Why belief?

A couple of months ago I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and really enjoyed. I’d bought the book and tried to read it about 30 years ago but then set it aside, deterred by the dense prose and the many digressions. I had no problem with that this time, and found many of the digressions exploring religious sects and controversies of the time utterly fascinating. It led me to believe that these are things I should know more of – like so many things I should know more of.

By chance, it appears that much of my recent reading has a religious aspect. I made mention a few weeks back of a novel I was reading of 1950’s Ireland that touched upon the religious divide. I’m reading a book now that is similar, set in Ireland during the troubles post WW1. (And another set during the English reformation).

This is fascinating to me from many angles.

To start with, to read of these things from within an Australian society that is modern and secular to the point of being irreligious, is a foreign experience. Religion has played no part in my life. I’ve never been to a church service that wasn’t a funeral, a wedding or a christening. I have an intellectual and historical interest in it, but feel nothing holy.

It’s never really played a part in our public life, either. There have been powerful religious voices, and our most recent PM tried to bring Christianity into the conversation, but it’s never taken here as it has in other place’s. I think that comes down to the nature of Australians – we don’t like to be lorded over or told what to do. And, somehow, we lack that holy need – the thing that draws man to god. We’re practical and independent and believe in the things we can do. It’s both a positive and a limitation.

Whether it’s by nature or nurture, I take a cynical view of the religious infrastructure and am wary of its power. Throughout history there’s been a long tradition of corruption in the church. Popes have feathered their own nest and sponsored violence, while cardinals and the like have acquired wealth and influence in the service of their own ambition. Then there’s the terrible and cynical abuse that priests have perpetrated upon their vulnerable brethren.

It’s a broad brush, I know, and there have been many devout and sincere holy men doing their best to uphold the true meaning of their belief. Often times, through history, they’re the ones who have been persecuted by the church. I’ve spoken to church leaders and found their faith endearing, even if I couldn’t share it.

I’ve wondered if that made me cynical, or if it came down to individual belief. I’m a democrat to my core, and by that I believe in equality and frown upon privilege. We each are deserving of an equal chance, but I believe in individual responsibility. I don’t need or want anyone telling me how to conduct myself, and I won’t believe in something I can’t.

My view is that you don’t have to be a churchman to be a decent human being, and wearing a cassock or a collar to do right by your fellow man. You don’t need a book or teachings or belief in a higher being to be a good man, it should be innate. By my observation, some churchgoers are the least charitable.

Ultimately, I just can’t believe it. I don’t doubt the historical basis for any religion, just the meaning given to it. We crave a higher meaning to give purpose and shape to our lives, and so we invent – or conflate – something we can humble ourselves before.

I’ve never felt any such need. I would be pleasantly surprised to find there is a God – I’m not against the idea. Given what I’ve gone through lately, I’d vote for a heaven also. I don’t judge anyone for their belief, though I do their actions. What you choose to believe in is your business.

But now I’ve digressed. If it wasn’t already clear, I’m an atheist who’d happily be an agnostic. I don’t believe in the church and am sceptical of organised religion generally. I was christened a Protestant, though by blood on my father’s side, I’m Catholic – Irish Catholic.

This I find interesting reading some of these books. If my family had never left Ireland all those generations ago I’d have been a Catholic and doubtless drawn into the troubles. Though I care less about the religious divide, as a democrat I feel sure I’d have become involved on the republican side. I don’t care where it is, I’m almost always going to take the side of the oppressed – and fighting for home rule seems the most worthy of causes.

It’s a curious thought, and an easy view to take sitting comfortably in secular, sophisticated Melbourne when nothing is on the line. I accept that. It’s easy to rage. To do is a different thing, and nothing more than a hypothetical in this environment.

If it counts for anything, we debated Australia becoming a republic at the dinner party last week. The boys were for it, the girls ambivalent or against it. I was predictably fierce. It will come.

Before I sleep

I’m lying here in bed feeling quite sleepy, but fighting it. It feels too early to switch the light off – it’s not gone 10.30 yet.

For the last half hour I’ve been reading, as is my custom, though usually I read for over an hour before sleeping. I’ve set the book aside because I feel too tired to do the book justice. And so, I write instead. Somehow it’s easier to write than it is to read.

When I think about it, it’s not overly surprising. Often as I read I find words forming in my head and coalescing into the thoughts in the shape of complete and speculative sentences. It happens often through my day, probably because I think so much, and am so used to putting my words onto (virtual) paper.

What I was thinking about tonight was the book I had started reading and the memories it brought back to me. The book is Agathe, by Robert Musil. I was unaware it was actually an excerpt from his great series of novels, The Man Without Qualities but, on reflection, I was fine with it. But that’s when the memories began.

I’ve read The Man Without Qualities and lived it. It feels one of those books that was significant to me when I read it. I connected to it, if you like, but I was then at an age and stage of my life that such writing felt important to me.

This must be 25 years ago. I can picture the books – they’re in my bookcase – thick and with a spine of rich gold. There had been books in the previous ten years that had influenced my being. I went through the whole existentialist stage, reading Sartre and Camus, before moving onto other literature.

TMWQ is set in prewar Vienna – right on the unknowing cusp of it, which is a part of its power – in what is known as the fine De Siecle period. It’s one of my favourite eras and if I had a time machine, I would go back and visit. The old empire was tarnished with age but still held an appeal; life was rich and indulgent, Vienna beautiful, and just out of sight was the war that would destroy it forever. It’s the last moments of glorious, glittering innocence and the last remnants of an age that would never come again.

I read Zweig as well as Musil, and Schnitzler too, my favourite.

As I read, I remembered that, remembered how vital I was – how important it was to me – and wondered if I would feel the same this time around.

Last week I bought a bookcase to house the last boxes of books. There are now four bookcases crammed full of the reading of a lifetime. I look at the books arrayed there and remember the stories – not just within their covers, but where and when I bought the book and what led me to it. And the experience of reading it. I’m so glad that all my books are on display now.

After putting the bookcase together, I spent joyful hours filling the shelves with a logic all my own. This is one of the pleasures of owning the physical book.

I imagine one day someone walking into my study and clapping their hands together at the sight of so much great literature. I’d look on with a paternalistic satisfaction and imagine sitting down to speak of this book or that over a cuppa or a glass of red. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter – though very likely I’d fall in love if it were a woman.

It’s never happened. There’s no one I know I can discuss Musil with, or de Montherlant, or even Camus. I doubt they would even know who Musil is – de Montherlant, no chance. It’s disappointing.

It’s lucky my memories and my mind in general is so rich. There’s pleasure in that, at least.

It’s time to sleep now. Perhaps I’ll let my mind wander, pondering the abundance of all that’s possible in dreams.

People and place

I’ve done an awful lot of reading over the last year. Getting sick freed up time and changed my habits. For a while, after coming home from surgery last year, I didn’t have the concentration to read for long periods. Still, outside of my daily sessions for chemo and radiotherapy, there wasn’t much I could occupy myself with. I wasn’t working, I wasn’t writing, and I was sceptical of watching daytime TV. I’d keep myself busy with small things, often just browsing social media and the internet on my iPad. I’d break it up, though, with reading.

At the same time, my daily routine changed. I’ve always read before going to sleep, but in the old days, that might be a half-hour after going to bed at 11pm. Suddenly, I was going to bed by 9.30 because I didn’t really have the energy to stay up much later than that, and I’d read for an hour – or more – before switching off the light.

Before, I would go to the library for my books and otherwise judiciously order a book or so online for delivery every month. I barely left the house when I was sick, so the library became impossible. I still bought the odd book, but with less money coming in, I did that less and less. I’d never really taken to it before, but suddenly Kindle became my main way of reading. I’d still rather read an actual book, but it was cheap and convenient to check for specials and purchase for a few dollars.

Reading by Kindle opened up many different reading options than before. Besides the mainstream stuff, here was the stuff aspiring writers would self-publish to the world wide web. Not surprisingly, the quality was pretty haphazard. Since the start of the year, I’ve read about 70 books, probably 50 of them on Kindle. About half of them would get my tick of approval.

Recently, I’ve read two books described as viral bestsellers, and in between, one of Agatha Christie’s books.

In a way, I could understand the popularity of the contemporary books. Both had an interesting premise, which is why I read them. In both cases, I was disappointed.

I love literature, and I’ve read a lot. I like to be entertained, and sometimes I’m happy to immerse myself in some escapist fiction. Ideally, I want to be moved also, and perhaps even informed. I don’t expect that so much, but having been brought up on great literature, it’s always a pleasant surprise when I am. What I do expect is a standard of story-telling that draws me in and is credible not just as a plot but in the characterisation. Ideally, I want to feel as if I’m in the same room and feel as if I know the characters. That, to me, is good writing.

The two contemporary books were racy but lightly sketched in comparison to that. They feel very much a product of the social media age, so I wondered if the kind of writing I enjoy is now old-fashioned? Does it – indeed, can it – resonate with a younger generation as it did with me? Am I out of step and my expectations unreasonable? Have I been spoilt – and others, ‘unspoilt’, more capable of enjoying this because they know no better? Or is it just a matter of disposable nonsense?

So many questions!

I’m not expecting high literature, though certainly, in the case of one of these books – which aspired to be more, I think – the opportunity was missed to transcend the storyline. It was a much-lauded book compared by one to Annihilation, which is indeed an excellent and much superior book (by a proper writer). Look, it wasn’t terrible, just a bit tedious, unconvincing, and filled with unlikeable characters.

What is lost is depth. There’s very little sense of place or much consideration to it, it seems. The setting was conceptually vivid in both cases, but nothing more was made of it. It’s like writing a book set on Krakatoa and letting that be the sole reference point, without any description of the burbling volcano or the jungle or the sea surrounding it. We got signposts, not descriptions, interior or exterior.

Then there is characterisation, upon which so much good writing and great novels rest. But, again, we’re given outlines without detail or insight.

I read both to the end out of curiosity, but there wasn’t any tension. To my way of reading, they both lacked weight and heft because nothing was described sufficiently for you to care about. As a result, nothing got under the skin.

I’ve mentioned Agatha Christie for context. I’ve never been a great fan of her work. I read a few in my teenage years, but probably no more than two or three since then. Her appeal now is a quaint nostalgia, helped along by the iconic characters she created. I’ve always found her formulaic but inoffensive.

I don’t know what it was, but I enjoyed reading the old Christie novel (The 4.50 From Paddington) more than I did these other two books. Perhaps it was familiarity with her work and characters. Though much in the time she describes is foreign to us now – servants and whatnot – its novelty has been diminished by the years past. Ultimately, there’s more warmth and vitality in something written as if from memory than something designed to shock and constructed out of old tropes.

But then, I’m certainly becoming a curmudgeon as I grow old. I reckon I have similar views on music and movies.

There is still a lot of decent writing out there; you just have to seek it out. I’d encourage anyone who seeks to write, but let’s not overpraise nor condemn. That’s true of anything, anytime. I get that blurbs and a lot of critical comment today is meant to catch the eye, and not all of it is sincere. Judge with discretion. Nothing gets better without saying it as it is.


I finished watching Severance last week and it goes straight to the pool room. By that, I mean I reckon it’s in the top five TV shows I’ve ever watched.

I think it’s genius. Subversive, dystopian (though perhaps not for everyone), intelligent, and laced with brilliant, absurdist wit.

The basic premise, for those who haven’t seen it (you should), is that in some undefined time a procedure has been developed to allow people to separate their work life from their home life. The worker becomes an ‘innie’; the home self the ‘outie’, and neither knows what goes on in the other’s life. They work for huge organisation called Lumon, which is strange and cult-like.

Why anyone would agree to such a procedure is beyond my reckoning, despite the examples provided, such as avoiding a tragedy. Effectively, each person who submits to this has a double-life – or, rather, two half-lives – one that never (literally) sees the light of day, the other which has no understanding of the toil and interactions that make their existence possible. For me, it’s a nightmarish concept – and it becomes so in the show.

Though there is so much strange in this show, much of it feels familiar to anyone who has spent time in an office. It’s taken to a colourful extreme, but the work of the refiners in MacroData Refinement seems pointless and mind-numbing, but no more so than what many are subjected to in their working life. We turn up to the job, do our little bit, often oblivious of the point or value of what we contribute.

Likewise, the spurious celebrations and confected excitement are familiar. In the office, they are intended to engender team spirit and loyalty, much as in the show. In Severance, they’re an amusing highlight, somewhat ridiculous – the devilled egg parties, the dance parties, the Waffle reward – but they are an extreme and absurdist version of what most of us have experienced at one time or another. There is, literally, a handbook for these things, and artificial enthusiasm is all a part of it.

Looking in from the outside it seems ridiculous, but it’s much more easily accepted when you’re the recipient. I could go on, but you get the point.

So much of this show was absurdist that I couldn’t help but think of Kafka as I watched. As with him, the absurd is made to appear commonplace. Strange things happen but are accepted because no-one knows any better. The pointless work, the odd rituals, the nonsense spouted and recited, are all of a piece. Even the vaguely retro aesthetic plays into it. But, as with Kafka, there is satirical wit and, at the heart of it, a deep understanding of humanity.

Ultimately, that’s what this story is about – the gradual, dawning realisation that they have been played wrong and exploited. It awakes a need for enlightenment, which is very human, and finally a haphazard desire to become whole again, towards true humanity.

It’s a parable that encompasses so many aspects of modern life that there will be thesis and books written about it, I’m sure. I can hardly believe it could be better executed than this production. The concept is fantastic, the writing great, the acting perfect, the production design wonderful, and the direction – by Ben Stiller – is pitch-perfect.

Like much of the world, I await with great excitement for series two to reveal the truths we yearn to know.

I remember William Hurt

Another death. They’re coming thick and fast these days. This time it’s William Hurt.

This one struck home more than a lot. He was one of my favourite actors, though don’t know why exactly. That he was a great actor is indisputable. Some actors always play themselves – Hurt inhabited a different character every time. He was one of the most versatile and talented actors of his time.

His time coincided with the era I began to appreciate movies as an artform, and not just entertainment. His hot streak was in the eighties, when I first started taking big chunks out of the world assteenager and young man.

I liked the way he looked too, though that was probably helped by someone once telling me we shared a resemblance. Outside of ticking a few physical traits we had in common, that wasn’t really true, but I was happy to believe it at the time.

Back then, fine actor he was, he was also a bit dippy off-screen – thoroughly caught up in the mysticism of the acting profession. It seems remarkable that none of that made it to the screen, but that’s how good he was.

His star began to wane in the nineties, when he became less of the leading man and heartthrob and more the character actor he believed himself to be. He became a strong figure on screen, tall, substantial, occasionally magnetic.

Now he’s dead and I feel a bit older. I was there when he was the hottest actor in town, and now he’s gone too.

Getting back to it

When I was packing for my trip to Sydney I threw the in a book of Clive James essays: Cultural Cohesion. Yesterday, now in Blackheath, I bought his final book of poetry in a local bookstore: Injury Time.

I’m a great admirer of James, but in this case, reading two of his books at the same time is largely coincidental – though it becomes meaningful.

We’re in an Airbnb in Blackheath and last night, after returning from dinner, I sat on the couch and began to read his book of poems.

I don’t know of any writers more clever or learned or versatile than Clive James. His poetry tends to sit a bit lower on the totem pole, but I’ve always found it engaging and affecting. I like poetry without being an aficionado, but I believe that James is one of our greatest poets ever.

The name of this collection alludes to the state of life he found himself in as he wrote it. Having been diagnosed with cancer some years before, he found himself living beyond the decreed span of year’s forecast to him. He suffered the effects and lived through the uncertainty of disease that could – and certainly wood – tighten it’s grip at any time. His time is up, pretty much, but he finds himself on the pitch still pending the final whistle: injury time.

As always, I was drawn in by the easy command of language and the evocative imagery. He’s an intellectual, but while there are splashes of the high falutin’, what sheets these poems homes often are the colloquial references that hit the right spot.

Nearly all these poems touch upon looming death. There’s memory and reminiscence in there, as well as a stock-taking. It would be poignant at any time, but I felt it much more so myself given my own situation. I may well follow the same path and I didn’t want to know it – but I read on, understanding it, feeling it also. And, of course, it finally caught up to him.

There’s so much I could excerpt from what I read – so much that is telling and true, so much that evokes an easy, democratic image that sticks with you long after. How’s this:

The Reaper sobers you. You will be stirred
By just how serious you tend to get
When he draws near and has his quiet word.
His murmur is the closest you’ve heard yet
To someone heavy calling in a debt.
No gun, no flick-knife: none of that gangster thing.
Just you, him, and the fear that you might die…

Like a heavy calling in a debt…brilliant. There’s a lot of brilliance in these poems, and a lot that leaves you pondering.

I went to bed, where I read from his essays for half and hour. Lights out, my head was abuzz with thought. I’ve missed this, I thought. Even just browsing the bookshop for 40 minutes earlier in the day felt like a return to something neglected lately, but once so familiar and vital. Here were words about me and knowledge, eons of experience and the projection of lives lived and lessons learned and perspectives formed – not to mention the sheer creativity and imagination on display.

I once lived within that. My mind was something I nurtured. I delighted in learning. I felt I was on a journey, and part of a grand tradition which, for ten years past perhaps, I have strayed from. But this is me, I thought in the dark. I have to get back to this.

In the morning, I picked up the book again and read some more. I’m fascinated and curious by what I read or learn, but the sum total of what I discover about how Auden’s homosexuality informed his poetry or Robert Lowell’s technical development as a poet doesn’t make me a better man one day to the next. What is vital is the train of thought and conjecture it kicks off in me. I’m in the maelstrom suddenly. I’m reminded of the possibilities of art and the endless speculations it leads to. It feels important because it echoes life and our attempt to harness it. And I am part of that again, my mind darting off in different directions, vibrant and resonant – connected once more.

This is what I remember. It’s what had forgotten. To gain knowledge is fine, but it’s a quest without end. More important is to untether the mind and find yourself searching without constraint. To feel that utter richness of infinite possibility, and wonder. It’s the rediscovery of wonder that counts. It’s what all creativity springs from. It’s what I have to get back to.

Papa the paradox

It’s a pretty dull life I have at the moment. The only time I’ve ventured out the front door since leaving the hospital is to return to it. I don’t have the energy to do anything more than the basics, so what I’m left with is a routine of reading and watching TV, listening to music or audiobooks, browsing the net, or writing here. There’s sleep, of course, and I look forward to the odd soak in a hot bath to bring solace to an aching body (I’d love a massage).

I’m very careful to manage my day, not doing too much of any one of those activities, lest I spoil it. I retain the ethic drummed into me when I was a kid by my parents about watching TV during the day – don’t, otherwise you’re a slob – but needs must in the circumstances.

When I returned home from the hospital, one of the things I did was to sit myself on the couch and watch a documentary series on Hemingway I’d recorded while I was gone.

I’m one of many millions who was inspired and influenced by Hemingway since I first picked up one of his books as a teenager. I was transfixed by the sharp, direct prose, which yet felt poetic. The stories – which I was drawn to first – also spoke to me in a way I understood inside, within my self, in a way I couldn’t explain to anyone else. They felt true.

I read his novels, more than once mainly, and some biographies of him, and he’s remained a strong influencer, though it’s a long time since I decided that I didn’t like the man.

After watching the documentary on him, it’s hard to reconcile the paradox of the man. By many accounts, he was a boorish, bullying, blowhard capable of cruelty and indifference. Yet, he could be great company also and, when engaged, a man capable of generosity and kindness.

If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back and meet him, but I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in his company. He’s just the sort of man I like least.

But then there’s his writing. Everything missing in his human persona is there in his writing. You wonder how a man so caught up in his own myth could then write so truly and with such insight about the human condition? In his writing, there is so often the wisdom that comes from a deep knowledge of how people act and react, their flaws and strengths, their fears and desires. There’s a stark simplicity in his writing that yet reveals so much. Particularly early, there’s a great sensitivity.

That’s the Hemingway I’d love to know.

So, how do you reconcile this? Was it that he was only capable of this sensitivity when he wrote – that it was somehow an unconscious talent the act of writing revealed? Or was it that he only showed himself in his writing?

Hemingway was clearly a very complex individual, and there seems little doubt that he was beset by mental health issues from a relatively early age. They worsened over time, were indulged and pampered, and exaggerated further by his heavy drinking. In the end, he was almost a caricature.

He was haunted by his father’s death and came to hate his mother. I feel sure that he was terrified of following in his father’s footsteps with deteriorating mental health and suicide. I suspect he tried to overcome those fears with the boasting and tall stories he told of himself in later years as if to distance himself from any of that. I’m certain it also fuelled his creative self and his writing.

I’m no psychologist, but it appears that Hemingway was deeply insecure at heart and reacted to (rejected) that with his overtly masculine behaviour. Whether he ever admitted it to himself, the truth was different, and I suspect he sensed it. That’s where his writing came in. His writing was a way to tap into that sensitive inside and express it. It was something he needed to do.

Because he himself felt so much, he understood much. Most of this was rejected in his public life, though he was said to be a good father. But it was fertile ground for his story-telling. This is where his insight came from – a keen observation of the world and people around him, filtered through this deep and painful knowledge.

When his writing failed him, he killed himself. I understand the impulse, though it was ugly how he left his wife to find him (he was far from thinking clearly). He was a gruff, oversized presence, and he could sustain that for as long as he could write. It was the one true thing for him. When that left him, there was nothing left for him. His meaning collapsed.

I’m no psychologist, and I’m probably way off, but that’s how I see it, from my observation of life and myself. It seems such a great pity that he could never integrate the writer in him with the man the world knew – though I’m sure, from the love he enjoyed, there were great periods when it shone through privately.

A half-century of reading

When I started reading, way back when I was a little boy, I was started off with the Enid Blyton books. First, there were gentle fantasies such as The Magical Faraway Tree before I progressed onto the quiet adventures of the Secret Seven. These were stories about kids – seven of them – joining together on holidays or some such and having a jolly amount of fun together munching on tongue sandwiches and getting into all sorts of quiet adventures with smugglers and the like. Quite inoffensive, but a lot of fun.

As I grew older, though – perhaps 7 or 8 (I was a precocious reader and started at age 4), they became a bit too tame for me and predictable, which is when I progressed onto the Famous Five series of books. The formula was very similar, just updated for an older audience, and they were five rather than seven. Once more, they got into scrapes and adventures, discovering conspiracies and unveiling crooks. It was all very wholesome and British, quite old-fashioned, in fact, though strangle I can’t help thinking of Scooby Do when I recall those stories.

I can’t remember how old I was when I progressed onto fully adult novels. I don’t know if there was a young-adult genre those days, but if there was, I probably skipped right over it. I was a good reader, not only in the sense that I read a lot, but I also absorbed much and understood more than my years would normally allow.

Everyone loves a reading child. There seems something noble and good in it. I was greatly encouraged all along my reading journey. My mum was a good reader and would make sure there was an adventure or two in the Christmas stocking every year and would take me along on her monthly visits to the library.

My maiden aunt was the other who went out of her way to encourage my reading habit. Every birthday and every Christmas, I would get at least one book from her, wrapped in her signature style – in silver, or occasionally, gold glossy wrapping, tied up in ribbon. She always bought non-fiction – histories and biographies and so on – as if she wanted to encourage my curiosity. Later she would sign me up for subscriptions to interesting magazines. I have a lot to thank the adults in my life for nurturing my love of books.

I reckon it was by the time I hit high school that I was reading adult fiction. Mostly I read spy thrillers and adventures. Alastair MacLean was one of the early passions. I devoured his books, one after the other. I suspect it started with HMS Ulysses, which I found on my grandfather’s bookshelves. I still think it’s probably MacLean’s best pure writing – more novel than escapist adventure.

Thereafter I would pick MacLean books up from Eltham library – South By Java Head, Night Without End, When Eight Bells Toll, and all the rest of them, not forgetting, The Guns of Navarone. They’re broad stroke adventures featuring capable men thrust into positions of crisis by unfurling events – crime or disaster or war. They battle villains with brain and sometimes brawn. The villains are generally clever, sinister types, the dark side of the coin. There’s nothing particularly complex about most of the plots, but as many of them are written in the first person, you become intimate with the protagonist and his mind. Almost always, there’s a scene when the hero and the villain face each other, and the details of the dastardly plot are revealed, which, surprise, the hero always manages to foil.

I don’t know if they write books like that anymore. There’s a bit of Boy’s Own about them, though they’re definitely adult-oriented. I think partly that’s because the times we live in are not simple as they were then, and many books of similar intent are made complex to the extent of being overwrought. Or else, at the Matthew Reilly end of the scale, they’re made silly and comic book. I think MacLean was a better writer than most comparable writers today.

There were other writers of similar type I discovered along the way when I was a boy. Desmond Bagley was one, and Hammond Innes, and then there were the old spy thrillers of Eric Ambler and the more modern spy thrillers of Adam Hall’s Quiller series, which I gobbled up as soon as they hit the bookstores. Then there was Len Deighton and, slightly later, John Le Carre.

By the time I hit 14-15 I had started to move onto more serious literature, including a Russian phase when I read most of Dostoevsky, and some Tolstoy and Turgenev. The rest is history.

I recall all this now because, on a whim, I picked up an audiobook version of MacLean’s Night Without End the other week and have been listening to it in breaks from work ever since.

It feels a bit simple now, in a way. However, that’s part of the strength of the story, which is classic – plane crashes in the snow far from civilisation with a murderer on board, nearby a scientific station where the protagonist takes them on a journey through the bitter cold towards safety, all the while trying to unmask the villains.

There’s a great deal of nostalgia – I would’ve read it 40 years ago at a minimum. But it’s a rollicking adventure too. It’s not intellectually taxing, but for escapist entertainment, it can’t be beaten. Reckon I’ll try another again soon, and perhaps something by Bailey – The Golden Keel, perhaps. Then there are the Quiller books which, at least, I reread every 10-15 years.

There’s a lot of people who don’t read these days. I sometimes wonder if it’s dying away as a pastime. It seems to correspond to general literacy. All of this is a pity. I try to encourage where I can, but it feels like a forlorn hope mostly. I’m lucky. I was handed this gift when I was just a small boy, and for the half-century since have enjoyed thousands of hours of reading. I don’t know who I’d be without it.

Old music videos

I watched a documentary on Peter Gabriel over the weekend, and a bunch of memories came back to me. He was one of my favourite artists of the eighties, certainly in retrospect.

I can remember one of his self-titled albums coming out in 1980 that caught my ear. A few years before, he’d released Solsbury Hill, a great song, but he hadn’t really registered with me (I wasn’t a particular fan of Genesis either). Then this album came out, and I heard Games Without Frontiers, which I really liked.

Back in those days, there was a strong culture of swapping cassette tapes. This was in the era before CDs. One of your group would go out and buy the LP and tape it for anyone who wanted a copy of it. We were big into music, all of us, and it was a big topic of conversation at lunch breaks at school, and after, in a time long before social media or even the internet.

Drew Hayes (later, a barcode expert) had bought the album, I remember, and upon request, he taped it for me – I still have the cassette somewhere, I think, though I have nothing to play it on.

Peter Gabriel was an interesting, experimental artist. His music was excellent, but I admired him equally for his adventure and attitude. He was cutting edge all around and took an active interest in society and culture as well. His music reflected much of that, but so too did his actions – he was an early promoter of World Music and creator of Womad. I saw him in concert once, around 1995 I reckon, at the Melbourne tennis centre.

What I remember most vividly are his music videos. He was a real pioneer, creative and visually arresting and pretty quirky half the time. He’s most famous for his Sledgehammer video, which must be one of the most iconic ever.

It reminds me how different the times were in the eighties going into the nineties. This was when MTV burst onto the scene, and there were heaps of other music programs on TV, many of them really good.

MTV was revolutionary in its way. It brought music videos to the forefront, and a lot of money and effort was expended by artists in creating a visual show to go along with the music.

All of us watched these programs (Countdown obviously, and Soundz with Donny Sutherland, as well as MTV), which were more than just music videos. MTV was populist, like DJ’s on TV, and had broad appeal. They would do interviews between videos and discussion and features. It’s all very dated now.

I preferred the more highbrow programs, though I’d generally have MTV on in the background over a weekend. It was an era when music was taken very seriously. There would be quite earnest hosts introducing music with an in-depth analysis of the artist, their influences and often a deep selection from their albums (my favourite was Rock Arena, and Nightmoves was good, too, and there was another on SBS, Rock Around The World, I used to watch also). I liked that. I loved the music, but I wanted to understand, too.

It’s quite different now. There’s plenty of music on TV these days, but the majority of it is wall to wall videos, one after another. There’s very little analysis nor musical context. And the videos aren’t as cutting edge generally because there’s no real call for it – it’s a bit old-hat these days.

I still watch these shows, but generally in the background, and I’m much more likely to have Spotify playing – which, at least, has some musical IQ in its back-end.

It’s a big difference though it feels to me. It was woven through the culture then. We’d all watch the same programs and would speak of them together in the weeks after. I’d pick up album tips and discover artists, and I’d learn more about the artists I enjoyed. It was immersive. I miss that.

It’s all memory.

Wrong beer

Just a small note. I watched the movie The Dry the other night, starring Eric Bana. I thought it was excellent – better than the book, actually. As an Australian, it had a lot of evocative imagery – a drought oppressed land, dry river beds and dusty soil and stark gum trees standing against an unshifting blue sky. Likewise, the script felt true to nature – laconic, abbreviated conversations with verbal shortcuts where a few words mean a lot.

There was a jarring moment in the movie, though. The Bana character, Falk, is given a beer, and it’s a Budweiser. Maybe that was done for the American audience, but I can hardly think of anything more inauthentic than that.*

I don’t think I’ve ever drunk a Bud in Australia, let alone been handed one. My local bottle-o has about 200 different beer varieties, local and international. If there’s Budweiser there, then I haven’t seen it (though I think it’s available at Dan Murphy’s). Most beer drinkers I know turn up their noses at it.

If you want to be authentic, then situated in a rural town in Victoria, the beer should probably have been a VB – though most of us turn up our noses at that, too, nothing is more Aussie.

But then, the guy that handed the beer to him turned out to be the villain, and maybe that’s the clue.

*Apparently some Budweiser is actually brewed here – tastes different, apparently. Still doesn’t make it legit.