Griffith Review 68: Getting on (#BookReview)

Book coverI love reading the Griffith Review, though have mostly only reviewed individual articles on this blog. It’s a meaty quarterly, with each edition being devoted to a particular theme. Edition 68’s theme, Getting on, seemed apposite for my reading group and so was our August selection. Although it was confronting at times, it was a universally approved choice, and our discussion was lively and engaged.

Like all Griffith Reviews, this edition contains essays, reportage, memoirs, fiction and poems, some from writers who have previously appeared on my blog (like Helen Garner, Vicki Laveau-Harvie, Kathy Marks, and Charlotte Wood); some from writers known to me but not (yet) on my blog (Melanie Cheng, Leah Kaminisky, Sam Wagan Watson among others); and some new to me. The edition opens with editor Ashley Hay’s introductory piece, “The time of our lives: Senescence, sentience and story”. She frames the volume’s overarching subject matter by saying that ageing in Australia:

has been largely framed by intersections between a Royal Commission and its revelations of institutional shortfalls and betrayals; the urgent need for reform; the conditions we place under the umbrella designation of ‘dementia’; an increasing awareness of under-reported ageism; the seemingly intractable gap in life expectancies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; the day-to-day experience of some 200,000 older Australians who live in residential-care facilities; and an emphasis on the ‘costs’ of an ageing population rather than any framing of the potential benefits of longevity.

However, while these practical and political issues underpin the volume, it also includes some more philosophical and personal reflections which provide breadth and life to the discussion. And so, the edition proper starts with established writer, 77-year-old Helen Garner (“The invisible arrow”) who provides a personal perspective on the experience of ageing, on losing hearing (necessitating hearing aids) and failing sight (requiring cataracts). It’s also about the quandary of being a writer challenged by ageing, an issue somewhat addressed, from a different angle, by Charlotte Wood (“Experiments in the art of living”).

Because my life over the last couple of decades has involved elderly people, I was particularly interested in the essays on aged care practice and policy, especially Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Magical thinking and the aged care crisis” and Beth Mohle’s “System failure”. Both these provided detailed analysis of the current failures of the system – including the multiple reviews with their multiple ignored recommendations – and offer some ideas for improvement. The problem is also taken up provocatively by Gen Xer Ingrid Burkett in “Bold rage” and more calmly but also passionately by another Gen Xer, Charlotte Wood. I did laugh, though, when Burkett suggested one of the ideas discarded by Holland-Batt as “magical thinking”, the “geriatric co-op” or, as Burkett wrote, “buying a large house or building a purpose-built dwelling where we could all live together as we age”. It’s not a new Gen X idea. My Boomer friends and I posited this idea too in our youth!

Policy discussions also take up other issues, like euthanasia and assisted dying (Andrew Stafford’s “Dying wish”) and the disturbing problem of increasing homelessness among older women (Therese Hall’s “Almost homeless”).

Then there are the pieces specifically about the science of ageing (such as Bianca Nogrady’s “Longevity, science and, about medicine and about dead” and David Sinclair’s “Live long and prosper”); about how science may help ageing and aged care in the future (Leah Kaminsky’s intriguing discussion of AI in “Killing time”); and about personal experiences of chronic illness (Mark Aarons’ “Solving my medical mystery”) and death (Gabbie Stroud on her brother’s suicide, “In an unguarded moment”). In this personal vein too is the moving poem, simply titled “Andrew”, about the family’s experience of the terminal illness and death of writer, Andrew McGahan. Niece Anna McGahan writes:

He cannot carry our projected burdens
When he still has heavy gifts
Three glorious, painful months to fill

There are, in fact, several moving pieces – some personal, some professional. Melanie Cheng writes about being an unempathetic intern and what turned her around (“The human factor”) while palliative care specialist, Frank Brennan (“Contemporary loss”), details the practice of palliation. The fiction and poems that are interspersed amongst the non-fiction pieces provide personal perspectives on the information presented. Sam Wagan Watson’s short story “The elsewheres of Charlie Bolt”, for example, powerfully illustrates the isolation and loneliness that many of the contributors identify as serious problems of ageing. The line –

The only songlines Charlie Bolt knew were in the curdling of crow gargles on the street.

– conveys the dislocation Charlie experiences from his culture, as well as from life in general.

It’s impossible to list all the pieces, so I’ll conclude by sharing a couple of my responses to this volume (besides frustration with our policy-makers’ failure to properly address aged care). One relates to the discussion of older people as elders, because this suggests a more positive understanding of ageing. It’s discussed in depth by Jane R Goodall (“Joining forces: The wrath of age meets the passion of youth”) who says “there is little or no public discussion about what it means to be an elder rather than just a senior” and teases out what being an elder might look like. It’s also part of the conversation between Ruth Ross, Jay Phillips and Mayrah Dreise about making “Acknowledgement of Country” statements more meaningful (“Listening to elders: Wisdom, knowledge, institutions and the need for change”).

My other main response concerns denial about ageing and its consequences. I’m with Ailsa Piper (“Old growth: On luck, appreciation and acceptance”) who says “I like saying I’m old”, because, as she says, many never get to. Associated with this denial are people’s claims that they won’t go into aged care, that they’ll leave their home “feet first”, that they will not give up their independence. My experience of watching people age is that the situation is less that you are forced to “give up” your independence, and more that your independence leaves you!

How we handle this situation is up to us, of course, but, as Charlotte Wood reports:

Palliative care nurses have told me people almost always die as they live. A person who has lived with acceptance and gratitude will die in gracious acceptance.

She wonders when it might be time to “change one’s default state”! She then quotes an 84-year-old aged care resident:

Ageing, writes Peter Thomson of Ivanhoe, ‘is inevitable, inexorable and interesting. AAA rating for ageing: Anticipate, Adapt, Accept’.

Now that, rather than “I won’t”, seems to me to be a better default state to take.

Getting on is informative, as you’d expect, but it is also inspirational and challenging. Recommended for adults of all ages!

Note: Links on names are to posts in this blog on those writers. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote up a panel discussion on this volume at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival.

Challenge logoGriffith Review 68: Getting on
(edited by Ashley Hay)
South Brisbane, Qld. : Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing, 2020
287 pp.
ISBN: 9781922212498

Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue (Review)

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

Zora Sanders writes in her Editorial for Meanjin‘s Canberra Issue that Canberra has (or, is it had) a reputation for being The National Capital of Boredom. This is just one of the many less-than-flattering epithets regularly applied to Canberra: A Cemetery with Lights, Fat Cat City, and the pervasive, A City without a Soul. For me though it’s simply Home … a home I chose back in the mid-70s when I applied for my first professional job at the National Library of Australia. I was consequently pleased when Meanjin offered me their special Canberra edition to review.

Sanders describes the issue as being “full of the usual eclectic mix of fact, fiction and poetry” and says it aims to “offer a taste of Canberra as it is now, 100 years after its founding, as viewed by the people who live there, who’ve left there and who never meant to find themselves there in the first place”. The result is something that’s not a hagiography, if you can apply such a word to a city, but that offers a thoughtful look at Canberra from diverse angles – political, historical, social, personal.

With the exception of poetry which is interspersed throughout, the issue is organised straightforwardly by form, rather than by theme or chronology. This is not to say, however, that there is no sense of an ordering hand. The first essay, for example, is, appropriately, Paul Daley’s “Territorial disputes” which explores Canberra’s complex and sometimes controversial indigenous heritage, including the thorny question concerning Canberra’s name. Is it derived from “Ngambri”, which means the “cleavage between the breasts of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie“?

The issue includes a Meanjin Papers insert comprising an essay by ACT historian David Headon titled “The genius and gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India”. So much has been written about the Griffins over the decades, and particularly this year, that it’s a challenge to present them in a handful of pages. Headon’s approach is to focus on the Griffins’ idealism, on what drove them to do what they did, and bypass the complex story of what happened to the plan. That story is explored a little later by Chris Hammer in his essay “A secret map of Canberra”. Griffin, like the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, was, Headon writes, inspired by the prospect of “a prosperous egalitarian future for the new democracy in the south”. He planned his “ideal city” to serve such a nation. It didn’t, as we know, quite turn out that way, but I love that our city has such passion in its genes.

Anthologies are tricky to write about, particularly one as varied as this (despite its seemingly singular subject). The main sections are Essays, Fiction, Memoir and Poetry. There’s also a Conversation and a Gallery – and an opening section titled Perspectives. These pieces provide a fittingly idiosyncratic introduction to the volume. First is novelist Andrew Croome (whose Document Z I reviewed a couple of years ago). He writes of the 2003 fire – Canberra’s worst disaster – and its impact on the observatory at Mt Stromlo. There was a terrible human cost to this disaster but, without denying that, Croome takes a more cosmic view, and turns our eyes to the future. It’s nicely done. Writer Lorin Clarke follows Croome with her cheekily titled perspective “The love that dare not speak its name”. She ferrets out, without actually using the word, some of Canberra’s soul, seeing it in small spaces rather than showy institutions and in, if I read her correctly, the gaps that appear between carefully planned intentions and reality. The third perspective comes from a previous Meanjin editor, Jim Davidson, who, like Clarke and other writers in the issue, starts with the negatives –  “a public service town” etc etc – but suggests that “the city is beginning to acquire a patina”. He argues, rather logically really, that Canberra is still young. Other planned cities, like Washington DC and Istanbul, have got “into their stride” and Canberra probably will too.

These perspectives – and the way they test Canberra’s image against reality – set the tone for the rest of the issue. I’m not going bore you – though the contributions themselves are far from boring – by summarising every piece. There is something here for everyone – and they show that the real Canberra is more than roundabouts and public servants. Dorothy Johnston‘s short story “Mrs B”, though set in Melbourne, reminds us of the hidden world of “massage parlours” and migrant workers, while Geoff Page‘s poem, “The ward is new”, addresses mental illness. Michael Thorley’s poem “Bronzed Aussies” reveres some of Canberra’s (and Australia’s) top poets, AD Hope, David Campbell and Judith Wright, while award-winning novelist Marian Halligan‘s memoir “Constructing a city, Constructing a life” recounts how a move to Canberra for a year or so turned into half a century and still counting. Several pieces describe Canberra’s natural beauty, including Melanie Joosten’s bittersweet short story, “The sky was herding disappointments”. And Alan Gould’s poem “The blether”, pointedly but wittily the last piece in the volume, suggests we could do with less aimless chatter and more of the “sweet unsaid”.

Of course, as this is Canberra, there has to be some politics. I particularly enjoyed Gideon Haigh’s essay, “The Rise and Rise of the Prime Minister”. Looking at the recent development of prime ministerial libraries à la America’s tradition of presidential libraries, he argues that the political landscape is being personalised, resulting in a shift in focus from ideology to leaders and their personalities.

Many of the pieces interested me, and I plan to write separately about one or two of them in future posts, so I’ll end here with architects Gerard O’Connell and Nugroho Utomo. In their essay “Canberra LAB – a mythical biography; or the art of showing up”, they say:

One has to understand that Canberra is a dream. It doesn’t exist. It is an ideal unrealised. A half-finished work on the way to becoming a masterpiece.

I like that. Meanjin has compiled an anthology that shows, as contributor Yolande Norris puts it, how “rich and strange” Canberra’s history is. It’s hard for me to be objective, but I’d say this volume has enough variety and good writing to appeal to a wide range of readers – whether or not they know or care about Canberra.

Meanjin, Vol 72 No.1 (Autumn 2013); or,
Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
191pp.
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)