Monday musings on Australian literature: Musician’s memoirs

Book coverI had been toying with a different topic for today’s post, but Brian’s (Babbling Books) comment on my post on Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir, Piano lessons, sent me off in a different direction. Brian said that he was “interested in the lives of artists”, that “there is something about the subject that is inherently fascinating”. He also said that he’s attracted to “both fictional and non fictional accounts”.

I related to all of that, and I suspect that many readers here do too. One of the reasons I read is to learn about – and experience vicariously – the lives of others, and the lives of artists are among those that most fascinate me. I am fascinated and impressed by the combination of passion, dedication and talent that enable them to do what they do. For this reason, I love reading about writers, but in this post I’m talking about another group I love to read about, musicians. And although, like Brian, I’m happy to read both fiction and non-fiction, I’m focusing here on memoirs.

However, there are many, many musician’s memoirs out there. They cover the whole gamut of music – rock, folk, classical, and so on – and different types of musicians, from performers, and composers, to composer-performers like singer-songwriters. During my research, I came across an article in beat.com.au discussing two memoirs by two members of the band The Smiths. The article starts:

The musician’s memoir is a salacious sanctity in which readers are afforded a rare, fly-on-the-wall type glimpse at debaucheries, creative methods and inner-workings to which they wouldn’t be otherwise privy, and no matter the author’s prowess for prose, there is usually much to be learnt between the pages.

Here is my problem. I’m not particularly interested in salaciousness (even if in a sanctity!) or debaucheries. Indeed, these are among the reasons I tend to be hesitant about memoirs in general, but I am interested in those memoirs which explore being an artist, or which tackle the musical and/or other challenges an artist has faced. The books I’m sharing below do, I believe, offer these learnings and insights. They are just a selection – a diverse one in form, approach and content – of those that have been published in the last decade or so.

Emma Ayres, CadenceEmma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music – A memoir (2014) (my review): Classical music string player and broadcaster Ayres wrote this travel memoir about her year-long bicycle journey from England to Hong Kong, accompanied by her violin. Like all good travel memoirs it is about more than travel, meaning in her case that it includes her childhood, her reflections on her life as a musician, her analyses of classical music, and gender identity and how it played out during her travels. She also talks about playing music along the way, and how it brings people together.

Jimmy Barnes, Working class boy: A memoir of running away (2016): You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t gravitate to rock musician memoirs, so I haven’t read Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes’ memoir. However, I’m including it here because it isn’t apparently your traditional celebrity memoir, and, in fact, finishes before Barnes makes it big with Cold Chisel. It is about his difficult childhood and the neglect, violence and abuse suffered by him and his siblings. It could be a misery memoir, but I believe it is more than that.

Andrew Ford, The memory of music (2017): Ford is well-known to many Australians as the presenter, since 1995, of Radio National’s weekly program, The Music Show, but he is also a classical music composer. Publisher Black Inc says that Ford “takes us from his childhood obsession with the Beatles to his passion for Beethoven, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Stockhausen and Birtwistle, and to his work as a composer, choral conductor, concert promoter, critic, university teacher and radio presenter”. They also say, and here’s what interests me, that it is “more than a wonderful memoir – it also explores the nature and purpose of music.” The smh’s review of the book provides a good overview.

Anna Goldsworthy, Piano lessons (2009): The book that inspired this post, this takes the form of a musician’s coming-of-age memoir, telling of the author’s years of learning music, from the age of 9 to becoming a concert pianist and professional musician by her early to mid 20s. There is much to learn here about hard work and talent, about the role of exams and competitions, about dedicating one’s life to a passion, and, also, about what the arts mean.

Maureen and Leora O’Carroll, Maureen O’Carroll: Musical memoir of an Irish immigrant childhood (2019): This is the left-field addition to my list for a couple of reasons: it was self-published, and was written by Maureen’s daughter who posthumously credited her mother as co-author. I haven’t heard of Carroll, but, according to a review, she was “an acclaimed cellist, who played in the Sydney, New Orleans and Seattle Symphony Orchestras, the New Zealand National Orchestra and others”. She also played for Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra, not to mention singer Dame Joan Sutherland and composer Aaron Copeland. However, this memoir covers much more, including her Catholic Depression-era childhood in Sydney.

Book coverArchie Roach, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music (2019): Now, this book by Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter, guitarist, and activist, Roach, is one I should read in July for Lisa (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Reading Week. Roach’s significance in the Australian music scene can be exemplified by the fact that one of his most famous songs, “Took the children away”, was written long before the term “stolen generations” was common parlance for Australians. It has become one of the anthems of that part of our history. Roach’s memoir, is, I gather, as much about his life – and thus works as a consciousness-raising book for Australians about indigenous people’s lives – as it is about his music, though music is and has always been, an integral part of his life.

So, there are musicians here who had comfortable childhoods, and those who didn’t; there are immigrant musicians and a First Australian; there are classical musicians, rock musicians, and alternative rock/folk/protest musicians; and there’s a travel memoir, a self-published one, and some that verge on the “misery memoir”. All, though, are by musicians passionate about what they do. I’ve stopped at six, but others  include Clare Bowditch Your own kind of girl; Peter Garrett’s Blue sky; Chrissie Hynd’s Reckless; Paul Kelly’s How to make gravy; Linda Neil’s All is given: A memoir in songs (my review); Tim Rogers’ Detours; and John Paul Young’s JPY: The autobiography.

Have you read any of these, or, do you have any favourite musician memoirs to share with us?

Nadia Wheatley in conversation with Marion Halligan

Nadia Wheatley, Marion Halligan,

Nadia Wheatley and Marion Halligan, ANU Meet the Author

Nadia Wheatley is, I fear, not as well-known in Australia’s literary firmament as she should be because her credentials are excellent. Not only is there My place (1987) – a wonderful multi-award-winning children’s book about the history of place – but her biography of Charmian Clift, The life and myth of Charmian Clift, has been described by critic Peter Craven as “one of the greatest Australian biographies.” She has appeared here in a Monday Musings list of books recommended by indigenous writers (even though she is not indigenous) for her book, with Ken Searle, The Papunya School book of country and history. And these are just a few of her literary credentials.

All this is to say that when I saw that she was to be a “Meet the author” subject this week at the ANU – on a free night for me, no less – I didn’t hesitate to book. It didn’t hurt, too, that her Conversation partner was to be Marion Halligan (who has appeared here several times, in various guises.)

Now, I don’t want to discuss in detail her latest book – Her mother’s daughter: A memoir – which was the reason for this event, because I have almost finished it and will discuss it in my soon-to-come post, so I’ll just share, briefly, some of the main points from the conversation.

“Caught between an independent woman and a controlling man”

The book’s title suggests that the book is Wheatley’s memoir of her life with her mother (Nina, familiarly called Neen.) However, this is only part of the story. The book is, in fact, like a few I’ve read recently, a sort of hybrid biography-memoir, because it is as much a biography of her mother, who died in 1958 when Nadia was 9, as it is a memoir. Three others I’ve discussed here in recent years are Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. Interestingly, the mothers in all of these books experienced World War 2 in some way, though Wheatley’s mother differs from the other three European-born women in that she was an Australian who went over to work in the war.

Marion Halligan commenced the conversation by commenting that the book was a difficult read, and that it must also have been difficult to write. Wheatley agreed, commenting that people under-estimate children’s ability to suffer, but also their ability to survive…

… and both suffer and survive, Wheatley did. She was caught, she said, “between an independent woman and a controlling man”, but that was only the half of it. She wasn’t helped by a family which – only partly because it was the 1950s – did not feel the need to tell Wheatley what had really happened to her mother, resulting in the young Nadia hoping (if not totally believing), for some years, that one day her mother would return. She was abandoned by her father, whom she described as “a strange, sadistic person.” The family dynamics are complex, and I’ll discuss some of them a little more in my post on the book.

I will say, however, that the underlying biographer’s question for Nadia in writing the book was:

Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?

Because, awful he was … though not, it seems, to Neen in the early years of their relationship when they were working for/with refugees and displaced persons in post-war Europe!

What lifts this book above what could so easily have been a misery memoir is that it also works as social history of an era – of life in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, and of the work Australian nurses did during and after the Second World War. The pictures Wheatley draws of the joys (yes) and challenges of the War for Nina are vivid, and ring true. Nina was a truly independent woman, despite the demands home and family exerted on unmarried “girls” at the time. The pictures Wheatley then draws of Nina post-marriage are, consequently, even more devastating – because of the gap between what could (should) have been and what was. Nina’s dire situation was compounded by the confluence of a controlling, sadistic husband and a time, the 1950s, when women had little agency in the face of such a situation. Even so, Nina did her best …

At one point during the conversation, Wheatley made the interesting – and obvious, if you know their stories – point that there are some parallels between her and her mother’s stories. Both were motherless from a young age, and both became involved in social justice action. There was discussion in fact about how her mother’s work with refugees is relevant to today’s refugee situation. Nina worked for the short-lived UNRRA and was involved in the early definition of just what a refugee is and in the practice of placing them.

Telling the story

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn the Q&A, I asked Wheatley about the structure she chose to use in the book, about the fact that while is it generally chronological, she inserts herself into this chronology at times when she herself wouldn’t have been alive. For example, she describes the young Nadia asking her mother about a photo in an album. This enables us to see Nadia’s interest in her mother’s story, her reaction to her mother’s story, and her mother’s later reaction to the events in her life, at least in terms of how she wants to present them to Nadia. From the reader’s point of view, it makes reading this book far more engaging.

Wheatley answered that felt she needed to be in there “on the quest”, and referred us to AJA Simon’s biography A quest for Corvo: An experiment in biography, as one of her inspirations. She wanted the book to be her journey of discovery – “to have the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story” – rather than just be a presentation of the evidence. Again, I will talk more about this in my post, but Wheatley did share some of the stories about how she went about this unravelling. I like this approach to non-fiction, not only because it’s usually engaging, but because it can strengthen the authority or integrity of the work.

There was more to the conversation – but some of it, as I’ve already said, will come out in my post, and some of it is best left for you to read yourselves in the book. I mustn’t give it all away!

Vote of thanks

To conclude, MC Colin Steele introduced The Canberra Times’ past – and, distressingly, to date, last – literary editor, Gia Metherell, to give the vote of thanks. In doing so, she said that Wheatley’s book shows why childhood biographies can be so potent. She quoted the late Australian critic Geraldine Pascall* (I think) who said that Australian writers write more often and more potently about their childhood than anyone else, besides English and French writers. What an interesting thought on which to end a thoroughly engaging conversation.

* Gia Metherell clarifies this in the comments below saying that it wasn’t Geraldine Pascall to whom she was referring but English academic Roy Pascal. However, on checking later, she realised she had misremembered and it was Richard Coe, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Australian: Childhood, Literature and Myth”, Southerly, 41, no. 2, 1981. Thanks Gia.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
8 October 2018

Vale Jill Ker Conway

Jill Ker Conway, The road from CoorainJust before Mr Gums and I set off for our Arnhem Land holiday in early July, I came across an obituary for the Australian-born academic, educator and writer Jill Ker Conway (1934-2018). She had died on June 1, but I hadn’t heard. Why not? Her first memoir, The road from Coorain, was a best-seller, and I think her second one, True north, was also well received. I’ve read, and enjoyed, them both, but long, long before blogging. Her final memoir, A woman’s education, a slimmer volume, is on my TBR.

Those who know Jill Ker Conway will know why her passing didn’t make big news here. It’s because she made her name in the USA … added to which she was a woman. Or, am I being too paranoid?

So, who was Jill Ker Conway? Well, for a start she was born on a sheep station her parents named Coorain (Aboriginal for “windy place”) in outback New South Wales. Although more often hot, dry and dusty than not, Ker Conway loved it, as she shares in her first memoir.

Now, though, I’ll quickly summarise her career. She was, says Wikipedia, “an Australian-American scholar and author”. She was “well-known” for her autobiographies/memoirs, particularly for The Road from Coorain, but she also made history by becoming the prestigious Smith College‘s first woman president (1975-1985). She made history, of course, because she was its first woman president, but it’s fascinating to me that she was also Australian. She was 40 when appointed to this role, and in her first year was named Time magazine’s “woman of the year”. That’s impressive.

She was, later, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2004, she was named a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project, and in 2013 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. She was, in other words, a bit of a mover-and-shaker!

I have, though, exaggerated the lack of news of her death here. There were some reports, including two in The Sydney Morning Herald. To give you a sense of how she was viewed, here are some of the titles of her obituaries:

Did you notice the odd one out? Yes, the SMH Business section report which identifies her as “chairman and trailblazer”. Chairman? Apparently, in addition to being an educator, academic, author and historian, she was a “business woman”. She was, in fact, “the first female chairman of global property group, Lendlease”. The Sydney Morning Herald says of her business career:

Dr Conway served on the boards of businesses including Merrill Lynch, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive and Lendlease. She was also a former chairman of the American Antiquarian Society.

In 2000 she was appointed as chair of Lendlease at a time when the company needed a firm hand.

Interesting woman eh? For an excellent obituary, do read the SMH National Section one.

She was also one of that wave of Australian intellectuals who left our shores in the 1960s and never really returned, mostly because of the stultifying academic lives they found here. Others included Germaine Greer (1939-), Robert Hughes (1938-2012), Clive James (1939-), not to mention writers like Randolph Stow (1935-2010). They went to England, while Ker Conway made the USA her home.

Ker Conway chronicles exactly why she left Australia in her first two autobiographies/memoirs. It was because she was regularly overlooked for significant jobs – or any job – in favour of men, and because she could not find the sort of intellectual enquiry she sought. Here she is, near the end of The road from Coorain, describing Sydney’s academic circles around 1959, and the group she thought most interesting because they were “iconoclasts, cultural rebels, and radical critics of Australian society”:

When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others. I didn’t know then that I was encountering the standard Australian left view of women, but I could see that the so-called sexual revolution had asymmetrical results.

By the end of True north, she had her Harvard degree in history, and was living with her husband in Toronto when the Smith College job came up. She writes:

I’d been pushed out of Australia by family circumstances [all chronicled in the first memoir], the experience of discrimination, frustration with the culture I was born in. Nothing was pushing me out of this wonderful setting but a cause, and the hope to serve it.

Jill Ker ConwayAnd what was that cause? Well, as she also writes in True north, her main consideration when choosing whether or not to accept Smith College’s offer was “where my work would have the greatest impact on women’s education”. That “impact”, she explains, was not just about numbers. It was about proving that a woman’s institution was not only valid but valid and relevant in a modern world, and about the potential for making it “an intellectual centre for research on women’s lives and women’s issues, research that could have influence far beyond Smith’s lyrical New England campus”. She was there for 10 years, and made her mark.

Ker Conway was, then, a significant woman whose achievements I’ve only touched on. Check the Wikipedia article linked above for more, including a list of her books. Meanwhile, I’m ending with her final words in The road from Coorain, as she’s departing Australia:

Where I wondered would by bones come to rest? It pained me to think of them not fertilising Australian soil. Then I comforted myself with the notion that wherever on the earth was my final resting place, my body would return to the restless red dust of the western plains. I could see how it would blow about and get in people’s eyes, and I was content with that.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s (National section) obituary concludes:

Her love for her two worlds was reflected in her final wishes. Half her ashes will rest in a small private cemetery with John’s, near their beloved house and garden in Massachusetts. The other half are to be scattered by the big tree beside the roadway into the house at Coorain.

How good is that?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian ghostwriters

John Friedrich, Codename IagoIf you’ve read my blog recently, you’ll know exactly what inspired this post. Yes, Richard Flanagan’s novel First person (my review), which was inspired by his experience of ghostwriting Australian fraudster John Friedrich’s memoir. The book was called Codename Iago.

You probably all know what a ghostwriter is, but just to make sure, here’s the definition from the editors4you blog:

A ghostwriter is a writer who writes books, stories, blogs, magazine articles, or any other written content that will officially be attributed to another person – the credited author.

So, how much do you know about Australia’s ghost-writers? Did you know, for example, that crime-fiction bestseller Michael Robotham once made his living as a ghostwriter, or that published author Libby Harkness currently spends more time on ghostwriting than her “own” writing? Did you know that Anh Do’s best-selling memoir started out with a ghostwritten manuscript? Or that the two biographies of Hazel Hawke, Hazel: My mother’s story and Hazel’s journey, were written by her daughter, Sue Pieters-Hawke, with the assistance of ghostwriter Hazel Flynn. As I started to delve into this shadowy – ghostly, let us say – area, I uncovered a fascinating world of professional writers who help people who have stories to tell to, well, tell them.

My focus here is Australia, for obvious reasons, but I’ll be including information from further afield, starting with an article in The Guardian from 2014. Titled “Bestselling ghostwriter reveals the secret world of the author for hire”, it’s about English ghostwriter Andrew Crofts who at the time had written 80 titles over 40 years, and sold some 10 million copies, but mostly under “more famous names”. The article, which you can read at the link, names many of them. That year, he published his “own” book, Confessions of a ghostwriter.

Rober McCrum, the author of The Guardian article, says that the term

was coined by an American, Christy Walsh, who set up the Christy Walsh Syndicate in 1921 to exploit the literary output of America’s sporting heroes. Walsh not only commissioned his ghosts, he imposed a strict code of conduct on their pallid lives. Rule one: “Don’t insult the intelligence of the public by claiming these men write their own stuff.”

American ghostwriter David Kohn was interviewed by the ABC Book Show in 2009. He said it suited introverts like him. He doesn’t have to go to book signings or do promotional tours!

Not just memoirs

McCrum notes, as we probably would all guess, that the types of works best known for being ghostwritten are the “misery memoir, sporting lives and celebrity autobiography”. We have examples of all of these in Australia.

Jelena Dokic, UnbreakableSporting lives, for example, to pluck out just a few Australian examples, include footballer Wayne Carey’s The truth hurts, which was cowritten with Charles Happell who is credited on the cover; cricketer Brad Haddin’s My family’s keeper which Hazel Flynn “helped” write though she is not on the cover; and tennis player Jelena Dokic’s Unbeatable (my report) which was cowritten with Jessica Halloran who is credited on the cover.

However, another area well known for being ghostwritten are the “how-to” books, including cookbooks. Google “ghostwritten cookbook” and you’ll find articles galore. And, apparently, as I found on a comprehensive American website on ghost-writing, medical ghostwriting is a big thing. I also found references to ghostwriters doing fiction, too. Fascinating, eh?

Crediting ghostwriters

Sue Pieters-Hawke, Hazel's Journey

Hazel Flynn credited on the cover

Not all ghostwriters are credited. Some appear on title pages, or even on covers, and some might be mentioned in acknowledgements (as happened with Anh Do’s book), but others are not mentioned at all. Where credited, their names are usually preceded by “and” or “with” or “as told to” (with the ghostwriter’s name less prominent to indicate the “lesser” role). As the editors4you blog says, credit depends on the nature of the ghostwriter’s contract with their client. They note that the client can ask the ghostwriter to sign a nondisclosure contract forbidding them from revealing their role. This is fair enough I suppose. It’s a fee-for-service business deal. However, as a reader, I’m another sort of client of that service, and I’m not sure I like the idea that I don’t know who really wrote, or contributed significantly, to the work I’m reading.

Reading around the ‘net, I found, not surprisingly, quite a bit of sensitivity about this issue. Read, for example, this article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks. There’s sure to be ego involved, but also, just plain lack of clarity.

Finally, some Australian ghostwriters

Here are three of Australia’s “top ghostwriters”, from the 16 in this article):

  • Michael Collins has had various jobs, including undercover cop and photo-journalist before turning to full-time writing around 20 years ago. He has written in several genres, he writes on his blog, including self-help, fiction, biographies and memoirs, though I’m not sure whether all these are ghostwritten. One of his recent books is Carolyn Wilkinson’s Blood on the wire about prison escapee Daniel Heiss.
  • Libby Harkness has been ghostwriting in several non-fiction areas since 1992, and in 2013 was a guest at the first international ghostwriters conference in California, as she writes in this blog post for the NSW Writers Centre. Her most recent book, for which she is credited on the book’s cover, is Simon Gillard’s Life sentence: a policy officer’s battle with PTSD.
  • John Harman is English-born but West Australian-based now it seems. He has written crime fiction, television and film scripts as himself. However, ghostwriting is a major part of his work. On his website, he says that he has ghostwritten “a number of books, from popular romantic fiction to corporate histories, biographies and autobiographies.” His most recent ghostwritten book is Arthur Bancroft’s WW2 memoir, Arthur’s war, on which Harman is identified on the cover.

Many of the ghostwritten books I found were published by the big publishers like Allen & Unwin, HarperCollins, and Penguin, indicating it’s a well-entrenched segment of the industry.

Are you aware of having read ghostwritten books? Does it matter to you whether the book you read has been ghostwritten or not – and do you like to know?

Unbreakable: Conversation with Jelena Dokic

Louise Maher and Jelena DokicIf you are a fan of professional tennis you will probably have heard of Jelena Dokic who hit the world stage during the 1999 Wimbledon Championships. She was just 16 years old, and, as Wikipedia writes, “achieved one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, beating Martina Hingis 6-2, 6-0. This remains the only time the women’s world No. 1 has ever lost to a qualifier at Wimbledon.” If you were an Australian tennis fan this was very exciting – or should have been. Unfortunately for Croatian-born Dokic, her tennis trajectory was one dogged by controversy, much of it caused by her abusive, controlling father. Her story, which she has documented in her book, Unbreakable, co-written with Jessica Halloran, is a tough one.

An author talk with a sportsperson about a co-written memoir would not necessarily be high priority for me, but if there’s one sport I love, it’s tennis, and Dokic’s story has implications that extend beyond tennis. So, with no competing events on that night, Mr Gums and I decided to go. It was in the form of a conversation between Dokic and local ABC presenter Louise Maher.

Jelena Dokic, UnbreakableThe conversation started with some introductory information. This included that Dokic had reached 4th in the world by the age of 19 years old, and that, due to the Yugoslav wars, she and her family had left Croatia for Serbia when she was 8 years old, and then emigrated to Australia in 1994 when she was 11. By 11 years of age, then, she’d already experienced far more trauma than most her age had experienced. When you add to this the fact that her father – who saw tennis as the opportunity for a good life – started abusing her from the minute he introduced her to tennis when she was 6 years old, you get the picture of a sad and lonely young person. It’s no wonder that the Australian tennis community – fans and players – found it hard to warm to her. No wonder, I say, but that’s no excuse. The failure of duty of care for this young person is clear – and her book has, apparently, got the international tennis world talking.

Now, I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow summary of the conversation, partly because it covered a lot of ground that is covered in the book, as well as in the various stories about her life that you can read on the Internet. Instead, I want to focus on the lessons and messages from the book (well, from what she told us about the book, as I haven’t read it.)

She had a few reasons for writing the book. One was to help others: she hopes by sharing her story, she will increase awareness of abusive parent-child relationships, particularly in sport, and thus help ensure it doesn’t happen to others.

Another reason is a more distressing one, in a way, and that is to enable Australians get to know her better – because the truth is that, due to her father’s abusive control of her, spectators never really got to know her, and as a result, they sometimes gave her a hard time. Some of this was racially or ethnically based – indeed she was told “to go back where you came from” – by several within and without the tennis world. The worst time for her, though, was when her father suddenly withdrew her from Australia, when she was 17 years old, to play for Yugoslavia. Her first major tournament after this was, unfortunately, the Australian Open – and the crowds jeered her. That’s hard enough for any-one, but for a 17-year-old girl who had no say in the matter, who was being abused by her father, it increased her sense of loneliness, of isolation, of having no support.

This issue of having no support is something she repeated several times in the conversation. When Louise Maher pressed her about her mother’s role, Dokic answered that her mother didn’t intervene. She wanted the family to stay together, and trusted her husband knew what he was doing!

Dokic provided various examples of her father’s abusive behaviour towards her, and of her desperation for a little praise that apparently never came (even after significant wins). She finally managed to “escape” home when she was 19-years-old – but life was tough, as she left with nothing, no money, no credit card. This is when, she said, she particularly needed support, but there was none.

I won’t continue, but there are some too-familiar lessons here, particularly the one that I’ll call the “turning a blind-eye syndrome”! There were people, Dokic said, who knew things weren’t right, but they were reluctant to get involved. And the media focussed on her father, enjoying the sensationalism of reporting on his behaviour – “Media thought he was funny, but he wasn’t”, she said. The didn’t pay any attention to what was happening to Dokic, or to the impact of their reporting on her. (I wished, that night, that I’d thought of my question about what she’d have liked the Media to do, before, not after, question-time finished!)

Dokic loved playing tennis, she said, but her father ruined her career. Tennis aficionados will, I’m sure, agree with her. She did look like achieving a come-back in her mid-to-late twenties but injury, illness, and surely the impact of all she’d suffered, meant there wasn’t the fairy-tale ending. Today she does sports commentating, motivational speaking and coaching.

There was a lot lot more – but if you’re interested, read the book!

Meanwhile, there are lessons to be learnt by the media, by spectators, and by tennis organisations about duty of care, particularly when reporting on, watching, or managing young players. What happened to Dokic could not have been completely avoided – its having started at home when she was a beginning 6-year old player – but it should not have gone on for as long as it did if people who knew, or even suspected, things were amiss, did something about it. I do hope this book has the effect that Dokic would like.

(Oh, and sitting next to me at this event was one of the ACT Litbloggers, the lovely Angharad of Tinted Edges. I look forward to seeing her post on it.)

 

Carmel Bird (ed), The stolen children: Their stories (#BookReview)

Carmel Bird, The stolen childrenCommenting on my post on Telling indigenous Australian stories, Australian author Carmel Bird mentioned her 1998 book The stolen children, describing it as her contribution “to the spreading of indigenous stories through the wider Australian culture”. It contains stories told to, and contained in the report of, the National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (Bringing them home)*. She offered to send me a copy, and of course I accepted (despite having read much about the Report at the time.)

Bird said in her comment that the book is “still regularly used in schools”. This is excellent to hear because it contains a history that needs to be told – forever, alongside all those other histories taught to Australian students. It needs to be as well (if not better) known by our students as the story of The Gold Rush or Our Explorers. We need to know it, we need, as a nation, to know our dark side, our failures, as well as our big adventures and achievements.

What makes this book particularly useful is Carmel Bird’s curation of it – and I would call what she’s done “curation” because of the complexity and variety of the writings she has gathered and organised. Bird has structured the book carefully to tell a story, with introductory front matter (including a preface from Ronald Wilson the National Committee’s prime commissioner); the Stories themselves; Perspectives from people at the time, including Hansard excerpts from politicians at the tabling of the Report; the Report’s Recommendations; and end matter comprising an Afterword from historian Henry Reynolds and a poem titled “Sorry” by Millicent whose story appears in the Stories section. Bird’s curation also  includes providing introductions to each of the stories to draw out important issues or points about that person’s situation, and adding other explanatory notes where appropriate.

This careful curation ensures that the book contains all the content and context it needs to stand alone as a resource for anyone interested in the Stolen Generations.

“It made no sense”

In her story, Donna says “It made no sense”. She’s describing her train trip away from her mother in the company of a white woman, a train trip she’d been initially excited about, thinking it was to be a family trip. However, with her mother staying behind on the platform and her brothers disappearing one by one as the journey went on, it just made no sense to her.

None of the stories make sense. And they are all heart-rending. Some children were given up willingly by their mothers, who believed it would result in better opportunities, and some, most, were stolen, often suddenly, with no explanation. Some were newborn, some pre-school or primary school-age, while others were 12 years old or more. Some found themselves in loving foster homes, but many found themselves in institutions and/or abusive situations. All, though, and this is the important thing, suffered extreme loss. They lost family and they lost language and culture. Fiona, for example, who will not criticise the missionaries who cared for her, says, on reconnecting with her family thirty-two years later:

I couldn’t communicate with my family because I had no way of communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away, we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone.

Fiona also makes the point, as do several others, about the treatment of the mothers:

We talk about it from the point of view of our trauma but – our mother – to understand what she went through, I don’t think anyone can understand that.

The mothers, she said, “weren’t treated as people having feelings”.

The stories continue, telling of pain, pain and more pain. Murray says “we didn’t deserve life sentences, a sentence I still serve today”, and John talks of being a prisoner from when he was born. “Even today,” he writes, “they have our file number so we’re still prisoners you know. And we’ll always be prisoners while our files are in archives”. This is something that I, as a librarian/archivist, had not considered.

But, there’s more that makes no sense, and that’s the government of the time’s refusal to apologise, to satisfy, in fact, Recommendations 3 and 5a of the Report. This issue is covered in the Perspectives section, with extracts from speeches made by the then Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister for Aboriginal Torres Straight Islander Affairs Senator Herron who argue against making an apology, and from the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley, who made their own apologies. Crowley also says:

If ever there were a report to break the hearts of people, it is this one.

The Perspectives section also includes other commentary on the Report and the apology. There’s a letter to the editor from the son of a policeman who cried about his role in taking children away from “loving mothers and fathers”, and one from La Trobe Professor of History Marilyn Lake contesting the historical rationale for the practice of forcible removal. She argues that there had never been “consensus [about] the policy of child removal”. There’s also a long two-part article published in newspapers that year, from public intellectual Robert Manne. He picks apart the argument against making an apology, noting in particular Howard’s refusal to accept that present generations should be accountable or responsible for the actions of earlier ones. Manne differentiates between our role as individuals and as members of a nation:

we are all deeply implicated in the history of our nation. It is not as individuals but as members of the nation, the “imagined” community, that the present generation has indeed inherited a responsibility for this country’s past.

In the event, of course, an apology was made, finally, in February 2008, by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This, however, does not mitigate the value of Bird’s book. It has value, first, as documenting our history and the voices of those involved – indigenous people, politicians and commentators. And second, it contains thoughts and ideas that we still need to know and think about, not only for historical reasons, but because in the twenty years since the Report we have not made enough progress along the reconciliation path. It is shameful.

I loved Carmel Bird’s introduction. It’s both passionate and considered, and clearly lays out why she wanted to do this book. I’ll conclude with her words:

I think that perhaps imagination is one of the most important and powerful factors in the necessary process of reconciliation. If white Australian can begin to imagine what life has been like for many indigenous Australians over the last two-hundred years, they will have begun to understand and will be compelled to act. If we read these stories how can we not be shocked and moved …

“There can,” she says, “be no disbelief; these are true stories.” This is why the stolen generations should be a compulsory part of Australian history curricula (Recommendation 8a). It’s also why, to progress reconciliation, we should keep reading and listening to indigenous Australians. Only they know what they need.

aww2017 badgeCarmel Bird (ed)
The stolen children: Their stories
North Sydney: Random House, 1998
188pp.
ISBN: 9780091836894

(Review copy courtesy Carmel Bird)

* For non-Australians who may not know this Enquiry, its first term of reference was to “trace the past laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices and policies”. You can read the full Report online.

Who me?: Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture

One of the best parts of living in Canberra – and there are many best parts, despite what the politicians and media seem to say! – is that we have the National Library of Australia. It presents many literary events each year, to which I only ever manage to make a few. Some of them I’ve written about here, some not – but I am going to share the latest, Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture.

Robert Drewe, Shark netThe Seymour Biography Lecture, endowed by the Seymours in 2005, is an annual lecture devoted to life writing. The inaugural lecture was given by one of Australia’s most respected biographers, Brenda Niall. Later speakers have included Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska. Initially hosted by the Humanities Research Centre‘s Biography Institute, it was transferred to the National Library in 2010. When I saw that Robert Drewe was to give this year’s lecture, I had to go. While I haven’t reviewed Drewe here yet, I have mentioned him a few times, and have read some of his work in the past. He has written novels, short stories, essays and memoir. The shark net, his first memoir, was adapted to a well-regarded miniseries in 2003, and his second, Montebello, was published in 2012. (I mentioned these in my recent Monday Musings on literary autobiographies.)

The lecture will I’m sure, like those before it, be made available via the Seymour Biography page (link above), but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me.

Memoir, or autobiography?

Drewe talked about how memoir is viewed, the fact that some see it as self-absorption or as narcissistic, about revenge or self-justification. He quoted American critic William Gass (author of Autobiography in the age of narcissism) who attacked memoir for being about self-absorption. Gass ridiculed the genre: “Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy!” Hmm, I have friends who don’t like memoir for this very reason.

Drewe gave a brief history of memoir – particularly memoir as confession, or redemption – through the writings of St. Augustine who made memoir, he said, an interior exercise, and Rousseau who moved the confession or memoir into the literary arena. He told us that Patrick White described his Flaws in the glass as not a memoir but a “self-portrait in sketches”! Flaws, Drewe said, is regularly criticised. English critic, Richard Davenport-Hines, for example, wrote that White’s “spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s”.

Memoirs, Drewe said – looking at works like St Augustine’s – predated autobiographies. He defined the two forms as follows: memoirs are written from a life, while autobiographies are of a life. The change in preposition here is significant. As Gore Vidal would describe it, memoirs are about memory, while autobiography and biography are about history. In a memoir, a writer can take a memory and describe or expand it to tell a story about his/her life or experiences. Facts can be played with in order to find the emotional truths. Autobiography on the other hand – despite George Bernard Shaw’s “All autobiographies are lies… deliberate lies” – are expected to be factual.

Drewe told us that Sigmund Freud, when asked to write about his life, refused, arguing that it would be a reckless project. To tell his complete life would require so much discretion, it would be an exercise in mendacity. No wonder that, as Drewe told us, 99% of memoirists wait until their parents have died. Oh dear! I do hope my writing-oriented children are among this 99%! We did our best!

All this might sound dry and boring, but Drewe’s presentation was entertaining. He told us that when he thinks of autobiography he thinks of Father’s Day – and sports (particularly cricket) and political autobiographies. He regaled us with the punning titles of cricket autobiographies, such as At the close of playOver to meTime to declare (two in fact); Over but not out; and No boundaries. 

Before we had a chance to call him sexist, Drewe said that Mother’s Day made him think of WOTOs, that is, Women Overcoming the Odds, like, you know, widowed women running a cattle station in the outback, or a woman sailing solo around the world or saving an endangered animal!

Drewe returned several times in his talk to the issue of “facts” versus “truths”. He quoted Louise Adler who commissions political autobiographies for Melbourne University Press, including Mark Latham’s The Latham Diaries, Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and Malcolm Fraser’s The Political Memoirs. Politicians have a good memory for insults and slights. Being memoirs, they are not necessarily verifiably factual. However, Adler, Drewe said, argues that their unreliability makes them riveting reading. They may be myopic, partisan, but they deliver riches. Drewe didn’t say this, but I’ll add that this requires a certain level of sophistication in the readers, that is, we readers need to understand the memoir genre and read with that understanding. I have no problem with that!

There is, however, what he called “the veracity squad”. These include the righteous readers or burgeoning historians – his descriptions – who are pedantic about facts. They don’t believe, for example, that you can remember dialogue from a family Christmas dinner twenty years ago and so they discount works that include such content. They wouldn’t approve, also, of crafting a particular person into a standout character.

Around here, Drewe referred to his first memoir, The shark net. He said he decided not to focus on the ego, but on the serial murderer with whom his family had contact, Eric Edgar Cooke. It’s basically factual he said, but he did imagine a couple of scenes – that is, he “fictionalized fact” – because he wanted to show Cooke as a human being.

I recently posted a review of Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen. She tells us, in the Epilogue, that she’d initially written the story as a novel but her editor, I believe, suggested it would be better as a memoir. Drewe said in his lecture that “some stories are best kept true, some best as fiction”. The challenge is to decide which form is best. Some writers don’t make the right decision and find themselves in a literary furore, such as Norma Khouri with her fake memoir, Forbidden love. A more complex situation is Helen Demidenko with her fiction, The hand that signed the paper, which she falsely claimed was autobiographical. What both these writers failed to realise is that the first rule of memoir is that you shouldn’t lie!

Memoirs named by Drewe

During his lecture, Drewe identified a number of memoirs, some of which I’ll share as we all like lists:

Top selling Australian memoirs

  • Clive James, Unreliable memoirs
  • Albert Facey, A fortunate life
  • Errol Flynn, My wicked, wicked ways

Other memoirs

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, memory (in my TBR)
  • Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (read before blogging)
  • Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (read before blogging)
  • Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl (read before blogging)
  • Sally Morgan’s My place (read before blogging)

So …

Towards the end of the lecture, Drewe referred to an article titled “Reflection and retrospection” by American critic Phillip Lopate. It commences:

In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.

Makes sense to me …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary autobiographies

I’ve written Monday Musings on autobiographies and memoirs by indigenous Australians, and I’ve reviewed biographies of Australian writers, like Mary Durack and Madeleine St John. However, I haven’t written about what we might call literary autobiographies, that is, autobiographies by authors. So, today’s the day. I have read several literary autobiographies, but few since I started blogging. Being a reader, I’m interested in writers’ autobiographies or memoirs – because I’m interested in writers, and because, rightly or wrongly, I expect a good writer to be able to write a good autobiography (however we define “good”!)  There are, as I’m sure you know some famous/popular/well-regarded author autobiographies, such as Nabokov’s Speak, memory, but of course here I’m focussing on Australians.

I’m not going to get into the why and wherefores of writing autobiography or analyse how useful or relevant they might be to understanding a particular writer’s works.I’m just going to list – alphabetically by author – a few that I’ve either read, dipped into, or would like to read.

Robert Drewe’s The shark net (2000) and Montebello: A memoir (2012). I haven’t read The shark net, though it’s on my TBR. However, I did see the 2003 television miniseries. For those of you who don’t know, this is quite different to the usual writer’s growing up story. Drewe grew up in Perth in the 1950s and 1960s when the serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was creating havoc with the locals’ sense of security. “The murders immediately changed the spirit of the place”, he writes. Drewe knew this man, and knew one of his victims. He wrote this memoir “to try to make sense of this time and place”. I haven’t heard much about Montebello, but Drewe is a significant Australian writer.

David Malouf reading Ransom

Malouf reading Ransom, National Library of Australia, August 2009

David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone St (1985) is a very short book, running to just 134 pages. 12 Edmonstone Street is the address of the Brisbane house he grew up in, but this is not your typical autobiography starting with “I was born in …”. Instead, it discusses selected places in his life, starting with that childhood home. I enjoyed his description of that home, of its weatherboard construction with verandahs. His father, he writes, wanted something more modern, something permanent, like brick.

As for verandahs. Well, their evocation of the raised tent flap gives the game away completely. They are a formal confession that you are just one step up from nomads.

So of course, as soon as he could, he closed it in.

This is a thoughtful, meditative – Malouf-like – book.

Ruth Park’s A fence around the cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993) are more traditional autobiographies, but they are not ordinary. I read them both when they came out and loved them – as much as I loved Park’s books, like her Harp in the South trilogy. A fence around the cuckoo won the Age Book of the Year Non-fiction Award in 1992.

Together, the two books are great reads about life in New Zealand and Australia in the early to mid twentieth century. They also provide wonderful insight into the writer she was to become, and tell the story of one of Australia’s most famous literary couples, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland. Here she is on an early contact with Niland (when she was still in New Zealand and he in Australia). He sent, she writes

a stately and respectful letter, carefully written in the sender’s amazing handwriting, and really got up my nose. The writer seemed to think I was some powerful editorial person, capable of assisting him to sell his stories in New Zealand. … I banged off a letter on my three-decker monster, saying that I was but a lowly copyholder with no efficacy or charisma whatsoever, and if he offered to sell my stories in Australia it might be more to the point. Reading his letter now, it is a marvel that the future father of my children did not take a terminal huff and go off and father someone else’s. However, he was choked off for months, much to my relief.

Hal Porter’s The watcher on the cast-iron balcony (1963) is the first of several memoirs written by Porter. It is regarded as an Australian classic, and covers his growing up years. Porter, however, has a reputation for an interest in paedophilia, which has resulted in some different “readings” of this book. Not having read it or any of Porter’s work, I’m afraid I can’t comment.

Patrick White’s Flaws in the glass (1981) is on my TBR. I dip into it frequently when I’m thinking about White, but have not managed to find time to read it from cover to cover. I should though, because every time I dip into it, I find something well worth my dip! For example, he comments frequently on his homosexuality, reflecting particularly on what it means for him and his art. Here is one:

Indeed, ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, who are unequivocally male or female – and Professor Leonie Kramer*. I would not trade my halfway house, frail though it be, for any of the entrenchments of those who like to think themselves unequivocal.

[…]

Where I have gone wrong in life is in believing that total sincerity is compatible with human intercourse. Manoly [White’s longterm partner], I think, believes that sincerity must yield to circumstance, without necessarily becoming tainted with cynicism. His sense of reality is governed by a pureness of heart which I lack. My pursuit of that razor-bald truth has made me a slasher.

The New York Times Book Review is quoted on my back cover saying that it is “as absorbing an autobiography as has been written by a novelist this century”. Oh dear, I really should read it. Wish I could emulate Stefanie of So Many Books who consistently has five, six or more books simultaneously on the go.

* An Australian academic whom White disdained and called “Killer Kramer”. This singling out of her here is typical of White’s bite.

 

Do you have favourite literary autobiographies?

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only the swallows were free (Review)

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only swallows were free

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Do you differentiate memoir from autobiography? I do. For me, a memoir, such as Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, deals with a specific aspect of a person’s life, such as a sportsman writing about his career when he retires from it or a person writing about her growing up, like, say, Alice Pung‘s Unpolished gem. An autobiography, on the other hand, I see as something more holistic, something written near the end of one’s life and summing up its entirety. What do you think?

Gabrielle Gouch was born in Transylvania, Romania to parents who’d both fled anti-Semitic Hungary. She moved elsewhere in Romania with her family before they emigrated to Israel, without her older half-brother, when she was around 20. A few years later, she emigrated on her own to Australia which has remained her home ever since. This is the basic chronology of her life, but Gouch is not really interested in telling us this story chronologically – and in fact, she’s not really interested in telling us the story of her life. What interests her is the brother, Tom, left behind. She wants to know about his life during and post communism in Romania. She also wants to know about the gaps in her knowledge of the family.

Gouch therefore doesn’t tell the story in a simple chronology. While she clearly signposts where you are as you read, I found it a little disconcerting to start with, until I felt familiar with the places and people she was writing about. This, however, could be due to other things going on in my life as I started this book. The memoir starts in 1990 with her first return to Transylvania after “the collapse of communism. The eternal and invincible communism”. A return that took place 25 years after she had left. As the book progresses, she visits Cluj several times, catching up with her brother, learning about her family. It’s a sad story – not surprisingly. Tom’s mother, the much beloved, vivacious Hella, died in childbirth. His – and eventually Gabrielle’s – father, Stefan, married the nanny, refugee Roza, hired in to look after the physically handicapped Tom. (As far as I can tell, his condition is hemiplegia, probably caused by the forceps birth). Roza and Stefan went on to have two children – Gabrielle and, somewhat later, Yossi – but country girl Roza was never accepted by Stefan’s well-to-do family.

The book proper starts in 1962 with the family expecting permission to migrate to Israel to arrive any minute. Of course, it doesn’t – and it is not until some 40 or so pages and three years later that they are finally able to leave. They leave without Tom, now well into his twenties, but exactly why this is so is not understood by Gouch. During the course of the book she finds out why – and she finds out what Tom’s life was like under the communist regime. It’s a very interesting story, and once you master the time shifts across the book’s seven parts, it’s a very readable one. The very short Part 2, for example, returns to the opening of the book, her return in 1990. Then Part 3 jumps to 2002 and another trip of hers “home”. From then on the focus is her time with Tom and the stories she gradually pieces together.

Gouch is a good writer. Her language is expressive, but not over-done. That is, she has some lovely turns of phrase that capture moments and people well. Here, for example, she describes her family’s reaction when her mother says something surprising:

We looked at her as if she had made her way into our home by the back door somehow, a woman we had never met before.

And I like this simple description of children:

Well, children are like shares, you never know how they will turn out.

There are two main threads in the book, one being life under communism, as experienced by Tom, and the other being the life of the emigrant, as experienced by her family. The book is enlightening for people interested in either of these topics, but I’m going to highlight the second, the emigrant’s life, because she explains it beautifully – from the tough life her parents experienced in Israel to her own experience of dislocation from culture. She writes, as she starts to reconnect with her brother:

Noone ever told me that you cannot turn physical distance into emotional one, you cannot forget your native country, you cannot give up your mother tongue. It deadens you inside.

She gives one of the best descriptions of the relationship of language to culture that I have read. She meets an old professor who had chosen to stay living under the repressive regime because, he said, “This is my native land, my language. I belong here.” She writes:

His words lingered. ‘My native land, my language.’ For most people, the sound of Hungarian is awkward; for me it is poetry and delight. When I say ‘flower’ in English I refer to a plant with petals and colours. But the word in Hungarian, virág, sounds to me melodious and joyful. Yes, you can learn to speak a language, you can even learn to think in a language but will you feel the same joy and sadness at the sound of those words? Feel the black desperation or be uplifted by hope? Will the word love evoke the same tenderness and ardour? I don’t think so.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeGouch also writes about “history”, about the impact on people of living through some of history’s trickiest times, as her family had. Her description of her father’s life – a loving father who had worked hard – is heart-rending:

A man who was a Jew but not Jewish enough, an Israeli but not quite, a Hungarian Jew among Romanians and a Jew among Hungarians. Finally he left this world with its divisive nationalisms, ideologies and religions which had marred most of his life. He was just another man on whom history had inflicted its painful and murderous pursuits: Nazism, the Second World War, the communist dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli religiosity. History had match-made him, history had controlled his life. It was over. He joined the infinite Universe.

I’ve possibly quoted too much, but Gouch’s words are powerful and worth sharing.

“Knowledge”, Gouch’s father once told her, “is your only possession”. Once, only the swallows were free is a story of discovery for Gouch, but for us, it provides a window into a particular place, time and experience that most of us know little about. The knowledge, the understanding, we gain from reading it is a precious thing.

Gabrielle Gouch
Once, only the swallows were free: A memoir
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2013
279pp.
ISBN: 9781921665998

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)

Bill McKibben, Oil and honey (Review)

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

Courtesy: Black Inc

It’s coincidental, but nicely appropriate, that the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published its Provisional Statement on the Status of the Climate in 2013 last week, just as I was finishing US environmental activist Bill McKibben‘s latest book, Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist. It’s likewise coincidental that, three days before WMO’s announcement, Stefanie (of So Many Books) published a post titled Gardening for Climate Change* containing her thoughts on her garden and how climate change might affect it.

WMO’s statement says, among other things, that “During the first nine months of 2013, most of the world’s land areas had above-average temperatures, most notably in Australia, northern North America …”. As you know, I live in Australia; Bill McKibben and Stefanie live in the northern part of the USA. We are seeing (feeling) the changes, and are concerned. What I’m going to say next is pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyhow because I always like to start with the basics in discussions like this. There are two critical issues in the climate change debate: Is the climate changing and, if it is, Is it human-caused? It’s hard to imagine, given all the data available, that there’s anyone out there who really believes the climate is not changing, though I believe there are still some who think it’s simply a case of “climate variability”. These people think that the climate will get back to normal (some year soon, they hope). The trickier issue, however, is the causal one. Most of the deniers are not so much denying that the climate is changing, but that we are causing it. This brings me to Bill McKibben.

McKibben does not, in Oil and honey, spend time trying to prove that humans are causing climate change. For him it’s a given. Rather, he shares how he changed from being an environmentalist, who researched and wrote books, to an environmental activist who campaigns (and writes books). It’s an interesting, clearly written book about one man and his path, but can also be read as a how-to for those who want to get active.

You may now, though, be wondering about the title. Oil and honey? I’m sure there’s an ironic allusion here to the biblical “land of milk and honey” (which we are not heading towards), but there is also a literal meaning to the title. The narrative shifts pretty seamlessly between his two main passions. One is to do with bees, honey and good farming practice. The other is oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and how to stop its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. It’s all related.

You may also be wondering, particularly if you’re not American, who Bill McKibben is. As the blurb on the back of my edition says, he has written over a dozen books including the New York Times bestselling Eaarth and The end of nature. He also founded the environmental organisation 350.org and “was among the first to warn of the dangers of global warming”. Despite all this, he did not until recently see himself as an activist. After graduating, he worked as a journalist for The New Yorker for five years, but quit in 1987 when its long-term editor was forced out of his job. Since then he has been a freelance writer.

Oil and honey is his latest book. I’d call it part-memoir part-manifesto, because it is both the personal story of his transition to full-blown activism and the story of his passion for saving the planet. The personal aspect of the book helps make it a good read. We get to understand his thinking, we feel his anxiety about becoming not only an activist but a leader of activists, and we learn that his activist philosophy is inspired by the non-violent resistance ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We see his love for nature and for working close to the land on the bee-farm he bought for his friend Kirk Webster to run. This farm functions both as respite and as a place for him to see land stewardship working.

That’s the memoir aspect. In the manifesto aspect, he shares with us the development of his ideas and strategies. We learn of various campaigns he has been involved in since 2009, including Step It Up, Keystone XL,  Do the Math. And he explains how he and his co-activists have shifted from focusing on politics and politicians – through such activities as sit-ins at the White House and lobbying politicians – to directly tackling the fossil fuel industry. He came to realise, he says, that the situation was/is becoming so dire there’s no time “for slow graceful cultural evolution”. Consequently, the last part of the book deals with the goal of encouraging educational institutions to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel industries. They’ve targeted educational institutions because students represent a significant percentage of climate change activists. For these students the question is simple:

are you paying for our education by investments in an industry that guarantees we won’t have a planet to make use of that learning?

I’ve only touched the surface of what this book covers. Like many books of its type, chances are that it will only be read by the converted. That’s a bit of a shame, but it’s not useless says McKibben:

You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir, but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal. The choir is there, but most of the time it’s just humming in the background, or singing so many tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.

So, if you’re part of the choir, this book is still for you. And if you’re not, think about joining. It could be the most important thing you do.

Bill McKibben
Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2013
255 pp.
ISBN: 9781863956178

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)

* Stefanie has since posted a link to a British blog called Climate Change Garden.