Aspiring to UHD


The first book was set in China and was competently written and mildly entertaining, but forgettable. Like most books, really. The second was by Le Carre, the modern-day master of the genre. The difference between them was like watching a program in normal definition and then watching another in UHD.

I often think on these things – because I’m a compulsive reader, and because I have a personal as well as general interest in the craft of writing.

If you were to compare the two plots in these novels, then you’d have to say that Le Carre’s was more sophisticated and finely attuned. In general terms, it’s the difference between a description of life and the lived experience of it – because life is full of moments and complexity. It’s made up of infinitude brush strokes, not broad swathes of colour.

That’s all very well, but many a fine story has been spoiled by average or lack-lustre writing. As I said, the first book was competently written – there were no great jarring moments, the words placed in the right order, it told the story effectively. But then there’s a vast difference between being competent and being talented.

There are books I’ve continued to read simply for the quality of the writing. A well-written book draws you on. I might reference someone like James Salter here, whose books – with exceptions – feel less than the sum of their parts, but are always gorgeous to read.

Not surprisingly, there’re very few writers who can compose a memorable storyline and render it with style and insight.

As an aspiring writer, that’s who I want to be, though, predictably, it’s no easy thing.

For mine, I reckon John Le Carre is one of the great contemporary novelists, regardless of genre. His stories are engaging and intelligent and, as I said, he writes in UHD. Once more, that’s exactly what I want from my writing – engaging and intelligent, and with deep insight.

I reckon I can write with style. I can write a sentence as good as most, and a paragraph to follow it up. Certainly, I think my prose is superior to the competent spy thriller I just read, if not yet up to Le Carre’s standard. I’m an astute learner, however. I read a lot, and I pay attention. And I’m sensitive to human nature, able to quickly read people and often to detect what’s unsaid, the meaning between the lines. It’s why I started to write I think, because that insight came naturally to me and led from one thing to another. I was sensitive to the world about me, not just people, but the physical world as well. There’s fascination in that, and wonder, and from it comes the need to understand and observe it. In time you seek to render it in your own words, to give your interpretation of it.

I’m passionate about this, but I think that’s true of many writers. You don’t necessarily choose to do it; it emerges from within you. I want to learn and get better. I have high expectations. I fully expect the day will come when I am close to being the writer I aspire to me. There’s some natural talent in that achievement, but a lot more is the burning intent to be better.

The truth of things


It’s a popular pastime to put together a list of people you’d invite for dinner. I’ve been working at my list for years, adding names to it very carefully and only after long consideration. A lot of people reel off names quickly, commonly referencing movie or sporting stars. Not me. By and large my criteria – never stated till now – is for people I can imagine having long and interesting conversations with. They’re people who either by their experience or intellect have a story to tell or an insight to share. Marilyn Monroe isn’t on my list (but Mohammed Ali might be).

One of the names on my list will be unknown to most people, but is an easy pick for me: Victor Serge. (Here’s an interesting and descriptive article on his life and times):

https://thepointmag.com/criticism/a-hard-case-victor-serge-notebooks/

For mine, Victor Serge is one of the most fascinating characters of the last century. He lived a vivid life in exciting times and was brave enough to take a position on the events he was caught up in.

I found him through his writing, though that’s only one aspect of him. His books, autobiographical in essence, deal with the Russian revolution and its aftermath, and with the tumultuous times, he witnessed and was a participant in. His writing is candid. He presents as someone committed to understanding the truth of things, and not just the form of them. He was an anti-Stalinist, and while there is a strong humanist element to his books, they’re marked by great insight and intellectual depth.

Reading his books, I liked him – or, felt great respect at least. He’s one of those writers who would make me occasionally stop to think about what he had written. For that reason alone, I could imagine having long, stirring conversations with him.

Of course, he’s long dead, and exercises like this are not much more than indulgent list-making – fun all the same. It highlights a gap in my life though – who do I have to speak about these things with? I don’t reckon any of my friends would have a clue who Victor Serge is. Those conversations happen only in my head, and sometimes make an appearance on these pages.

It’s a pity. I like to ask questions, but there’s no-one to ask them of. Instead, I think on them. I wonder, I examine, but the debate is internal. It seems an obvious thing to me that one should engage in the broader questions of existence – history, culture and thought. These are our times, this is our life, and even if you don’t find it fascinating, then at least you must see something vital in addressing these themes.

So I say. In the meantime it means my public life goes on with very little of my private life on display.

I sometimes think that being a person with these interests locked away and invisible sets you apart. Everyone has a secret life, but these things, outside of your self, give you a perspective that few others share. That may be indulgent twaddle, but I find personally that my take on things is more detached because I have a broader view. Perspective takes on a literal sense then because everything is to scale – what looms large to many you see as being small and fleeting. It’s all happened before, and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway, and it will be resolved. There’s no advantage to such a perspective, it seems. The opposite may be true when the prevailing view is to the contrary.

It dilutes the take, but when everyone is manic and fraught, you run the risk of being viewed as a dilettante.

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.