the car for such a long period of time. The occasional idiot swerved in and out of the heavy traffic, no doubt saving a few minutes on his journey but unquestionably putting the lives of other people at risk. By the time we had arrived at the M7 it was dark and I regretted not bringing my more recent glasses. It was a struggle to see the turnoff, and you have to stick to the right-hand side once you are off the main carriageway, in order to get on the ramp heading south.

On the M7 I drove slowly as usual, watching for the signs showing how long it would take before the turn-off to the M5. I noted the empty spaces between the occasional roads and reflected as I have done on other occasions that there is plenty of room for new cities the size of Parramatta to be built in Sydney if only the government could be persuaded to build the train lines that such urban centres rely on. After we got to the tunnel at Bexley, we crawled along at about 50km or 60km with the heavy traffic and missed the exit ramp, so we had to go out and use General Holmes Drive to get back around to the Princes Highway. I got home soon enough and felt refreshed for having taken the trip. Getting out of the city from time to time helps to reset your internal compass, and gives you a broader idea of the place you live in. It is so easy to become complacent and ignore the rest of the metropolis when you largely stay within set boundaries.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Happy birthday to the friend of the worker

It’s strange to contemplate the reaction of the chattering classes in the West to the birth year of Karl Marx because in the main it has been roundly ignored. From China we heard the premier, Xi Jingping, celebrate the arrival of the philosopher’s birthday through the official news agency, Xinhua. Which is ironic because it was father Deng Xiaoping who changed the direction of China toward embracing capitalism, a change that altered the face of the country forever. As far as I know there has been no mention of Marx’s birthday out of Russia, which started the whole existential threat thing back in 1917. (I reviewed a history of the October Revolution on 20 October last year.)

When you go to a food court you can see how things have changed for most people. On every side as you walk down the aisle there are refrigerated display cases filled to capacity with food to buy for a reasonable amount of money. There are salads, rolls of sushi rice with fillings, sandwiches filled with meats, containers of curries, bowls of fillings for Turkish pizzas, plates containing hamburgers, and paper cups stuffed with chips. Out of every kitchen in the place emanate the sounds of industry. We have more people on the earth than at any other time in history and still the earth is being convinced to give up enough to feed everyone.

Yet problems persist. Inequality is worse than it has been for a century and the situation is deteriorating. While automaker Ferrari is planning to open up three more showrooms this year in Australia, more people than ever before are suffering from rental stress, where more than 30 percent of their earnings are spent on accommodation. Clearly, capitalism doesn’t work properly when it is entirely left to itself. The market is not ideal and perfectly self-regulating.

In New Zealand, the 2017 national election threw up an unconvincing result and because of the way their system works Winston Peters of the NZ First party was given the task of choosing who the next prime minister would be. He chose the Labour Party to lead the country for the same reasons I have outlined. One of Jacinda Ardern’s first major policy announcements has been to promise to house all homeless people living in the country.

In Australia, the Labor Party is the GOP, the “grand old party”. The opinion polls have shown that undeniably the forecast result in the 2019 federal election will be a win for the ALP. People are fed up with inequality and want the government to do something to make it easier for everyone to profit from the unprecedented gains that mankind has reaped from capitalism.

What Marx did above everything else was give people new tools that they could use to talk about the world. Born in the same year that Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was published, Marx was the begetter of a thousand new books, to use an artistic formulation of the benefit that we all have reaped from his work. You may not agree with everything that the people who came after him did, but you can at least agree that we are better off for having new ways to talk about ourselves.

Concepts such as alienation and reification stem from Marx’s works. We can talk about the “means of production” and “surplus value”, even without having read a word of Marx in the original. We are richer for the creativity of this extraordinary man. And we should also never forget that he did most of his creative work while living in England, because of the freedoms that had been secured for its residents from time immemorial.

I should note for the record that while my father was a Liberal voter all his life, mum’s father was a Communist, so I can appreciate both sides of the argument.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Today at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

It was a sunny, warm autumn day when I arrived at the Seymour Centre, on the way to Carriageworks, and I bought a ticket for a later session. I had wanted to see the session titled ‘History’s Next Generation’ but it was sold out so I settled for ‘Straight from the Headlines’ featuring the ABC’s Tony Jones and Michael Brissenden, who had both written thrillers.

I arrived at the main venue ahead of time and queued to buy a coffee. There were police in the café, it seemed like there were dozens of them and I wondered why. The guy who wrote my name on the disposable cup did it poorly so when they called out the name of the person whose name was written on the cup the guy initially thought it was “Nathan”. I took my coffee to a couch and sat down, then went out and headed to the Co-Op Bookshop to see what books they had in stock. Their shop is very small compared to how it looked when I worked at the university a decade ago. They have a very limited range of stock, mostly textbooks. I had wanted something about the 17th century in England but they had nothing in that line. I bought a novel by Japanese writer Kobo Abe and returned to the main venue.

I sat down and read the book for about 10 minutes then queued for the first session I had bookmarked in my calendar, ‘Immersive Histories’, which featured three historians, Adam Clulow, Peter Hobbins and Paul Ashton, all Australians. There were more people queueing for the free event than could be accommodated in the hard seats the venue held. The session was hosted by Caroline Butler-Bowden, who works at Sydney Living Museums. The most interesting part of the session was when Clulow said that universities should expand the parameters that they use to choose what types of output by academics are used to grade performance. He had produced a website based on his research into a famous legal case that had soured relations between Britain and the Netherlands in the 17th century and had received an unusual amount of feedback from members of the public who had found the website and used it.

Hobbins talked about his research into the North Head quarantine station, which was in use for a considerable period of time in the past. Ashton talked about his research into a shipwreck in Victoria in the 19th century. I asked a question about the viability of historical fiction considering that people in earlier times were motivated by emotions and ideas that we might find foreign. “The past is a foreign country,” I said. How can we trust historical fiction when it tries to pull us back into the lives of people who died a long time ago. Hobbins answered the question, and pointed to the work of Kate Grenville, which I thought was a bit superficial. I was not entirely satisfied by the answer.

After the talk I went to the university’s swimming pool where there is a café and had some Chinese food. It was cheap and filling. The food and a drink cost me $16. Then I headed down to the Seymour Centre and listened to Brissenden and Jones talk about their novels. It was interesting to get their take on the way the political landscape has changed since the arrival of social media. Brissenden said that the rules have totally changed from the way they were in the days before social media. He said that people online live in echo-chambers, himself echoing a line I have heard other people use, but it is one I disagree with. Both writers read from their novels. Jones’ book goes back to terrorist attacks in Sydney in the 70s, attacks that most people nowadays will have completely forgotten.

When the talk was over, I left and headed back to the main venue to listen to Melanie Cheng talk about literary fiction and its ability to foster empathy. She gave a lecture with notes based on an essay she had originally published in Meanjin. “Knowing how well literary magazines are patronised, I feel confident that you will not have read it,” she wryly commented at the outset. In her talk she referred to medical studies that have been conducted into empathy, mainly in the US and Britain. The questions that came later from the audience showed that there is a significant appetite for this kind of material in the community.

People like being able to have contact with the authors who entertain and inspire them. The general feeling in the audiences I was a part of during the day was that writing is important to people, although most of the people at the events were older women. There were a few couples aged in their 60s but single men like me were rare.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Commando Memorial Seat, Martin Place

Last week on Anzac Day I wrote about my family’s involvement in war. In a cursory fashion at least. The Commando Memorial Seat in Martin Place shown below strewn with decayed and wilting flowers is today’s reminder of war. As are memories of the TV special the ABC put on last night with journalist Peter Greste as the host. It was the second in a series that had started the week before and in it again Greste turned his gimlet eye to his subject, Sir John Monash, ever on the lookout for cant and bombast. He showed empathy and a keen intelligence as well, having survived a stint in an Egyptian prison (I wrote about his account of this experience on 19 January this year on this blog). He has also reported from battlefronts over a long career in journalism.

According to Greste, whose own forbears were from Germany, Monash was a complex man and the program basically said that he won WWI for the Allies. Without the involvement of the Australian troops the Germans would likely have moved on to Amiens and then to Paris. The previous year, the Russians had left the war, freeing up hundreds of thousands of German troops who relocated to the western front, tipping the balance in the ongoing struggle there in their favour. Monash prosecuted four decisive attacks on the enemy in an effort to break the German lines and push the front line back east. He was successful. The UK press celebrated the Australian victories and the king knighted Monash on the battlefield.

When the troops came home after winning the war, they were largely ignored. Greste spoke with a retired Army general who said that the spate of suicides among returned servicemen in the years after the war were like a “contagion”. Monash tried to get public support for a memorial but initially he was unsuccessful. Eventually, near the end of his life, he succeeded, and the Melbourne cenotaph was built. Being an engineer, Monash supervised the construction.

So memorialisation is important to soldiers returned from war. Today Sydney saw more ceremonies with the French president giving honours to three Australian servicemen who served with the British forces in WWI and WWII. Wreaths were laid in Hyde Park with President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian doing the honours.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Book review: Collected Poems 1909 – 1962, T.S. Eliot (1974)

I happened to come across a tweet containing a quote from one of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ the other day and I thought it sounded interesting so I picked up this edition of his poetry when I went to Abbey’s in the city the other day. I had never read much of Eliot before this.

Eliot of course won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, after the ‘Four Quartets’ were published, so presumably the prize was given to him in consideration of his entire career. The ‘Four Quartets’ themselves are dated between 1935 and 1942 but they are a disappointment. Techniques that he had used before such as repetition and variation on visible tropes are used to excess in these poems. They are not very good. His earlier stuff is better but it’s only in snippets that the power emerges. The whole is generally not very strong. He uses collage well to create suggestive textures in his little stories but the narrative arc is never very robust and you mainly get a set of broken bits and pieces that can have some force when taken in isolation. I think Eliot was himself aware of this failing because he seems to rely on the collage technique very heavily in all of his poems, especially he early ones.

Collage of course had been used heavily by the Cubist painters since before WWI. The Italian Futurists took it up at about the same time for use in their poetry. In Eliot you get onomatopoeia used for dramatic effect in some poems in much the same way the Futurists had done it in Italy: sounds of a tap dripping, for example. The Surrealist painters had also used collage in the 1920s to create the effects they sought, especially in order to destabilise perception and get the viewer to look at ordinary things with fresh eyes.

It’s touch and go whether Eliot deserved the Nobel. I think on the strength of this work he would not be able to win it these days, but there are insights in the early work touching on modern anxieties about decay and destruction that have force.

This collection was published by Faber & Faber, where Eliot had worked for much of his working life.

I had also ordered a copy of the Norton critical edition of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’ which I picked up at the same time. The Wordsworth book was necessary because the Kindle edition of ‘The Prelude’ from Penguin that I had bought turned out to be a complete dud. Because the poem was written in different years – it was started in 1799 and a longer version was written by 1805, then a final version was produced by the poet just before his death in 1850 – the Kindle version intersperses different parts of the edit within the complete poem, meaning that you are constantly coming across repetitions of the same lines (with small changes). It makes no sense to do it this way. The Norton edition I had owned previously had gone missing when mum died two years ago, and I had not kept it in my library. This is the only way to read this poem: side by side 1805 and 1850 versions.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

What we should celebrate on Anzac Day

Watching the program on Monash hosted by journalist Peter Greste last night reminded me that there are things that can be celebrated when we think of war. War itself is terrible and should be avoided at all costs, but there is no escaping the fact that it has played a role in our country’s history. The stories surrounding Monash are salutary. Greste, whose family also has German roots, was a sympathetic but intelligent participant in the story.

How Monash was treated by the war historian Charles Bean, who didn’t like him because he was a Jew, and by Keith Murdoch, father of today’s media mogul Rupert, is worth reflecting on when we consider how we treat people from other countries. The two men got in the ear of the prime minister, Billy Hughes, who even went so far as to visit France with the aim of dismissing Monash. But Monash refused to go voluntarily, and Hughes talked with the general's subordinates to gauge their opinion of their commander. Monash stayed and helped to win the war by using the resources at his disposal in innovative and decisive ways.

The feelings that the French people who live in the north of that country have even today when they think of Australia, are also salutary.

On this day in 2012 I wrote a blogpost about my grandmother’s brother, William Robert Ralph Caldicott, who had served in WWII and had been captured at Tobruk. When he returned he was in frail health but there was something else wrong with him as well. He would hardly speak, and granny never spoke of her brother to us when she was alive, even though she lived with us in our house in Vaucluse, having left her husband who remained in Melbourne. Dad had given her a secure place to live in Sydney and granny worked alongside mum in the gift shop they operated for decades. I can’t account for her silence on the matter of her brother except to reflect that she must have had felt something like shame in relation to him. I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it but what is incontrovertible is that participation in the war was highly traumatic for him and ultimately shortened his life.

Not all my relatives ended up so badly off as a result of war. Granny’s father William Henry Caldicott had fought in WWI, as had mum’s father’s brother, Arthur Dean. William Henry returned from France and remarried, his first wife having died in childbirth, and he named a son he had with his new wife, Jack Anzac. Arthur returned to Melbourne and studied law, eventually becoming a justice of the Victorian Supreme Court and the chancellor of Melbourne University. He was knighted in 1944.

Many Australian families have stories like this to tell. The other important thing to keep in mind is our relative geopolitical isolation. Our habit of going to war with the US – Australia is the only country in the world to have joined with them in every war they have fought since WWII – can be viewed as something like periodic payments on an insurance policy. It sounds rather brutal to frame it like this, but the continued service of our military personnel in conflicts around the world does have this to recommend it, especially in light of China’s continued reluctance to move toward a political settlement more in line with global standards.

When it comes down to it the dawn service is a fitting way, once a year, to remember the war dead and to reflect on the meaning of war. It should never be used by politicians to justify harsh foreign policy but it will always be difficult to predict what people will do in the future if circumstances change. It certainly has one thing to recommend it: Anzac Day tends to bring people together. Some might reject what they perceive as a glorification of militarism, but in the main, like with other important Australian institutions (the ABC for example), people come together on Anzac Day. On this day they create meaning in a generous spirit animated by the sort of lofty feelings that should be encouraged in any polity. And it happens all over the place, in small communities up and down the country where memorial monuments are found dotting the landscape like dressings on wounds in the body politic that can never entirely heal.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Book review: A Revolution of Feeling, Rachel Hewitt (2017)

This ambitious study subtitled ‘the decade that forged the modern mind’ deals with the 1790s in the United Kingdom and brings together a number of related strands that readers of more conventional histories or biographies might already have met with in their travels, including the debates centring around the French Revolution and the emergence of the Romantic poets.

Located at the very beating heart of the book sits a particular moment in 1795 when both polemicist and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and first-generation Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge completely independently of one another deployed in what they were writing the metaphor of the Aeolian harp – a device used at the time as an instrument of private entertainment, that produces music by harnessing the movement of the wind – to illustrate what they wanted to say about human emotions. These were for the first time considered by the two writers to be things that take place within the individual, rather than things that happen as a result of interactions between people, or between people and the state.

Hewitt points to this critical juncture as one constituting a disruptive change, but it was one that had followed years of raised and dashed hopes as the French Revolution had morphed into a series of bloody reprisals, and in the UK (which of course then included what is now the Republic of Ireland) sympathetic popular movements aimed at reforming the political settlement had been crushed by Prime Minister William Pitt and his government in an effort to maintain the status quo. Toward the end of the book the author points to an 1820 publication about the emotions by Scottish philosopher and poet Thomas Brown as a moment important for later artefacts that served to underscore the primacy of the notion of the individual.

Following the disappointments of the decade in question, the Victorians, who came later (Jane Austen died in 1817, Victoria was crowned in 1837), opted for closer surveillance of the emotions and the relations between individuals, notably in the sphere of female sexuality, which was vigorously policed in an era characterised by religious Evangelicalism. But Hewitt notes that notions deriving from the pneumatic conception of the human body, that date from the 18th century, still survive in our day, as when we are counselled to allow men to let off steam and release their natural inclinations lest some harm result.

The book has a large scope and is finely detailed with plenty of engrossing stories that illustrate sometimes difficult ideas and concepts.

Hewitt unearths stories that help to give flesh to the bones of mental pictures you might already have built up about important figures such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley. Even William Godwin, who is nowadays rather often overlooked by people who profess that they want to know more about the era but who, along with his wife, was at the time possibly the most famous among those listed here. For dedicated Austen fans, the poet William Cowper gets a run as well.

Importantly, the book focuses on the lives of real people living at the time who grew up, became educated, made friends, formed attachments, got married, had children, wrote things, published books, started innovative schemes designed to ameliorate problems they saw in the world, and who inevitably died. There is a rich tapestry of interconnected stories here that will satisfy the most dedicated empiricist.

There is a strand in the book that gently raises questions as to whether we are better off with our current understanding of the role in our lives played by the emotions, but it would seem given our more detailed understanding these days of human physiology, especially via the field of neuroscience, and of psychology, that that particular horse has well and truly bolted. Nevertheless, this book offers plenty of material to provide food for thought for those who, like me, are interested in the years dealt with. 

Monday, 23 April 2018

Homeless man, Cross City Tunnel exit

Today on my way to lunch in Darlinghurst I saw a tent set up in the concrete space next to the ramp leaving the Western Distributor where the Cross City Tunnel exits underground in an easterly direction. The eastbound exit to Bathurst Street and Harbour Street is located here as well. The homeless man in this picture is the one wearing the hoodie, I think. Soon after taking this photo I saw the same group of men walking north across the mouth of Bathurst Street toward a white van parked on Day Street where the Park Royal Hotel is located.

Friday, 20 April 2018

It’s easier to do democracy than to do literature

Miles Franklin is to Australian letters what Washington Irving is to American letters: a competent practitioner with more than a little talent who nevertheless failed to set the world on fire. In America, the fire was first lit and nurtured by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1830s. In Australia, it wasn’t until about 1940 when Patrick White started to publish the novels that would lead to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Democracy began to be practiced in Australia earlier. In 1856, the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales was for the first time filled with elected representatives. In America, of course, we mark the beginning with the signing in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence. After these events, it took a generation or two in these countries until substantive works of literature were to be published that would cause the world to pay attention. White’s Nobel has already been mentioned. For Poe, the gauge of his importance is to be found in the fact that Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, translated his works into his native language in the middle of the 19th century.

Why is literature harder to do than democracy? Well, it’s not always the case that it is. Take Egypt, for example. Just as one example in the modern era, they have produced Alaa al-Aswany, a novelist of some talent whose family has been connected to politics for generations. They also have Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. But they haven’t managed to negotiate a settlement that takes into account the demands of religion in the country. The elected president Mohamed Morsi was in power from 30 June 2012 to 3 July 2013 before the generals deposed him.

I think it has something to do with culture. When Jurgen Habermas, the Frankfurt School thinker, wanted to find the origins of the public sphere he went to the English coffee houses of the 18th century. I would qualify that finding myself and extend the notion back a century to the 17th century, a time in England when public discussion of politics was animated by the demands of religion as people fought for supremacy in a struggle for domination that finally ended with the installation on the throne of William of Orange in 1688. Religion would continue to be a distinguishing element in the realm of personal identity for a long time after this, but never again in England would so much blood be spilled to prove a theological point.

Australia inherited its disputative culture from England after London agreed to allow some NSW residents to elect representatives so that they could make decisions about the collection and expenditure of public money. Just as American settlers in the years after 1759, the year Montreal fell to the British, were vocal in demanding the same rights as natural-born Englishmen. The reason for their disagreement with George III was the same as that which had animated Parliament in London in 1649, when Charles I lost his head: no taxation without representation. Charles had prorogued Parliament but then had gone ahead to raise levies on the people to replenish the Treasury.

New Zealand pipped Australia at the post when it came to demanding suffrage for its residents, which was granted in 1852, even though the jurisdiction continued to be a colony until the following century. New Zealand is notable also as being the first place in the world where women were granted the franchise. And Australia became the first place where women could be elected to public office.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Book review: The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey (1989)

This book suffers from so many deficits that it’s hard to know where to start. Initially positing the beginning of modernity in the era of Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, the book then twangs back optimistically to the Enlightenment in the 18th century and talks about “reason” with the same credulity that Steven Pinker does in his ‘Enlightenment Now’, a book I reviewed in March. This book suffers from the same problem as Pinker’s, assuming that what a person living in the late 18th century meant by “reason” is the same thing that we understand by the word today. I say that this is a complete fallacy.

Harvey twangs between 1848 and 1776, then scoots along to the first decades of the 20th century as though nothing had happened in-between. Let alone the major writers of the Victorian era, which Harvey seems, from an ideological position, to be set on ignoring (there is not a word about Dickens, for example). He also totally ignores the achievements of such artists as Turner, Swinburne and Hopkins. Jane Austen gets no mention, nor Mary Shelley, and the Romantics of either the first generation (Wordsworth and Coleridge) or second generation (Keats, Shelley and Byron) are almost completely ignored.

The starting point for the author seems to be 1848, when a number of revolutions took place in continental Europe in aid of the aspirations of the working classes living there. But there’s no mention of Chartism in England, which along with the Reform Act in the Parliament there saw the franchise expanded more broadly. Bounding enthusiastically to the period after WWI might make it easier to make the rhetorical points the author has in mind to make, but it ignores a lot of real history that actually took place. The likes of Tennyson, Thackeray and Trollope never get a showing in Harvey’s view of history.

The spastic trajectory of Harvey’s historical view is entirely unconvincing, and unnecessarily so. For a moment or two he plays with the idea of “unreason” foregrounded by the Romantics but avoids the implications, and therefore gives himself leave to overlook entire generations of writers who were producing interesting work in an age notable for the devolution of real political power. Harvey feels more confident when he gets to the post-WWII period when he can point to the deleterious effects of Nazism, a form of government that worked in close cooperation with Capital, but totally ignores the birthplace of fascism in the Romantic era of 140 years earlier. The blood and soil of nativist Nazis had a lot in common with the irrational leanings of the early Romantics, but Harvey entirely ignores the connection, content to move ahead with his precious plan and into the post-war era where it’s easier to grasp the importance of referents, and to analyse the significance of the contracts that people made with the popular cognates they used in their daily lives.

I found this book entirely unsatisfying and disingenuous. While I am aware of the danger of resolving everything into the so-called Whig version of history, I think that what is important is the relationship between the governed and the government. Such matters were very much front-of-mind for the early Romantics, who lived in England in the era immediately following the American Revolution. The discoveries in narrative form that were achieved in the years following 1776 were surely germane to Harvey’s project. But he lets them alone and seems intent on pursuing an entirely continental model, entirely ignoring the achievements of generations of English writers and artists, for no other reason than that they belonged to the dominant global political apparatus. It’s just sad.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A celebration of the most determined philistinism

At first blush, the BBC’s ‘Cunk on Britain’, a spoof of mainstream TV history programs featuring Philomena Cunk as host, seems to make gentle fun of British exceptionalism but deep down it celebrates the philistinism that Cunk embodies. I felt like screaming when she sat down, in the professionally-sculpted surrounds that are used to make the program, with one historian or another and asked them idiotic questions. This is how scientists must feel when they get on Twitter and engage with the great unwashed in “debate” in the modern public sphere.

Cunk revels in her stupidity and the high production values the BBC uses for the series underscore how important the producers feel the people she represents are. This is a progressive attempt to humanise the dumb, the uneducated and the merely unintelligent who live unseen among us and with whom we interact every day, often quite unsuspectingly. As such, the series has a dual function. One is to poke fun at British nationalistic exceptionalism (Americans will love this aspect of the show) as illustrated by such TV programs as 'Antiques Roadshow', which has been screening for over 40 years. The other is to put a face to the countless ignorant participants in the public sphere who animate social media every day. This is a very modern and knowing production.

I think that someone like Simon Schama, whose ‘A History of Britain’ screened on the BBC from 2000 to 2002, would look askance at Cunk and what she represents. Or the late Robert Hughes, whose ‘Barcelona’ (1992) initiated the fashion for deep-dive studies of popular subjects. But what we have to understand is that this is who we are as a society. We are no better than Cunk on Britain, torturing the specialists who work in academia with our jaw-droppingly misguided questions and showing no ability to intelligently synthesise the information we are given in order to come to grips with the complexities of different branches of study, such as history. Cunk throws up a mirror to who we are today. And we all get to vote. Cunk is the comedic doppelganger of Donald Trump.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Jane Austen and the invention of the modern novel

This blogpost draws on an earlier blogpost from 12 September 2015 on this blog and expands it in the light of recent conversations with friends. I apologise for the undergraduate language used in this piece, but I have forgotten most of the literary theory I read for my first university degree.

When I first read Jane Austen, back in 2002, her novels quickly came to represent for me a point of excellence for the craft. I was struck by how mature they seemed despite having been published 200 years ago, and I came to the conclusion that she had discovered something new. What that was, was at first not entirely clear, but I had the inkling that it had something to do with the even tone she employed throughout her novels to describe every kind of emotion experienced by her characters from the greatest joy through to the deepest sorrow.

In my readings around her work I came a across a lot of books published prior to hers that lacked this sort of authorial disengagement. In epistolary novels, for example, which became popular in England in the 1830s, you can get some very strange orthography indeed when the writer is trying to express extremes of emotion experienced by his characters. The sentences break up in a cascade of dashes as the writer of the letter loses control of her emotions and they go careening off into the realm of the inexpressible.

Austen, who was born in 1775, critiqued such writing in her juvenilia, in the form of a series of short comical sketches written for domestic consumption during the 1780s and early -90s. In these sketches, she experimented with tone while also playing in a very critical way with the kinds of novelistic tropes - as she saw them - that fostered the emotional highs and lows she had grown suspicious of over years of novel reading.

She objected to the excesses of secular power implicit in the clunky plot devices that such writers used. Kidnapping, rape, elopement, murder, disinheriting, withholding of wages. The literature of the 18th century is full of democratically-minded writers using high-toned events in their narratives to achieve certain fictional outcomes, essentially to help to civilise a still very unfair era. They wanted people to be better, kinder, more empathetic. The political and legal structures that gave shape to the lives of people living in the broader community to which Austen herself belonged favoured a narrow ruling class. Austen, it has to be remembered, was a Tory, a backer of the king against Parliament, and so she found a lot of what was being published politically alien.

However she wanted to retain the psychological drama that Samuel Richardson had introduced into popular culture. It is notable nevertheless that her favourite Richardson novel was ‘Sir Charles Grandison’, which is about a good man with power and how he conducts himself in the world. Richardson wrote the novel because his readers were getting a bit tired of the venal male characters he was used to using in his books. Like Austen herself they wanted a bit of variety.

It should be remembered that the Austen family were great readers. Everyone from the youngest daughter to the head of the family read novels for pleasure, so young Jane had a wide audience for her hilarious sallies into the genre. Those were also the days of visiting, and a sheaf of papers would no doubt be taken along down the country lanes when the women went to pay a visit on a friend or neighbour.

What Austen came up with in order to support the kind of emotional registers that would allow the development of the psychological drama she sought to generate for readers like her immediate family was something that also enabled her to incorporate a quantity of humour into her novels.

This was to flatten out the expressive register of events throughout the novel. If everything was described with a delivery at a regular level of tone she would also naturally produce humour because what was something that in the realm of the novel was actually quite high-toned for the character would be uniform within the locus of description regulating things between the characters and the reader, in the fictive space itself. In this space, the author’s unique voice could be deployed effectively.

Austen manipulated the dramatic texture of her novels and introduced the irony that people nowadays still find so refreshing. The two things happened in tandem. In order to effectively introduce her authorial voice, she had to have realistic characters being driven by a realistic plot, a plot that your average reader could personally relate to. And she was quite aware of this quality of her books. She once in a letter described her work to a correspondent: “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” You level out the dramatic fabric of the novel and this allows you to do other things, such as deploy humour and investigate the psychological processes the characters are going through. Character development is something that Austen uses with great skill, and it is another aspect of her writing that sets her above most of her coevals.

The writers Austen herself admired came closest to doing something on the same level that she herself attained. I have already mentioned one novel by Samuel Richardson. There is also Maria Edgeworth, the Irish writer who was just a few years older than Austen herself but whose fame at the time was far greater than hers. And then there was George Crabbe, the naturalist-parson-poet whose short stories in iambic pentameters, like Austen's works, belong to the Augustan stream in the Romantic river.

Of course, everyone would agree that Austen tends to limit the scope of her novels by concentrating with such dedication to such narrow concerns as marriage and sex, but others would go on to furthering the reform project, such as Charles Dickens, in whose novels you get a much wider set of experiences and types of characters involved in the dramas the author invents. I think that Dickens is a wonderful writer, but I have to be honest and say that what he achieved would never have been the same without the example Austen offered.