In Australia, streaming on SBS. Brilliant, brilliant performance by young Scottish actor Lewis Gribben, though there are several other great performances. Despite the trailer, it is not a zombie or monster flick, at least not in the usual sense. And I don’t recall any blood, except maybe a nose bleed. It’s sad, funny, insightful. It’s ‘coming of age’, it’s teenage angst, it’s family dynamics. It is also grief and mental illness. Comes in bite size 30 minute episodes, though you’ll be tempted to watch the next, and the next, and the next. I think you’ll like it!
Update: Whoops. Hadn’t watched the last two episodes until tonight. Beware, there is violence in the last couple of episodes, not graphic but just so’s you know
In 2011 a 9.0 earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began, triggered a huge tsunami. The waves reached heights of up maybe 40.5 meters in Miyako in the Sendai area, travelled at 700 km/h and up to 10 km inland. Twenty thousand lives were lost. In many cases, the bodies were never recovered or identified, making the grieving process for their surviving relatives even harder.
In The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, Laura Messina tells the story of the way that some Japanese survivors dealt with the grief of losing family members and friends. Yui is a radio announcer and via a listener call-in, hears about a place where a disused, disconnected telephone box, eight hours drive from her Tokyo home, has been set up in a beautiful garden. Grieving people have been visiting the ‘wind phone’ as it is called, to talk to their deceased loved ones, and apparently finding it highly therapeutic.
Yui has lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami, and decides to pay a visit to the Wind Phone. Arriving there she meets a fellow survivor, Takeshi, who has lost his wife and whose daughter has not spoken since the disaster. The novel tells the story of how their regular pilgrimages help them in their grief. It brings in other characters who go to the wind phone and, through it, speak to their dead relatives. Sometimes they give mundane updates on school, work, the weather. Other times they express anger at being left behind, or wonder why the deceased could not have been somewhere safe when the tsunami struck.
The novel becomes a love story and gives powerful insights into grieving, into the difficulties of loving again after the death of a spouse, and of the challenges of moving into an established family home. It does this well, though at times I felt the difficulties were sugar-coated. But then again, from a dark and destructive opening, it is fair enough to leave the reader feeling hopeful and uplifted.
Messina writes in an engaging, easy to read manner. The chapters are short, usually only 2-4 pages, separated by lists of everyday objects or snapshots of family life. It is an easy book to pick up and savour several times a day. The author is an Italian who has lived in Tokyo for 15+ years.
There are several news videos about the real Wind Phone, such as this:
The real Wind Phone in Ōtsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan:
This historical novel follows the Booth family, one of whom, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Abraham Lincoln. But it’s not primarily about John Wilkes, for the family has several far more interesting characters, any one of whom could justify a novel to themselves. It opens in 1822 with Junius Booth, later to become a world-renowned Shakespearian actor, moving his family (his alcoholic father, his wife and children) to a remote Maryland farm. The children include Junius junior (known as June), Edwin, Rosalie, Asia, John, Joe and a number who died in childhood.
The story is told from the perspective of mostly the female members of the family. First, Rosalie, who is the quiet, plain daughter with a slight deformity. Rosalie sees all the dynamics of the family but is largely ignored and undervalued by the more colourful characters. Later, the perspective switches to Asia, the ebullient, sociable, beautiful daughter. The family goes through cycles of fortune and misfortune, often in synch with the drinking and success or failure of the manic father, Junius. Through theatrical seasons of boom and bust, and weather seasons of snow and heat, through farming seasons of scrabble and dirt, the family fortunes ebb and flow. Intermittently, we hear about Lincoln’s parallel life, his rise to the Presidency, his handling of the Civil War.
Fowler has done extensive research on the Booth family. Most of the events recounted are based on letters, contemporaneous documents and a huge amount of research into John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford. The character of Rosalie, who narrates the opening and later parts of the novel is, Fowler says, the one least based on historical information, because little is known about her. Fowler wanted the book not to be about John Wilkes, though inevitably, the crashing conclusion is dominated by his descent into obsession and murder. Even without this, the material is rich and engaging. The dominant character is not John Wilkes but Junius Booth, a towering, probably mad figure whose stature none of the sons could ever match.
Fowler draws parallels with current day America, mass shootings, the rise of Trump, the ease with which extremism can exert itself, the dangers of mob rule. It is interesting to be reminded that in those days the Republican party wanted to abolish slavery and the Democrats wanted to spread slavery and secede from the Union. Some fascinating facts emerge – for instance that Edwin Booth once saved one of Lincoln’s sons who had fallen between train carriages.
It’s a long read, and it took me a while to ‘build up speed’ in terms of wanting to read for any length. But persistence pays off. This is a memorable novel, painting a rich picture of America at war with itself, and of the deep roots of racism.
Karen Joy Fowler also wrote We are all Completely Beside Ourselves, which I didn’t like at all and gave up on half-way through. If I’d remembered this, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with Booth, but it goes to show, good authors can write diverse novels and appeal to different audiences across their careers. Booth was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.
My poem in memory of my late, great friend, Russell Talbot, is published in InDaily today (click here). Thanks to the editor, John Miles.
I first met Russ when we were studying for our MBAs, at the Uni of South Australia in 1989. Russ was the youngest student on the course, a tall, very smart, good-looking guy with the world at his feet it seemed. Unbeknownst to me, he had already had one brain tumour. Over the ensuing years he was afflicted with a host of serious health issues including another brain tumour and then a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer in 2017. These resulted in him having serious balance, speaking and swallowing difficulties. He once said to me that his three main pleasures in life were drinking (wine and coffee especially), eating (he had a very sweet tooth) and talking (he was a great talker). One by one, these pleasures were taken from him.
Despite these challenges, Russ refused to live an ordinary life. He acquired a three-wheel recumbent bike which he rode serious distances around Adelaide. He also did a cycling trip on the Florida Keys. Occasionally, Russ and I would cycle to a cafe for coffee and cake, and he had other regular cycling partners who accompanied him on rides of forty to fifty kms at times. He wrote consistently and was a member of a number of writing groups including the Poetica group which had some very fine Adelaide poets in it. It was Russ that first encouraged me to write poetry when he was running the poetry group at Unley Library around 2008. He was an objective critic of my work and had an eagle eye for bad grammar, spelling mistakes and mixed metaphors. He published a number of poetry chapbooks through Ginninderra Press and kept his many friends up to date with his life via regular email epistles. Though I was a good friend, I saw only one slice of Russ’s life. He also had a very close and supportive family, a regular chess playing and wine appreciating partner, a cat (he is survived by Harley), a regular yoga instructor, other cycling friends, a coffee drinking community centred on Kappy’sin Adelaide, numerous writing friends and all in all a full social calendar. He was a snappy, colourful dresser, delighting in bright t-shirts. He was also a skilled cartoonist, inventing a series of characters called Fuzzballs. Here’s one of his that was published in the local council magazine Unley Life.
Russ was guest poet a number of times at poetry readings in Adelaide. Because of his speech difficulties, he would ask someone else to read his poems on his behalf. One memorable occasion was at a library session organised by Jules Leigh Koch for Friendly Street Poets, where Jennifer Liston did an inspirational job of presenting poems from his chapbook. His face beamed utter happiness as she read his poems. Occasionally I would read single poems for him at regular Friendly Street meetings. You could count on Russ’s poems to demonstrate a high level of empathy and insight.
Russ eventually chose to move to Laurel Hospice at Flinders Medical Centre in May this year. Needless to say, he charmed everyone there, just as he had charmed people all his life. And it wasn’t a superficial charm. Of course, in conversation, Russ could be as critical as anyone. He reserved a special sort of contempt for Scott Morrison way before it became popular to do so! But his charm was a genuine charm coming from a man with a most decent heart, determined to live a good life, determined not to let two brain tumours and stage four cancer stop him from engaging energetically with the world. I visited him twice in Laurel Hospice. It is a beautiful place with a stunning roof garden looking out over the coast and the city. Volunteers provide all sorts of services, including individual harp recitals and a visiting miniature horse.
Russ died in June this year. His funeral was one of the most heartbreaking yet beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. At the front was his coffin adorned with pictures of Russ, messages from his nephews and nieces, his walking stick and his recumbent bike. I was privileged to be one of several of his friends asked to say a few words in tribute. Not one of the speakers was able to ‘hold it together’ when recounting the effect of Russ on their lives. Every time I find a poem I like I still reach for Gmail to send it to him and then realise I can’t. Or when I need a wise and empathetic ear to share some minor disaster, I can no longer text him to see if he’s home. I can’t send this to him to say “Read this Russ, what do you think?” What I soon realised with Russ was that whatever life difficulty I was going through, it was nothing compared to the immense issues he coped with for most of his life. He was a man like no other.
In his final email, his last (written) words were borrowed from (author) Richard Flanagan’s mum: “I’ve had a lovely time. Thank you all for coming”.
To Russell in the Bardo 1
i.m. Russell Talbot 1960 -2022
And do you have a body Russ?
And is it the same one, but without the neuromas, the cancers, the ulcers?
And how old are you there – in your prime or are you timeless?
And can you see us and the gap you left? Is it like being behind a two-way mirror?
And is there pain and pleasure?
And are you in the first-class cabin, to make up for the way you suffered here?
And is there a cat for your lap?
And a garden to grow your vegetables?
And how do you get around, because you could never stay still for long? Or is there no such a thing as around?
And if there is, how many wheels on your cycle?
And have you shown them your cartoons?
And read them your poetry?
And played them your songs?
And will they let you leave?
Because like in the coffee shop, the poetry group, the yoga class, the surgeries, the hospice, you are surely everybody’s favourite.
 Bardo in Tibetan Buddhism is a state of existence between death and rebirth.
Running from Somerton beach to Seacliff and back this morning, lots of people enjoying the spring sunshine. Lots of dog owners giving their dogs sun, sea and exercise, mostly well behaved (dogs and owners). A large dog did a huge dump on the white sand as I was running towards it. The male owner came equipped with the free “pick up after your dog” plastic bags provided by the council. He pulled one out of his pocket, slipped it on his hand and merely covered the poop with a sprinkling of sand, then walked on. Lovely surprise for any kids digging sandcastles later today, or just washed into the sea where kids and adults swim, paddle and play. But at least he kept his hands clean, and that’s what’s important.
Buddhism and stand-up comedy are not commonly associated. But in a recent article in Tricycle – The Buddhist Review, Mike Gillis describes Joe Pera’s comedy as fitting many of the characteristics of Buddhism – “He’s not competing for your eyeballs, he’s daring you to pay attention … here is how to order a breakfast … how to build a chair …. how to write an obituary … don’t look down on these small tasks … carry them out carefully and lovingly, as if they’re the stuff of life – because they are”.
Looking Joe Pera up on YouTube, the first video that came up was Joe Pera Discovers The Who or more specifically Joe discovers the song Baba O’Reilly from the album Who’s Next. Who’s Next is ingrained in my memory as the vinyl album (or in my case cassette tape) that every cool student played repetitively in my first year of uni (Polytechnic really, which was a second-rate university, although studying for a uni degree). Joe hears the song for the first time on the radio and calls every phone-in radio station he can find to request them to play the song over and over again. As a bit of trivia, the violin section is played by Dave Arbus, whose band East of Eden had a small cult following (which included me) in the U.K.
This video is probably not representative of the bulk of Joe’s work. His series Joe Pera Talks With You does indeed consist mostly of Joe talking quietly, slowly and attentively about a specific task. In another episode he is in a grocery store explaining how he does his weekly shop – every item he considers buying is subject to three questions: Should I eat this? Will I eat this? Can I afford this food? Three Yes responses are required for the food to be put into his basket.
The Joe Pera character is not, of course, the real Joe Pera any more than Borat is Sacha Baron Coen. The real Joe Pera is a successful stand-up comic who has developed the character over a long period of time, and now has three seasons of Joe Pera Talks with You on American cable T.V.
Mike Gillis picks out these key associations with the teachings of the Buddha, particularly attention and kindness: “to find the art of living inside the simplicity of a meal, the boiling of pierogies, the building of a chair … everything can be worthy of our attention”.
Copyright Mike Hopkins 2022 except for linked videos
J.M. Coetzee described it as “The strangest book you are likely to read this year.” I don’t know. Maybe if you restrict yourself to only reading books released this year. But if, like me, you tend to read books from five, twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, as well as newly published books, you will read much stranger.
“Grimmish” is not that strange, apart from the brief appearances of a talking goat. It is based on the life of an Italian- American boxer, Joe Grim, born Saverio Giannone. It focuses on Grim’s tour of Australia in 1908/09. If reading about boxing is not your favourite pastime, I’d still give this book a try. Winkler explores, through Grim’s ordeals, the wider subject of pugilism as spectacle or performance, the motivations of the boxers and the spectators, the apparent male need for pain and punishment, as well as the futility and pain of writing.
It seems that Grim was a spectacularly bad boxer except for one thing – he could take inhuman amounts of punishment without being knocked out – that is until the very end of his boxing career. This allowed him to be matched against some of the great boxers of the early twentieth century. At the end of a bout, usually having been outclassed, beaten, battered, bloodied but still standing, he would exclaim to the delighted crowd “I am Joe Grim. I fear no man on earth.”
This is a work of fiction but the author incorporates extensive factual footnotes, pointing the reader to his sources – boxing magazines, newspapers, newsreel footage of bouts. It is told in the voice of a failed writer / narrator and his “uncle” who had met and researched Grim. Plus the talking (mostly through expletives and blue jokes) goat.
I’m not a boxing enthusiast, but this book did draw me into the strange life of Grim. I felt for the man, despite the self-destructive path he chose. Winkler writes well and weaves fact and fiction together skilfully. Serious subjects are explored with humour and empathy.
Grimmish was shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Award.
Many years ago, I was listening to the ABC radio commentary on a test match in Adelaide. I can’t remember who Australia was playing, but one of the commentators was the late Rod Marsh, ex Australian wicketkeeper, from Western Australia. Asked by his fellow commentator what else he did whilst in Adelaide, did he for instance go to the beach, Marsh replied something like “Nah, ya don’t go ta the beach in Adelaide”. I was stunned by this comment, but it typifies the strange parochialism of Australians, the weird interstate one-upmanship that goes on. South Australia being one of the least populous states, and Adelaide one of the smaller State capitals, is often the target of such remarks, usually made by men (it’s pretty much always men) from the eastern states and in this case the west.
One explanation is that Marsh reputedly drank 51 cans of beer on the flight from Australia to London for the 1989 Ashes series. Beaches may not have been top of his list of preferred places to be.
What is stunning to me about this remark is either the wilful or deliberate ignorance of surely some of the best city beaches in the world. I’ve recently sold my house in the inner suburbs and am trying out living in a beachside suburb. I’m not ON the beach, but conveniently enough situated that I go to the beach once or twice daily, to walk, run, cycle or drink coffee. It’s winter here so I’ve not yet been brave enough to try a cold, cold water swim. It never fails to take my breath away, that first sight of the vast ocean, the expanse of white sand, the waves breaking on the beach. Often (maybe thanks to remarks such as those of Rod Marsh), there are very few people there, though that will change on summer weekends.
Yesterday (a Saturday) I cycled about twenty kilometres along the seafront cycle path from home up to West Beach and back. Rod Marsh’s words came to mind. So I took a few pics to justify my incredulity.
For non-Australian readers, Pauline Hanson is a right-wing Australian politician, famous for her incoherent racist ramblings. Before entering politics as a Liberal (read Tory) party selection, she was the owner of a fish and chip shop in Queensland. She founded the One Nation party, which has gone through a number of manifestations. It has been a vehicle enabling her to grift a living out of the Australian electoral system, which reimburses any party that achieves 4+% of the first preference vote. She recently squeaked back into the Federal Senate. Amongst her attention seeking stunts is the wearing of a burqa into Parliament and most recently walking out during the acknowledgement of country (which acknowledges and pays respect to First Nations peoples as the Traditional Owners and ongoing custodians of the land).
Maybe not, but it must be up there. Choose a grim city – Glasgow (disclaimer, I’ve never been to Glasgow, and I’ve heard it’s improved a lot, but back in the 70s, 80s it had a terrible reputation e.g. look up the meaning of “A Glasgow Kiss“). Choose a grim period for that city – when Margaret Thatcher was destroying the fabric of British society, because she didn’t believe that society actually existed. Choose the grimmest parts of the city – the tenements and a dead coal mining town. Choose a dysfunctional family – abusive father, alcoholic mother. Choose a troubled child – a boy struggling with his sexual identity in an environment where anything non-standard is met with shaming and violence. This is what Douglas Stuart is writing about. He won the Booker Prize for this, his first novel, in 2020. It’s a hard, hard read and is, perhaps, overly long. I made it to the end, just, but it is deeply depressing.
However, the writing is good. The depiction of Shuggie and his family is based on Stuart’s own experience – his own family and those around him in his Glasgow childhood. The characterisation of Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is particularly strong. Indeed, the book might be more accurately titled “Agnes Bain”, though that doesn’t have the same ring. Somehow the character of Shuggie was never entirely clear to me, nor that of his brother Leek.
Above all this novel is a condemnation of Thatcher’s policies, of the devastation wreaked on working class communities, especially those dependent on dying industries – their death made sudden and painful by Thatcher. What once were probably close knit, supportive communities became spiteful, poverty stricken, addicted gaggles of people with no jobs, no future, no hope.