Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The guru *

A clear-eyed essay by Jim Holt in the NY Times on the joys and torments of Fowler, "the King of English".
When it came to the notorious split infinitive (e.g., “to boldly go where no man . . .”), he observed that those English speakers who neither know nor care about them “are to be envied” by the unhappy few who do.

My favourite passages in The King's English, written by Fowler with his brother in 1906, are about slang:
Awfully nice is an expression than which few can be sillier; but to have succeeded in going through life without saying it a certain number of times is as bad as having no redeeming vice.

Indeed only the other day I was worrying about "rather ordinary".

* See section on "Words whose meaning is misapprehended without apparent cause", in The King's English; or perhaps under the wanton use of foreign words.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


It's an odd moment in time.
I recently read Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall, a novel based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, and am now engrossed in Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, by Tristram Hunt. And have being researching the English Civil War for a book.
It felt extraordinary to be reading and writing all this at the same time that the Pope suddenly announced completely out of the lapis blue that Anglicans who wish to become part of the Church of Rome will be very welcome.
The earth shuddered. I felt it.
Here am I reading about the Reformation one moment and then in another reading of its - arguable - end.
Was it inevitable?
Reading Building Jerusalem, funnily enough, makes one believe it was. The two topics may not seem to be linked, but of course one of the most visible and lasting legacies of the Victorian city is its Gothic architecture, designed by men (almost entirely) who pined for the lost glories of a past embodied by the medieval Church.
The German Romantic, and then Pugin and his colleagues profoundly regretted the cultural loss of Catholic ritual and the medieval religious aesthetic, just as conservative commentators like Carlyle (and possibly Tony Abbott!) longed for the return of the social structures that bound medieval communities together.
It was the great clash between the Industrial Revolution and rationalist/utilitarian thought, and romanticism. (One might also argue that it's easy to agitate for the return of the great barons when you're not a peasant farmer, although whether 15th century peasant farmers had a worse time of it than 19th century cotton mill workers it'd be hard to say.)
I'm endlessly fascinated by the play between these ideas: between Enlightenment and science; and Romanticism and the sublime. One won the day in practical terms, while the other won the battle for hearts and minds - or at least fond memory.
The process is embodied in some ways by Wolf Hall, wherein Thomas More - the revered friend of Erasmus, Renaissance man and martyr, who clearly won the sainted memory battle - comes across as a finicky, heartless and needlessly stubborn old git.
Cromwell, on the other hand - the rationalist lawyer usually painted as the evil power behind Henry's throne, destroyer of the Faith, and chopper-off of queenly heads - is the focus of the novel and in spite of being far from saintly wins the reader's empathy.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the great battle was the French Revolution in which we can see the two ideas at war, along with a great many others, and it splattered both rationalism and Romanticism in their political senses against the walls of history and belief.
Perhaps Danton and Robespierre are the Cromwell and More of the 18th century...
and as I write that I realise that Mantell has described both fatal duets - better than anyone else.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Fair Trade

At the weekend I bought Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall at Dymock's (not even a true independent bookshop) for something around $32. I walked around the corner and there it was on a table out the front of Big W for $20.

Now, I'm happy to buy my potting mix and Dynamic Lifter at Big W, but I know from the other side where those discounts on books come from - the author.

It may not matter much to Dan Brown or Jackie Collins, but if you respect an author, especially a local or someone who is not regularly on best-seller lists, do them a favour and don't buy their books from KMart or Big W or anywhere else that offers a huge discount on new releases.

Consider the difference as an investment in our creative future.

Grisham hits out at 'shortsighted' discounts

Author John Grisham has called the book price war in the US between Wal-Mart, and Target a "disaster" for the book business, warning that the "shortsighted and short-term" discounts would hit publishers, book stores and aspiring authors.

Giant US retailer Wal-Mart—also Asda's parent—sparked the price war when it began offering 10 upcoming titles, including Grisham's new book Ford County priced at $24, for $10.

Speaking on NBC's "Today Show", Grisham said the discounts, of more than 60% on some titles, "seriously devalued the book".

He said: "Its shortsighted, short term, they know what they are doing I think, but if a book is worth $10 then suddenly the whole industry is going to change, you are going to lose publishers and book stores, and though I'll probably be alright, asipring authors are going to find it difficult to get published."

Grisham added that $24 was "a fair price" that "enables me to make a royalty, the publisher to make a profit and the bookstore to make a profit".

Following Wal-Mart's price promotion, both and then Target offered the front-list hardback books at first $9 and £8.99 respectively, though they did limit the number that could be ordered.

Though none of the three US retailers have so far matched the 75% discounts seen in the UK on Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol and Peter Kay's Saturday Night Peter, the developments led to the American Booksellers Association asking the Department of Justice to intervene over what it called "predatory pricing".

In a letter to the DoJ it said: "What's so troubling in the current situation is that none of the companies involved are engaged primarily in the sale of books. They're using our most important products -- mega bestsellers, which, ironically, are the most expensive books for publishers to bring to market -- as a loss leader to attract customers to buy other, more profitable merchandise. The entire book industry is in danger of becoming collateral damage in this war."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Lately I've been ...

I gave up on Soul Mountain. I don't give up on many books, and I know it's terrible, but I just didn't care about our narrator - in the first, second or third person.
So I came, finally, to Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, which I have meant to read for years. The first half had me, I'm sure, reading with mouth agape, it's just so gob-smackingly fine. Now it's gone all silly and annoyingly postmodern. Surely it'll come right.
But in the meantime I've got my grubby little hands on Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall. God, she's good. If A Place of Greater Safety is one of the best historical novels ever written, this may well come close. Philippa Gregory, read it and weep - even better, read it and vow never to write that crappy Tudor trash ever again.
Next up, Antony Beevor on The Battle for Spain.


To the new Madonna greatest hits album, over and over, and it's not even me playing it.

Broad beans, rocket and beetroot fresh from the garden.

Rain. At last.
Oh and Drew Barrymore movies.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A top top ten

Sandi Toksvig on the real-life heroines that have inspired her (in The Guardian):
The niece of the great Mongol leader, Kubla Khan, Princess Khutulun was described by Marco Polo as the greatest warrior in Khan's army. She told her uncle she would marry any man who could wrestle her and win. If they lost they had to give her 100 horses. She died unmarried with 10,000 horses.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Lately I've been ...

The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper, which were, of course, delightful but also rather poignant towards the end. It's fascinating to read his earlier letters through the prism of Brideshead Revisited and see the young Charles Ryder taking shape. (He wrote Brideshead in four months - now doesn't that put us all to shame?)
Lady's Maid, by Margaret Forster, a novel in the voice of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid, Wilson. It started promisingly but went on and on until I was almost desperate for poor Elizabeth to drop off the twig. (Now there's a story that could do with a new movie treatment. So long as Brad Pitt wasn't cast as Robert. Perhaps it could be a Fiennes of some sort. And for God's sake don't let Gwyneth anywhere near it.)
Now I'm reading Soul Mountain, by Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian. I'm surprised by regular jarring cliches, but assume it's the translation. And now I know who to blame for that rash of second-person narrative of a couple of years ago.

The second series of Mad Men on DVD.
I love a cuff link.

Stephen Fry in America
I love a charming gay eccentric genius.

Oh and did I mention how brilliant Blessed is?

The dramatic horseback race across 17th century Italy, by a girl who hates ships (now there's a turn up for the books).

On a beach in north Queensland.

But I won't bang on about that here: go there instead.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The trouble with research is...

... that everything is just so interesting.
For the current book, I started off - years ago now, I'm embarrassed to say - with a draft based on admittedly sketchy research about the Jewish community in Amsterdam in the 17th century, went on to river routes of Germany, how an Auto de Fe was conducted and the mechanics of an early printing press. I used information I already knew - or thought I knew - about the Inquisition and Reformation, and the Index of Forbidden Books, and Venice and read, well, even more stuff.
My pattern seems to be that I only start writing about a setting or time about which I already vaguely know, even if my memory is not that sharp. Then I do need to research a certain amount to get the context right, but the first draft is more about character and plot than the delightful distractions of detail.
Now I'm redrafting it and adjusting my historical timelines a little, and I've decided I really can't go any further without a refresher on Descartes and Locke (it's now 20 years since my Philosophy major and what I've forgotten in that time would fill more pages than I'm actually writing), and delving into astronomical discoveries, and then I end up flicking through long-forgotten books about Gallileo or Bruno and wondering how to make a poultice for boils.
Of course there's the re-reading histories of the English Civil War, and poring over maps of ancient cities or histories of costume, and retracing my early and sketchy research tracks rather more thoroughly.
You do all that, and then a huge portion of it you cast aside, so the reader never notices it. Although they do if you get anything wrong, which is one very good reason for doing it in the first place.
I'm sure it must be a great deal easier to write vampire novels.
Umberto Eco wrote (in Postscript to The Name of The Rose) that to tell a story, "you must first of all construct a world, furnished as much as possible, down to the slightest detail".
And also it's fun.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Old hat

Writers Festival in Melbourne: Bernhard Schlink brilliant last night and Antony Beevor (all hail) on D-Day tonight.
But I do wonder:
1. Where do all those black berets live for the rest of the year?
2. Why, O why, do they let people ask questions? One in five is halfway reasonable - the rest are incoherent, lame, bloody obvious if you had either read the author's books or listened to a word he or she has just said, or self-serving claptrap. Almost all are impossible to answer. You! Vainglorious moron! Step away from the microphone. Perhaps we could have a seven-second delay button. In my hand.
3. Is there no apostrophe in "writers' festival" any more?

Monday, July 27, 2009

The land of the lost

Last Saturday night I went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came home and collapsed straight into bed and didn't get up again.
It's been strange. First day or so I was quite feverish and demented so I didn't do anything at all except mutter like a nutter and cough. Then the pig pox turned into something else and I'm not sure which was worse.
I looked like a zombie, because the infection was in my eyes and my eyeballs were a fetching crimson, so if anyone had seen my staggering around in my pyjamas they might have called the SES. Or Buffy.
Luckily nobody was here. My girlfriend was in NZ and all she got from me was a sort of rusty squawk over Skype.
I've been in some kind of twilight zone - missed my nephew's birthday, the glamorous premiere of my friend's brilliant film [trailer here], the delivery of my brand new laptop, Geelong beating Hawthorn by a point, and about a million meetings at work.
Hours, days (eight so far), just vanished without trace.
Couldn't read or watch anything I hadn't already read or seen, which resulted in an awful lot of Harry Potter and Broadway musical rehashing, which in turn resulted in some fairly bizarre dreams (Hermione Granger in jail with Roxie Hart ... or something). Couldn't even read the newspaper. After a few days I have graduated to watching crap on YouTube, which, due to the constant buffering on our wireless connection, just about matches the pace of my brain.
All very odd. As if the brain needed to just stop.
If only it could do so without tearing out the lungs and throat as justification for lying down - speaking of which, I urgently need to go back to bed. Pathetic.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Lately I've been...

Or rather rewriting my book for young readers set during the Counter-Reformation.
(And clearly not writing on this blog)

Harry Potter again, from start to finish, because I saw a trailer for Half-Blood Prince and got a little too excited for my age.
Doctorow's The March - brilliant, of course, but not Ragtime. I know that's unfair, but that's what happens to people who write one of the great books of the 20th century.
Michael Dirda's Book by Book, which was a complete waste of my time, his publisher's ink, paper, and over-enthusiastic cover blurbs. Read like an undergraduate blog.

Tenko on DVD. Remember that?
The Lemon Tree

Waiting for
The Blessed premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Woke up this morning to a sky of mist, all along the river valley, and now it's rolling in again.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reading (not) Proust

So I finally got around to reading How Proust Can Change Your Life.
I know. I know. A decade later than everyone else. What's your point?
But I really never seem to be as impressed by Alain de Botton as other people. The Consolation of Philosophy was fine, so far as pop philosophy goes, but his self-referential style sometimes makes me squirm. I actively disliked The Art of Travel.
By the time we get to read the more recent releases (Status Anxiety, or whatever it was, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work) there has been so much hype and endless exclusive interviews, there's little left to actually learn or absorb from his writing.
I don't get it.
If I'm in the mood for a quick dip I'd much rather read A C Grayling. Or the originals. Or even Monty Python ("Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle", from memory) which, let's face it, can provide just as much consolation in certain situations as Boethius.
Equally hilarious, albeit unintentionally, is Fromelles, by Patrick Lindsay. I'm alternating between reading it with glee and throwing it in a corner and trying to forget I ever started it.
And don't go accusing me of being unAustralian or spitting on the graves of our poor dead Digger ancestors. It's simply a poorly written book.
The only way to read it, I've decided, is to actively engage with its most maddening fault: that is, play Count the Cliche.
Pick a page - any page. Here are a few from a single paragraph on page 2, for example:
"two armies faced each other locked in a death struggle" (that might count as two)
"hunkered down"
"young men, brimming with promise and potential"
"show no outward fear, but their eyes betray them"
"the air is foul with cordite"
"you can feel it in your bones"
"moment of truth"
"pent-up kinetic energy"
"straining like dogs on the lead"
"count the minutes"
"taste of battle"
"invincibility of youth"
"prove his manhood"
And as a special bonus, that's all in randomly alternating first and second person.
Then there's a History Channel-style outline of World War 1, complete with the usual (and again cliched) outraged editorialising about Haig et al.
Oh it's fabulous.
I really wish I could get to the bit where they start researching and digging for what will no doubt be "the forgotten Anzacs". But I'm not sure I can last that long.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On track

Feeling motivated to finish/redraft my new novel for young readers: it's a kind of philosophers versus Inquisition adventure.
I've set myself a deadline. The fingers are tapping.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Recent reading: the good, the great, the bloody dreadful

The Maid of Buttermere, the first of Melvyn Bragg's novels I've read, begins as a fascinating pastoral - part Hardy, part riff on Sublime tourism (with which I'm a little obsessed) but then turns, quite consciously, into a kind of pseudo contemporary reportage. The concluding sections are not nearly as compelling as a result, and ... you know when you get that feeling that you can sense the author at work?

Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson's homage to Britain. It's not as hilarious as some of his work but I realised why I like him in spite of his many frustrating habits - he never talks to anyone. He travels all over Britain - well, bits, anyway - without any of that extrovert travel writer pallsy chat in the pub bollocks that makes the writer feel they truly understand a place in which they have just arrived and therefore able to convey its deepest secrets to the rest of us. I hate that. The other option of course is the Theroux misanthropic interaction with fellow travellers in order to describe them in scathing terms in a travel book. So Bryon's rare brushes with unavoidable conversationalists are refreshing, and it's actually quite a relief to travel around in his head and not pretend otherwise.

Sybil's Cave, Catherine Padmore's assured and evocative debut novel, set on the Hawkesbury, Fascist Italy and in post-war London, with all three places expressively and convincingly conveyed with a minimum of fuss and good strong characterisation. I look forward to her next.

Tales From A Broad. I list this only to warn you. It's by Fran Lebowitz. No, not that one, as it turns out. As I found out too late. Dreadful. Didn't even finish it. The kind of writer WHO HAS TO USE CAPITALS TO TELL YOU WHEN TO GET READY FOR SOMETHING FUNNY. How these things get printed is beyond me.

Elvin's Mottoes Revised. What a gem. Hours of endless entertainment. I've decided I need a motto. Who wouldn't, when you could use:
Mone sale (Advise with wit)
Optima revelatio stella (A star is the best revelation)
In utroque paratus (Prepared in either case)
And my favourite - picture the knight trembling behind his visor - Comitae quam viribus (By mildness rather than force)
Or even Bibe si sapis (Drink if you are wise).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lately I've been...

Susan Sontag's diary, Reborn.
Strangely disappointing, though perhaps just an anti-climax due to over-zealous reviews and sweaty anticipation on my part.
Of course, it's interesting to see her ambition intellectual nature form itself over the years, especially those precocious early years; and a few passages dwell on some questions of moral philosophy she developed further in her writing.
There are peeks inside the personal life of a famously private/famously public person. You can't beat that.
But the private declarations and musing about her sexuality, while familiar, are far from profound: reminiscent of, but not a shade on, Barbara Deming and others.
I suppose one just expects more from someone whose essays make you gasp with recognition or wonder - or more often groan silently with shame that the moral or political arguments she outlines didn't occur to you when they are so blindingly logical.
But that's the point, I suppose, of being the voice of a generation.
I also wonder why some entries (eg the addresses of agents or bookshops) are even published except as a vague marker of activity in the world, when so many notes are obviously omitted. The lists of movies Sontag has seen or books she wants to read speak both of her ferocious appetite for ideas and images and input.
"Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness."

But the most compelling passages are the 1957 'Notes from a childhood', a stream of consciousness mini-memoir; and those in which her forensic self-awareness leads her to dig painful at truths, particularly about her relationships.
It all begs the question why someone so sure of herself and so entrenched in queer life - and so honest about so many of her thoughts - was never open about her sexuality.
Perhaps the publication of more notebooks will explain.

Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant
In this book, Grenville crosses the gulf she created for herself in The Secret River, allowing for - in fact exploring - first contact between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the early days of settlement.
It's interesting, given the debates around Secret River: or rather, the debates around her statements about that book.
I think Grenville acknowledges the wishful thinking of so many white people, now and then (let's be honest) to be special, to understand Aboriginal life fully, to be free of any shame or guilt from past or present - our own or others'. Of course most of us stuff it up just like everyone else - we remain as complicit as every other whitefella while imagining we would be Rooke/Dawes rather than his trigger-happy First Fleet comrades. It's a fine old Australian literary tradition, Aboriginalism, and frankly I'm not quite sure where Grenville lands - whether she falls under its spell or is exploring the idea.
In both books there is confusion in the response to brutality. In Dawes/Rooke she has a fundamentally good man through which to work these dilemmas. He devotes his life after Sydney Cove to Abolition and slave welfare. Is he an exemplar? Is he too special - too good - to be a model for the rest of us? Do our own moral shortcomings find an escape in such good people?
We can rest assured when good people exist - when Wilberforce or Oxfam are on the case - knowing that somewhere in history - somewhere in the world - someone better than us (me) is actually doing something, responding as we would wish our best selves to do?
But she makes certain of one thing: "This is a novel," she writes in her Author's Note. "It should not be mistaken for history." She has even changed the names of people such as Arthur Phillip, which is perhaps taking things a little too far.
Nobody mistook The Secret River for history, surely: it was Grenville who muddied the waters with her own hand. But we shall let that debate rest, for now. What we can say though is that Grenville is brave enough to wade into that tide (stretching the metaphor about as far as it will go) of historical reflection and contemporary reaction. And good on her for that.

(Also been reading Peter Ackroyd's Fall of Troy and am now onto the Edna Walling biography.)

Slumdog Mllionaire

Like everyone else.
The Hours
Yes, I know I'm several years too late but it's one of those films everyone tells you to see, and whenever everybody tells me to do something I won't. So I'd never seen it and I wish I hadn't because now I am retrospectively furious Kidman won the Oscar for that dull performance when Meryl and Julianne Moore had both more screentime and twenty times the impact.
Cried from the moment he made his first speech. Love a good biopic. Couldn't quite believe I was watching a mainstream one about a gay icon. Harvey would be over the moon. Bless him.

My novel about La Maupin.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Writers for Wildlife

This weekend I'll be reading/speaking at a benefit for our furry and feathered friends who have survived the bushfires.
Writers for Wildlife
Abbotsford Convent
Sunday, March 22

Monday, March 09, 2009

Wrack and ruin

The roads are open. Not all of them, of course, as in Kinglake and other towns they are still sifting through the wreckage.
But I drove up to my place in the country on Saturday: the usual way, through Steels Creek and Yarra Glen, up through the Toolangi Forest, past Castella and through Glenburn to Yea and Yarck and my little half-acre which is still as I left it. But the world around it has changed beyond belief, beyond sadness.
I've driven through aftermath before, indeed I've driven through flaming bush. Every day for months I drove through the Royal National Park after the fire - blackened, then a glimmer of green.
But this...
There are parts that look like a normal bushfire has been through - bits of remnant foliage, some ground cover - maybe old trunks - for wildlife, a tree here and there untouched, the forest floor clears but substantial shrubs burned but still there. Horrifying but still a chance of survival for burrowing creatures and sturdy plants.
But there are parts of Toolangi that look like nothing I've ever seen. Bare charred trunks. And that's it.
It's as if there had never been any understorey at all. No skeletal saplings. No cover for anything.
Just trunks and a ghostly rain of grey leaves falling, then carpeting the ground.
Nothing can have survived it.
Whole populations of creatures must have been wiped out, just as whole townships have been reduced to the odd chimney and a tangle of iron.
So it must be a good thing that I'm reading/speaking at a benefit on March 22 at Abbotsford Convent - Writers for Wildlife - to support the recovery.
I'll post details here soon.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

At last

The rain has come. For the moment.
The sky is clear of smoke.
And I am on holidays.

Friday, February 13, 2009


There's a poisonous pink sunrise this morning - the sun's coming up behind the smoke that's spread across the sky from the Yarra Valley, a few miles away.
It's very still.
No wind is a good wind, right?
Usually when there are bushfires you hope for a change in the wind - this time we know that's a profoundly selfish hope, because these fires are so entangled around communities that one person's longed-for wind change is another's deepest dread.
Healesville is back on high alert. Yarck is just in purgatory. Like so many others.
And so it goes on...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

No words

The hiatus on this blog has been due to the illness and then death of my lovely, talented, loving, fiercely intelligent, gorgeous mother-in-law.
We were in New Zealand with the family for a few weeks and arrived back in Melbourne to a heatwave followed by an inferno.
So far we are safe although I confess my bushfire preparation this year has been half-hearted, and I've been forced to reconsider our fire plan, which is to stay and defend.
Having been through it before, in Bundeena, I felt confident I could save the house if required, but I now know I couldn't have.
Not this fire.
It moved faster and more fiercely than anyone has ever seen, so everything you thought you knew about fires, and houses, and yourself, is cast into doubt.
I don't know what would have happened to us if the wind hadn't changed - as it is, it has pushed the other edge of what is now one enormous fire towards my other place, my spiritual home, in the country near Yarck.
They are on high alert there now, with spot fires in the area.
There's nothing I can do but wait and act like I'm interested in work and the rest of the world while sick to the stomach and exhausted from checking the fire info services in the middle of the night.
And so many others are so - so - much worse off.
We are all affected somehow, everyone is waiting for news of people or places they love, and those who are not affected now will be, I'm sure in the coming days or weeks or months as we learn to live with it all.
But as Julia says, it's beyond words, so I'll shut up.
(Cross-posted on Bush Backyard)