2006 was a bad year for me – about as bad as a year could be. But I had begun a weird and wonderful job in the Middle East and by September was heading back to Amman for a couple of years. I’d been staying with a friend in Fitzroy, just up the road from our house, which had been rented  for the duration. The day before I was to fly out, my friend threw a huge party and invited just about everyone I knew.

Helen arrived with a black baby-shaped case shoved in her backpack, and insisted we go upstairs to open it. We sat on the bed in my friend’s spare room where my bags were almost packed for the next day. Helen flicked the little case open with a flourish to reveal a glittering new ukulele with mother of pearl inlay, picks, spare strings, song books and You Can Teach Yourself Uke by William May.

I was expected to turn up with a uke to my weird posh job in Jordan?

To get me up and away Hel sat cross-legged on the bed and showed me some of her cool strumming secrets. She sang some bars of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ or maybe it was ‘Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door’? All I remember is that we were shrieking with laughter.

I had learnt piano and recorder as a kid, my first husband had taught me to play a few pieces on his classical guitar, I’d even gone along to mandolin classes with my youngest son until he threw it in. I could read music or thought I could but in my fragile state, the chords and pick for the ukulele looked completely daunting.

Later that night, when the party was over and the house was quiet, I had a little pick at a chord or two,  considered shoving the uke and William May’s best-selling teach yourself manual under the bed and sending Hel a postcard explaining that her present wouldn’t fit in my economy weight allowance. Then, since I was heading into winter, I left out some sandals and summer clothes and stuffed the uke in its case into my suitcase.

Every now and then, over the next few months, Hel would email me asking how I was doin’. And I’d tell her which song I was practising. I did try to teach myself – strumming along in the night on the deck of my fancy apartment in the palace compound hoping not to be overheard by the guards. I never progressed much beyond the first chords of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ which made me feel a bit maudlin and, anyway, hillbilly from the American south started sounding a bit off in the warm dark Jordanian nights with the war just a border away. But the day I really gave up was when I slid open a cupboard in the garden pavilion where I worked and found a complete set of videos of The Sopranos. The whole seven series. Eighty-six episodes. There was even a video player in my sitting room. I was gone.

The beautiful little uke with its mother-of–pearl inlay and all its trappings are still in Amman – at my friend, Rabeea Al Nasser’s wondrous House of Tales and Music – where Syrian and Palestinian kids from the camps are bussed in and Rabeea reads them books and gets them telling their stories. They get to play all kinds of instruments there and some of them are playing my uke for sure.


Unpublished UKELELE story for Bernadette Brennan, A Writing Life, Helen Garner and Her Work, Text 2017

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On reading Greg Sheridan in Ramallah

The writers’ bus was about to enter the Qalandria checkpoint on the road from East Jerusalem to Ramallah in Occupied Palestine when it stopped beside a part of the Wall where a graffiti artist was at work. He had lined up his plastic cups of paint and brushes among the rubbish and was putting the finishing touches to a huge portrait of a smiling handcuffed Marwan Barghouti.1 The graffiti artist was working in full view of the watchtowers and waved to us. We wave back and take photos which we’ve been told not to do. But this was the real thing.

A busload of international writers and publishers and volunteers some of whom are Palestinian are here for the Palestine Festival of Literature. Which is a bit of a paradox since most of the literature is in English, mainly written by people who haven’t been here before and who want to see for themselves and show solidarity.

The opening evening in East Jerusalem at the Palestinian National Theatre had been shut down by police who threatened the manager with permanent closure. But the show went on thanks to the French Cultural Centre immediately offering its garden where visiting writers such Michael Palin, Henning Mankell, Adhaj Soueif, Carmen Callil, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Jeremy Harding, M.G Vassanji and others were welcomed and everyone deplored the outrageous start – and the fact that the British Council under whose sponsor ship PalFest largely was had vanished on the night. The Palestinians present were more relaxed. This happens all the time, they said, telling us later that the streets around the Theatre were closed for hours to stop people coming but many found their way on foot packing the garden of the French Cultural Centre. And the frisson of fear the visitors felt at the sight of heavily armed police forcing the closure of a literary event didn’t hurt either. Next day Le Monde and the Belgian papers ran the story, You Tube and Al Jazeera had film and it would have made the Guardian and the Independent since many were contacting their contacts.

So it was inevitable that by the time we got to Qalandria checkpoint the next day that we and the bus would be thoroughly checked and delayed. Our luggage was opened, our handbags searched and passports slowly scrutinised by young girl soldiers with guns and cigarettes who took their time, Some writers tried making eye contact, others glared and muttered. After a long delay we were waved on.

But we were not given the same treatment as the people we could see through the wire, and the great Egyptian novelist and activist, Adhaf Soueif made sure we realised this. Palestinians were being herded through narrow passages with metal roofs like cages through iron turnstiles operated by guards in bullet proof rooms. All luggage, belts and bags were screened, everyone stripped of their identity, their passports, ID cards, permits applied placed on a shelf where the guard can see them and select some for interrogation. No one is guaranteed access. Decisions are made seemingly at random with the intention to harass. Checkpoints can be closed at a moment’s notice and people sent miles round to the next. This is the daily experience of students wanting to get to class or to work, visit family, get a pregnant woman to hospital, to an appointment of any kind. Since the checkpoints sprang up over fifty babies have been born in them and half have died.

Checkpoints and crossings are fiendishly designed to maximize their role as impediments to normal life. There are long uphill stretches, just wide enough for one person dragging a suitcase. The rotating iron gates are heavy and spiked and allow through three people at a time being locked or reversed by someone in watching a screen. You look up at the sky and there are cameras and watchtowers with someone in dark glasses looking down. The soldiers are very young and armed and the women, touting their guns like fashion accessories and flicking back their hair seem to be the harshest – on this day anyway. You want to ask them what they will say about this time of their lives to their children.

Qalandria is the newest ugly state-of-the-art means of crowd control and harassment in the name of security, like the entrance to a huge prison which East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories have become. Who designs such places? Palestinians with unemployment in many places at over 50 percent often have to build them and mix the concrete for the slabs that make up the wall now snaking throughout the West Bank. But the mind that confronts the computer screen and designs the wall that snakes around 400 kms of the west bank(check stats) and decides where the next squat watchtower will be, and goes home to his or her family for the Sabbatt. What kind of mind is that?

The settlements are the next shock – not settlements at all which can be easily dismantled, people resettled in Israel once it withdraws to it pre 1967 borders. They have even had a name change – to neighbourhoods or districts – often gated communities, row upon row of houses backing on to malls, encircling Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Hebron, employing few Arabs and preferring to import labour from the Philippines and Pakistan.

Mohammed has volunteered to accompany us. He is a student of English Language and Literature at Birzeit University in Ramallah. He is a snappy dresser and today wears a Blues Brothers hat and a stripy button down shirt. He has a semantics exam the day we leave but he shows me he has downloaded his 365 pp text book onto his mobile phone which he glances at occasionally. He tells me his exam can wait as he is learning a lot just by travelling with us. He can practise his already excellent English and soon is joining in discussions and telling lots of jokes. But really it is us who is learning from him. He lives in East Jerusalem and must catch two buses and cross Qalandria every day. Sometimes it takes an hour. Sometimes four. Sometimes he is turned back. It costs more than 20 Shekels (about $3 ) a week and his fees are more than he can afford. So he does odd jobs and saves and …. can only come to study part time over five years. Then he says he will try to get permission to study overseas – in England he hopes but he will have no passport only a travel document and his family are here. He is Muslim but cannot go to the Al Asqa Mosque because young men have been banned for some time. Now only men over the age of 65 can go to pray at this third most sacred Muslim site. Small boys can go with their mothers and teachers.

Mohammed has ‘ a few friends who are Jews but I can’t trust their eyes if they are Zionists’. There were none at his school and none at Birzeit. He meets young Jewish men in the street and sometimes they talk, sometimes they play chess. As he gets to know us better his jokes get bluer – there are many about Syrian women who know how to seduce their husbands. Palestinian women are the opposite and rule the family, according to Mohammed. He intends to marry a Syrian of course.

On our first day in Ramallah we go to the house of Raja Shehada, the author of Palestinian Walks, a meditation on seven walks around the hills of Ramallah that he had taken all his life persisting as the settlements have spread and tracks have been closed or requiring permits. Raja, a lawyer who has fought cases through the courts for thirty years in an attempt to prevent the appropriations and closures has finally abandoned the struggle but will not leave.

He takes us for a long and arduous walk and a climb up the terraces through well tended olive trees. Mohammed takes the arm of those who need it and helps them climb the rock. He helps Carmen Callil up a steep incline as she declares herself the oldest present – ‘but you have the youngest soul’, says Mohammed, making her day.

Returning from Hebron and Bethlehem we have to go through Qalandria to East Jerusalem we were treated the same as everyone else. This was a relief and a nightmare as we trudged up the slope dragging our cases through the tunnel like a cage to the soundproof bullet proof rooms housing the Guards.

I was back on the bus privileged and despairing, when a friend from London handed me a copy of the May Australian Literary Review featuring Greg Sheridan’s article bedecked with an Israeli flag Israel Still Looks Good, Warts and All. Warts, he calls them. I fantasise about taking him on. But debating the likes of Greg Sheridan is pointless. He says he has been to Israel very often, blames the western Left for propagandising on behalf of Islam, and buys the whole militarist mindset. But I think he cannot have been to Palestine recently, if ever, when he suggests all we need to do is Google the Hamas Charter.

There are no two sides to this story. No left and no right. No middle. When human beings give way to paranoia and fear and hatred, there is only one side where all the children suffer.

February 2010

1 Given four life sentences for terrorism by the Israelis, but who a sizeable majority of Israelis believe should be swapped for their captured soldier Gilad Shalit, Marwan Barghouti represents the next generation of leadership, immensely popular and touted as a replacement for Marmoud Abbas as the next President of the Palestinian Authority.

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Seeds of Hope

When I first started going in and out of Jordan a few years ago my well-honed multicultural sensibility was shocked by what I could only hear as virulent anti-semitism. Israeli and Jew and Zionist were terms of abuse used by all but the most cosmopolitan. But as mainstream Arab media and YouTube, ran footage night after night of Palestinian olive trees being uprooted by bulldozers protected by young Israeli soldiers, elderly Palestinians being attacked with sticks in their own fields and the proliferation of checkpoints and settlements, what I had first heard as anti-semitism began to sound to me more like rage and fear and hopelessness.

Nearly two-thirds of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, most displaced from Jerusalem and the West Bank or from southern Israel and herded into Gaza during many years of illegal occupation. Since 2003 they have been joined by more than half a million Iraqis. Jordan throughout its short history has provided a safe haven for dispossessed people, some still hoping to go home, empathising with, many closely related to, the people trapped in Gaza or those enduring daily deprivation and humiliation in the West Bank.

By their own admission, many Israelis do not look on Palestinians as human beings. The latest war on Gaza had more than 90 per cent popular support. Israeli surveys abound that identify increasing fear and loathing of Arabs in Israeli schools and suburbs and illegal settlements. In a society that likes to proclaim itself the only democracy in the Middle East, apartheid is impeccably documented.

Now more than four times longer than the Berlin Wall and twice its height in places, the Wall of Separation, the so-called ‘Separation fence’, made of solid concrete and barbed wire and electronically monitored, already snakes through more than 45 per cent of the West Bank. Despite the UN declaring its construction illegal when building began June 2002, nearly 12,000 dunums, or 12 million square metres, of agricultural land have been confiscated in its construction and more than 100,000 olive trees destroyed.

But Jordan and Israel are neighbours. Jerusalem is 72 kilometres from Amman. You can see Bethlehem and Jericho from Jordan’s Mount Nebo where Moses first saw the Promised Land. Some Jordanian and Israeli leaders work tirelessly towards understanding and cooperation. Amman does international conferences these days – interfaith, business and marketing – and Israelis are welcome and attend. The borders between Jordan and Israel have remained open since the peace process in1994 and young Israelis with the latest camping gear and new boots head for the glorious wadis around Petra and are sometimes billeted in villages. Farmers have been known to exchange views on crops on either side of the Jordan River despite the vastly disproportionate use of water for irrigation. Israeli efficiency and scholarship are admired.

Business propositions across the divide in recent years have seemed to some people more likely to succeed than peace talks, Shimon Peres and others claiming that ‘economy will defeat war’, but the problems of the poor remain intractable and signs of hope are infinitesimal. But in Amman, before the last outbreak of war in Gaza, a small community initiative, that seems to some people like the beginnings of a big idea, was starting to spread.


When I first told friends here last year that I was returning to Amman to spend some time with a community that had begun as a Palestinian refugee camp in 1948, some went rather quiet on me. We tend in this country, to harbour a fairly undifferentiated image of the Arab world: of ideologically inspired terrorism, AK47s, veiled women unable to speak for themselves, damaged children, angry victims of war and displacement, all hell-bent on revenge. And a visceral loathing of Islam, with its own echoes of anti-semitism, seems at risk of taking root here. My pleasure in the Prime Minister’s Apology to Indigenous Australians was spoilt shortly afterwards by the celebration in the Parliament of 60 years of Israel and Rudd’s inexplicable omission of the suffering of Palestinians and the failure of the UN to enforce its own resolutions. Only the courageous and well-informed MP Sussan Ley challenged this use of the Parliament. Australia’s one-sided gesture was widely reported throughout the Middle East.


When I next arrive in Amman and tell my Jordanian friends I am going to be based in a poor suburb called Jabal Nathif, many of them do not know where it is and none of them have been there. One or two remember a government survey a few years before that had found Jabal Nathif to be the most deprived neighbourhood in Amman with unemployment 50 per cent above the national average and access to tertiary education more than 50 percent below. I am warned that I am in for a shock and that no cab will venture in, that I’ll be assumed to be an Israeli or an American or both. I practise saying Ana min Australia.

Only seven minutes drive from Abdoun, a new suburb where the very rich live, the unmarked entrance to Jabal Nathif is opposite the two new showpieces of modern Amman, the grand King Hussein Cultural Centre and City Hall, up one of the steep and narrow streets that wind above old Downtown and the souq. There is the usual jumble of rubble, grey ramshackle houses, children playing in the road, skinny cats on rubbish heaps, plastic bags billowing – like poor settlements everywhere.

This one began life in 1948 as a camp for Palestinian refugees – settling then on what was private land which precluded UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) from providing assistance and gave the government a reason not to. After the Six Day War in 1967, when hundreds of thousands more Palestinians were displaced from the West Bank, the camp and others like it became permanent. Apart from a couple of terrible schools, there had been no services or official recognition for sixty years, not even a police station.

Today, a flash of green paint on a low wall marks a turn left into a street where sparkling yellow, green and blue buildings proclaim themselves as a library, a post office, a children’ s workshop and a meeting room for tertiary students. Greenery hangs over a pink wall where a bunch of bright-eyed children wait to show the way. We follow the murals down a long alley to a shady playground and crowded upstairs offices. This is Ruwwad, the new heart of Jabal Nathif.


The timing was right in 2005 when the process of confidence-building and consultation began here. Urgent solutions were being sought in Jordan and elsewhere for neglected areas made vulnerable to extremism and manipulation. In November that year, the Al-Qaeda suicide bombings at three international hotels aimed at Westerners killed 57 mainly local people.

Corporate philanthropy, any kind of philanthropy, was new to the Arab world when the Jordanian global transportation and logistics company, Aramex , selected Jabal Nathif as the community they wished to engage with. Repairing the run down primary school had been identified by the people of Jabal Natif as their first priority. Materials were donated, labour volunteered and, importantly, the process was documented and filmed. By February 2006, when the film was shown to thirty business people, some joined Aramex in forming a foundation. The idea that companies could have a role in encouraging impoverished communities to take responsibility for themselves and their children was quite new. Ruwwad is now funded by ten local and regional companies and individuals, the only Jordanian organisation to neither solicit nor accept donor funds which almost invariably have other people’s agendas and strings attached.

In much of the Arab world, the affluent are inclined to view the poor as stupid. Where petitions are still the norm, where wasta, knowing the right person, is everything, the poor’s perception of themselves as victims is endlessly reinforced. Occasional handouts and favours do happen – oranges in Ramadan, jobs and scholarships for the well-connected, visits from the Queen. The dozens of glossy magazines for middle-class women provide photo opportunities and gestures of generosity are well-publicized.

Impoverished people used to seeing themselves as victims in Jabal Nathif were quite unused to being consulted. Government agencies had always failed the area – and Ruwwad’s motives were at first queried. But today, where once people struggled to raise children in makeshift housing without services, there is a health centre and a clothing depot, a police station, a new employment agency, a nursery, a ceramics workshop, a computer centre – run by local people to suit what they perceive as their urgent needs.

Pivotal to it all is the Mousab Khorma Youth Empowerment Fund, created by Ruwwad in November 2005. Mousab Khorma, then Deputy Director of the Cairo Amman Bank, was one of those killed in the Al-Qaeda hotel bombings but the ramifications of his legacy of community activism already run deep. In less than three years, more than 350 young people have been awarded full or partial tertiary scholarships in a wide range of fields that they choose for themselves, encouraged by Ruwwad, to think big. One boy chose art history, another veterinary studies, many girls do engineering. All must contract to repay in kind with four hours a week of volunteer work in their community. Students choose from Jeeran, the neighbourhood programme, to repair and improve houses, to help the housebound, and Shababeek (Windows), the children’s programme, where they share their talents and pass on some of the skills acquired through study by mentoring younger children.

All volunteer work is expected to be well delivered with respect for the people being helped. Lateness is not tolerated. Nor are mothers’ intercessions on behalf of recalcitrant sons. Volunteers are formally assessed each semester as a condition of the continuation of their scholarships – a crucial component often lacking in programmes elsewhere. Here, a sense of entitlement is avoided and young people learn the satisfaction of reciprocity in their own community. Volunteers and staff told me again and again that this circle of interdependence was their most valuable lesson.


In the first year, Raghda Butros, founding director of Ruwwad, came across a boy leaning on the banister of the stairs leading up to the newly established children’s library, still the only place for children to spend time outside school and their crowded homes. The library attracted 150 kids a day even before the sign went up saying what the place was, and when it only had a few books on its shelves. The children came through word of mouth and so it seems did this little boy.

He could not speak well enough say his name or where he lived and he looked as if he had not been washed in quite some time. It was discovered that he was left to fend for himself all day in the street while his mother and father worked long hours and his siblings went to school. The other kids called him retarded and knew him as The Boy Who Pushed his Sister Down the Well. The story circulated that, as a young child, he had pushed his sister into a well – whether accidentally or in an act of sibling fury or whether it happened at all no one knew. But he became an outcast, said to be a stunted 19 year old not a normal-sized child.

Raghda took a shine to him and discovered his name was Suhaid, and that he had a disability that no one had bothered to identify. By the time I was told his story a few months ago, he was sitting in her office playing with a plastic puzzle. Suhaid spends time there whenever he can after coming back from a school for the mentally challenged, sponsored by one of Ruwwad’s many volunteers. It was not difficult to encourage him to open up, Raghda said. He’s a gregarious, lovable boy and his smile and energy has now made him somewhat of a celebrity in the very community that once shunned him. He takes choir classes at the Children’s Museum, Taekwondo classes at a local martial arts school and has attended theatre, musical and other performances which he re-enacts for Raghda and the other staff and community members with great enthusiasm and skill. His speech has improved remarkably and so has his demeanour. In many ways, his story encapsulates the philosophy of Ruwwad which focuses first on building authentic relationships with the community and then together resolving the challenges its members face.

Awad and Manal keep an eye on Suhaid too as they do on the rest of the community. They live in the house with the pink wall and grow vegetables in pots from seeds sent by Manal’s family who live in an agricultural district in the mountains. The house with its public room lined with rubber mattresses and cushions, is a place where people come to talk or rest and be served coffee and Manal’s almond cakes. Awad drives the old community van all over Jordan delivering people and goods. He has recently bought himself a computer and is now teaching the local children and some of their parents how to email. Manal coordinates Ruwwad’s Sharabeek programme where hundreds children from the community are helped and workshops are run by volunteers who have skills to share. One of the most popular is Bisatall-Reeh (Magic Carpet) where kids dream up places they want to visit and learn how to look them up in books and on the internet. I am asked, of course, about kangaroos and try to explain about the baran kteira, the many wild camels in Australia and struggle to describe Alice Spring’s Camel Cup. Then a young boy finds films of it on YouTube.


Ruwwad’s genius is that it is home grown. Instead of one size fits all, like so many aid-based projects, there is human interaction, skills exchange and the minimum of paperwork. Juggling the community’s priorities and extremely modest budget depends on the knowhow of local people. Families once crippled by drug dependency have been helped by the volunteer medical programme. Children who could not read now gravitate after school to the sparkling library with its blue tables and full bookshelves. A volunteer who describes himself as a poet teaches a complex spelling game he has invented to a group of boys.

More than 85 per cent of Ruwwad’s staff come from Jabal Nathif and everyone has a story to tell. Rabeea, a librarian and distinguished writer, established the Jabal Natif library three years ago. Local women now read stories here and help children select books. Telling children stories and reading to them is the most important work of all, Rabeea says, because it releases their imagination and helps them deal with difficulties and trauma. Libraries are safe places, without hierarchy, that create a spirit of impartiality, she insists.

Rabeea tells me about an impoverished municipal library with empty shelves she was trying to help a few years ago in a large northern city. One day the town was to be honoured by a visit from a member of the royal family who had asked to see the library. The day before the visit, the Ministry of Education delivered several truckloads of books so that the Prince, an intellectual and a reader, would not be embarrassed. Rabeea threatened to tell him, and the books were allowed to stay. Now she works to establish an outreach children’s library programme run by volunteers in villages where the schools often have no books.


The room at the top of the stairs is packed as it always is for Dardashaat, the chat room session, where young students share their quandaries and ideas each Saturday morning.

The girls sit together. They wear long-sleeved blouses, jeans and trainers, and white scarves cover their hair. The boys, who have made an effort to look cool, stand at the back. These are students, most of them, recipients of Mousab Khorma scholarships, from some of the poorest families in Jordan. Palestinians mainly, but these days Iraqis also displaced by war have moved into Jabal Natif, as have Egyptian labourers who queue each morning hoping to get work on Amman’s innumerable construction sites.

Only one boy and girl sit together, side by side rather self-consciously. ‘They would be punished if they did that outside,’ the translator whispers. She tells me the girl’s name means ‘revolution’. The group discussion a few weeks ago was about men and women respecting each other and being friends.

Ramadan has just ended and this Saturday morning the question put by one of the coordinators is ‘What happened to you in the last week that made you think again?’ First there is a few minutes silence and everyone is encouraged to close their eyes.

Then a young man, a sharp dresser, slick black hair, pointy shoes, a neck chain, takes the floor. He speaks with great feeling and breast beating. He has been crossed in love, the translator says in my ear. The girl promised to him three years ago has left him because his studies are going on too long and she wants to get married now and start a family. A widowed man in his fifties with money has approached her father who agreed that he was a better bet. The boy is distraught.

Everyone listens intently: the girls with downcast eyes, the boys nudging each other and making comments. Then a young woman stands up and goes to the front and says firmly that the girl did the wrong thing, she should wait. A young husband with qualifications is worth waiting for.

You are living in a dream, another woman contradicts her. If the girl can marry now she should. This boy will be two more years studying, then he’ll have to find work in another country, send money back home, to support his brothers and sisters, as well as a wife and children. What kind of a life is that?

The boys seem to think the young man was badly treated, the girl must be no good. She must have done something to encourage the offer. You’re well out of it, they tell him. Some of the girls disagree angrily. The last to speak is a boy in a blue T-shirt who sells roasted corn cobs on the streets of old Downtown day and night. An orphan, he lives in a hut nearby and is being taught to read by a student volunteer. He never misses a session, the translator tells me. You must stick to study, he tells the room, and trust that the right wife will come. Insh’allah. Everyone seems to agree.

The issues raised that morning range widely. The girls’ questions are mainly about friendship and fathers. One thinks her friends all want something from her. One realises her father can never change but she loves him and doesn’t want to defy him. The boys are more open. One weeps when he describes the death of his grandmother and how she had cared for him in Jabal Natif after his parents had died in the First Gulf War. This is a small community driven by loss and rage, who know each other’s stories and the calamities that have brought them here. Many have relatives in Gaza.

Often Dardashaat is about manners, about treating people with dignity, why modesty matters, and coping with change. Western values come up in Saturday sessions – which ones are good and which must be resisted. How parents and brothers can be helped to understand that a girl can be both virtuous and out in the world. There is a real sense in the room that the girls are strong. Later I am told by one of them: ‘All girls know how to be strong and brave. Boys have to be encouraged.’


Wounds run deep in this poor community as wave after wave of displaced and struggling people arrive here. But something else is happening that runs counter to the despair and poisonous ideologies that are fuelling extremism all over the region. The young participants in the Ruwaad programmes know they have been given a chance that they would not get elsewhere – and there is hope. Ruwwad’s programmes tackle victimisation head on. Attitudes and aspirations are being changed, opportunities created and the first steps towards creating a meritocracy have been taken in ways that seem to many to have every chance of lasting.

What has happened in just three years in Jabal Nathif is remarkable and inspiring. Just as the now widespread microcredit movement has begun to enable the poor in to improve their living conditions by their own efforts, Ruwwad seems to many people to be the start of another big idea that can counter ideology and extremism and start to soften identity politics by giving the people the hope they need. Recently, plans were taking shape for similar communities in other parts of the region: in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The hope now is they will not be on hold for long.

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Notes for Autobiography / Memoir Class with Paddy O’Reilly

Paddy’s invitation came at a good time for me.

You’ve had a terrific range of memoirists writing autobiography / memoir speaking to you this
semester, and I gather I’m the last.

Am trying to think through a dilemma I have with a sort of sequel to Other People’s Words –
which I have been fiddling with for quite a while. So I asked Paddy to let you have a sample
to read so you can help me think about it a bit later on.

Memoir and autobiography are such slippery categories and you have had terrific examples
of both. I realised I slipped between them when it suited me – autob. Being to my way of
thinking about the ‘I’. Memoir – about the life and times – whatever that means.

For publisher and bookseller – they are also convenient categories to market books.
Autobiography sounds more sober and theoretical, less dashing – memoir can be anything
you want it providing you can keep the reader engrossed – and be given an irresistible

The story the writer wants to tell slips and slides between self-absorption and its setting, the
inner and the outer worlds, – the why of the book (meaning why am I writing this? –
therapy, empathy, history, politics – and a myriad of other reasons)
The how of the book meaning how am I going to get anyone to read/understand what I
am on about? is the hardest part.

Paddy suggested I speak a little about structure and ethics – which sent me back to Other
People’s Words which I wrote rather a long time ago – about a time in publishing which
hasn’t exactly vanished but is certainly under threat again with the changes being mooted to
territorial copyright.

You have Chapter 4 Making Books – which begins the second part of OPW – about the idea
for McPhee Gribble, a small independent publisher in a book trade dominated by overseas-
owned companies who were conservative and constrained by their size and dominated by
books published elsewhere.

MPG was very much a group effort. Two women, with children, husbands, very little
available money – but a desire to publish the best new writing we could find – starting with
our own generation and our own children’s list. We went on to publish hundreds of books
and discovered dozens of writers etc.
It failed in the end – interest rates got us at the end of the 1980s with ‘Paul Keating’s
recession we had to have’ and we were taken over. By Penguin.
When I decided I’d recovered enough to try to write about it – I made myself visit the archives
at the Baillieu
Every bit of paper was there. The story was there.
The context was not of course.
And the context was the times, the people, the ethos, the cultural politics of the day.
And in 1999 when I was writing – everything had moved on and everyone exhorted me to
‘find something else to do with your life’. Writing about it, I thought, might help me get out of
a deep black hole.
So I had to find a way to make the context come alive which began with archives and photos
and letters
But also need the historical context that was in place when I had my first job and a baby
editor in the early seventies, women’s movement, new writers, post colonialism etc.

So I started with me – or with my grandmother really.
I used the first person pronoun whenever I had to – but also found ways to embed the kind
of frontier culture my father’s family had arrived in 1850s to, and the way books were
exchanged and read. I had to find a way to describe the history of publishing in this country
– in order to establish a context for the story I was trying to tell –
So my education at Melb uni where there was no AustLit taught except as an afterthought (it
was deemed secondrate) but we had great grounding in the classics, and I had a part time
job at Meanjin which gave me a great grounding in small magazines – in the struggle to be
heard, to find funding, to support Australian writing and artists.

Then I went to Penguin for a brief stint where there were only 27 Aust Penguins and they all
had boomerangs around them – by order of the Penguin UK. (Which meant they didn’t have
to order them.)
So by chapter 4 I had set the story in train –
I wanted to describe the way we worked, the authors who came to us, the excitement, the
highs and lows – the group effort of it all.

Reading the archives 10 years on I was stuck by the fact that none of us (there were about
12 of us most of the last decade) used the first person pronoun in their memos or letters to
authors or to designers or to other publishers.
Making books was always about letting writers know: ‘we have a feeling that’ or ‘we suggest’
or ‘we regret that we can’t do something’, or ‘we really love your book’

There were soaring egos of course at MPG but the shared effort was the reason we were so
good at what we did – or that was what I concluded looking at the correspondence files

So from Ch 4 the story I was trying to tell is about the ‘we’ – because I was acutely aware
that my recollections were only part of the story. It was the hardest chapter to write.

So the stories ‘that can’t be told because they belong to someone else’ – is always a
predicament when writing memoir.

In OPW this was about the authors and the people we worked with. The relationship
between editor and author is sacrosanct I think. A little like being a psychoanalyst. There are
so many things you know but can’t say.

And the books are the point.

Of course we all gossip and bitch about each other’s bad behaviour and egotism – but that is
not the same as writing ‘ So and so was an alcoholic whose mad letters in the archive
should have been torn up.’
Or ‘so and so, one of our young editors was always at parties trying to get off with our
authors’ husbands.’

Or ‘so and so ended up letting his editor rework his book then claimed he’d had no help at
All of these things happened – and I found a way to hint at them but without attaching names
or blame to them.

After the book came out another publisher who exists on gossip told me the book was a big
disappointment to her precisely because it lacked these insights.

The other tightrope I had to walk was working with primary sources for MPG but only
secondary sources for other companies – which don’t keep the records which show them in
a bad light. At that time they didn’t keep deep archives. I suppose they tore things up –
which Di and I didn’t do.

Much about the sale was commercial in confidence – and I needed to find a way to write
about the good guys and the bad who didn’t want to be written about. But that gave me parts
of my story too.

Now when I go to publishers events like the APIA awards in Sydney I hear authors like Tim
Winton and Richard Flanagan making fierce speeches about the damage that will be done to
Australian publishing and writing if the mooted changes are made as recommended by the
Productivity Commission wiping out Australian territorial copyright and reducing authors
copyright protection to 25 or even 5 years – in the name of Free Trade – it is like back to the
sixties and early seventies when book contracts to publish Gerard Murnane at William
Heinemann had to be sighed in the UK for ‘a colonial royalty’ – and even then they wouldn’t
take copies.


So if I may tell you a little about the sequel to OPW which is tentatively called Other
Peoples Houses. I gave you a small sample of a rough draft from the second chapter which
Paddy warns me you probably haven’t had time to read.

It is not really a sequel to OPW but it is a memoir of a decade from about 2000-2010 when I
was spending a great deal of time in other people’s houses, looking after an aged mother, a
writer husband and grown up children who were travelling. At the moment it begins like so
many books do with 9/11 when I was in a house with family and friends in Italy, and OPW
had just been published.

Soon after this hard times struck the world and the Iraq War broke out.
And shortly after that I was chased down in Melbourne then later in London and offered a
writing and interviewing job in Jordan which I couldn’t resist.

Spent the next three years going in and out of Amman, Syria, the West Bank, London and
Italy. Which sounds exotic and privileged and it was –
So when I came back to Australia I started to write about it – but not as a travelogue but as a
memoir of that time and of the project I was engaged with – how it came to pass, how it
changed and developed, what happened to it in the end. A sort of memoir of a book that
didn’t see the light of day in a part of the world that was under huge pressure.
I hope the sample I’ve given you gives some idea of how I fell into it.

So the structure of the book I thought I had, and the ethics I was always aware of. I was a
guest in the Royal House of the Hashemites – not literally in their palace but in a lovely
apartment in the grounds, with a great deal of access to the former Crown Prince who’s
family wanted me to find a way to tell his story. But he was reluctant, then gradually came to
enjoy our sessions sitting under his favourite tree in a beautiful garden away from
surveillance and eavesdroppers.

I was having such a good time asking my questions, probing the answers, reading
everything I could lay my hands on, flying all over the place, piecing together that
extraordinarily troubled jigsaw that was the postwar Middle East from the perspective of a
man who had been both at the centre and at an oblique angle to international affairs all his
life. In the end that book was finished but not published although there was a publisher and
a translator lined up.

So I returned to Australia and started trying to find a way to
write about this time. It was always going to be tricky – I was picking my way and got to the
stage of wanting to show the draft text to Prince Hassan in case there were references to
procedures and protocols he preferred omitted.

So I tried to find his PA on Facebook and Linkedin and had almost given up. All I wanted
was to remind her that I was still writing a short memoir about my time there, as I’d always
said I would – and that it was well advanced.

Testing the waters, I asked if she wanted to choose a pseudonym for herself. As his PA
during my time there, she was of course a character in the story with more than a walk on
part. She is the girl from Colac in the sample you have.

Without their private emails, there was no way of directly contacting El Hassan or his wife
without going through his PA. She or whoever had replaced her as PA I knew would ask ‘the
boss’. What I really wanted was permission to take the draft text back to their part of the
Middle East and sit with them and seek their approval of the things I wanted to say. So
perhaps I Should have anticipated the reply that was sitting on my server at eleven o’clock
the other night after weeks of silence.

Thank you for your email which I have discussed with TRH….
HRH would accept for you to mention that you had the opportunity to meet with HRH during
your time there but that would have to be the extent of the reference….
Also if you mention me, please could you not refer to my position or work in HRH’s office as
again this is private and personal to HRH.

My book is an affectionate portrait of an extraordinary time during the Iraq war. Jordan is,
understandably, a very paranoid place. My book is about a lot of other things as well. But I
need to describe why I was there!
Jordan is a monarchy. There are immense cultural differences around the language of
security, privacy, confidentiality.
The word privacy was used initially – when I showed them a lyrical piece I had written for
the Monthly but not yet sent to the editor – about the garden surrounding their lovely old
house built in the early 1920s for the British Ambassador during the Protectorate.

Surveillance was everywhere: the Royal Guards, the cavalcades of army jeeps, the sense
that our work and emails were monitored, the preference was always to be outdoors for the
interviews in a part of the garden where the trees weren’t bugged. Or so I was told.

Democracy is evolving, law is Sharia. Jordan more advanced than most other Arab
countries. This is an absolute monarchy with a constitution and the trappings of parliament –
elections are held, but rigged, streets are covered in banners and huge posters of
candidates, some of them women, all of them in favour with the king who appoints his
cabinet and his prime minister. Because there is a large population of Palestinians, and now

Syrian refugees, radicalism is tolerated to a very limited extent. There are Muslim
Brotherhood candidates. Radicalisation of the young was and is a huge concern.

Advice I have received so far:
Say whatever I like and hope that my publisher will take the risk – as the fact of the book has
been in the public domain for some time.

Leave several pages blank with a big black stamp ‘censored by the Hashemite Kingdom of

Fictionalise the experience and somehow make it unidentifiable. ‘In a small kingdom
somewhere in the Middle East, there was a Crown Prince called Zog …’

They can’t stop me. They won’t extradite me. But I wouldn’t win a court battle under
Jordanian law.

But worst of all is I understand their position. If they don’t want to be written about, that is
their prerogative. I don’t want to do a book in Bad Faith.

So it’s back to the desk and start again – unless you have a better idea.

Posted in Blog Posts, Work in Progress | Comments Off on Notes for Autobiography / Memoir Class with Paddy O’Reilly

Introduction to Christina Stead – A Web of Friendship – Selected Letters (1928 – 73)

The Miegunyah Press – 2017

Christina Stead left Australia at the age of twenty-six, arriving in England in 1928 ‘like a small insect waving its antennae’.

‘I really hate work,’ she wrote to her cousin Gwen. ‘I am not a born writer, but must say … I get the profoundest, most passionate satisfaction from writing and it is the only thing, since I am so thin, that keeps me from getting fretful under disappointment natural to living merely.’

Words trip over words, you sense stories in the making. Her letters are performances, passionate narratives from life, bashed out single-spaced on second-hand typewriters with handwritten annotations. The correspondence selected here, preserved by family members, by agents and publishers, by writerly friends and literary acquaintances all over the world, is from Stead’s side only. The letters she received were mostly destroyed as she and Marxist writer Bill Blake, her life’s companion, moved in and out of rented and borrowed accommodation across the northern hemisphere.

Between the wars and afterwards was a difficult time to be an Australian-born writer. Censorship was rife, publishing everywhere was conservative, with publishers rarely interested in manuscripts emanating from the colonies. Stead’s first London publisher, Peter Davies, didn’t ‘get’ her books, or so it seemed to her, and paid royalties irregularly—but he did champion The Salzburg Tales and Seven Poor Men of Sydney in London and New York. Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Brace in New York were more attuned to Stead’s dog-eats-dog dark comedies, her rapid shifts of pace in House of All Nations and For Love Alone—but the rest of them were ‘tripe merchants’ recommending she emulate Steinbeck and Hollywood tie-ins like Gone with the Wind. In Sydney Angus & Robertson, then the only publisher of size in Australia, was the real villain as far as Stead was concerned—interested only in Australiana and pot-boilers, declaring her cosmopolitan novels too literary, ‘un Australian’. Stead and Blake, a German Jew raised in the States, much preferred Eastern European publishers who translated and produced their novels in handsome editions. Also ‘socialist publishers pay royalties,’ she told friends, the accrued funds in local currencies being spent on fine booze and books whenever they could visit.

Stead always insisted she invented nothing, embroidering, coding, making fantastical metaphors from the depths and heights of real life. She strongly disapproved of ‘Freud’s noisome fancies, mostly ridiculous, from literary work … I always want to say (but don’t usually) “But those things are real, friend, not sickly dreams”.’ She blamed her father, a naturalist, for forming her, deforming her, giving her up to bad stepmothers who couldn’t love her and she wrote David Stead no letters after she sailed away. But The Man Who Loved Children, first published with little fanfare in 1940, enshrines her rage and love. Stead declared the book ‘terribly lifelike’, and too painful for her to ever re-read.

Her deepest friendships were always with men, their wives mentioned fondly but in passing. She first met American poet and critic, Stanley Burnshaw, in New York in 1933 with Bill Blake at the office of the Communist journal, New Masses. Stead responds at length and with great perspicacity to his work, and he always to hers. ‘You say the novel is spotted with some extraordinarily dull and gawky pages which look suspiciously deliberate,’ she writes, ‘but I may as well say they are not deliberate, they are just dull and gawky on their own and it may be a long time, in fact, before I can eliminate these dull passages from my writing.’ Her letters reflect that reciprocity so crucial between writerly friends—those who take the trouble to write a detailed analysis of the other’s work, who send each other advance copies, who ask their publishers to consider seriously the work of a writer they respect, who feel free to rage about the treatment they receive at the hands of their editors and critics.

Many years later, it would be Burnshaw, then Vice President of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, who saw to the pivotal reissue in 1965 of The Man Who Loved Children, and commissioned an introduction by the superb critic Randall Jarrell. Stead writes to Burnshaw that she approached Jarrell’s words ‘with the usual feeling of quiet nausea, fear too, which always puts me off the reading of criticism … With this I had the feeling one has about one who truly loves you—“How can it be? How can he love me? How puzzling.” … I had the same feeling almost—the perfect reader, the real reader. Who does one write for? Oneself—and the true reader … This is such a new and even pure sensation.’

Reading between the lines of Stead’s letters, something of the difficulty of being an expatriate writer, published in London and New York with agents in both countries and a small or non-existent market subject to colonial royalties in Australia can be understood. Those who lived for years outside Australia often suffered for their cosmopolitanism and subject matter. Henry Handel Richardson and Randolph Stow never returned. Patrick White did but continued to be published first in London and New York. Christina Stead, always scathing about the English class system, disliking the adulation of the Bloomsbury Set and ‘the Virginia Woolf thing’, craved an Australian readership which was a very long time coming.

At first there were occasional mentions of overseas reviews in the Sydney literary pages which her cousin Gwen sends her.Nettie Palmer starts writing to her in 1935, passing on Rebecca West’s praise of Seven Poor Men of Sydney. The women had been delegates to the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, a gathering in Paris of writers and intellectuals against fascism. Walter Stone of the Book Collectors’ Society in 1949 writes asking for publication details of her books in their various editions for his Newsletter which solicits a grateful reply from Stead, pointing out that Australia was the only country to ban Letty Fox the previous year, ‘caused by some highly coloured press stories in the Australian papers … with the idea of helping sales.’

But it was the literary quarterlies, Meanjin and Southerly, publishing occasional stories and commissioning critical articles, which began building her public. The magazines, dependent on small amounts of support from universities and the Commonwealth Literary Fund, could pay only pittances but she was fortunate in editors such as Clem Christesen, who at times provided substantial feedback. Stead hated being edited and was often late returning proofs.

Her correspondence is like a map of an emerging culture. Editors, writers and academics such as Nancy Keesing, Dymphna Cusack, Dorothy Green, Elizabeth Harrower, Mary Lord, Judah Waten and Michael Wilding start to seek her out whenever they are in London, and fret about the invisibility of her great opus. Their students are encouraged to read her, they include her in anthologies of new Australian writing and nominate her for fellowships and awards. Stead is heartened by the attention but is no pushover—railing at times about Australian literary criticism being ‘heavy fumy palimpsesting’ and editors ‘who keep embroidering upon the authors’ MS (And must be restrained.)’.

Not until after Bill Blake had died did she return to Australia for a few months in 1969—the recipient of a Creative Arts Fellowship from the ANU, Category B for ‘an Australian expatriate artist of international repute’. Her novels here were largely out of print, unattainable even in libraries but Australian literature was well on the way to being ‘discovered’ and she found herself an Official Personage, interviewed, photographed, fêted everywhere. It was all a great strain, she hated public speaking and she drank too much, but she loved the trees and the big skies and being driven from Canberra to Melbourne across the Monaro by her new friend Dorothy Green.

Professor R.G. Geering first wrote to Stead early in 1960 enquiring about her publishing history, offering to act as a go-between with Angus & Robertson in an attempt to get paperback editions of her novels published in Australia. Her letter in reply is restrained but firm. He visits her in London a few years later. He is an academic, a species despised and ridiculed by Stead and Blake, but his respect for her work and his determination to have it republished was palpable and her reliance on him starts to grow. ‘Dear Professor Geering’ quickly becomes ‘Dear Ron’ and their friendship blossoms to the point where he eventually became Stead’s Literary Trustee, expert in the ways of ‘weaving a culture’, as she put it, ‘tending the exotic plants in Australian literary gardens’. He and his wife Dorothy were kind and forbearing during the desperately lonely years after Bill’s death and it was Ron Geering who was left to place in the National Library a trunk load of loose ends and to collect the hundreds of letters she had written over half a century. Stead had earlier destroyed all her drafts, most of her private papers, diaries and intimate correspondence from family and friends. They on the other hand had kept hers.

‘I am a believer in love. That’s really my religion,’ Christina Stead said to an interviewer at the end of her life. She saw herself as unlovable, fearful of being bereft of male company, craving passion and fearing rejection. Nothing but her letters, surely, could give us more of a sense of being a great writer, engaged in ‘the awful blind strength and cruelty of the creative impulse’, reaching out, yearning for a true reader.

Now that letter-writing is almost done for, the next generation of literary trustees will find themselves wrestling with very different gaps in the record and tracks in the algorithms. The outrage and struggle will still be there, the jokes and the gossip and the despair about government policy, fickle publishers, facile critics. Literary biographers will have to pick their way through more self-censorship and self-promotion, more anxiety, perhaps. Writers who SMS are often indiscreet, sometimes at great length with paragraphs and punctuation in place, starting some of them with an OMG or a satirical emoji. Their emails tend to be more judicious or to include instructions—ignored mostly, I assume—to ‘burn this’. The protocols are instinctive and evolving.

So it is no surprise that the bliss of reading torrents of letters left by writers gets ever stronger. You feel the presence of the past, the writer’s past, this country’s past, your own past—and you sense the future start to unfold. Stead’s letters, with their awkward Australian bones, their cosmopolitan sensibility and their ‘intelligent ferocity’ cannot help but draw us in.

Hilary McPhee

The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing, 2017


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Brian Johns: The Force Of Ideas



O the sad but perfect irony of me being asked to write about my friend Brian John’s legacy for Meanjin online just a few days after his death. He, who rarely spoke about himself, would not have approved.

He loved small magazines like Meanjin, believing them to be essential, doing what he could to ensure their support. Meanjin’s quarterly essay, was funded through the CAL’s Cultural Fund which he chaired for many years. We were both on the magazine’s Advisory Committee and at different times on the MUP Board – his contribution, unlike mine, never wavering.

Soon after he arrived in Melbourne in 1979 to take up the job of publishing director at Penguin, he sought out Di Gribble and me. McPhee Gribble was then in a shabby three storey terrace house in Carlton with a childcare department on the ground floor, itinerant writers and another small publisher renting rooms from us on the third, and a vast front room with a balcony in the middle, perfect for producing books and having parties.

Penguin Books was then a long way out of town on the Maroondah Highway and our offices in Drummond Street, Carlton and later in Fitzroy became a sort of end of week staging post for Brian. Every Friday night, first in the office then in the pub and at dinner somewhere later, we’d argue ideas and politics and ways to make things happen.

Brian read and discussed what we published and pressed copies on his friends. Word-of-mouth we called it, knowing it was superior to any marketing campaign and Brian was a master of good talk. We did the same for his list at Penguin when his revolution began and Penguin was open for original fiction and opinionated non-fiction and polemic. He published Elizabeth Jolley, Blanche d’Alpuget, Thea Astley, David Ireland, Rodney Hall and Frank Moorhouse and many more besides. Henry Reynolds brought him The Other Side of the Frontier, Bernard Smith, The Boy Aeodatus and he commissioned remarkable books like John Bryson’s Evil Angels, the account of the Lindy Chamberlain case, and Richard Haese’s Rebels and Precursors about Modernist painters.

Brian Johns

His contacts were second to none and reflected his years in the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Whitlam then Fraser, and his skills as a journalist. He insisted his friends should know each other so Sydney became our town as well. These were the Hawke and Keating years in the run-up to the Bicentennial and all of us were honing our imaginations and sense of the place, stretching the limits of what was possible in theatre and film and cultural policy making, The diversity of Australian stories became a favourite mantra.

Brian was appointed head of the SBS in 1987 and we all cheered and danced late into the night. Broadcast media was where he was meant to be. At McPhee Gribble we were about to expand our staff and our publishing when the economic downturn, Keatings’ ‘recession we had to have’ started to bite and Penguin’s policy towards us inevitably changed. McPhee Gribble was eventually absorbed into Penguin and I moved on, becoming a few years later chair of the Australia Council with a brief to overhaul it. Diana started Text Media with Eric Beecher. Brian became head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

We shared the same Ministers for Communications and the Arts, Michael Lee, under Keating, and then Richard Alston, Howard’s Minister for Communications and the Arts – sometimes meeting in the outer offices, sometimes in the lift, giving each other the thumbs up as we went in to argue policy and funding for creativity and multimedia convergence. Creative Nation was released in October 1994 with its $252 million in additional spending for the arts and multimedia.

And in 1995 Brian became Managing Director of the ABC, the role he was made for and had set his sights on years before. Diana became a director and eventually his deputy chair. Reading and publishing books, broadcasting and making cultural policy that enabled new work by writers and artists and performers were all part of the same thing, we told each other whenever we met.

The force of ideas Brian called it.

We’d argue pictures as we argued books. He’d often ring wanting a weekend going around the galleries to see the work of an artist he wanted to share – Jan Senbergs, Rick Amor, Lloyd Rees, William Robinson, Peter Booth, Colin Lanceley, Rosie Gascoigne. His taste was wide and discerning. Many of them were friends.

So much I learnt from him.

I first heard of mango-mouth from Brian describing his childhood in Gordonsvale, Queensland where his father was a wharfie and a barber and where the kids climbed mango trees and feasted until their lips were red and swollen.

I first heard of the One True Faith from him too, he who had spent three years from the age of sixteen in a Sydney seminary with several of his friends who’d remained in the priesthood. Brian liked late at night to make non-believers and vacillating protestants feel like heathens covered in woad stumbling through the dark without a compass.

Brian’s moral compass was unwavering. A modest man whose interest in other people was vast, he would describe the trajectory of his life’s work with a dismissive gesture of both hands as ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’.

His legacy is formidable and every aspect of broadcasting is steeped in it. Mark Scott delivering the Inaugural Brian Johns AO Lecture last September paid homage to his foresight. ‘In the infancy of the internet, a decade before broadband, Brian realised that traditional broadcast platforms would converge to create an audience experience based solely on content.’ ‘One ABC’ was born – a great public broadcaster in a digital age.

These days my New Years Eve’s are as austere and solitary as I can make them – superstitious about first footings and seeing the New Year in with a good whisky outside under the night sky.

This time I was thinking much about Brian and the recent message he’d left on my phone apologising for being ‘rather elusive, having been in a bit of a muck’. We had spoken later about the muck he was in and his beloved Sarah’s heroism and when he might be well enough to be up for a visit from me. I reminded him of how he had come to see me in intensive care a long time ago when I woke to find him standing by the bed, his rumpled face pale with concern, calling me a silly little Scottish sheila, like he often did, making me laugh, making me somehow determined to recover and get back into the great heady game of it all.

But I didn’t make it to Sydney and Brian died at dawn on New Year’s morning.

Published in Meanjin’s Quarterly Blog, January 4 2016.
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My friend, Diana Gribble, died the other night …

Diana Gribble

Written for The Drum, ABC.

Since then the tributes have poured forth from people who knew her well, and from some who didn’t but had benefitted from her gifts – her ability to make things happen, to set things to rights and to cut to the chase. Di’s risk-taking has been mentioned a good deal – and that I can vouch for.

We had taken a risk on each other, after all – two young women back in 1974. Both feminists fond of men, with a shared a passion for reading and typography, but backgrounds and experiences which were poles apart. When Diana and Jack’s wedding made a big splash in the Age’s social pages, I was a bohemian young mother in the Dandenongs with an artist husband and no running water or electricity. When we met again over a campaign to interview every Federal Politician about where they stood on issues of abortion and equality, I was a novice editor and Diana was working for an advertising agency. We signed an old-fashioned partnership agreement to form an entity to do whatever came along that appealed to us,  promising to be “true and honest with each other at all times”.

Risk-taking was the only way we could do what we did for the next 17 years with no capital except for a $3000 loan from Diana’s father, a few hazy promises of editorial and design work from publishing contacts and our wits.

Sir Archibald’s loan went on two white chairs, a white filing cabinet, a golf ball typewriter and a bottle of good scotch. This was the era of Australia’s version of Mad Men – big men in suits dropping by after long lunches to give us advice.

“Brains and Beauty in South Yarra” was the headline to an interview about the start-up by the literary editor of the Age. “More” and “Better” one bloke dubbed us – meaning, we assumed, the way we worked. “Fuckme” and “Grapple” was another tag which has just swum up from the depths.

They were exhilarating years, most of them. We were spotting talent, publishing the books we fell for, commissioning hundreds of others we wanted written. There was an office crèche for the McPhee Gribble babies and we employed mainly bright young women with no experience plus the occasional bloke who wasn’t intimidated and who made us laugh.

In the end the money got us. We were trying to refinance an expansion and a separation from a tough co-publishing deal with Penguin we should never have made.  Then Keating’s “recession we had to have” hit in the late eighties and interest rates climbed to seventeen and a half percent. For a terrible 18 months our offices were festooned in spread sheets, the two of us spending weekends dreaming up combinations of non-existent titles for business plans with acceptable margins for more men in suits – trying to hit on people who might try to understand publishing and its risks.

My memory is we took it in turns to go in and out of panic. Di mortgaged her house, I borrowed a large sum from one of my brothers. Penguin was waiting in the wings.

The end, when it came, was as bad as they get. A deal was put on the table for me to go with the authors and for Di and our splendid small staff of about 12 to go away. When Diana told me this, that I had no choice, it was a done deal – I roared out to a meeting in a Ringwood café with the Penguin MD to try to explain for the umpteenth time that the authors needed us both. That the more than 30 brilliant titles in the pipeline needed our way of working. That Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, Rod Jones’ new novel and the next Kaz Cooke needed far more than me. That Stephanie Alexander was talking to us about a big cookbook – and that none of this could happen without all of us. In the end I saved four jobs – and got a speeding ticket plus a one month suspension of my driver’s licence for losing it with a young cop.

I had to go with the deal, Di told me. She had to walk away. Their agenda did not include her – and hers, of course, did not include them. So the hideous drawn out stage of lawyers and draft sales agreements and assignment of contracts began.

Our friendship would survive the wedge, we told each other in the office right at the end when the removalists were in. We lunched every month, rang each other often, sent each other copies of our books and magazines. We even visited each other’s offices once or twice. That was harder. When Text Media began I made myself feel pleased.

Inevitably our lives diverged but kept on over-lapping. Diana went from strength to strength in various media with a creative business relationship with Eric Beecher that seemed to me to be exactly right. I left corporate publishing, went on far too many boards and committees and wrote a little book which Di was generous about. Our children grew up and kept in touch. We remembered birthdays and anniversaries, we went to many of the same parties and dinners – but it was indeed a relationship “strained by the deal” as someone reported the other day. It was hard on our families and must have been hard on our friends, who never mentioned it to me.

I lived overseas for a few years. It was a few days after I got back that I ran into Di at a party outside among the smokers where the best conversations were still to be had. She suggested coffee the next day and I assumed we’d do what we’d done for years – a brisk hug, swap notes about each other’s lives and husbands, avoiding the old stuff. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who knew Diana that it was she, not me, who broke the taboo.

Stop talking about the children, she said, straight up. We’ve got to talk about the end of McPhee Gribble and what happened to us. And we did.

At first we met early in the morning every Thursday  – moving from café to café around Fitzroy and North Carlton aware of the spectacle we were making of ourselves. Two women in their late sixties weeping and raging and clutching each other’s hands before staggering out white-faced in dark glasses. Sometimes afterwards we’d text each other about nearly throwing up or going back to bed. But over the next few months we managed to talk about feelings of being betrayed and devalued. Both of us. High-risk stuff but fabulous – which made us proud.

After some months of this, there was nothing left to be said. The stories of our lives were much more gripping and we settled back to regular coffees outside at Marios – just down the road from the last seedy old office which is still there covered in graffiti.

Now it all feels like some kind of gift.

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Letter to the Editor – ABR October 2015


Shannon Burns’ splendid ABR essay, The scientist of his own experience, a profile of Gerard Murnane, is rich with insights and pithy observations, plus some rather fine photos. Much of it resonated for me, as Murnane’s first editor, soon after I’d arrived at William Heinemann from Penguin eons ago.

When Gerald Murnane needed a publisher for his first novel, Tamarisk Row , Barry Oakley almost certainly suggested Heinemann because the Managing Director was John Burchall, a former bookseller, prodigious reader and long luncher – and one of the few publishers passionate about original Australian writing.

Certainly after one of those lunches, a fat brown paper parcel landed on my desk. Tamarisk Row immediately impressed me as an eccentric masterpiece, like nothing else. No chapters, just perfectly formed sentences in long paragraphs often over several pages, and dauntingly dense when typeset. So a kind of blank verse of one line signposts for each break, written by the author, was suggested by me, as was not to include a prelude of some forty pages of family history. Shannon Burns’ take on Murnane’s psychology is deeply interesting and made me aware that this may well have contained clues to Murnane’s unease around women. But the novel didn’t need it, and the author agreed.

Heinemann had recently sold huge quantities of Wilbur Smith’s Gold Mine and The Diamond Hunters – which John Burchall believed should finance modest sellers such as Tamarisk Row in hardback and with any luck might be picked up by Penguin for a paperback. (It wasn’t because the then editor at Penguin was John Hooker, also a novelist, who delighted in knocking back books he didn’t like on the grounds that ‘We’re ok for fiction at Penguin, thanks.’)

Shannon Burns quotes Murnane recalling me as determined to emphasise the book’s erotic passages. ’You have to publicise, but I remember Hilary McPhee putting on the dust jacket Childhood sex!”

 Childhood sex! So the other day I climbed a ladder to the top of my bookshelves for the 1974 Heinemann hardback edition of Tamarisk Row which John Burchall and I had laboured long over with designer David Wire. The dustjacket is a model of restraint. A beautiful close up photograph on a black background of one of the author’s own marbles from which his fictional boy, Clement Killeaton, constructs his elaborate game of racetracks and family mythology. I can hear the sound the alleys made as Murnane poured them from their cotton bag on to Burchall’s desk for Wire to photograph.

The blurb actually reads: ‘Childish sexuality is a major theme in the novel, handled with almost painful honesty and sensuality so that the boy’s world with its many conflicts is as disturbing as the adults’ world around him.’

Murnane has often said he would like Tamarisk Row republished unexpurgated – and maybe one day it will be. That his memory is a little faulty about the commercial environment, the editorial interventions he endured and his first dustjacket blurb doesn’t matter at all in the scheme of things, but the italics and the addition of the exclamation mark … Ho hum. Editors as midwives, remote and unapproachable mothers, profiles of literary figures forensically constructing their own profiles … Thank you, Shannon Burns, for a fascinating portrait of one of our best writers. Now, please, the biography.

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It Happened on a Fishing Trip


Affirm Press, 2015.

Edited by Paddy O’Reilly


All the way down the South Gippsland highway in the back of Fred’s new car the women sang to Paul Kelly then to an old Tammy Wynette compilation, so no one heard the news. Warnings there may well have been, not unlike those signs about submerged rocks and tidal extremities bristling on the wharf at the Lakes. The first photo Hettie took with her new camera was of Jack and Fred with rods and reels, grinning beneath their battered hats, with Mira eyes wide pointing in mock alarm at a sign to the open sea.

The boat bobbing in the marina on a light swell early that Saturday afternoon seemed much bigger than the 36-footer of the brochures. They admired the good-sized cockpit, the blue canopy, the dymo-labelled switches, the raised compass next to the wheel, the gleaming teak and oak finishes of the main cabin and the sleeping berths. There was a mainsail, neatly bundled in a blue canvas cover, but none of the friends had sailed before and didn’t intend to start. Words such as port and starboard and gimbals on which the stainless steel stove was gently rocking, were bandied about as they changed their shoes then stashed the pile of weekend papers, food and wine, and fishing gear before listening to instructions from the boat hire people about switching fuel tanks and reversing out of the berth into the main channel and heading for the legendary fishing grounds of the Lakes.

In those days the Duttons and the Kormans saw each other all the time, close in the way of childless couples in their early forties, who’d been married before. Mira Korman and Hettie Dutton were not interested in fishing so much as being altogether, doing things. They were happy that their husbands hit it off. Best friends even. A perfect fit. Fred Dutton was a big shot in real estate and Jack Korman taught building construction. The couples met every Friday night at Mira’s cafe, where the idea of fishing the Lakes together first came up and the planning started.

Three or four meals of fresh flatties and bream or tailor, if they were lucky, so lots of potatoes, lemons and garlic. Hettie would make her boiled fruit cake and a meat loaf and they’d take a large tub of Mira’s famous lentil soup. They’d need a pepper grinder, oil and a sharp knife. And rubber gloves, said Mira. The women’s pleasure in the prospect was palpable. The men would book the boat for the long weekend and meet one lunchtime at the Compleat Angler to purchase new reels and tackle.

None of the four had motored out into an estuary at the wheel of anything at all let alone a middle-sized cruiser. The jokes had begun on the long drive down about the range of experience on board. Fred had once worked in a city car park where young blokes like him raced exotic cars between floors after-hours. Jack sometimes fished on the bay in a friend’s tinny with an outboard. Both women had holidayed years ago with a group on a catamaran up the east coast, sunbaking, reading and taking turns at the stove and the tiller. Hettie had written a couple of articles for a travel magazine during a month on a cargo boat around the islands just before she met Fred. Mira thought they could both remember how to take bearings with a compass.

Between them it would be enough. The men examined the engine, checked the chart, peered at the echo sounder, argued briefly about who should take the wheel and who should prepare the lines, and hinted that some fruit cake and beers from the esky wouldn’t go amiss. They’d bought local wrigglers and prawns on the recommendation of fishermen in overalls and waders in the bait shop near the quay, but planned to dig for worms ashore later when they’d found their safe haven for the night. Hettie’s photos show three of them standing on deck holding life jackets and beers, radiating happiness.

By mid afternoon they were underway, chugging out into a tailwind with Jack at the wheel and Mira reading the List of Navigation Aids from under a plastic shield in the cockpit to shrieks of laughter. ‘My handsome husband,’ cried Mira, ‘is Master of the Vessel who must maintain a distance of 100 metres astern of any other vessel proceeding in the same direction.’ No other boats were heading their way, Fred pointed out, as they started across the channel towards a point marked by a beacon that flashed occasionally.

Cardinal marks (yellow and black) and plain yellow marks have special significance,’Mira read. The chart, with its estuaries and channels indicated by depth, seemed to assume a degree of local knowledge. A couple of churches on headlands and lookout towers were marked, as were fuelling depots, and casual berthing jetties. ‘That sounds like us,’ said Hettie hugging Fred.

The marina was well in their wake when Jack slowed the engine so bearings could be taken. There’s a fuzzy photo of Mira and Hettie standing in the cockpit next to Jack, debating compass points. The plan was now to head towards the mouth across the main channel then make for a small island on the south-west shore yet to be distinguished from the grey-green scrub between them and the beach. Here they would berth, set fishing lines off the stern and bait the rods for the evening’s catch. It had to be there somewhere, they agreed.

An hour later, Jack was still cutting across lumpy water. There was spray now on the windscreen, though no one knew the correct name for it, and if there were wipers they didn’t work. Fishing boats of serious size lined the horizon and behind them, threatening the last of the sun, loomed a bank of purple clouds.

The island was still not visible, a strong southerly was getting up, and what might be a local fishing fleet was heading past them towards the mouth. The wash made Fred, in his straw hat, look up from the sporting pages and Hettie, leaning against his knees, from her paperback. Jack tried exchanging exasperated glances with his wife, but Mira had her eyes fixed firmly on the horizon in an attempt to still her stomach. The deep water had vanished and the sandy bottom with occasional beer cans could now be seen – but how much water they needed under a boat this size no one knew. Jack slowed the engine, tried but failed to take a depth sounding, and announced he was heading directly for the island. The Duttons returned to their reading.

By the time they nosed their way into what looked to be a creek with a low-lying bank of scrubby ti-tree and tussocks out of the wind, the sun was dipping into the sea behind them. When the canopy above the deck started catching on overhanging branches, Jack cut the engine. Fred threw the anchor over the side where it sank into the mud. Then he leaped ashore to tie loose lines to a couple of trees. There’s a photo of him thrashing at a cloud of mozzies with his hat, then another after Jack and Mira pulled him back on board, his woollen socks full of burrs.

How to read tide tables for a series of lakes with access at one end to the open sea? A mild argument broke out about applying the range between high and low tide and what might a half-flood be or a three-quarters ebb. The women found fenders and a life buoy in the lockers and positioned them over the side nearest the bank. A sea anchor mentioned in the navigation instructions to stop the stern swinging, didn’t seem to exist, and there wasn’t much room to swing anyway. ‘We’re up shit creek,’ Fred joked. No one laughed.

As night fell, the couples drank beer and red wine, ate cold meatloaf and cake, then slathered each other with insect repellent. Jack and Fred started on about real-estate values round the Lakes compared with Northcote then headed up on deck – Fred to smoke a cigar and Jack to set lines. Mira and Hettie finished their wine, cleaned their teeth over the side, and rolled out sleeping bags: the Duttons on either side of the main cabin and the Kormans in the stern. They could hear each other’s whispering and stifled laughter, then silence as the motion of the boat on the rising tide got to them.

Later the ugly sounds of scraping started against the hull. The Kormans climbed out of their sleeping bags to check the fenders – Mira hoping to sight the moon which should be almost full, she thought. But the lines were tangled in the reeds and a thick mist had enveloped the boat.


The couples awoke to heavy rain pelting against the hatch and streaming down the windows on a boat strangely still and tilted. The bow had swung with the tide and was now wedged tightly between tussocks. Fred and Jack stood in the gangway conferring gloomily about having no room to turn and having to reverse all the way out of the creek into the main channel before they could make for somewhere better for fishing. Hettie and Mira kept out of their way.

Their choices were few. No point in trying to fish in a deluge. No point in climbing into wet weather gear until they were ready to push off. No point in trying to push off until the tide turned. Whether heavy rain caused fish to rise to the bait or skulk in the mud was now up for debate. Jack knew about the joys of fishing as a kid for giant Murray cod in the rivers of western NSW. Was lake fishing the same as river fishing? No one knew. A fatalistic calm set in. The couples settled at the pull-out table in the cabin with the weekend papers and fried eggs, toast and pots of coffee, plus the round-up of the weekend footy over the crackling radio. The rain kept on streaming down windows made foggy with their breath.

By early afternoon the tide was surely on the turn. They should start to shove the boat away from the bank then, in reverse, make their way slowly back out of the creek. Like a ship of fools, said Fred. Then they’d head around the north-western shore of the lake into an estuary renowned, according to a brochure Jack had found on board, for flathead and bream – even perch on their way to saltwater to breed.

Freeing the bow of the boat from the bank required a reversing manoeuvre in a tight space to avoid impaling the hull on the submerged branches opposite. Mira was at the wheel with Fred standing in the stern shouting a bunch of rapid gear changes at her. On deck Jack and Hettie frantically moved fenders, shoving with the boat hook and their feet at tree trunks and tussocks. Slowly the bow came free, and Fred took over as the boat nudged its way stern first down the creek and back into the estuary.

Mugs of lentil soup were passed around. On the table, Mira had propped open The Age’s weather page with warnings of storms rolling in from the south-west. Hettie tied a rope to a bucket to slosh water and scrub in rubber gloves at the worst of the marks on the deck and hull. No one mentioned the damage clause in the hiring agreement but awareness of their incompetence was dawning. The weekend was half over. Sodden wet weather gear dripped in the corner of the cabin. Fred steered out into a channel well marked with buoys. Hettie cut slices of her boiled fruitcake and put the kettle on. Jack and Mira lay on their bunks. Silence fell.

By mid afternoon the wind was coming in strong gusts. The few boats on the horizon seemed to be heading east for the mouth or back into one of the several ports. The couples perhaps to emphasise their togetherness now took hourly turns at the wheel, one steering and one navigating by the chart. The course was towards a small cove indicated by a beacon that they would surely see flashing soon. Nothing was marked by way of a jetty, but the chart noted a swing moving buoy available for public use, which must mean they could tie up to it and fish.

It was a miracle, they agreed, when Jack spotted the buoy made from a rusty oil drum with a battered marker pole rolling in the waves. Fred instructed Hettie at the wheel to circle round and come back as close to the buoy as she could, then to slow the engine right down allowing the others enough time to pick the marker up with the boat hook. Then he reached across her and cut the engine. This took several goes, with Mira on deck hanging onto Jack’s legs as he leaned with the boat hook far over the rail. At last he managed to grab the buoy’s rusty chain and pull it towards him so Mira could tether it with a blue nylon rope through a ring in the deck. The boat rocked wildly then swung back into the wind, the waves slapping against the hull.

Everyone retreated miserably into themselves: Jack sneezing at the table, checking his box of fishing tackle; Hettie opposite him was writing in her notebook and singing something bright under her breath. Fred was back on his bunk with the business pagesand Mira, white-faced and puffy, lay flat on hers with a bucket by her side. Nobody spoke.

Later, they knew they’d been fortunate to be woken by a megaphone from a fishing boat twice their size that had come alongside to warn them off.

‘You need the nor’east mooring about another forty mins full throttle,’the loud hailer shouted. ‘This one’ll drag.’

The couples went quietly, dropping the old mooring buoy more efficiently than they’d picked it up and heading as fast as they dared towards what they hoped was north-east.

It was very dark but the rain had eased by the time they tied up at a wooden jetty under a flashing beacon. There were no other boats. No sign of life. No one mentioned that this was their last night nor that a night of fishing and frying the catch had become more than an imperative. The men, rugged up against the cold with towels around their necks, seated themselves in the stern to bait their rods with tired-looking prawns and wrigglers from the store. Now the worst of the weather was over, the fish would surely rise to the bait. Allegiances shifted subtly again.

Down below the women heated the last of the soup and handed up slices of meat loaf. Mira placed the frying pan on the stove with a flourish, then delicately positioned a couple of lemons, the knife and the olive oil next to it, so Hettie could photograph the still-life-in-readiness. Their disorientation had subsided. The men’s irritation was understandable. They’d of course lost face, their wives agreed. Now they’d bring home the bacon. Hettie and Mira would turn it into sublime fresh fish with perfect pommes frites on the side.

Your good girl’s gonna go bad,’ they softly sang together.

Through the hatch came the amiable rumble of men talking bait, the sounds of whirling reels, an occasional shout, then silence. Potatoes were peeled, finely chopped, drained and dried, and a saucepan of oil set ready. When Fred’s cigar smoke started wafting back through the hatch, the women found lipsticks and jackets then carried wineglasses and an uncorked bottle up on to the deck and settled themselves to watch the action.

The fish were biting alright. Bream by the dozen and the occasional flathead – but all well undersized and scrupulously unhooked and tossed back again and again.

‘So delicious crumbed and deep fried,’ said Mira sadly.

Another bottle of wine was called for as the cold set in, and then that the chips be fried up. Jack and Fred set lines with the remaining prawns and crumbled the last of the meatloaf over the side for burley.


The light on the water was dazzling next morning, the coastal dunes in the far distance as clear as the beginning of the world. Across the lake was the entrance to the marina where they’d set off two days ago. Black swans and a clutch of musk ducks were cruising past the jetty when the men, up on deck to piss and check the lines, found the eels. Two glittering silver-bellied creatures each more than a metre long were entwined together, twirling in the sunlight.

The Duttons and the Kormans swung into action. Rubber gloves, a half-filled bucket, the sharp knife, an emptied duffle bag. One at a time Fred manoeuvred the thrashing eels into the bucket then lifted them onto the deck where Mira in gloves grabbed and held them so Jack could impale them just below the head with the sharp knife. Hettie flicked them heaving into the canvas bag and secured it over the side. The four then cleaned up, packed their gear and motored back across the lake to the boat hire place where no mention was made of the marks on the hull.

Before the couples breakfasted ashore in a fisherman’s cafe, Hettie took the last lovely photograph of their time together. Jack and Fred and Mira are dancing on the jetty, their bagged catch held aloft, their faces ecstatic in the sunshine.


The eels were still twitching two days later when Fred nailed their heads to a fence post in the back yard, then gently ran the point of a knife around their necks just below the small fins. He peeled the silver skins off all the way to the tails in two perfect casings, slit the bellies to remove the guts, gave the heads to the cat, and the pink chunks to his wife to marinade in brandy and oil for Friday night’s dinner.

Hettie read up about eels to tell the others and copied the story into her notebook. They were very likely mature anguilla australis, short-finned females between the ages of ten and thirty-five years, full of eggs, millions of them, making their way from the freshwater lagoons that ringed the lakes to the open sea. There they would have turned north, heading thousands of miles up the east coast to spawn somewhere in Oceania near Vanuatu in the depths of the Coral Sea. Billions of fertilised eggs and baby glass eels would then drift on the currents back to the southern lakes and up into the freshwater rivers, where the cycle would begin all over again.

Mira rang midweek with an old recipe for matelot of eel and Hettie stewed them gently with prunes and shallots and a bottle of rough red. On Friday night, Fred drove carefully to the cafe, Hettie holding the hot casserole in her lap wrapped in a towel. She was happy with her new haircut and had started writing her travel piece. Jack was waiting with a bottle of special burgundy, and Mira joined them as the tables thinned out. They’d had the best time, they all agreed. They must do it again next year. Nothing had been heard about the scratches on the hull. The matelot was marvellous, the saffron rice the cafe served with it was just right. Jack’s burgundy could not have been better. Hettie’s photos would be ready next week when she’d tell them the amazing story of the eels.

But there wasn’t a next time.

On the way home Fred told Hettie he did not love her anymore. A few weeks later Jack told Fred he was going to live in Sydney with someone else. He told Mira eventually. She sold the cafe the following year. We found the photos in Hettie’s notebook; a fishing story none of them would ever tell.



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A Culture of Conformity

‘Cringe’, wrote A.A. Phillips, is ‘a disease of the Australian mind’. This was an unpleasant enough notion in the Australia of the 1950s, then a remnant colonial monoculture with no separate language to hide behind. Now with our cosmopolitan aspirations and liberal assumptions, it seems unthinkable.

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips, critic and schoolmaster, had been commissioned by Clem Christesen to write ‘The Cultural Cringe’ for Meanjin in 1950. Clem did not much like the essay when it came in but ran it anyway, and eventually conceded that the reader response had been gratifying. Alliteration always helps and the phrase soon entered the language though some, like the member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund when asked to support publication of The Australian Tradition, a collection of A.A. Phillips’ essays, wanted ‘The Cultural Cringe’ dropped. Australian culture, he argued, needed bolstering not admonishing.1

But A.A.Phillips was no reprimander. His assessment was affectionate but very much to the point. Menzies’ Australia was an insecure, often sycophantic nation, its cultural baggage a complex mix of adulation and hostility. Intellectuals headed to Oxford or Cambridge almost as a matter of course. The centrifugal pull of the great British metropolis was irresistible and the anticipation of rejection must have guaranteed it. A.A.Phillips’ recognition of the tendency to tag along dutifully behind England instead of doing our own thing may have been a bit too close to the bone and the psychological insight uncomfortable. He knew what Australian intellectuals were up against, not only within the institutions of the day but also inside their own heads, and he named the crippling lack of self esteem which yearned for Australia’s meaty individualism to be appreciated. But by the early 1950s there were signs of real change. Returned soldiers and artists and writers among the refugees and ‘New Australians’ were making intellectual life here more complex. Debates in the pubs and at the university seem to have been increasingly about our place in our region and the distinctive shape of Australian culture.2

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips did not fit the mould. He was an Australian Jew whose bookish family had been here since the 1820s, after a short time spent in London’s Whitechapel. His father had been a president of the Australian Natives’ Association, his mother wrote pieces for the weekly papers and a novel. Except for a pre-war stint at Oxford, Arthur spent very little time in Britain and did not enjoy it much. His tastes were European, his reading wide and his eye on an emerging Australian culture perceptive and acerbic. His critical writings about the Bulletin School of the 1890s as the beginnings of an Australian tradition meant that he was typecast, somewhat reluctantly, for the rest of his life as one of Australian literature’s foremost advocates and interpreters through his regular reviews and critical essays. But first and foremost he was a schoolmaster and for forty-five years at Wesley College generations of schoolboys were taught to comprehend that ‘finely responsive reading is primarily an act of surrender, and only secondarily an act of judgment’.

Australian poetry and fiction were always part of his curriculum, and the anthologies he produced with Ian Maxwell, from as early as 1932, meant that some Australian writing was included in the syllabus of the English Department at Melbourne University. The Australian Tradition, published by Cheshire in 1958, was an attempt to counter-balance The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis, which had already defined the ground for the canon, and English Departments around the world had fallen into line.

From this distance, Phillips’ diagnosis of the post colonial Australian psyche probably prepared the ground for those swingeing works of history and culture of the next couple of decades, works the scale and confidence of which have rarely been attempted again, intellectual fashion and increasing cultural complexity mitigating against them – books sweeping in their scope, short on introspection, utterly sure of their ground. Fine writers, all of them, and men who for whom the Cringe was unimaginable. If any of them suffered from self-doubt, the point was to conceal it.

Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend appeared first in 1958, then, in 1960, came Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific and Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. The first of Manning Clark’s six volume History of Australia appeared in 1962, and Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964. Australian painters and composers were not cringing either. In 1961 Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Sidney Nolan and others successfully showed at the Whitechapel Galleries in London to largely good notices. Peter Sculthorpe returned from Oxford in 1961 with ‘a sharpened awareness of things Australian’ and his great Sun Music series was composed soon after. In 1970 the first history of Australian culture appeared, Geoffrey Serle’s From Deserts the Prophets Come, an iconic Fred Williams’ desert landscape on the jacket.

Each in its own way was a statement of cultural confidence written with that ‘fine edge of Australian responsiveness’ to use A.A. Phillips’ phrase, and the ‘security and distinction’ that doing so gave its interpreters. Their perspective was from here, from within the damaged past and the transplanted class divides of a settler nation, recording the melancholy and the dire mistakes of displaced people. None was written with an international readership in mind, none would create a ripple anywhere else. Even when The Lucky Country was renamed for Penguin UK Australia in the Sixties, only the Australian branch office noticed. The English language world wasn’t much interested and few of the books would ever be translated. But the great project of cultural self-definition had begun.


Cringe still had deep roots at Melbourne University by the time I arrived in the early sixties. I did not know enough to argue with those who ranked Australian literature ‘second rate’ or to challenge the Dean who discouraged me from taking Australian history because it was ‘rather thin’. Instead, I steeped myself in the Renaissance and the Reformation and in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Literature. By the end of my second year I was in a student household where we swapped the latest Patrick White and Randolph Stow and stayed up all night writing scripts and making costumes for revues and plays. But it was not until my fourth year when I stumbled into a new subject called Australian Prehistory did I start to comprehend where I was. Led by a considerable Hungarian scholar of the Central European Paleolithic, whose qualifications were not recognized here, I joined a group heading for the Nullabor in the long vacations. Alexander Gallus showed us how to read the land and signs of human occupation. He introduced us to Jung, and, around the campfire at night, encouraged us to imagine the people who had inhabited the sinkholes we were excavating by day, people who had left their quartz axes in the fine white sand and their intricate fingerlines on the smoke-stained walls deep in the labyrinth of the caves.

Cringe didn’t come into it.


I went to Arthur Phillip’s funeral in 1985 with its schoolboy guard of honour and its throng of elderly actors and writers, not because I knew him well but to pay homage to the man who had contributed so much to what we now took for granted. The ‘upright carriage’ he advocated of cultural confidence was by then the norm, unstoppable, a given, or so we liked to think.

This was an era of much activism and feminism, of doing your own thing. There were dozens of us, starting little theatres and film companies and publishing houses in crumbling warehouses, all of us with minute resources but galvanized by a sense of possibilities and collective ideals. We were having ideas and commissioning them, interviewing politicians about where they stood on equal pay and abortion and holding them to account in the press. We backed our own judgment of the new writers and thinkers who came with their portraits of the place, supporting and reassuring, all learning as we went. Publishers then paid tiny advances, films and plays were low budget, marketing was largely word of mouth and parties not yet about networking. But the print and broadcast media was hungry for stories of the phenomenon of it all. (Television was mostly oblivious, of course, and author profiles and ‘Australian stories’ were still years away.) We shared information across artforms and companies and saw ourselves as being in the larger cultural project, whatever it was, together.

The Cringe in its original form sometimes surfaced at Writer’s Week in Adelaide where overseas writers were still being given preferential treatment and better accommodation, and in occasional outbursts of paranoia in the pub and but it did not run very deep. Australia was where it was all happening. British publishers made overtures to our authors for British Commonwealth rights and were astonished to be turned down. The tone of the annual survey of Australian literature in the TLS made us cross, with reviewers inclined to whack writers for sounding ‘too Antipodean’, but we saw it as their problem not ours. Selling rights to the English was never easy but American agents and publishers behaved for a heady while as if they had discovered a new frontier of books waiting to be born. We sourced novels and stories for translation from our region and produced kids books in Turkish, Greek and Vietnamese for here. As I write this, it all sounds too good to be true and of course, in the end, it was. From the mid eighties on our rapid growth and expensive distribution were starting to give us sleepless nights.

We made our own creative spaces in the culture – although ‘creativity’ was not yet a buzzword and ‘spaces’ meant simply places where new work could flourish, the conditions needed for cultural production which in the case of books seemed to us to be quite simple – as much writing time as was needed, editorial support, lots of discussion face-to-face. The ghosts were not, to quote A.A. Phillips again, ‘ sitting in on the tête-à-tête between the Australian reader and writer, interrupting in the wrong accent.’ We used to joke that our books talked to each other through their threads of ideas. It still seems a better way to work.

Australian writing, if we ever bothered to define it, meant writing that was original, challenging, fully imagined and unfettered by worn out scholarly protocols. It was writing that was argued about, sought after, set on school syllabuses, even for a few short years taught in Australian universities until the new cringe to the French set in. The ‘relaxed erectness of carriage’, which A.A.Phillips had advocated, was the norm, or so we liked to think. But in our little bubble at the edge of the world, we were becoming far too big for our boots, and meanwhile economic rationalism, like the cane toad, was spreading south.


This was still a time when Australian cultural activity and a political climate of big possibilities and ‘punching above our weight’ were aligned. Policy makers listened to experts on the ground, practicing artists and writers were in positions to make decisions about arts policy and funding. The corporates were not yet running the place. But the election of the neo-conservative Howard government in 1996 ensured that the dominance of the marketplace was complete and quite rapidly an insular hard-heartedness prevailed.

The ‘minatory ghost’ has been at the levers of the global market machine for decades and we have all been snagged in the workings. The corporatization of the universities and cultural institutions meant larger salaries and career paths for some but for many short term contracts meant insecurity. People inevitably took fewer risks. Research corralled in profit centres encourages the promotion of the complicit not the brave and cannot suit the slow build needed for creative and intellectual work. The sums don’t work, nor do the spaces. The business model with its emphasis on predictable outcomes and competition encourages over-claiming and is a dead weight for individual artists and companies competing for public funding. It almost always guarantees that the work, whatever it is will be under-cooked.

Political correctness, once a source of jokes, had now become a straightjacket, used by both sides of politics – by conservatives as a way of short-circuiting discussion of injustice and inequity, and by ideologues on the left and those seeking the security of high-minded ethical processes. It is more than fifteen years since it all unraveled:

first the self-righteous uproar over Garner’s The First Stone. Then the eagerness to find a new young multicultural writer which produced and rewarded a Demidenko, a series of identity witch-hunts followed, and then the inevitable and understandable ‘new generationalism’ crying discrimination against youth and popular culture. The blaming left its scars: for those who woke up one day and found themselves in the firing line for saying the unacceptable or just for being in the way, the vehemence was divisive and dismaying. And despite the books that poured forth and the frequent debates, many of the so-called gatekeepers are still with us.

A long period of cultural navel-gazing followed – the endless, sometimes myopic Culture Wars, the polarised History Wars, and the ever-widening gulf between public policy and cultural concerns. We, the ‘enlightened liberal élites’ were seen to be talking only to ourselves about our own concerns. Only rarely were the divides fearlessly examined between the affluent with their rapidly rising levels of consumption, the concerns of Howard’s battlers or the rural poor everywhere. The increasingly frequent local outbreaks of xenophobia and racism were deplored and the government blamed, but there were few attempts to comprehend them as symptoms of a growing global malaise – and in any case neither side of politics was listening.


A.A. Phillips identified a species he called ‘the denaturalized intellectual’ as the Cringe’s unhappiest victim – and cursed him down to ‘his indifferent eyebrows’.The eyebrows may not be indifferent, but ten years of a Howard Government followed by Rudd and Gillard, so far at least, has ensured that the old Cringe, which A. A. Phillips saw as a form of estrangement of the intellectual, has morphed into a kind of stylish but timid conformity. The timid intellectual holds politicians in contempt and feels free to lecture them occasionally, but fails to hold them to account – and imagine new mechanisms that might start them listening again.

We are the only Western democracy with no bill of rights; there has been no equivalent of the Hutton enquiry in the UK, no serious public investigation into the increase of corruption in our globalised economy, no exploration of the likely impact effect of climate change in our region and our responsibility to peoples displaced. It is a long time between books of fearless reportage by writers with time and resources to dig as deep as they must dig into Australia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Journalists who can write fast, tell a good story, sniff out a scandal and do a professional interview now write almost all the local works of social and political commentary and we import the rest. Some of them are great reads but only rarely are they works that will change anything. Despite more hard-hitting essays being published, more forums for debate existing than ever before, more thinktanks probing the issues that define us and will shape the future, the capacity for intellectuals with expertise to influence public policy is at an all time low.3

There are many impediments to those intellectuals re-entering the public debate and contributing to policy-making in the way they once did. Much needs to be confronted – including self-censorship. Australia doesn’t score well on Freedom of Speech indices. Our media is contracting. Newspapers and journals here are more tightly controlled for content than those of most other western countries. Owners call the shots and are rarely challenged. One of our best magazines that promotes itself as a journal of ideas does not provide any coverage at all of Middle East politics or of Afghanistan or the aftermath of the war in Iraq – but its silence may well be preferable to the misinformation peddled elsewhere.

Our commentators and politicians seem to suggest that globalisation will save us in our island continent. How similar we are in outlook to each other, how confidently we can appeal to a homogenous liberal readership and Western state of mind. There’s comfort in waiting for others to act and being interminably ‘in conversation’ on panels at festivals all over the world. Since 9/11 the big questions been turned into global questions and, inevitably, we cannot find answers to these questions alone.

We welcome international speakers – the celebrity intellectual – who tell us what we want to hear: that Islam is all evil, that the rise of China can only be malevolent, that a military presence in Afghanistan is the best we can do, that the rest of the world is clamouring to come here, that our form of democracy and economy is the only benign and enlightened model. Only rarely do we challenge or contextualise what these speakers are saying and journalists leave the audience to do the research in order to ‘make up their own mind’ – as an ABC spokesperson said recently about what now passes for the new balance. While the issues needing informed analysis and humane and lateral solutions proliferate, we are often exposed to something rather close to propaganda, or so it seems to me.

Festivals of Big Ideas and Big Ideas for the Next Generation (which, wisely, stays away), have proliferated around the English-speaking world as if in response to the fear that grips us all in the dead of night – a security blanket of like minds, international intellectuals joining local experts mocking those who seek the consolation of religion, bemoaning the absence of social democracy and feeding our prejudices. We bask in a semblance of cosmopolitanism and being in the club.

Talking is not doing: a talkfest dominated culture cannot be a courageous one, or one that can effectively feed public policy. Crucial debates packaged as entertainment don’t create change. Audiences are consumers rather than citizens, booking the sessions out, asking their questions, getting their books signed and going away until next year. The emphasis is all wrong, the effort misplaced.


The times don’t suit those who want to produce the kind of work that needs time and deep thought and courage. It works best for those who have the stamina and personality to perform. Those whose work needs the freedom to take risks and speak truth to power have much to lose – and the culture is the poorer for it. Despite our cultural confidence and easy gait through the festivals and airports of the world, we still rely on many of the same filters that A.A. Phillips would recognize.

The great British metropolis, as it always has, sieves for us the world’s writing in languages other than English. The selection of books for translation into English is largely made in the UK. Most of them are works of fiction. Few are works of cultural, philosophical, political analysis or cross-cultural theory that might better reflect our particular concerns and help us to understand the divides we must learn to straddle – between the West where we still belong and our region of India, the Middle East and Asia. The number of books read in translation in Australia, as in the US, is very few and the amount of actual translation done in this country infinitesimal despite our having, as we always have, fine translators and scholars in our midst.

Imagine encouraging communities here who produce their own intellectuals and poets to participate in our thinking through our ‘big ideas’, to help select works for translation. Many have come from countries where local publishing is damaged or censored or is in a similar emerging state not unlike this country’s publishing was thirty years ago but publication on the internet is leaping ahead. Stories of the recent past are being written. Issues of modernity and the rise of fundamentalisms are being widely debated – and lived out – in Europe and the Middle East in ways we rarely hear about. Dissemination of ideas from non-Western parts of the world is not encouraged. Language barriers and ‘security concerns’ mean that the wider public’s awareness of them is negligible and their response to both the international propagandists and to well-meaning cultural relativists is ignored. Contemporary writing in Farsi or Arabic or any of the other languages in our region is rare in public libraries, which, if anything, confine themselves to the classics. Are there any book groups and creative writing courses in languages other than English? Instead immigrants are encouraged to study Business English while keeping their poets and their perceptions to themselves.

There is a great deal we can and must do in this country in our own name. ‘Australia’ does have a point of view and a mix of peoples that is unique. Self-definition is still the great unfinished cultural project and always will be – but without contributions from our changing population we are talking only to those who share the same perspective and who are invited into our privileged and privatised cultural spaces. Collective purpose has to be rediscovered and celebrated as an opportunity rather than a threat. The safety of like minds is a delusion.

Australian culture has not been monolithic for a long time. Writers and intellectuals who are wrestling consciously or unconsciously with identity, authenticity, compassion and cultural difference, know this. The times demand deep thinking and deep writing and places to do it.

There are reasons for optimism; there always are. Last year, the estate of the late Minister for Industry, John Button, created a most significant prize for the best piece of writing on politics or public policy. This year it was awarded to anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton for The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus, a scathing and despairing account of the failure of progressivist Aboriginal politics since the seventies and upholding the principle of Intervention. Sutton writes out of a lifetime’s experience in the field and directly into the sphere of public policy.

Then in the last couple of years the remarkable Renew Newcastle project has taken off, with its basis in DIY and its emphasis on physical space and dynamic experimentation rather than capital, using defunct industrial buildings for local artists, musicians and craftspeople linked into the rest of the world on the web. The tired old newspaper model is being challenged by several new magazines using a mix of print and online and the Emerging Writers Festival is often more of a lift to the spirits than the mainstream versions.

And then there is the next generation of students – young nomads skilled with keyboards and rapid responses and their own relaxed way of cross-cultural engagement with each other and the world. A few months before he died in August 2010, intellectual and historian Tony Judt dictated a book for this generation who will inherit the whirlwind. Ill Fares the Land4 comes closest to what I construct in my head as essential reading – a book of great lucidity and urgency about posing the questions which frighten us and to which we, like Judt, do not have the answers. Finding ways to help frame them is the crucial next step and the very least we can do.

1 I am indebted to Jim Davidson’s forthcoming entry on A. A. Phillips for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and his Sideways from the Page, Fontana Books, 1983, p34.

2 The Burstall Diaries 1953-6, forthcoming.

3 Let us hope that Hugh White’s recent Quarterly Essay 39, Power Shift :Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing is the exception, coming at a time when the new government must be redefining its foreign policy.

4 Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010

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