Thursday, 22 February 2018

Street censorship, Ultimo

When I went down to the shopping centre yesterday to have some salad for lunch I came across a number of painted black boxes on the pavement. There were four of them within the space of about 100 metres, on the west-side footpath of Bay Street. Three were like this one, regular square or rectangular shapes. But one had been made in close proximity to the kind of builders’ marks that are put down with cans of brightly-coloured spray paint to show the existence of utilities (gas, electricity, sewerage, telecommunications) in the ground under the pavement. This one had been painted in a way that involved it intricately with one of these mundane markings, markings that have a purely utilitarian function related to urban improvement.

But the way all these meticulous black erasures had been delicately and thoughtfully made made me think of what they had been made to conceal, whether it had been an advertisement placed on the pavement by an enterprising advertising agency, or some random slogan by a member of the public pushing an ideological line. Or perhaps just a graffiti artist’s tag. I wondered who had made these distinctive marks on the street and why they had made them. Bay Street is heavily-trafficked and so is often used by graffiti artists for their markings, as I showed in the second half of last year on this blog when the marriage equality debate was playing out in public.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Book review: Tell Them I Said No, Martin Herbert (2016)

A kind of history of post-war art practice, the book chronicles the practices of artists who for one reason or another eschewed the bright lights and fanfare of the art world, and dropped out. For various reasons usually related to notions of authenticity they quit the scene and went AWOL. It’s a serious discussion to have because art remains a place where truth is spoken without fear or favour. What does it mean if an artist stops pandering to the needs of patrons and flattering them, and so refuses to be involved in the market for their work? How does it change their work if they refuse to go to the gallery openings to shake hands over glasses of chardonnay?

Herbert gives it his best shot but he goes a bit fast for the uninitiated. You sense there are debates going on behind the field of focus of his immediate regard, and these require a bit more elucidation than they get if he is to give the named artists and their work the fulsome elucidation they appear to be due by dint of their place in history. But Herbert is an art-world native, so he reverts to short-hand. There could have been a useful book here about the contemporary art world, and instead there is a fragmentary guide to a few notable players in it.

As the post-punk generation really kicks into gear in the second half of the book, the reasons for giving up the glitz and the glamour become more self-referential. Making art is for such artists as often “about” making art as it is about anything else. What fun.

Since the art world became overwhelmed by the values of capital it has undergone soul-searching and a sort of rebirth, and this book chronicles parts of that self-referential process. It’s often not pretty. When the serious money got into the workings of the system, in the 1970s, some priorities needed to be realigned. Martin starts out with the right attitude but the introduction at the start of the book should have been shifted to the end, in the form of a conclusion, so that he could give us a savvy reappraisal of what had come before, and really nailed down the issues at stake. There needed to be more teasing out of major themes and patterns, but we get a disjointed set of standalone portraits.  A better book would have stretched his talents and served the reader more completely.

In the earlier pieces, facts fall rarely, like raindrops, just merely wetting the ground, while interpretation is supplied in lavish quantities. Any farmer will tell you that rain is money because without it nothing will grow. In the second half of his book, facts come crashing down, flooding the scene, and there is a paucity of interpretation to channel it to useful purposes. We get two incomplete halves of a potentially good book, each of which lacks what the other provides in excess. It’s as though Herbert were quite sure in himself of the artistic value of work produced in the 70s but that for art produced in later years he still relies on the bumph produced by interested parties.

I enjoyed particularly reading about the lives of Agnes Martin, an American Abstract Expressionist painter who died in 2004, American figurative painter Albert York who died in 2009, Charlotte Posenenske, a German sculptor who died in 1986, Stanley Brouwn, a Dutch conceptual artist who died in 2017, and David Hammons, an American conceptual artist.

When Herbert wrote about Lutz Bacher, Christopher D’Arcangelo, Laurie Parsons, Cady Noland and Trisha Donnelly, however I found myself rushing to the end of the chapters, eager to move onto the next thing.

The author aspires to be useful and enthusiastically and authentically embraces the culture of criticism that modern art embodies, but his use of facts often falls prey to a habit of repeating the rote theorising of art-world pundits. You feel a need for someone to cut through the spin that normally gets served up for ulterior purposes in glossy brochures at gallery openings.

I was like an outsider with a porthole-like glimpse into the workings of a larger machine, and often felt a need for someone to stand by my elbow to point out the real workings of the ungainly beast as it laboured away in a space just beyond the reaches of my ken.

It’s an ambitious book but it ultimately fails to draw in the lay reader, merely offering up a few hints that needed to be joined up with already-existing facts in the reader’s mind in order to make sense of them. Those who already have some familiarity with post-war art in the West can profitably read this book. For the rest, other authors will have to do the work to fill in the gaps. I’m not sure where they can be found.

The book is not available in electronic format and you have to buy it online direct from the publisher, Sternberg Press in Berlin.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Book review: The Trauma Cleaner, Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

This biography shows how the abused little boy Peter Collins became the successful businesswoman Sandra Pankhurst and it is structured in convenient slabs of text. The biography of the transgender woman is interspersed with lively vignettes as Krasnostein accompanies Pankhurst on jobs – she is a professional trauma cleaner, many of whose clients have mental illnesses; hoarders and such – and discovers things about her subject that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

There is much dysfunction in society, and Pankhurst in her daily rounds comes across evidence of it in all sorts of places. She works with a team of cleaners to scrape up the shit and the rubbish and the mould and the litter, amid smells and vermin and filth, to make the houses she is contracted to clean better where possible than when they first encountered them.

Pankhurst is her own achievement, furthermore, physically a shadow of her former robust self but nevertheless someone who has endured despite the beatings meted out by her father, the savagery of work in brothels, the rape she survived which led her to look for regular work, and the abortive starts that presaged her success as a self-employed businesswoman.

Krasnostein knots these strands together with workmanlike efficiency and tries to find something of universal relevance at the end when she is called upon in her role as author to tie them up in a memorable bundle that can serve to help others, in some way.

The shortness of the chapters is a relief. You can easily become tired of the remorseless self-referential meanderings of people with evidently compromised intellectual faculties. People who live with mental illness are sometimes difficult to be with, as the author finds. But in Pankhurst, who has a learned knack for dealing with such people empathetically, she alternately finds a rich source for her inquiries, and after many years of work she has produced something that withstands close scrutiny.

If there is a soundtrack that might serve to go with the book surely it must be Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which appeared in 1980 at the same time that social mores were finally changing along with the law in a way that would allow someone like Pankhurst to eventually live something approximating a normal life. The song’s minimal tonal register has traces in it of the flat-bat irony of Pankhurst’s interjections when confronted by something challenging or unpleasant. The book is subtitled somewhat ironically, ‘One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster.’

Dismissing an affront with a self-deprecating curse, Pankhurst manages to soldier on through thick and thin, and thrive. The book is timely considering the marriage equality debate and next Sunday’s ABC TV documentary, ‘Riot’, about the origins in the late 70s of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2018.

Monday, 19 February 2018

My father’s favourite charity

When I was a small boy I remember one Saturday or Sunday mum asked me to go to my father’s study to ask if he wanted refreshments. His friend Peter Daly had come over to discuss real estate with dad and they had secreted themselves away in the study where they would have privacy for the important conversations that would lead to new acquisitions. My memories are fragmentary but I would have knocked on the wooden door of the room, then waited in the cool silence of the hallway until I was called inside. I would then have opened the study door and made the offer that I had brought from the kitchen. I remember that dad, whose name was also Peter, said to me, “Thank you, no” in a kindly manner that nevertheless punctuated the silence of the room where the two men sat on chairs next to dad’s wooden desk with the filing cabinets standing in the corners. His words were meant to include me in the restricted society implied by the room itself, as well as to include mum who had sent me as an emissary. All were included within his broad purview at that moment.

On weekends, dad would from time to time drive in suburban streets in the company-supplied car looking for bargains. He called the car “my floaty boat”, and it was a big Holden of a kind that performed best at moderate speeds. He bought and sold real estate at different times over the years in order to better provide for the family’s needs. The family was “my favourite charity”, he would say when an opportunity arose for him to make some sort of personal ideological statement.

His own childhood had been marked by severe financial constraint because the family had been very poor. He told me on at least one occasion that his parents always paid the rent with coins. In his memoir, which he wrote after he retired from full-time work, he tells of when they established a vegetable garden in the backyard of their house during the war. His mother would routinely take in work and repair or make garments on order for people in families in the neighbourhood. His father made his own fishing rods in the living room, and would walk down to Port Phillip Bay to catch food for the table from a pier there. At the time that his mother – who we always knew as “granny” – moved from Melbourne to live with us in Sydney, leaving her husband in the process, she handed over to Joao Luis her share in the milk bar they jointly owned, putting all her belongings in dad’s car and going north without, I guess, a backward glance.

In Sydney, where dad earned a new job in his chosen field of industrial automation and control, he bought some land from a woman named Bennett on a battleaxe block on Hopetoun Avenue in Vaucluse and built the family a house. It was built on two storeys on a hillside, with the bedroom shared by the boys – my brother and I – down a spiral staircase on the same level as granny’s bedroom. My parents’ bedroom was upstairs at the front of the house, looking over the trees of the park that sits behind Parsley Bay. Through a trapdoor downstairs you could reach the solid sandstone foundation upon which the structure was set, and the cat would get in there and catch the mice that lived under the house. Possums would run around on the roof over my parents’ bedroom, making thumping noises with their feet as they ran about with what seemed to us to be wild abandon.

One year during a period of speculation, dad bought a milk bar somewhere out in the suburbs of Sydney and he got the family to come out with him to sell the store’s remaining stock to local residents. We boys stood behind the counter dispensing lollies to children who came in to get bargains. We were used to making change for customers because mum and granny ran their own shop where we helped out during school holidays. In this old milk bar there were crates for soft drinks with the names of the brands and manufacturers printed in coloured inks and stylised typefaces on their wooden sides.

I went with dad to an auction on one occasion. The sale was held in the backyard of the house being sold. I remember the fences all around the grassy space and the forest of legs belonging to all the men standing there waiting for the auctioneer to call for bids. Dad stood quietly for a long time as the silence of the afternoon was punctuated occasionally by a voice here or there, before he made a bid of his own. “Dad,” I piped up, looking up at him, curious about what was happening, “did you say that?” When he told family friends this story in later years he would emphasise that he thought he lost the chance to buy that property because of my interjection. People laughed.

Mum and dad had bought a shop in the Vaucluse shopping centre on the corner of Petrarch Avenue and refurbished and improved it, putting in keyhole-shaped windows as a feature, and building a standalone apartment on the top floor that had its own entranceway to the street so that it could be rented out to paying tenants. Near where the stairs came up into the apartment a kitchen with a pass-through at chest height was built so that the residents could conveniently entertain guests in the living room without leaving the kitchen. From the living room, over the roof of the shop they laid out a balcony that had views over the harbour. A senior nurse who worked at a Sydney hospital and her boyfriend, who was a barrister, lived up there, I forget their names, but I would get a job to serve drinks at a party if they held one for friends, and I remember how kind they were to me.

They had a good relationship with my mother, who with granny ran the shop on the ground floor during the daytime. Mum and granny alternated weeks on duty in the shop, with the one off duty cooking the evening meals at home for the family.

There was also a studio office off the doorway leading to Petrarch Avenue that was rented out to a middle-aged Jewish man who imported and sold tiles for residential construction. In his showroom, the richly-coloured tiles were arrayed in all their glorious diversity around the walls and he would bring builders in to see his samples so that they could buy supplies from him. Mum told me later, before she died, that she had continued smoking cigarettes even into her fifties, and when she was at the shop she would secretively pop out into the stairway leading downstairs to keep the smoke out of the retail space where it might offend the sensitive noses of her customers.

The gift shop had started in Melbourne before the family relocated north after granny’s second son, Paul, was killed by the driver of a car in a drunken hit-and-run. My grandfather never got over the death of this son, and eventually what was considered his excessive mourning would contribute, with his philandering, to his wife leaving him. But she also missed Paul, and dad and his new wife established the shop in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, and named it after granny ‘Miss Phyllis Caldecott’s Home Accessories’, to help take her mind off the loss of her beloved child. Some of the things they initially sold in the shop were painted metal tins to be used in homes for garbage. There were also tins with lids used by customers for storing bulk supplies in the kitchen such as flour and rice. Mum had trained as a commercial artist after leaving secondary school and she painted stylised dogs on some of the tins.

After they moved the shop to Vaucluse, mum and granny sold a dizzying array of gifts, from candles to crockery, and from jewellery to Indian-print silk scarves. They would even make toy clowns to sell in the shop. To do this, granny would collect old bits of plastic that had been washed in the normal washing cycle and dried on the line outside the kitchen door downstairs. Using her sewing machine, she would make up the parts of the body, such as legs and arms, which were articulated so that they would flop around when children played with them, and stuff them with the clean plastic filler using an old screwdriver with a yellow handle. The body parts were made using pieces of scrap cloth that were bought in bulk, by the box-load, from a wholesaler in Sydney. Mum would take me out to visit the wholesaler on occasion and I got to see all the coloured prints that were made in the textile factory. The flat feet of the clowns were stuffed with pieces of foam cut with a knife to the desired rectangular shape. The hair was coloured wool and the clowns had cone-shaped hats attached to their heads with thread. When their bodies had been finished with their arms and legs and heads and hair and hats attached, granny would put the unfinished clowns on the staircase to be taken upstairs where mum would use a needle and thread to embroider the faces on. The eyes were shaped from four-pointed stars and were cut from pieces of black felt. The noses were made from tiny round pom poms that were sewed on with thread. Bright red thread was used to make the lips.

By this time, dad had sold the first house and bought another house in Vaucluse further around the bay on Watsons Bay proper because he had decided to sail a Hobie Cat from the yacht club there and needed a convenient place to keep it. The boat sat on its trailer in the bottom garden of this house. One person could wheel the boat out and slide it off the trailer onto the beach if he wanted to go sailing.

My parents developed the house in two stages. Initially, before we took occupancy in 1969, dad built a second floor for himself and mum to live on. The two boys had bedrooms downstairs that gave onto what was called “the rumpus room” which had a toilet and shower in separate rooms leading off it. Granny, as before, also lived downstairs, in her own bedroom and en-suite bathroom.

The second round of renovations took place at around the same time I left home to study at university, and involved putting up a kitchen and a workroom in the empty space over the carport at the back of the house. The kitchen to that point in time had been at the front of the upper storey, looking out over the harbour. A reinforced concrete slab was laid on bare steel columns that were painted a dull red, jutting out into the space where the cars were parked, and forming a roof over them when they were not in use. The resident of one of the apartments in the block of flats behind the house didn’t like the new structure, and one night when it was finished, and there was an electrical storm, he threw a jar of olives through the window of dad’s new study, which was accessed through a doorway on the stairs leading to the top floor of the house. I was home alone that night, and kept the unbroken jar of olives to give to dad when he and mum returned. Dad provocatively kept the jar of olives in the fridge as proof of ill intent but nothing further came of the episode.

One particular item that was sold in the shop I remember well. It was a white plastic deck trolley with metal struts and two plastic wheels. My brother and I would assemble the units from kits that came from overseas in brown cardboard boxes with printed assembly instructions, downstairs in the rumpus room before they were loaded, complete, into the back of mum’s bottle-green Toyota Corolla station wagon or, later, into the back of her white Commodore station wagon, and taken to the shop to sell. Locals would buy the trolleys to put around their pools to serve food and drinks from at get-togethers or on weekends.

For his estranged father to live in, when Joao Luis became too old to earn money to pay rent with, dad bought an apartment in a Melbourne retirement village. From time to time dad would go down to visit the old man, and he talks about some of those visits in his memoir.

Dad also bought real estate in America. One summer when the family was staying in Honolulu, as we used to do regularly during school holidays, he got me to type up a buyer’s guide for Australians wanting to buy Hawaiian property, which he dictated to me as I sat at a typewriter in the living room of the apartment mum and dad were staying in. My brother and I were in a separate apartment in the same block called the Ilikai Marina just opposite the Ala Wai Boat Harbour. He owned at least one condominium in this block that he rented out to people wanting a place to stay while they holidayed on the island. You walked across a short pedestrian bridge spanning a quiet street to get to the lobby of the Ilikai Hotel, which is situated next door to the building right on Waikiki Beach.

When I decided that I didn’t want to live anymore at the residential college I had moved into immediately after school ended, dad bought me a unit in Glebe near Badde Manors cafe. I had stayed in the college for all of 1981 but I didn’t like the boisterous, alcohol-saturated culture. Living in a studio apartment was much more my style, and I found I could do whatever I wanted there. I used my time to quietly read American fiction, listen to Mahler and Bruckner records, and to make linocuts using a set of sharp-edged knives made for the purpose and blocks of oily, brown linoleum that had a loose-weave cloth backing for support. You would use a small rubber roller to apply the black ink to the cut lino, then smooth out the sheet of paper required for each print using the back of a table spoon. One print I made was of a street-wise tomcat I dubbed Sylvester after he had one day adopted me, stalking through the bars mounted over the kitchen window on his black paws as though he owned the place.

My apartment had a large room big enough for a dining table and dining chairs, a desk and a captain’s chair, a couch, a rented piano, a stereo, a bookshelf and a single bed, as well as a kitchen leading off it with a window looking out onto the parking area at the back of the block, and a bathroom with room for laundry equipment. I used to shop for food at Grace Bros on Broadway and walk home through their carpark. The unit cost $30,000 in 1982 and I sold it in 1989 for $90,000 when I needed money to buy a two-bedroom unit in Bondi.

There were also two units in Elizabeth Bay, in Sydney, as well as one he owned on the east side in Vaucluse, on the cliff overlooking the ocean. I would go down on weekends to meet the tenants in the Elizabeth Bay apartments on occasion if I was not busy doing other things. I painted the inside of one of these apartments white one year with rollers and brushes and in exchange for my labour mum and dad gave me mum’s Corolla, which I had learned to drive in in an earlier year. The two apartments were the only units on one floor of the building, which also had parking in the basement. The tenant of the harbour-side apartment was a young executive from a country in Europe, I think it was France, who rode a pushbike for exercise and would go long distances during the summer months in the daylight hours after work. In the rear apartment the tenant worked for the US consulate in the city, and she was from Austin, Texas.

When dad retired he decided that he and mum were going to go travelling around different places, staying in temperate zones where he could go for his daily swim, because of his bad left leg. He asked me before they set off if I wanted to live in the Vaucluse house with my new family, but I had other ideas. I had organised to work in Tokyo for a manufacturing company doing their English-language PR in a small team led by a journalist, which sounded like fun compared to the desktop publishing I was currently doing in Sydney. So instead he gave the job of looking after his investment properties and also granny to another family member.

One year after I had moved with my family to Tokyo and we decided to visit mum and dad in Hawaii, we stayed in one of his Honolulu apartments. Mum made some disparaging remarks to me about the previous tenant suggesting that his residency had not been entirely successful. I remember that there were fishing rods in the apartment when our small family rocked up to move in for the two weeks or so we were slated to stay in the city.

There was also at least one condominium in Florida my parents purchased at some point. Before mum and dad finally ended their travels and settled down in Maroochydore, in southeast Queensland, in 1999, they sold all of their properties in Sydney and overseas.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Bush-hammering concrete

Not long ago I bought a book on brutalism that contains this fascinating Max Dupain photograph showing two builders labourers working on the Canberra Defence Offices, in Campbell Park, in 1971. The two men are using bush hammers to create an exposed concrete effect, giving the building a ribbed look like corduroy. The heavy hammers are shaped like meat tenderisers, with a grid of polygonal metal teeth shaped like pyramids. In a book I reviewed last month titled 'Raw Concrete' by Barnabas Calder, there is also mention of a pneumatic version of the bush hammer that is sometimes used to create the same effect. The workmen use the hammers to smash off the outer skin of concrete on the ribs, exposing the aggregate for that true "beton brut" look. The book was published in Germany to accompany an exhibition, 'SOS Brutalism - Save the Concrete Monsters!' being held from 8 November 2017 to 2 April 2018 at the Deutsche Arkitekturmuseum in Frankfurt-am-Main.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Democracy shoots itself in the foot again

The shooting today at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida will change nothing. When one of America’s major parties is allied so strongly with the radical fringe element in the electorate that wants to conserve gun ownership rights, nothing can change.

In Australia as it happens, on the same day as the Florida shooting there was a gun death, involving outlaw motorcycle club leader Mahmoud “Mick” Hawi, who was shot in the head and killed while sitting in his car outside a gym in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale. This is the kind of gun crime that Australians are used to seeing: a contract killing involving elements of the criminal underworld. Not school children shot in their classrooms. The difference being, of course, that Australia outlawed most privately-owned guns following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. At that time, both major political parties made the decision to make ownership of high-powered rifles illegal for most people. The country has not had a gun massacre since.

But the Republicans in America are notorious for forgetting the purpose of good government: to enable the majority of people to live in peace so that they can pursue happiness in their chosen way.

Look at their health care system. “The share of GDP allocated to health spending in the United States (excluding capital expenditure) was 16.4% in 2013, compared with an OECD average of 8.9%,” an OECD report of 2015 states. Nevertheless, life expectancy in the US is lower than in comparable countries. “Life expectancy has increased in the United States, but less rapidly than in many other OECD countries, so there is now a gap of almost two years between life expectancy at birth in the United States compared with the average in OECD countries (78.8 years in the US in 2013 compared with 80.5 years for the OECD average).”

It’s no wonder that China looks askance at the benefits that democracy is supposed to bring, when these kinds of facts are routine for news coverage of the country that out of a sense of nationalistic exceptionalism considers democracy to be a crowning achievement. (Let’s leave alone for the moment the fact that the British invented representative democracy.) China will do better than the US because the rulers there use common sense to generate policy, and do not rely on outdated and retrogressive ideological positions that cause misery to the majority.

While the Chinese try to control the message overseas - revelations of Party involvement in Chinese language media in Australia are contained in a new book titled ‘Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State’ by Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University, to be published by Hardie Grant later this month – the mainstream media in countries like Australia where democracy is part of the system of government, is struggling both to make a profit and to retain the reputation on which profitability rests.

Twitter routinely lights up with messages condemning the mainstream media whatever the cause of the protest is, as though journalists were part of the problem of bad government when democratic leaders are accused of something untoward. Any divergence by journalists from the most extreme approach is greeted by shameful catcalls. Only a few properties will survive the onslaught of free or cheap information, but news is expensive to produce and journalists need to be free to make mistakes. Holding them to such high standards that they are condemned merely for agreeing with each other, for example, seems a little uncalled-for.

Having said that, the benefits for democracy of vehicles such as Twitter are clear, because they open up the debate to more people. The gatekeepers are left empty-handed, and every man (and woman) and his (or her) dog can participate in the process of tearing down an unworthy politician, such as Barnaby Joyce. There were a few lonely voices on Twitter even a week ago before the Daily Telegraph published its story on Joyce and his girlfriend, but I, for one, remember them with gratitude because they never gave up even when things seemed hopeless. 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Former Sydney Law School construction site

Back in late September I wrote about the brutalist building that used to be on this site. The site is now almost empty, in preparation for the construction of luxury apartments in the heart of the CBD. You can hear loud sounds coming from the site from behind the hoarding that surrounds it. The hoarding has a jaunty cartoon design painted on it. Tourists were standing around a tour guide who was speaking about convict architect Francis Greenway outside his St James church, which was just next to me across the street from the construction site, when I took this photo on a recent weekend.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Book review: Permission to Bloom, Nicole Llera (2017)

This is the second first-person account by a person living with a mental illness I have tried to read in the last few days. This book is subtitled ‘A novel’ but it’s clear that it is autobiographical.

The other was ‘Moving to Oregon’ by James Townsend (2017) which was subtitled ‘A bipolar journey’. In that case, the book started with what seemed to be some sort of episodic structure that might have enabled the reader to follow the story in a structured way, but the narrator quickly hijacked it and abruptly reverted to what he thought were the origins of his illness in his childhood, much in the same way that someone with a mental illness might approach the same task with their psychiatrist. It demonstrated a lack of sympathy for the reader, and a troubling lack of insight into the nature of his own illness. I gave up and put the book down.

In Llera’s case, the narrative sets out with an odd little introduction from an “external regulator” of the narrative of Michaela Rose, the protagonist. This self-conscious and rather redundant technical device has been inserted by the author into the narrative because she wants it to distance the reader from the focalising mechanism of the character Michaela as she goes about her daily life with her illness, a kind of anxiety that intrudes on her thought processes at inopportune times and makes living a “normal” life difficult. The narrator uses italics from time to time to show the reader how these thoughts appear, but it’s not always clear what are extraneous thoughts and if what you are reading is really what Michaela is thinking.

Her life as a dental student at a tertiary institution is complicated when she decides one day in a fit of optimism to go to work for an established dentist, who operates a secondary business as a supplier of dental implants to local dental clinics in Los Angeles. Originally, Michaela had imagined shadowing Dr Vasquez during appointments with patients to learn more about the craft of dentistry but he has an idea to use her as a salesperson. Michaela is initially teamed up with Heath, a loud and pushy salesman who has a taste for playing heavy metal music in his car. She survives a few trips with Heath but in the end the stresses of the work wear down her reserves of strength and she quits the job. In the meantime she takes up acting classes with a woman named Lexine, who she had met one day at the dentist’s clinic.

She also quits seeing her psychiatrist, who had prescribed medication that Michaela found had made her aggressive. She decides to stop taking the pills and soon she decides to stop seeing the doctor. Her subsequent story makes it clear that she was acting precipitously on both counts.

The narrative chugs along contentedly if a little jumpily – you are sometimes left a little confused as to who is speaking, for example – but it really comes apart when Michaela starts flirting with men. Her coquettish behaviour bodes ill for all concerned, especially for Kenneth, a college friend Micahela helps to teach to drive a car. When Michaela starts flirting with a young man she meets when she is driving by herself to a salsa dancing class, things really start going off the rails in terms of narrative quality and the character of Michaela loses the ability to command the reader’s sympathy.

Michaela’s complete lack of insight into her own motivations with respect to love interests like Raphael queasily mirrors an equally devastating lack of insight into the nature of her own illness. She thinks that she can tough it out alone, like she thinks that she can get away with degrading personal relationships.

Reading about mental illness has this danger: you never know at the outset if the person writing the story has the insight required to do it justice. You soon find out though. Back in July last year, I reviewed a non-fiction book by a Californian teacher, Mark Lukach, ‘My Lovely Wife’, which chronicled a family’s journey through mental illness when his wife started to experience psychosis. The difference between his book and the other two named in this review is that he had the necessary insight to know what was real and what was the product of the illness. Llera does not possess this insight, and I suspect that Townsend does not either.

Llera’s book is also riddled with typographical errors, and would have benefited from proper proofing. There are a lot of problems like using “mirky” for “murky”, “downs” for “dons”, and “arms chairs” for “armchairs”. I suspect that there was very little editing done on the book and that, like other aspects of her life, Llera just went it alone.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Renaissance tapestries draw crowds to AG NSW

When I heard about ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ on ABC TV  last night it was touted as a piece of medieval culture but this turns out to be misleading. The work is a series of tapestries manufactured around 1500 that are designed to hang from walls, and they were purchased by the French state in the late 19th century. Prior to that, they had been prey to deterioration in a house in the French countryside. Once they were saved from certain destruction – rats eat tapestries, and damp impacts on their fabric – they caught the attention of the elites in Europe, including proto-feminist writer George Sand.

The exhibition makes much of the impressions that Rainer Maria Rilke, a German writer of the first half of the 20th century, drew from the tapestries when he saw them. The wall hangings are large and intricate but to call them medieval mistakes the truth, as they clearly originate in the Renaissance. Printing with moveable type was invented in Germany in around 1439 and the religious Reformation started around 1517 in the same country. In fact origins for the Renaissance can be traced back even further if you want to go looking for them in medieval Italy.

What the tapestries offer gallery visitors is temporary access to the physical opulence that was daily available to wealthy French families, a tiny minority of the population, during the period. These are gorgeous objects that have an objective aesthetic value apart from any allegory that they may have been designed to communicate. The catalogue goes into a lot of detail about the possible meanings of each of the tapestries but any such semantic signification seems to me to be of less overall importance than the pure luxury that the tapestries represent. And the lions that feature in all of them have the best facial expressions of all the animals depicted!

This is a great exhibition for the Australian middle classes, who can number themselves among the true inheritors of the Renaissance and all that it entailed in terms of material progress. The exhibition is being held in the small gallery to the side of the ground floor of the Art Gallery of NSW, right above its Asian gallery space. It gets a bit crowded because the space for the hang is quite small, and has seats scattered around for people to sit on if they want to spend more time getting acquainted with the tapestries.

The workmanship in the tapestries is exceptional but the catalogue for the exhibition is however a bit unpolished, and needed to be proofed better before publication.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Book review: Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty (2012)

Subtitled, ‘A material history’, this book goes more of the way I needed to learn about the emergence of concrete as a construction material in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the 1890s, when different systems for using reinforced concrete were first patented, until the 1950s when, after WWII, there was a building boom as a result of decades of depressed demand, the use of concrete gained traction. The Depression and the war had taken business focus away from building high, which is expensive.

I first found out about Forty’s book at the University of Sydney library when I went up there to look for books on concrete, and I then bought it to use on the Kindle. I had already read one book on Brutalism, which I reviewed last month.

Forty looks at concrete through a variety of lenses, including the cultural, and he is an architectural historian so he is familiar with the technologies involved in the material’s use. Readers of the book should be prepared to go looking up words online, as I did, when unfamiliar ones appear.

The use of reinforced concrete began first in Europe and it wasn’t until the end of WWII that the Americans started to use it with any frequency. Before that, American building designers had made buildings with steel frames, but steel is easily damaged by high temperatures, so steel buildings distort and buckle if there is a fire. With reinforced concrete, the steel is encased in concrete, which inhibits the effects of fire.

Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems started to appear at the turn of the 20th century. Electric lifts had first been used twenty years earlier. Fluorescent lighting became cheaply available not until the end of WWII. Pre-stressing techniques were invented in the interwar years of the 20th century, and started to be used in construction more widely in the 1940s.

Forty examines concrete as an aesthetic medium as well as a technical device for achieving certain construction outcomes. There have been so many different attitudes toward concrete but what is clear is that it will continue to be heavily used for construction around the world, even though it is energy-intensive to make so it has a heavy carbon footprint. Concrete is partly made up of cement, which is itself made from clay and limestone heated to a temperature of 1450 degrees Celsius in a kiln, which produces clinker, a substance that is ground into a powder before used to make concrete. Concrete is a mixture of cement, gravel, sand and water.

One point that Forty makes well is that even though for most people concrete remains a potent indicator of modernity because of the way it enables the construction of very tall multi-storey buildings, its use is actually very craft-like in nature, although relatively inexperienced people can effectively use it to build. The finish of concrete depends very much on the skill of the people involved in the construction process. The formwork (called “shuttering”) that is made of wood or steel to contain the still-liquid concrete before it hardens, can be beautifully done or it can be less perfectly realised. To eliminate bubbles in walls, the formwork has to be gently vibrated, but not too much otherwise the aggregates used in the concrete mix will pool at the bottom of the formwork.

In some parts of the world, where cost is a major factor for people who build houses, concrete can be used by ordinary people with few tools other than a bucket, a spade and a wheelbarrow. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

TV review: The Billion-Dollar Bust, Four Corners, ABC (2018)

This week we got a little more evidence of the way the ABC is shifting to the right on the political scale when the current affairs flagship Four Corners ran a slick piece of PR for law enforcement titled ‘The Billion-Dollar Bust’, instead of the usual in-depth investigative pieces that we have come to recognise as particularly their area of expertise.

The story centred around Pakistani money launderer Altaf Khanani and an elaborate sting set up by the US Drug Enforcement Administration with the cooperation of the Australian Federal Police, NSW Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation working with its Five Eyes partners overseas. Khanani was touted as an attractive target because he has been laundering vast sums for drug dealers and terrorists.

The show started with a smaller sting conducted at Clyde Railway Station in western Sydney where an operative linked with Khanani swapped a token – an Australian five-dollar bill with a known serial number – with a contact who he knew had money to clean. There is plenty of this kind of dramatic footage in the program, but by the end of it one of the police officers is shown saying quite candidly that not much will change as a result of the Khanani bust because other players will just come in and take over the same clients with their own networks of operatives.

A more intelligent program would have looked at the way that criminalising drug use is resulting in the loss of billions of dollars and of thousands of lives every year. The post-war experiment that is the developed world’s canonical drug regime – though it’s not followed, thankfully, in all developed countries – has manifestly failed and it is time for fresh ideas for combating drug crime. A good place to start would be to decriminalise personal use of illicit substances, a measure that would enable the government to take over the role of dealer, and result in higher tax receipts and a better-quality product for users by removing the business of production and supply from networks of criminals. Drug use itself needs to be handled as a health issue, not a criminal one, and this is the policy of the Australian Greens, for example.

But the ABC has form in the realm of mindlessly kowtowing to authority with its documentary drama Keeping Australia Safe running since last year that features law enforcement and immigration authorities going about their business. The program website touts the program as “arguably the most ambitious observational documentary series ever undertake in Australia”. But it’s cheap to manufacture and you don’t even need a script writer, just an editing bench.

Elsewhere, Stan Grant has been asking what he calls “the big questions” in Matter of Fact, a daily late-night program that has interviews with global experts on questions that are broadly relevant but it’s a program that eschews the heavy doses of local politics that Lateline gave viewers. Lateline was axed at the end of the year. Where Lateline would bring out Australian politicians to answer questions from an experienced local journalist, Matter of Fact avoids the overtly political and instead focuses on questions that are more difficult to find immediate relevance for in the public sphere, such as the role of the US in international relations, or the rise of China. Grant seems to believe that he has special insights to offer viewers by asking questions of experts along these lines, but I wonder how well-informed he really is.

Also on late at night is a program with Patricia Karvelas, who has had a program on the ABC’s Radio National but also has worked for Sky News and the Australian, two conservative vehicles.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Book review: The Great Seesaw, Geoffrey Blainey (1988)

This is a silly book in retrospect partly because its central claim is so ludicrous. Geoffrey Blainey was already notorious for saying controversial things that fell on the conservative side of public debates when the book came out. In 1984, for example, when Bob Hawke was PM Blainey made some comments at a public event in a town in Victoria about Asian immigration, stirring up the pot in a way that we are now used to hearing from people like Mark Latham and Pauline Hanson. In fact, I saw this morning that Blainey has been invited onto Andrew Bolt’s TV show. I wasn’t surprised.

Blainey is a devotee of a school of historiography that entrusted its followers with the task of finding the larger-term trends underpinning otherwise apparently random changes taking place in the fabric of societies being studied. The technique is called the longue duree. It’s a French term whose meaning should be obvious, and it was first used by writers of the Annales School in the 20th century’s interwar years.

What Blainey tries to do in his book is to apply the things he learned at university to the wider society, position the post-war counterculture of the 60s and 70s relative to larger historical processes, and thereby challenge their exceptionalism. It is a desperate attempt to try and discredit a major cultural shift that he personally resented. He invents the term “the great seesaw” and tracks back to the 18th century to look there for protests against technology in the writings of people living at the time. Blainey also says portentously on the first page of the book that the seesaw he has discerned at work in the West is “powerful” but “rarely noticed”, as though he alone had the learning and intellectual capacity needed to see it at work. Thrilling stuff! His vacuous hubris might sound familiar to those who have heard Donald Trump telling the American people that they were privileged to have the opportunity to vote for him.

Nevertheless, Blainey’s glance back to an earlier time is in itself interesting and if you choose to press ahead past infrequent desultory references to his precious seesaw you can profitably learn something about people living in earlier times. However, just because the book is interesting from time to time doesn’t mean that the thesis that justifies its existence stands up to scrutiny. I suspect Blainey was just upset that cherished notions of technological progress had been so elaborately and roundly condemned by so many intelligent people he knew. When the book was published these debates were still playing themselves out, and public protest anyway never ended, with, for example, the founding of the Australian Greens in 1992.

This book hasn’t aged well, it should be obvious by now. The counterculture went mainstream and so people like Blainey and Latham are rolled out into the public sphere by Murdoch because it suits the octogenarian patriarch’s extreme ideological positions to see their retrogressive views broadcast. Regrettably, he got rich because there are so many people living in the communities his media companies serve that subscribe to such views.

Monday, 5 February 2018

A windy late summer’s day

The other day in the Botanical Gardens there was a temporary display of wildflowers that you could photograph with the multi-storey buildings of the CBD lofting skywards in the background. European honeybees vectored in and out of the tall stands of metre-high zinnias, paper daisies and marigolds, homing in on a blossom here or there in a thoughtful manner like spaceships landing on varicoloured docking pads, the yellow stamens bright in the sunlight. The bees minded their own business as they went about the tasks of collecting nectar to take back to the hive and pollinating the pink, orange and purple blooms that nodded contentedly in the drifting air currents.

Further down the path toward the harbour a group of catamarans were visible anchored in the middle of Farm Cove with their sterns oriented together to form a flower shape in the water. Coloured dinghies sat in the water tethered to the cats, each of which was big enough for many people to travel about the harbour on. The five or six cats moored there rested largely immobile though in the stiff and gusty southeast wind blue flags fluttered from a stay that on each of them helped hold up the mast. The dinghies bobbed about in the ruffled water and from where the boats were you could hear loud music that was amplified from an invisible source on board at least one of them. Presumably there were people on board.

A larger pleasure craft navigated around the border of the bay. The women walking on its landward deck wore skirts that they held down with their hands to stop them being blown up by the breeze and showing their underwear. This catamaran made a wide arc as it progressed in a stately manner from west to east, then headed back out north into the main body of the harbour.

Around the corner the sheer tan-coloured wall of the Opera House podium rose up precipitously from the level of the area’s canonical element – the harbour’s dark green water (darker when a gust of wind disturbed it) – with its concrete and ceramic sails poised tantalisingly in grey and white on top. On the macadam of the park’s path, a young woman wearing white slacks and a brown T-shirt the wind plastered in ridges and folds against her torso was standing with her back pressed against the creamy sandstone parapet. She was blonde and could have been English or American or Scandinavian or German, it was impossible to discern where she was from, and she had a selfie stick extending from her right hand. She oriented her head and her upper body in a variety of different attitudes as she took photos next to the landmark. She complacently tried this angle and then that one.

A group of men wearing mid-blue suits walked purposefully east on the path, the wind blowing their jackets open so that you could see their white shirtfronts and the blue satiny cloth that their jacket linings were made of. A man wearing the same kind of suit walked in company with a woman wearing an orange evening gown that showed a significant quantity of the volumes of her breasts, which moved discernibly as she went by.

Further along, on the building’s forecourt, hundreds of other people mingled and sauntered from one part of the plaza to another. Many were walking in the sun north from the Quay and near the guards’ pill box on the public road there were three police motorcycles parked facing north toward where bollards have been installed to stop traffic from entering the building’s grounds. A guard wearing a uniform and a high-vis vest stood outside the box talking to someone. A policeman standing next to one of the motorbikes tapped the helmet on his head as three young Asian men in front of him mounted yellow rental bikes, making sure to put helmets on before heading off.

In among the heavy throng, three policemen wearing dark blue uniforms were walking slowly north carrying food in their hands. They were talking to one another and eating as they moved through the crowd of people. People bought ice cream and sat at the restaurant tables set on the pavement in the colonnade of the residential building situated next to the harbour. Thousands of them moved slowly along the promenade heading north or south, taking their time as they moved past on a temperate Saturday afternoon in late summer.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Movie review: The Post, Steven Spielberg (2017)

This functional drama had me burping, sighing and hiccupping with contained emotion so that my companion on the day had to ask me at one point if I was alright. I identify as a journalist so the freedom of the press means something both abstract and real to me, and this film embodied an ideal in my mind. I was encouraged by others seated in the penumbra of the Dendy in Newtown who occasionally raised their voices to express approval of the actions of one character, or criticism of another’s.

Here, in a real sense you get two films. One is the story of the so-called Pentagon Papers, the government report on the Vietnam War leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the press in 1971. The New York Times are the first to get the story but then a New York judge puts a stay on publication of more stories based on the leaked report. The next day, a young woman (Sasha Spielberg) wearing a tie-died skirt drops a package on the desk of Jake (Michael Cyril Creighton), a Washington Post reporter, as he is typing away. When he realises what the shoe box contains he takes it to the office of the newspaper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Simultaneously, reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is hunting down the man he thinks is the source of the leak, and he eventually finds leaker Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) working at a think tank, where he is employed having left the Rand Corporation, the contractor he had been working for when he photocopied the report. Bagdikian meets with Ellsberg in a motel in Boston and boxes up the photocopied pages, flying them back to Bradlee’s house in New York, where a team of reporters sets about putting the mass of undigested material together into a usable form.

Once they have put together more of the story that the Times had started, they have to get approval from Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post’s owner, to go ahead and publish. Graham had come to her position when her husband Philip Leslie Graham suicided, and she is in the process of taking the company public when the Pentagon Papers’ ethical snarl lands on her desk. She is a leading light in the Washington establishment and rubs shoulders with the rich and famous, including Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the secretary of defense under the two previous presidents who had commissioned the report and who now is set to be deeply embarrassed as the man who had actively pursued the war despite knowing it was a train wreck. At one point, Graham visits McNamara at his home and reasons with him, trying to understand the logic behind the lies that had led to the continuation of the war even when the government – including administrations from Kennedy’s and Johnson’s and now to Nixon’s – had known it to be hopeless. Lives had been lost needlessly, she tells him. He says that the government had commissioned the study “for posterity” and that he was worried that the media would not treat the arguments it deals in with the same care as the report’s authors had used when making them.

There is more of this kind of mealy-mouthed rhetoric from some of the board members at the Post, especially from Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) and Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), who both counsel Graham to hold off publishing out of “prudence”, especially considering the IPO which is still in its cooling-off period, but Graham has answers for all these men, and goes ahead with the story. Bradlee phones the production floor when he gets the nod from Graham, and the presses roll. The next morning, the attorney general phones Bradlee, tells him the Post is breaking the law by publishing the story, and insists that he stops the series, but Bradlee refuses. The matter is then scheduled to go before the Supreme Court, with the Post represented in front of its justices by lawyer Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons), who we had already seen grilling Bagdikian about the source of the leak in the empty newsroom on the night before the story went to print. The justices rule that publication is legal.

Graham’s courage in this drama also forms the core of the second film we get, which is about the place of women in society. In this film, Graham is again the hero because she is somehow emblematic in it of a change in the status of women that had started as part of the post-war counterculture. The woman with the shoe box and the tie-died skirt is a tangible index of this shift.

In the film, we are confronted by some strange customs. At a dinner at Graham’s posh house one night, the men and women are sitting around the table talking and laughing companionably, but once the desert has been eaten and as soon as one man brings up a notionally “hard” subject– in this case foreign policy – one of the women takes it as a cue and suggests that the girls depart. They leave the men to their business and file off into a nearby sitting room to discuss things more appropriate to their station in life, such as fashion and children.

Graham is often shown with children in the film, and this affinity with the young seems to inform her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers because it is always them who fight a country’s wars. In one memorable scene, Graham is waiting in line to get entry to the Supreme Court chamber but a young woman named Nancy (Coral Peña) carrying a box through the lobby recognises her and tells her that there is another entrance for concerned parties. Nancy, it turns out, works for the government, but her brother is still in Vietnam and she says she hopes the Post wins.

There is also a great scene when one of the Post’s reporters, Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) takes a call from the Supreme Court and announces its decision to the newsroom. She relays the words of one of the justices about the role of the press to serve the governed, not the government, and I totally lost it, tearing up and gurgling noisily in the dark like a potted loon. On the screen in a close-up, Greenfield’s eyes glistened with feeling. Greenfield serves to represent a small cadre of female reporters of the time in the movie and in fact it starts off with Bradlee noisily chewing out the White House to a colleague for stopping Greenfield from covering Nixon’s daughter’s wedding.

I also want to make a comment about the economy that Spielberg and his writers employ when developing character in the film. When I said earlier that it is “functional” I wanted to praise it because of the way that nuance adds richness and meaning to the work, especially through the roles of secondary players like Beebe. While he was broadly against publishing stories based on the leak out of a concern that the bankers underwriting the IPO might withdraw the funding if the paper’s viability was endangered by potential legal action by the government stemming from their publication, Beebe is also shown supporting Graham in a world where women were generally relegated to minor roles. In the meeting with the bankers at the beginning of the film, Beebe uses Graham’s own words to underscore the newspaper’s aims when for the benefit of the men in the room he ties profitability to relevance. She had gone through the words she intended to say to them with Beebe in her luxurious office – located on the same floor as the newsroom but off a special corridor – on the day the meeting took place but confronted by all the dark suits around the heavy wooden table she had simply lost her nerve.

Just as a postscript, I thought it was richly ironic that the studio which produced the film, 20th Century Fox, is affiliated with the retrogressive Fox News that in the US screens such biased conservative nonsense, and with the Murdoch press there which does much the same thing. The Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, and is routinely one of the outlets that the current Republican demagogue in the White House labels “fake news”. It’s degrading for all journalists to witness Fox stealing the thunder of a much more deserving organisation than its own affiliates.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Book review: Australia Day, Melanie Cheng (2017)

This is the most accomplished collection of Australian short stories I have read since putting down Cate Kennedy’s ‘Dark Roots’ in 2006. It’s a completely ravishing assemblage of work of a generally high quality that decisively announces on the literary scene in this country the arrival of a special talent. Cheng is a woman possessed of an uncanny ear for dialogue and a brilliant sense of timing, and most of the stories in this book have a visceral impact that is of a kind that only short stories or poems can wield.

The book is structured with the eponymous story, ‘Australia Day’ – about a young ethnically-Chinese man going to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Jess, who is Anglo – bookended against the final story, ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’ – about an elderly Chinese immigrant, Mrs Chan, who had dined the previous night with her second-generation Australian daughters Lily, Daisy and Rosie (and grandson, Martin, the third generation), but who today grumpily decides to punish them by dropping off the map, because they suggested that she move into a nursing home.

We have in these two stories twinned sides of the Chinese experience in Australia, which is viewed here from the vantage points of two distinct generations. The mimetic power of the voice in the story about Mrs Chan helps the author tell one story, while the tale of Stanley Chu tells its own story of casual racism. When Mrs. Chan sees a magazine cover at the checkout in the supermarket with the face of Pauline Hanson on it she is suitably dismissive, and Stanley coldly assesses the respective virtues of his girlfriend and her ex, Eddie Mitchell.

Cheng turns her limpid eye to other problems in this country, as well, but not without a deep and abiding sense of compassion. In ‘Macca’, Dr Emily Garret works at a community health centre where she comes across a patient with the same name as in the story’s title. He’s a middle-aged bloke whose face shows signs of sustained heavy living and whose arms are marbled by tattoos. He has a daughter but he doesn’t live with his family anymore and he’s sleeping on the floor at his brother’s place. The authorities have told him that they’ll put him in jail unless he stops drinking, which is why he’s at the clinic. Emily prescribes Valium to help with the withdrawal symptoms that she knows will come and she organises for a social worker to visit Macca.

One day, he’s not at home when the social worker comes round and she calls Emily to tell her. Emily knows that if Macca absconds, the police will be able to pick him up, so she calls him and gets through. The conversation on his side is typical: brief sentences, just words really, laconic, but optimistic. The story doesn’t merely provide insight into a recognisable Australian “type” – the dissolute underclass male – but also probes issues at the margins lying between the professional and the private as Emily struggles with her own feelings about Macca.

Issues of race are examined again in ‘Toy Town’, another short short story in the volume. In it, young mother Maha starts up a conversation with Nicole, an Anglo woman whose daughter Charlotte is about the same age as Amani, Maha’s daughter. While Charlotte and Amani play in the play centre, Nicole and Maha talk. When Charlotte comes up to her mother for a snack, Nicole gives her a felafel she has made at home. When Amani comes up for a snack Maha gives her chocolate biscuits and a Vegemite sandwich. It turns out that Ncole’s father had worked in Saudi Arabia when she was a girl, so she knows the Middle East. For the children, issues of ethnicity are much less interesting than the slippery slide.

Matters of identity and shared signification help the plot along in many of the stories, most of which are short and punchy. You feel the emotion welling up as the feelings inspired by Cheng’s stories take hold of your imagination and engage with your empathy.

In the longer stories, however, there are different dynamics at play and one of them, ‘Fracture’, which is sandwiched between shorter stories, doesn’t really resolve well at the end. It is about a second-generation Italian-Australian, Tony Ferrari, and the doctor, Deepak (he isn’t given a surname, tellingly), a second-generation Indian-Australian, who treats him at hospital for a broken leg. The leg doesn’t heal properly, and Tony continues to be in a lot of discomfort long after the bone has set. He has also been let go from his job as operations director at a manufacturing plant, and he is aged 60. Despondent and angry, he decides to get revenge on Deepak and starts putting up posters in the hospital that are designed to shame the junior consultant, who is told by the hospital to write Tony a letter of apology. He does so but the posters don’t stop appearing.

Simone, Deepak’s girlfriend, is also his boss at the hospital, and she’s a successful surgeon in a highly-competitive, male-dominated profession. Like Deepak, she is not given a surname in the story and like him she comes across as distant and uncaring. Deepak drives a Porsche and lives in an expensive apartment in St Kilda, and Simone doesn’t seem to empathise with her lover’s serious conundrum when the chips are down. But the finale is unsatisfying, relying as it does on a disconcertingly fresh plot device – Luca, Tony’s grandson – one that hadn’t really been examined in any detail earlier in the story. The story ends on an ellipsis with a fizzle and a desultory pop, unlike in most cases that Cheng offers us, which snap shut like a dropped manhole cover.

The other longer story in the book is ‘Muse’, the second-last story here. In it, Evan Bailey, a widower aged in his late 60s or early 70s, is confronted by his daughter Bea’s girlfriend Edwina. Evan had married the daughter of a prominent Melbourne surgeon, Lola Duvall, and had unfortunately lived up to his father-in-law’s estimation of him, so he is sympathetic to Edwina’s conundrum. Like Edwina, who paints, Evan used to paint and Edwina invites him when the two women visit his house for a meal to come to a life drawing class in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. He goes along and enjoys himself but after a few visits Danielle, the model, is replaced by someone else and he finds he can’t get his line right without her. He follows her home and approaches her brazenly in a video rental store one night, asking if she’s model for him for a fee and she agrees.

When she turns up to begin the session at his spacious house, Evan enters the zone and you get an uneasy feeling as his hubris militates against the sense of justice that Cheng has evidenced in other stories in the collection. When things go pear-shaped, you’re not surprised. The feeling you get at the end of this story is more nuanced and less decisive than you are used to. It reminded me of the rather floury resolution that terminates Cate Kennedy’s 2009 novel, ‘The World Beneath’, which was also a work that, in my mind, lacked the percussive force of the writer's short stories.

With Cheng, it’s as though the longer stories are marred by the remoteness of the resolution from the initial inspiration that began proceedings, like doing a drawing with a piece of chalk attached to the end of a long stick. The chalk comes into contact with the blackboard but the outlines you get are less distinct and fresh than what you get in the shorter stories in the collection.

The book has won a string of prizes, including the 2018 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction, and the accolades she has received are richly deserved. I wonder if she’ll look in future to write a novel, and I wonder how it would turn out if she did. I suspect that her natural length is the impressionistic short short story, whipped up in a brief spate of rapid brushstrokes, as I have outlined here. Would the poetics of the novel suit her unique talent?

Friday, 2 February 2018

Getting some packaged food

This is the third in a series of blogposts that I started last month. They aim to capture a moment in time and I call them meditations.

The other day I went down to the supermarket to stock up my freezer with the frozen dinners I rely on in the evenings for sustenance. I had a scare last year when my blood sugar levels went up to an alarming point. My general practitioner organised for me to talk with a dietitian on a scheme funded by the government. Under this scheme I got five free visits with a dietitian, who turned out to be a middle aged woman who liked dresses that showed her legs. We would sit in a room in the same clinic where my GP sees his patients and talk about what I ate, and based on these discussions we made a meal plan that would do a number of things.

First, it had to have as its main aim the reduction of blood sugar levels, so I had to reduce the amount of carbohydrates that I eat. Second, it had to contain enough vitamins and minerals to make for a balanced diet, so I promised to eat more salads and vegetables. Thirdly, it had to have some elements that were easy to find, so it was ok to get a sandwich or a few plates of sushi for lunch. Fourth, there had to be some things in the diet that I enjoyed eating, so it was decided that once a month I would eat the blue cheese that I particularly enjoy.

Part of my plan was eating the kind of prepared meals that you buy in the freezer section of the supermarket, so every week or so I go down there and buy five or six of these meals and bring them home, where they go straight into the freezer. When I need to eat I take a meal out of the freezer and read the cooking instructions on the carboard box before programming the microwave and setting it to run with the packaged meal inside. Used containers are rinsed the next morning and with the boxes go into the recycling bin that sits on my washing machine.

The supermarket is located in a small arcade that has been built into an office building that sits on a street that takes workers from the CBD to the suburbs immediately to its west. The building is constructed on a slope and the levels where you can enter the arcade are different at different points. At one point, there is a long staircase leading from the street level down into the arcade and at the opposite end there is a short set of steps and a gentle slope that gets you to the arcade’s floor. The supermarket is located at this end of the arcade.

The arcade has a number of shops in it, including a restaurant, a café, a travel agent, and a bottle shop. The supermarket is the main draw, however, and lots of people flow through the arcade after the normal workday is over because many people walk to and from work. The suburb the supermarket is in is also one of the country’s most densely-populated, with most residents living in apartments in its many high-rise buildings.

Charities often set up tables in the arcade hoping to get people to buy raffle tickets to support their causes or to get people to subscribe to a plan where they donate a set amount of money each month through their credit cards. The other day when I was there a local gym named Movement Republic had set up a table in the arcade in an effort to get people to sign up for a training plan or a season pass, I wasn’t sure.

The company had also stencilled its name on the pavement of a development just up the street from me where the light rail station has its access staircase and its lifts. I had taken a photo of the stencil thinking erroneously that it had been put there to recruit participants for a meeting about the Republican movement in Australia.

On the day I went shopping, as I was leaving the supermarket with my backpack full of frozen meals and blue cheese and crackers, I passed by the automatic teller machine near the arcade’s entry where a number of people had queued up to use it. I also saw two workmen leaning back against the handrail installed on the slope to help people who might have mobility issues. One of the men wore a red-and-black checked flannel shirt and he had his arms crossed over his large stomach. The man to his right, nearer to me, wore a high-vis vest and he also had his arms crossed. He was as heavy as his companion. The two men had heavy boots on their feet.

In front of them, talking with the two men, a slim older man wearing a grey suit and a tie was standing. He carried a briefcase in his left hand. In contrast to that of his two interlocutors, who both slouched with their lower backs resting against the metal rail, his posture was absolutely erect. In fact he seemed to be leaning forward slightly from the waist and his jaw appeared to jut out purposefully. The three men turned their heads to look straight at me as I walked past and stopped talking among themselves. It was just a momentary interruption of an engrossing conversation.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Book review: Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills (2018)

For most of its length, this book is a real page-turner, enveloping the reader in a fabulous world of failed industrial schemes and environmental carnage in the near-future. It reminded me in a very immediate way of another piece of worthwhile Australian cli-fi, Kate Legge’s 2006 ‘The Unexpected Elements of Love’, which I reviewed on this blog in September of that year. For most of its length I found it very hard to put this book down. It was compelling.

Samantha Warren is growing up in Clapstone, a regional town on the drolly-named Luck River in South Australia. It’s a hard-scrabble township with one industry, an asphalt plant operated by a company called Aspco, but when six men suicide by jumping to their deaths from a high point on the plant’s silos, the business shutters and the town is left to cope on its own. Sam had predicted the suicides, and the town’s residents attack her and Ivy, her mother, violently, even throwing bottles at their house at night. But when Sam then predicts a flood all of the townsfolk profit by taking out flood insurance and her stars suddenly align once again.

The disturbing way notable people are given accolades on social media then immediately afterward, it seems, excoriated for some perceived failing, is reflected in the cavalier manner in which the townspeople treat Sam and Ivy. You can’t win, in the public sphere, it seems, if you have a high profile. You are either the flavour of the month or else a charlatan, nothing in-between. Nothing human.

But this is not the only thing the novel serves to highlight in our contemporary world. The book is also critical of slick business types and the government. (Mills works for left-wing journal ‘Overland’.)  Into the mix enters Ed, a smooth man of balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements who is Ivy’s lover, and who hoodwinks the town into backing another scheme whose viability is predicated on insights Sam provides with her oracular visions of the future.

Ed inhabits a world of management-speak where the advantage is all in favour of the owners of capital, and the government – in the form here of the optimistically-named Department of Sustainable Communities – calls the shots but offsets risk and defrays expenses by delegating responsibility for specifics to the private enterprises who actually run things.

When the town’s seashore suddenly recedes into the distance one day when Sam is a girl of about 11, the residents are told that the town has been bought by Belemnite Enterprises, based in Uruguay. Efforts by some of them to phone the company are rendered ineffectual by the fact that the company uses a local call centre that has no discretion to do anything to address their concerns in a material way. When the town is bought by Sepia Holdings – to maintain the connection with squid and cuttlefish that snakes through the book (‘Ossi di seppia’, or ‘Cuttlefish Bones’ is a collection of poetry by Italian Nobel-laureate Eugenio Montale that was published in 1925) – there are apparently changes afoot but nothing seems to happen other than everyone receiving a form letter from the new owners.

The townspeople continue to have money to spend in the local store, but when they travel to Hummock, a bigger town nearby, they find that their debit cards don’t work at the cash registers in its supermarket. On their way out of Clapstone on this jaunt they are bureaucratically asked where they are heading by an innocuous-looking security guard with a ute and a high-vis vest who has been put there by the company to look after its investment.

The eerie shape-shifting of responsibility in the public domain that such scenes evoke with dramatic force is given a particularly ludicrous form when it turns out that Ed’s son, Ned, is actually Greg Morton, an employee of Aquifer and Ink, a sort of seismology-cum-law firm contracted to get the townspeople to move to a settlement up north where workers are needed to help launch a new community. It is hard to know where the lies end and the truth begins, and the novel shows how language is manipulated by the powerful in order to gain the advantage they need to get their plans into reality through a process of public scrutiny. “Moving forward” never sounded so threatening as it does in this novel, especially ironic in a story where the nature of the future itself is so central to the dramatic arc.

In Clapstone, the community touchingly centres around a few points of shared experience, such as the supermarket Foodtown where Ivy works, the Commercial Hotel (the local pub), and the Institute, a sort of civil-society meeting place where people converge to discuss urgent business. In this dun-coloured setting, Sam is isolated like a Quixotic adventurer within an unpredictable matrix produced by her own troublesome psyche. The migraines she experiences whenever she has a glimpse of the future do not however protect her from the secondary effects of the aspirations of people in the town. Threats lie everywhere.

It is particularly significant that Mills chooses a young girl to be her heroine in this dystopic novel where important things always seem to be decided by people or institutions that lie beyond the perimeter of the private sphere. And even this refuge is besieged because of Ed’s presence in the household, where because of Sam’s age – a big slice of the book takes place when she is aged about 14 and is still going to school – he always seems to be an implied threat simply by dint of being a sexually-viable male.

Sam therefore operates as a locus for the desires of many people for much of the time, up until the point where the narrative fails near the end. The final confrontation between Ivy and Sam, when the latter is aged about 17, is unconvincing and melodramatic. You wonder how the story went off the rails so disastrously when things had seemed to be going so well.

The novel looks inward to itself at a point about two-thirds of the way through, when this appears:
The blood was going to her head. Sam sat up quickly, and her vision clouded black. Just hunger, thirst. Making her see what she was afraid of, that was all. It was hard to sort the world into categories, certain and uncertain, real and unreal.
For a lot of the time reading this novel, it is uncertain what is what and who is who. Hunger and thirst for the individual might translate into analogous needs for the broader community, like sustenance and security and certainty. Certainty is one word the author explores for a time by trying out its shape and substance in different contexts. Things shift in form and meaning unpredictably, in the way that children probably better understand than adults, who are supposed to be in control of their destinies.

At its best, the novel is guided by this sort of poetics of the liminal, where it is the very potentialities of language and character and plot, rather than necessarily their concrete instances, that hit a sweet spot within the reader’s mind. There is so much that is implied rather than stated in this novel in vivid descriptions of ordinary things.

It shows us how we are often subject to powers outside our control, sometimes to dangerous effect. Such passages are not only memorable but gripping. The effort needed to sustain the ruse seems to have failed Mills at some point, unfortunately, and it seems to be at about the same point that Ed exits the story. If I’m even partially right, then this work becomes a Gothic novel of pursuit where existential menaces are embodied by a dominant and depraved male character.

It should be noted that Gothic novels were in the distant past often written by women, notably Mary Shelley (whose ‘Frankenstein’ appeared 200 years ago this year) and Ann Radcliffe, a contemporary of Jane Austen who achieved notoriety in her lifetime.

Montale is also an interesting point of reference for Mills to deploy because his book was a kind of manifesto that marked a turning away for Italian poets from rarefied classical themes to more common ones that ordinary people could relate to. To illustrate this, his “The lemon trees” is a masterpiece of its time, although when you read it today its images knit suggestively with others that Mills throws up in her book, especially those that deal with birds and silence. In Mills’ novel Sam’s budgies Winter and Spring escape their cage one day and fly away. The townspeople, like the wider society in which they exist, are stuck, it appears, with an endless summer.