• 01 Sep 2008 /  Articles

    I meet up with a mate in showbusiness and we head off to the Museum of Contemporary Art where Melbourne University Press (MUP) is launching its new series – Little Books on Big Themes. A  small but fairly illustrious gathering, including one ex-Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and one ex-NSW Premier, Bob Carr; and some of us possibly hived off from MUP’s invite list for the launch of Jim’s Sharman’s autobiography, Blood and Tinsel, from a week before.

    MUP Get's It's Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    MUP Gets Its Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    I had already purchased and read Barrie Kosky’s little book On Ecstasy, and yet again been impressed by the passionate imagination that drives this artist’s work. The other books in the opening series are Blanche d’Albuget On Longing, David Malouf On Experience and Germaine Greer On Rage.

    Almost all the talk since that night has been about Greer’s ‘polemic’, as Bob Carr described it, recommending it as vital reading to ‘every Australian’. I will come back to Greer’s book. But something should be said of the enterprise of M UP’s head honcho, Louise Adler who, with Elisa Berg working more closely on th project, has brought into being this series of beautifully made, easy to read, intellectually stimulating books. There are already four more in the production pipeline.

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    It’s one of those luxurious and rare publishing moments where the bottom line is not everything. Yet so tantalizing are these little books, and so compelling their contents, there’s every chance of a commercial hit as well!

    Barrie Kosky On Ecstasy

    Clearly, Mr Kosky does not need illicit or pharmaceutical drugs to get high. From his earliest years, the world has been a fulsome empire of smells and tastes, and sights and sounds. Here we have an whirling mini-autobiography via the bodily senses – from home-made chicken soup, the Melbourne Grammar sports change room, racks of fur coats, onto discovering Mahler and directing Wagner.

    I am not ashamed to say I did all I could in my time at the Sydney Morning Herald to make Kosky feel welcome, when he arrived in this city with a series of bold productions for theatre and opera. It was more than declaring an admiration for the work, but also acknowledging that Kosky was adding new life to the town. His was a profoundly ‘fecund’ imagination and I wanted to pay tribute to that in itself.

    We did once have a moment of conflict when I could not get him on the phone in Vienna for a story I was writing. Was he putting his own art ahead my journalism? Surely not? I ended up calling him an arrogant  %)(&&%$##$%)))_*&#, or words to that effect; and the next time we saw each other in the street we snubbed each other like all good prima donnas in conflict do. Then came The Lost Echo, all 64 hours of it, and this time I bumped into Barrie outside the theatre. I was in a state of ecstasy! I Barrie asked if I could get down and kiss his feet. He said it was okay, I didn’t have to……kind of forcing my to my knees anyway (just kidding).

    The envious low-life media hack in me was of course hoping On Ecstasy would bring Kosky back to earth. I could wave it around at dinner parties shouting: ‘See he is just like the rest of us!’ How off the mark were my evil fantasies. The book is as virtuosic as it is joyful. Scribbled off in hand, we discovered at the launch, and faxed off to Eliza in ‘fecund’ clumps. I keep using that word’ fecund’ as it was the one used by Adler in her speech to describe what she considered the chief characteristic of Kosky’s mind. Not to be confused with feckin (Irish); though I reckon, if we were to sum up Barrie Kosky’s output so far, we could call it “feckin fecund”…don’t you think?

    Meanwhile, a reading by an author from their own book is a performance in its own right. While Kosky’s reading was hilarious and daring, Blanche D’Albuget’s was mesmerizing.

    Blanche d’Albuget On Longing

    I am yet to read d’Albuget’s book through, but her own reading of the opening paragraphs at the launch was one of the evening’s highlights. I have never read d’Albuget’s biography of Bob Hawke. But I am glad to hear it is being republished (updated) by MUP. Simply on the impact of these few paragraphs below, how could one not be interested in any writing by this woman?

    On Longing begins thus:

    “One fine day a horseman dressed in white, a man whose bulk made him look to heavy to ride, cantered away from a group of other men on horses. Abruptly his rhythm in the saddle broke – as if the ground were shaking, or maybe he was about to collide with something massive but invisible. Heart racing, he rushed on. The unseen thing grabbed him, its shadow eclipsing all that was known.

    “Darkness engulfed the rider.

    “His mount slowed, stopped, and stood still. It seemed concerned not to disturb the human-equine being into which it had transformed, its man-half slumped, life-less arms still clasped round its neck.

    “Across the field all hell broke loose. People screaming; horses galloping, riders shouting and frantic; and ambulance careening towards the stricken centaur.

    “But for the man who had collided with Death there was neither sound nor silence, light nor dark, no hope and no despair. There was Nothing.

    “For six minutes (or seven, since accounts of that day vary) he was ‘clinically dead’. He had suffered pain like a javelin thrust through his chest and iron bands wound so tight round his ribs his lungs could not move….”

    An amazing evocation of a scene!  The ‘centaur’ is Kerry Packer, of course. I am yet to discover where d’Albuget takes us after dropping Packer’s revived body off at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst. But by introducing her essay with Shakespeare’s “I have immortal longings in me” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2), one gets a sense of what lies ahead. Antony and Cleopatra was not only my first Shakespeare, but whole swathes of its voluptious verse came alive to me like nothing I had read before. That particular line has stuck with me through the years.

    Unlike Barrie K, I did not go to Melbourne Grammar. Where I went to school, if you didn’t graduate to pro-Rugby League you most likely went on to become a (corrupt?) copper. But A&C was on the syllabus in fifth form (back then) and it set my mind on fire. Those longings I had lying on my dorm bunk at night were possibly ‘immortal’. And I’m not referring to the guy above (they were just longings); rather, this noton of ‘immortal longings’ conjured up the ‘rest of the world’ I could glimpse as a vista from the top of the main building’s bell tower.

    I have come to believe much theatre is also about ‘immortal longings’, and soothing them.

    I am taking my time with this particular book also because of the way in which it was encouraged into being. D’Albuget stopped writing fifteen years ago, never expecting to pick up a pen again. It was the feisty Louise Adler who guided this wonderful Australian writer back to her desk, and d’Albuget expressed sincere thanks for that. My point being, we could do with more of this – some encourgement. Theatre people included….lol.

    Germaine Greer On Rage

    While it was disconcerting to observe Bob Carr, an avid reader, pass over Kosky’s book On Ecstasy a little too lightly, Carr is to be congratulated for his passionate praise for Greer’s challenging and insightful ‘polemic’ On Rage. Namely the rage she observes eating out the hearts and minds of Aboriginal men.

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    What I want to comment on here is the tsunami of negative responses the book was receiving within 24 hours of its release. Greer anticipated this. What I noticed, with some dismay, was a posse of senior white female journalists who appeared to unite as a vanguard, in unseemly haste, in an effort to bring the book and its writer undone. Writers at The Australian led the way, but there was also a highly tendentious response - ‘Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib Than Lib’ - from Tracee Hutchison in Melbourne’s The Age.

    Below is my riposte, which I publish here since it failed to make it into The Age’s Letters page.

    Dear Editor,

    Why have so many journalists, mostly white women, responded with such viciousness to On Rage, Germaine Greer’s latest attempt to raise an important topic for public debate?

    Especially disturbing are comments by Tracee Hutchison’s in this paper (Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib than Lib, August 16). Her response is to some random remarks made by Greer in a brief television appearance (ABC’s Q&A), hardly a controlled environment for the dissemination of complex ideas.

    What becomes increasingly alarming as one reads through Hutchison’s attack, is the likelihood that she has not yet read Greer’s book before choosing to respond to its content. In an altogether unrelated spray at the end of the article, this is what Hutchison accuses Greer of doing over a previous storm in a teacup over a play by Melbourne writer Joanna Murray-Smith. Surely Hutchison cannot have it both ways?

    Nor, I presume, was Hutchison at the book launch (in Sydney) that took place immediately prior to Greer’s appearance on Q&A. If she had been, Hutchison would not be able to attack Greer for allegedly raising the subject for debate from ‘the comfort of her English garden’. I was at the launch, and Greer not only delivered a most informed and passionate summary of the content of her book, Greer also revealed she has made many visits to the outback communities she is talking about, going back to the 1970s through to quite recently; she has read voluminously across the topic – including many major public documents (see the index to her book); and she has also talked one-to-one with many Aboriginal men and women.

    I have since read the book in horrified gulps at the truths Greer lays down – in black and white (yes literally).

    To paraphrase just one example: ‘there would have been no Stolen Generation had white men kept their hands off Aboriginal women, or taken responsibility for the progeny’. Any arguments with that? An observation surely worth pondering for a minute or two? Classic Greer? No? Yet, our gut reaction – among female peers in particular – is to spit on Greer. I remember when this happened to Helen Garner over The First Stone; and they were equally high-ranking women journalists who led the hysterical, and later disproved, attack on Lindy Chamberlain.

    To sneer over whether what Greer calls ‘rage’ is better described as ‘grief’ is as productive as correcting someone for calling ‘silver beet’ ‘spinach’. It’s the feelings of Aboriginal men (alongside those of the women and children) Greer is asking for us to stop and consider. And at no point in her launch speech or in the book does she excuse the violence Aboriginal men have inflicted on the women and children in their lives. Quite the opposite. She is merely attempting to add more data and fresh perspectives to the issues, in the hope that we may all work more effectively towards solutions.

    James Waites

    A few days later I dropped a copy of the letter into a blog created for smart groovy women who meet up online on a Friday night and throw ideas around. Wow, I got eaten alive. Even Helen Garner, it turns out, still hasn’t been forgiven. I don’t know how Greer survives it, day in day out, year after year. Or Garner, when it’s been her turn for a thorough tar-and-feathering from her activist ’sisters’.

    Discovering My Dark Side

    It was a little bit strange and daunting to ask Germaine Greer to sign my copy of On Rage. I rarely bother with the signature thing, but I had already asked for Barrie Kosky’s and so, in a flush of enthusiasm, I rushed around and got all of the first four books in the series signed. I informed Greer that I have my own special interest in matters Aboriginal, especially right now, as I prepare for a trip out to a small town called Ernabella, 400k’s south-west of Alice Springs, to witness Big hArt’s Ngapartji Ngapartji rehearsals. A swag and billy tea, lots of digital equipment and a night sky full of stars, here we come. I am travelling with my old mate photographer Brett Monaghan.

    As Germaine Greer looked up at me with interest, she offered a little sage advice. And then, on closer examination of my visage, announced I must surely have Aboriginal blood in me! For all Greer’s intellectual brilliance and sheer guts, many think there is a slightly mad side. If there is, so what! It’s like asking Judy Davis to stay calm at all times, and still expect her to go on stage and play Hedda Gabler as well as she did!

    From Greer the phrenologist, thus insight into my ancestry was nonetheless a curved ball. How long had my family been in Australia? she enquired. On my mother’s side… since 1789, I think, I stammered. For Greer, that was QED. Plenty of time for one of the men in that long ancestral line to fiddle with one of the lubras. Who would dare argue with the great Seer Germaine! Perhaps from the comfort of a website. But when she is sitting there before you? Smiling up at you! Well I wasn’t about to. If there is any truth to Greer’s declaration, it’s connected to a skeleton buried way to the back of the family closet. After some consideration, I have chosen to take Greer’s declaration another way: as a call to arms. That in tendency, with regard to respect for country and yearning to belong, there is, I admit, a ‘spirit of Aboriginality’ to which I aspire.

    I Have A Dream!

    I woke up the morning after the Little Books launch straight out of a dream: a scene where Louise Adler – whom I met for the first time that previous night - had taken me aside at the function and was offering me some sage advice. Pennies from Heaven.  ’Okay, okay, I’m ready. Do I need to sit down or something?’ I asked nervously. Patting my shoulder like a primary school teacher, or gold medal Olympic diving coach, might, she whispered: “Keep in simple.” Okay, I promise Louise, I will do my best to do so. Thanks heaps for the tip!

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