Reading in 2019

While it’s still January, and beginning of the year, I’d like to take the opportunity to write a little bit about what I read in 2019. These will in no way be reviews, just recollections and impressions, coloured by the failings of memory and unadorned by the critical faculties which some people bring to an exercise like this. I know what I like, but often have difficulty expressing it, so this is a challenge in some ways, although what I have to say will sometimes be more about the circumstances in which it was read than about the work itself.

In no particular order – neither chronological nor in order of enjoyment – here they order. (And it’s probably worth stating that this list may even be incomplete: I don’t write down what I read as I read it.)

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson is the book I read while recuperating from an operation on my nose which allowed me to breathe better. I had been told to not exert myself and had to constantly flush out my nose by squirting water up my nostrils and while the circumstances could have been a lot worse I was in need of consolation and distraction and Bill Bryson provided it, as he has done so many times before, and indeed had done with this book (it wasn’t the first time I’d read it). Sometimes you need a comfortable old cardigan type of book, and the chatty yet extremely well informed style was just perfect. He’s always interesting because he is always interested and frequently very funny, even when explaining a complex historical, scientific or economic process.

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne was an addition to my collection about Evelyn Waugh, who had a fascinating life, mixing with fancy people, and being generally hard to like and even less likeable as he got older. This book was partially about the models for the main characters in Brideshead and it was unexpected to read that the man who Lord Marchmain was probably based on spent some time in Australia, and while he was living in Sydney he stayed at a historic house which my wife Laetitia and I visited about a year ago, and that one of the men he befriended, both personally and in business, was an entrepreneur who had himself been involved in the background when the sport of rugby league was established in Australia. The possibility that these two interests of mine – Waugh and league – might have even the most tenuous connection would have seemed remote before reading this.

Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited by Philip Eade is yet another addition to the collection.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke is a sort of stream of consciousness work which felt like hard work to get through, and this was disappointing as I had really looked forward to reading some of Rilke, who is best known as a poet although I think his output included the whole range of literature types. On the level of the sentence there are some beautiful phrases and very well composed scenes of death and disease and ghosts and generally dark things. I often say that my reading preference is not terribly plot-heavy stories, but maybe there can be too little plot, even for me. I would like to read this again, in smaller instalments, in a quiet environment nothing like a crowded bus or train.

Valmouth, Prancing N_gger, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli by Ronald Firbank made me feel like a real failure, as a reader. I didn’t finish it, which is unusual for me. Apparently Firbank was an influence on a range of people who flourished in the 1930s, including Waugh (there he is again) and Hemingway. From an almost scholarly point of view it seemed worth having a look at some stories by this writer, to get an idea of what he did, how he did it and how the work of others might have been shaped by what he did. But it was all so arch – the only word I can come up with, and I’m not sure if I’m actually using it correctly – the characters all being so witty and devastating and implying so much by saying so little that was obvious that it just seemed like too much effort to really work out what was going on. Which is shameful to admit, I suppose, but maybe life’s too short to struggle to the end of a book just so you can say you weren’t defeated by it. (I’ve taken one letter out of the title in order not to offend anyone who might read this.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark made me feel better after the struggles with Rilke and Firbank. This perfect little book, so dense and poetic, so dark and funny has become a go to for me when I finish reading something and can’t decide on the next big challenge. It’s now on my to be read regularly list.

Sicilian Uncles by Leonardo Sciascia is a collection of short stories which I had read part of the previous year and which I finished reading in 2019. I wish Sciascia was better known, but even if that never happens away from the Italian reading public, I will certainly read more of him. The Day of the Owl, about Sicilian corruption and organised crime, was a masterful short novel where concision and the silences (what is left out) said more than some writers say in many pages.

Two Stories and a Memory by Giussepe di Lampedusa is the only other work available to be read by the author of The Leopard, one of my favourite novels. These pieces are chiefly of interest to fans of the author, I suppose, but are little gems in their own right. A brief few pages of memoir, a lovely short story with unexpected fantasy elements, and a fragment of what was intended to be a novel – reading these leaves you wanting more, but maybe if you can write The Leopard, that’s enough.

Point Omega by Don DeLillo was sparsely written and full of layers of meaning, only some of which were available to this reader. It was mysterious but ultimately unsatisfying as I wondered if it was trying too hard to hide its reason for being. But strangely this didn’t make it unenjoyable to read. DeLillo is so assured and so subtle and he uses language so very well. The experience of reading this made me want to read more.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild is a work of history which I had hoped would be informative on a subject I knew little about but beyond that had few expectations. But it was truly excellent account of how the Belgian Congo colony was set up, as King Leopold’s personal possession, not a Belgian possession, at least initially, and how it operated, which was utterly appallingly, the mistreatment of local African workers cultivating rubber just beggars belief at times. In the story we learn about several characters, including the dastardly Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame), Roger Casement, a British Empire diplomat and humanitarian who later became a martyr to the cause of Irish freedom, and a couple of candidates for who Conrad’s character Mister Kurtz might have been based on.

Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff by Jean Findlay is a biography of the soldier and spy and translator who worked on Proust’s very big novel, which reminds me: I should really read some more of that soon.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor was written by a young English man who walked across Europe to Istanbul in the 1930s. I loved it. I so want to read the second part, and more of his work. He’s one of those English people who tells you that he wasn’t very good at school but seems somehow to have acquired very deep historical knowledge and the ability to speak several languages. It’s really first-class travel writing, which makes you feel a little sad that so many parts of Central and Eastern Europe were irrevocably changed by being exposed to the Nazis and then the Second World War and then the Soviets.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is a book I had wanted to read for some time. It had the dreamlike qualities I had been led to expect, the language expert, even musical at times, and the use of “we” as narrator simultaneously unusual and utterly right for the story. But there was something missing for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Again, it might be better to re-read this away from public transport.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, a sort of feminist allegory about a group of women imprisoned at a remote location, is another one I had wanted to read for some time. It didn’t disappoint, and I want to read more of Charlotte Wood now.

Collected Poems 1909 – 1962 by TS Eliot felt like scratching an itch which has been getting itchier for a little while. I’ve never really read much poetry and would like to know more about it and understand it better. A cultured person should be interested in poetry, I’ve always felt, and this seemed a good place to start. There are the poems we read at school, but many others here too, and I read them all, some of them more than once, and liked some of them a lot and others not at all. I wonder if I’m a good poetry reader and want to be better, so have decided to read more this year. We’ll see how that goes.

Published in: on January 26, 2020 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Domino 2006 – 2019

Dom and Lil

I must write something about our dog Domino, who died last month after a short illness. Her final few weeks were marked by sudden symptoms of escalating seriousness, yet she maintained her basic outlook, which was that if her humans were happy then she was happy too. And as a result we have been left both bereft and somewhat shocked that it could have all happened so quickly.

When I first met Domino she was still a puppy, but with a frame almost as big as it would be when she was fully-grown. She needed to fill out, and Laetitia, who I was just getting to know then, was concerned that whatever she did she could not get Dom to put on weight. This phase soon passed and the weight came and the concern changed to preventing this dog who loved eating so much from eating too much.

Laetitia had two dogs and a cat, and when I first visited her at the little country cottage where they lived, it seemed almost alarmingly unruly. Domino, a medium-sized black dog, and Lilly, her small white “sister” (who wasn’t related in any human sense of the word, but they clearly thought of each other as family) jumped up and down at the gate, barking and barking and the sound seemed to echo and I wondered what madness I was about to enter. But it was just high-spirits and it was also that I hadn’t spent time with a puppy since our first family dog was young and that was twenty years or more before this. Dom and Lil would have play fights and chase each other and seem to be about to violently tear pieces off each other with their teeth, but that was just recreation and showed how much energy they had. They would play with a towel and would have a tug-of-war and then Lily would sit on one end of it while Domino dragged her around the cottage floor. While this was happening Mr Mu, the older, wiser, far more civilised cat would be above all this, sometimes literally – on top of some furniture – disdaining the filthy creatures and occasionally threatening them when their games got too close or they tried to include him.

Laetitia would take the dogs for a walk, morning and night, and they needed this exercise and more each day. She would take them to the beach and the sight of Domino running, running as fast as she could, along the sand, and in the shallow water, maybe bringing back some mysterious object, which might have been seaweed and might have been something else, was a favourite early memory from my relationship with her.

The dogs were brought up well, behaved themselves, and had been taught many tricks by the time I got to know them. Domino in particular was very good at tricks, not because she was a genius, but because she was willing to learn and eager to please. She also responded well to the food treats used in training, which never excited Lily as much and perhaps as a consequence Lily was never as interested in this activity. The dogs grew up, from early puppyhood, together. Lily, a mini Fox Terrier, had come along a few months before Domino, who was given to Laetitia by a neighbouring farmer in the district where she was living. The farmer bred Border Collies and Curly Retrievers and had not intended to cross the two breeds, but when an amorous canine accident occurred a litter of little balls of black fur, so cute they were almost unbelievable, was produced, and Domino was one of them. Initially she was actually smaller than Lily, which seemed hard to believe only a few months later when I met them. By this time Lily would habitually lie on Domino, or rest her back feet on her, or just cuddle up to her much bigger sister, and these habits would continue for the rest of their lives together.

When just getting to know Laetitia there was so much I did not know. I knew almost nothing about girlfriends and relationships and the bush and cats and multiple pets, but I knew about dogs which were about Dom’s size and must credit her with helping me to adjust to all of the other new realities which were dawning at this time. It was so comforting to touch her ears or rough up her wavy coat and the smell of her was something I loved the instant I met her. She smelled like dogs to me – the way they should smell, a comforting deeply pleasant scent to experience, and I’m not ashamed to admit that even when she became dirty the smell was still good, better even, to breathe deep into my nostrils. I miss the way Domino smelled, so very much now.

Eventually the pets moved to Sydney with their human and then I became their other human. The time we were all together formed the majority of her life. We would go on holidays to the country, where Domino barked at cattle and alpacas and sheep and kangaroos, and enjoyed sleeping in front of a log fire at the end of a day’s hard walking. It was always good to have her leash when walking up hill, as in her enthusiasm she would pull you up, like some sort of bush sled dog, and this really helped if you were getting tired. On local walks she barked at fish once in Cooks River, for unknown reasons, and it perhaps doesn’t need to be added that the fish remained unconcerned at this behaviour.

But she loved being at home, was onely really relaxed when we were all present and accounted for, and was more than happy to simply lie in a corner on a dog bed or maybe on some “human furniture” as we called a lounge or bed. Once we came home from a night away in the winter months and we turned the light off and turned the heater on and all sat on the lounge – two humans, two dogs, cat on the arm of the lounge – while we watched football on the TV, and it seemed to me then, as I patted Domino’s head, that this was about the best thing she could probably imagine and that there was nothing at all that I would rather have been doing either.

As a retriever, a gun dog, Domino produced a strange kind of vocalisation, which sounded like moaning. We would refer to it as singing and indeed some songs and types of music would cause her to sing along, almost involuntarily, although she also learned to respond to the command, “Domino, listen!” She would then hear the music, and especially if it was high-pitched female voices (or boy sopranos) she would sing along. She sang to the theme music of The Brady Bunch and The Cook and the Chef and Everybody Loves Raymond and she sang when Songs of Praise came on on a Sunday morning and no one else was in the room. A video was made of her singing along to the Flower Duet from the opera Lakmé by Delibes and sent to Australia’s Funniest Home Videos, who didn’t think it amusing enough to put on their show. It is sad to watch it again now, but her vocal skills remain entertaining:

Domino would make her noises when she thought you should know something. She would tell me, while I was watching the football on Sunday afternoon, that dinner was coming up and she was getting really quite peckish. This message could be delivered for well over an hour before the thing she wanted to tell you might take place and she would tell you again and again as it got nearer. But she also would just moan – lie there and moan or come over to you and loudly vocalise in your ear.

This got worse and eventually Laetitia and I realised we would often just raise our own voices and talk over her, almost screening out the sound, which could be made at a surprisingly high volume. I once heard Domino inside the house, when I was on the street out the front, and it sounded as if she was being tortured. She wasn’t, of course. When she wasn’t apparently experiencing some sort of existential angst she was enjoying herself, making a noise and listening to it.

The thing Domino always wanted to do was to share the bed with us and Lily and Mr Mu and there would have been enough room for us all but whenever this was tried she would behave strangely and get off. She didn’t want to lie in some parts of the bed and seemed to think that feet moving under the covers were small monsters to be scared of. This hadn’t been a problem when she was younger – I recall waking up in the cottage one morning and feeling uncomfortable because Domino was lying on the covers and between my legs, facing east west and causing my legs to go as far apart as they possibly could.

She wanted simple things: comfortable bedding, of course, and food most of all. On one occasion she ate a selection of meats about to be barbecued and got into serious trouble as a result. Most of the times she was in trouble were food related. On Christmas Day last year she ate part of a decoration, which had small wires in it and the veterinary advice was to feed her every few hours, to flush the potentially very harmful foreign objects from her system. This was Domino’s best Christmas ever – whole cans of dog food, several times a day – and she was perplexed and a little put out when we got the all clear and went back to feeding her normally again.

But she was a good girl and we told her so whenever we could. In the end she was medicated for canine dementia and for a number of other things which all seemed to arise together but she kept her spirits up and loved it when we got home from work and wagged her tail if you entered the room or said her name or for numberless other reasons. The wagging was such a constant in the house that it is quieter here than it was. It was a kind of drum beat. She set the rhythm, kept it up, and we all lived at that tempo, performing all those household functions in a certain way, at a certain time, every day. And now the beat is missing and we are endeavouring to carry on and it is hard. It is hard for the humans, who lost a friend who was always there – to pat on the head as you walked past and say hello and goodnight to – but most of all it is hard on her sister, her aged little white sister, who doesn’t see or hear all that well herself, and who isn’t really her sister at all, but is surely missing her like the world just became a smaller, dimmer, more empty place.

Published in: on November 17, 2019 at 4:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

GORDON URQUHART – A Voluptuous Story About a Voluptuous Woman in Search of a Voluptuous Title

When my mate Max suggested I write a short story I thought he had gone mad: eccentric mad, not thinks he’s Napoleon mad.

He has controversial views on some social issues, and he’s always been old-fashioned – if old-fashioned means only employing secretaries who are under 25, female, and blonde – but these things were never a problem. His wife never complained, to my knowledge, but then I don’t think he ever told her – or his three previous wives – about his requirements in administrative support staff.

Until recently Max had been a very respectable barrister, well-connected (we know many of the same people), solid, a proud burgher of his city and citizen of the world. He abided by the law, or course, and I would say he paid his taxes, but certain matters are sub judice at this time, so you will understand if I don’t express a definite opinion on that subject here. I will say his art collection is more than impressive and the comically bad performances of his racehorse Twiggy’s Dancer provided an excuse for a number of amusing days at the track with plentiful champagne.

In his professional life he represented premiers and jockeys and adult entertainment impresarios. At the Opera he sat near a former governor-general and clinked glasses at interval with a man whose mining company owns forty per cent of Western Australia. He still does.

Then came the change.

None of us knew it, but there was a secret in his armoire, only revealed when we received invitations to his first book launch. The tome was called Bonfire Of The Bar, and it became the start of a very successful series of Walter Prendergast’s barresterial adventures. Walter is a lawyer who does things his own way: he’s a rebel, a black sheep, charmer of judges, breaker of rules, and enjoyer of three-hour lunches matched with superior wines. He frequently ends up in bed with his charming assistant or some other willing accomplice of the female persuasion. Walter the ladies man reminds me of a ladies man I know, but this is no coincidence: writing from experience is the advice they give to budding scribblers.

“All lawyers want to be writers, Gordy,” Max said. I suppose he’s right.

There have been four Prendergast adventures so far, and loyal readers want more. So successful has Max become that he has given away lawyering. Well, you never really give it away, but he’s strictly part-time now, spending most of his time in chambers indulging in something creative, with Miss Palmer his clerk in close attendance. (Max writes long hand, and Tiffany types up his pages. He never learned to use a machine of any kind, after mastering the tricky clutch on his 1967 Aston Martin.)

Which brings the story to me.

At his publisher’s suggestion, Max decided to edit a collection of short stories by lawyers, shamelessly designed to appeal to the lawyer-turned-writer market. In my case, it should more accurately be described as lawyer-turned-mining-magnate-turned-political-consultant-turned-turned-real-estate-investor market.

My distance from the profession didn’t bother him though. Just write a story, he said.

So I did, and it’s rather good. When inspiration wouldn’t come I decided to base my tale on a lurid case from the early 1980s. It is about the time I met and represented Conchita Diaz Furioso, a noted flamenco dancer who worked late nights in a restaurant with her partner Ramon. The proprietor thought this added colour to his establishment.

Unpaid wages led to an accusation of fraud and events took a decidedly criminal turn after that. Vandalism, mysterious assaults, and a suspicious death were all involved. I found that Conchita and Ramon were partners in a professional sense only, despite being technically married. It emerged that Ramon had a collection of passports with different names on all of them. As I got closer to Conchita I learned the the full meaning of “fiery Latin”.

“There are no male friends. Only lovers,” Conchita told me. She convinced me of her sincerity on this point, several times.

She could crack a walnut between her thighs, and she had … well, other skills too.

It was a torrid few weeks, and it makes a rollicking story. The temptation was to use phrases like “throbbing member”, “pleasure cave” and “love truncheon” in certain intimate scenes, but I cut most of those phrases, and only twice used “moist”, which I believe is a technical term in scenes of this kind – as technical as sine die is a courtroom scene.

One crucial element it missing: an appropriately romantic, legal, adventurous, dangerous title will not come to me, and I don’t know what to do. At this stage I’m leaning towards “Criminal Passions From The Courtroom To The Bedroom”, but I’m not sure if that works.

Published in: on October 8, 2019 at 6:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Possum Man

Summer at our place is a hateful time of year, in which the only relief from the heat may be found in the lounge room, where the small, theoretically portable, and very loud, air conditioner is. This device makes watching TV or having a conversation a chore, as you need to compete with its mechanical rumble, but it’s the best solution for two people renting an old house which is falling down around them and their small menagerie of pets.

Only our big dog Domino can be easily heard over the air conditioner, when she vocalises a kind of whiney moan which has been known to go on for hours, increasing in intensity if hunger is present – and Domino is pretty much always hungry.

On the vilest Sydney summer days, sauna hot and lacking even the merest breeze for the illusion of comfort, the temperature remains high all night long. Even the lows are high, and then the sun comes out, early, and it begins to warm up all over again. On days like this the air conditioner doesn’t help much, and it was on one of these days that our story took place.


The suburb where we live, a place where we couldn’t possibly afford to buy, is leafy and sedate and has a profusion of brushtail possums, which like to eat foliage and lovingly tended flowers, and take advantage of the shelter afforded by large houses, with their eaves and roof spaces and other vacant areas roomy enough to accommodate a marsupial. At first you may hear the noise a possum makes – it’s a kind of roar, a surprisingly accurate way to describe the sound – or you may notice branches and greenery and hollowed out fruit begin to appear, scattered on the ground. Both indicate possums are around. But it’s the countless tiny, football-shaped pellets of shit, which may be walked into your carpets unawares, that tell you you’ve got a boarder.

A few possums have lived with us over the years. There was the one which scratched and called, very noisily, provoking ineffectual barks from our dogs in response. My partner Laetitia drove it away by turning the volume on the TV up to a deafening level one morning and leaving the appliance on for several hours. The animal was within a boarded up fireplace, where they always end up at our house, and therefore just on the other side of the wall. They desire a dry, safe place to sleep during the day, which means that their activities, their eating and pooing sorties, and the sounds they make, are nocturnal.

Another was found dead under the hydrangea in our front yard one rainy Saturday. It was my job to remove the body in a plastic garbage bag, an unpleasant job but still relatively comfortable work for me. Seen up close it’s always striking how handsome these animals are. They have a beautiful coat and piercing eyes and it’s tragic that an untimely end can result from their life in the human world.

And a third also made its home in the boarded up fireplace. When the sounds of activity went quiet and a smell came from that corner of the room it seemed reasonable to surmise that the creature had passed away. Fortunately it was winter then and this helped prevent the odour becoming unbearable.


On this summer day, though, the fragrance of decomposition which had been wafting from the direction of the fireplace picked up intensity until it could be smelled strongly throughout the house. It was overpowering to be near and it was almost impossible to spend any time in the lounge room.

A note of panic entered Laetitia’s voice: “What are we going to do?” She had already sprayed the special disinfectant spray which deodorises by destroying the particles of bad smell, a product we have found useful at times with our four cats. Laetitia sprayed more and then talked about using some tape around the outside of the board which had been fixed to the front of the fireplace. One of these strategies was about getting to the smell and neutralising it while the other was about preventing it from coming into the room – but the contradiction didn’t matter. We had to try something else.

I bought the only wide tape which was locally available. It wasn’t the best quality fabric tape which you can just rip off, but it wasn’t too bad, and I hurried home and started taping. It wouldn’t all stick down. Partly that was the tape, and partly it was that I was trying to stick it to surfaces wet with the spray.

While all this was going on, Laetitia picked up her friend, who had planned to spend the day with us. It was too unpleasant to invite her into the house, and so we decided to go to the local shopping centre, to get cool and make a plan about what to do next. It reminded me of when the principal characters all go to the Plaza Hotel in The Great Gatsby for no good reason:

“But it’s so hot,” insisted Daisy, on the verge of tears. “And everything’s so confused. Let’s all go to town!”

It is also the case that when I’m not coping very well in a situation one of my mental refuges is to think of a similar character or scene from literature as a way to not think about whatever horrid thing is actually happening.

Laetitia called a possum removing professional and made it clear that our problem was behind a wall, albeit a temporary one. The man spoke of methods to reduce the smell but made it clear that these are not terribly reliable.

He said he would come straight over and we drove home to meet him there.

We’d seen him before. He had removed a possum which had entered our dining room via another fireplace, this one unblocked, and become electrocuted when it crawled under the shade of an old standard lamp we had bought in a junk shop. I went into this room to pour a drink, and found myself face to face with a native animal, sitting perfectly still, but looking across the room at me. It seemed to move, very slightly, although I couldn’t be sure, and this meant several abortive attempts to dispose of the body, as I ran from the room, slamming the door, and yelping, “I think it’s alive!”

On his first visit, the possum man had smiled his big mad smile and stomped into the room and told us about the damage he’d seen possums do when pursued through domestic interiors. Then he focused on our problem. “It’s dead,” he said, walking over to it without a hint of fear. “Rigor mortis has started. You can smell it.” I felt silly for missing something so obvious but it didn’t matter: someone who knew what he was doing had taken charge.

In fact it wasn’t dead. It was stunned and squirmed a bit once I had helped the man put it into an old cat cage. The man wrapped it in a blanket first and said he would release it very humanely in a park near where he lived.


It didn’t matter that the man had been wrong then. He was confident and experienced and solved our problem, which was exactly what we needed now, in this stinking room, on this stinking hot day.

He took charge, removing the board from the outside of the fireplace, without asking, and I found myself holding open a garbage bag to take outside the skeleton and the more recently deceased body he found in the cramped space beneath the grate. When I returned he was hammering the board back into place with the butt of his heavy torch and a sense of calm started to return, like a drug entering your system.

It was all so quick.

We turned on fans in the room to dissipate the smell and went back to the shopping centre.

For some of us after the calm comes the doubt, as the anxious mind searches for the next possibility of drama. I hadn’t checked the nailing in of the fireplace board and couldn’t shake the idea that our cats might somehow escape from through this possible weakness in the wall. So I walked home in the heat to find out.

But of course it was secure. The possum man can do anything.

Published in: on August 17, 2019 at 3:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“Treat inquiries of all sorts as if they were a minor vexation,” my mate Cameron used to say. I’ve known Cam for years. I went to school with his brother Dougal, who distributed my wine label for a while, and who allowed me to accompany him to Hobart one year when his maxi Panama Papers came in fourth.

Cameron has been before the Bar Association and has needed to argue himself into and out of bankruptcy at various times in his career as one of the titans of the Sydney business community. There were also a few interviews with the constabulary, who treated him very respectfully, which may have been something to do with his mention of an uncle who had been a Supreme Court judge, and it may have had nothing to do with that at all.

We studied law together at uni, Cameron and I, and invested in a few ventures after we had both decided that law lacked the challenges we could find in buying and selling companies.

He was always a great guy, very hospitable and really splendid company. I miss him but understand that sometimes people’s circumstances change and it’s often best to just accept the new reality. Besides, when Nancy and I are travelling we usually stop off in the Cayman’s and stay with him for a few days.

We were there in January. His golf swing is still immaculate.

Published in: on February 7, 2019 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

The West of Sicily

sicily statue

Last year was crowded with incident, by my standards at least, and that, perhaps, is a reason why this blog has been neglected somewhat.

There are all the usual reasons why nothing has appeared here for some time, but none of them are worth really going into in any detail. Suffice to say things have been written, and submitted, and there have been quite friendly conversations with editors letting me down gently.

The highlight of 2018 was a trip to Sicily, meeting up with a friend during the six months he spent travelling, and driving around the Western part of Sicily for two weeks. My focus here, as always, will be with the literary aspects of this trip. But here is a picture of a beach we went to on the day after my arrival:

sicily beach

The water is incredibly blue, something which isn’t adequately captured in this photo, and it’s all like that, except when it’s simply unbelievably blue, somehow pale and bright at the same time. And swimming in the Mediterranean is something that I’m very glad my mate cajoled me into doing.

The food is exceptional and the people are friendly and it is a place well worth visiting, but when I return it might not be during the heat of July, which was taxing at times on a fair-skinned bloke who usually thinks of warm weather as something to hide from.

In some ways the story began before the idea had ever been raised by my wife Laetitia. I keep returning to Peter Robb’s book Lives, a series of biographical portraits, for the quality of the writing and because it can be a comfort when the my mind is too active and becomes a bit addled. It seemed a good idea to read more of his work and so I was given his Midnight in Sicily, which is about his time living in Palermo and going to places and meeting people all over the island. It’s part memoir and part history and part reportage as he traces the trial of the former Prime Minster Giulio Andreotti over his connections with organised crime. Again the writing is beautiful and I was reading this book when it was suggested that I do some travel and maybe meet my friend, if he was amendable to the idea.

He was, and planning swifly got underway. This process was daunting and exciting. It was an odd thing in some ways for Laetitia to suggest this, as I’m not really a natural traveller any more than she is, but I think she thought that flying overseas was something we wouldn’t be doing together very much as she she’s a nervous flyer. I’m more a nervous human than a nervous flyer, but by the time passports were issued and tickets bought the only thing to do was to just go, and I’m very grateful for her generosity in thinking of me in this way and helping me to make it happen.

I knew that the part of Sicily I was going to see had a lot of ruins and history and I’ve always been fascinated by the history of this place in any case. There are well-preserved Acient Greek temples and other remnants of the several civilsations which have been present on the island at some time over the last three thousand years or so. But, for me, preparation meant reading, and so I started with Sicily: A Short History, from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra by John Julius Norwich. It’s a fun book written by a serious and scholarly historian whith a very soft spot for the place. Having read it you want to read more, to know more, but it’s all there, albeit briefly – all the invasions and colonisations: Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Roman, Norman, French and Italian. The Normans seemed most fascinating – their reign was multicultural and cosmopolitan, with Arabic and Byzantine influences in public administration and art and architecture – and this people seemed to interest the author too, for he wrote about their time in this part of the world earlier and in more detail, in The Normans in the South and The Kingdom in the Sun. But then he wrote about a lot of things over his long career, including Byzantium. Sadly John Julius Norwich died in 2018, but I shall be reading more of his works, when I can.

Of course there was a Lonely Planet guide and reading of that sort to do but I tried to follow up all the references which stood out and this meant fiction. The work of Leonardo Sciascia cropped up in a few places and so it seemed to right to have a look at him too. The Day of the Owl is a novella – he wrote short books, characterised by compressed expression and leaving out details he deemed to be not absolutely necessary – about organised crime and its investigation and the links to politics, and it is simply masterful. Sicilian Uncles is a collection of short stories worth a reader’s time. I want to read more of him.

It is often said that to understand Sicily one must start with The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a novel about the period immediately after the invasion of Garibaldi and the beginning of the process of unification of Italy. The story deals with the effects of these historical processes on a noble family, based on Lampedusa’s own ancestors, but it is about so much more than that and this was already one of my most treasured volumes. So I read it again.  My view of The Leopard was that it was a truly great work of art, and that view is unchanged after another reading (or two). It should be read by more people, even those who aren’t “studying” for their vacation to Sicily. Reading the story led to a desire to read the life and so David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: The Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa seemed to naturally follow. He was an odd man, in some ways, a quiet presence, even to those who knew him well, with a passionate interest in literature (particularly Shakespeare), and the fact that he created his work of genius late in life, and it was not published until after he died, is tragic but also gives hope to all those who feel like opportunities to make one’s mark are only given to the young. I have a volume of his Letters from London and Europe (1925-30) edited by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi which I look forward to reading.

My mate surprised me one day by taking us to Palma di Montechiaro, a town not on our itinerary, as some key events in The Leopard took place at locations based on buildings in the town.

This is the Mother Church:

sicily palma 2

And this is the Benedictine Monastery:

sicily palma 1

This brief visit to this small town was one of the most thoughtful acts of generosity that anyone has offered to me and I really couldn’t thank my friend enough. I’m still not sure if he knows what it meant to me.

While I was gone – swimming and climbing monuments and taking photos and eating splendid food – Leatitia held the fort, worrying for my safety and building several Ikea drawers and shelves, transforming the room we dress in (it’s also the room I’m writing this in now).

When I arrived home, Laetitia was waiting for me, with a scarf and gloves, as it was still winter in Sydney, and there was chilled Guinness and wine in the fridge and classical music playing in the refurbished dressing room on the new radio she had bought me, and I couldn’t tell her how much all these things meant and how much I had missed her. We hadn’t been apart for more than a day or two before this fortnight of separation.

The next overseas advanture should be together, and hopefully it will be somewhere with half as much history and art and reading and I won’t have to tell her about it because the experience will be shared. In the meantime, there is so much reading to do.



Remembrance Of Dinners Past

It’s funny how these memories come to you. Their source is unknowable yet the sensations are vivid, as if it hadn’t been decades since experiencing those feelings, being in those places and doing those things.

This time it was linked to food and specifically to dinner. I was thinking about some of the things I used to look forward to and even get a little excited about, when I knew my mum was cooking them. And then I was back there: the four of us – dad and mum, my sister and me – at the breakfast bar. On our plates were peas and baked beans and sausages (a thick, brown sausage, probably beef), and an egg (fried). Mum would ask if you were hungry enough for two eggs and it seemed that adults might have two, while kids should have one, but we were still given the option. The baked beans sauce merged onto the egg part of the plate but the yolk didn’t merge back because I used to eat the yolk first, having been told by an adult that it was the best part. This was the period when I developed a technique for cutting sausages which resist the sawing action of weaker childish hands. You stab the sausage first, with your knife, in the place where you mean to cut it, and then saw it through the cut part which now has compromised structural integrity to the extent that it is relatively easy for a five year-old to complete the job. I would apply tomato sauce to my sausages in the early part of dinner – in the feasting your eyes on the meal phase – and would eat the cut segments with huge satisfaction as we watched Doctor Who on the TV. The Daleks and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart were particular favourites of mine.

It may be that this only happened a few times. It may be that it happened once. But the strength of the collection of smells and sounds and the feeling of satisfaction, of happiness with the food and the TV show and with hardly a thought of school again the next day, was overwhelming, and I think that in that time and place I must have been happy.

Published in: on May 25, 2018 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Published: Mr Mu Narrative

I have a small piece of nonetheless rather pleasing news. A new literary journal called Cagibi, based in New York City, recently published an essay of sorts, written by me. It’s about Mr Mu, our departed feline companion, about his life and death and what happened next. It was refreshing to be allowed the space to write something of this length for publication and this would be a good place to thank the editors for their enthusiasm and support. Here’s a link:

Published in: on April 23, 2018 at 7:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Generation With No Name

People Stand On The Berlin Wall

This hostorical perspective of a member of Generation X in Australia was offered to a number of publications with a certain confidence, but those who were offered the essay declined to run it, and so here it is.

Politics was in a shambolic state when some of us were born. The Dismissal had just happened, events of such moment they would be marked every year by debates, opinion pieces and re-enactments featuring versions of Sir John Kerr’s eighteenth century composer hairdo. Now that most of the dramatis personae have left us this anniversary doesn’t seem so urgent, but it is still discussed. Respect for the position of Governor General suffered. Politics became a hard game, played to win by a new breed of ruthless younger men intent upon replacing gentlemen legislators of a previous era.

In the 1970s terrorism was cool. Celebrity terrorists had appealing nicknames like Carlos The Jackal and their dreadful work was international. There were the PLO and the IRA and you couldn’t be considered a proper paramilitary organisation without an acronym. Although religion was sometimes a justification for atrocities, the operatives were secular in character. They wore headbands and open necked shirts with far too many buttons undone. They wore aviator shades and they drank and smoked and had girlfriends.

Things changed a bit in the early 1980s, when some of us started school. Labor won power, replacing a government which never really got over its role in the Dismissal. The task of modernising the economy continued under the stewardship of competent salesmen who taught us to understand economic graphs and use the terms they used in our own conversation. The dollar was floated, which modernised the economy a bit more.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led the US and the UK. To a little boy both seemed to be there forever in their quest to lead the free world in the struggle against the Evil Empire. There was excitement when the President revealed his Star Wars nuclear missile defence program, promising some kind of video game on a grand scale to defeat the Soviets,  at a fantastic cost, which somehow made it all the more exciting and likely, for America was huge and powerful and they could do whatever they wanted. We knew that the third and final Star Wars film was on its way, and wondered if there was any connection between the two. But the numbers were absurd and the plan had more showbiz than sense about it.

Meanwhile in both countries the poor were further disempowered as economies were forcibly modernised. Economists called these ideas “neo liberal” and they would soon be emulated by politicians in other parts of the world. Traditional factory jobs in traditional industries disappeared when it was realised that people in less-developed parts of the world could do them for even less money. This process was given the satisfyingly sophisticated name of globalisation, and presented as exciting, new and creative.

Free trade was a good thing, said all the countries which counted. There was no future in artificially propping up traditional industries with tariffs and duties. The market should be free and it should be independent and uninfluenced by governments. The alternative was Communism, which was no alternative at all. At the same time there were nightly reports on the news about what our entrepreneurs were doing. These men were heroes and we followed their hostile takeovers and mergers. Banks propped them up as their deals became riskier. Within fifteen years most of them were in gaol or bankrupt or had fled the country. Without them we would not have won the America’s Cup and Queensland would not have so many resorts.

Soviet news rarely reached us, but when we heard about the reactor malfunction in the town of Chernobyl it emphasised that the world was a dangerous place. Those of us who were about ten already knew that our lives would probably end in a nuclear war. Now we were reminded that it didn’t need to be a war: nuclear things could kill you. Sympathy for the victims was genuine – they didn’t seem like enemies at all.

But the adults didn’t let this worry them too much. They were busy being confident. In this era we focussed on the world, and thought we were good enough to be compared with anyone. This seemed right when the film Crocodile Dundee was a global hit for Paul Hogan. The stock market crashed in 1987, and this should have warned against the over-confident assumption of bottomless prosperity, but doubt was put to the back of our minds in the next year’s Bicentennial celebrations, where tall ships with advertising on their sales re-enacted the arrival of the First Fleet, and a deluge of government money poured into projects, some of which actually warranted it.

Some of us started high school at about this time and at this age thoughts naturally turn to adult things. But it was no longer easy to do the most natural thing in the world. No, AIDS would kill you if you had sex with anybody. The award-winning Grim Reaper advertising campaign emphasised that the disease would strike at random, that nobody was safe. Such were the new anxieties of our generation.

Soon the Berlin Wall came down and this happy occasion liberated the oppressed peoples of Europe, ending the Cold War. Except that now economic conditions were precarious: millions of Eastern workers desired their piece of the Western capitalist dream. China might be more economically open, but it was still an authoritarian regime with nuclear weapons, and many Soviet era warheads were still around.

The overall anxiety level had eased, but now we were anxious about the environment as well, particularly after the discovery of a hole in the Ozone layer and what the experts were calling the Greenhouse Effect. This hadn’t become a debate yet. It was a theory with a lot of evidence and we wrote essays about it in Geography exams.

In the early nineties there was a hot war. Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US led a coalition to stop their evil dictator, who was left in power because his regime was deemed stable enough to look after all the precious oil which the country produced. It was a brief war and some of us spent the last week or so of our Christmas holidays one year watching it like a TV show, which was entertaining enough if there was no cricket on. Australia was involved, as usual.

An economic recession resulted in many job losses and the failure of many businesses. It didn’t sneak up. We focussed on ourselves, laughed at nihilistic comedy, and were introspective as we regrouped and started again.

Interest rates were so high that you could make money just from having something in the bank. This meant that repayments on any kind of debt were crippling. Remedies adopted by politicians aimed to further modernise the economy. Economic rationalism was a phrase so overused as to be almost meaningless. It was the reason for everything. Government assets were sold and functions privatised, public service jobs were slashed and those who formulated these policies told us to trust them and said that if we took our medicine it would be good for us in the long run. An uncertain future called for advice, and the best advice said we should finish school, go to university, and get a good job. So we studied fearfully hard, hoping that things would improve.

At this time they started calling us Generation X, the cohort following the Baby Boomers, a mysterious group without a proper name who were said to be cynical. We had more than enough reason to be cynical in the ‘90s. Most of the certainties of the previous generation had been removed or were threatened. The social safety net had contracted, suicide was a growing problem, and traditional community values rejected kids who weren’t straight.

Within a few years the recession was a memory. Some of us had finished school and started university and saw protest everywhere. Everyone needed to work by this time, so marching had to be fitted in around holding down a regular job. But there were a lot of things to protest about and the number of things grew when the Coalition returned to office after many years in opposition. Government programs were cut and it was said that the user should pay.

At this time we turned on each other and pointed fingers at those who didn’t measure up to our Australian values. Comfortable members of the community begrudged assistance given those without their advantages. Once again, the economy needed to be modernised, this time with all stick and no carrot. And all in the name of achieving a budget surplus, the concept which enjoyed exalted significance as the only measure of financial responsibility everybody could understand.

Economic rationalism was pervasive. Efficiency dictated major restructuring in our winter sports, and after talks and mergers a few clubs disappeared altogether when experts tried to understand the world of culture and tribal allegiance in financial terms.

It was at about this time that some of us started losing touch with the fragmenting popular culture. Hollywood was dominated by special effects films with no plot and it became impossible to maintain contact with new music untainted by commercialism, so some of us decided not to bother any more.

We felt safer when strict gun laws were introduced, although it required the massacre of several tourists at Port Arthur by a mentally ill man with a semi-automatic rifle in order to bring about this reform.

As the 1990s drew to a close many parents bought big screen TVs, the newest status symbol, using government money designed to assist with new-baby expenses. It wasn’t the first appeal to parents. When government-owned bank and telecommunications companies were privatised “mum and dad investors” were encouraged to buy shares. The share market would keep going up forever, said braces-wearing experts on TV, sitting at their desks with Times Square in the background. Everyone was too eager to invest to consider that this wasn’t logical.

Aspiration was good and people were encouraged to improve their position by buying and selling. When this idea was applied to housing homes became regarded as a commodity rather than a place to shelter. We were told the value of real estate would never fall, and that this could only be a good thing.

Certain words took on a new importance: words like mateship and un-Australian and political correctness. When these words were used the message was about excluding people and disapproving of behaviour. Only a few years before the words had been Asia and reconciliation and republic, but some people grew tired of hearing those words and those people feared a multicultural future.

Words and symbols were important enough to be contested, and a disagreement of this type resulted in a failed constitutional referendum, which meant that Great Britain’s monarch remained our head-of-state.

It was a self-absorbed way to end the 1990s, but before long the Olympic Games were here and we revelled in being at the centre of the world. A lot of money was spent in anticipation of the festival and we congratulated ourselves that if we could do this well we could do anything. But the euphoria didn’t last. In the years following, economic confidence flagged in the Olympic city, as it does in all host cities after the games have ended.

We were a small demographic group, outnumbered by our seniors and soon to be overwhelmed by those reaching adulthood in the twenty-first century.  Some of us were working full-time by now, and had our heads down. Experience had taught us to take nothing at face value, especially if the story seemed too good to be true, and this meant we trusted politicians less.

Within a year a boatload of refugees bound for Australia had been picked up by a Norwegian vessel and promptly refused asylum when the rescuing captain attempted to have them accepted here. This event encouraged those who didn’t like the idea that anyone might be given special treatment, especially if they were from countries which did not share our values. The concept of queue jumping was used to buffer prejudiced views, but within a few weeks terrorist attacks on famous buildings in New York and Washington meant that you didn’t need to hide racist assumptions any more. Most arguments could now be reduced to us versus them.

Until this point the US president, the son of another US president, had been a figure of fun. Afterwards he was still considered a buffoon by everyone except the sizeable number of Americans who believed that domestic security could be strengthened by reducing civil rights and interfering militarily in Iraq. These people voted for him again four years later. World leaders who should have known better were complicit in his rather naive plan to bring peace to the Persian Gulf and gain control of its oilfields, and they joined in. Australia helped, as we always do.

The War on Terror was underway and we were told it would be a more successful enterprise than the War on Drugs, which had been attempting to destroy the international narcotics trade for decades.

At about this time, some of us decided that we needed to carry all of the music we had ever owned with us at all times, and luckily Apple made a sophisticated device for that. Personal entertainment had come a long way since Space Invaders and PacMan in the ‘80s, but strangely it was just that type of crude arcade game that we played on even more sophisticated devices – when we weren’t looking at pictures of cats or food or our friends’ over-achieving offspring – and you could make phone calls with them too.

Politics changed when the long-serving government was defeated and there was bold talk about the environment for the first time in a while. It didn’t last though. An apology to indigenous people was derided as both potentially dangerous and a hollow symbolic gesture, while the notion that a government might attempt to address the connection between pollution and climate change was ridiculed. Some of us had a serious girlfriend at this time, and our focus was on other things, but it was clear that politicians were less constructive than ever.

Citizens had lost faith in the system to the extent that elected representatives were no longer allowed time to learn their jobs. Just as voters turned on their politicians so politicians turned on each other, replacing elected leaders in the hope of improving opinion polling numbers, and this whole process did nothing to improve the quality of governing. Somehow in this period of instability Australia was affected only slightly by the Global Financial Crisis. The reasons for this are disputed, but may have had something to do with massive amounts of wasted money or prudent management of the economy.

Terrorism proliferated. The names of the organisations changed but the grievances and methods of dealing with them were the same. Religious zealots with a hatred of our society proved a formidable foe, yet we still refused to understand them.

We were living in bigger houses and talking less to our neighbours and had never been as incurious. We doubted medical advice about having our children vaccinated and gave them bizarre first names. And whenever asylum seekers arrived by boat they were treated as if they had done something illegal.

The future we had hoped for seemed unlikely to eventuate and the political present had turned very strange. Amid plots and feuding the Queen’s husband was given a knighthood. Some of us still rented the house we lived in, with no prospect of buying our own, and our more successful friends were doing obscure jobs in finance which were really about making rich older clients richer. Some of us got married to our sweethearts as an argument broke out between Baby Boomers, our predecessors, and Millenials, the cohort after us – a misunderstood group, as we had been, said to be disengaged, but at least with their own name. The two groups traded insults while we looked on.

And the kids who didn’t study hard and go to university but instead left school early and ignored the knowledge economy found themselves as tradesmen and women with golden economic prospects. Their response to the modernising economy was shown to be the right one. It made a few of the rest of us who had followed the sensible path wonder if we had wasted our time.

Those of us who were about forty might have had very little to believe in, but at least we had our heroes – until a huge number of them were swept away in the cultural holocaust of 2016. Then the Brexit and Trump election results showed us what a future shaped by traditional values might look like.

Sorting human beings into groups is necessary in order to understand our society, and our society has changed a good deal since some of us were born in the mid-1970s. The Millenial influence grows as they mature but ageing Boomers continue to shape our culture while they hold on to their positions of power.

Younger people, more than the rest of us, are deeply offended by prejudice and feel strongly about same sex marriage. We can only hope that their view prevails on this and many other issues1, for their commitment to social justice is genuine and this country would benefit from a little more generosity now.

For them to change the world they must not follow their elders, as we did, but assert themselves and create new Australian values for a more decent Australia.


1 In the postal survey on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry Yes prevailed with 61.6% of the vote.

A Very Short Story About A Man Named Donald

The literary magazine Meanjin decided to mark the expansion of Twitter messages from 140 to 280 characters by holding a little competition. The idea was to write a story within the new word limit. My entry, on the @Turdenmeier account, can be read here:


Published in: on November 13, 2017 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment