THIN PLACES

 

I’ll start this review by admitting that Thin Places is a book I have not really read properly, but rather skimmed with the occasional comprehensive stop. I have inserted lots of paper slips to mark passages I want to re-read – but much of it I found too harrowing right now. It’s one I will perhaps read again one day, when I am not so preoccupied with the suffering of children in a world of pointless, endless adult violence and war.

What intrigued me was the idea of ‘thin places’ (and anything Robert MacFarlane calls ‘remarkable’, I’m willing to read). Thin places in Irish tradition are those in which you feel the distance between this world and the otherworld (which can be the world of spirit, the ancestors, heaven, inspiration) shrink. We’re separated only by a veil. And the veil is thin and permeable, or it lifts; we are “held in a place between worlds, beyond experience”. Ni Dochartaigh writes beautifully of these places and how they inspire and move her.
But she also writes (beautifully too) about memory, trauma, depression and anxiety, addiction, suicidality and despair.

So, no, not uplifting. Not soothing. Easy clichés about “the healing power of nature” get a look-in; healing, or its possiblilty, is contrasted with ni Dochartaigh’s life of relentless, battering struggle.

She was born in Northern Ireland, in Derry (Londonderry, Doire) and grew up during the height of the Troubles. Her mother was Catholic, her father Protestant and in that fiercely sectarian city, her family fitted nowhere. Literally. The violence sounds terrifying. Imagine, as a five-year-old, seeing a soldier shot dead in front of you. Petrol bombs, shootings, murders, vandalism, abuse were constant. They had to shift multiple times; predictably, her family broke. Even when, in her teenage years, they found a haven in a small village, tragedy dogged her. Her best friend, a young  man, was murdered.

Ni Dochartaigh leaves Ireland – she thinks, for good – to study, work and settle first in Scotland and then England, but the damage of her childhood suffuses adulthood with grief and pain. Gradually, frustratingly slowly, she circles around her childhood trauma and finds ways to heal. I confess that am slightly ashamed I skimmed so many of these pages. Just couldn’t do it. But the moments of discovery and clarity, the epiphanies, I lingered on.
Ni Dochartiagh is drawn to birds, moths, butterflies and winged, flying creatures of all kinds. Studying an endangered butterfly, she realises that though she’s Irish, standing on the soil of her ancestors, she doesn’t know the name for butterfly in her own language.

The loss of my ability to name both the landscape and the creatures we share it with in Irish began to sink in… I started to feel an ache, a deep sorrow, when I began to see it all in the clear light of day. How interconnected, how finely woven every single part of it all was. In Ireland, the loss we experienced has had a rippling effect on our sense of self and our place in the world, which has an impact on our ability to speak out, to protect, to name. Our history, our culture, our land, our identity: we have had so much taken away from us – we were never given any of it back.
For the first time properly in a long time, I felt the loss of things, of precious things – the loss of things I realised I could not name.

I wonder whether some of Ni Dochartaigh’s thoughts and feelings would be understood or shared by Aboriginal people. On my recent travels in Central Australia, standing in awe-inspiring places like Standley Chasm, Ellery Big Hole and Ormiston Gorge, I knew these were not their real names. And I knew I did not understand or feel what the rocks and water were, what they meant. As a friend recently said to me, we (Anglo-Celtic-Australians) can ‘read’ the landscape of somewhere like Yorkshire or Cornwall better than we can read our own. And the central desert country, so austerely beautiful, is just not in our DNA.

Ni Dochartaigh writes of the Celts, ‘…almost everything in the natural world was tied in some way to the greater being – the spirit – of the earth. For our ancestors, our role in it all as guardians was one of unshakeable magnitude’.

I have a tendency to think of nature, the natural world, as somewhere beautiful and calm that you go into, like a garden, or somewhere remote or wild you have to travel to. I loved Ni Dochartaigh’s discovery of the small wildnesses of an urban environment.

I took my anxious body a different path. I made my way around the football pitch instead of along the stream, up a hill with empty energy drink cans and one discarded stiletto into a wee copse. Burnt grass and shards of glass from Tesco own-brand vodka bottles, no light to be found at all. And then she came, wild and beautiful, in flight in the least likely of settings –  a mottled brown and white moth. I followed her path above broken glass bottles – things that speak of the addiction and poverty…  Later, before the night fell, I looked her up and found that she was an Oak Beauty. She is very specific to woodland in this wooded, broken city of mine. Even as I thought I was open of mind and eye, the moth that afternoon told me to come closer still, tells me – even now – that all is not lost in this place, not yet.

I have always enjoyed looking out of the window of a train. Even as a little kid, I was fascinated by back yards, the rear views of buildings and especially the weedy edgelands along the tracks. Last year, on my way to a particularly upsetting funeral, I occupied myself by noting the names of the plants I recognised. Ivy, periwinkle, nasturtium, geranium, arum lily, cotoneaster… In that way, I came back to myself, and was able (I hope) to be of some use to the bereaved daughter. Are those neglected margins of unwanted wild growth thin places? I’ll give it some thought.

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THE RAG AND BONE SHOP

The merging of knowledge and experience can happen because we have a multi-tiered brain memory system, where new experience is held in the plastic hippocampus, the memory maker, and gradually integrated into the less plastic, more consolidated  cortex. Current experience and memory are integrated in the complicated networks of the prefrontal cortex, the storyteller. At the highest pinnacle of this complexity, memory is consciously manipulated in imagination. At this level, memory can be worked without external sensory input, and this faculty can be used to form new patterns of thinking, to imagine and create, to modify one’s understanding of the world…

I’ve been fascinated by brain science for years now, ever since the research about things like psychoneuroimmunology (how’s that for a big word?) and neuroplasticity have been popularised in accessible mainstream books like Norman Doig’s The Brain That Heals Itself and When the Body Says No by Dr Gabor Mate. I think I’ve wanted learn about myself, really; how my brain creates the mind that creates my sense of a self. How both the good stuff like creativity and sensitivity and problem-solving, and the not-so-good like stress, anxiety, and physical and emotional pain, struggle and wrestle and battle it out… I was going to write “in my head”, but of course that’s not the case. The brain is not for thinking! We’re not a robot body controlled by a computer brain. We are our bodies, irreducibly so. (And yes, it’s hard to get your head around that idea). As Dr Veronica O’Keane writes, “The fundamental point that we cannot make memories without sensation may be so familiar to us that we are blind to it. It is difficult to believe that it took many hundreds of years to understand the now self-evident fact that the five senses bring information to the brain so that one can learn and categorize information and ultimately form a coherent sense of the world”.

The Rag and Bone Shop: How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us adds another layer of information. It’s science-y, but not dry. Actually, it’s beautifully done. Dr Veronica is a fine writer, who combines personal reflection with her medical explorations, as well as literary references – like Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett and John Berger – and stories from her years of practice with all kinds of people, from new mothers with post-partum psychosis caused by birth and pregnancy hormones, to non-verbal ‘locked in’ psychotics whose lives are transformed by the right medications.  If I ever need a psychiatrist, I would love to have a Dr Veronica. She sounds thoughtful, compassionate and kind; she writes about her patients as if they’re real people with real lives, not just illustrative case histories, and her medical and scientific focus still leaves her alive to the beauty and wonder and mystery of the human mind.

 

 

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THE SECRET HISTORY

 

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history…

Isn’t this a great beginning? Hooked in, straight away. Who’s Bunny? What’s the deal with melting snow? Who are the ‘we’? For that matter, who is the ‘I’ who is so casually telling us about a death and a manhunt and the melting snow?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt was our most recent Book Group novel. It was long (at 629 pages of small print, very long) but most of us finished it, and some of us whipped through the pages despite the length. This includes me, and I’m one who really loves a short book. I read it when it first came out, though ‘devoured’ is probably a better word. I hadn’t read anything like it before; it was one of those rare beasts, a literary page-turner. I read with a little more attention this time, not quite so beguiled – and even a little picky – but not once did I struggle to keep going. I’d say it held up well.

The narrator is a young man called Richard Papen, yet another brilliant misfit way out of his league and trying to fit in. The book group could all refer back to the narrator in one of our previous books – the damaged Enderby – but Richard is a much more successful imposter. One of the group members recalled Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. I thought of Gatsby.

Fleeing an unsatisfactory future in sunny California, Richard applies for a place at Hampden, a small New England university –  and to his surprise, he’s accepted. He wants to register for the Greek (ancient, that is) class but the brilliant, charming and unconventional Classics professor, Julian Morrow, accepts only a select few acolytes and keeps apart from the rest of the language and literature department. Which intrigues Richard. As do Henry, Bunny, Charles and Camilla (twins) and Francis, Julian’s chosen ones. They’re all rich and well-connected. The elite. When finally he’s accepted into the class, he invents a new background (money, glamorous lifestyle, private schools) and despite his deepening friendship with the five, he never drops the deception.

I loved the way Tartt evokes young adult college life, with its mix of intense friendships, intellectual and philosophical and spiritual discovery allied with drugs and alcohol and freedom. Made me remember my art school days! Though thankfully we never killed anyone on one of our rampages though the inner suburbs. With Julian as their guide they attempt to immerse themselves in Greek language and philosophy and thought. It’s an ancient mindset where the rational was in an uneasy balance with the irrational, the inspired, the frenzied… and the mad.

There is – Tartt makes it clear from the first pages – a murder, but it’s not really so much a ‘who done it’ as a why done it and what comes after it’s done. The big themes and questions of life – morality, responsibility and guilt, truth and beauty, good and evil –  swirl around in contrast to Richard’s everyday life. When he’s not with the group, he’s working, scoring drugs and information from his fellow Californian Judy, living in student digs. There are a few remarkable set-pieces.  The freezing winter in the hippie’s attic is gruelling to read. I thought the languid days at Francis’ country house where Richard becomes increasingly infatuated with the group and in particular, Camilla evoked Brideshead Revisited. The closely observed, nightmarish trip to stay with Bunny’s hilariously hideous and tragic WASP family for his funeral stood out. It could almost have been part of another, different, non-campus novel – one without a murder in it, perhaps by Ann Patchett.

Our book group agreed that The Secret History could have done with an edit. One member thought the smallness of the Hampden College – at 500 students – was unrealistic. I felt that Bunny was too much of a lazy clod to learn ancient Greek. Another member pointed out that if they had only sensibly reported the death as an accident, they would all have been off the hook. But then there would have been no story.

My haul at the Friends of Castlemaine Library book sale on the weekend was mainly gardening books, but I threw in a battered and much pencilled student edition of Euripides The Bacchae. Good lord, it’s horrific!
As priestess leading the Dionysian rites, Agaue kills her own son, Pentheus, despite his pleas to her.

Agaue was foaming at the mouth; her rolling eyes
Were wild; she was not in her right mind, but possessed
By Bacchus, and she paid no heed to him, She grasped
His left arm between wrist and elbow, set her foot
Against his ribs, and tore his arm off by the shoulder.
It was no strength of hers that did it, but the god
Filled her, and made it easy. On the other side
Ino was at him, tearing at his flesh; and now
Autonoe joined them, and the whole maniacal horde.
A single and continuous yell arose – Pentheus
Shrieking as long as life was in him, the women
Howling in triumph. One of them carried off an arm,
Another a foot, the boot still laced on it. The ribs
Were stripped, clawed clean; and women’s hands, thick red with blood,
Were tossing, catching, like a plaything, Pentheus’ flesh.

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DID I EVER TELL YOU THIS?

The thing is, I’m crook. Possibly dying. I may have to speed this up. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I have time to burn, and time to think. And writing, jotting thoughts and memories down, is a salve. It gets my mind off things.

When Sam Neill was diagnosed with stage III angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma, he used his ‘time to burn’ to write this lovely, gentle memoir. From chapter to chapter he skips around, but basically it’s the story of his life so far. Along the way he talks – this is a very conversational book – about his childhood in Ireland, his parents, grandparents and siblings, his education, the move to New Zealand, schools, first jobs, his progression into film-making and then acting and his long career in film. Interspersed with this personal history and the progress of his cancer are chapters about his loves – wine and wine-making, music, architecture, New Zealand art and artists, friends (he has many), the acting life, Bali, cars, dancing, his children and grandchildren. Lovers and wives and relationships aren’t a big part of this memoir, which makes Neill seem decently reticent about his private life. A gentleman.
He’s a modest man, too. He’s been a working actor for around 40 years, starting with My Brilliant Career; he’s made some amazing artistic films like The Piano and some money-spinning blockbusters like the Jurassic Parks movies. But there is only a little showbiz gossip, though quite a few funny stories and a few tart comments about actors who behave badly. He loves and admires women – there is a whole chapter titled ‘Women Are Better’ –  and has nothing but praise and admiration for nearly all of the female actors he’s worked with.
With the dire state of the world preying on my mind – an old friend used the phrase ‘shit and desecration ‘ –  and a knee injury keeping me from my ‘happy place’ (the garden) I’m looking for books that aren’t going to make me feel any worse. This memoir made me feel better. A companionable chat with (Sir) Sam, who is warm and funny, with a soft heart and feet on the ground, has been a real pleasure.
He writes towards the end of the book that though he’s not scared of death, he’d rather live. And he will. He’s in remission. What a sweet way to end.

 

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THE WAR OF NERVES

…the Russian psyche, forged through centuries of abuse by the country’s rulers and enemies alike, is not “like us”…

I borrowed The War of Nerves:Inside the Cold War Mind thinking it was going to be about spies, but it was really about fear. The arms race between the USSR and the US took the world to the brink of destruction. East and West lived for decades in a state of mutual incomprehension, misunderstanding, mistrust and paranoia that nearly killed us all.
After millions of Soviets suffered and died defeating the Germans in WWII, there was a brief honeymoon of gratitude for their enormous sacrifice…but then the West (particularly the US) managed to pretty comprehensively stomp all over their sensitivities. Thus, East Berlin and the Wall and the Iron Curtain.

Fearmongering, as we know from our recent experiences here – looking at you, John Howard et al –  is effective but heartless politics. The Soviets feared the that the US was going to attack them; the leaders projected their own experience and psychological understanding onto their counterparts and saw lies, disinformation, dissimulation and conspiracies everywhere. And in the US, with its McCarthy witch hunts and ‘reds under the beds’ campaigns, it was vice versa. Thus when each side suspected the other of planning nuclear strikes, we had ‘brinkmanship’ – a game of ‘chicken’ played with weapons of mass destruction.
Did you know that the WWIII was narrowly averted in 1983? Communist propaganda reinforced the idea that the individual was not to be trusted, that Party protocols or automation were the superior decision-makers. Well, a computerised Soviet early warning system misfired. It was only because Stanislav Petrov, the Russian officer on duty, chose to hang back, re-check and await corroboration instead of blindly following the order to launch that bombs weren’t launched. Whew.

We hear about the big players  – Stalin, Churchill, Reagan, Truman, Khrushchev – and high-level international politics but Sixsmith also explores the psychology of the times through personal stories and anecdotes, through art, literature, religion, science, music and popular culture.

The anecdote that has stayed with me is about the Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who went knowingly to his death in 1967. Increasingly lagging in the ‘space race’, the Soviet authorities demanded the Soyuz launch go ahead at all costs.  All the scientists knew that the ship was not space-worthy; the program had been dogged by technical problems, cost-cutting and time-saving shortcuts. But no-one could tell the authorities because questioning the superiority of Soviet technology amounted to treason. And Komarov knew that if he pulled out, they would instead send his friend and colleague, Yuri Gagarin. So he chose to go, with predictable results.

This is a gripping stuff, and it seems (sigh) like history is repeating. Disinformation, lies and wacky conspiracy theories spread like the plague via social media and Sky commentators. When I was young, it seemed unthinkable that there would ever be another world war but I wonder if we are getting closer and closer to another brink.

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HOW TO CATCH A MOLE

 

The moles, like us, are deeply mysterious creatures, and we will only ever catch a glimpse of their truth.

 How to Catch a Mole would be more accurately titled How to Kill a Mole, but I guess the publishers thought that would be bad for sales.

What’s so bad about moles? Apparently moles are not the innocent, eager to please and slightly befuddled creatures we know from The Wind in the Willows. They are solitary and tireless tunnellers, destroyers of lawns and gardens and golf courses, underminers of walls, fences and trees. In fields, they bring stones and other debris to the surface, interfering with crops and the machinery that harvest them. In pastureland, their diggings make it easy for weeds to spread and account for broken legs and other injuries to cattle, sheep and horses. Oh, and horse-riders too. Apparently in 1702 William III of England died of his injuries when his horse stumbled on a molehill.

Mole catching in Britain is a very specialised trade, with a long history; it nearly died out in the 20th century as the mole-afflicted hired mole-killers – basically poisoners, who used strychnine until the use of poison was banned. Marc’s work consisted of patiently observing and tracking the moles’ activity, and then inserting traps into their tunnels. The traps are meant to kill the animals instantly, but one day, a trap didn’t work properly. Marc had never had to deliberately kill an animal with his bare hands before, and it shocked him profoundly. Changed him. And he walked away from mole-catching – and wrote this book, a mixture of memoir, philosophy, poetry and natural history, with detailed instructions on how to kill moles.

So – you may ask yourself – why would a gentle soul like me, (mostly) vegetarian, lover of wild animals and lifelong devotee of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad want to read about death and destruction?

‘Cos moles are really, really interesting.  For instance, did you know – and I’ll bet you didn’t – that female moles have the same levels of testosterone as the males, which makes them perpetually cranky and defensive about their personal space? They will fight to the death when they meet another mole in the tunnels. Excepting when it’s time to mate and bear young, when the levels go down. They mother for five or six weeks, when the hormones kick back in and they kick the babies – ‘kits’ –  out of their tunnel system.
Most of the young will be eaten by birds at this time. The homeless of all species are predated.

Marc Hamer is really, really interesting too. I was on a garden-writing bender at the beginning of the year, and one website mentioned his last book, Spring Rain. So I knew already that Hamer lives in a valley in Wales, and that he is a gardener, poet, writer, artist, father and husband. Homeless in his youth, wandering by choice and necessity, he became finely tuned to his environment, to the weather, the seasons, to growing things and to creatures.

Walking through the seasons from daffodils to bluebells, then massed dandelions turning from bright yellow heads into white clouds of seed drifting across the path so thickly it was hard to breathe. Then as the days grew longer and warmer, and walking was harder, I saw ox-eye daisies sparring alongside last year’s teasels, which where still standing and dry. I watched the cow parsley and wild carrot appear from clenched green fists and grow to great frothy white heads with bees and hoverflies and other flying insects buzzing around in the heat…

Though he doesn’t identify with any religion or philosophy, he became almost Buddhist in his practice of mindfulness, acceptance and non-attachment. He holds death close. When he dies, he’ll be eaten by worms, and the worms will be eaten by moles, and perhaps someone will then trap and kill the moles. It’s just the nature of things.

I have made my children; nature does not need me any more. These are my unavoidable personal ecologies. You have your own, but they will be similar. Healing is just adapting to change, acceptance. It is all normal, we come in and grow, then fade back out again.

He writes movingly of love and marriage and ageing. And as an ageing person myself, with a growing list of conditions and injuries and limitations, I appreciate this in a way I couldn’t have even five years ago. Is it simply another season?

Damage is part of the flow of things. I am growing older and my body continues to  dissolve.

He also writes about memory, about thinking and writing. Or not.

Often I do not disturb myself with language and I just look and enjoy. At other times words come silently creeping in on insect legs. Some start to build a nest, develop a theme –  a twig here, a bud there – so I let them. I like to write bits, tiny bits of stuff that fly by like leaves, insubstantial, scattering, and could be gone if I didn’t grab them out of the air. Bits of ordinary stuff that I see and that I can hold in my head in their entirety. Like individual memories or the fragments of pottery that I find in the molehills. Here – alongside and flowing sometimes in and around the simple yet often bizarre facts about how to catch a mole – are these fragments, sometimes sharp, sometimes smooth, written for the most part while wandering across a field with a bag of traps.

This is a ravishing book, beautifully written, eccentric in the best way (not show-off weird, but strange and unusual in its voice and outlook) and wise. It’s one that I am going to read again as one of my own ‘personal classics’.

 

 

 

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EMBOLDENED

To be emboldened we need to have a vision and a purpose. Boldness is a forward-moving energy. It involves charging ahead bravely.


I’ve been enjoying non-fiction and memoirs lately, and I’d seen Emboldened by Belinda Alexandra – an internationally bestselling author of historical fiction – in a couple of different bookshops. Each time I was drawn to the dramatic, glowing cover – like a design for Russian folkloric embroidery –  and the equally dramatic blurb. Yes, you do choose a book by its cover.

The book begins in the middle of an intense and terrifying chapter in the author’s life.

…I can’t tell you exactly what happened to me: only that one cold winter’s night I fled my home in fear for my life, after having gotten my pets and a few sentimental items out the day before. I had only my wallet, my phone and my latest manuscript on a USB stick. I left an entire life behind.

Alexandra was, in her own words, shattered and traumatised. But as a storyteller herself, she was convinced that the power of stories would help her recover. She drew courage from a quartet of women who had formed the inspiration for her own fiction. Virginia Hall was an American who, despite a disability – she had an artificial leg – became an Allied agent behind enemy lines in WWII France. Carmen Amaya, born in poverty, became a renowned flamenco dancer. Edna Walling defied convention and became one of the first landscape designers to celebrate the unique beauty of the Australian bush.
Alexandra also called on her own family history – in particular the Russian strand – and the stories of her grandmother, Alexandra and her mother, Tania, who lived through wars and revolutions and displacement in Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century.

Emboldened combines memoir and history and although she says explicitly that she’s not writing a self-help manual, Alexandra does hope that her book will inspire, encourage and embolden. I guess that’s what left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Even uneasy.
I applaud Belinda Alexandra for sharing her experience of Complex Post Traumatic Disorder, her struggles, her recovery. She sounds like a brave, gutsy, creative and determined woman. And anyone who shares their mental health struggles is a hero to me because there’s too much shame around what is simply a part of being human.
But I guess I take issue with the message that no matter how dire the circumstances, how extreme the challenge, a person can rise phoenix-like from the ashes and go on to live what she calls an emboldened life. This seems to imply that it’s basically up to the individual (which is, incidentally, an idea much beloved by conservatives and neo-liberals everywhere so they can avoid thinking about structural inequality) when there are many, many people who face enormous challenges which are not of their making or within their control. People don’t always manage to prevail. You can indeed be a victim of circumstance. Instead of becoming emboldened, you can be knocked flat. All you can do is struggle on. Or sometimes, sadly, give up.

Perhaps I’ve taken Emboldened too seriously. Or perhaps my reaction to the uplifting message was influenced by an encounter at the airport before my flight to Alice Springs. Eating breakfast at Brunetti’s, I started chatting with another traveller. This woman and I talked for about forty minutes, hesitantly at first and then in an eager flood, often laughing and at times nearly crying. Why or how we got onto such intimate concerns as anxiety, depression, menopause, bullying, chronic pain and misogyny and ageism in the health system and the work force, I don’t know. Carol (and that’s not her real name) doesn’t live a glamorous or exciting life. She’s a wife and mother, worker and home-maker from an ordinary suburb who’s slogging away with multiple family problems while recovering from cancer. She struggles and stumbles and falls down and gets up and goes on. There’s no heroic, uplifting narrative here; she’s in the middle of it and she can’t see the ending. She goes on because she has to. And she doesn’t know how much longer she can.

After we farewelled each other, I went back to my Kindle. In the gate lounge and the plane, I kept thinking about Carol while I read about exotic women in exotic places; White Russians in Shanghai, American spies in Vichy France and flamenco dancers in Spain and South America. Much as I enjoyed Emboldened, in the end, it was Carol’s story that stuck with me.

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WELCOME TO COUNTRY

I’m only just back from nearly a month away from home. Alice Springs, King’s Canyon, Uluru in NT, and SA’s Coober Pedy and Wilpena Pound.
I’d never been to Central Australia before, and it was amazing. Beautiful, and so profoundly different to where I live that as soon as I arrived in Alice I felt like I was in another country. Not just the landforms and rocks, the sky, the colour of the earth – the people. I was on Arrernte and Anangu country.

Though I have heard many Welcome to Country ceremonies, this was the first time I have ever heard Aboriginal people speaking in their own language in the shops, in the street, on a bench alongside the tourist track around Uluru. I suppose in truth wherever I am in Australia I am always standing on other people’s country – but I have never felt it with such force.

It was like a seismic shift, and though my understanding of the issues facing Indigenous people is probably as just as superficial as before, my support for the Voice referendum is more heartfelt. I can’t believe it’s so political.
Anyway, enough of that. It just makes me feel sad.

The trip was a trip. An indescribable wow.
Being at Uluru was like looking at a hundred cathedrals all at the same time. The dramatic red rock domes of Kata Tjuta against the blue of the sky were mind-blowingly sublime. The ‘supermoon’ over the Rock was awesome in the real sense of the word.
Sunsets lit up the red rocks and earth with a fire-like glow; I woke in the night to the sound of dingos howling in the distance under a sky full of stars. A steep gorge with rock holes full of water, trees and ancient cycads in the middle of Watarrka/King’s Canyon was hidden away like a secret or a surprise in the middle of a rocky and strenuous climb.
I was filled to overflowing with awe and wonder. I had been told that being at Uluru, the ranges, the desert could be a spiritual experience, and it was.

From the sublime to the slightly ridiculous.
I rode a camel, and I liked it!
We stopped at the Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby viewing area in Brachina Gorge in the Flinders Ranges and, right on cue, they popped up, in ones and twos, long striped tails becomingly arrayed, and posed for the camera.
I ate a quandong pie in Blinman and stayed in a dugout B&B in Coober Pedy and looked at Crocodile Harry’s underground lair full of 1980s porn mag pinups and trophy underwear and sculptured breasts.
I toured the Nocturnal House at the Desert Park with my sunglasses on, effectively seeing almost nothing. (“What’s the point of this?” I thought as vague animal shapes scuttled about behind the glass. “It’s dark!”)

 

 

Back at home, I am already dreaming up my next trip. In one of those serendipitous coincidences, I found Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country in an Op Shop, so I’ll be better informed.

 

 

 

 

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ENGLEBY

This is our Book Club choice for this month, and I think I can guarantee it’s going to create a lot of discussion. It might even be “love it or hate it”. We shall see.

Mike Engleby narrates his own story with what seems like total candour.
When the novel starts, he’s in second year at Cambridge University. It’s the ’70’s; he won a prize to go to university, after winning a scholarship to a minor public (read: private) school. He’s not posh; his family are working-class and poor. He drinks a lot. He takes prescription and recreational drugs. Crime? He does a bit of dealing, a bit of stealing, but nothing violent or sexual.
He’s highly intelligent, with a phenomenal memory. Observant. He’s got a wide general knowledge – politics, history, literature, music – and seems to soak up information like a sponge.
But quite quickly, the reader realises he’s an unreliable narrator. He’s also seriously creepy.

Engleby’s a stalker.
He’s become obsessed with another student, a girl called Jennifer. He watches her, attends the same clubs, starts going to one of her classes. She’s been cast in a film, and he manages to inveigle his way into the shoot in rural Ireland. He thinks he has some kind of relationship with her, but it’s mostly imaginary. When she vanishes, he’s the prime suspect.

Repellent, yes? Well, yes and no. Mike’s account of his dead father’s violent abuse, and the sustained bullying he experienced at his school are truly horrifying. There’s a sadness in his attempts to connect with Jennifer and in his solitary pub crawls and time spent hanging about on the fringes of student life. He knows there’s something not quite right with him, and at times, he’s perceptive enough to describe his mental state.
As in this scene. He has travelled alone to Istanbul:

It was one a.m. in the grey sodium light with the wailing music and the black ground with its spattered chewing gum and cigarette ends. I had started to pay too much attention to things. It was almost as though I could see right through them into the molecules that made them. And that awful music. I suppose my wind was trying too hard to get a grip on this place, to anchor it for me, because I had the strong impression that I was really outside time or place, that the hostile otherness of my surroundings was such that my own personality was starting to disintegrate. I was vanishing. My character, my identity, had unravelled. I was a particle of fear.
I guess I was a little lonely then.
In general, in less extreme circumstances, lonely looks after itself. It helps you develop strategies that reinforce it. The comfort of the dark cinema and the company of the screen actors prevent you from meeting anyone. Lonely’s like any other organism: competitive and resourceful in the struggle to perpetuate itself.

Engleby is not charged with any crime relating to Jennifer. He goes on to become a successful journalist. He forms a relationship with a woman, and they even move in together. She has a young daughter, and he enjoys her company. Life’s going well. Warning, there’s a spoiler here – but most readers will guess this is going to happen.
A body is discovered in a drainage ditch. And it all unravels.

Close to the end of the book, when Enderby is in his 17th year of imprisonment/confinement in an institution for the criminally insane, he reflects on his life and the reader gets a sense of what made him.

Once I saw a mother in a supermarket in Paddington – an obese, poor woman with bare legs and a small child who was making a noise. She swore at him and slapped him in the face, which only made him howl more. It wasn’t her fault really; she was clearly exhausted, broke and stretched to snapping point. But I knew that when she got the child home she’d beat him more, and if there was a father (a bit unlikely) he would hit him too.
And that child would slowly ascend towards full awareness in a world whose sky was violence and horizons were fear. And however resourceful he was, however patient and fortunate in the events of his life that followed, he was like a creature in a nest of imprisoning boxes who could never really break free. That was his world and any attempt to persuade him that it was merely a ‘subjective’ or ‘individual’ experience could never convince him.
And all of us, I think, are like him.

Dense with multiple themes, the  book is disturbing, tragic and at times weirdly funny (Engleby’s experiences with the legal and mental health systems are beyond absurd). When towards the end of the novel, Faulks takes us outside the closed world of Engleby’s deluded mind, his disconnect from reality becomes even clearer. Weirdly, I found the section where his Cambridge friend, Stellings, describes him as others saw him was almost heartbreaking.
Poor Jennifer. Poor Engleby.

 

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HOW TO DO NOTHING

Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured , optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands. For some, there may be a kind of engineer’s satisfaction in the streamlining and networking of our entire lived experience. And yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought, lingers. Though it can be hard to grasp before it disappears behind the screen of distraction, this feeling is in fact urgent. We still recognise that much of what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the “off time” that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.

From the introduction to How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell.

My phone is on silent most of the time. I leave it in the house when I’m gardening. It’s off when I’m writing. I use only a few apps. I’m not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I know I annoy my friends by not being connected – and I have compromised by using Facebook Messenger – but after a brief flirtation I realised social media is addictive. And it’s not what I want to do with my time.

So in a way, Jenny Odell in How To Do Nothing is preaching to a convert. However I enjoyed having my distaste for social media and 24/7 “connectedness” clarified and explained. And it’s as simple as this: I hate knowing that my attention is being manipulated, gamed, algorithmed, stolen, bought and sold by big tech companies for money. And I try, wherever practical, to refuse to let them do it.

But this isn’t a rant, and though it’s dense, it isn’t dry reading. Odell is great company as she explores the ways individuals and communities have tried to refuse to participate in their own exploitation. She talks about the “dropping out” hippie culture of the 1960s and ’70s, sit-ins and protests and strikes, individual and collective action, parks and libraries and other kinds of non-productive public spaces. She explores hiking and bird-watching and learning about and simply being in your local environment. And above all, she talks about paying attention.

Odell’s antidote is looking and really seeing the place where you are. Being there with your mind, body and all your senses. Learning about your local environment – the geography and geology, the history, the flora and fauna. The birds – she’s big on birds. She talks about paying attention, and then deepening that attention.
Which I think equates to love, doesn’t it?

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