Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

September 21, 2016


Staying at the White House

Stylish, confident: through a mizzling Melbourne rain

cool Footscray edges sideways into spring.

Sticks of the backyard grapevine show infant shoots

near a hopeful carnival of party lights.

Trees still bare stake out this rain-shiny street,

except for a petticoat froth of leaf green on the desert ash

vibrant outside Christine’s bedroom window.

Fraxinus angustifolia.

Where are the dockland gangs now? The sweaty thugs

with their seedy whiff of booze and death?

In the artfully-named corner cafe,

the Footscray Milking Station, casually trendy,

helmeted Sunday morning cyclists pause for coffee;

waitresses busy in bright green and white;

the coffee grinder whooshes white noise –

the exhilarated morning fills

with a familiar settling into relief and calm.

Outside, wide streets and old iron lace –

all coming back up in the world.

Day Five closes: on the MS Lofoten

December 11, 2015

A pale day.  Low, pale grey cloud, a pale shine on the sea.  Only a thin line of darker land lies between cloud and sea.  These are the colours dogs are supposed to see.  On the fore-deck we are transporting Christmas trees still: surprising in their intense, rich green.  In this pale wide world, how startling, how precise and welcome they look.  Maybe I can forgive this ritual execution, after all.

Thrum, thrum.  Everywhere on the boat comes that soothing deep heartbeat of the huge engines.  I feel that nothing can ever go wrong while they are beating.  Through the heavy doors to the interior, spectacularly out of place in this iron landscape, a glowing nugget of gold-brown warmth.

Things are under control.

Very tired.  Hard to find a place to be alone.

Les Murray, Elena Ferrante on Poverty

June 19, 2015

Sometimes a kind of theme starts to emerge within one’s reading and thinking experiences.  One of the great puzzles of the recent general election is the manifest tendency of disadvantaged people to vote for a party which will not look after them: which will, if anything, thrust them deeper into poverty.

Les Murray talks about his dirt-poor Australian childhood in numerous poems.  I think that this one is nearly as wonderful as the others I have posted – but in a couple of places it is trying too hard; it poeticises.  But I have to forgive it for that: it’s still an amazing achievement.

Lately, I’ve been reading the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, who also talks about poverty, about escape and about a return, about the hold that one’s place of origins has, no matter how far one may have travelled.

I said there was a theme – is it a theme?  or just one of those moments when everything appears to tend in the same direction.  I’ve been reading about Napoleon with renewed interest, and listening to the BBC radio series about him, too.  (I was a great fan as a teenager: studied his battles with relish.  Not much empathy in me then, I’m sorry to admit.)  He didn’t move from poverty, but from obscurity at least, and his return, again, was to a kind of deprived luxury.  Yet the arc of his narrative, from one little island to another through a time of glowing success, seems to have something of that same quality: the instability, whether one leaves or returns. The inevitable return of the past.  That’s what both Murray and Ferrante know, and what they tell us about.


The Tin Wash Dish

Lank poverty, dank poverty,
its pants wear through at fork and knee.
It warms its hands over burning shames,
refers to its fate as Them and He
and delights in things by their hard names:
rag and toejam, feed and paw –
don’t guts that down, there ain’t no more!
Dank poverty, rank poverty,
it hums with a grim fidelity
like wood-rot with a hint of orifice,
wet newspaper jammed in the gaps of artifice,
and disgusts us into fierce loyalty.
It’s never the fault of those you love:
poverty comes down from above.
Let it dance chairs and smash the door,
it arises from all that went before
and every outsider’s the enemy –
Jesus Christ turned this over with his stick
and knights and philosophers turned it back.
Rank poverty, lank poverty,
chafe in its crotch and sores in its hair,
still a window’s clean if it’s made of air,
not webby silver like a sleeve.
Watch out if this does well at school
and has to leave and longs to leave:
someone, sometime, will have to pay.
Shave with toilet soap, run to flesh,
astound the nation, rule the army,
still you wait for the day you’ll be sent back
where books or toys on the floor are rubbish
and no one’s allowed to come and play
because home calls itself a shack
and hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.


Learning to read Virginia Woolf

October 26, 2014
Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

In my copy of The Waves I find that I have written the  date: 11/6/69, and my name as it was once, in the handwriting I used then – halfway between a schoolgirl’s and the self-conscious italic I was just adopting.

2014-10-26 21.11.21

I have no memory of buying it or reading it, but it has been read.  There are timid pencil marks in the margins.


What I do remember is that I didn’t like Woolf.  That was my third year at University and I had just turned twenty.  I had also not long decided – passionately and abruptly – that I couldn’t bear another moment within the Japanese department, and so the authorities had kindly cobbled together a degree I stood some vague chance of completing.  It involved English Literature instead of Japanese Language, and a rushed purchase of the pile of books we were to read.  Yeats and Eliot, Bleak House I think, something by D H Lawrence.  Some plays.

I knew I hated Virginia Woolf.  Maybe I had read Mrs Dalloway in the first year, but what could a naive and desperate teenager possibly make of Clarissa Dalloway or her world?  Let alone the filigree qualities of Woolf’s slow and delicate exposition.  I thought her wordy and woolly, meandering, and poetic in a vague way that irritated me profoundly.  That judgment lasted me quite well all through the seventies and into much of the eighties.

No – the love of my reading life was Lawrence: passionate and direct, he knew what he believed and was utterly uninhibited about how he expressed those beliefs.

D H Lawrence

D H Lawrence

He wasn’t just my hero, he was a prose style icon for all that little coterie of closeted gay friends who were clearly going to get starry firsts and go on to glitter in academia.  Lawrence: the master of rhetoric and of the image that argued, clarified and told all.  He seemed to me then a writer who didn’t tiptoe around or mince his words.  He was the broad sun of wide judgments, in comparison with Woolf’s misty, uncommitted particularity.  He could blunder and burn; his prose had sharp edges – but it felt clear and exciting.

This, at least, was the substance of my conversation with Debbie one spring day in the  mid-eighties in Leamington, in the staffroom of The Trinity School: a progressive comprehensive secondary school (a rare beast then and always) with a genuinely dedicated, egalitarian, and overwhelmingly kind staff.  She was astonished that I could possibly prefer that old rogue woman-hater to the stylish, subtle Virginia Woolf, and I had to listen to her.  Lawrence was a misogynist and his writing was rushed and sloppy.  She had thought better of me: I felt her silent disappointment.

I have known several wonderful Debbies and Deborahs in my life, but the name itself  has always baffled me.  Debbie seemed a vulgar sort of name, as in Debbie Reynolds.


My mother raised us to eschew vulgarity in all its forms, with a passion generated by proximity and the fear of falling.  On the other hand ‘Deborah’ as a name felt strained: scrambling for a dignity that swirled its skirts just out of the mud.  Again, and even within our own pretentiousness, we were raised to mock and fear pretension or social climbing.  There we were: barefoot Australian kids, stumbling over the bindi-eyes, while all the time we were forming these nuanced social prejudices.  They take a lot longer to shake off than they take to form.

I admired Debbie the dedicated teacher so much.  Debbie (never Deborah) whose surname I have long forgotten, was fresh out of University, pretty, very clever, and effortlessly upper-crust both intellectually and socially. She wore an unobtrusive gold bracelet: a present from her mother on her eighteenth birthday.  Mired in my mid-thirties and trailing so many mistakes – how I longed to be Debbie!

We each agreed to read one of the other’s favourite novels, bearing in mind the praises we had heard.  I fought to find what she liked in Woolf.  In this way, Debbie (and Woolf) showed me how to slow down, to leave Lawrence’s pell-mell rush of ideas and read poetic prose with a relaxed attention.  To read almost languidly and yield to its particular sensuousness, its sweet precision.  When I went on to read To the Lighthouse, it flew to the depth of my heart and my mind, and stays there to this day.  Debbie politely conceded that Lawrence’s writing is not without virtues.

We were both wrong, of course, in our dislikes.  But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?

a life in small boxes

August 26, 2014

My little grandson is a very modern toddler of two and a half. He goes to nursery every day now (not weekends, obviously) where I collect him after lunch on a Wednesday.

They have a noticeboard.

I am an inveterate reader of notices. I stop for those planning permission notices that tell you someone is knocking down their extension; I read the small ads in the supermarket but buy nothing; I adore those notices in cafés in towns I’m just visiting.  Waste nothing: not even information. Especially not information. Knowing that a grey cat has gone missing in Oxford? It might be me who finds it.  At the very least I can share a frisson of intensity – child’s pet? missing since Xmas? Oh yes – there’s some self-indulgence in feeling your heart twist for that moment of hopelessness.

At the nursery they had a notice:

2014-03-26 12.57.15

(note the well-placed apostrophe – nurseries try hard these days.)

– and, ever eager to please, I naturally set off to save small cardboard boxes.  But what counts as ‘small’?  They seem very keen on this dimension: they’ve underlined it, after all.  I’m in a wine plan – a dozen bottles occasionally arrive in a double-layered box.  Too big, for sure.

But is it possible to be too small?

posh nail polish box

expensive nail polish box

I don’t think so.  But what if it all just looks like bragging?  I’m the one with the fancy stuff?

My son gave me a bottle of whisky for my birthday, so posh it came in a box – possibly a bit too big? – but worth holding onto.  More fancy stuff, too.

2014-08-26 21.44.41

They can decide that one for themselves.  I’ll take it in.


You can see the next problem even more quickly than I did – what if I took the wine box and the whisky box in at the same time?  They might think little Raf’s Granny is a toper.  How could they know that it has taken me a year (OK – a few months) to save these up?  To hell with it, I thought, and took in a carrier bag of random cardboard boxes – why should I deny little kiddies the chance to make lovely models?  As I handed it over I made a joke – ‘You could see our whole lives in these collections’.  The nursery nurse, bless her, shone with innocence and a truly pure surprise.  ‘Ooh! ‘she said, ‘I’ve never thought of that before.’  I just smiled, the way I do when I’m thinking something nastier. (‘That’s why I teach creative writing, and you are a nursery nurse’, I didn’t say.)

I didn’t think to photograph that first collection: I wish I had.  It was honest and detailed: I didn’t edit out anything.



I collected them on the kitchen counter.

The second lot was self-consciously innocent: a virtuous Granny drinks camomile tea, cleans her achy teeth, and has the occasional headache which she treats (frugally) with  generic pain killers.

The notice has gone now – I guess they don’t  ‘always’ want the boxes any more.  Too late!  I’ve already saved up another collection.  Alas, it’s no longer naive: once the innocence has gone, it can never be recaptured.  How could I show you anything but an artfully constructed version of my life in small boxes now?  And even if I truly went back to naivete, how could you really trust me?  And why am I saving them up anyway, when their usefulness is gone?

all you need to know about a life

all you need to know about a life

She’s not very young: see the face cream?  And she’s willing to spend a bit on herself: that’s not the cheapest brand.  But she will save money on oatcakes, the favoured biscuit of dieters, and on tissues.  She has a dog – which she worms.  An asthma inhaler.  So commonplace . . .

What will enable me to throw this stuff out?  Do I perhaps have to paint it in bright primary colours and glue it together into toy trains and carts before it will achieve its destiny?   That’s the apotheosis that can raise it to the rubbish bin so that it can forge forward into some new existence, recycling outside narrative.

“Blood on Paper” at the V&A – 2008

July 8, 2013

– – – and so eventually I came to the V&A and walked through the exhibition ‘Blood on Paper: the Art of the Book’ .  How odd and appropriate that I had just felt so impelled to buy a notebook  (pretentious Moleskine – but my very first) and a pen.  The exhibition had much to say about the need to inscribe; to make art; to write as part of life.  It showed life, art and writing-as-printing all intersecting and feeding one another.  And so I write in my notebook straight away, here outside:

The exhibition made me feel really happy . – I felt understood, and full of understanding at the same time.  It shows that one can make (I can make) my life (my life’s artefacts?) into an art work.  There is an issue about how to display them, though.  I can display myself, but I can’t print myself off in copies. I liked the Rauschenberg:


Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925) ‘Traces Suspectes en Surface’ By Alain Robbe-Grillet 1972 – 1978 Published by Universal Limited Art Editions, Long Island, New York National Art Library, V&A, pressmark: 81 Drawer 13 © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2008 Lithographs

and the Francis-Ting:

The 1c Life


and, of course (but in a different way) the Bacon.  These are works that put words into a really assertively visual medium . . . and then both are intensified.  The chap doing a philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical?) analysis of colour was good too.

Daniel Buren

Daniel Buren (b. 1938)
‘Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal’ by Aimé Césaire
Published by Editions du Solstice, Paris
Courtesy Jean-Claude Meyer, Les Editions du Solstice
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

Silkscreen prints; letterpress


Outside, in the open air – children and fountains – I can’t help overhearing the quiet conversation at the next table: a father and daughter.  I wish it would go away.  The tottering children are so stylishly dressed – perhaps that’s another kind of life-as-art.  Soon I will go and look at the jewellery section.

Sorting and packing my own books yesterday has made me very conscious of beauties and possibilities – of how lovely these printed texts are.  At Northampton the art students’ showed a collection of  ‘Altered Books’ – books that had been cut, pasted, re-jigged.

from 2009 - but it gives you the idea

from 2009 – but it gives you the idea

The way in which they are altered adds to the story they tell – or maybe just changes it.

altered book - Northampton U. 2007

altered book – Northampton U. 2007

Northampton U. - 2007

Northampton U. – 2007

They made me think of the ‘prepared piano’ – relating to conventional narrative as such a piano relates to conventional music.

John Cage - Prepared Piano

John Cage – Prepared Piano

It also reminded me of the photos I had to take of my flood-damaged books, so that the insurance company would believe me. At first I was literal about it, but then I started to see their beauty, too.


a Loeb volume of Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ – expensive once – but the colours of the staining here strike me as subtle – delicate as a bruise


a little, cheap paperback – that strange green shows its age

a library copy that has been damaged in several ways

a library copy that has been damaged in several ways, not just by the flood


I wondered whether those art works at the V&A could strictly be counted as books – many were one-off works.  Certainly the ‘altered books’ were not replicable.  My son used to play a game called ‘Altered Beast’ – which makes me think again of deformity and mutation.  Why and how are we consciously mutating our books?  What is it in our culture that makes us thrill to these transformations?


This Moleskine is like a little machine of a book.  It has working parts: an ‘expandable inner pocket’ – what joy!  – a ribbon marker, and the elastic band to hold it closed.  So, insofar as a book’s need (and its duty, and its gift to us) is to open and close, this one does that very thing, that very essence of bookness, only in extra ways.   Like the Ahlbergs’ Jolly Postman it goes beyond expectations, and like the child reader, I delight in it.

Such generosity!



Canberra Centenary – and a poem

May 12, 2013

Canberra is celebrating a hundred years since its Foundation in 1913. There are many dates one might celebrate: 1911, when the whole area of land was set aside and named the Federal Capital Territory; 1913 when Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin’s design for the city was selected together with the name ‘Canberra’ (February – first survey peg driven in; March for the naming ceremony); 1920 when a formal foundation stone was laid; 1927 when Parliament House was opened and parliament moved from Melbourne. These options bear little relation to anything we were taught at school. Marion Griffin was never mentioned in those days, and for some reason the date 1921 is fixed in my mind (if nowhere else) – but hooray for more detailed histories, and hooray for Canberra!

As for me, I first saw Canberra back in the winter of 1958, when a bridge still crossed the Molonglo and there was no lake. This isn’t my own photo, but the car on the far right could easily be our Morris Minor.


This poem, though, is about arriving in Canberra in the hot, hot February of 1967. In this centenary year, writing memories of Canberra seems appropriate.

Higher Education

It was the worst inland drought for decades
the year I turned seventeen. I left school
and gladly quit my family home in the north:
leafy, suburban, sub-tropical, cramped.
I packed poetry books, took the sleepless overnight train south
to Canberra (thirty hours – change at Strathfield, seven-twenty-five
for the Monaro Express)

The high plains were yellow-grey:
an unusable waste of dingo-coloured grass;
a desert, but so unlike the familiar
golden deserts I knew from National Geographic
that the very word seemed wrong.

Lake George, desperately low, shimmered in edgy mirages
where the ironbarks in blackened prongs weathered into fissures.
the lake-floor exposed acres of caked, baked-earth hexagons ––
filled out the official margins on the Survey Map

Grainy-eyed and stunned, I evaporated gradually
into the derelict moonscape.
The burning morning hours trundled past,
the smell of hot eucalyptus hung in air
so purely dry it scalded every in-breath.

Then the final curving descent into Canberra,
watered and shining with the brilliant arcs
of fountains and sprinklers;
where cool shops retired discreetly behind Spanish-style colonnades;
a green world
breathtakingly contrived; so ostentatiously artificial
it defied understanding, on any terms.

Blundering astonished back into a kind of self,
I was saved by bookish words:
Then at dawn we came down into a green valley, wet below the snow line.
Here, it was two in the afternoon, and civilisation
was under construction before my blurring eyes.

Children and memory

March 14, 2013

By coincidence lately I am reading about loss and about memory.  First, John O’Farrell’s entertaining homily about a failed marriage – The Man Who Forgot His Wife – and now a review of Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala.  The review talks about loss and the healing power of writing, and of remembering through writing.  Two reactions: I wonder if I want to read the book?  And: I could use that.  We hear about “finding a space to feel suffering as well as joy, and realising one was an aspect of the other.”  It could be a deconstructive move, but apparently this is Buddhist thought.


It sounds like a wonderful, sane method.  I grieved so long for Josie, but always through a kind of rationalising pain: anger and arguments for the lost present and the lost future, never through remembering what we really had in the short years when I was her mother.  How should I achieve this alternative method?  In chronological order, or in the order of the memories?  Some of those memories are hackneyed, familiar, over-rehearsed.  I wonder whether I will discover more as I work it through?  Typing here isn’t the way, I think.  Handwriting is what is needed.


And then Deraniyagala’s reviewer (Tim Adams) sees again the difficult wisdom that we all know as an intellectual truth, but find so hard to know in our souls: “all childhoods are about transience, every day, and all parenting is about mourning little bits of that passing.”  Thus it truly is.  It doesn’t matter now what might have taken place in Josie’s childhood (or in any of them, I suppose) because now they are adults, and those little children aren’t gone, exactly, but they hover, loved, in memory.  Unless we work differently with memory, we see them schematically, like ghosts, through photos and through re-told stories and we access our knowledge of them erratically.  I look forward to trying the writing method.

Anglesea – February 2011- nearly two years ago now

December 9, 2012

So much time has passed.  I reached a point in my Australian trip narrative – and somehow couldn’t go on.  A great slash – black lightning – a darkness ripped across the reportage, just as I reached Geelong.  And that makes sense, because what Geelong contains was also a great wound across my life: the stopping place from which it was so hard to move forward.    No wonder it appalled my mind and blocked my tongue.  In that place, I rely on help from others to devise some kind of strategic approach, for my own strength is baffled and foolish there.

We stayed, not in Geelong, but in neutral territory down on the coast at Anglesea.  By the Great Ocean Road.  We played in the surf and on the beach with the grandsons, and we hung out with my daughter.  We walked along the cliffs, stepping quietly past a brown snake as it lay, relaxed and stretched still as death by the path.  Choughs were springing from the cliffs out into airy space.


So many of them, and moving so fast that each photo can only catch one or two.  The bird book says that choughs are clumsy fliers – but they don’t look it here.  Perhaps these aren’t choughs at all – or perhaps they are what choughs become, once they are enchanted by cliffs and ocean.   These grassland-foragers, mud-nest builders, these earthy dwellers in convivial crowds: they don’t need to be here. – It must be some sort of choice to live where they can rise up alone and swirl into the salt air, blue above and blue below.


On our way back, the brown snake was gone – not dead at all, then.


“The Dogs Who Came to Stay”

December 8, 2012
A friend sent me a book to read and comment on.  Here is what I emailed back to him.
Dear Joe
You asked for my thoughts on the book by George Pitcher.  I whizzed through it in a day – it’s that kind of book.  I think I had feelings and reactions rather than thoughts, because I took a bit of a dislike to the author.  He seems unaware of the rest of the world, but also quite unwilling to  open up about the interesting bits within himself.  Perhaps he has a wide circle of friends who all urged him to write it, but at the end of the day the memoir just isn’t his medium.  (Joyce Carol Oates for goodness sake!  And Anthony Storr comments on the endpapers.  What’s that about?)  And indeed he does seem to be a bit of namedropper (though trying hard not to be).  It’s a very old book by a very old person – who else would call a longstanding gay relationship “two bachelors”?  I can understand his wish for concealment, but I don’t like the feeling it gave me.
Writing style: educated amateur/ banal.  The topic calls for much more poetic diction and for some richness.  As we say in the trade ‘show don’t tell’.
content: he mentions life and death, and the fact that dogs can teach us a lot about these things.  But somehow choosing not to get stuck in to that idea – not to philosophise it, I guess – diminishes it.  The story of the dogs would have something, if the writing was stronger, but as it is we have fairly low-grade natter.
Books about practical topics have the opportunity to inform – but he doesn’t get into that.  I have found the same problem with books about canal boating: neither poetic enough, nor informative enough.  Either focus would be great, but a skimpy bit of both doesn’t cut it. Maybe reading the sensitive and complex Kathleen Jamie has spoiled me for less skilled matter.  (Do you know her stuff? – the prose, I mean, more than the poetry.  Blackwells shelves her work, Findings, under “Travel Writing”, which is misleading, almost perverse).
I do know of a work that does these things really well – but it’s a film – called ‘My Dog Tulip’ – very clever cartoon/animation, based on material by J R Ackerley, who really can write.  The film trailer is a bit American – the film is better and more creative than the trailer – but this gives you an idea. .  Ackerley too describes himself as a ‘bachelor’ – but I don’t mind that from 1956, especially when his insights can be so neatly and beautifully put forward.  The American voiceover pre-judges and falsely contextualises – try to ignore that, and get hold of the film!
(Actually I didn’t send him this picture – I added it for the blog.)
Your word was disappointed – I’m thinking frustrated.  It’s on its interrupted way to Oxfam now.
(I hope you get it that I thoroughly enjoyed tearing it to shreds! Thank you for the opportunity!)
All good wishes  for Xmas!

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