Saturday, 17 January 2015


It was alcohol in 1953 did Dylan in,
No perhaps when the liver gives out.

Words like a dictionary in spate
Rampage after page of life’s dispute.

Swansea hadn’t heard the like,
New York neither as it took a look

At tragic poet doing tragic poet
Running with him a hell’s season, like a pet.

He could only ever be who he was
Same name, same desires, because.

His book all over their shelves,
His legend one no one solves.

It’s a world of most personal inflection,
A world of crass mass production.

The evidence of towering ambition
Scatters to the four corners of inhibition.

A Jew will change his name in a hurry
Who wants to be the next Woody Guthrie.

Minnesota, special on short winter days
But not when he has a head full of ideas

Driving him insane and freedom
Is just around the corner, a poem

Pitted against indifference to the Same.
Hey Jimmy don’t I know your name?

Misheard? A lifetime of aliases
Says he will only ever be who he is

In a world of most personal production
That cares nothing for his bass inflections.

Same game, same desires, because.
And all he says ends up in loss.

Or not quite, where two or a few
May gather, without payment of a fee.

Kindergarten is a wall of sun scrawls
And in a corner his name scrolls.

It’s Welsh, says his grandparents’ guide,
Means wide flow of water or great tide.

For in just a little while a solar image
And attention may lead to ideas rampage.

Amplifiers ride up high the vinyl blow,
It’s scratchy but it’s ‘Tangled Up In Blue’.

The Magic Pudding is the National Dish

Recently an online newspaper reported that the official AFC Asian Cup Facebook page “seems to have decided a question which has agonised Australians for years by declaring the meat pie our national dish. The page put together the ‘national dishes’ of the countries participating. Snuggled among machboos for Kuwait and sushi for Japan is the meat pie for Australia.” Like a red rag to a bull the editors sent out an invitation to readers to say what they believed was the national dish of Australia.

Blog responses were predictable enough. Vegemite, which is a spread and not a dish, was named in terms going from the adulatory to the derisive. Bloggers, most predictably from the Port Jackson area of the country, threw in the prawn as though that were the only thing Australians cook on a barbecue, and obviously the national dish. No further thought necessary, apparently. There was a curious nostalgia for roast lamb and a total lack of nostalgia for roast kangaroo. Opinions went back and forth on the thread, with little to raise the discussion above the level of the LCD. Pavlova made its traditional entrance, together with the traditional arguments that pavlova is at least New Zealand, if not in fact further back than that. Pavlova bowed out gracefully. At least one or two bloggers had the wit to observe that Australia not only doesn’t have a national dish, neither should it, anymore than it has a national costume, or even a national flag that anyone agrees on. This was all seen as a good thing and typical of what makes Australia great amongst the nations of the world. This author, under a thinly disguised pseudonym, offered the following dish for consideration.

The Magic Pudding is the national dish.

He then went on to elaborate. It's a cut-and-come-again pudding, he reminded his well-read Australian audience, in other words it just keeps on giving and there seems no end to its goodness. It is whatever kind of pudding the diner desires, rather like our attitude to food generally. Everyone fights for a slice and tries to keep it from being stolen by covetous Pudding Thieves. Pudding Thieves might include asylum seekers, genuine refugees and anyone else 'we' have decided should not have a slice of our Magic Pudding, because it's all ours, all of it! And we will jump in the billabong with it rather than let anyone else have a bit. Even though the Magic Pudding is a ‘silly old bugger’ (Thank you Bob Hawke!) who grumps the whole time, he's the one who gives us everything we want, twice over. And are we thankful? Not often enough.

Pudding Thieves might be the government of the day, too. This last opinion got more ‘Likes’ than any of my other opinions, indication of the political bent of this particular online newspaper.

Norman Lindsay published ‘The Magic Pudding’ in 1918 and it depicts the world and ways of Australian bush life that were by then already changing. At least, that bucolic life of the open road, reminiscent of another contemporary children’s classic published in England, ‘The Wind in the Willows’. The characters in Kenneth Grahame’s book lovingly detail the class types of the English countryside; Lindsay does the same with Australian types. In both books the characters have a zest for life that sometimes gets them into trouble, they deliver recitations of original poetry at the drop of a hat, and each have their own tale to tell. The main difference is in the rumbustious and egalitarian nature of Lindsay’s people. The book is said to have been written to settle an argument: a friend of Lindsay's said that children like to read about fairies, while Lindsay asserted that they would rather read about food and fighting.

Food and fighting are the driving force of the narrative. Indeed, all four Slices (his name for the chapters) are more or less the same story told in different ways. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and everyone will fight to get it for themselves. Sharing is only possible if you are a friend of the person currently in possession of the pudding itself. And the pudding itself is a character, a tetchy individual to say the least for all his generous giving, who remains mightily unimpressed by the attitudes of his owners, whoever they may be at the time. He lectures and berates: humans are a bunch of duffers, even when they know they are on to a good thing.

The social, national, theological, psychological and other implications of the story are rich. Whatever Lindsay’s own view of the matter of his literary invention, the story can quickly be read as a description of different attitudes of the European Australian settlers to the land, to possessions, to food distribution, and to love of neighbour. It would be an understatement to say, for example, that selfishness is a prime characteristic of the main actors. They are anthropomorphic, taking on the adopted personae of koalas, possums, wombats and so on, yet any resemblance to the actual behaviours of these animals is limited. Bunyip Bluegum, Sam Sawnoff, Benjamin Brandysnap and the rest are not zoological but entities living out their version of the good life, safe from such realities as the original inhabitants of the land or the pressing facts of international affairs. At the end of the story the ‘rightful’ possessors of the Magic Pudding abandon travel on the open road for life at home, complete with vegetable garden and facilities. The pudding is kept permanently in place with his own accommodation, all sign of things to come in Australia after 1918.

When we enter a milk bar or swishy delicatessen these days, say in Lindsay’s towns of Creswick or Ballarat, or in the great metropolis of Melbourne, we are confronted not just with a tray of meat pies, but with an assortment of every kind of pie imaginable. Here is a list from a recent visit: lamb and rosemary, Thai chicken, beef Burgundy, steak and mushroom, shepherd’s pie, curry vegetable … The wonder is not so much the pies themselves but the sheer choice. We observe other citizens come and order the pie of their choice, then watch them eat the lot without further thought, as though it were their God-given right and only natural that such plenty is theirs for the taking.

The Magic Pudding is the national dish.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Gig Ryan


The features have become familiar: the spare lines, the pertinent adjectives, the surprise juxtapositions. The physical world also: lonely rooms, problematic spaces, broken cityscapes. We meet the speaker at some place of disjunction, putting together attempts at a grand image of the world while remaining sceptical of any such attempt, and all the time drawing on small resources of mood or opinion. Her words confront us with their unpleasant reminders that the world is not ordered as we would care to believe, and signposts are not just signposts but themselves constructions fraught with ambiguity. Men are strange, to say the least. People’s motives are rarely entirely sincere.

Drugs and addictions are never far from the scene, even on a dry day. Poems are in need of something, express the need, are driven by the need, whatever that need may be. Sometimes the need is named, other times guessed at, often a matter of uncertainty even to the author. Sometimes lines hang out in the street wondering what to do next. Or the poems are inside the fix, rushing with the surprise she had almost forgotten could go this way, or that. Then the poem is coming down again, the comedy inherent in meeting ‘reality’ again, as though it never went away, same old same old. Or the poem tries to ask how it got into this fix, though not for long: the poems laugh at being in the fix, or come close to despair.

Some people say this is satire. But satire is something that comes with middle age. It is the consolation of a survivor. More intense and to the point in the poetry is protest. The world she describes appears to have become blasé about protest, which is good reason to send out the words anyway, and make them run. It is personal protest, but we sense she wants us in on the action. Surely she’s talking to somebody and it must be us, supposedly. Sometimes she seems to do little more than set up targets, with only Nature immune in some way to her anger. There is nothing much to attack in Nature. The Universe itself helps her get by.

Who reads this poetry? Some of her targets would get a kick out of Gig, for example other poets (the “Great Artist of nostalgia”), “spiritualist junkies”, “dedicated writers” and students of the Australian word. Most of her targets though will probably never come close to encountering the resigned scorn and resentment that she sends in their direction. “Reverent capitalists”, “tireless husbands”, “twinset couples”, “bar-code entertainers” and others in her cast are most unlikely to bend open her new book, or know what to make of the contents, most like. And there’s the rub. 

Is she a solipsist? A misanthrope? Is she powerful or powerless? The personal ‘I’ seems constantly to be drawing boundaries between her and others. They are over there, thanks very much, while she is right where she is now, inside this poem; more often than not, unhappy. Who knows who Gig Ryan is outside her books, but when I read some of her poems I scan for those things she values, as distinct from all the things that make her unhappy. Nature is a great fallback position: she loves to describe trees, for example, nearly always an image of consolation. “Daylight birds” are not judged, nor sunrise nor sunset. Overseas, Paris brings “bliss’. Although church is a target she recurrently holds up for respect what she calls in one place “psaltered days”, leaving us to ponder a youth informed by some form of Christian ethic; it is about the closest she comes to what elsewhere she mocks as nostalgia, or at least a past worth remembering.        


Once I was in the audience of a Gig Ryan reading. She was given her allocated fifteen minutes, it was a big show with several performers, yet after reading about five poems she walked from the podium and the room with about seven minutes to go. Someone later remarked to me that that was Gig Ryan’s ‘punky theatre.’ This expression stays with me when reading her poetry. At any moment I expect her to walk abruptly from the stage. Her life seems dedicated to not abiding by the rules. Some of the poems possess that unpredictable behaviour, as though she may suddenly change the subject without warning, or not give you what you are waiting for. There is ‘upfront’ one minute, silence and pointed absence the next. It has it’s own kind of control, like ‘punky theatre’ always does. Far from being anarchic or free form, ‘punky theatre’ is a matter of control, dependent for its effect on knowing the ground rules, then subverting them. Attack is more or less constant, with little space for a bluesy ballad. No one expects a symphony. And many of her poems are theatre pieces of this sort, too. The words cut across the space, often with little care for narrative expansiveness. The worlds she describes are themselves like deteriorating theatres of old and new, existing to be put in their place by poetic bursts of recognition and invective. Punk was a short-lived music movement of 1976-78 that could not survive because its manners became predictably vulgar and its three-chord anthems did not lend overmuch to the soul. Obviously she is not a punk, but ‘punky theatre’ helps describe one of her tried-and-true methods of effect, both in composition and delivery of the words. There will be no nostalgia, in fact there may not even be much of a past as such, except in the ancient richness of the English words arranged on the page and strumming from the larynx.  

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Some thoughts on The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1

The different voices he has writing to his different correspondents come over remarkably like the different voices of The Wasteland. It is almost uncanny. The popular nonsense sections sound like large parts of his correspondence to Conrad Aiken, which really makes one wonder about his motives there in contrast to the interpretations of the critics. The high-minded philosophic letters (their implications) with Bertrand Russell are the very positions he later laments and suffers for. Throughout it all the increasingly paranoid correspondence of Vivien runs through the playfulness &c. like a sinister jinx.

All of Eliot’s early letters display a deeply felt response to others, a perfectly formed sense of expression, but vivacity, charm, wisdom ready to be tested. The stunning moment after his father’s death where he mourns for all that his father wished to do with his own life and never achieved; hoping that he can be everything his father would be proud of, then asking for his father’s fun drawings of cats. In one fell swoop, the germ of the Practical Cats. Could they be Eliot’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?  

Entry in Notebooks, 22nd March 1990 

Some thoughts on ‘Chekhov’ by Henri Troyat

Troyat on Chekhov, how does he differ from Pritchett? Anyway, there he is again, Anton Chekhov. You sit down and read about this educated Russian doctor who kept his peace, who saved all of his family (even Sonia?) in turn, who wrote all those remarkable stories and plays with seeming facility, who went down with consumption, and all the time made so little of his own trials. One reads thinking, why this Chekhov and not one of his brothers? Why was it Anton who lived like that and wrote that way? Why were there no other Russians who said it so exactly? He stands out, so rare, but how come it was him? All the time it must have seemed miraculous. No wonder the first night crowds went mad and the speechifiers went on for hours, causing Chekhov himself so much chagrin. When something speaks so directly of the social condition, criticism is forgotten.

His relationships with women are given defiant shape. Troyat dismisses Aliuva as a romantic with delusions, one who could not see Chekhov’s teasing remarks for what they were. Reading her original account of the relationship it is hard to believe that she could so innocently record Chekhov’s playful talk about living together in another life. But like so many conversations with women that are known about, his words to Aliuva raise questions about the man. He doesn’t commit himself or ever precisely define his position. He seems to be one who did leave them hanging, even when he forgot them himself for a time. To tamper with his own phrase, perhaps his mistress was his writing, and no one else. The explanation that his illnesses kept him from commitment cannot be accepted so easily.

Upbringing in the Orthodox faith must be the subject for a thesis. It is a surprise to hear of Anton being the Chekhov who tried to get the family to go to church more often and keep religious observance. Morality informs everything he wrote, yet it is rarely overtly Christian: people always do what they must do or else just what they feel like doing. One guesses enjoyably what he may have said to Tolstoy about religion. And the fact that church never again appears in the biography after his twenties makes the subject all the more tantalising. He never lost faith, but what else happened?

Entry in Notebooks, 12-13th March 1990 

Friday, 2 January 2015

Some thoughts on ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ by Italo Calvino


A book about reading, even how to read in a variety of ways, that is. A book that is a pleasure, that speaks itself of the pleasure being released, just as a lover would. But is there any lasting satisfaction? We are led on through never-ending teases to stories that speak not of fulfilment, but of humiliation, revenge, anti-climax, threat, mistaken identity – anything that can go seriously wrong in a relationship. Calvino’s stories offset the hope that we can have an affair with this book and get away with it. Do not believe that we have here some short stories yoked together by the author’s imaginative diversions about reading. Each story is telling you very sharply what the ideal dream reader would not wish to know, that promise is temporary, that a story does not speak of survival and death, that the book is what you are caught inside now and from which (to which) you will always be referring to something else.


What sort of a person writes such a book?

This is the story of you reading this book. Or, at least, the story of the ‘you’ reading this book. You follow yourself through the excitement and the setbacks of the story Calvino is telling. It’s like Snakes and Ladders, stories that come abruptly to an end, leaving you where you had not expected to be: stories and twists of the narrative that open up new ideas about storytelling itself and the act of reading itself, which you take so much for granted.

What is tells you, amongst other things, is that all of your reading is a story in itself, your story of yourself reading. Instead of the normal distance between the reader and the text, the drama of this novel excites one to the realisation that our very existence is tied up intimately with the arrangement of words and actions in a novel.

Calvino plays havoc with the ‘You’. Instead of putting the reader in the passive position of enjoying the different experiences of characters, he makes the reader the central character, sometimes placing them in highly embarrassing, stressful situations. This action of Calvino’s in the novel leaves one wondering if he does not, in his own mind, want in this book to get back at the reader – not just to involve them but to, in fact, put them under fire.

Here is a work that comes in reverse order of creation. We think. Normally a book will have its own basis at least an item of an idea. And so too does this. But we usually expect the story first and theory later. Here we have a book that starts as theories and is then illustrated by stories, so much so that we read the stories in order to uncover the theories behind them. The stories, even the main story of the Reader (You) and the Other (Ludmilla), are secondary to Calvino’s purpose. They do little more than dramatise the mind game he is at work on.

Another achievement is Calvino’s expert descriptions of the reading process – how we choose books, what it is that succeeds in leading us on, how we get tired of a story, or leave it for a while.

This book makes us aware, as critical guides cannot, of our reading habits, of what it is we are doing when we end. And what Calvino is telling us is that our reading is not innocent – if we identify or at least appreciate in part the position of the You in this book, then we are not innocent in what it is we are looking for – entertainment, edification, diversion, titillation, escape, learning – and that all of these things are very often not at the surface when we choose what we read, and that we can go away perfectly aware of what the book has said but perfectly unaware of our own truest motives in reading it and responses to the work itself.

The stories and the connections are all concerned with relationship: between writer and reader, writer and his other, writer and his rival writer (imagined or real), reader and other reader. He brings out very well in these stories the passion of these activities and the jealousies and rivalries that can happen, almost as an inevitability of love for the story.

Could it be suggested that what is lacking here is the experience? This is the product of a story-teller’s thoughts about the act of creation and his relationship with the reader. This removal from the lived experience is one thing I do not like – an artificiality about the whole work which has to do with the nature of the enterprise itself.

Entries in Notebooks, 10-14th December 1989 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Some thoughts on ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino

But these are the cities of Italy. You read about them in brochures. You contrast the brochure with the reality you are sure is there. These are not cities you know about via history, modern literature and anecdote. These are the cities that you read about in old books – and all of them seem traceable not to Venice (as is supposed to be the case) but to the descriptions of the heavenly Jerusalem. You cannot imagine events going on in these cities, one does not see them as having independent, living cultures of their own. The objectification of these cities disallows anything much beyond a visionary sense of them – and in that only is any meaning invested. Are these cities all arid, even the maritime ones? They have the meaning that the two characters Marco Polo and Kublai Khan invest in them. As for what we think of these two cerebral conversationalists, their modes of communication and their existences are even more remote than the cities they consider. Like ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’, this book is a grid: it can be read straight through, or you can follow the two men’s dialogue, or the special aspects of cities numbered throughout. Oulipo at work. So why am I dissatisfied? Why do I want to run back to Jan Morris? Perhaps because everything is too easily accounted for.

Entry in Notebooks, 11th December 1989