Friday, 30 July 2010

National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day so I thought I would share with you one of my lyrical creations from yester-year. One weekend as some friends and I were camping out at Bob's Cove we decided to entertain ourselves at dinner (hand-caught and barbecued fish) by inventing poems based around celebrities - yes kids; that's how we used to amuse ourselves before we all plugged in to i-phones!

I don't think I'm boasting when I say that my poem is the one that is still remembered by the group several years later. In fact, of everything I've ever written, this is the only thing that anyone ever quotes at me. I'm not sure what sticks most in the memory: the deceptively simple but subtly complex structure; the mesmerisingly eloquent rhythm or the deeply insightful persipience. I'll allow to you make up your own mind.

Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe
Wants to know
Where to go
In the snow.

Could you show
Russell Crowe
Where to go
In the snow?


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Books read in January 2010

Below are short reviews of the books that I read in January 2010. The numbers in the brackets are the marks I have given them out of five.

Sixty Lights – Gail Jones (4.1)
In 1860 Lucy Strange and her brother Thomas are orphaned and sent from Australia to live with an uncle in London. As she grows up she gets a job making photographic paper from albumen. The egg-whites are smelly, “but it had about it the pre-industrial gratification of completion, of an entire art of manufacture.” She leaves London for India, where she is meant to marry, but she has a liaison on the boat on the way over with a married man and she arrives pregnant. That description may sound perfunctory, but the style of this novel is far more important than the substance.

Lucy sees her life as a series of random reflections, like a selection of photos in an album, and she does in fact become a photographer. She feels overwhelmed by the responsibility of narration and the traditional novel is not a form that appeals to her because she cannot see the ‘story’ of her life. This is often a complaint of debut novelists who have the characters, descriptions and incidents, but can’t find a flowing form. Instead, she abandons the structures of storytelling simply presenting images, and Lucy records events as Special Things Seen.

Gail Jones’ method seems a little contrived, like a creative writing class exercise. Some of the vignettes are completely irrelevant, although the poeticism makes them almost forgivable. Presenting memories as images also allows Jones to telescope time and highlight certain episodes above each other.

Their uncle reads Great Expectations to Lucy and Thomas – this seems to be the standard text to read to colonials (Sixty Lights was written two years before Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip). The children are seduced by its suggestions of escape and improvement, and these themes run throughout the book. Lucy is a medium; a device to capture meaning, like the camera which distils an image, living her life like a negative – the space around her holds more significance than she can herself.

Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee (4.5)
The novel that won the 1999 Booker Prize 1999 is a slim volume with a bleak outlook. Life in South Africa has a constant undercurrent of casual violence and a complete lack of easy answers. David Lurie is dismissed from his position at a university in Cape Town due to an affair with a student for which he refuses to apologise. He takes refuge with his daughter Lucy on her farm, hoping to benefit from the natural rural rhythms, but he is forced to question his assumptions after a brutal attack on the farm by three black men leaves him assaulted and Lucy raped.

The story itself is easy to follow, although there are many depths and questions raised. The old guard is deposed, the new wave instated, and there must be sacrifices. The old generation is replaced by the new and there follows the ritual slaying of the old king. David, as a teacher of romantic literature, is more than aware of the mythical elements.

This introduces the premise of survival of the fittest as science takes its place alongside literature. Lucy is a kennel-keeper for dogs and David comes to care for them, even as he helps a neighbour euthanize the ones that cannot be saved. He sees this as a mercy killing – the only thing left that can be done for them – but who makes these rules?

The fact that David is her father brings an added dimension to his horror of Lucy’s rape – he could do nothing to stop the attack and can now do nothing to affect the outcome. When he was accused of abuse and harassment, it was handled very differently in an academic urban setting to how it is in the country. Coetzee breaks the man down until he is stripped of all his illusions. He is even challenged over what it means to be a father as Lucy admonishes him for thinking of her only as a minor character in his life. “I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.”

He can’t even take refuge in language as he discovers it is insufficient to cover the scope of this particular narrative. “More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened.”

The novel may be slight but its content is weighty. This is a powerful and deserving award-winner that demands to be read.

Killing My Own Snakes – Anne Leslie (4.2) Subtitled, ‘The extraordinary life of a Daily Mail and Fleet Street legend’ this memoir records the struggles Ann Leslie faced as a female journalist and foreign correspondent. From a fairly sheltered existence she was sent to cover stories of war, poverty and unspeakable cruelty, but was also able to be present at some of the greatest moments in twentieth century history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela.

Leslie describes the state of journalism when she began writing in the Fifties for the Express – dominated by machismo and alcohol. She negates the idea of the Swinging Sixties as a media construct coined with hindsight. She claims, “Of course, the Sixties didn’t swing in Hull or Gravesend. In reality, outside a small geographical section of London, Britain as a whole remained as purse-mouthed, frugal and dyed-in-the-wool conservative as ever.”

Through her years in journalism Leslie saw changes in gender politics but also in class obsession, when regional accents, rather than Received Pronunciation, became de rigueur. Don’t imagine however, that Leslie feels protective towards the sisterhood. She shows a lack of support for other women: she not only wants to be one of the lads, but the only woman in a masculine environs. She refers to women as “frizzy-haired” and picks on their appearance when it has no relevance, taking sideswipes at Guardian readers and other females. Her attitude towards sexual abuse is outmoded and shocking in its lack of compassion. She can be sympathetic to women as long as they are not Western or possible competitors, demonstrating an interest in the rates of literacy among Arab women, but only inasmuch as it effects the economy.

Of course, she has strong opinions, many of which I don’t agree with, and she records some of her writings simply because she is proud of the rhetoric. They sound alarmingly like screaming Daily Mail oratory. Her piece on the release of Mandela tells us more about her than him, and she has a sneering way of writing about people of whom she doesn’t approve. When confronted with something she doesn’t understand, she turns to typical right-wing hard-line criticism and disparagement.

She can be cringe-worthily cocksure, and her attitude on war is fairly simplistic with clear-cut terms of right and wrong (left). I may not agree with her political leanings, and some of her caustic comments display an unpleasant bitterness, but there are some mitigating sections of great descriptive writing. This is generally an interesting examination of journalism through the past few decades, with particular interest in her early years of sexual and class oppression; perhaps as a lighter counterpoint to Kate Adie’s The Kindness of Strangers.