My literary week (17), musicals, movies and more

Spring is springing

It’s been over two years since my last literary week, which is weird given I enjoy writing these posts that explore the literary content or implications of other parts of my life. I am writing this one, for a number of reasons, prime of which is that I’ve not written a review this week and need to write something! I have been reading, just not enough to write about – yet. There’s been too much going on.

Now, an admission … this literary week is more like literary season, which I hope you agree is fair enough. Who says bloggers can’t invoke artistic licence, after all? By season, I mean winter, which ends this week, here downunder. Thank goodness.


Mr Gums and I enjoy musicals and have seen two this month, one this week in fact. The first, which we saw earlier this month, was Hamilton. We must be among the last musical enthusiasts in Australia to see it, but we finally got there. I loved it. Besides its colour-blind casting, I loved its Shakespearean quality. It has the hallmarks of great Shakespearean tragedy, from the great man brought down by his own flaws to the fool (in this case King George III) who provides comic relief while also saying some wise things. And, the political machinations have such relevance to today. I loved, for example, the reference to transparency, or lack thereof: “I want to be in the room where it happens”. A real treat – though we were briefly thrown when, after Interval, the actor playing George Washington changed from an average-build white man to a thinner, younger looking black man. There had been an announcement but in the rustle of everyone returning to seats, we’d missed the crucial piece of information about who was “now being played by”? We worked it out soon enough.

The other musical, the one we saw this week, also has strong literary content, The Girl from the North Country, which, as many of you will probably know, features Bob Dylan’s songs and tells a Depression era story. Given Dylan – albeit controversially – won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, it’s hard to deny the “literary week” credentials of this one. I didn’t engage with it as quickly as I did with Hamilton, mainly because the story and characters were not familiar, but by the end, the characters had won me over with their stories and the actors with their performance.


I’m just going to mention one of the movies I’ve seen in recent times, Where the crawdads sing. Yes, a popular movie, though I have been to some more arthouse and classic fare too (like John Farrow’s gorgeous-to-look-at The Big Clock just last night). But I want to mention a conversation (by letter) with my American friend Carolyn, on Crawdads. Both of us enjoyed the movie. It’s beautiful to look at, well-cast overall, and the adaptation felt true to the book. Any problems it has, we agreed, are due more to the book – the stretching of credulity and generally stereotyped characterisation – than with the film itself. (My review of the book explains why I felt I could accept some of these challenges in the book.)

Now is the winter of our discontent…

This section is the saddest part of this post, because here I want to pay brief tribute to some special people who died this season and who also happen to have some literary or arts relationship with me.

The first occurred at the beginning of winter and was, in some ways, the most shocking – because it came with no warning, and because she was the youngest of the people I’m talking about. It was my reading group’s fabulous member Janet Millar who died, suddenly, of a heart attack in early June. She had moved to Sydney but, once a reading group member aways a reading group member and we had stayed in contact over the years. A journalist by training, Janet was warm, intelligent, funny, subversive and could be relied on to enliven any group. So sad, so missed.

Then there were two people who were not as close to me personally, but who were meaningful acquaintances, Liz Lynch who was in Mr Gums’ Advance German Conversation class and with whom I’d discussed reading group experiences, and Geoffrey Brennan, who was on our local Musica Viva committee and hosted, with his wife, many lovely musical afternoons in their home. These afternoons were equally about socialising as about music, because Geoff, like Liz, was a people person. They will be so missed too.

And finally, there was ex-work colleague and friend, Richard Keys. The oldest of the four here, Richard was in his 80s. He was a loyal, warm-hearted and fun colleague and friend, whom I met him through work at the National Film and Sound Archive. We quickly connected over literature as well as film, because both were dear to Richard. After he retired, we stayed in contact, and frequently ran into each other at film events, literary events and folk festivals. I would also occasionally find a letter from him in my mailbox – containing some newspaper clipping or other about Jane Austen! Richard could also quote Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and may or may not have approved of my heading for this section! I’m going to close here, though, not with Shakespeare, but with a quote Richard had over his desk at work. It was from The sentimental bloke which is both an Australian film and literary classic. I used it in my last message to him:

Sittin’ at ev’nin’ in this sunset-land,
Wiv ‘Er in all the World to ‘old me ‘and,
⁠A son, to bear me name when I am gone.…
⁠Livin’ an’ lovin’—so life mooches on.

“so life mooches on” … on that note, I’ll mooch off and try to finish the unfinished books next to my bed, so I can bring you some reviews next week. Meanwhile, vale Janet, Jill, Geoff and Richard. You will all be remembered.

My literary week (16), values and truth

Wow, it’s been a year since my last literary week post. How did that happen? I have had many literary weeks since then – haha – including a few that I even thought writing about, but each time something got in the way. This time, though, I’m not letting it …

Family values …

I was inspired to write this post by seeing a performance of Australian playwright David Williamson’s latest (and possibly last) play, Family values, this week. It is quintessential Williamson, I’d say – a satire in which a contemporary issue/ethical or moral concern is explored during an event or tightly defined period, in this case a retired judge’s 70th birthday party for “family only”. (Don’s party, for example, is set during an election night party, The club takes place over a football season, and Travelling north during a family holiday, to name a few well-known examples.)

What Williamson does is use satire to skewer some aspect of modern Australian life and values. In Family values, his target is our treatment of asylum-seekers/refugees. So, we have the successful but conservative recently retired judge Roger, and his tolerant but definitely not down-trodden wife, Sue, preparing for the birthday party. They are joined by their three, all divorced, adult children – daughter Lisa who arrives early with the recently medevac’d and now escaped refugee Saba, born-again Hillsong devotee Michael, and Emily who brings her partner Noelene. Lisa’s plan is to get Saba away to the family holiday house before Emily and Noelene, Border Force employees both, arrive. Of course, she doesn’t, and the stage is set for a family conflagration over values, priorities, and politics – all complicated by longheld childhood grievances.

It was highly entertaining as Williamson always is. I’m sure most of us watching could see bits of ourselves, and/or of our lives, in one or more of the characters. The set was effective, with its central staircase going nowhere, the actors did excellent jobs with their parts, and there were genuinely funny moments, but the satire was a little too obvious and some of the speeches were just that much too preachy and declamatory for me*. Mr Gums found it distressing because of the cruel intractability of our government’s attitude to asylum-seekers, but I’m afraid I was somewhat distracted by the play’s didacticism, despite its heartbreaking theme. However, the play’s heart is absolutely in the right place and I did enjoy the evening.

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsCoincidentally, we are currently watching and enjoying the new Australian television series Stateless, which is also about our cruel mismanagement and mistreatment of asylum-seekers. It, though, is drama, and so quite different to Williamson’s satirical approach. All of this has reminded me that I need to read Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains, which will give me a first person account of what it’s like to be an asylum-seeker to Australia.

Miss Fisher … an interlude

We also saw, in the last week, the Australian feature film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, which was inspired by the very popular Australian television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which itself was inspired by the popular Phryne Fisher 1920s-30s set detective novels by Australian novelist Kerry Greenwood. It was fun, but, although I like much of screenwriter Deb Cox’s work, this story and the production pushed my disbelief beyond my comfort level. However, as always, I did love Phryne’s clothes and derring-do!

Quote of the week

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodiesHaving included a Quote of the Week in my last two literary week posts, I’m continuing the tradition. This post’s quote, coming from Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the bodies (my review), is, however, not new:

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.

Like most, I read Bring up the bodies soon after it came out, but I have just seen this quote in the free little reading guide – The world of Wolf Hall – which I picked up in our local independent bookstore, Harry Hartog, last weekend. It is one of the guide’s two epigrams, and seems strangely applicable to our times! I’ll leave it with you …

* That said, I did love Williamson’s “going forward” joke.

My literary week (15), readings and readers

As regular readers here know, my “literary week” posts are irregular affairs, usually inspired by something I really want to share (or document for my own benefit!) And so it is this week …

Reading Boochani in public … and related thoughts

Public reading No Friend but the MountainsI was especially pleased, given the events in Christchurch last Friday week, that I’d been asked to take part in an all-day public reading of the book No friend but the mountains, written by Kurdish-Iranian poet and Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani. The reading was organised by local writer (and ex-work colleague) Sarah St Vincent Welch, with the support of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee. It took place in Canberra’s Garema Place on Thursday March 21, which happened to be World Poetry Day and World Harmony Day. The reading started at 8.15am and went through into the early hours of the evening, with my 10-minute slot taking place in the early afternoon. It was a privilege to be one of the 60 readers, most of whom were local poets, taking part in the event.

As we all know, it’s strange how events and ideas can coalesce. We have, here in Australia, a current affairs television program called The Drum. It’s a panel discussion show and, earlier this week, in the wake of Christchurch, they had an all-Muslim women panel. It was confronting, but it reinforced the ideas that are also embedded in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review), and that also reflect the experience of the detainees. Each situation is different in specifics and history, but Muslims, indigenous people, and asylum-seekers know what it is like to be reviled. Each member of these groups wakes up each and every day, wondering what act of prejudice or hatred they might confront*. It’s truly appalling.

If only naysayers and decisionmakers would stop, listen and/or read, and imagine walking, for just a moment even, in another’s shoes, they might think again about their actions. This is not about class or religion or wealth or education (though they are implicated in the bigger picture), but about human feeling. I know I speak from a position of fortune – I can’t change that – but I can try to do my bit to lessen the load.


Two of my recent posts resulted in short story recommendations that I thought worth sharing, though I haven’t yet had time to follow them up myself:
  • Ian Darling, commenting on my post on Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Janeites”, recommended an earlier Kipling story, “Mary Postgate” (available online), originally published in 1915. Ian describes it as “a fearful mixture of hate and compassion.” Sounds eerily relevant doesn’t it?
  • Lisa (ANZLitLovers), commenting on my Monday Musings post on the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize, recommended an Indonesian short story translated by one of this year’s shortlistees, Harry Aveling. The story is “The biography of a newborn baby” and is by Raudal Tanjung Banua (available online).

I will try to read them in the next week or so, once I’ve read this week’s reading group book!


Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipReaders are interesting beasts really (and I use the term affectionately!) We differ greatly in what we like to read, what we think is good, what we think is worth reading. I was interested to read, after writing my post on Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip, Karen Wyld’s very thorough review in the Sydney Review of Books. Late in the review she comments on the challenge for readers:
Too Much Lip is, of course, not the first novel to include family violence or to expose its colonial roots. There are, however, risks with telling stories like these. Non-Indigenous readers could fail to recognise the strength of culture to mitigate intergenerational trauma, and not understand its roots in colonial violence and systemic racism. Some readers might see the Salters through an over-used deficit model, or believe they have the solutions to ‘fix’ Indigenous families. Instead, the Salters’ story shows how ineffective governments have been in trying to patch up the wounds of colonisation through paternalistic and draconian approaches. Some readers might find it hard to grapple with the violence in this novel. And some might find it hard to forgive the Salter siblings’ creative disregard for the law. It’s important to remember that this book is a piece of fiction but it is grounded in reality.
If there is a risk of non-Indigenous readers misconstruing parts of this novel, how can First Nations writers mitigate such risks? In most cases they can’t, and they shouldn’t have to. The responsibility of interpretation and the heavy lifting of expanding one’s worldviews and letting go of ingrained prejudices lies with the reader [my emphasis].
Too much lip is an exciting read, but it is also a confronting one that can easily lend itself to judgement if not moralising. I love that Wyld discusses this potential head on.

Quote of the week

I included a Quote of the Week in my last literary week post, and can’t resist including one again. It comes from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Janeites” (linked above):
“… there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. …”
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what this means, even if you haven’t read the post!
* Well, asylum-seeker detainees probably have a good idea, as every day brings the same, but I think you take my point.

My literary week (14), lists and a celebrity

I don’t really need to write a post today having written two in the last two days, but there are a couple of things I’d love to share with you, so here I am for the third day in a row.

Reading group schedule

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeFirst up is my reading group schedule for the first half of the next year, which we decided by consensus – with a bit of the usual argy-bargy – a few days ago. Here’s the list in the order we’ll read them:
  • Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe : strongly recommended by an ex-member (“ex” because she moved away) whose recommendations are usually spot on – and with supporting recommendation by Brother Gums whose taste is also impeccable.
  • Anita Heiss (ed), Growing up Aboriginal in Australia : for obvious reasons, and because if the University of Melbourne believes its staff should read it, then so should we!
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead : because many of us have been wanting to “do” Marilynne Robison for some time.
  • Amor Towles, A gentleman in Moscow : because many of us have heard good things about it.
  • Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman : because we’d like to include more translated fiction in our reading diet and this sounded interesting.
  • Mary McCarthy, The group : our “classic”, which some have never read and others are interested to read again in our current climate.
You will of course hear more about these as 2019 progresses …

Eric Idle in conversation with Alex Sloan

Eric Idle, Always look on the bright side of lifeAs most Aussie readers will know, Monty Python member Eric Idle is currently doing the rounds in Australia promoting his book Always look on the bright side of life: A sortabiography. I’m intrigued by that subtitle given the various discussions we’ve had here recently about memoirs and biography – but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t tell you what angle, if any, Idle has taken on the biography form.

Anyhow, the event I attended was part of the ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author series, this one a paid event, with the ticket price including a signed copy of the book. I went with friends so didn’t take my usual copious notes. Indeed, I took no notes, so this will be a brief report.

I suspect most of the events ran pretty similarly, with a few variations depending on who “conversed” with Idle. Anne of Cat Politics, who occasionally comments here, went to the Melbourne event where the conversation was conducted by Michael Williams of The Wheeler Centre. She has written about it on her blog. We had a similar discussion, led beautifully by Alex Sloan, about Idle’s life and, career and his friendships with people like George Harrison. We also had a couple of songs, including the “Selfies” one (for which Anne provides a Youtube link.) Our event, like hers, ended up with Idle singing “Always look on the bright side of life”, except we had a small backing group, The Idlers, drawn from the Canberra Choral Society. That was fun – and I think they enjoyed themselves, too.

But, I think we may have had something else unique to us – a discussion about physics. Our event commenced with a YouTube video of Idle doing his “Galaxy Song”, after which ANU Vice-chancellor and Nobel Laureate in Physics, Brian Schmidt, came to the stage to introduce Idle. In doing so shared with us some – let us say – disagreements between Eric Idle and physicist Brian Cox about certain facts in the song. Schmidt suggested that, on one fact at least – to do with the power of the sun – he’s decided to agree with Idle. There was some lovely banter about all this, with Idle, who has performed the Galaxy Song with Cox, telling us that he’d told Cox that the facts were correct when he wrote the song: it was Science that had changed (due to that darned Hubble Telescope). You can Google Brian Cox and Eric Idle to find out more – if you haven’t seen them already.

Kate’s list of lists

As a service to us all, Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) has published a post titled Best Books of 2018 – A List of Lists. In it she has listed the Best of 2018 lists already published by magazines and newspapers around the world – with annotations explaining what they cover. For example, of Esquire’s list she says “excellent mix of 50 fiction and nonfiction titles” and for NPR’s Best Books of 2018 she writes “use the filters to wade through this 300-strong list”.
Kate will be adding to this post as more lists are published. If you love book lists, bookmark her post!

Quote of the week

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomHopefully, by the end of next week I’ll have written my post on Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom, but I can’t resist sharing just one of many wonderful quotes from the book. This one is not Clare Wright’s own words, but a description of England’s “suffragette agitators” by the UK’s attorney-general at the time. He called them “those unsexed hyenas in petticoats”. Really!? You have to laugh!


My literary week (13), it’s (mostly) all about Aussies

This last week or so we’ve been on the road again, severely cutting into my reading time, but literary things have been happening, nonetheless.

National Bookshop Day, 2018

Readings Kids, Carlton

Readings Kids, Carlton

Yesterday, August 10th, was, as many of you know, National Bookshop Day and I did, in fact, visit a bookshop, Readings in Carlton, Melbourne. I bought Gerald Murnane’s Border districts, which brings me one step closer to reading this Miles Franklin shortlisted book. Daughter Gums and I also visited, next door, the Readings Kids bookshop, where she bought Alison Lester’s Rosie sips Spiders for a baby shower she was attending this weekend.

It was so hard not to buy more, but you all know how behind I am in my reading so you’ll understand my abstemiousness!

I’d love to hear what you did – if you are an Aussie – to support the day?

Alison Lester Gallery

A couple of days before National Bookshop Day we were driving to Melbourne from Canberra via one of the long routes, in this case via Cann River. It was an interesting drive that took us through some quite dramatic landscapes – from the shimmering yellow-white colours of the Monaro in drought to the lush green of south-east Victoria which is not!

Alison Lester GalleryOn Day Two we overnighted at Foster, in order to visit Wilson’s Promontory, before driving on to Melbourne the next day via Fish Creek. Now, Fish Creek is a very pretty little town that also happens to be the home of the Alison Lester Gallery – yes, the Alison Lester who wrote (and illustrated) the book Rosie sips spiders mentioned above. Fish Creek is a lovely little town, and is in the region where Lester was born, grew up and still lives. We bought books here for our new Grandson Gums. The Gallery sells Lester’s books plus numbered prints of her beautiful book illustrations. It also has a little library nook where you can read her books before you decide to buy them. Unfortunately Lester wasn’t there, but you can organise to have your books signed if you want to (and don’t mind waiting for your books!)

BTW Alison Lester was one of Australia’s Inaugural Children’s Laureate from 2011 to 2013, which I wrote about back then.

The Wife and RBG

One of our Melbourne traditions is to have a meal and see a movie with Daughter Gums. We usually go to Cinema Nova (across the road from Readings Bookshop.) It’s a big complex, but not at all like those big impersonal suburban multiplexes. The cinemas are mostly small, and many have rather idiosyncratic layouts, but the movie selection is wonderful. We decided to see The wife, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, that I haven’t read. It focuses on the responses and feelings of the wife of an author who is told he has won the Novel Prize for Literature. If you don’t know the story, I don’t want to spoil it, but it is a great film for booklovers, and, particularly, for women booklovers! I enjoyed seeing Glenn Close again in a meaty role. The story is full of issues to chew over about gender, morality, pride, vocation, relationships over the long haul, and about how a door chosen can have unexpected ramifications down the line.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court of the United States (Source 2)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Then, suddenly finding ourselves with some extra free time, Mr Gums and I took the opportunity to also see the documentary RBG about the US Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As documentaries go, this takes a pretty standard form – a combination of archival footage, contemporary footage, interviews with Ginsburg and with friends, family and colleagues. Wikipedia quotes film reviewer Leslie Felperin who says:

…there is something deeply soothing about RBG, a documentary that, like its subject, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is eminently sober, well-mannered, highly intelligent, scrupulous and just a teeny-weeny bit reassuringly dull.

As I said, traditional in form, but the subject is so intelligent and her contributions to thinking about women’s rights so relevant beyond the USA, that the film kept us engaged from beginning to end. She is a fascinating woman with an inspiring capacity for clarifying the complex.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu

Bruce Pasco, Dark emuNow, we didn’t quite see Bangarra Dance Theatre’s performance of Dark Emu this week but we did see it very recently so I’m sneaking it in here. This is Bangarra’s interpretation of Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark emu (my review) in which he argues that indigenous Australians were not hunter-gatherers but had an agricultural practice, a practice that better proves, in legal terms apparently, their sovereignty or ownership of the land.

I wondered how they would balance the abstraction of dance with the literalness of the theory Pascoe presents (a theory that requires evidence of all sorts of agricultural practices) without, somehow, being prosaic. The dance, the props (which helped convey activities such a corralling animals, damming water, storing food), the lighting, and the music (which mixed traditional sounds with more suggestive modern ones) kept the audience on track with the story being told, although I understand Canberra reviewer Michelle Potter’s point that we didn’t always comprehend the “meaning” of what we were seeing in terms of the theoretical argument. For Mr Gums and me, though, these concerns were not strong enough to spoil the spectacle of Bangarra’s dancing. The moves, the shapes, the energy – we can never get enough of them and we did “get” the main threads of the narrative. (And, I suspect a second viewing would make a big difference. It is sometimes tricky to separate out spectacle from meaning first time around.)

My literary week (12), some art, a film, and an unseen play

Much as I’d like to, I don’t have time to write full posts on the three “events” I’m writing about today, but I do want to at least document them. I don’t, in fact, document every film, show or exhibition I attend but I have particular reasons, which will hopefully become obvious, for wanting to share these three.

MoMA at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria)

For a very exciting reason – Mr Gums and my becoming grandparents for the first time – we made a flying trip to Melbourne last weekend, and, as we couldn’t spend all our time gazing at the adorable newborn, we took ourselves off to the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria during our long weekend. Titled MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, it comprises a selection of MoMa’s world-famous collection. About 200 pieces the website says. The works are organised pretty traditionally – that is, in chronological order, but within this order there are themes, mostly relating to specific art movements, such as Cubism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and so on. The website says that “the exhibition traces the development of art and design from late-nineteenth-century urban and industrial transformation, through to the digital and global present.” It’s an inspiring exhibition, but like all such big, dense, exhibitions, we had tired by the end, despite breaking for lunch in the middle – so my concentration, not to mention my feet, did start to fail, affecting what I remember.

Anyhow, the exhibition opens with a wall comprising a work each by van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat, who, the audioguide explained, are deemed to mark the beginning of modern art.

Salvador Dali, The persistence of memory, 1931

So, what did I enjoy? Of course, I liked seeing famous works by well-known artists, such as Dali’s “The persistence of memory” (the famous melting/dripping clocks painting). Who knew it was so small? Well, you do know it, if you read the small print in art books, but you don’t tend to remember that – at least I don’t always. It’s only seeing the work itself that makes this stick. This is partly what makes going to exhibitions so worthwhile. I also enjoyed seeing lesser known works by well-known artists, and works by artists I barely know or didn’t, until last weekend, know at all! And, I appreciated the inclusion of women artists, such as photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) who was apparently looked at askance for photographing machines.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle wheel, 1951 (original was 1913)

There is so much more I could say, but, this being a litblog primarily, I’m going to end on one idea that particularly tickled me. Early in the exhibition is a work by Marcel Duchamp, the originator not only of Dada but of the art of “readymades“. The audioguide argued that one of Duchamp’s contributions to modern art was the idea that a work of art is not complete until it is joined with the viewer’s perception and questions (even if, the guide said, that question is, “is this art?”) This got me thinking once again about reading, and the fact that a book has as many meanings as it has readers, because each of us brings our own perspectives to it. An old hat idea, now, I guess, but I liked that Duchamp’s ideas resonated for me beyond the visual arts.

Gurrumul (Cinema Nova, Carlton)

Another exciting event in our lives – one still to come – is that in a few days we’ll be heading off to Australia’s Top End, to tour Arnhem Land and then spend a few additional days in Darwin. I can’t wait for the warmth – nor to experience Arnhem Land which has been on my must-visit list for some time now. Luckily for us, two friends have just returned from the same tour, and they advised us, in preparation, to see three films: Ten canoes (which we’ve seen before, but looked at again, via DVD last week), and two recent documentaries Gurrumul and West wind: Djalu’s legacy.

Gurrumul Yunupingu

Dr G Yunupingu @ Fremantle Park (17/4/2011), By Stuart Sevastos, using CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately we’ve missed West Wind on the cinema circuit, and it’s not available on DVD until later this year, but Gurrumul is still screening. So another time-filling activity for us in Melbourne was to see it at the Cinema Nova in Carlton. For those of you who don’t know, the film is about the recently deceased indigenous Australian musician, Dr G Yunipingu (the name used for him since his death in respect of indigenous Australian funerary practices. Permission was given, by Yunipingu himself the film says, for the film to be released, despite another indigenous practice of not showing images of deceased persons for some time after their deaths.)

Dr G Yunupingu was born on Elcho Island, in Arnhem Land, and was discovered early in his life to be blind. He taught himself to play music, and was clearly gifted – though it was his voice (“the voice of an angel” some said) that really captured attention. He wrote his own songs, which he sang mostly in language. The film chronicles, primarily, his musical life, but given his close connection to his culture, that couldn’t be done without reference to his family and culture.

It’s a traditional documentary, style-wise, but it’s the content, the subject himself, that makes this such a moving film. I was quite wrung out by the end – and not only because it had been an emotional couple of weeks leading up to it. One of the issues underpinning the film is an age-old story for indigenous people – the challenge of moving between two opposing cultures. It was a challenge that brought indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira, undone in the end. Dr G Yunupingu managed it better overall – partly because of his own sense of self and strong attachment to his country and culture, but partly also because his non-indigenous mentors had learnt from history and were respectful of Yunupingu’s wishes. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t tense times! The film will, I’m sure, enhance our Arnhem Land trip – but it’s worth seeing regardless.

Tourmaline (The Street Theatre)

Randolph Stow, TourmalineAnd, well, this last stop in today’s post is exciting too – but disappointing also, as I will be missing it. Yes, I am concluding this post by discussing something that not only have I not seen, but won’t be seeing either. I have a very good reason though for this strange behaviour, and it’s that the production, an adaptation of Randolph Stow’s novel Tourmaline, was written by Emma Gibson, one of the bloggers I mentored in last year’s Litbloggers of the Future program. Emma, in fact, wrote a guest post for this blog on Stow and the novel.

It is part of a double bill of adaptations of sci-fi-futuristic texts, the other being HG Wells’ War of the worlds. In her guest post, Emma said that the book has been described as an “ecological allegory”. This would slot nicely into Emma’s main interest, at present anyhow, which is writing about place. According to the promotions, the adaptations are made for radio – which is great to see in itself – but are being performed on stage at the Street Theatre. I am so sorry that I will be missing it – but I wish playwright Emma, and The Street, the best success with it.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

My literary week (11), in the theatre

I thought I’d join the world of fake news – why not? – and make my post title a lie, a double lie in fact. It’s not really “literary” (though it has its moments) and it’s not about a week (spanning, in fact, May 24 to June 13). However, the lies end here, as this post is number 11 in my “literary week” series, and it is all about theatre – of all sorts, the concert hall, the movie theatre, the dance theatre, and the drama theatre. Here goes …

Tafelmusik (Llewellyn Hall)

JS Bach, Leipzig

In May, we saw our third concert by the exciting Canadian baroque or early music ensemble, Tafelmusik. They are exciting, because their performances tend to be multimedia – comprising images and/or props, and, often, narration – because, uncommon for ensembles, they play from memory. That’s impressive on its own. The also play on period instruments.

This latest concert was titled Bach and his world and so, not surprisingly, was devoted to the music of JS Bach. But – and here comes a literary bit – it was tied together with a narration, presented by Blair Williams, telling the story of Leipzig and Bach’s time there. The narration started by introducing us to the patron gods of Leipzig, Apollo (the god of music) and Achilles (the god of trade and invention). From here we learnt about the invention of early musical instruments – and about those who made them – and about the making of the paper and pens needed to write the music. And so on … Given Bach was a church musician, we were intrigued by the focus on Greek Gods – but the reason was valid, and it was certainly illuminating.

It was a delightful and engaging concert – perhaps particularly so for us because we visited Leipzig and Bach’s St Thomas Church in 2013, but the buzz throughout the audience suggested we were not the only ones who enjoyed the concert.

The Merry Widow (Canberra Theatre)

A few days later and we were out again, this time to see the Australian Ballet’s latest performance, The Merry Widow, which was created for them in 1975. It’s a delightfully light ballet – a nice change from the dramas of Giselle (one of my favourites) and Swan Lake – and it was performed with a lovely sense of fun. The widow was danced by Dimity Azoury, who hails from neighbouring Queanbeyan.

One of the highlights for us, was seeing, in character roles, two older dancers we loved seeing in our earlier ballet-going days, David McAllister (now the Ballet’s artistic director) and Steven Heathcote. A delight.

We stayed for the post-show Q&A – good for avoiding the post-show car-park jam, as well as for learning something about the ballet. Four company members turned up – David McAllister, Dimity Azoury, another dancer, and the orchestra’s conductor. I got to ask my question about adapting to different stages, and we learnt about how much dancers eat, despite their slim appearance. It’s all that dancing you see!

Sense and sensibility (The Playhouse)

Then, two days after the ballet, it was back to the theatre to see a theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility. What a surprise that was. Adapted by New York playwright, Kate Hamill, and performed by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, it started off with a bang, and never let up until the end. (Check out this promo for the play’s Canberra season.) We lost a few audience members at interval, but most of us got into the style quickly and enjoyed Hamill’s take, which was …

… subversive in terms of the traditional Regency look, with its use of kazoos, roller skates, tricycles, and the like, and highly comic in tone. The unusual props effectively managed time and space, but also captured Austen’s cheeky humour. Best thing though was that all the fun and silliness didn’t detract from the core of the original. I loved how close the production stayed to Austen’s main themes – the havoc that can be wrought on people’s lives (both men and women) by lack of economic independence, the need to balance sense with sensibility, and the challenge of staying moral and true to self in a world where money is used to wield power over others. It was a hoot from beginning to end – but a throughtful, provocative hoot, for all that.

Tea with the Dames (Hoyts, Woden)

And then, phew, I had a break of nearly a week, until this week when I went to see the documentary, Tea with the Dames, not once, but twice – first with a friend, and then with Ma Gums. It was just as good second time around.

The Dames are four doyens of the British theatre – Dame Joan Plowright (b. 1929), Dame Maggie Smith (b. 1934), Dame Judi Dench (b. 1934), and Dame Eileen Atkins (b. 1934). They are filmed at Joan Plowright’s country home, talking to each other, and answering questions from the crew (off camera). There’s a lot of joyful, knowing laughter indicating long professional and personal friendship between the women; much sharing of stories and experiences; and, occasionally, wariness or even reluctance to talk about certain subjects (like ageing!) The documentary feels natural (even where they admit to feeling unnatural), but that’s not to say there’s no art here. It takes work to make something look natural.

In addition to providing insight into the acting life, the film is particularly delightful for the way it exposes the women’s individual personalities: the calm, philosophical Joan (you can tell why she appealed to Laurence Olivier after the dramas of his life with poor manic-depressive Vivien Leigh); the forthright, sometimes acerbic, but also occasionally vulnerable Maggie; the cheeky, light-hearted but also reflective Judi; and the quietly observant, precise Eileen.

Their conversations are interspersed with some wonderful, albeit often poor quality, archival footage, including of early film and stage performances, and more personal images such the women with their children.

The end result is a picture of four women who have lived long, who have survived a tough business, and who continue to engage actively with the world and each other – and who plan to do so until they shuffle off their mortal coils!

The beginning of nature (Premiere @ Canberra Theatre)

Finally, we attended the premiere of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre’s work, The beginning of nature. What a powerful, enthralling experience. We love modern dance, and this was mesmerising. We’d happily see it again – partly to draw more meaning out of it, though perhaps “meaning” is not the right word. It’s about, the program says, the “rhythms of nature”, rhythms that “permeate all aspects of the material universe.”

And so the 80-minute performance involved the nine dancers creating beautiful forms – sometimes using props like stones, sticks, plants, a conch shell – waving, flowing, leaping, crawling, forming one shape and then breaking apart to form another, and so on. Some of the movements/forms were so beautiful that I didn’t want them to end. The value in seeing the work again would be to rise above the spectacle to better “see” the nature, if that makes sense.

Garry Stewart, Australian Dance TheatreThe dancers wore gorgeous, dark teal-green androgynous costumes; the strong but not intrusive music, composed by Brendan Woithe, was played at the back of the stage by the Zephyr Quartet; and vocalists Karen Cummings and Heru Pinkasova, also at the back, sang in Kaurna (pronounced “garna”), the language of the people of the Adelaide Plains. Apparently, Kaurna was extinct until the local people started reconstructing it from the 2000 words documented in diaries by two German missionaries. (Another wonderful example of a project to recover indigenous language.) We were addressed by the company’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, at the end, and he paid tribute to their indigenous consultant, Jack Buckskin.

Stewart writes in the program that from the beginning he wanted to include human voices, and that “it made much more sense to work with the Kaurna language in a dance work that explores the patterns of nature, than English” because “indigenous languages have been spoken on the Australian continent for some 60,000 years, whereas English for only 230 years.” Fair point, and clearly the local indigenous people were on board with the collaboration. I should say here there’s no sense that the work aims to replicate or represent indigenous dance, but I would also say that in representing nature’s rhythms, it incorporates a sort of universal dance language that we can also see in indigenous dance.

And that, folks, is it for now.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

My literary week (10), Non-fiction November and Lady Chatterley

I had hoped to finish my current book by this weekend, but it’s been a busy week with a two-day trip away, an exhibition launch, and a Friends’ of the NFSA event, on top of usual commitments. However, I do have some “literary” bits and pieces to share. I’ll start with the one that isn’t hinted at in the post title!

Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits Exhibition

Stupidly, I didn’t take any pics of the two events I attended – a special members preview and the gala opening – for this exciting new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Created collaboratively by the NPG and the National Film and Sound Archive (which provides most of the images), this exhibition contains 275 images from Australia’s film industry. I’m including it here – besides wanting to promote it – because the curators, Jennifer Coombes and Penny Grist, have organised the collection to convey a narrative, from set-up to resolution. This results in images from different eras and genres being placed side by side, forcing us to think about them from different perspectives. I’ll be back to spend more time. (Meanwhile, you might like to check out the interactive exhibition of the Cinesound movie company’s gorgeous Casting Books.)

Cover Story (or, Vinyl Covers with David Kilby)

Still with the NFSA, on Friday I went to an event organised by our Friends’ group at which record collector David Kilby presented a selection of record covers. David often collects records for their covers, rather than their contents, and at this presentation we could see why. But, how to present them? There are various possibilities, but the one David chose was to display examples from the “categories” he collects – and my, does he have some fascinating categories. Some relate to audio content – such as Religious songs, Instructional records, or Co-star with me – and some to the cover art. There are, for example, covers which use “stars” who have nothing to do with the content. Jayne Mansfield was a popular choice here! Wonder why! Then there are those which depict actions, such as smoking, or types of people, such as plumbers. You really had to be there!

Music to read lady Chatterley's lover by, album coverBut, the group I’m sharing here is the “Music to [insert action] by”, and particularly, “Music to read by”. To represent this group, David displayed the cover for Music to read Lady Chatterley’s lover by. The music comes from Richard Shores and his Orchestra, and there are ten tracks: Love, Hate, Sorrow, Gay, Blues, Surprise, Frustration Nostalgia, Fear, Hysteria! The cover notes briefly refer to the novel’s controversial history – the censorship, and so on – and then continues:

Richard Shores [apostrophe?] initial venture into musical “no-man’s-land” may trip the same kind of alarm. Nature in the raw is seldom mild as can be seen when Shore utilizes his melodic pallet to characterize the spectrum of human emotions.

While music has always reflected the composer’s attempt to picture human emotions through the symmetry of naturals, sharps and flats, Shores flamboyantly exposes man’s innermost feelings relentlessly.

Gotta hear this one day!

Non-fiction November meme

Having seen some of my favourite bloggers – such as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) – take part in the Non-fiction November meme sponsored by julzreads, among others, I considered joining in, but this week got the better of me. Consequently, I’m just going to respond briefly here:

Week 1, Oct 30-Nov 3: Your year in non-fiction

Two of the questions for this week were:

  • What was your favourite non-fiction read of the year? Without doing the count, I seem to have read more non-fiction this year than in recent years, so it’s tricky to answer this. In fact it’s so tricky that I’m going to give three: Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful (my review); Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry (my review); and Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (my review). All three explore Australia, and what it means to be Australian, particularly in relation to indigenous people. (For more, see Week 3 below)
  • Bernadette Brennan, A writing life Helen Garner and her workWhat is one topic of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? This would have to be literary biographies and memoirs. Two, in particular, have come out this year that I’ve not managed to read (yet), Bernadette Brennan’s biography of Helen Garner, A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, and Georgia Blain’s memoir, The museum of words. I did though retrieve (and read) from my TBR pile, Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (my review) so it hasn’t been completely hopeless.

Week 2, Nov 6-10: Book pairing

For Week 2 participants were asked to pair a non-fiction book with a fiction one, using your own criteria, but essentially meaning books that seem to go well together. Many bloggers have posted multiple pairings, but as I’m not devoting a whole post to this, I’m going with just one, the one that popped into my head the minute I realised the subject of my reading group’s August book, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (my review). It’s about Koreans in Japan, and their struggle to survive. My paired book is Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness (my review). Parry’s analysis of the murder of a young English woman in Japan by a serial killer includes a discussion of the poor treatment of Koreans by the Japanese. It prepared me well for Min Jin Lee.



Week 3, Nov 13-17: Be the expert/Ask the export/Become the expert

From this group – which officially starts tomorrow, so I’m jumping the gun somewhat – I’m choosing the “be an expert option”. This asks me to share the title of three books on a single topic that I’ve read and recommend (thus making me an expert!). Well, I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic – it would be insensitive of me to do so in fact – but I would (and have) recommended these three memoirs on the experience of racism in Australia. Two of the books are by indigenous Australians, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry and Stan Grant’s Talking to my country, and one by an Australian-born writer of West Indian background, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review). These books paint a picture of Australia that is depressing and distressing. When I first became aware of racism in my teens in the late 1960s, I’d have been horrified to think that half a century later so little progress would have been made in how we treat each other. What is wrong with us?



And here I will end. It would be cheeky answering Weeks 4 and 5 this far in advance.

However, I’d love to know your answers to these non-fiction questions.

My literary week (9), some thoughts about fiction …

It’s been a busy week, what with getting ready for our road trip to Port Macquarie, and then doing said road trip, so reading has been slowed down somewhat. However, that doesn’t mean that things literary have been forgotten.

Why write fiction?

Anos Irani, The scribeLike most of you who read this blog, I expect, I’m always looking out for discussions about what literature is all about, particularly from the writers who create this things we read. This week, I listened to a couple of interviews with authors, and loved what they had to say.

I’ll start with Anosh Irani whose latest novel The parcel I reviewed a few days ago. In an interview on Canada’s CBC, he said:

I had to tell the truth. For me that was the most important thing. Tell it in the form of a story but make it as truthful as possible.

Fiction is a beautiful way to get to the higher kind of truth.

There’s a difference between facts and truth. Factual information is what I learned when I did my research but truth can be an emotional truth; it can be a spiritual truth. These are things that you can arrive at through fiction, that’s why I love the novel. […]

The idea for me when I write a novel is to find what is human in the worst kinds of experience. […]

There are questions that the reader will also ask that have no answer and that is the whole point that sometimes there aren’t any answers. […]

I think literature should make us a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable, it should cause a shift in our unconsciousness because only when we are disturbed will we go in search of something [and he then refers to great novels like Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance, Albert Camus’ The outsider and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as examples. Yes!]

SNAP, I thought, because the previous day I’d heard Richard Fidler interview Richard Flanagan, and Flanagan too had talked about truths and about questions without answers:

Novels are something we go to because they remind us that implicit in each of us is a universe of possibilities, some better, some worse […]

It’s said now that reality has outstripped fiction, and that fiction can’t deal with this new reality, but […]

I genuinely believe in the novel as one of the great spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic traditions and at its best it speaks to fundamental truths about the human condition. It’s not that it has answers but … it asks the necessary questions we need to ask, of ourselves and of our times.

As you will probably guess, I love this idea of novels’ role being to ask us questions without necessarily providing the answers. Irani certainly does it. He presents some complex if not discomforting moral questions, and leaves the reader to think about how to react. His only request, I’d say, is for us to react with humanity, to not be quick to judge (particularly if we haven’t walked in those shoes.) Sometimes, as he says, there are no answers.

MUBA (Most Under-rated Book Award)

The Invisible War book coverWhile on the road, I did check my Twitter feed every now and then, and one that caught my attention came from the Small Press Network (SPN). It announced this year’s MUBA award shortlist. I have written about these awards before, and have read the odd nominee, but this list comes completely out of left-field for me. The books are:

  • Briohny Doyle’s The island will sink (Brow Books, an imprint of Lifted Brow magazine): a debut novel that sounds like it’s in the dystopian cli-fi tradition
  • The invisible war: A tale on two scales (Scale Free Network): a surprising-sounding graphic novel for young adults set in the first World War and about bacteriophage that fights dysentery! This book has won educational publishing awards, but I guess is unknown/underrated in the general realm.
  • Susan McCreery’s Loopholes (Spineless Wonders, whom I’ve mentioned before in a post on Specialist Presses): a collection of micro-fiction about family life and relationship – no piece is more than 250 words
  • Christina Kennedy’s Horse Island (Zabriskie Books): set around Tuross Lake in NSW’s south coast, a beautiful part of the world only about three hours drive from me. This book chronicles Kennedy’s commitment to native Australian plants.

What a fascinating bunch. The winner will be announced next month.

How we read …

Another thing readers like me like to read about is how other readers read. I don’t mean what they read, or how many books they read, but how they actually read. This can include things like whether they write marginalia or not, or how many pages they read before they give up on a book, or whether in fact they ever give up a book once started. Consequently, I loved this from a Canadian blogger I love to visit, Buried in Print. It’s from her review of a book by Sarah Dunn called The arrangement, and she writes:

And when I say ‘entertaining’, I mean I chuckled aloud several times and paused more than once to let the book settle into my lap so I could enjoy the idea of the scene described.

I related to this. I often do the same. Not just for funny scenes, but for moving ones, or gorgeously written ones that I want to let soak in. It slows down the reading of course – but, when you are moved (to laugh, cry or wonder), you are moved, and you don’t want to rush that, do you?

My literary week (8), a cultural life

There’s always something going on here in the nation’s capital, besides politics that is and despite the belief in some circles that it is a soulless place! In fact, it’s so busy here – so packed full of things to do – that my reading has been pretty slow of late. However, I have been active, and thought some of my activities might interest you.

Blog mentoring – and a question for you

In my last Monday musings I mentioned that I’ll be mentoring two ACT Lit-bloggers for the rest of this year. We had our first meeting last weekend, and one of the issues we talked about – and it’s one we’ll continue to talk about – relates to what litblogging actually is. What is the difference, we want to explore, between litblogging, review and criticism? Where are the lines, what are the crossovers? We tossed a few ideas around, including the issue of informality/formality, but there’s a lot more to explore regarding content (and these concepts of review, criticism, analysis) and audience (who reads blogs, what do blog readers look for, and can this audience be widened?)

So now I’m throwing it over to my brains trust – that is, you who read this blog – because you cover a wide range of backgrounds. What say you to these questions? And how (or where) do you think litblogs fit into literary culture?


I mentioned Coranderrk on this blog a couple of years ago. It was an Aboriginal Station in Victoria, established and successfully run by some remaining local indigenous people, and it operated from 1863 to 1924. I came to the story through the Bread and Cheese Club’s activity in the 1950s when they held working bees to repair the cemetery and restore the monument of leader William Barak to its rightful place in the town.

So, when I saw that the play Coranderrk, which was first performed in 2013, was going to be part of his year’s Canberra Theatre Centre season, I bought tickets, and we finally got to see it this week. It tells the story of the community’s attempt to obtain formal control over the land when local farmers started making moves to move them on! They felt the land was too valuable to be run by Aboriginal people (!), and so, as the program says,

the men and women of Coranderrk … went head-to-head with the Aboriginal Protection Board at a Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry to be allowed to continue.

The play tells this story primarily using words from sources of the time – mainly evidence and testimony from the Inquiry. The four actors – three men and one woman – each play several indigenous and non-indigenous characters to tell the story of the conflict. It is, really, like a documentary in play form (called, I believe, verbatim theatre), and it could have been very dry. Fortunately, I like documentaries. And anyhow, the writers do manage to inject the words, the story, with a sense of theatre, partly through little recurring motifs, like banter over a hat, and word plays, as well as, of course, the drama of the story itself.

It’s not a happy outcome, as you’d expect for the time, but the program says “The production aims to encourage a shared understanding of the past between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.” It is just one of the many stories that are coming out now about our colonial past and that we Australians need to know if we are to advance as a “real” nation, that is, as one that knows its true history.

Written by Andrea James & Giordand Nanni
Directed by Eva Grace Mullaley
Produced by Ilbijerri Theatre Company & Belvoir
Canberra Theatre Centre, 14-15 June 2017

John Waters

John Waters, NFSAOne of my several post-retirement commitments is involvement in the Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive. Like most Friends organisations we volunteer for our “parent” body, and we organise events. Recently, we ran a bus tour of the suburb of Moncrieff, whose streets are named “to honour Australia’s music history”.  We enjoyed driving around the streets, being regaled by local music expert David Kilby with biographies of and entertaining clips from such performers as Johnny O’Keeffe, Jimmy Little, Harold Blair and June Bronhill.

Then, this week, we presented an evening, to a full house, with the wonderfully generous Australian actor John Waters who willingly gave up his time, driving himself to Canberra, to talk about his career in film and, at the same time, promote the importance of preserving Australia’s audiovisual history. The NFSA is “our nation’s album” he said, and “who doesn’t like a family album”. Exactly.

There was more to my week, including my local Jane Austen group’s discussion today of the plethora of biographies about our Jane – but I think I’ll save that for another post. There’s only so much culture you can manage at a time!