May 4, 2017
A best friend for more than 30 years, Michael Gurr came to live in my street in the regional Victorian town of Castlemaine three years ago. He loved the place. Occasionally I would protest its arty-folksy-smallness and he would just look at me, proffer another piece of onion tart or tea cake or some such other Moroccan or Mediterranean thing he had just made, and say something like: ‘El, negative is easy; try positive, it’s harder.’ Or, ‘I hope you are not on some bloody nonsense diet again, because I have made French custard poached pears.’
He loved to cook, to garden and, most recently, to walk home from town carrying big-ish new things for the house: an olde-worlde record player so that he could revisit his millions of Dylan albums. A large framed drawing/collage by some local artist: ’Take a closer look’, he said. ‘There’s more to it, the closer you get.’
Once I arrived at his place – a daily or double-daily visit, generally – and he announced that he had bought three quail. ‘Yuk. I can’t eat quail,’ I said. ‘They are far too small and delicate and it just feels wrong somehow.’ ‘Not to eat,’ he said. ‘To admire. They are magnificent.’ And there they were outside the back screen door, all set up in their new little double-storey hutch replete with straw matting, tiny pot-plants and an ensuite bathing area.
He was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful.
His little weatherboard cottage opposite the footy oval was a comfort and joy to him, poised as it was in perfect perving distance from the parade of locals on the way to the pub or train station or Botanic Gardens or pool. He relished the crispy night footy training and Saturday matches. ‘I love the sound of it,’ he said. ‘It’s the sound of place and belonging.’
He always had something or other to give to my mother or to me every time I left – The Guardian Weekly, usually. My 85-year-old mother was always grateful. She loved him like a son – and got cross with him like a son, too – but she never was able to read those papers for the tiny print. She never had the heart to tell him, though.
Michael also gave her the latest political biography he had just devoured, and once insisted she read one of his beloved Elizabeth David cookbooks. Mum was not interested in the cookbooks but took the other stuff happily. Last week it was a jar of pickled lemons. ‘They are not ready yet so don’t open them, just let them be for a while. Some things do get better in time, you know.’
The pickled lemon philosopher sometimes gave me the shits. He could be opinionated, and obstinate too. But kindness and largesse… Mate, he invented those words.
From the moment I met him, when we were 21 and 22 respectively, I knew he was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful. The first time I saw one of his plays I experienced a sort of dwarfing awe. The second time I saw one of plays, I forgot it was a play, I was so immersed in his writing’s signature rhythms; the ideas layered and demanding; the wit, rude and shocking; the characters flawed and magnificently conflicted; and the politics searing and prescient.
We lived together for five years in our 20s and they were… (really, no nostalgia here, because, ‘Nostalgia is a conservative impulse. A retreat into what seems knowable is dangerous,’ he reckoned.) They were five of the most creative, instructive, hilarious, vital, delicious, domestically secure and exciting years of my life.
In recent months, Michael became ill. He never complained, he never asked much of me or others; only for me to be kind-of around and to sometimes drive him places, because he had always refused, perversely, to ever get a bloody licence and walking even short distances had become difficult for him. Our time together began to change, the balance to shift, as his fiercely resistant yet increasing dependence began to take centre stage.
A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died.
I have loved this extraordinarily gifted (yes, an unfashionable word I know) man. His loyalty to his ‘tribe’, as he would say, was breathtaking, if not sometimes intractable and stubborn.
A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died. ‘Did you know,’ he said to me, while we sat in his favourite cafe in the old gaol atop the hill at the back of his house, drinking black tea and eating apple slices. ‘I dreamt a new play last night. First time in ages. It’s called Karaoke. Did you know that I have been spelling the word karaoke wrong for years?’ And then I asked, as I have asked every single time over the past 35 years, even though I always get the same answer: ‘What’s it about?’ To which he says: ‘I never talk about what I’m writing. Why would I? Once I speak it, then it no longer demands to be written.’
Michael’s work was his life, his life his work, his family his theatre, his friends his family; his sisters and brothers, his nieces and nephews, my son, his god children, his students, his former partner of 23 years, his comrades, his colleagues, his actors, his pollies, his barber, his fish monger, his books, his newspapers, his quail and his cat… these were his life. His death feels like an amputation.
Who is going to call out my whingeing now? Who in hell do I give my miserable first drafts to for a brutal but fair edit? Who do I now visit most days and wish to god he would stop smoking inside the house like it’s still the 1980s? Who do I care about and for, because he has always, always cared about and for me? Who has my back now?
A memorial service for Michael Gurr was held at the Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank in Melbourne on Monday, May 15. A standing ovation.
Both The Hot Guy and Girl in Between, by authors experienced in writing for film and television, could be categorised as similarly themed chick lit. Their protagonists are funny, bawdy, 30-something women dedicated to finding ‘‘the one’’. Yet between them, these novels prove this form of genre fiction is a broad category.
The Hot Guy, by film critics Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris, is rom-com 101 and sited firmly in the screwball film comedy tradition of the 1930s and 40s.
Adam, the eponymous hot guy of the title, is an earnest and unwittingly handsome movie nerd trying to raise finance to direct his next short film — a work that delves unpretentiously into the “dark side”. Provisionally titled Metadata, it’s about “the essential asymmetry of the panopticon”.
Adam works at a multiplex cinema with his two sidekicks: Steve, a wannabe actor, and Renton, a film reviewer for blog BackedUpToilet. Just three nerds in a kiosk, riffing wittily on movies and girls, and making choc tops.
Cate is a self-identified “funny lady” and publicity director for a sports stadium, despite hating sport.
“Cate’s sense of humour … first disrupted her love life at the age of 12”, and now she has been dumped by her uptight boyfriend over a joke. Dejected and lost, she debriefs with her own sidekicks, Vanessa and Kirsty, while hanging out at their kite flyer and drone club.
There’s some nice fast talk in these scenes: swipes at vampires, zombies, cat videos, a particularly sharp jab at the current trend for all things “bespoke” and, of course, plenty of no-holds-barred boy talk. Think Bridesmaids. Egged on (and set up) by her friends, Cate picks up Adam at a bar — there’s a lot of alcohol-saturated prose in both of these books — for a no-strings-attached one-night-stand: to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Trouble is, they actually like each other.
So far, so genre.
But Adam isn’t just any hot guy, he’s The Hot Guy, unassuming and drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, so gorgeous there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the ambition of a “night-with-Adam” — given that a night with this guy will allegedly cure whatever ails you — set up by Adam-obsessed women of the disturbingly named League of Icarus.
So when serial one-nighter, looking-for-the-gal-who’ll-be-there-in-the-morning Adam makes out with serial picker-of-wrong-guys Cate, assumptions and vested interests abound.
All of this makes for some entertaining and over-the-top set-ups: a farcical hostage situation involving The League, followed by a road trip to Adam’s home town of Ladbroke — where the statue of the Unknown Soldier is of course modelled on gorgeous Adam — for the premiere of Metadata at the town’s inaugural film festival.
Characters such as Adam’s recalcitrant but gratis director of photography are drawn in brisk and vivid strokes — “grizzled, inebriated druid shambling” — and some of the best writing is in the three-way schtick on sex and celluloid between the blokes at work, although it does feel like the authors are having just a bit too much fun competing for best bad film titles.
Girl in Between, Anna Daniels’s first novel, was shortlisted for last year’s The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. It’s the story of Lucy, who, at 32, low on love, luck and life, is suffering an extended mid-youth crisis. She’s chucked in her TV producing job in Melbourne and come home to Rockhampton (aka Rocky, Beef Capital of Australia), moving back in with her parents to finish writing her book, Diamonds in the Dust, and generally sort out her life.
Mum is an African-drumming Cher acolyte who spends an inordinate amount of time poring over handy home hints catalogues with Lucy’s zany bestie, Rosie. Dad goes to the jockey club every other night, or so Lucy believes. In truth he’s battling the black dog and hanging out at the Men’s Shed.
Daniels, herself a kind of latter-day Bridget Jones, hails from Rockhampton and is a writer and producer known for her funny, quirky TV segments. How Not to Interview Russell Crowe, an edit of her potentially disastrous encounter with the notoriously volatile actor, is pure Bridget, and won the ABC Comedy Segment of the Year in 2004. The sketch is reworked in Girl in Between as an interview with a fading 80s rock star.
In Lucy, the author has created a heroine not far removed, seemingly, from herself. But the lightness and short-segment appeal of her earlier work does not quite translate here, where lots of heart-thumping, body-trembling, blood-boiling, stomach-lurching, pulse-racing cliches choke a narrative already weighed down with signposts as subtle as a Mallee bull. Nods to more serious issues — Mum’s cancer, Dad’s depression — feel tokenistic.
Aussie idioms and vernacular keep both novels tonally consistent, homegrown and comfy, maybe even a touch exotic, if you’re not a local. In Daniels’s novel we know we’re in Australia because we’re told we are, often, not because we recognise it.
Rocky might feel like “a pair of Ugg boots — super comfortable, sturdy and secure”, but Porpoise Spit it ain’t.
What’s striking is the extent to which lists and labels (books, film titles) stand in for description or observation. Red Rooster, UDLs, KFC, Maccas and Subway are listed like product placements, standing in for character as if anything, anyone, can now be reduced to the brands they consume. It’s a shorthand, but a lazy one.
While both books are unapologetically populist and formulaic genre fiction and Girl in Between does contain some funny deft writing, it lacks sufficient irony or self-reflection to do more than simply fulfil the cliches.
The Hot Guy — written with relish and self-awareness, the authors’ playfulness with the genre smart, not smart-arsed, more homage than piss-take — fulfils the brief more successfully.
Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and critic. She teaches in the creative writing department at the University of Melbourne.
Much has been written, said and broadcast since the recent death of writer, actor, satirist and polymath, John Clarke. Now this is my opportunity to add to the seriously sad, shocking and celebratory cacophony that Clarke has left in his wake. But Clarke would not have approved of that last sentence with its overwrought alliteration and hyperbole because Clarke’s way with words was never cheap and clunky, but always precise, dextrous and daring.
I first met John in 1998 when he was making the mockumentary The Games for ABC TV. We had a friend in common, and he, Bryan Dawe, had asked me to sit in on some early script readings. The Games ended up being a 13-week master-class in writing, performance style and direction.
You had to have been living in a cave not to know of Mr. J. Clarke’s very particular brand of satire and seeing John in action up close that first time was at first exciting and scary and then just plain fun. And hard work. John was a perfectionist, and did not stop until he got it right. No matter what it was. Whereas Bryan would nick out for a fag or a coffee- like the rest of us- John always seemed content just to sit and wait patiently until the rest of us mere mortals finished fluffing about.
Everyone in that cast was impressive, let’s face it, but John was just so special-smart.
The second time I met John Clarke was at Bryan’s in Phillip Island where they both had a house and it was then that I really got a taste of the intellectual promiscuity of the man. A Socratic conversationalist, John could talk the leg off an iron pot sure, but he never forgot about you. He wasn’t a monologist, but a critic, philosopher, nature lover, poet, artist, social commentator, environmentalist, swimmer, writer, comic, and the kindest and driest and most seriously funny and curious bloke you could ever have the pleasure of sharing a bowl of soup with.
John was highly relational. He was excellent at friendship and very good at the fleeting more casual relationship like ours.
The third time I met John was last year when he and Bryan asked me to interview them at Fed Square at the release of their Special 25-Year DVD Box Set of Clarke & Dawe.
A quarter of a century is a long time to survive any kind of relationship but John Clarke and Bryan Dawe’s, like any healthy partnership, had moved and responded to the times. Their particular kind of work with its simple no frills format belied the layers of meaning and its daring approach to social and political satire and commentary. They were there at the start; they were there before The Office, before Utopia.
Clarke & Dawe became shorthand for smart, subversive and a deadpan style of lampoon and Clarke’s writing and the pair’s collaboration was the ultimate gentle slaughter of the sacred cow. It’s a dirty (funny) job but someone’s got to do it.
John’s eyes – yes it’s a cliché but they were sparkly and cheeky– and his voice was not at all actorly or lovely, but samey and a bit nasally even. John was neat, trim, unadorned and pleasing in a nice bloke kind of a way. All this meant, of course, that when Clarke appeared as ‘himself’ with no attempt to resemble the figure he was parodying in the segments with Dawe, his appearance, in effect, never got in the way because there was a neutrality to it. John was a canvas. Not quite blank, but sufficiently un-distracting to convince us that he could be anyone, if the writing was good enough. And it was. Always.
Increasingly people have turned to political satire for the news – The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Have I got News for You, Shaun MCCallieff, Charlie Pickering – who offer up pithy, entertaining and often some of the sharpest contemporary commentary around. Perhaps fake news has replaced real news. Perhaps some people actually think John Clarke is Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison or Pauline Hanson?
Before we all did the Fed Square interview, John and I had a couple of conversations on the phone to discuss its possible format and content. The first conversation went for 35 minutes and the second for 80. After, my brain was in over drive. The dopamine and serotonin were wrestling for supremacy. I was on fire. Excited. Talking with John, following John along his paths of creative improvisations was like being in an intellectual labyrinth. We talked about so many things that I didn’t know I even knew anything about. Some of them I didn’t. Lots of them I didn’t.
With John as teacher and guide you experienced your best self. His generosity and subversive tutelage got you riffing in places you’d never contemplated previously.
During the interview a few days later at Fed Square I asked him at one point:
‘So if satire is an art in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself into improvement, is your work driven by cynicism or angry faith?’
‘That’s a very interesting question,’ he said. ‘But I would have to say neither cynicism nor anger. Faith, yes. Faith, and a fair amount of amusement.’
My 84-year-old mother, who taught in Melbourne from the 60s through to the 80s, reckons that these days, school kids are too indulged and overstimulated. And she’s not speaking from the skewed benefit of hindsight because Mum’s been raising my late sister’s son since he was 15 months old. He’s seven now and in Grade 1.
“Every week there’s some kind of event or celebration, and every second week I get a note home asking for money for this fundraiser or that multicultural day or whatever.”
I tell Mum she sounds like a grumpy old woman, a Depression kid from migrant parents, stoic and frugal. She looked after them, as much as, maybe more than, they did her.
But Mum, surely things are better now than in your day when you and your little brother were at Fitzroy Primary. You know, when school excursions didn’t exist, when learning was by rote, and when shaming and fear were classroom management strategies.’
Clearly conditions have improved since Mum first started teaching in public education in her late 20s (she was a baby journalist for an Italian Communist rag in Sydney before that). Back then curriculums were less complex, varied and stimulating than what they are today.
‘Of course things are better today,” Mum pipes up. “When I went to school, the Aboriginal and migrant kids were lucky to make one day out of five a week and nobody sent notes home to the parents in those days.’
Mum’s on a roll. Always the journalist, providing background and context to a story’s still important. ‘It was tough for those teachers too with often 40 kids a class and lots of them struggling with the language. No ESL teachers in those days!
Since my sister died, Mum has devoted herself to her grandson’s rearing and education with enviable single-mindedness and energy. I wish my parenting were half as consistent.
But today after our usual morning walk around the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens, she’s irritated.
“It’s as if teachers are expected to be entertainers and festival directors as well as just teach, nowadays. I really don’t believe kids require a teacher’s constant attention and affirmation. A bit of benign neglect doesn’t hurt either, you know.”
“Yeah,” I say, “except that we know so much more these days about student engagement, multiple learning styles and authentic assessment. We have smaller class sizes and better teacher training so of course there’s going to be more going on at school all-round … more extra-curricular opportunities, more newsletters and forms to fill out for incursions and excursions to Sovereign Hill or Japan or wherever.”
“That’s my point. Japan! When I was at school, Japan was the enemy, not a bloody school excursion!”
“You want a coffee at that new place in town?” I suggest.
“No. Save your money. I’ll make us one at home.”
It’s been a long time between drinks for Winch. Her first book, Swallow the Air (2006), a semi-autobiographical novel about a Wurundjeri girl in search of her father, won many awards and catapulted the young Australian writer into the emerging-talent literary coterie. No pressure.
After the Carnage meets expectations. Here Winch continues to explore themes that coursed through her first book like white water: intergenerational grief, cross-culturalism, racism, family dysfunction, children in search of ‘‘lost’’ parents. If this is all sounding a bit badges-on-the-lapel, it is not. Winch can pack a punch and break your heart within a few pages.
She now lives in France and in these 11 short stories she moves farther afield into new geographical territory, her characters pivoting on a moment in life when past and future collide in personal crisis, causing them to make some kind of a shift, no matter how subtle.
In A Late Netting, a young man is working as a deckhand on a French couple’s boat, and they appear to be lost. Winch’s use of metaphor is striking: “If we had been drawn down a river, at least that knowing river would’ve taken us towards its mouth; a city might have invited us in and set us onto the certainty of a bank. Here, though, all those odds had fallen against us in a panic of horizon.’’
Stories vary in tone and style, and they can be funny. In Baby Island, a second-generation Chinese woman — ‘‘I was an amalgam: the union of my voice and face didn’t sit well with people” — is in China selling overpriced Australian education and mourning her childlessness and a recent break-up. We follow her down the empty streets of Guangzhou into a kind of surrealist baby-buying cafe.
‘‘Everywhere there were newly rubber-stamped babies, hundreds and hundreds of babies being quiet, screaming, crying, squirming, throwing food, giggling, staring blankly, rocking, rolling, crawling, climbing shoulders and booster chairs and the fabric of strollers. I pointed to an omelette.’’
In Easter, a brother is stationed in Paris on a Stanford journalism scholarship. His sister has come to visit him. It’s been nine years since they last saw one another, and as they wander around the city together, sibling intimacy re-surfaces, as do memories of childhood.
The power of memory to both comfort and disturb permeates these stories. Sometimes the memory of a moment in a character’s life is so vividly drawn you can just smell it.
I remember precisely being too young and riding the fair dodgem cars … with the night’s linger of boiled and fried meats, the warm wafts of powdered sugar on doughnut batter, even the damp smell of turned gravel underfoot, from night coming on the wet earth of a gullied town oval — each smell was rotated, propelled through the carnival; night from a flashing, jerking car.
Occasionally a story feels just a bit too abbreviated or there is an unnecessary data dump, but overall each is satisfyingly complete unto itself, with Winch’s prose supple and potent. At their best, these stories offer vivid insights into our complex humanity, pivoting on that moment when we realise things cannot continue as they were.
In Failure to Thrive, a young Nigerian student doing an internship at the UN is determined to break through the glass/class ceiling and get a foot in the door at Goldman Sachs. ‘‘They had their own entourage, those … rich kids from the European private schools. Did we all hate them? I think I hated them the most.’’
In the titular story After the Carnage, More, one of the collection’s finest, a man wakes up in a hospital corridor. There has been some kind of explosion. A terrorist attack? Where is his wife? Dazed and confused, the man summons images from his childhood in Lahore, his wife, his kids, their move to the US; snippets from the past collide with the present.
“That was the sound, at the restaurant, the sound of the car going into the pool — it was just like the sound of propane bombs on the cherry farm to scare the birds, birds hungry for ripe May cherries.’’ This is a layered, richly textured story about violence and hate and about a victim trying to understand it. ‘‘One can rationalize most things in life, except this — one cannot rationalize hate; hate is irrational.’’
The personal-is-political worldview flexes Winch’s considerable literary muscle. The stories in this book may be about some tough stuff but are never didactic or sentimental; Winch’s voice is more poet than prophet.
‘‘When I write,’’ she has said in an interview, ‘‘I dredge the gully of what I know best: what burnt me most, what wakes me in my sleep — the value of life.’’
Are you a Feminazi, Mum?
Incredibly revealing, the lines we’re prepared to transgress and trample, and the ones we’re not. Women are still totally fair game.
On YouTube, there’s an animation series called ‘Feminazi’. Have you heard of it? The episode #GlassCeiling scored over a million views. There are lots of other episodes: Feminazi Getting Owned. Feminazi Fail. Feminazi Gets Triggered. Feminazi gets Reckt.
Note the use of gaming language; predominantly the province of adolescent boys.
I scrolled through a few of these clips which tend to depict plump, bespectacled, trouser-wearing ‘feminazis’ raging away about their rights and gripes to some passive cartoon-bloke. Most of these clips are accompanied by a male voice-over pointing out how extreme and hilarious such women are, how hysterical and irrational.
When I hear my 14-year-old son guffawing from his room and then calling me in to watch one of these types of clips, what do I say?
“How did you find this misogynist crap? …. No, it’s not a joke, it is SEXIST. Don’t they teach you anything at that school of yours?”
I tell him that I’m a feminist, that he comes from a long line of feminists and doesn’t he realise, by the way, that feminism is about equality and equity between the sexes.
You know, things like equal pay and respectful treatment all-round.
“Well, who’d be against that?” he responds simply. “ Now can you get out of my room please?”
Here’s what I have to confront: sexism isn’t something that only exists amongst sociopathic, violent, shady men – it’s much more insidious than that. It’s often part of lovely, kind, open-minded boys and men in our own families, who would never think of themselves as anything other than supportive of equality. And yet there is this kind of disconnect that persists within the moral compass of many of them.
Hear it in the quiet chuckling between the fellas, enjoying Eddie Mcguire’s ‘joke’ about drowning his colleague Caroline Wilson, and hear it in the snorting laughter of my son and his friends watching Feminazi-type clips on Youtube.
See it in the plethora of sexually explicit material that covers billboards and magazines and the internet, including the vile Instagram account started up by a few Brighton Grammar students, featuring photos of girls as young as 11 (who had not consented).
The thing is, once upon a time, our culture would’ve belly-laughed at all manner of racist jokes which would now be seen as being utterly not OK. It’s incredibly revealing, the lines we’re prepared to transgress and trample, and the ones we’re not. Women are still totally fair game.
There are great, well-established programs working to engage students with issues around bullying, sexuality, racism, mental illness … and the roll-out of programs like Respectful Relationships Education gives me hope. One day, I’d love to see the history of feminism taught as a mandatory unit in history, alongside other key social justice movements like Aboriginal land rights and industrial rights. I’d love to see more schools have explicit value statements and mottos around equity, and see more English classes study feminist texts.
Helping young ones to become more self-aware is part of it too, and helping them understand the links between attitudes, language, objectification and violence against women – because we’re swimming against a mighty media current with some nasty little rips. Maybe then my son wouldn’t think that lambasting feminists on YouTube is so funny after all.
Review of Fine by Michelle Wright (The Australian 16.6.16)
A middle-aged woman named Delia has just been evicted for the fourteenth time. She takes refuge in a dump full of car wrecks and meets a ten year-old boy named Jay who lives on his own in the ute next door to Delia.
‘He tells her about his collection of rust and tells her he reckons that one day the whole excavator will have turned into crumbling leaves and will fit into his box. Delia says that everything will fit into a box if you wait long enough.’
In these thirty-three finely wrought short stories Michelle Wright demonstrates impressive control of the form, every story offering a powerful glimpse into a world via the juxtaposition of a character’s inner life with their outer circumstances.
Many of these stories are told from the point of view of a child or adolescent, an increasingly common literary device and perhaps a reflection of the burgeoning popularity of young adult fiction.
A child hides beneath his grandparents’ kitchen sink. He is eavesdropping on a conversation about his delinquent mother and nibbling on a family block of chocolate he should wait to share with his mother at her next visit.
‘They sit on the pouf…facing each other with their knees touching. Then Mummy puts one end of the row in her mouth and he puts the other end in his, and they let it melt square by square…’
Wright’s style is precise, lyrical and un-tricksy even if occasionally it can feel a little too restrained: as if the hand-break needs releasing to give the writing more room to move.
In a story set in the aftermath of the Sir Lankan Tsunami, Wright endows ordinary things with fresh significance.
‘Near a hotel in Hikkaduwa he picks out suitcases, plastic chairs, a pool umbrella like a javelin in the ground.’
On New Year’s Day a paperboy is up early to do his rounds.
‘As he hops on his bike and turns from the driveway out onto the footpath, he sees the coloured lights strung up under the new neighbour’s carport, still on and looking kind of pretty against the quiet blue sky.’
There are no big shots here. There are people who want new lives. Traumatised couples stumble amidst ruined marriages. Parents grieve lost children or worry about the ones they have. There is a twelve year-old girl who sets up a street stall selling her prize collection of fifty latest fashion sunglasses to help out with family finances. School kids brave the playground bully. A man working for the dole, rather than tell his childhood abuse story to the police confides in a cleaning lady. There is a prisoner who dreams of becoming an artist and a former champion boxer who ‘fourteen broken noses later returns to his home in Ceylon and begins a new career as a king coconut seller.’
All essentially good people in tough circumstances and all just doing the best they can.
It’s hard to write good people and make them plausible and interesting but Wright can. Her dialogue is true and her voice unsentimental and despite the prevalence of downbeat subjects these stories from the ‘get in get out and don’t linger ‘school of story telling, are full of compassion.
Invariably they begin in medias res – no set up or preamble – so the reader fills in the backstory, absorbs the subtext and dives straight into the action. And there’s the cracker opening line to hook the reader in from the get go.
‘When she has burnt toast for breakfast, there’s a trace left on her fingers that smells like cigarettes.’
A woman is studying applied linguistics and her father has a PhD in Middle English. They shared a love of language.
‘My father is dead. My dad is dead. I decide I need to hear the words pronounced, to accept the fact of them and give them voice. Already the words my father spoke are losing shape.’
Even if sometimes Wright’s love of a good metaphor is overstated, themes are gracefully abstracted from central metaphors and minimal plots.
When a woman goes for a swim in the ocean for the first time since her husband’s death, Wright describes the natural world with its power to destroy and to reassure.
‘She turns and looks back out at the water. It’s calm now, but grey and sullen, hungover from its rage… But she knows it’s only physics, just pressures and speeds, energy and friction. And the human body in all that. Her body.’
Crucially these stories have a sense of something unravelling or unfolding so that the reader wants to keep on reading to find out what happens next and maybe, even, to understand why.
‘I read for pleasure,’ wrote Margaret Atwood, ‘and that is the moment at which I learn most. Subliminal learning.’
Cause You Gotta Have Friends
(June AEU Column)
Until Bette Midler’s Trash and Flash toured Australia in the late 70s, I was a live concert virgin. But that night as I sat with my best friend in the second back row of The Palais Theatre I came of age.
Middler might have been barely discernible as a beached mermaid, zooming on and off stage in a motorized wheelchair, but my friend’s and my mutual excitement moved between us like an energy circuit.
‘Cause you gotta have friends/that’s right/ friends, friends.’
Later when we took the tram home we were so hyped up we missed our stop.
These are the four things I remember from my six years at secondary school:
- My friends
- My drama teacher
- My first boyfriend
- My friends
In writer Vivian Gornick’s recent collection of essays, The Odd Women in the City she describes friends as ‘Those with whom we can be our best selves.’ Maybe. Sometimes friends fulfill other functions other than making us look our best.
Do today’s adolescents do friendship differently in a world of hyper connectivity, virtual intimacy and Facebook de-friendings?
Well they do and they don’t. Sure friendship is mediated and arguably skewed via technologies but who am I to say that my son’s friendships are any less real or by extension, of less value than mine were?
The adolescents I know seem to get just as passionate and engrossed, hurt and infuriated by the seismic shifts within their friendship universe as we did.
The adolescents I teach and the ones that sometimes hang out at our house, are just as uncommunicative with adults and hyper relational amongst themselves as we were.
I watch my son being excluded and feel his inarticulate hurt. I hear my son’s voice heighten when he is with a friend and I feel all’s right in the world
Unlike Muhammad Ali’s famous remark that ‘Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain and not something you learn in school.’ making, cultivating and losing friendship is a significant part of the school’s ‘hidden curriculum’. It is there amidst the subterranean social hurly burly that kids learn the lessons of friendship – and we all know they are often the hard ones because navigating friendship is a bloody minefield even for kids.
I am careful not to be too obvious when I advise my adolescent son in matters of friendship. For example, when he told me that his friends said he is sometimes too loud, I just stopped stock-still and quoted Alice Walker at him. ‘No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.’ My son looked at me and said that I was weird and embarrassing.
Maybe next time I should go for something more relatable because I did used to read the Pooh books to him when he was young and he still let me.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
My new boyfriend is my oldest friend. We met when we were in high school.
The friend I went to see Bette Middler with is picking me up later to go to some party. ‘Come on’, she urged. ‘It’ never too late to make new friends.’