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I haven’t been a Michael Leunig fan for some years now. I write this in full knowledge that a hit elf from the Michael Leunig Appreciation Society may shortly arrive in a goat-drawn curly wagon attended by ducks. He will proceed to recite relentless whimsy while the ducks flog me with daffodils. I can’t run, I can’t hide. They know where I live, as I have the the weekend Age home delivered.
To tell the truth, way back in the 1970s I did fall in love – like most people I knew – with Leunig’s quirky visions in the Nation Review, ‘lean and nosy like a ferret’. I treasure some of those early cartoons. And yeah, OK, I admit it; I do occasionally rejoice at the way he can still hit the spot for poignancy or damning political insight.
It’s really his columns. Can’t stand them. Don’t read them. Call me a cynic, but the whole ‘holy fool’ schtick sticks in my craw. So it’s unusual that I even skimmed Moon Eclipsed By a Memory, in last weekend’s Age. Skimmed, and then stunned myself by actually reading it. By loving it. How can this be?
The column was about the recent super moon – and how it wasn’t all that super, after all. However, it reminded Leunig of an eclipse he’d once witnessed. The memory of this amazing natural event has never left him. His description was magical.
Many years ago I was near Whitfield in the King Valley in north-east Victoria, standing by the car at a lookout and gazing at the steep green bush-crowned hillsides. A murmuring creek was hidden by the undergrowth in a deep valley. It was peaceful and lovely. And then, there was an eclipse. Perhaps it was the same eclipse. Like Leunig, I heard the eerie sound of hundreds of cattle bellowing. Birds – flocks and solitaries – streamed through the air in the descending darkness, calling, calling. I knew that it was only (only?) the moon passing in front of the sun, and yet my heart thumped in my chest. Fear? Awe? I held my breath. For a short time, as the daylight dimmed and then returned, I changed perspective. I could put myself in the place of my distant ancestors, a place of deepest wonder. It was powerful, mystical, natural magic and I have never forgotten it, either.
This time Leunig, in words not pictures, hit the spot for me. Dark and light. He wrote:
It’s as simple as this: disillusionment precedes creativity.
Currently I’m feeling disillusioned, disappointed, melancholy and futile. Not quite despairing, but certainly in a dark funk. This column was a graceful and timely reminder about the cycle of descent and return.
Thank you, Michael. I’m sorry I said those bad things about you. And now, can you call off the ducks?
I’m thinking of another news blackout for myself.
I have the weekend papers delivered, so that I can read them over breakfast; sometimes I do the crosswords as well. A nice, cruisy way to start the day.
And I have updates from The Guardian, too, and The Monthly.
It’s important, I tell myself, to keep up. But is it? This morning I spent an hour or so in the garden, raking leaves and picking up twigs while haranguing Donald Trump on the issue of gun control. Then I had a go at that creature Wayne LaPierre, leader of the NRA. I kept asking myself how it’s possible that such obviously paranoid and unstable old men have so much power. As I told them both what I thought of them, my blood pressure was probably stratospheric. Every now and then I found I’d stopped still, transfixed by my inner slanging match. It was exhausting.
You see, like so many others I’ve been moved to tears by the footage of those Florida teenagers speaking out. Calling out the nation’s leaders – such grief and such rage . I find it hard to stop thinking about them. The awful thing is that most probably nothing will change. Donald Trump’s solution is to arm teachers. Teachers with guns! Is that really the best they can do? I keep recalling the face of my own son as he went off to high school with his friends. I imagine what this kind of event would do to them, to any young people. Or just anybody at all. The madness of it. Who, apart from the military, needs a military rifle?
Don’t think about it, I told myself as I barrowed a load of gum leaves and twigs up to to the green bin. But Barnaby Joyce’s glum face intruded, then – oh, the horror! – Tony Abbott’s, complete with idiotic grin, and I began again, reflecting on the stupid, ignorant, dog-whistling, self-serving men in our own government.
I tried to think about women – Penny Wong, I reckon, would make a great Prime Minister – but ended up with the MeToo movement and memories of my 18-year-old self (this was not traumatic, merely unpleasant) washing dishes at a steak house where the cooks liked to cop a feel when I was up to my elbows in sudsy water and dirty pots…
And far sadder, the realisation, when I was around 12 and puberty had just hit and we started having lectures at school about skirt lengths and modest behaviour and unwanted pregnancy and keeping safe, that now everything was different. Everything had changed. Because – damn, damn, damn! – I was going to have to turn into a woman.
In my own backyard with a rake and a broom, I’m usually happy as can be. I like the exercise; I love the way that, so quickly, the paths and paving look neat and tidy. The green bin is now groaning with garden waste; I’ve picked up the dog poo; my rake and broom and brush and shovel have been neatly stowed away in the shed. I should be peacefully and happily tired, but instead my mind’s been roiling with discord and I feel kind of grumpy and itchy. A couple of very rich cakes for afternoon tea have helped somewhat (sugar coma?) but it’s only temporary. I could knit, but that leaves my mind to wander.
I’d better find a book. Something nice and cheering, with a murder in it.
And I’m helplessly drawn to crime. I’ve been re-visiting the Kinsey Milhone “Alphabet” mysteries as a homage to Sue Grafton after hearing of her death late last year. It’s been years since I’ve read them; they vary, of course, and I find that I’ve enjoyed the earlier ones more. But still, it’s fantastic to find that they are, in general, just as good as I remembered. Fast, often funny, sometimes unexpectedly moving, with great, tricky plots. Grafton travels up and down the social scale in her characters and locales, so we have the rich and corrupt in one novel and ‘plain folks’ in another. Kinsey is a feisty, smart, all-t00-human narrator and protagonist. And you could say that the setting, the entirely fictitious Californian city of Santa Theresa, is another character. The sunsets, the beaches, the weather, the faux Spanish architecture and the dry hills above the city just waiting to burst into flames in the fire season… It seems utterly real. Grafton’s ‘California Noir’ novels are in a direct line from Raymond Chandler.
I also read a couple of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware murder mysteries, Blood Test and Therapy. They were well-plotted, too, but…well, kind of pervy. “Blood Test”, in particular, was disturbing – spoiler ahead! – because it was about a young girl who’d been raised by her horticulturalist father as a kind of sexual fruit for his delectation. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but many other commentators have noted that there can be a kind of pornography in the depiction of violence against women in crime novels and films. In the two Kellerman novels, the violence, obviously, is crime; but it’s sometimes portrayed with an almost voyeuristic quality and I felt a little soiled when I finished. Plus, I have to say – that Alex Delaware is a complete tosser. The gourmet meals and the designer pad…give me Kinsey and her junk food habit any day!
A coincidence, but I learned in Jane Sullivan’s February 17th column for the Melbourne newspaper The Age about a new award. It’s the Staunch Book Prize, which is to be awarded to a thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”
Jane Sullivan, though initially enthusiastic, came to question the terms of the Staunch Prize, noting that several crime writers have spoken against it. It’s not so much the violence against women, but the way it’s portrayed. Quoting from Sullivan’s article again, here’s Sophie Hannah: “If we can’t stop human beings from viciously harming one another, we need to be able to write stories in which that harm is subjected to psychological and moral scrutiny, and punished… There is no life-changing experience that we should be discouraged from writing and reading about.”
Rather, Sullivan concludes, it might be better to have a prize for books which tackle the issue of violence against women in intelligent, powerful, thought-provoking ways.
I’m ‘resting’ at the moment, like an out-of-work actor. With a nagging chronic pain problem, plus the heat (ugh!), there’s not a lot of writing happening in my office. So I’ve been doing a little more sorting of my late mother’s archives. Archives? Yes, I use that word deliberately. She wasn’t a hoarder, as such. She just filed, and filed, and filed…
It will be ten years since she died this May, and it’s only recently that I binned the superannuation records of her 40-year career. I also gave a packet of photographs of our town taken in the 1960s to the Historical Society. My brother Charles got some travel snaps taken during early 50’s, but I scanned some of those photographs first.
Mum and Dad’s travels formed part of my own history, for they were told again and again (“Tell me a story!”) during my childhood. When I look at the tiny one and a half by two inch images, I’m also looking through the eyes of the young Doug and Helen. I know they’re excited, curious, exhilarated. They’re just married, they’re in love – it’s summer and the Festival of Britain is on – it’s Autumn and they’re in Rome – they’re in Bombay or Aden or Chartres or Madrid. The pictures are so small and grey and indistinct, but they contain an expanding, vivid world of love and wonder and adventure.
That’s why I find these little pictures deeply mysterious.
My character, Bliss, in How Bright Are All Things Here, says:
…I stood on the promenade and in the pleasure grounds, watching through the viewfinder as passers-by floated in and out of focus. Click! I’d catch this one. Click! And that one. It became, in time, more about the people. Like collecting butterflies. In the boxes at the flat, there are hundreds of one and a half by two inch photographs…
If you look closely, if you adjust yourself to their black-and-white 1950s tininess, you can discern faces, gestures, little glimpses of lives. Are those two in love? Her shoes are too tight. That man looks ill.
Last summer, before I came here, I looked at them again, and imagined I heard a rustling sound as a crowd of trapped, snapped souls, stuck in a shoe-box since the summer of 1951, took flight.
Fanciful? Oh yes, I am that. In the slivered fragment of time, they’re framed, captured, caught in the act. You move on, of course: is it unreasonable to wonder if part of you stays as well?
My brother used to work in a record store. Sometimes people would come in asking for a record (yes, it was back in the days of vinyl), not knowing the artist or the name of the album. He’d ask if they could remember any of the song titles. And every now and then, someone would say, ‘No, but I really liked the one that goes like this.” And they’d sing to him.
I thought of him today when I had a customer who didn’t know the author, or the title, of the book she wanted. It was a mystery, she knew that much. It might have had something to do with a hangman. There happened to be a new release called Hangman, but it wasn’t the one. We looked aimlessly along the shelves for a while, as she thought she might recognise it if she saw it. To no avail. She ended up buying a literary novel and a cookbook.
A small boy asked if I had any Cats in Underpants books. Never heard of them, I said. He looked unimpressed. I looked up the distributors’ website. No Cats in Underpants at all. I imagined pussycats in jocks, in Y-fronts, in boxers while he went moodily into the children’s section and reappeared a few minutes later clutching Captain Underpants and the Wicked Wedgie Woman. I should have figured it out.
Yesterday a rather intense older male customer came to the counter with a new biography of Charles Darwin. He self-identified as a creationist. Just like that. “I’m a creationist.” I had to stop myself from reeling back in horror, as my mind leapt to everything else he might be – a fundamentalist Christian? Or a climate change denier, a misogynist, a homophobe? He followed up by requesting a dictionary, but he didn’t want to buy it. Oh, no. He wanted to prove a point, as I realised when he asked me what one should do when a definition is wrong. Write to the compilers, I suggested, and then – even though I knew, I knew, I knew I shouldn’t – I asked him what the word was. It was ‘entropy’; he asked if I knew what it meant. Well, I sort of did, and I made a kind of “winding down” hand gesture. He said something along the lines of “very good”, after which it got weird as he launched into a diatribe about the scientist who first defined entropy in 18-something-or-other, and what it really meant, according to that definition, and how it was therefore totally impossible that…was it something about chemicals? Or planets? Or randomness? I felt quite shattered by the time he left. Saying you are a creationist seems a lot like saying quite proudly and publicly that you are completely and utterly irrational.
The shop where I work is nicely social; customers often chat with me and with each other. Friends, acquaintances and even total strangers will compare notes on the best Scandi crime, or recommend children’s novels or cookbooks. It’s lovely. Just after the marriage equality postal survey results were announced, I witnessed the meeting of soul mates. No, not love at first sight; they discovered that they both hated political correctness. A very loud conversation followed, about how marriage was actually about having children, and since ‘they’ couldn’t, ‘they’ shouldn’t be allowed to…and so on and so forth. I couldn’t really help the expression on my face, but I kept busy while they got worked up and said some truly appalling and offensive things about ‘them’.
I wanted to shout, “But them is us!” But I continued to dust the shelves, and eventually they walked out, past the rainbow posters prominently displayed in the front window.
Reading on from H is for Hawk, but in some of the same territory…
Though there’s an element of the personal in Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, the book would fit more comfortably on the self-help shelves. The author, Johann Hari, is a journalist and it shows (though not in a bad way) because the book is punchy, fast-paced, well-structured into chapters that discuss the causes and cures for depression, and very easy to digest. Again, not in a bad way.
Hari starts by revealing that he has skin in the game; he was diagnosed with depression when he was 18, and spent half his life taking antidepressants (he says his first tablet was “a chemical kiss”) but he doesn’t treat the reader to what he describes as a “long stretch of pain porn”. Then, he gets stuck in, demolishing two long-held “stories” about depression. Number one is the old story, the one that public health campaigns and organizations such as Beyond Blue are trying to eradicate. It’s the idea that the depressed person is weak, indulgent, and just needs to pull his or her socks up and get a grip because depression is a personal failing, shameful and embarrassing. The newer story, the one we’re told now, is that depression is a disease, like diabetes. Brain chemicals aren’t working properly; they’re out of balance or you’re not producing enough of them.
Now, with millions of people all over the western world diagnosed with depression and taking medication (some scary figures, like nearly one in four middle aged women in the US prescribed with antidepressants), it’s time to ask why. Is there something about the way we live now that’s causing this mental health epidemic?
Hari believes he has uncovered nine basic causes and I won’t go through them one by one, but they all make sense to me. Disconnection is the key. Disconnection from, for example, meaningful work, from other people, from the natural world, from a hopeful or secure future. I’ve often thought that depression can be a perfectly rational and realistic response to a stuck, unsatisfactory, painful life. Imagine that you’re a young man or woman of 25 who’s overweight and unhealthy; you can’t get full-time work so you’re prepping food for MacDonald’s; you’re stuck living with an uncongenial big sister and her partner; you can’t afford a car; all your friends are travelling, getting partners, getting an education… You’d be depressed, wouldn’t you? Or perhaps you’re a young Iranian man, well educated, ambitious, energetic, and you’ve been stuck in an Australian-run facility for refugees on Manus Island for the past four years… Perhaps I’d better not go there.
Hari doesn’t deny that there are genetic factors in play with depression, and that medication can play a role. He says “some credible scientists argue that they give some temporary relief to a minority of users, and that shouldn’t be dismissed”. But he argues forcibly against the narrative spun by the billion dollar industry we call Big Pharma. They’d have us believe that “depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and that the primary solution for most people is a chemical antidepressant.” There’s a nasty tale in there of the industry putting a positive spin on unimpressive research, cherry-picking the good stats and burying the failures and finding more and more ways to sell their pills.
The positives from this book are the things we can do to help ourselves and each other. Prescriptions, if you like. Many are simple actions, such as being with friends, walking in nature, volunteering, gardening. And finding “sympathetic joy”. That’s a phrase I’m familiar with from my Buddhist dabblings. It simply means cultivating the feeling of being happy for other people. Loving kindness meditation, prayer, compassion…
There’s the ideal, and then there’s the real. Call me pessimistic, but I can’t see things changing anytime soon when there’s so much money at stake.
Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is For Hawk first came out in 2014; not only were the newspaper and online reviews uniformly positive, but copies were flying out of the door of the bookshop and customers reported back that it was fantastic. I bought it. I tried to read it. And I hated it.
I’ll admit that I didn’t try very hard – around 20 pages was enough. I couldn’t stand the intensity, the hyper-sensitivity, the misery, the self-indulgence. It’s lucky that I kept my opinion to myself, for now I can see it was a clear case of bad timing. The wrong book at the time. The wrong time for the book.
I still found the tone initially off-putting; I had to make myself persevere. She just sounded so mad! And then I got it. Of course. She – Helen Macdonald – was mad. For goodness sake, she said she was – never truly mad, in the sense of psychotic but like Hamlet, mad north-north west – madness that was, as she said, “quiet and very very dangerous.” It was grief, the madness of grief, and so everything she sensed and felt and thought about was saturated by that unhinged, unbalanced, perilous state.
Whatever the mood I was in at the time, I simply couldn’t bear to be with Macdonald in her grief.
But now, as I begin my year of reading from my shelves and the library, H is for Humbly Changing My Mind. What a wonderful book this is! It has so many elements that I love – like closely observed and poetic descriptions of the natural world, of landscape and the creatures in it – history – literature and biography (in her discussion of T H White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Goshawk). Add to these a truly poignant memoir of the sheer slog and struggle of loss and grief and depression and Macdonald’s achingly slow reconciliation with life.
The healing came about through the difficult training and taming of Mabel, a young goshawk who’d been bred in an aviary in Belfast. Macdonald purchases Mabel for 800 pounds on a Scottish quay. Their first meeting:
…amidst a chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s happening all at once, the man pulls out an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of word and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.
There’s so much more to this book than this beautiful writing. It’s an eye-opening – more accurately, mind-opening – account of a human having a relationship with a non-human; an attempt to get inside animal consciousness, to try to understand Mabel’s understanding of the world. On that Scottish quay, when the young hawk is first removed from her box, without her hood, Macdonald writes of Mabel that everything was “startling and new-stamped on her entirely astonished brain”. It was “an alien brain fizzing and fusing with terror”.
I won’t go on. If you haven’t read it, you should – when you can. If you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
An aside: I’ve just finished a reading copy of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari. He writes about the mental health bible used by US doctors (and I’d say probably Australian ones as well) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). It was first published in 1952, has gone through several editions, and contains a checklist doctors use for picking up depression and anxiety in their patients. If a person shows at least five out of nine symptoms, they are diagnosed with depression. When doctors first applied this checklist to people who were grieving, those people met the clinical criteria for depression. “This made many doctors and psychiatrists feel uncomfortable. So the authors of the DSM invented a loophole, which became known as ‘the grief exception’.” Thus, it was seen as normal, or reasonable, or natural, to display this set of symptoms when you’ve suffered a loss without being diagnosed with depression. Hari writes that in the most recent update of the DSM, ‘the grief exception’ has been removed.
Happy New Year! We’ve just been for a picnic in our beautiful Botanical Gardens; ducks, dogs, kids on their new Christmas bikes, blankets spread on the banks of the (very small) lake in the shade of willow trees under a brilliant blue summer sky. Couples, small groups, large extended families with proper tables and chairs and full-on buffet-style lunches. These made our thermos of tea, packet of chips, Aldi cake and sliced apple seem pretty ordinary, but who cares? We are lucky enough to live 10 minutes walk from the park, so an ordinary picnic is a readily available pleasure.
I was going to make a list of my best books of the year, but I can’t be arsed. Or is that bollixed? I have been reading the Tana French Dublin Murder Squad series and enjoying the Irish vernacular. Faithful Place, narrated by an undercover officer whose career in policing meant he’d inevitably left his inner city working class family behind, was particularly rich in swearing and slang. Reminds me of an occasion many years ago, when an Irish short story writer gave a workshop here in Castlemaine. Her speech was full of ‘feck’ this and ‘feck’ that and one dear old lady finally asked what she meant. When the writer explained, the old lady packed up her notebook and pens and left.
Anyway, no top hundred or top ten or ranking or listing or anything. I know I’ve read lots of books this year – there’s always at least two on the go – but I haven’t been keeping notes, and my memory is terrible. Two recent things bob up; Sheridan Jobbins’ laugh-out-loud memoir Wish You Were Here, and Elizabeth Strout’s quiet, moving, linked short story collection Anything Is Possible. But the year, for me, has ended in a crime wave. Australian, with Jane Harper’s The Dry and Force of Nature. And Irish, with Tana French. I haven’t got into the Scandinavians as yet, but with hot weather on the way, it’s probably the right time.
It’s funny how crime novels have gradually become my favourites for holiday reading, or insomniac nights, or as a method for riding out pain or anxiety. It’s great to find a good new writer, but good old ones are worth revisiting, too. On a recent short break at the coast, I found a Sue Grafton ‘Alphabet Murder’ B is for Burglar and an early Patricia Cornwell in seaside Op Shops. Perfect for beach reading, and Sue Grafton in particular stands up well. I’ve also recently read the latest in Ben Abromovitch Rivers of London series, The Furthest Station. It’s a novella, therefore short, but also sweet and satisfying.
New Year’s resolutions? Again, can’t be arsed. But I do have a lazy kind of plan to work my way through the unread titles on my shelves. There are heaps, and I wonder, how can that be? How did I get fired up enough to purchase a book but then neglect to read it? I have no idea. First up is H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald.
A Canadian friend sent me this photograph of my novel having a cafe outing in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I don’t usually go all confessional in this blog. I’m a pretty reserved person and while I hope my books are interesting to others, I’m not sure that my private life is. But. Here goes. To all you writers out there – a warning. This writing life can be a health hazard.
Does that sound a bit dramatic? Isn’t writing just sitting at a desk, plus the odd thoughtful walk or session in a cafe with a notebook and a couple of lattes? Well, yes. And no. In my 20s and 30s, I could write without a break for four or five hours at a time but as I’ve got older, the back and neck and shoulders have begun to complain. I’ve learned to take breaks every hour. To vary things with a standing desk. To have regular appointments with a chiropractor or physio or masseur. I thought I was doing OK until about five months ago, when I made the acquaintance of the TMJ.
That’s the temporo-mandibular joint. Basically, it’s your jaw. Mine started clicking. And hurting. It got better. It got worse. And worse. For the past five months, it’s been mostly worse. The physio reckons the pain is referred from my neck and shoulders due to – yes, you guessed it – my posture when I’m writing. It’s bad but not severe, just – at its worst – completely unremitting. It’s meant visits to the dentist and an expensive mouth guard-ish device that, sadly, I’m not able to use. (It worked with my jaw, but sensitized my teeth. Not fair). Hours of chiropractic and physio and acupuncture (not to mention the dollars to pay for them). Anti-inflammatories (Voltaren, Nurofen) work, but I can’t take them because I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. There’s been sleepless nights. Stress and tension and worry about deadlines. Smiling and laughing and talking and eating hurt. I’ve felt like my brain isn’t working. And any kind of chronic pain is so tiring.
“Something’s Gotta Give”, as the song says.
So I’m taking a break. I’ve been working on a children’s book and I’ve had to put that aside – thank goodness for understanding agents and publishers – but it’s a thing I’ve never done before in my 30 years of writing. I’ve always been able to push through and deliver a manuscript. In fact, once I wrote a Dolly Fiction title in 10 weeks from start to finish (while working three days a week as a youth worker) because another author had dropped out. I’ve found it difficult. If I’m not writing, am I still a writer?
Anyway. I’m thinking of it as long service leave. After all, I’ve had a project of some kind on the go, with contractual or self-imposed deadlines, for the past twenty years. For the last year or so, I worked on two books at the same time. I’ll do the odd blog. But mainly I’ll go to work in the bookshop and read and think and play in the garden and walk the dog and hopefully stop hurting. Hopefully, soon.