Monday, April 27, 2009

Lest we forget

I was talking to a publisher recently about possible subjects for future books. There are so many books about war, soldiers, battles and so on, why not a book on the peace movement, I suggested.  The Anzacs, Simpson and his donkey, Vietnam, the Western Front...these subjects are catnip to awards judges. But the peace movement? My publisher friend just laughed.

"If I wanted to throw away money," he seemed to say.

Such thoughts were in mind in the lead up to Anzac day, the one day of the year. It is not I look forward to. Sure I love a footy match as much as any, but I feel uncomfortable with all that unquestioned acceptance of authority. 

My unease about the way we mark war was there again recently during my first ever trip to Canberra. A friend works for the War Memorial; its education program is experienced by more school children than any other cultural institution in Australia. Canberra seems built for grand parades, though its no Champs Elysees. The money expended on memorials, sculptures and buildings marking our war history...it's all just a bit over the top. 

Anyway, my thoughts on why I don't get Anzac day crystallised yesterday listening to this lecture by historian Marilyn Lake. Commemorations like Anzac day are not only acts of remembrance, but of forgetting, also, a highly selective version of history, one that smoothes over difficult passages, the conflicts that go on in the making of history. Anzac day itself has a particular history, one not unconnected with the political influence. Howard was particularly adept at wrapping himself in the flag. It is the selective remembering of war and what war is that makes Anzac day one that I find very hard to love indeed.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

how i live now

I call myself a lapsed West Australian. This week I celebrated my thirteenth year in Melbourne. Sure I'd love to live in Paris but Melbourne does fine for me.



Today columnist Susan Maushart gave some good reasons as to why that might be. Quoting author Richard Florida (Who's Your City?) Maushart writes that choosing a city is like choosing a mate and that cities have their own metabolic rate and their own personalities. Maushart summarises:
Cities...can be categorised as "open to experience" (Melbourne maybe), conscientious (Adelaide, assuredly), extroverted (Sydney - OMG!!), agreeable (Hobart o Brisbane, if you like), or neurotic (Perth, now piss off). Truly - Perth was ranked among the most neurotic cities in the entire world. Turns out it's all about Perth's extreme isolation, and the unique mental trade deficit that goes with that. Basically, we export the sort of people who week social engagement with the wider world (the young and the functional) - while attracting the sort of people who seek divorce from the wider world. And in most cases, the differences really are irreconcilable.
So, don't take my word for it. 

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Radio National's The Book Show served up an Easter treat this morning when Ramona Koval spoke to Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Their topic? The novels and the ethics of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, of course. Williams is the author of the book, Dostoyevsky: language, faith and fiction.

Clearly the archbishop has plenty of time for the Dostoyevsky. He speaks with a lot of insight about the Russian's complicated relationship to Christ, and also about the way a novel works. Williams describes the novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment as a kind of working out of possibilities and questions that would be impossible in life. Which is not to say that the novels are an idealisation of possibilities. They act like a laboratory in which the answers are never conclusive. 

The conversation between Koval and Williams is a lively tennis match, the host lobbing questions nonchalantly, yet always being challenged by Williams's insightful, probing returns. They also talked about the lack of dogma or certainty in the novel, how any good novel, any real novel, is devoid of doctrinal position. (Which is why CS Lewis continues to get a caning for the Narnia books, whatever else might be said of them.) Fundamentalism has no place in the novel. Williams is a more than decent literary critic. 

In talking about the life of Dostoyevsky, the archbishop and the journalist agreed firmly on one thing. That is, it is usually better not to meet your idols. Dostoyevsky is described as quarrelsome, hyper-sensitive and self-absorbed. Even for a writer, that's quite the trifecta.

Williams had taken leave from his role as the Archbishop of Canterbury and talked about how good it was to get up each day and write. To not have to attend endless committee meetings, and write endless letters and campaign to solve life's insoluble problems. It was someone speaking with real delight about the pleasure of his work. My only quibble was that in signing off Koval patronised Williams, aiming for match point by wishing him well in the struggle with those problems by regular prayer. He deserved better than that.

When the interview had finished (and I had finished shaving) I went in to my bedroom. There to see wife and daughter both crying, (daughter weeping) over the death of Lee Scoresby in Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass