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.

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.

Stages of life

I finished a book last night, which I think must be the best historical fiction novel I’ve read. Augustus, by John Williams, is the story of the Roman emperor by the same name. It’s told from multiple points of view in letters and diary entries and feels as authentic as anything you’re ever going to get in this genre. I’ve read a few books like this in the past, and though some are entertaining, they generally feel a bit contrived and as if the author is putting words into the mouth of these famous characters.

Williams is doing the same, except that it reads as if these are genuine documents, and each voice unique and individual. It helps greatly that Williams – who also wrote Stoner – is a very good writer. He’s dealing with the historical record – the murder of Caesar, the civil war with Marc Antony, the various controversies and conspiracies of the age – but to re-imagine it so vividly, and with such convincing realism, is a great feat.

If you like this sort of stuff then you should do yourself a favour.

Near the end of the book, Augustus is ruminating in a letter to a friend as he feels his life coming to its close. He reflects on the people he’s known, the friends he’s had and lost, the great moments of history he was part of. He writes as a man, as Octavious perhaps, as he started, rather than the great emperor Augustus history knows him as.

There’s a passage there which feels very true and wise, and resonated with my experience of life to this point:

“The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them. Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.”

― John Williams, Augustus

I certainly experienced and felt the full force of the first stage, that as a young man. It’s all about adventure and questing and insatiable appetite and curiosity and proving yourself. Life is a wondrous mystery.

I’m in the middle of the second stage. Parts of life feel tragic. I look back upon my earlier days, and I’m amused by my naivety, though impressed by my idealism and sensual gusto. I wonder at the value – and futility of it all. I’m much more measured, looking at things from the outside rather than within them. I question the point of it.

I look forward to the final stage as described here – seeing life as a comedy. I can believe in this. I feel as if it’s close now and as if I may already have experienced some of this. It would come as a relief to shed the burden of the belief I carry – though that seems harder to believe. It seems to me that if this stage is true, then it explains why they say the last 20 years of life are often the happiest. It’s a letting go.

I don’t think I can ever completely let go – and I don’t think I want to. But then, I’m still in the middle stage.

Reflections on a rainy Saturday afternoon

It’s Saturday, and I’ve been for my long walk with Cheeseboy and the dogs, and Rigby has had his swim. A steamy morning has become a wet afternoon, ideal for taking it easy and relaxing with an old movie. That’s what I’ve done.

The movie is not so old – 1986 – but it’s a movie I’ve been thinking about watching since I discovered it on Prime a month or so again. It’s an Australian movie – Kangaroo.

I think I’d seen the movie before, in the nineties perhaps, but it’s the book I remembered better. It’s perhaps one of D. H. Lawrence’s less known works, however, it’s an interesting novel, especially for an Australian reading about his country through the eyes of a famous English novelist. When did I read it? I’m not sure. The mid-eighties, maybe. I can picture the paperback in my mind – I have it somewhere – an old Penguin edition in white.

I read the book with the fascination of a young Australian male wanting to discover something of the identity I belonged to. Much of the history I knew – Sydney in the years after WW1 – we had studied it at high school. I knew about the New Guard, which is reflected in this piece, knew of the history to come in a period after the novel – de Groot slashing at the ribbon on the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the colossal figure of Jack Lang, the premier of NSW when the depression came along.

I read it with the fervour of a young man wanting to soak up and learn as much as I could. This was an era when I also read many of the existentialist novelists like Sartre and Camus when I searched through the words and works of great authors for something I could believe in. Kangaroo was more personal because it spoke to the place I had come from.

There was much I recognised in the novel, though not all of it pleased me. It’s in the movie, too, though with less articulation and none of Lawrences’ intense mental ramblings.

The book’s main character is Richard Somers, transparently a proxy for Lawrence himself – a controversial writer with a German wife who exiles himself from England, coming to Australia for a new start. All this Lawrence did also. In the book, Somers encounters a neo-fascist organisation of ex-diggers led by a charismatic former general code-named Kangaroo.

They seek to draw him in. They intend to re-make Australia, do away with the unions and the socialists, and make a world something loosely based on mateship and sacrifice.

There is something in Somers that is drawn towards this. Kangaroo demands love from him, and there’s something seductive in such an entreaty. In the end, he can’t, as we know he cannot, and nor does he join forces with the union movement on the other side. Ultimately he departs the land.

The politics of this I found less interesting than the human elements. The world at that time was rife with such movements – fascists in Germany and Italy and other places doing battle against socialism and those who had betrayed them. There was the New Guard in Australia, though it never amounted to much; the spin on it in this version is that it was based on brotherly love.

More interesting to me was the coming together of Somers with his Australian neighbours. He rejects the country on an intellectual level but is drawn to it sensually by fascination and desire. It’s the vitality that captures him, a sun-bronzed physicality that is essentially practical; a sensual, unassuming masculinity. Like many who live in their mind, he is attracted by those who act – and the Australian men he portrays in this are all of that type. They’re canny, robust characters with blunt natures, though capable of sophistry. To do comes easily to them, to act and be, even if it comes down to violence. They are raw spirits, as seen through his cultivated eyes. (Jack Calcott, as played very well by John Walton in the movie, embodies this).

Reading all those years ago, I recognised the type, and it made for a conflict in me. Much is admirable in that character, and it’s a character the world has come to love – easy and amiable. It’s what is lacking from it that dismayed me.

I share some of those attributes being an Australian, and I’m glad of many of them – the directness and honesty, the casual masculinity, I think. But, very clearly, I’m someone for whom the life of the mind is precious.

It’s all very well to be peopled by men of action, but it’s the thinkers that take us forward. It’s what fails Somers in the end – there needs to be more to it than this. We need more than instinct – there needs must be thought and reflection also, and imagination. I read it back in the eighties and recognised then the suspicion of anything fancy or intellectual – as if they were a bit dodgy, a bit soft.

We have moved on from then, and it’s not as pronounced now perhaps, but it still dismays. How I wish we had an intellectually curious culture like France or Germany. I’d love for us to engage with ideas and make the discussion of them a public affair. I yearn for that personally, and I believe it’s what we need as a nation at a cultural and intellectual level.

This movie triggered me for those reasons, but mostly because it got me thinking of our government. It has been a deliberate ploy from the day that Howard assumed power in 1997 to discourage that kind of curiosity. I think John Howard, a very stiff and proper type, felt uncomfortable with such things, but there were also excellent political reasons for it.

If people don’t think they won’t question. If we pander to their appetites and speak in their language, they won’t stir to make trouble. If we give them someone to vent their fear and hostility against, they won’t turn it on us.

With this current government, we have reached the apogee of this. It feels like a betrayal of what we could be and should be, and Morrison ultimately a subversive who is prepared to pander to our baser selves to the detriment of our cultural soul. He cares nothing for that, perhaps because he is without qualities himself – a shallow, opportunistic man who seeks only power, not justice. Like many, like Cheeseboy today, I hate him. I hate him because he is mediocre and selfish and without a skerrick of true patriotism.

I hate him because he is deliberately anti-intellectual and is happy to mock such pretensions as if they were unworthy. He plays to the simple mentality, and it suits him if we aspire to nothing more ambitious or worthy than a comfortable living. Our leader should be seeking to elevate us, as a nation and as a people, but such a nation would have nothing of such a superficial nonentity as him (and much of his party), and so instead, he manipulates opinion to his own ends. He is deplorable, as so many recently have been.

We deserve better leaders than this. We deserve to think and wonder for ourselves. We deserve to live in a country enlarged by possibility and the excitement of becoming more as a people. A true leader would encourage us to become bigger, not smaller.

I think ultimately, the likes of Morrison will be found out. I think we live in a time when many established attitudes are being challenged and turned on their head, despite the likes of Morrison. Bit by bit, old ways of being and thinking are being chipped away at, as they must be. We live in a time when leadership has come from below because there’s such a lack of it at the top.

As an Australian and someone who always wanted to be proudly known as an Australian, I hope this movement catches here as well, as there are signs that it will. In the end, we need the leadership from above to seize the moment to allow for all of us to be better. Right now, that’s just hope, but I live for it.

Funny, I started off writing about an old book and movie and turned it into a diatribe. Everything is political these days.

Back writing

Last week was busy with birthday celebrations and appointments, and it was all fine except that I don’t like to squeeze so much into such a short timeframe. It was different before. There was a time I’d be out two or three nights a week, plus whatever I got up to on the weekend. I was younger than and life was different generally, and one advantage I had that mostly I would go from work to whatever social escapade I had planned – drinks or dinner, with someone I knew, or on a speculative date.

It’s the nature of my life now that it will become quiet again for the next 10 days or so. It would be better to spread the festivities more evenly, but in winter we sow and in summer we harvest.

Yesterday was the Labour day holiday, so at least I had the occasion to catch-up after days full of movement and excess. Yesterday I watched an old TV program on YouTube – The Invaders – and had a nap in the afternoon listening to Richter’s take on the Four Seasons. Later in the day, I wrote.

There was a patch of about 3 months I got out of the habit of writing. I lost the groove and felt barren of inspiration or even the basic capacity to put words together in any pleasing combination. Interestingly, it seemed not to affect my writing here.

About three weeks ago, it came back to me. It was a Thursday night, and as I was reading, I found imagery coming to me and the words to describe it, all related to the book I’m writing now. I know how well these things are lost, so I set aside my book and noted them down. Since then, I’ve got back into a pattern of writing, and it feels both less complicated and quite satisfactory.

I could credit this turnaround to many things. It was bound to turn, and I knew that all along. I pushed at it, but I also told myself to be patient – you don’t lose it, it’s just that sometimes it goes on vacation.

Helping it to return was the correspondence I had with a friend’s mother. I think I mentioned how she discovered how I wrote and wanted to read something? Well. she read my first book in about a week and was full of it. She told me how I must get it published and good it was and how much she liked the style, and so on. It was gratifying, but while I don’t dismiss such commentary, I hold myself to a higher standard. I don’t want something merely good enough to publish – even if she thinks it’s much better than that. It has to measure up to what I expect of it, which is nothing to do with its commercial prospects.

Still, just the to and fro in answering her questions and responding to her exuberance. was enough to get my creative juices flowing again. I began to think of the book I’m working on now, the second book, and where I was stuck – about a third of the way into the second draft. That’s when it returned to me.

I’ve been writing since and relatively pleased with the output. On Sunday, I had lunch with the boys. At one point, we each said what we’d do if we had enough money to get by without seriously working. One said he’d set-up a men’s shed. Another said he’d get into fashion. The third said he’d like to get into dancing (which was mind-blowing – he’s never shown much interest or aptitude in it previously). They all assumed for me that it would be writing, which was pretty correct.

Once more, I was urged to get something published. I figure I’ll get around to that when I get this book finished – though it’s not nearly as simple a matter as that.

Telling a story

Yesterday, I finished reading the final story in Richard Ford’s latest collection of short stories, Sorry For Your Trouble.

I don’t know how many people still read short stories. I’ve read them all my life, picking them up when I first encountered Ernest Hemingway. It seems to me I recall there was a brief renaissance in the popularity of short stories maybe 30 years ago, or even earlier. If my memory is accurate, then Raymond Carver was in the vanguard, but many other worthy practitioners of it. Among them, and the best in my mind, was Richard Ford.

Ford has also written several acclaimed novels, but I think of him as one of those writers better at stories than novels – Updike is another. There’s no shame in that. Writing a decent short story is probably more challenging than writing a novel because you’re dealing in the miniature.

In a novel, you have space to expand and develop. You can digress and add layers of depth. In a short story, everything must be precise to achieve the same effect. Richard Ford is great at this.

I started this collection, and for the first two or three stories, I was enraptured. He’s an old-fashioned writer in a way, naturalistic and easy to read. He tries none of the post-modern literary tricks, and there’s nothing show-offy in his prose. If I’m a writer at all, then I belong in the same school as him.

I didn’t warm quite as much to the stories in the middle and latter part of this collection. That’s not to say they were any less, but, like anything, we have different tastes. I’m hesitant to use the word ‘resonate’ these days because it feels such a cliche, but at a personal level, I could relate better to the earlier stories to those that came after it.

This is the essence of story-telling really. The best stories focus on character and personality, with the events coming forth subject to that combination. Sure, things happen to us externally, but how we respond to them is individual – and many of the things that ‘happen’ are because we are that individual.

I preferred those earlier stories because I could feel them more closely. They aligned more particularly with my experience perhaps, or a particular perspective. We respond to stories when they touch upon something that is in us already – perhaps hidden, perhaps unknown, perhaps neglected. Then we read something, and it reacts in us and feels like a truth we know without exactly knowing why.

But it takes good writing to achieve that. Like the best writers, Ford knows people. You can imagine him watching and observing and learning. Soaking things up. Imagination plays a part because observation is the starting point from which it takes over. Wonder leads us to speculate on what we don’t observe – what happens next? Why? And what if that happens instead of this? And so the materials for a story gather.

Even the stories I favour less are a joy to read because Ford is such a craftsman. He’s a complete pro, and that’s a compliment.

I began the last story, and for the first few pages, I was certain it wasn’t going to work for me as well as the earlier stories did, but slowly I found myself drawn into it.

What was it? Nothing in the story’s events was more than generally familiar – it was about a second marriage, then divorce, and the characters were well to do. I came to feel great affection for the main character, though he felt quite different to me but for one aspect. It didn’t resonate for the usual reasons.

I fell into it because I came to understand the leading characters’ innate humanity, so artfully and perceptively described by Ford. We’re all a collection of attitudes and beliefs and perceptions all wrapped up in experience and genetic inheritance. There is a multitude of variations between us – as many as there are different human faces. And yet we can draw an understanding by tracing those elements, or rather by taking what we see and tracing them back.

Ford just doesn’t give us different personalities and characters to interact with each other, he offers up human qualities that mesh and conflict.

I knew the people he wrote of. I understood their why’s and wherefores. They were complete and complex human beings. What they were and how they interacted made perfect sense. They weren’t characters contrived in the imagination of an average writer, but rather described as if from life by a writer whose starting point is human nature.

That’s why I read – to encounter such writing and feel illuminated by it. And that’s why I write – in the hope that I can do the same for others.