Monthly Archives: April 2015

‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn


2002, 213 p.

For Proust it was a madeleine.  For the narrator of Spies it was the cloying, heady smell of a flower in a suburban garden, and it took him back to a wartime summer, a hideout in the garden hedge, secrets, fantasies and ambivalent shame.

Stephen Wheatley was small and unpopular, with ears that stuck out. His friend Keith was unpopular too, but he lived in a big house, his toys were kept in pristine condition in their boxes, and the afternoon teas dispensed  by Keith’s mother were Blytonesque, even if she did so without ever quite acknowledging Stephen’s presence.  Stephen was drawn along in Keith’s wake and when Keith announced that his mother was a German spy, well, then- yes, perhaps she was.  After all, there was her diary with the odd crosses once a month in keeping with the phases of the moon (for night-time spying duties, of course), and she seemed to spend a lot of time going into the village posting letters (to the German authorities, of course) or pretending to shop for her sister who lived down the street.  So the boys  snooped in her writing desk and followed her, and found more than they had bargained for.

This is a beautifully told story.  It has that wistful, golden glow of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and as in those books, the narrator in Spies also sees too much and yet doesn’t know what s/he is looking at.

Frayn’s control of the story is masterful, especially in the switch between present tense and reminiscence, which can be clunky in less sure hands. This was the second time that I had read the book, but I think even the first time I quickly cottoned on to Stephen’s misconstructions – just as Frayn, I think, intended his readers to do.   The story is told with humour and humility, and the adult Stephen is affectionately kind to his younger self and withholds judgment from him.  Little details fit together so cleverly- the play on ‘privet’ for example- and the last chapter colours in much of what had only been sketchy or incomplete previously.

I really liked this book, just as much on the second reading as on the first. You’re in the hands of a master writer, and you know it.

The War To End All Wars, ANZAC Eve

What a wonderful night.  This Anzac-eve function was organized at the Deakin Edge theatre at Fed Square by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, with support from the ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition and funding from the Dept of Veteran Affairs ANZAC Centenary Local Grants Program.

The night started with a presentation by Jackie Mansourian from PEN Melbourne who spoke about the Armenian Genocide- that other centenary that marks the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals on 24 April- and the resistance of the Turkish government to have it acknowledged as the century’s first genocide. She spoke of the assassination of Hrant Dink, the editor of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos by anultra-nationalist in 2007 after Dink referred to the 1915 massacre of Armenians as ‘genocide’. At the time Dink was being prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for ‘denigrating Turkishness’.


First up Shaking the Tree Choir, decked out in scarlet and purple, sang a bracket of four thoughtful songs, including the beautiful On the Turning Away, the Pink Floyd song that they have adapted in their video clip:

Then Kellie Merritt, the widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel who was killed in Iraq in 2005.  She said that she was apprehensive about public speaking but she was fantastic: controlled, articulate, forceful.  She spoke of her resentment at the conflation of personal grief with political argument.  Honouring personal grief did not necessarily mean honouring the political purpose and intention for deployment.  The two aims of the Iraq War of 2003 were never met: there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, and one dictator was merely replaced with another dictator of a different sectarian hue. She particularly resented Attorney-General George Brandis who attacked those who drew links between the 2003 and 2015 deployments as “simple-minded” and “ignorant”.


She was followed, after long and heartfelt applause, by the Melbourne Singers of Gospel, a huge choir – I counted at least 55 people -who gave a terrific rendition of ‘When the War is Over’ .


Adam Bandt, the Greens member for Melbourne spoke next after taking a picture on his phone of the assembled audience.  He picked up on Kellie Merritt’s call for Parliament to be required to approve the deployment of Australian troops (unless we are facing imminent threat). Even though Parliament may still approve it- and with our current government and opposition, that would be the case- it is still important that the reasons for sending troops overseas be articulated and that Parliament be accountable for the decision.


Peter Cundall, the 88 year old peace activist and gardener spoke next, speaking about his experience in both WWII and the Korean War.


I was struck by his description of the pervasive, nauseating smell of battle.  He finished with a beautiful recitation (from memory!) of Seigfried Sassoon’s ‘Aftermath’, written in 1919 . What a fitting poem during this current tsunami of bad history and mawkish emotionalism:

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

You can find the rest of the poem here.  It’s powerful writing.

It was affirming to finish with a group from Brunswick Secondary College, singing a beautiful arrangement of Dolly Parton’s ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, prefaced by the worlds spoken in many different languages.


I was proud that this is a government-school based choir of engaged young people.

We left on a drizzly ANZAC Eve, really pleased that we’d attended such an affirming and respectful night.  The crocheted poppies spill over the steps of Fed Square.  Beautiful

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My ANZAC Commemoration

It’s interesting to see that perhaps the millions spent on the centenary of Gallipoli might have been misdirected. There’s been a  thoroughly appropriate reaction against the crasser forms of commercialisation : think ANZAC stubby-holders, teddy bears and  ‘Camp Gallipoli’ where you sleep under the stars like the original  ANZACS did, in your $275 Gallipoli  deluxe swag:

…participate in a once in a lifetime event [which] will take your emotions on a roller coast as its [sic] blends moving tributes with commemoration. You will learn, sing, eat, drink, laugh, (and cry) but most importantly you will be together.

It will be

…a special night of remembrance, entertainment, mateship and the birth of the ANZAC spirit… There will be entertainment, special guests, movies, documentaries, great food options and a very Special Dawn Service on ANZAC day itself.

And it would appear that all those ANZAC blockbusters planned for television  have garnered only lukewarm ratings as well, although I’ve read good things about Sam Neill’s documentary so I may watch that.  Claire Wright, who was involved in the documentary ‘The War that Changed Us’ some months ago suggests that Gallipoli fatigue at all the “ANZACkery” seems to have set in ahead of time.

So this is how I will be commemorating, NOT celebrating ANZAC this year


‘Foreign Soil’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke


2014, 265 p.

She’s good. Very good.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is described in the afterword as a “spoken word performer” and the author of several poetry collections.  You can tell. There’s a real joy in the sound of voices in this book, and it comes through loud and clear. Voices plural because there’s multiple narrative voices here from all over the world:  a Sudanese woman in Footscray in ‘David’ ; a Jamaican school girl in suburban Australia herself fighting for acceptance being asked to “look after” a new Vietnamese student in ‘Shu Yi’ ;  Delores in New Orleans  in ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ and, most challengingly, Nathaniel speaking in Jamaican patois in ‘Big Islan’ as he gropes towards literacy and awareness of a larger world.

I sometimes find when I come to the end of a book of short stories that I can’t quite remember what happened in which book. That’s not the case here.  She uses imagery so well in ‘ The Stilt Fishermen of Kathauluwa’ that the story is unforgettable, and it is one of the most powerful stories about so-called ‘illegals’ that I’ve read.  The young girl hanging upside down from the monkey bars, paralysed with fear in ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’ is a memorable image for the writer herself, writing on despite one rejection letter after another.  The cold fear in ‘Foreign Soil’ as an Australian woman realizes her mistake in following the man she loved to Uganda is almost palpable.  I just loved ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ even though I guessed the ending- and what a satisfying ending it is!  There’s not a single story here that falls flat. They’re all well-crafted, opening up possibilities and yet leaving you in no doubt as a reader that you’ve reached the end.  Her observations are sharp and her ear for language acute.

Blurbs often trumpet things like “the arrival of a major new voice” and the blurbs on this book are no exception.  I think, this time, they’re right.

aww-badge-2015-200x300Posted on the Australian Women Writers Challenge. And so far, my pick for the 2015 Stella Prize.

‘Heat and Light’ by Ellen Van Neerven


2014, 225 p.

I’ve noticed this book bobbing around on long-lists for the various literary prizes on offer, and it has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize. The young author is of mixed indigenous and Dutch heritage, and she seems to have taken to heart the aphorism “write what you know” because the stories are written about or from the perspective of a young indigenous person.

The book is divided into three parts:  Heat, Water and Light.  The first part, Heat, comprises a number of short stories about the Kresinger family which interweaves magic realism and contemporary indigenous family life.  The stories are tangentially connected, a technique I enjoy, giving them stand-alone status within something larger.

The second section, Water, contained only one story and it was probably my favourite one.  Kaden is a young Aboriginal woman employed in a scientific program engaged with research on ‘sandplants’, a marine lifeform that has been found to have almost human intelligence.  The sandplants are found around islands off the Queensland coast that are about to be reclaimed for a new Aboriginal nation (Australia2) under a bold new plan by President Tania Sparkles.  The plan which at first sounds seductive becomes increasingly sinister in this story set in the near future, and as Kaden becomes closer to Larapinta, one of the sandplants, their relationship changes.

The blurb on the back of the book tells me that in the final section ‘Light’ “familial ties are challenged and characters are caught between a desire for freedom and a sense of belonging”. Yes, but I must confess to finding this last section bitsy and insubstantial.  Having only just finished it, I can only remember two stories well- my memory of one probably reinforced by the picture on the front cover, and the final story which was very good.  For many of the others, I only knew that it had finished because there was a blank at the bottom of the page, and I found myself wondering about the point of it.  The stories seemed like fragments.

So, all in all- a bit of a curate’s egg of a book: good in places.   The writing is lyrical, but occasionally somewhat overwrought.  It’s a good debut collection but I’m not convinced that it’s prize-winning material, though.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

And here we go again….

Well, well, well- look at what’s back on the market.

Banyule Homestead.


The advertisement with more beautiful pictures is here.  The auction is scheduled for 16 May 2015.

For more about the history of Banyule Homestead, please visit my other site:

What Cooda that song have been?

We were sitting in the car on the way to the supermarket on Saturday morning, listening to the Coodabeens on the radio.  The Coodabeen Champions is a comedy sports show which features Greg Champion’s parodies of popular songs, with the reworked lyrics often submitted by listeners.  So there we were, humming away and laughing to a song from the 1970s, and when we turned to each other and asked “What was the name of the original song?” neither of us could remember. I hummed it, he whistled it (because I can’t whistle) but the chorus just wouldn’t spring to mind.  I had a feeling that it was an Australian group (I had Black Sorrows lurking around there somewhere), although it sounded a bit like Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’.

Ah Google- what did we do before you? I downloaded a podcast of the second hour of the show, having deduced that we were listening at about 11.30 am.  When I listened to it again, all I could remember was the line “the season goes so quickly” (which also featured in the parody) and that was enough for Dr. Google – the answer is:  Seasons of Change by Blackfeather.

Blackfeather was a band that had many, many changes in lineup and in 1970 it recorded their album ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ with Infinity Records.  According to the Australian Music History website

On this album was a song that was to become not only a hit for two different bands, but also proved to be the catalyst for another major problem within the band. The song “Seasons of Change” was recorded using a couple of musicians from the band Fraternity, Bon Scott and keyboardist John Bissett. Bon had sung some backing vocals and had played recorder on the track. He loved the song and asked could he record it with Fraternity. A deal was eventually struck that allowed Fraternity to record it and release it as a single on the understanding that Blackfeather would not release their version in competition. Unfortunately, against the bands wishes, the record company reneged on the deal as soon as they saw how popular the song was. This caused a major rift between the band and the record company which eventually led to more lineup changes.

I was only aware of the Blackfeather version:

So the Fraternity version, headed by Bon Scott (of later AC/DC fame) came as a surprise to me. It’s much slower, with a rather gentler Bon Scott than we’re used to seeing:

Well, well. The things that can be dragged up out of the past from a Saturday morning listen to the Coodabeens!

‘The World of Other People’ by Steven Carroll


2013, 278 p.

I recognized the author’s name and remembered that I’d read some of his books before. I was drawn in by the prospect of a book set in the Blitz in 1941, a setting that I find fascinating, so I borrowed it.  I only had to read about five pages in to remember that, yes, I have read several Steven Carroll books before and I had a love/hate relationship with every single one of them.

This book is no exception.  Steven Carroll writes in the present tense, swapping from one character to another, and alternating between second and third person.  I dislike the use of the second person  and I have mixed feelings about present tense. His books are very visual, centred on a particular image to which he keeps returning.  Like a sewing machine darning a hole, he keeps going back and forth, back and forth, embroidering and over-stitching an image or an event.

As soon as I remembered this narrative voice, I remembered how much I disliked it.  Nonetheless, I kept reading and I’m glad (I think) that I did.   It’s a beautifully written, poignant story and I felt sad to finish it.

Iris is a young Oxford Graduate and aspiring writer, employed as as a civil servant by day and aa fire-watcher by night during the Blitz. Along with a clutch of other people including the poet T. S. Eliot, she waits all night on the rooftop of the Faber and Faber building, watching for bomber planes and their fiery load, and directing the fire trucks to the conflagration.  She doesn’t know it, but the Blitz proper has already ended, but one night she and her fellow watchers see a plane swoop down low -too low- over the city buildings. Minutes later they hear a dull explosion. She catches T. S. Eliot’s eye and realizes that she is seeing Eliot at work right there, in that moment,  as writer as he grabs an experience that will later be transformed into poetry.

A year later, in the ruptured world of war-torn  London, she meets Jim, an Australian pilot in Bomber Command, who has been invalided  out of flying duties after an accident.  They meet and fall in love.  I shall say no more, lest I give the story away.

Books and writing are an important theme in the book, and T. S. Eliot and his poem ‘Little Gidding’ (which I must confess, I have never read) play an important part in the story. As a result, I think that much of the ‘cleverness’ of the book went right over my head, and so I just read it straight, completely unaware of any layers of meaning below the surface.

The book has obviously been carefully researched, but it wears it lightly.  By inhabiting at various times both Jim and Iris’s consciousness, Carroll has given us well-rounded, complex characters, and the plot pulls you to what you know is going to be a tragic end.  The ending solves a little conundrum set up in the opening pages in a very satisfying way.

This present-tense voice and habit of perseveration is obviously Carroll’s narrative ‘thing’ and it’s unfortunate for me that it grates  so harshly. I feel as if he’s almost writing to a template, where the setting and events change but the voice goes on and on.  Nonetheless,  I enjoyed the book in spite of the way it was written, which I suppose is testament to the strength of the  characters and story.  I must remind myself next time I pick up a Steven Carroll book  that I really don’t like the way he writes, and that I should just put it back onto the shelf.

Ah- another woman with her back to us.  The image has little connection with the story.

Andrew Furhmann has written a far more detailed and intellectual review (full of spoilers)  which can be read at the Sydney Review of Books. His review makes me feel rather embarrassed that I missed so much in my very surface reading of the book.

What would Willis do….about Queensland?

When observing legal doings in our current day, the thought often strikes me “What would Judge Willis do?” – if he hadn’t sailed from our shores 172 years ago, that is.  As a Judge with a keen interest in his brother judges and the government of the day, I think he’d be very interested in what’s going on in Queensland at the moment.
You may remember that there was much controversy over the former Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie’s appointment of Tim Carmody to the Chief Justice position.  Tim Carmody was the Chief Magistrate, so that was quite a leap up the judicial ladder.  The President of the Bar Association resigned in protest at the appointment. Of course, there has been an election in the meantime, and a new if rather precarious government elected.

So, how will this controversially-appointed Chief Justice go? I wonder.

The Guardian has an interesting article by Richard Ackland, which reports some eye-brow raising comments made in a valedictory speech by retiring and well-respected Supreme Court judge, Alan Wilson.  After thanking the Chief Justice for making the space available for the farewell function, he said that he would not have embarked on the proceeding if the Chief Justice had been presiding. But that was not the end of it, he said:

I wish to say some more things that will colour these proceedings in a way with which some may disagree, or find upsetting. I have agonised about this. In saying what follows I speak entirely for myself, and express only my own views and opinions without the foreknowledge or approval of any of the judges. None of them has seen these remarks, in draft or at all. I want to speak about the leadership of the court.

The speech is available in full here, and well worth a read.

I think Judge Willis would be in his element.

‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout


2008,  270 p

Thank heavens. After reading two stodgy books that cried out for the slash of an editor’s pen, here was a collection of short stories with crystal clear writing and every bit of fat decisively cut away.  I’d starting reading a review of the recent series of Olive Kitteridge showing on television until I realized that it was Pay TV, which we do not have and will not have.  It sounded like something I thought I would enjoy, but given that I wouldn’t be seeing it any time soon, I stopped reading the review after a few sentences.

So I was surprised to find that it was set in Maine, and not England, which for some reason I assumed  (from the rather stodgy name ‘Olive Kitteridge’ perhaps? It sounds English to me).  Nor was it set in the 1940s, which I also assumed.  It is a series of short stories and Olive appears in each one of them- sometimes as the main character, sometimes just as a walk-on figure in the background.  Olive is a large, acerbic, retired teacher who has lived in her small town for many years and taught mathematics to every young person in town.  She’s brusque and clumsy, and you can see why her son has distanced himself from her and why people don’t really like her very much.  Some of the stories are set in the near-present (9/11 has already occurred) and the stories skip around in time.  Nonetheless, they’ve been well compiled with a scene in the opening story matching a similar scene in the last story in the book- a pleasing sense of symmetry.

These are short stories as I really like them (yes, Whispering Gums, I LIKE them!) with connections between them, but standing alone as well. Perfect length- about twenty pages, and just enough of them.

It’s absolutely just right.

Except for the cover. What is it with women’s backs?  Stock images, no doubt. But this cover had absolutely nothing to do with any of these stories.

My rating: a resounding 10/10. Loved it.