To my lovely regular readers, I am so sorry for the paucity of posts the past week (just a small surge of alliterative energy, there…). My sole defence is that I have been busy. Busy with the manuscript redrafting and busy with freelance writing commissions, all of which are very exciting. One is a travel assignment, so I’m afraid the slim pickings will continue into the coming week, as I’m flying to Vanuatu tomorrow morning. I know. It’s outrageous. Don’t worry, I think so too.
Here I am on a glooooorious Sunday afternoon sitting at my desk because I knew I wouldn’t get another chance to post until next Friday when I return (well, I get back Thursday in fact, but since I am going straight to a meeting to discuss a speechwriting commission – see, I told you it was all very exciting! – I know I’ll just want to drop my bags and sink into the couch by the time I get home. I did just want to let you know what’s happening so you’d know I haven’t abandoned my, er, post. As it were.
In other news, the fourth draft is coming to a close. Also terribly thrilling. Once I upload this, it’s straight back into it. Ideally, I’ll knock over the last of it today and tonight…There’s still quite a lot to do so we’ll have to see how I go, but I’ll give it a nudge at any rate!
So… see you back here next week for the post-Vanuatu debrief. If you’re in Sydney (Manly had a shark today), get out into this sublime weather. Yes, I’m at my desk now, but don’t you worry, I’ve been in the water catching waves and out enjoying that sea breeze in the sun. What a cracker, does March really have to end? Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Do you ever mourn the loss of knowledge you once possessed? I don’t spend a lot of time lamenting what I’ve irretrievably lost, but every so often I’m struck by just how short-term some aspects of my memory seem to be. It’s not that I have no long-term memory. I can remember conversations from twenty years ago eerily well (or so I think! The lawyers might disagree!). I’m good with names. I readily recall favourite fictional characters from long ago. I know what I wore – exactly – to just about every key event of my life and a lot more besides. I have a vast store of trivial information about movies and actors ever at the ready.
Sometimes I scare myself with the extent of my minute certainties (did you know that Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt starred in mid-1980s teen flick called Girls Just Wanna Have Fun? They did. I know. And what’s worse is that when they each went on to star in something successful, my first thought was ‘She was in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, I’m sure it’s her…’ – yes, I’m the sort of person who never forgets the embarrassments). I’m disturbed particularly because of the inherent uselessness of so much of what I know. Who the hell cares? What does it matter? Why can’t I remember Maths equations, only the cast members in The Breakfast Club and the theme music for the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz?
It doesn’t mean anything.
Then there’s the fact that I used to be able – in Year 7 at the age of 12 – to look at a world map and name every country in the world. Then I’d name the capital. This was before I’d been out of Australia, mind you. I’ve been to many countries now, and I’ve met and lived with people from all over the world, but there’s no way I retain now what I knew then. It’s gone. Then there’s significant dates in history and the rollicking stories of bloody battles, court intrigues and uneasy detentes. Mmmm… not so much. It’s all a bit patchy.
Poetry! Oh, that’s the really, really awful one. People who can quote poetry make my toes curl with a really savage sense of inadequacy. Why oh why can’t I remember all the words to John Donne’s Batter My Heart entirely off the cuff? WHY?! Sob!
Thank goodness the words haven’t left me too. Out of the full line-up of school curriculum, only the words remain. I still have an English vocabulary of which I am proud (although I fan the pages of a bound copy of my thesis occasionally and always think it the most foreign thing ever… clearly I was possessed). Beyond that, I often feel a fool. A long time ago, I used to be rather good at Maths, you know. In Year 11 I was studying 3 Unit Maths. I even topped my year in English, Maths and – hilariously – Home Economics when I was in Year 8. I was 14 at the time. Come to think of it, that’s the age I first started drinking – perhaps we have our answer right there.
Occasionally I do wonder about my lost abilities, things I knew how to do then that I have no idea about now, and I suppose today is one of those days. Where did it all go? What did it all mean? Am I less for having lost it? Or is it with me still, informing me in ways I don’t quite grasp? As is only fitting, I can only answer truthfully that I really don’t know.
I had a very sobering reality check from a friend of mine last week. He posted he and his wife’s annual ‘Keep In Touch’ message on our Canadian college’s alumni site, detailing their 3 years in Darwin in an open forum between our year, the year above and the year below. I mentioned these particular friends just a few posts ago; Roberto’s Italian and Lai Heng is Malaysian, and they’re both doctors living and working in Australia. Next year I will have known them both twenty years.
Roberto’s message made me wince. Not just because of the content, but because of my cultural position in relation to it. He was writing about a side of Australia I’ve heard about, thought about, worried about, read about, written about, argued about, but never actually seen with my own two eyes. I’ve never been to the Northern Territory. I have never been in remote, desert Australia. I have never lived among nor even visited an Indigenous community. I am Australian, but in many ways I am so very ignorant of Australia at large.
Like many Australians, I find travelling around this vast land prohibitively expensive. I have also tended to focus my wanderlust on destinations abroad; “home,” we often tell ourselves, will always be here when we get back. It can wait. We’ll get around to it. But what constitutes home in a country the size of Australia? And where is it? I can tell you that my home is nothing like Lai Heng and Roberto’s Darwin. And reading his message, my absolute otherness from the world Roberto described appalled me. I was ashamed; my own message on the same open forum was very self-absorbed, very me-me-me and oh look, more about me: very Sydney. Not very Emergency Room, Darwin. I shrank away from the screen thinking ‘Oh my god, how indifferent I must seem, how careless.’ Yes, a level of vanity prevailed: I was aghast at the idea of everyone reading Roberto’s clear-eyed recollections and judging Australia, judging Australians. Judging me. I wanted to dash off a hasty rebuttal, I wanted to make excuses for myself. I really did. Badly. But I knew even as shame burned my cheeks how right Roberto was, and how complicit I and the majority of Australians have been. My only defence, and boy it’s flimsy, is that I really don’t know what to do. I am ignorant of both the Indigenous experience and the solution. I’m not without compassion, and I have debated some of the questions Roberto raises both in my own head and around many different tables, and still I feel impotent beyond belief. Sharing an extract from Roberto’s message won’t help that, but it feels like the absolute least I can do:
…we have moved after having spent three years in the stinkin’ hot, humid tropical north of Australia. We lived in Darwin, an interesting place with an eclectic mix of people including a large and diverse Aboriginal population, 70,000 huge, hungry saltwater crocodiles, many jellyfishes, sharks, venomous snakes and the occasional feral hominid with countless tattoos, a rather large belly, and a beard longer than Osama’s. We both worked at the main hospital there (there is only one hospital…now of intergalactic notoriety because it received Mr Ramos-Horta from Timor Leste after his assassination attempt ), and also spent quite a bit of time working in remote Aboriginal communities. Both at Royal Darwin hospital, where 50-60% of the patients are Aboriginal, and in the remote medical services, we saw and treated diseases that are uncommonly found in the rest of the western world, like leprosy, tuberculosis, melioidosis, crusted scabies. We also witnessed a lot of poverty, violence, self-neglect, inequality, disadvantage, and the stifling effects of the welfare system on people’s ability and incentives to influence their future. Too many Aborigines in Australia are physically sick and weak, stuck in a complicated web of unfreedoms (bad health, low literacy rates, poor housing, low life expectancy, violence, racism, passive dependence of welfare, etc ) that history and circumstance has cast upon them. The recent awkward, military-style intervention into Aboriginal communities in the northern territory directed by a previously uninterested Howard government might prove beneficial in kick-starting a process of removal, and raising awareness, of these unfreedoms.
This is a country of enormous prosperity and opportunity. Australia’s original inhabitants seem to be the only ones locked out of this bountiful Oz. People flock to Australia from all over the world hoping to build a better life – they work hard, they make sacrifices, they struggle, and in so many cases, ultimately they prevail. They have an appetite for betterment. Is this an urge that can be taught? Legislated? Enforced? I do not know. I wish it was, though, because it was this instinct that changed my life for the better when I – a working class white city girl – was in pretty desperate crisis first as a child and then as a teen. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and I moved on. I still wonder sometimes if an appetite for betterment isn’t the only new beginning there is.
I suppose I’ve got a bit of a nerve celebrating religious holidays. I’m not religious in the slightest, so what right have I got to the long weekend Australia’s helping itself to for Easter? I almost feel like I’m getting away with something…On the other hand, it makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite (or should I say heretic?). I’ll take the days off, I’ll eat the hot cross buns (boy, won’t I – I can’t stop eating the damn things…), I might even see my way clear to scoffing some chocolate eggs or devouring an edible rabbit, but take in a church service? No, I won’t be doing that, because I do not believe.
I am sooo rusty when it comes to the story of Easter (I last received religious instruction aged twelve), but I’m pretty sure it’s about Christ rising from the dead. Uh huh. Sure he did. And his mother conceived him without intercourse. Now that really is a miracle! Good for her! Some people find it challenging enough even using conventional methods like sex, so having the odd archangel in your corner would really come in handy. Who needs IVF when Gabriel is giving them away?
I sound sarcastic. Sorry, that’s inappropriate. I do very much respect other people’s sacred right to their different religious beliefs, I just struggle to understand them sometimes myself. It’s so outside my thinking, so entirely other to me that I really marvel at it from a distance.
Which brings me back to my original question: who am I to celebrate Easter, Christmas, and all those other holidays honouring institutions in which I do not believe (the Queen’s birthday, anyone? I wish her every good health, but I still hope Australia becomes a republic)? I’m not really sure I’m entitled to the next couple of days off, and increasingly it makes me uneasy saying things like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Easter.” I don’t really mean that, do I? I mean have a safe and happy short break. I mean enjoy the time off with family and friends. I mean do you like your hot cross buns toasted or untoasted? Therefore I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be so casual invoking these religious concepts.
At Christmas time, I suggested in a post that 25 December has evolved into a kind of Thanksgiving holiday for myself and many people I know. And I guess Easter is in a similar category for me. It’s a chance to spend time with Llew, our family and friends. Time we would not otherwise be entitled to. I do wonder, though, since Australia is so secular, and since so much of the flock has flown, just what we think we’re doing. If I’m to celebrate Easter, shouldn’t I believe in it? Because I’ve got this nagging, uncomfortable feeling that what’s become merely a chocolate festival in many homes must really niggle at the people who do.
We left early for a funeral in Nelson Bay yesterday, and returned home late last night thoroughly exhausted, hence the absence of a Tuesday post. It was a Jenkins family funeral. I never met Llew’s Great-Uncle Les, but he was 90, and the church was packed, so there’s every indication Les used his time well. It’s never a consolation to those most immediately in mourning, but 90 is a damn good innings.
Somewhat coincidentally, had he lived, today would have been my granddad’s 90th birthday. Dear Granddad. How I loved him. He could be such a bugger, truly the most infuriating man alive, but mainly it was just the sheer cheek of him, so it was impossible to ever stay angry for very long. Mostly all he ever needed to do was whistle or sing the first few bars of Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye and all would be forgiven.
A terrible thing happened to me during the service yesterday. I could not remember this, Granddad’s signature tune. I was wracked with anxiety. I broke out in a light sweat. What was it? God, what was it?? I clutched hard at Llew’s arm.
“I can’t remember Granddad’s song,” I hissed into his elbow.
I nearly started crying, and given that this was another man’s funeral, and one whom I did not have the privilege to meet, any tears of mine would have been grossly inappropriate. I lowered my head and started a frenzied internal argument with myself. Why was I remembering other songs instead? Why couldn’t I remember Granddad’s song? Why could I only remember the soppy song that bloody woman chose to play at the end, and a song my father used to sing, instead of this song, this song I loved because it was Granddad’s? Where had it gone, into what sad, unused recess of my mind? How long had it been since I’d last visited the rose garden where my grandparents’ ashes were interred? Oh, too long, I ranted in my mind, and this, this was my punishment, this awful vacancy where Toot Toot Tootsie, Goobye used to be.
Granddad’s casket was borne down the aisle of the crematorium at the beginning of his funeral service to the joyful strains of Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye. It was so unexpected for everyone else, but to those who knew him well, it was such a perfect start to what was really an opportunity to celebrate this larger than life character. I wrote and delivered the eulogy at Granndad’s funeral, and because of who he was, my job was easy. Well, writing it was easy. Struggling to control my tears and get the words out in front of a teeming house was beyond hard. Still, I got a lot of laughs. Granddad made sure of that.
I think my acute distress at the missing song guaranteed I wouldn’t be remembering it yesterday. I conducted conversations at the wake. I talked to my husband and parents-in-law. I ate and drank and outwardly looked no different. Inside I was raging at myself, there’s no other word for it. I felt I’d betrayed him by forgetting his song. And when, as we were about to fall asleep, home at last, exhausted, Llew dozily said across the dark “It wasn’t Toot Toot Tootsie, was it?” I fell across him, hugging him and crying “Thank you, thank you, oh thank you” until my voice started to break.
How could something so small be so important? Well, it’s just that it was so Granddad. And the temporary loss of that precious memory made me realise I urgently need to write them all down, all those things I loved about him, all those quirks and idiosyncrasies and perversions (he went out for a loaf of bread, one long ago day when he was still married to his first wife, my Nana, and returned home the following afternoon. Typical.). All our times together. Because there was no one like him. And because even six years is a bloody long time (what will I forget in ten years? Twenty?). And finally because I still miss him every day.
Happy birthday, Granddad, wherever the hell you are.
Toot, Toot, Tootsie goodbye,
Toot, Toot, Tootsie don’t cry.
The choo-choo train that takes me away from you,
no words can tell how sad it makes me.
Kiss me, Tootsie, and then
I’ll do it over again.
Watch for the mail,
I’ll never fail,
if you don’t get a letter
then you’ll know I’m in jail.
Toot, Toot, Tootsie don’t cry,
Toot, Toot, Tootsie goodbye.
Why have I not heard more about this movie? I know I work alone and at home, and am therefore a solid candidate for ‘last to know’ status when it comes to everything from the aliens landing to the iceman cometh, but I, you know, read. I read online, I read magazines, I read newspapers, I read books…and somehow Death Proof just passed me by. Was this movie even showing in Australian cinemas? Ever? How did I miss it?!
Luckily Llew brought it home the other night to watch on DVD. We have a projector, so we basically have a big screen at home, and as I have mentioned on this blog in the past, it is the business. I’ll admit that at first I crinkled my nose. Much as I enjoyed them overall, the nonstop graphic violence of Kill Bill I and II really palled my Tarantino enthusiasm, which up until then had always run super high (Pulp Fiction is quite possibly a perfect film, and I loved Jackie Brown). I had reached my violence limit and then some, so given Tarantino’s latest offering is called Death Proof, I thought I was in for another blood-letting extravaganza… Gore isn’t my thing. I don’t find it funny or clever or interesting. I find it troubling. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a TV, but I am fairly sensitive to violence on-screen. I look away, I cover my eyes and ears, and sometimes I even leave the room, never to return.
And there is one scene in Death Proof I’d immediately excise if it were my film. I don’t know why it wasn’t edited out, it’s completely unnecessary. Far from adding something, I think it actually detracts from the impact of what’s just happened. Aside from that thoroughly ghastly scene, I was forced to look away only once more. Two full body flinches in a Tarantino? That’s nothing! It’s nap time at the nursery!
He’s a funny, funny guy. As in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the dialogue alone makes this film great. Some past dialogue even makes a cameo appearance here. The opening scene of Death Proof is awesome, one of the best I’ve seen in way too long. And it’s great for some of Tarantino’s other trademarks: casting a star whose star has waned (in this case Kurt Russell the best I have ever seen him by a mile), a flawless ensemble, and a collection of strong female characters who utterly expose the dumb one dimensionality of Hollywood bellybutton lint like 27 Dresses. Praise be to Quentin, he the man.
Aside from being a hell of a movie, Death Proof scores extra kudos for having excellent extras. This is another thing I love about Tarantino: his boundless wonder and enthusiasm for his medium. He loves movies and everything they entail. It’s incredibly endearing watching him interviewed, and it’s obvious from the on-set footage that I’m not the only one who finds his limitless excitement infectious. He has an uncanny knack for casting, and an incredible ear for idiom, and both boil down, I think, to his genuine curiosity about people, their stories, and their filmic potential. He sees the world through that lens, and it shows in all the best ways. It is impossible not to like the guy, and I love his latest movie.
Mmm, ladies, don’t you just love it when your husband or boyfriend or occasional lover comes crashing through the door, blind drunk, in the middle of the morning? Oh I do. I think it’s just tops.
So it was like a dream come true for me last night when Llew fell into our room at 2 am, “fresh” from a harbour cruise and a bar hop with his colleagues. I clapped my hands together with glee and exclaimed “This is perfect, husband, thank you! I couldn’t think of a nicer way to be woken up than your kicking the bed and reeking the evening’s excesses all over me!”
Then, of course, I tore off the sheets and ripped off his clothes and lunged at him with all the wanton abandon of pure lust.
IN YOUR DREAMS, BUDDY!!!!
I suppose it’s nice that Llew still feels amorous towards me even after he’s consumed enough alcohol to kill a small elephant. It’s sweet, in a way, after all this time, and at least as long as he’s passed out with his arm flung across my face I know where he is and who he’s with. It isn’t always easy when he’s out all night with people I could never identify in a line-up – there’s a lot of trust involved in these things. Who’s he with? Is he drunk and flirting? Has some cheap hussy from his office got the hots for him? I’ll kill her! We all know how well men resist flattery – they’re not susceptible to it at all, are they? No, their egos are watertight! It’d take much more than the attentions of a hot young thing to turn their heads and crowd their trousers, right? RIGHT?! Ahem. Wrong. Men are pussy putty. Let’s be real.
So it’s always nice when Llew calls throughout the night from wherever he is. Except when it passes midnight. After that I’m not so keen to chat. And when it passes one o’clock, I’m really not interested in being woken up so I can listen to loud music and what might be Llew – or the girl in the TV from Poltergeist – saying something I just can’t hear. Maybe it’s something about wishing I was there. Maybe it’s the words to the Macarena. Maybe it’s a joke about three blondes walking into a bar… Actually, that might just get my attention. What blondes?! What bar?! Get the fuck home! But whatever it is, it’s not anything that couldn’t wait until morning.
Much like Llew’s misjudged advances.
He dangled a plastic lei over the bed last night as though he thought he had a hope in hell of exchanging it for the other variety. I greeted it with stony silence. In fact, I only found my voice once Llew, clued in at last to the arctic atmosphere of the boudoir, collapsed in a heap and started immediately, royally snoring. Oh, so help me, I wanted to punch his head in.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
“ROLL ON YOUR SIDE!”
“ROLL OVER, GODDAMN IT!!!!”
“GET THE HELL OUT!!!”
I tried everything. I shouted. I cursed. I hit him in the shoulder. I pushed him in the thigh. I nearly wept. But Llew was sleeping soundly, and I, well, I was not sleeping at all. Yes, I love it when Llew’s out without me, it’s grand.
March in Sydney kicks arse. It is the best month here, or, as I like to say, the king of the calendar year. It’s brilliant. Day after glorious day of sunshine and blue skies, perfect light breezes and a water temperature that is just so. Forget summer. It’s an unreliable whore. This, the first month of autumn in the southern hemisphere, is the real beauty. And last night, it’s safe to say that Sydney was just plain old showing off.
Friends of mine from my Canada days have recently moved to Sydney after a number of years in Darwin. Roberto is Italian and Lai Heng is Malaysian, but they’ve been calling Australia home now for quite a long time, first Adelaide, then Darwin, now Sydney, which means they’ve lived in more Australian cities than I have. And I think it’s fair to say that they’ve saved the best ’til last. Yes, I am hopelessly biased. I think Sydney is the best city in Australia. I do. By a long way. I like all the others I’ve visited (actually, Darwin is the only one I’m yet to see), some of them I like very much, but nothing compares to Sydney, let’s face it. Some Melbournians are fond of suggesting that Sydney is full of philistines and that Melbourne is the cultural capital of Australia, but come on, what bollocks. They just need something to cling to because Sydney is soooo GOOD LOOKIN’ (whereas, you know, Melbourne has a great personality). The suggestion that Sydney is a cultural vacuum is frankly absurd, even on sheer numbers alone.
And last night some of those numbers gathered in the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House for opera on the big screen. We met up with Lai Heng and Roberto at the Opera Bar as the sun went down and the pink light dusted the western skies, then we wandered upstairs, found seats on the steps, bought some drinks and a cheese platter, and settled in for Opera Australia’s Carmen. Inside the Opera House, the production was being staged as usual. Outside, we were able to enjoy a free televised link on a massive screen under the night sky. The city skyline ahead, the Harbour Bridge to the right, the Botanical Gardens left, and the Opera House behind. It was such a perfect evening beneath the stars.
Afterwards, we wandered around to the other side of Circular Quay to the Rocks, making a beeline for (you guessed it) Sailors Thai Canteen. It was our civic duty to introduce this place to two of Sydney’s latest arrivals, and needless to say Lai Heng and Roberto did not resist. It’s going to be so much fun sharing our Sydney with them in the coming months and years. There are so many things I adore about my town, and last night ably demonstrated one of them: opera, outside, at night, in March. Perfect.
Oh my aching head. Remember that post long ago, back when I had a momentary lapse of self-knowledge and pledged to give up drinking? Well, it was all lies. LIES. I have no discipline, I have no willpower, I have no limits. Wheel in the beverage cart.
The reason I was out drinking on a Tuesday night – something only first year uni students should ever attempt – was the exhibition opening at Maunsell Wickes (at Barry Stern Galleries, 19 Glenmore Rd, Paddington, just off Oxford St). Linton Meagher’s ‘resinate’ exhibition is showing now until Sunday 30 March, and I suggest you get along for a look quick smart.
I love Linton’s work. I find it really erotic and refined. His works have an undeniable curiosity factor because of the materials he favours (more about that in a moment), but they’re fascinating for the fluidity and beauty they achieve precisely through his use of very cold, clinical tools.
Bullet shells. Scalpels. Capsules. US dollar bills. Resin. Perspex. Not exactly what you’d imagine as instruments of grace and whimsy, are they? And yet that’s exactly what Linton achieves. There’s a very seductive sense of movement; a gorgeous, almost choreographic sensuality to works like ‘into the void’ (oil on scalpel blades in resin on perspex 64 x 82cm, $3,750) and ‘follow-up’ (oil on scalpel blades in resin on perspex 64 x 82cm, $3,750). I find it all completely fascinating. Perverse and ironic on the one hand, as in ‘the race,’ depicting a spinning mouse wheel made out of rolls of US currency ($5,750), and then regal and enchanting on the other, as in ‘eimir’ (named for his lovely girlfriend and now muse).
The truly wild thing about Linton is that he’s also a full-time medical practitioner. Oh yeah. This guy is an over-achiever, all right. We know Linton (only a little) through a good friend of ours who’s also a doctor; they’ve been friends for years, so we’ve been lucky enough to meet Linton and become acquainted with his work through our mutual friend Matt. And I just can’t tell you how humbling it is looking around a gallery and seeing Linton’s work and attempting to calculate the number of hours in his day. These works are meticulous, precision is a key component of their composition, so I can only assume Linton doesn’t waste time like the rest of us. He simply can’t be idling away any time at all and still be producing this body of work and practising medicine full-time and maintaining a functional relationship and getting some sleep each night. He doesn’t even look tired. Maybe that’s what job satisfaction will do for you (although I’m incredibly fulfilled, and I’m confident that today, I look like shit). And there’s a nice material symmetry there between the work Linton does as a doctor and the work he creates as an artist. Scalpels and capsules help heal and medicate (although both can also be instruments of destruction), and there’s something very soothing about their reincarnation as objects of art under Linton’s care and – of course – in his remarkably steady doctor’s hands.
Despite apparent contractions and what feels like a constant stream of grim forecasts in the Australian publishing industry, the full-house evidence of yesterday’s conversation with Ian McEwan at the Sydney Opera House suggests that there’s plenty of hunger for authors and their books left in this town. True, McEwan is British and an international literary star, hardly representative of the Australian scene. Australian readers have never had a problem devouring the offerings of international authors; it’s our own we don’t seem terribly inclined to support. Of course there are notable exceptions across all genres, yes, but the fact remains that if (New York-based) Peter Carey’s latest offering, His Illegal Self, had been written by a first-time, unknown Australian novelist, it would have had a devil of a time getting into print, and, even assuming that hurdle was overcome, it would most likely have sunk without a trace.
Obscurity is not something worrying McEwan’s brow. Actually, he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, and good luck to him, I say. He’s a great writer and an amusing speaker, as well as a huge critical and commercial success. It’s a very heartening thing to see. He has made it as only very few authors do, and I think it’s grand. I liked him very much yesterday. I went with my friend Sheena, who observed at the end that McEwan was a bit of a showman. This polish didn’t bother me; on the contrary, I was pleased he made such an effort to be entertaining. It was far and away time better spent than listening to a belligerent Carey read the opening of Theft at a literary dinner I attended a couple of years ago. It’s a danger, trotting out the author. Of course the work stands whether you’re a prick in person or not, but once you’ve alienated your readers in a hyper-competitive marketplace, I can only imagine that winning them back is a pretty tall order. Allow me to offer myself as exhibit A. I’m not planning to buy His Illegal Self not because of the lukewarm reviews it’s receiving but because I didn’t like Carey’s attitude in person. Take that, Mr Disdain (I doubt he’ll notice, but it’s my minor act of rebellion. In my heart I am saying “Up yours” and letting my book buying dollars do the talking). Besides, I thought Illywhacker was unreadable. It put me off reading another Carey for years and years (see Hemingway, Across the River and Into the Trees), and that dinner was a bit of a second chance. Except I didn’t much love Theft either.
But back to McEwan. I’ve read four of his books thus far and fully intend reading them all. I’m not sure if that sentiment would have changed had I turned up at the Opera House and discovered he was a boorish prat, but it certainly makes it a more pleasurable commitment knowing that he wasn’t. He was funny and erudite and thoughtful and sincere. I laughed heartily as he countered readings from his novels with critical fan letters, and when he read an extract from his incredibly moving 9/11 essay, I nearly cried. Afterwards, during the conversation with writer and broadcaster Ramona Koval, his articulate and wide-ranging responses weren’t only interesting, they were endearing. I liked him. I liked his books already, but liking him certainly doesn’t hurt. No wonder publishers are so keen to get their best talent on the festival circuit, and by “talent” I mean colourful identities rather than best writers. If like McEwan you’re good company as well as a good writer, then these appearances can only enhance your sales.
There are more of these Sunday afternoon talks coming up at the Opera House. You can check the program and book here.
As an aside, the Fiona Hall exhibition has opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I wandered around after seeing Sheena off home after the McEwan event, and this Sydney-born, Adelaide artist’s retrospective is well worth a look.