Monday, 27 June 2016

The Old Gods and the New

I had the pleasure of hearing Kate Tempest speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May 2016, and was impressed by her poetry, presentation and ideas. When she recited the poems of Christopher Logue, I marvelled at her ability to elicit the passion, humour and drama of his War Stories. I had also seen her on television, delivering one of her works at the end of QnA.  

I grabbed a copy of her Brand New Ancients (2013) without knowing what it was about. The cover attracted me with its depiction of ancient Greeks holding ipods and cigarettes. All I knew was that this poem had won the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry and was conceived as a performance piece with instructions to read it aloud. And so I did. Reading it aloud brought forth a rhythm and pace in the work which would have been missing had I read this quietly on a bus. The lyricism of each stanza comes forth, especially in the almost sing-song verses about the gods. 

Brand New Ancients reminded me of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers in that it is a tale of two boys, growing up side by side,  and the different paths their lives take. Over the course of this 50 page poem, their families experience the ups and downs of life - the mundane everyday existence peppered with moments of love and tragedy. It is a moving story told in a moving way.

I have always enjoyed poetry, but most of the poems I am familiar with were written a long, long time ago. It is wonderful to find a new poet, who speaks with an urgency on contemporary themes. I look forward to reading her collection Hold Your Own (2014).

There are numerous extracts of Kate Tempest performing on YouTube.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Pendulum Swings

George Megalogenis is an award winning journalist with a keen understanding of economics and politics. In his recent Quarterly Essay (QE61) Balancing Act: Australia Between Recession and Renewal (2016), he explores the transition our nation is in at the end of the mining boom.

There is a sense of urgency in this important essay as Australia is at a crossroads. After a period of unprecedented economic growth due to a mining boom, the pendulum is now swinging in the opposite direction as our resources are no longer what they once were. During the good times, taxes were cut, wages were high, and the nation was prosperous. However, we did not take advantage of our luck and invest in infrastructure (road, rail, ports, broadband) and public education to prepare ourselves for what comes next.

Megalogenis argues that the old economic model, which worked in the past, is not suitable for the future. Today politicians are so poll-driven that they will not make the tough decisions needed to move forward and have a short term mindset which limits their vision. His critique of both Rudd and Abbott is razor sharp as he writes:  "The fulfilment of ambition, and the responsibility of government was supposed to turn Abbott and Rudd into statesmen. Instead, success made them unaccountable." 

Prime Minister Turnbull often states that 'there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian' and in many respects this is true. But his optimism may be misplaced if there is no plan for the future. Megalogenis is concerned about the prospect of a recession, for which we are unprepared having relied so much on luck. He argues that change is needed - with high household debts, low wage growth, inflated home values - in the form of increased government spending and regulation.

Megalogenis suggests that the government take advantage of low interest rates to borrow funds to invest in infrastructure - that will bring blue-collar jobs and prepare us for the necessary population growth through immigration. He also makes a passionate plea for public education. But he is concerned that our political system is not ready. He writes "the difficulty for Turnbull, indeed for the entire system, is that too much is expected of the prime minister. The rhythm of politics today is the permanent volatility of the financial market."   

This Quarterly Essay follows on from the previous essay (QE60) by Laura Tingle on  Political Amnesia and there is a definite theme in the cumulative weight of the essays. There is a desperate need to overcome the short-termism of political leadership. In the midst of the current election campaign, these essays are vitally urgent. I can only hope that the electorate will think not of themselves on election day, but on the future generations who will be impacted by the decisions of those we charge with making decisions about our nations future.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Whisper and Hum

I get excited every time a new Helen Garner book is released. Her latest, Everywhere I Look (2016) is a collection of essays and insights on a wide range of topics. I have literally just finished consuming her words and want to rush out and give a copy to every woman I know!

Garner always has something interesting to say.  Whether she is writing about sexual harassment on campus as in The First Stone (1995), the murder of a university student by his girlfriend in Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004), or a court case of an ordinary man who suddenly took the lives of his three young children in This House of Grief (2014) - Garner has a way of finding stories and exploring them in a humane and compelling way.

In this collection of essays and diary excerpts she writes about aging, movies, families, travelling and much more. In the everyday - haircuts, dog walking, catching the train - which most writers would find mundane, she finds insight. There is literally a story everywhere you look.

I enjoyed the chapters on court cases, her friendships with writers Elizabeth Jolley and Tim Winton, and the diary excerpts from life at home with her grandchildren. Her encounter with Rosie Batty is wonderful and I loved "The Journey of the Stamp Animals" in which she recollects a favourite childhood book, long out of print. I laughed aloud at her week watching Russell Crowe films in "Hit Me" in which she comes to find a new appreciation for his work.

Garner's crisp writing is always spot on. Her prose about being a woman, especially an older woman, is deeply personal and brilliant, for example 'Last week I had my hair cut. I was pleased, but in the limited way one dares to be at this age' (p58).  In "The Insults of Age" she writes of the invisibility of old age in which older women are routinely patronised - 'really, it is astonishing how much shit a woman will cop in the interests of civic and domestic order' (p211) - to which she decides to fight back in her own way.

This book is extremely readable, with it's bite-sized chunks and compelling subject matter. She places herself in each chapter and hones her eagle eye on sometimes disturbing material as she tries to make sense of things. I think this is what makes her such an accessible writer - because as a reader you feel she has let you in to her world, sat you down over a cup of tea, and told you about her day in wondrous detail.

My review of Garner's This House of Grief can also be found on this blog.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Pursuit of Happiness

I had the pleasure of hearing Jeanette Winterson speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival last month and during her presentation she gave brief insights into her life. After her session she signed a copy of her memoir for me. Without knowing what to expect, I have read - no, devoured - her book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011) and absolutely loved it.

The title of the book comes from a question her adoptive mother, Mrs Winterson, asked her at age 16 when she was given an impossible choice. The teenage Jeanette could continue to see her girlfriend or remain in the family home; she could not do both. Jeanette tried to explain that her girlfriend made her happy, and chose to promptly leave home to live in cars and campgrounds before heading to Oxford to study literature.

Adopted at six weeks old by the devout Mrs Winterson and her husband, Jeanette never belonged. Her mother was monsterous and it is a wonder that she adopted at all. She told her daughter that she came from 'the wrong crib' and that she should have adopted another child. Jeanette was never held, hugged, comforted. Rather she was put in the coal hold, or left to sleep on the front stoop when she misbehaved.

Books and reading was not encouraged (except for the Bible). Her mother's concern was that 'you never know what is in a book until it is too late'.  Jeanette found solace in the books she discovered at the library, beginning her reading at A and working alphabetically towards Z. She discovered poetry and Shakespeare and, through reading, began to discover herself.

Meanwhile she endured her difficult childhood, including an attempted exorcism, before leaving home. But I don't want to give the impression that this is a Mommy Dearest story of brutality - there is tremendous humour and love amidst the angst. Her conversational tone, the pace at which the story is told, and the honesty of her voice makes for a remarkably beautiful memoir.

Winterson, Sydney May 2016
Winterson achieves success as a writer - first with Oranges are Not The Only Fruit (1985), The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry (1989), Written on the Body (1992) and so on. When the BBC filmed Oranges and Winterson achieved much acclaim for the script she called home seeking acknowledgement of her success, to get none.

From her early thirties she skips ahead 25 years, deliberately leaving out those difficult decades where she struggled to find the happiness she hoped for. She concludes with chapters about her marriage to Susie Orbach, her attempts to find her birth parents and her coming to terms with her past. The story ends by returning to central themes - hope and the possibility of love. I'd like to think she has found what she has spent her life searching for.