The next Ned Kelly movie


Soon after it came out, I remember reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and being blown away by it. It was dark and mystical and had thematic overtones worthy of Shakespeare. It was lyrical too and gorgeous in parts when the language would gallop away in the eyes and words of one of the characters. As an Australian I was affected by this – it’s a very Australian story and, as Carey told it, something quintessential to the Australian experience way beyond the oft-told and fabled tale of a bushranger. There was something in this that was about us.

I remember getting into a discussion about the book, and the story of Ned Kelly, with some NYT readers in the book review comments. They were intrigued by the story and, carried away perhaps, I recall saying that as a settled nation, we had a short history, but this was like one of our sustaining myths. It’s a grand story too, the Jerilderie letter with its evocative language, and the boldness to seek insurrection by derailing a train and taking on the troopers. Then there’s his suit of armour, so iconic now that Nolan painted a whole series using it. Every Australian my age knows the story pretty much, but I wonder if it’s more vivid here in Victoria, where it all happened.

In the years since there’s been some revisionist accounting of what happened, pointing out that in fact, Ned Kelly was a cop killer. He was, but the story has though mythical elements that make it so much more than a simple crime story. And when Carey wrote his book, it was those elements he drew upon.

When I heard a while back that they were making a movie of the book, I was both excited and concerned. My concern was not so much that it wouldn’t live up to the book, but rather that it would be different from the book.

There was a Ned Kelly movie made earlier this century with Heath Ledger, based on the book by Robert Drewe, Our Sunshine. That’s a fine book too, and it draws the story of the Kelly gang exuberantly as if they were boys to men, possessed of bountiful talent and high spirits. The language shone with life and buoyancy, and the title was well made. Yet in my memory, the movie is gloomy and dirty and muddy and filled with a sense of doom – as if the story was adopted, but none of the sense around it. I won’t watch it again.

This morning I read a preview of the new movie, and it sounds boldly made and cleverly put together, and by a director who seems to have understood the essence of the tale. I haven’t seen it, but I read that Peter Carey liked it and that’s a great vote of approval. I can’t wait to see it because I know it will make me think.

The marvellous Clive James


Very sad, though not surprised, to hear of the death of Clive James overnight. I thought he was marvellous.

It was a scruffy package, but what an incisive mind he had, matched with a wonderful way with words. He was a great communicator. Engaging as a personality, he had that rare ability to make high art and concepts approachable to the guy in the street. It was as if he shared with us his distinctive view of things, allowing us to share in the wonder he felt.

He was a great mind, but he was just as good with the everyday muck that is our media, seeing the absurdity in it and presenting back to us in such a way that we could all see it too. He was such a genial, affable character, the sort you can directly relate to because he wore his flaws so openly, and took such open visceral pleasure in popular culture, and the things that were common to us. I’d have loved to have met him*. I couldn’t imagine better company for a night out on the town – erudite, witty, intelligent and earthy.

For me, and probably for many thousands of others, I felt a connection to him merely by his presence through so many years of my life. He was always there, on TV, a beaming, bright presence sitting back in a lounge chair with a laugh in his voice as he colourfully highlighted some absurdity. And if he wasn’t there on TV, he was in the media commenting on this or that. Then there were his books. I started off with his Unreliable Memoirs many years ago, but I loved his essays also, which I think greatly underrated. Then there’s his Cultural Amnesia, both highly learned and entertaining, a great read. Even his poetry, some of which is sublime.

As an Australian, there’s another layer of connection. Though he lived in London throughout his adult life, there was something ineffably Australian about him – the irreverence perhaps, the larrikin tilting at windmills. He remained a proud Aussie throughout his life, and I was proud to have him as one of ours.

For me, there’s one final link – he’s the generation of my father. My dad had his 79th birthday a couple of weeks ago (I had lunch with him last week), a year younger than James. The world that James recalls in his memoirs is the world of my father (and mother, too). It’s a generation slowly thinning and, regardless of the disdain epitomised by the insult ‘hey, boomer’, there are many great members of it – and it’s a world slipping away. James would have a comment on that, though I suspect he would shrug his shoulders, accepting that’s the way of things and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

I’m sorry I’ll never see his jovial dial on TV anymore, or his amused voice. I’ll miss him as a character and icon, another one gone, and sad that nothing more will flow from that grand mind of his to share in.

*P.S. When I was in London a few years ago I imagined I would bump into Clive James and he would invite me back to his place where he’d have fascinating conversations over a bottle of red – that’s how much he meant to me. I knew by then that he would never return to Australia, which seemed desperately sad because he could no longer travel. Unfortunately, that encounter never happened, and never will now.

P.P.S. Not that many will know him necessarily, but another member of the fraternity coming out of English universities of the sixties died not long after James: Jonathan Miller. He had many successes, but I’ll always remember him for a fascinating series called The Body in Question. He was mates with Dudley and Moore as well if I remember right.

Faux summer days


It feels like summer, not because it’s especially warm – it’d be about 16 degrees outside – but the sky is blue and the sun shining and, as I sit here, I can hear one neighbour going about his mowing while another has the whipper-snipper out. Sure signs. All I need now is the waft of some barbecue aromas (and maybe the cricket on in the background), and I’ve got pure summer cliche, just like so many others in the past. Some things never change.

In reality, this is the dead time before summer. It’s not winter and, despite all signs, not summer either. I think they call this spring. It’s a bit of everything and I don’t mind that, especially as the days grow longer, and you can see things coming into bud. You get a bit of a skip in your step this time of year because winter is over. Finally, enough is enough, though enough is just right too – I like winter, but steady, boy.

For someone who views the calendar through a sporting lens, then this is a bit of a dead time. Footy’s over, cricket hasn’t begun proper. The A-League re-commenced last night, but it’ll take me a while to get back into that. Likewise the NBL, which I’ll keep an eye on without ever getting too excited. There’s motorsport, but, nah; and the horse racing season heats up now – I’ll get into that in a couple of weeks.

It’s a convenient opportunity for me to catch up on things then without distraction. I did a solid shift working from home yesterday, but still managed to take down a few boxes to the local Salvos. There’s a bit more of that sort of stuff to do, as well as the well-timed spring cleaning I rarely get to in any season of any year. And there’s my writing.

A couple of weeks ago I exclaimed to some close confidantes that I’d be finishing my book that weekend. But then I got crook and by then had lost the plot anyway. I did some more work on it last weekend. This weekend I’m a chance to finish, but don’t hold your breath.

I’ve got plenty of time now without distraction and if it’s not this weekend then almost certainly it’ll be next weekend. That’ll be a moment, though it’s only a first draft and I already know so many things about it I want to change. That’s why it’s a first draft.

Once it’s done, I’ll stick it in the bottom drawer and take from there the MS I prepared earlier – the first book, ripe for a final re-write and polish. That’s how it goes.

In the meantime, might fire up the barbie.

The epoch of the mass-man


I’m reading a book at the moment called Diary of a Man in Despair. It’s by a German author who recorded his thoughts through the rise of the Nazis and the second world war. His name was Friedrich Reck, and ultimately they caught up with him, and he died at Dachau.

It’s a fascinating, entertaining read. Reck was a highly educated man with distinct opinions and a voice all his own. He’s haughty and derisive, he has a patrician air but is not above the occasional gossipy aside. His attitude drips with a delicious, acid disdain. He deplored the Nazis, as much for their uncouth manners as their politics. He was a proud German who saw decline all about him, and predicted disaster, and was right.

Throughout the book, he launches into scathing dissertations on the state of the world about him, like a grumpy old man, but he knew what he spoke of and describes it in coruscating detail. Reading, I could imagine him in his far ago hunched over his diary inscribing his bitter words. It was the end of everything, he knew, and he wanted to record it.

There are many memorable sections in the book, but there was one the other day that resonated with me. It could be said that I’m a bit of a grump too, and I’ve not been short of a bitter word or two in this blog. I can sympathise. But then I read this section, and I realised how little changes. What appeared true to him back then I could endorse equally today – and have, more or less, but in my own words.

He writes of ‘Mass-man’, who:

“…buys the products of technology in complete mindlessness, without involving himself, or even taking an interest in the intellectual work that made these things possible…

I do not believe this ‘New-Adam’ has the faintest idea of how completely dependent his existence is on the products of technology. I have an idea that at a beginning of the end of world he will want to know how the government proposes to hold next Sunday’s German-Sweden football match on schedule. His fate appears to me certain and unavoidable. The coming Second World War will be the beginning of the end: the end of an epoch in which rationalism was dominant, and the legacy of which – assuming the planet is still capable of regeneration – will be ‘X’, a new mode of life based on the nonrational.”

He wrote that in 1937. Eighty years on the technology has become omnipotent and dominates our life, though clearly, the strains of its insidious influence were plain even then. The ‘mass-man’ he writes of here is pretty much the same as what we see now, and perhaps it has ever been so. The only difference I can see is that he speaks of the end of rationalism, whereas as far as I can see, it’s been long dead in this modern era. But then he goes on to say:

“…the masses sensing they are doomed…will, no doubt, strike out against everything that is not masslike, but is, simply, ‘different’…”

Substitute mob for mass and this is the state of affairs in much of the western world. The mob – the degenerate mass-man – voted in Trump and in favour of Brexit. The low rent appeal of it swayed the election here, and it has adherents in every nation. It takes aim at everything different and not sanctioned by the mob – refugees and muslims, different coloured foreigners and clever elites, and whomsoever they are directed at to despise.

The problem is, we live in an age of intellectual torpor. Our critical faculties have withered. Too much easy living, too many low-bars, has made us soft. Great herds of consumers get carried away on social media over febrile linguistics, on inconsequentialities while the great things elude them. Outrage is the lingua franca of our times. The educated mind that once led curiously on is a rare thing these days, existing only in intellectual ghettoes, under siege from the commonplace politics of populist leaders who see danger in independent minds and urge their followers to the same. In the face of such hostile opposition, intellectual rigour has fallen away. The questions that should be asked are asked rarely, or not at all, lies are accepted as truth, and too much that once would have left us shocked has now been accepted as normal.

It all sounds very Orwellian – and me an awful grump. I find it hard settling in a society where the lowest common denominator rules, and sometimes I wonder how I found my way here, high and dry. Those of us who think similarly have been disenfranchised. We are part of the problem, not the solution – but the solution makes for greed and prejudice and a nation of drones.

Gloomy as I sound, I’m always hopeful that it will change. I’ve always believed that, but more and more I feel as Reck did, retiring to my ‘estate’ as he did, though mine is made up of books and old movies and music and good wine, and the occasional rant, like this. He knew his time was over. Though I know the pendulum will swing, I wonder if my time is done too. I suspect I may not be around when it corrects, when the educated mind is valued again, and independent thought encouraged. Of course, we might all be burnt to a crisp by then…

This week


I love a social life, but I also crave ‘me’ time. I love to be out among the bright lights eating and drinking well, talking, laughing, flirting, but I also cherish the quiet moments when I can curl up with a good book, a good movie, or listening to tunes whipping up some culinary feast. There are days I’m happy to see no-one, do nothing, and many days I barely walk out the door. I love the fizz and pop of a night out on the town, but in my heart H is a solo beast who plays at being one of the pack.

Last week was a social week. I was out for dinner and drinks twice and had a great old time basking in the balmy evenings and downing pisco sours. Another night a friend visited me and we ended up at a wine bar. And on another occasion, I drove an hour to get to the other side of town to have lunch with cousins and my aunt and uncle in the salubrious Eltham Hotel.

This week I look forward to being sedate. It’s the last week before I go back to work. I’ve achieved a lot this break but there are still things on my list. I’ll tidy them up and once they’re done what I’ve got left is a week of reading and writing.

It’s a warm, sunny day. I’ve just come from coffee up the road and posting a card to my nephew for his birthday (due to arrive before it for a change). I’ll give Rigby a walk later but otherwise, I’m home for the day.

These are the things I must do: update this blog; scan a few more pics; call up the doc about an ultrasound I had yesterday (suspect there’s a problem with my toe); call up the local salvos about donating some stuff; pickle or preserve something; and take my old massage shop manager to the doc tomorrow. Jobs something in there as well (have a live opportunity with NBN but don’t have the telco experience).

I have mixed in this last week of my leave. In some ways, it will be harder than ever returning to work. It could have gone either way, but in this case my absence has solidified my feelings about the office being unprofessional and slapdash. I wish it wasn’t so. I’m disappointed nothing more substantial has popped up in these weeks. There’s not a lot about. If I’m patient something will eventuate, however.

Have I resolved anything in myself? You have to understand I live an intensely interior life, especially when I’m writing. My real life refracts my writing experience, and vice versa. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to write. That’s especially true of this book, which has a dense psychological perspective. I want to get it right, though I know it instinctively. Once I write it out I often find that instinctive knowledge becomes conscious knowledge. The act of writing drags up things from deep within me I sense more than know. When it hits the light it becomes true in a way and I can look upon the written word and understand it for myself (sometimes I think there’s a form of automatic writing at work). I reflect upon it as an individual. It informs my perspective and potentially my behaviours.

What I’m saying is that while I’ve given little direct thought to my situation it is thrown into relief by what I write. It has a heft I cannot shrug. In a way it feels like a dark secret – I am the man who writes this; I carry this within me.

It’s little wonder that writing is therapeutic for me, but as yet I don’t know the fullness of what it means.

Growing up with the war


About a month ago I picked up a heavily discounted book and, having paused for a moment, went on to buy it. The book was Comrades of War, by Sven Hassell, and if I paused it was because I read it many years ago and was unsure whether I wanted to read it again.

Ultimately, that was the reason I bought it, from a sense of nostalgic curiosity.

It seems to me that when I was growing up Sven Hassell was a best-selling writer in his genre. World War Two was much more recent, though long before my birth, and it still had some relevance in the everyday lives of people – many of whom had fought or lived through it. There were movies made of it and documentaries and I recall that my father would have delivered Parnell’s History of the Second World War, which I would read through for years to come and many times over. On top of that, I remember my grandfathers telling me stories of their war years. It was before my time but it was still there.

At school, there were other kids, war buffs, who knew one thing or another about arcane subjects such as the Spitfire and the Hurricane, or about the U-boats. I was into tanks more than anything else and at one time could tell you everything about the T-34 or the German Panther, and many others. I would search through bookshops and occasionally pool my pocket-money to buy a book about tanks or fighter planes and sometimes fiction. LPs or war books, that was my thing.

Somewhere along the line, I found myself inclined towards the German side of the story. When I was very young I had a customary hate of Germans until one day my grandmother took me aside to tell me not all Germans were bad. It was a relief as one of our family friends had married a German, Joe, who I looked up to.

That conversation opened something in my mind. It gave me permission to look dispassionately at the history. I’d always been fascinated, but nothing was more fascinating than the Nazis to a boy. I still remained interested in the basic hardware of war, and much of the best of it was German, and as I read more, as I became older, I found myself drawn into the story of the German war, fighting on multiple fronts, often against overwhelming odds, and frequently in the most difficult of conditions. My particular fascination was the war on the Eastern front, possibly the most ruthless and devastating war of all time.

I grew to have a grudging respect for the common German soldier. I had to admit the Wehrmacht was a formidable, resilient army, more capable – at least in the first half of the war – than any of the Allied armies. That they survived and often triumphed for so long was testament to their skill and courage, regardless of the ideology they fought in service of. That they were essentially doomed was an extra layer of mystique.

About this time there seemed many novels and memoirs of WW2. A lot of them were written from a German perspective – it seems I was not alone in my interest. Sven Hassell was perhaps pre-eminent of those authors and I snapped them up. Though a lot of it is gruesome and confronting it had an allure to a precocious young teenager. Most of the books written from a German viewpoint shared an attitude – cynical, fatalistic, and threaded through with dark humour. They fought to survive, and for their comrades, believing in the most part that they were on borrowed time. None ever owned up to being a Nazi idealist and most were bitter and disparaging towards Nazi ideology and leadership, and almost all felt disconnected from the society at home. Their battles, their travails, their suffering and the horrors they observed had cast them out from the world they had come from.

For a kid, this is heady stuff, and much more complex than the heroic tales of the ultimately victorious allies which read, in comparison, as boys own. There are pathos and tragedy in the tales from German authors, dark in every aspect regardless of wit or attitude.

Hassell was the perfect writer for a kid because his characters were so memorable. As an adult, they seem almost as caricatures, and I think I sensed that as a boy too. I doubted his books sometimes, unable to reconcile the different tales and changing characters, but I read them all voraciously. Comrades of War was the first of his books and the book I liked most because it felt the most real, but it’s a different experience reading it now from then.

I went on to read other German books. From my grandfather’s shelves, I plucked a few books of Willi Heinrich, most notably Cross of Iron. There was another book which became my favourite of this genre, The Torrents of War, by Igor Sentjurc. I still have a paperback of it, the pages yellowed, the spine broken. I think it’s quite an obscure book but it’s full-on, unrelenting, unforgiving, as so many of these books are.

When I was about 15 I discovered The Forgotten Soldier, probably the greatest of these memoirs. I read that again and again until it fell apart. I got given another as a gift some years ago I’ll look to read again soon. This is the classic book of the German soldier on the eastern front, vivid, tragic and poignant.

There were other books I read, many about the U-boat war, which I was similarly fascinated in. Iron Coffins, I remember was one, but there were others I’ve now forgotten, plus The BoatDas Boot – which is another classic I’ve read many times, moved on every occasion.

As an adult, I got into the stories and books of Heinrich Boll. They all capture the humanity of trying to survive another day in a world made bleak and terrible. They draw you out of your comfortable chair and place you in this foreign world which was yet so real once and so true.

This is a big segment of my life. This was something I was drawn too and have never forgotten since. The darkness of these tales may inform my writing, who knows?

I’ve just finished reading Comrades of War, forty years after reading it for the first time. Today it feels episodic, an attempt to tell the story of a whole war in a little over 200 pages – but then, I raced through the last hundred pages, and felt the same sadness I did when I read it first. You come at these things differently after all these years. It doesn’t mean the same. You read with different eyes, informed now by your own experience and exposed to a world unavailable to the naive kid I was then. It’s a different experience, but worthwhile.

On the road


I’m officially on leave from work as of last Friday night. There was no sense of anticipation last week. I was busy, there were things I had to tidy up and hand over, but I was disappointed not to feel that gentle rush knowing I was about to be three weeks away from work.

I still don’t feel it really. Perhaps that’s because it’s unlikely I’ll be doing anything much. I had various plans, all speculative and contingent on available funds. Unsurprisingly, the funds aren’t available and so it’s three weeks at home – which, at least, is better than three weeks at work.

I went out for red wine and cheese with Cheeseboy Friday night hoping to force upon myself some sense of being off the leash. It was a cool, drizzly night and though the wine was good and the cheese plentiful I felt more weary than joyous. The most I can look forward to is the potential visit of an old friend, but let’s see if that eventuates.

Now it’s Monday morning and rather than sitting at my desk at work I’m sitting at my desk at home. I am at liberty. Among other things I hope this time away from work will allow me to clear my head and replenish some a weary body. I still don’t feel that uplift, but I sense my mind is slowly turning to a different perspective. My focus is shifting from the practicalities of the working man – making sure my shirts are ironed and my myki topped up, mindful of the clock and of the ongoing projects at work that occupy the mind, as well as the many petty frustrations. None of that is relevant at this moment and so I have turned off that part of my mind.

Last night I read some poetry and then thought a bit about it. I will read poetry now and then and almost always feel drawn into it. It’s a welcome sensation as if in that time I am exposed to a subterranean world of depth and meaning. It exists outside of me, in the world, if only we knew how to find it; and within me also. I sense it finally, this well of deep, curious feeling and with it a trembling, inquisitive, sensitivity. It’s a fine feeling as if now you can pick up frequencies unheard before, and let into a world of true wonder.

This time I am aware of my awareness. Because I have time before me my mind has space to indulge in the meaning of this: not just the poetry itself, but the meaning of myself in this poetry.

I woke this morning wondering, as I have many times before, about the contrasting attributes of my soul. I was always a creative, imaginative kid, but made my way in the relatively ruthless world of business. I thrived there because there were elements in me that came alive in the challenge. I was competitive without meaning to be, and ambitious because it was always so much better to do than not do. I was smart and so made my way up the ladder and a good communicator; but I was also hard and unyielding. I took pleasure in my success in much the same way a warrior celebrates his conquests. There’s little poetry in that though – yet there is poetry in me.

It’s hard to judge yourself in these things, but if I was to characterise my defining attributes I would say they are intelligence and determination, independence of mind and spirit, and defiance – which sits on the defensive side of belligerence. By and large, these attributes served me well (if we are to overlook the elephant in the room). I went further than I would have otherwise because I willed it, because I wouldn’t back down because I always wanted to be better. All of this made me formidable – though less so now.

And though all of this is true enough so is much that seems the obverse of that. I remain the creative, imaginative soul I was as a child. I am just as sensitive as I always was. I have a searching and restless mind. I am moved, mightily at times, by all manner of things, from a piece of music or poetry to the great and terrible events of our times. Despite everything I am romantic and have ever been the idealist.

This is what twitched at me this morning having read poetry last night, but it’s a recurring twitch. One of the things I seek to do in this time is to re-align myself in the hope that I will find a lifestyle more rewarding to me, both morally and financially. For me, mostly, that’s been about seeking a better angle in my career. I can still do it all, I just need to find a way back in. But then it occurs to me – should I have followed a different path? Can I still? And that’s the path in which I can be entirely my gentler self, the creative, sensitive man inside this crusty exterior.

Again, this is a question oft asked. There was a time when I could afford to answer yes – but not now, I think.

I have observed of life, as well as of myself, that little is all one thing or another. Life, and people, are much more complex than that. It’s silly to draw conclusions based only on what is visible, and it’s clear that contradiction is a law of nature.

As a thoughtful person, I find this fascinating and I’m glad of it too – it makes the world a more interesting place. Still, it’s not something I’ve ever really been able to reconcile in myself – as if reconciliation was possible. I search for a meaning or logic to it knowing there is no meaning or logic. That dissonance plays on my mind and I can’t let it go.

It’s one of the things that made me write, I think, the attempt to investigate and understand – and order – these things in the written word. These conversations go on in my head and if I parlay them into a fictional world that reflects the world I know then perhaps something of consequence can be made of it. And, you know, I find a lot of my understanding comes from putting it down on paper. It’s not quite automatic writing but often I find understanding in the act of writing, in drawing up as if from a deep well a sense not free to me otherwise.

One of the things I’ve discovered in my writing are my themes. I used to think redemption was my theme. To a degree it is, and I’m fascinated by stories that pivot on that. It’s a classic theme. But then, I’ve come to realise, my real theme is identity – self-identity. It shouldn’t be a surprise having read this journal but it’s surprising how long you can be oblivious of a thing. In my case that quest for enlightenment will often overlap with redemption – aren’t we all searching for that in some form?

I’m reading a book about Homer at the moment and I realised halfway through that the protagonist of the novel I’m working on now would fit easily into a Homeric tale – but I think that’s probably true of many. Homer’s tales touch upon so many classic tropes, much as Shakespeare does, that much of modern literature could be said to share.

In this case imagine an Achilles who has survived the battle and lived to middle age, to a time when he questions what he was and what he did while at the same time mourning for the vitality he has lost in the years between. Achilles was always a complex character, a ruthless warrior and sensitive spirit, but he was also an instinctive beast who cut a swathe with his unquestioned might. He was said to be invincible until the moment the arrow struck him in the one place he was vulnerable, his heel.

But what if he had survived all that, the battles on the plains before Troy and then the sacking of that city? What then would there have been for him? And after that? Where does it all go – ultimately, what does it mean?

I think all of us come to an age when we look back at what we have done and wonder at it. For so many years we just did it. Like Achilles, we go into battle because the battle is there. But then reflection grows on us, and some wisdom if we’re lucky. The battle slows, or has past.

For many, for most, it is enough to be husband or wife, and parent. There is meaning in that. We subvert something of ourselves for the greater meaning of the family unit.

That’s not been an option for me but, even so, I don’t know if my independence would be so easily satisfied. And if Achilles had become husband and father, would that have been enough? Only if he can reconcile the sensitive spirit he is with the ruthless warrior he was. That’s the journey he must take, pitfalls along the way and doubt and uncharacteristic confusion because instinct no longer counts. He must come to this a different way, where might is irrelevant. That’s the quest, the road to enlightenment and redemption if he can find it.

That’s the story I’m writing pretty much, but it’s my story too. I’m searching for that road, but at least I know it exists.