Eulogy for a fisherman’s village (John Smith)

10 Apr

I’d never thought of my father, Len Smith, as an imaginative person. He’d always seemed very practical and applied to the task at hand, so to speak. However, I began the eulogy at his funeral with a short anecdote describing an innovative tactic he had used to make some money, as a boy, in the early 1920s. It was the sort of story you can use at a funeral. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised at how much laughter it generated.

He’d told me about how they used to snare seagulls. He and his mate, Ray Jones, would fashion a string of snares out of fishing net twine and lay them out on the dry sandbar. They’d cover them a bit with sand here and there and then spread dried, broken and torn bread about the place. They would then ‘draw back a’ways’ and wait.

The gulls would swoop down together and land. Then as they ran all about pecking at the bread they’d snare their feet and get captured, three or four at a time, by trying to pull away. They literally caught each other up by tightening all the snares with the jerking and tugging as they struggled to fly off. It was an ingenious trap. And their fate was in his hands.

He often told us about how there wasn’t money for things when they were kids and how you had to make your own fun and all. But this was the other side of the coin. This was about making a few bob. The boys clipped one wing on each of the gulls and then they hawked them around to people; sold them to eat the bugs out of their gardens and off their vegetable plants. It was a shilling for the black-legged ones and one and threepence for the red-legged ones, ‘because the red-legged gulls looked better on the lawn’.

Maybe the recollection generated a surprising amount of laughter because of the way I told it. Or maybe because it was the first formal opportunity to release emotion for all these people, who had been arriving, greeting and filing in through the last half hour or so. But it worked like a charm, I settled a bit and launched into the rest of the eulogy; it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life, I guess.

There was a good-sized contingent of local Koori fishermen from Wreck Bay present. When I was talking with them after the service, at the graveside, one of the younger Adlers, Paul, whom I’d never met before commented on the seagull story saying how he enjoyed it. I’d started at the beginning of my father’s life and it was nice to have one of the local Wreck Bay crowd comment on it. And then he gave me one of his recollections of Dad and his grandfather, old Charlie Adler, from the last part of their lives.

He recalled how Dad had arrived out at their place one time with his ‘new discovery’ and he was so excited it made them laugh, as he told old Charlie about how you could see right through the water with these new Polaroid sunglasses. He’d brought a pair for himself and another for Charlie. Dad and Charlie often sat up on the sand-hills watching to see the travelling mullet coming along. When they saw a patch they would yell and wave and indicate to the boys at the water when to shoot the net around them. And now here they were sitting together, the two of them wearing their Polaroids and as pleased as punch with themselves and their newfound sight.

I had heard some version of this story before, perhaps from Dad himself, or more likely, Mum. But it seemed more real hearing it from the younger Adler bloke. Perhaps because he’d been there and it was like an echo or seeing through a reflection. Anyway, it had a real lively feel about it, there by the grave.

*

I was born and raised on the foreshores of Botany Bay at the end of an era, the end of a place called Fisherman’s Village. Four generations of my family had been fishing professionally in Botany Bay since the early nineteenth century. The Fisherman’s Village community was situated around the area known as Booralee in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay. It grew into a community of about two hundred people. My great-great grandfather, Charles Smith, joined it in about 1840. However, vague records show how some families, like the Puckeridges, had been there for decades at that time. A group of families – Smiths, Duncans, Thompsons, Jones’s, Byrnes, Bagnalls and more – established a working community and developed a fishing family lifestyle that evolved and continued for over 150 years. Gradually the cart tracks became Booralee and Luland Street and Fishing Town, as it was also known, centred around these streets, growing to encompass an area of about fifty acres.

*

At the bottom of Booralee Street was a large expanse of shallows in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay where the original mouth of the Cooks River flowed into it. This area provided good mooring for the boats and the fishermen could work from here and sail or row their Carvel and Clinker-built, open twenty-foot ‘yachts’ to anywhere in the bay. They were net fishermen. They worked by ‘shooting’ hundreds of metres of rope and net out from the beaches and sand bars in large semi-circles and then slowly hauling them in. Sometimes they trawled the shallow floors of the bay for crabs and prawns. Occasionally they set nets in a straight line across a large, tidal shallow and waited for the fish to ‘mesh’.

The fishing village community developed a working lifestyle and culture that, while integrated with the emerging South Sydney area, maintained certain internal patterns that were determined by the weather, the seasons and the travelling schools of fish that would come into Botany Bay to feed and spawn. The bay provided the community with a focus for both work and recreation. They used sailing to survive but also for leisure. Working practices and strategies for recreation evolved and changed in relation to the greater Sydney community. My father, for example, became a very accomplished sailor and raced ‘eighteen footers’ on Sydney Harbour. He eventually skippered an Australian boat in the world championships in New Zealand in 1950.

However, during the late 1950s, the area known as Fisherman’s Village was absorbed into a greater industrial zoning in Botany. This generated the situation wherein I was raised and the Fisherman’s Village was compromised until the time my father and uncle retired as the last two full-time professionals from Fisherman’s Village, in the late 1970s. For myself, Botany Bay was always a place to leave, not to stay. When the last professional net fishermen retired they moved south to Jervis Bay and I headed off in the alternative culture drift that drew many people to the north coast of NSW in the mid-1970s.

Botany Bay was the official site of first British contact with Australia. It has been marked as a place of Captain Cook’s arrival in all official, symbolic and historical contexts but I had a very real sense of the place as a site of deterioration. It remains, symbolically, the site of the ‘first landing’. But the decision to establish the colony in the harbour to the north was like placing a metaphorical time bomb in Botany Bay. As I grew up the industrialization swallowed the houses, paddocks and sand dunes, slicked the foreshores and then poisoned the water. By the time we left they were measuring the mercury content in the fish. Breakwaters built for the protection of shipping caused erosions and ruined spawning grounds for the large travelling schools of fish. Dredging for airport runways reshaped the shorelines and then came the reclamation of most of the north shoreline for the port.

This inversion and the contradiction that I took for granted has always stayed with me. I watched the fishermen moving against a changing background. A backdrop of industry was replacing their foreshore scenery. It gave me an appreciation of the irony of life whilst providing an underlying sense of loss that I later came to see reflected in many aspects of recent, Western culture. And the irony of the loss of the native Kameygal people to small-pox, displacement and their nation, compared to the relative comfort of the displacements of my generation, is haunting.

*

This essay is part of a longer work that was first published in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Space Eds. Barbara Holloway, Jennifer Rutherford. (UWA Publishing, 2010).  For more information about the Botany Bay fishing village, go here.

The Waiting (Elizabeth Bryer)

6 Apr

She sits quietly, ankles and knees pressed together, hands settled neatly into her lap on the faded flower print of her tired dress. She is not going anywhere but would much prefer to be and indeed imagines she is, even though in her imagination it is not to somewhere but to someone. That would be preferable to this waiting that gnaws at her as it has for long years past.

She unfolds and refolds her hands.

There is a glossiness to her eyes that could be hope, but could just as well be the pain of memory and its fixedness, its fact, threatening to overwhelm. She hears children before they come into view, their glee tumbling ahead of them. She notices without contempt that they quieten their chatter as they hurry past her house, and she wonders if they think she is a witch. If her frailty, unkempt appearance, crinkly skin and lonesome existence reveal that her broom has aspirations far above sweeping the floor and that her kitchen cradles a cauldron.

She wonders this as she sits on the veranda, bones creaking gently, waiting with glossy eyes as she has for many years. But above all what she wonders, as she has wondered countless times, is this: Can what I am doing be called waiting when I was the one who left?

Untruths Sculpted into Truths (Tristan Foster)

29 Mar

In a recent interview with Amitava Kumar, Michael Ondaatje spoke about the need for multiple voices and various narratives in stories of political or social consequence. “You want the politics of any complicated situation to be complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction,” Ondaatje said. In an oeuvre that has become increasingly complex, it is a belief that Merlinda Bobis has come to share; her latest novel Fish-Hair Woman is a narrative of knots. Set in Manilla and the village of Iraya, on the surface it is a fictionalised account of events during the civil uprisings of the seventies and eighties that led to dozens of Filipinos who opposed the ruling regime ending up at the bottom of the river. And it is this, but Fish-Hair Woman is many things.

Attracted by revolution, Australian journalist Tony McIntyre visited the Philippines in the 1980s. He fell in love with the country and its people, but, like so many others, disappeared. Now, over a decade later, he makes contact with Luke McIntyre, the son he abandoned. Luke reluctantly flies to Manilla where he is whisked away by his father’s wealthy patron, the missing man himself nowhere to be seen.

It’s this narrative that serves as Fish-Hair Woman’s spine. But at its heart – and in this novel as in all of Bobis’s work, it’s the heart that matters – it is a story about story: the untruths that are sculpted into truths, the myths that lives are built upon and the truths that corrode into myth. Myth and superstition run through the story like rust. But the meta-lesson of omens and old wives tales is that the world is a complex place; mythologising is an attempt at ordering a universe that stubbornly refuses to offer up a reason.

It is out of this same tradition that the novel, the grandmother of storytelling, rises. A novel is an attempt to order and explore, its existence relying on the fact that there is no single, straightforward story. The world is still a complex place. It’s why we need the novel – to remind us that nothing is simple, and to help us find comfort in this notion.

As if to underscore this idea, punctuating Bobis’s novel are clippings about the Iraya case from the Philippine Daily News. They offer some clarity, and give the story some real-world context. But the clippings are small, some cut from the margins, the kind of news-in-brief article that can be scanned in the short moments between bites of toast or jolts of the bus on the morning commute.

Presenting these concise paragraphs alongside Fish-Hair Woman’s elaborate narrative has the effect of making mainstream media’s attempts to grapple with any complex story appear futile. Perhaps pushing the case of multiple murders and government corruption to a page’s edge is an admission of this: a newspaper’s obligation is to skim a story’s top, as it only can. ‘Our sadness very big,’ Pay Inyo, Iraya’s medicine man, says to Luke. Leave it to the novel, a form without pretensions of truth, to attempt to unravel “big sadness”, to reach to a story’s heart, because, of all the storytelling mediums, the novel does it best.

“Why is the past more present than the present, the old stories more acute, more in the flesh?” Throughout the novel, the past persistently nudges through. “This is the hum of memory,” writes Estrella, the “fish-hair woman”, to the missing Tony. The merging of memory with the present gives the prose the quality of a dream that’s risen in the blue hours of dawn. The reader is asked to hop from the lyrical, Tagalog-peppered storytelling of Estrella to the stiffer prose tracing the stories of the Australians; occasionally the shift is in the space of a few short chapters. The styles are not so disparate from section to section as to appear written by different authors but this tangle of past, present, voice and place makes for challenging literature.

A text of this nature is going to pose challenges for the author, too, and Fish-Hair Woman is not a novel without flaw. At times, sub-stories are dropped and picked up and eventually concluded with little consequence. There are also occasions that the novel trades being poetic for being nebulous, thus losing the momentum it works hard to sustain. It’s at these times that the meandering narrative could have used some knocking into line.

But then there are tales like that of how Bolody, Estrella’s brother, became Belody da Teribol that Bobis gets it just right. Semi-present for most of the story, Bolody appears in full to have his heartbreaking story told. It is in these examinations of life in tiny Iraya that Bobis is at her best, the glow of fireflies all but visible just off the page.

As I was reading my thoughts kept turning to Wide Sargasso Sea. It shares with Jean Rhys’s masterpiece more than just a threat to topple into tragedy, but Fish-Hair Woman takes a wider view. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a story about family and a story about the impact of the kind of self-perpetuating government corruption that so often befalls a country in political turmoil. It’s ambitious and sprawling, and things could quickly go wrong. Fortunately, they don’t. Bobis is a talented, passionate writer who is unafraid of exploring the storytelling potential of the novel.

Fish-Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis
Spinifex Press, 2012
306 pages

Sail (Sam van Zweden)

27 Mar

I heard

they built streets

in Europe

on dead river beds

throwing down tiles

in denial

when it rains

streets flood

al fresco floating down stream

deluge-diluted lattes

gondolas drag-racing trucks at the lights

 

Melbourne just built roads

forward

three-inch grooves

mosey trams along

and when it rains the way it has

for weeks now

these grooves become tiny Yarras

eventually their banks burst

giving me no other choice

no other way forward

but to sail

 

Jessica Au interviewed by Bel Woods

20 Mar

The bright, youthful voices of Jessica Au’s characters flew across the pages in Cargo, (a novel released by Picador in August last year) and Jessica herself is a breath of fresh air, especially when discussing her own attitude towards process and creation. This is how she came to be soaring at age 25.

Bel Woods: I’ve read your novel Cargo grew from previously published work. A practice in novel writing, that, in my opinion, is not utilised enough. The ‘this is what I have, this is what I can make it into’ approach casts light on how writers are finding practical ways to speed up and launch their careers. Do you think new and emerging writers need to think more about moulding the work they have, rather than starting something new? (If only to save themselves time.)

Jessica Au: I think at the end of the day the impetus for a novel simply boils down to that idea – the unnamed variable, the X – that keeps to drawing you back. That makes you go, definitively, I’ve got more to say. (Didn’t The God of Small Things grow out of an image Arundhati Roy had of a sky blue Plymouth surrounded by a sea of protestors?)

Quite often though this X – a mood, a tone, a reoccurring storyline – will have manifested itself in your writing anyway. You can see it, for example in the short stories Beverley Farmer wrote prior to her novel, The House in the Light. She regularly explores the theme of life in Greece for an expat, and for women and wives and mothers in particular. I’m not saying that this is in any way recycling or being lazy, but rather that there are certain narrative impulses that, for whatever reason, you’ll keep returning to.

With Cargo, it was mainly about trying to articulate a certain kind of unease that comes with growing up, particular for teenage girls, and the silent pressures and projections they encounter. I’d touched on this several times in short stories prior to writing the novel, but again still felt I had more to say. So it seemed natural, as well as practical, to draw from them.

Looking back however, I’m not sure if this is always the best route. It was definitely a good thing in many ways – some of the groundwork was already done, the characters were roughly shaded, I had voices, dialogue, backstories. A sketch. On the other hand though, a novel is a very different creature to a short story, and trying to lengthen and stretch one into the other can be a pretty hefty task. There are no shortcuts, as I found out. Cargo took me about two and a half years to finish, and it’s practically a novella. If you are going to go down that road, you really have to be prepared to dismantle everything and start afresh, and I think also be wary of pace and movement. A short story can get away with being a single scene, a few stills. With a novel, it’s more like constructing the whole movie.

So all in all that’s a very long-winded way of saying that first and foremost I think it rides the idea – whether that’s from stories you’ve written before, or something that strikes you out of the blue. And in any case, I think you know it when you see it.

Bel Woods: I think a lot of the time, with writers, there’s a psychological block – not writer’s block per se, as a lot of writers regularly produce work, but a block where the idea of devoting everything to a larger project is just too much. How and when did you decide you were going to commit to a novel? And did you find yourself, during the day to day production of Cargo, having to push in order to keep this commitment?

Jessica Au: Yes writing is definitely an exercise in psychological peaks and troughs. Beginning that ‘albatross’ novel comes with all the usual fears – fear that you won’t be able to pull it off, fear that you won’t finish it. With smaller projects, you can get your returns (completion, publication, payment) incrementally. With longer works, it could, and often does, take years.

But another reason for that hesitation I think also has a lot to do with circumstance. In the barest sense, novels take time, and they take headspace. I would be happy to write manuscript after manuscript (even if a lot of these turned out to be duds), if only I had the luxury of endless days in which to do so. The difficulty is that this is rarely the case. More often than not, we have to fight for the space to write, and of course it’s hard to embark on such a big gamble when other ‘real life’ things keep on nudging their way in. This to me is probably the biggest barrier.

In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith talks about how she used to watch other people performing and, despite being blown away by it, a sly thought would always creep into her head as if to say, I can do that. Wanting to write can sometimes be like this – you can be awe of books, and amazed by them, but at the same time you hunger to be the writer behind the words, not just the reader of them.

In that sense I always knew I wanted to write a longer work. But on the other hand, after having a range of short stories rejected across the board, I also realised I was nowhere near where I had to be to begin one! So the how and when was more a matter of waiting and honing until I felt more certain. I can’t really recall any moment when I thought I’ve got a novel here. But I do remember thinking that if I were to start one, it would be easier to conceptualise as a series of little vignettes. I also wanted to try and keep it simple, and within territory that I knew. That led me to go back to those short stories mentioned above – and once I’d decided that, it just a matter of addressing the practicalities: deferring uni for a year, getting some part-time work, working out a set routine etc.

During the actual writing process, I definitely had all those fears and worries all over again. Usually the process was cyclical – good days morphing into writer’s block, which would then break and bring you back to the good days again… But at the same time, despite these gripes, even a bad day writing is better than a good day doing anything else. So in that sense, it was a damn fine time.

Bel Woods: I’m very interested in creative process in all art, especially in new artists who’ve perhaps not figured out or refined their own processes yet, despite having an amount of success. It would be easy for me to suggest you’re quiet a natural writer, but I’m guessing it’s not as simple as that. I do believe, at the novel level, all writers remaining are naturals to a point, though word counts, genre selection, editing/redrafting, and general industry savvy, start involving other life skills. It’s obvious to me that story and creating are big drivers for you, but outside this, are there any other influences or personality traits that make up Jessica the writer?

Jessica Au: Well there’s definitely no sense of ease or seamlessness to me a writer. I’m a re-drafter, a hacker. I’m not the type who can just pump out a good few chapters everyday – in fact I’m lucky if I get a good few paragraphs, and even then it’s a constant job of chiseling and subtracting and rewiring. Don’t get me wrong – I love the robotics of it, but no, it’s definitely not a simple process.

On the question of influences, there are plenty – I always keep a pile of books by my desk that I can return to when I’m stuck. For me the process of writing involves a strange kind of hypnotism. You have to lull yourself in a state where you’re able to drift, yet can still think. The novels that I often revisited while writing Cargo were those by Julia Leigh, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro, Christos Tsiolkas; short stories by Cate Kennedy, Beverley Farmer, Tim Winton, Nam Le, Laura van den Berg … and many others.

The question of personality traits is a bit harder for me to answer – but maybe stubbornness, or something like it? Because I need to redraft a lot, I tend to be the type who needs to sit at the desk for whole days until it feels vaguely right. I think I’m also very much a creature of routine and habit when it comes to writing, which again maybe has a bit to do with that hypnotism mentioned above. Lastly, I’m not sure if this is a ‘trait’ as such, but I’ve found that working a bit in editing and publishing has helped me immensely in developing a more critical outlook, and becoming aware of real technicalities and mechanics that come with constructing a longer work.

Bel Woods: One of the biggest draw cards when it comes to your writing is your ability to inject powerful imagery into your gorgeous prose. When you’re producing work, are you conscious of this overall aesthetic? Or do you write the narrative first and keep redrafting until everything becomes more lyrical?

Jessica Au: Mood and tone and definitely huge drivers for me – and, as my editors very rightly pointed out, this isn’t always for the best, as I can sometimes overdo it. But a sense or a feeling is definitely where the scene starts for me. I then try and make sure I include enough dialogue and narrative backbone to prop it up.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that conceptualising a novel in terms of aesthetics is very similar to the ways in which a director needs to conceptualise an entire film. As a writer you’re not only ‘acting’ the character your voicing, but you also need to be aware of (and in control of) props and objects, clothing, setting, visuals and so on. Both in terms of how you describe them and how they work together to contribute to that ‘overall aesthetic’ that you mention.

Joan Didion was fantastic at this. She knew, for example, how important it was not just to describe ‘curtains’ but the ‘fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk’ that ‘would blow out the windows the get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms’, not just ‘a tattoo’ but ‘the plumeria blossom tattooed just below her shoulder’, not just the ‘house’ but ‘the house in Brentwood Park’. Julia Leigh’s cinematographic writing is another brilliant example. In Disquiet, for example:

“The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and she’d rested it in a silk-scarf sling, which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, suitcase.”

Just from that paragraph and it’s imagery we get so much – a sense of the woman and the formality of the situation, as well as the mystery: who is this mother that she is now copying, and why is her arm broken? The suitcase – where is she going, where is she from? Not to mention the perfect composition of a cast being held up by, of all things, a matching silk scarf. I love details like this and how they, and these aesthetics, can speak volumes.

Bel Woods: In your answer to question two, you talk about about keeping things simple and within territory you knew. I’ve always liked the idea of starting small. I think Cargo is the novel before your ‘Albatross’ novel, though it probably doesn’t seem this way to you. I see it as a sneak peak of what we can expect from Jessica in the future – a pilot episode to a greater work, which will mature with its readers. I think a lot of writers bite off more than they can chew, and get so far beyond the initial idea that with it comes fear they might produce a ‘bad’ novel. It’s for this reason, I believe, great amounts of work just get shelved. Sometimes the writer will push through and the risk pays off, but mostly you hear of writers returning to these more complicated projects after their process and skill level has developed. With Cargo it’s interesting, as you’ve both taken a risk and kept the project in reach. Mind you, the linking of the chapters must’ve proved challenging. At anytime while writing Cargo did you feel like pulling back, beginning again, or starting something new? Or do you think the structure, length, and novel’s marketability may have helped make the end product more achievable, despite the fact those particular things, are, in fact, obstacles in themselves?

Jessica Au: No I agree – Cargo was a big step for me, and I’m incredibly relieved to have finished it, but you’re always learning as a writer, and each novel is a stepping-stone, the first one especially. The further you go, the more you’re able to grapple with more complex themes and structures, but I feel like I’m still shedding training-wheels so-to-speak.

Despite the fears and worries mentioned above, I don’t think I ever felt like giving up on Cargo, or starting something else entirely. When I was younger, I did in fact stop-start several horrible novels on ‘big’ themes that naturally fell apart in my hands, so I realised from there I’d better pace myself. And while pulling apart those short stories was hard enough, it somehow seemed more achievable I think because I was conscious of what wasn’t, and of my own limits. Aiming for a more modest word length and having three voices to bounce off certainly helped, but so did realising how to critique my own work in a worthwhile way. That point was something of a watershed moment, because, conversely, it can give you the confidence to go ahead. As in instead of sitting there helplessly wondering why no one appreciates what you’ve done, you find you’ve got it in you to break the stasis.

Bel Woods: When, writing anything, and the final product comes about, finally, I suspect we all hope to leave it having learned something about our craft and ultimately about how we function as writers. Do you feel more equipped for the next project now Cargo is well and truly birthed? And can we know a little bit about your writing right now?

Jessica Au: Yes I think so. I hope by now I understand a bit more about the temperament of novels – the importance of trying to approach them holistically, with that director’s eye (although of course many things will change from redraft to redraft), and also the idea of really interrogating what you want to say with a work. Being conscious of the whys behind a story or a scene mean it’s less likely to be padding, or to appear directionless. I realised a lot of this only during the editing process of Cargo, so I’m curious about what it would be like to try and write something being conscious about that from the outset. Of course, I still have a way to go!

Terribly, the ‘albatross’ second novel is barely formed in my head, let alone the page, so unfortunately there’s not much to tell. But I am interested in the idea of subverting narrative expectation, especially when it comes to genre. I love books that lure me into certain states of familiarity only to jolt me out of it again, playing around not only with themes, but with conventions. Open endings, scenes in which nothing happens yet everything happens, stock characters turned on their heads and inverted. Something along those lines…

Robert Goodman reviews A Tiger in Eden

18 Mar

The start of A Tiger in Eden feels like a cross between Trainspotting and The Beach. Nevertheless, it is a promising beginning – Billy, a Northern Irish hardman on the run from his shady past, lives on an island in Southern Thailand just hanging out with the backpackers and trying to better himself through reading.

The first fifty pages is scene setting – a recount of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits. Even at that point, with the novel still in search of a plot, there was potential. Unfortunately, what follows is another 150 pages of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits, a moment of contemplation (Billy trying not to think about drinking, fighting and sex) and a drug-induced catharsis followed by more sex.

In the place of plot is a 1990s backpacker’s tour of Thailand. The tale moves from the island of Ko Phi Phi to Phuket, then north through the Thai countryside, to Bangkok, then to a monastery in the jungle and finally to a drug-fuelled full moon party on a beach somewhere. While there is plenty movement (and drinking and sex and talking about drinking and sex) there is little action, merely a series of events and characters that have minimal impact on Billy and no impact on the plot. What is left, after the drinking and the sex, is a catalogue of aspects of Thailand that amaze Billy the Irish bumpkin, observations such as some Thais are Muslim and some are Buddhist; or some people go to Thailand because of the sex trade; or street food can be amazing but sometimes it can make you sick; or the expensive busses are overly air conditioned.

The book is written in Billy’s Irish brogue and develops an easy rhythm. He’s not smart, our Billy, but he reads a lot (mainly in an attempt to attract more intelligent women) so he’s not afraid to use big words. As a result the narrative is a mix of expletives and erudite reflection, but once you get the hang of the accent, it works. The problem is that Billy doesn’t really have anything interesting to say. Aside from the descriptions of Thailand, a large part of the narrative is Billy thinking and talking about and describing his sexual exploits.

There is an element of wish fulfilment in all of this. Billy seems to have a never ending supply of money which is never explained. And at every stop on his journey he manages to find women who fall for his dubious charms, including Claire the English woman who doesn’t mind that he beats some of her compatriots to a pulp, the Thai woman who inexplicably takes him to dinner in the markets even though she knows that it will result in the rest of the town branding her as a prostitute, to the pair of blonde Dutch air hostesses glad to find a “real man” to take them skinny dipping. Each of these become stepping stones to the perfect woman for Billy who will stay with him despite learning his deep dark secrets.

If you backpacked through Thailand in the mid-1990s (even if you weren’t an Irish hardman) and feel like reminiscing, or maybe you didn’t get the opportunity and feel that you missed something (mainly the sex and the drugs), then this may be the book for you. Otherwise, stick to Trainspotting, The Beach and The Lonely Planet.

Adventures in the book – and shirt – trade (David Cohen)

14 Mar

People who work in small independent bookshops often find themselves going to great lengths to satisfy customers, no matter how idiosyncratic their tastes might be. But the truly dedicated bookseller must even be willing to go beyond his or her jurisdiction and tackle non-book-related requests in order to please a customer, or potential customer.

Take the following case.

Some years ago I worked in a Perth bookshop which opened late seven days a week. Around 9.45 one Friday night, the shop was empty and I was in the middle of assembling a dump bin. This was in itself something of a challenge. The dump bin comprised two cardboard trays mounted, one on top of the other, upon a cardboard base. A number of hooks folded out of the base, their purpose being to lock into corresponding perforations in the trays and thereby hold the structure together. But every time I hooked one of these hooks into its slot, a hook I’d already hooked into a slot somewhere else invariably came undone.

As I wrestled with the dump bin, I happened to look up and notice a young man patiently watching. It seemed he’d witnessed the entire performance.

‘Having a bit of trouble there?’

I stood up. ‘Stupid things. Can I help you?’

‘Yeah. Do you have any shirts?’

‘Shirts?’

‘Yeah – out the back or something.’

I explained that we didn’t have any shirts, and that he might want to try Myer when it re-opened for business the following day.

‘No,’he said.‘You see, me and my mate want to get into the nightclub up the road, but the bouncers won’t let my mate in without a proper shirt.’

It turned out they’d been up and down the street, trying to buy a shirt, but, apart from the bookshop, the only places open along the strip at that time of night were cafes, restaurants, and a cinema.

‘Where’s your mate?’I said.

He called out:‘Tony! Get over here!’

Tony appeared from behind some shelves. He was wearing an All Blacks top.

‘This is Tony. I’m Lachlan.’

There were introductions all round, and then Lachlan pointed to Tony and said:‘See? He can’t get in with that.’Tony looked suitably forlorn. I said that while I sympathised, we simply had no shirts on the premises.

We stood there trying to figure out how Tony might get hold of a shirt at five past ten on a Friday night in Leederville. Then Lachlan had an idea.

‘Hang on a sec, he said to me.‘You’re wearing a shirt.’

Being in no position to deny that I was wearing a shirt, I replied:‘That’s

true.’

‘And you guys look about the same size. How about we do a swap?’

‘A swap?’

‘Just for now. We’ll bring it back tomorrow. Plus we’ll throw in half a carton of VB.’

Although it was an unusual request, I felt no attachment to that particular shirt, which I’d bought at Target for $24.95 some months earlier. Besides, maybe my good deed would inspire them to purchase a book. So we adjourned to the rear of the store and exchanged garments. Tony and Lachlan, now both suitably attired for the nightclub, were exceptionally grateful and said I was a‘top bloke’.

‘While you’re here,’I said, as we walked back out into the shop,‘how about a book?’

‘Nah, that’s okay,’said Lachlan. ‘Maybe next time. But you’ve got half a carton of VB coming your way, all right?’

‘Don’t lose that jumper now, bro,’said Tony on the way out. The All Blacks top obviously meant a lot more to him than my polyester shirt did to me.

Or perhaps not. Lachlan and Tony didn’t return to the bookshop the following day, or at any time after that. Whether I was the victim of an elaborate scam designed to rob people of cheap casual menswear, or whether they’d simply overindulged at the nightclub and Tony woke up in a strange shirt with no recollection of how or why, will never be known for certain. All I could be sure of at the time was that I now had an All Blacks top in practically mint condition. I seemed to have come out ahead on the deal.

The All Blacks top is in my wardrobe to this day. Every now and then I put it on to commemorate the night I went above and beyond the call of duty in the name of customer service – even though this didn’t actually culminate in the sale of books.

But two questions remain unanswered.

(1) Whatever happened to Lachlan and Tony?

And more importantly:

(2) Where is my half a carton of VB?

The playful provocation of a complex tapestry (Robyn Cadwallader)

7 Mar

The cover of Susan Hawthorne’s Cow, both back and front, is an Indian-style patchwork featuring cows in paintings, photos, carvings, bas relief, even street signs (‘Beware of Cattle on Road’), each image framed with embroidery and sequins. With author and title printed only on the spine, the patchwork takes over, runs beyond the borders of the covers; we know there is more to see, that the totality is more than the particular. This is more than beautiful artwork; it is an embodiment of what is inside.

At first sight the arrangement of the book can be daunting: background information in the acknowledgements, etymologies in the front pages, running gloss notes in the margins of the text, endnotes and sources in the final pages. All are testament to Hawthorne’s thorough research and familiarity with language and mythology. It is also, of course, an opportunity to learn. With such a frame of academic apparatus there is a risk, as I found, of taking on the seriousness of all this research, of working too hard at understanding what it all means, a straining after knowledge before appreciating the depths of what is simply given. The poems are wry, humorous, poignant, elegiac, wise and longing, written with a deceptive simplicity of expression. Nonetheless, my experience is that it takes some time to begin to feel at ease with the shape and movement of the collection.

Cow celebrates all that poetry makes possible, crossing boundaries of the rational, drawing together ideas that bounce off one another and echo into new thoughts, allowing the cerebral and the fantastical to sing together. In an interview at the Queensland Writers Festival, Hawthorne described her fascination with etymology, noting that variants of the Sanskrit word for cow are present in Indo-European languages through Old Norse and Old English words for queen, and in Greek gyne (woman), details of which are given in the book. In this collection she delights in playing with endless echoes and ripples of such etymologies.

While at first sight the connections might not be obvious, cow, queen and woman are woven into a complex tapestry. The powerful physical presence of cows opens out into explorations of women’s experiences of voice, relationship, love, language, mythology and idea:

what we cannot speak about we cannot imagine
facts and imagination tangle
a weave of uncertain strings
strings pulled and plucked
edgeless origami in an unfolding universe.
(‘what the poet says’, 5)

The poems are divided into four strings, telling of tales that ‘tangle like a chinese noodle’, snarled and stretched by time: ‘these are stories about cows / who have lost their histories’. Within each string we hear from Queenie, the central figure in the collection. Having wandered the markets and settled in Fatima’s garden, Queenie gives birth to her calf; she is both milk cow and creator, there is no distinction:

I’m grazing near a human encampment
time has rolled in
on a day the length of all time
I give birth to the folding universe
my milk flows away through the night sky
galaxies spin and twirl form and unform
as the dance of creation and decreation proceeds.
(‘what Queenie says’)

In string one, ‘the philosophy cow’, subtitled ‘Queenie’s dilly bag’, the cow pulls open the strings of her bag to reveal her collection: voices from Greek, Sanskrit, Sumerian and Welsh mythology, the voice of Kuvalaya (lotus-flower), of Cow, Tiger, and even a 105-year old virgin speaking in the Daily Telegraph. Their stories flow, one after another, telling of love, power and relationships in a world that is simultaneously cosmic and mundane, but never ordinary. One of the delights in this section is the wry humour and wordplay, particularly in the voice of various cows. The cows gather on the poet’s desk and ask

what is it you want of us?
is it our delightful demeanour
or our marvellous colourful hides?
(‘what she says to her listeners’)

String two, ‘what the philosophers say’, changes tone and content. Looking beyond the voices in string one, it explores the silence around cow woman — her stories, her voice, her participation in language. While the images evoke gaps, spaces, silence, exile and loss, the overwhelming import is of presence becoming absence. Ur-woman (original woman)

is a mirage
a reflection of who we are
as she teeters on the edge
of the visible like a reflection
in a lake disappearing
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

In a beautifully imagined poem that gathers eastern and western mythology, a cow ‘looks down the throat of her child’ to see inside a fertile universe, ‘cows feeding calves the milk / spilling around the calves’ mouths’. Within this eden a snake on a tree morphs into a cow, just as woman has been construed as tempter, ‘the dividing line between them blurred’. There is, nonetheless, an insistence that survives:

the mothers are trying hard to contain their children
but what can you do when the world is held
in an open mouth?
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

String three, ‘what the lovers say’, conjures love in all its breadth and intensity, in poetry, body and mind, the last of these so often denied to women. In a poem that is almost an anthem to sisterhood, the one cow becomes ‘eine Frau’ (one woman): ‘go out into the world of cow / sing sing into night for we are eine Frau’ (‘what we sing in one voice’). The poetry in this section is often lyrical and intense.

In the final, short string, ‘what Queenie says about the philosophy cow’, Queenie celebrates the cow and poet:

you have become one of those fist-raisers
a troublemaker in the bleachers  you write poems
thrilling to a music that lifts you daily celebrating
unbelievable truths halleluiah alleluia they cry
(‘what Queenie sings to us’)

Hawthorne carries her erudition lightly into poems that are playful, wise and provocative. Her evocation of the milk cow next door as the cosmic creator, woman, queen, philosopher, lover and thinker communicates with immediacy and vigour. By book’s end, we have traversed a world of mythology, place and story, all emanating from the single figure, cow.

Cow by Susan Hawthorne
Spinifex Press, 2011
166 pages

Ghosts I and II (Sarah St Vincent Welch)

3 Mar

I

Ghosts shift by the road in the moonlight, standing in line, alert.

A collision with a kangaroo is not only unpalatable to the kangaroo but is expensive to the motorist with the average panel-beating cost estimated at approximately $3000.

It was as if I dreamed his dying while half asleep in the front room, listening to him roll over in the gutter, lifting and dropping his tail. My ghosts called to him and let him in; I tried to wake. I heard the ranger come with her winch, her gun, her soft voice, and I continued to dream, listening to him still, even though she’d taken him away.

Foot length was used to estimate age in preference to head length because of the difficulty of obtaining consistent measurements of head length from multiple field staff. Leg length was not used because of the high incidence of broken legs in macropod road-kills.

Dogs lick blood off metal.

There were large and statistically significant differences in kill rates between different moon phases, seasons, and between males and females for immature animals.

I just collected him. Saw him in my lights. A little one. He hit the bonnet, then the roof, and I kept driving, while holding my boy’s hand.

II

In the 1960s in country New South Wales churches were open every day, any time you visited them. We’d pull up, grind up the dirt roads and swerve round potholes, our dust rising over the gentle church—open for us— light behind it, an overexposed photo in my mind.

I touched the font. I touched the holy water, the pews. I touched the organ, pulled the stops. I wasn’t allowed to touch the cross. Flowers on the altar wilted mid-week. We signed the Visitors’ Book. My father kneeled, bobbed and crossed himself. My mother’s aching knees would not let her worship. And out the back—the graveyard—our destination.

I loved the babies’ gravestones. In the arms of Jesus, a month, or only a year old, I calculated. Jesus said, Suffer the little children to come unto me. ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon a little child, pity my simplicity.’

White moulded flowers in wire mesh. Broken headstones. My father rubbed the words with chalk to reveal the names, the dates, the dedications, the shallow grooves in the worn out stone.

My mother says I’d lean over from the back seat and whisper, ‘Drive on, there’s another graveyard, don’t let him see it,’ as my father slept. I don’t remember it that way. I remember graveyards, their dirt in my mouth and under my nails, and the child ghosts I met, and wish now we’d stopped at every one.

Dad parked the car on an empty road and kissed Mum under the mistletoe (or what they called the mistletoe) a heavy parasite hanging from the Stringy Barks. I pretended to sleep in the back.

In the 2000s, New South Wales’ country churches are locked against vandals, their Visitors’ Books closed.

In Bendigo, Victoria, my little boy and I visited a Chinese temple. Shadows touched the red and gold walls. The year before we came the ancestor scrolls were smeared with shit and burned. He counted the remaining scrolls, practising his numbers.

We believe in ancestors, believe in ghosts.

***

Report text from LIVING WITH EASTERN GREY KANGAROOS IN THE A.C.T. – PUBLIC LAND THIRD REPORT TO THE MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, LAND AND PLANNING A.C.T. KANGAROO ADVISORY COMMITTEE October 1997

Eight Rules for Making Fire (Shane Strange)

29 Feb

  1. I watch him through the kitchen window as he cuts the wood, outside, in the cold morning.  He has his back to me. I watch as he braces his legs and raises the axe over his head and, with two arms, brings the axe down.  In my mind’s eye I can see the muscles flex and contract in his back, the tendons in his legs strain, the muscles on the side of his neck widen beneath his scarf.  Mists roll in the valley. The mountain is covered in a grey veil. When the sun rises higher it will burn off the mists. And through the day, the shadow of the mountain will meander across the valley before darkness again.
  2. He is the bear man – a big, slow man. I am the tiny bird: the sparrow; the wren.  My life burns away faster than others. I flutter.  My heart beats fast against my chest. When he opens his arms, I fall into his paunch, and he wraps his arms around me and folds his claws together at the nape of my neck.
  3. I imagine that he has become an adept, a scholar, a high priest of being with me:  versed in my moods and emotions. I should be grateful, but his levelness, his steadfastness, his reliability have all been used at times in judgement of me. We have had mighty battles. No quarter has been given. More than once, we have verged on dissolution. In this way we have mapped our tendernesses.
  4. Some days we walk long into the property, him and me, tracing cattle tracks, noting rusted barbed wire fences and tiny gullies of eroded soil. There is a forest of eucalypt trees and low scrub down the mountain and into the valley.  The trees are silent and shambolic, with gnarled branches tapering into the sky as if seeking fissures in the air.
  5. Once, we discovered an old house down beyond the forest. A solid, brick chimney stood alongside foundation stones: the outline of a home. Inside the area that the foundation stones described, he found an old tin can and a solid piece of rust-coated metal that he said was a tool of some kind. Near the chimney I found the rim of an old pot, a china cup handle, a bone. I stuck my head inside the chimney. The back was stained dark – charred bricks crumbling. In a shadow in the back corner something shone for a moment, and without thinking I reached my hand in to grasp the shiny thing. It was a tiny spoon, stained green and black, such as might be used to feed a child or a baby. ‘Be careful,’ I felt his hand between my shoulders. I stepped out and he pointed up to the top of the chimney where a brick teetered out over the edge, ready to fall. We walked back through the trees and along the cattle tracks in silence. He carried the metal tool with him, and I held the spoon in my pocket, tightly and secretly, rubbing its bowl with my thumb.
  6. As I make lunch, I watch him working on the wood shed from the kitchen window.  I watch him saw wood with a handsaw on an old wood horse, and drill nails with a hand drill, and sand down boards with sandpaper wrapped around an off cut block of wood. I know at the end of the day he will have exhausted himself, and I worry that he overdoes it. But he is strong. He is always strong.  At the table in the kitchen, we eat in silence.
  7. In the evenings, he and I eat on a small table in the lounge room.  After we finish he clears the table and washes the dishes while I sit in an armchair with a glass of wine, staring into the fire.  I always let him deal with the needs of the fire. I like to pretend it is a mystery that only he is privy to. I hear the chink and splash of dishes as he washes them in the water. He hums to himself while he cleans: croaky and low.
  8. The fire is like a hand that holds me, and a hand that crushes the wood into bright embers. The wine is having an effect. I can feel it drawing down my throat, like a long cold wire. White smoke is being drawn upwards into the chimney and away across the mountain. It is the smoke that chokes us, never the fire. What is this place we are in? This place of quiet trees, waiting for fire.