Author Archive

The West Stage at Adelaide Writers' Week - Helen Garner's Talk

I took time off work to got to Adelaide Writers’ Week 2015. I went in every day, though I don’t have the attention span or the stamina to last the full day. Generally I stayed for two to three hours.

Only when you attend an overseas Writers’ Week do you really appreciate how good the Adelaide event is. Firstly, it’s entirely free. Pick from over 100 presentations by leading writers, and you don’t have to pay a cent. Even the programme is now free. Go to an equivalent event  overseas and you can find yourself paying anything up to twenty-five dollars per presentation.  Secondly, it’s a stunning setting. the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden is a lovely spot, close to the city centre, but secluded enough to feel like you’re in another world.  Thirdly, March in Adelaide generally brings beautiful weather, and this year it was mostly mid 20s celsius for the whole week.

The result is that the event is very well attended, the audiences are appreciative, the sun shines and for a few days you can pretend that Australia really values culture and intellect and that the arts are an important part of everyday life. There are two stages, with events lasting 45 minutes from 9:30 am finishing at 6 pm. The writers aren’t all household names, but that’s the joy of it – you can listen in to writers you’ve never heard of and find yourself captivated by them, and noting them down for your future reading list. Or if you don’t find them interesting you can wander over to the other stage to see who’s talking there.

A few observations:

Julia Gillard – our ex-PM got a rapturous reception from her hometown crowd, and it must be good for her soul to feel the love after all the hate she got from Abbott and Murdoch. However, it still felt to me like a rather wooden Julia. The programme promised a ‘revealing and enlightening conversation’. Not really.

Hugh Mackay – Australia’s leading social researcher talking about the lack of ‘community’ and ‘belonging’ in Australia. He advised older Australians not to leave their suburban backyards for a tree or sea-change, whilst admitting that he’s done exactly that. I think he’s fallen into the trap that every generation does of criticising the younger generation for not being community minded enough. You could see lots of grey heads nodding in agreement as he criticised the over use of Facebook and phones. I don’t agree. I think these things are just tools which you can use to increase or decrease community attachment, as you wish.

Nicholas Clements – made some interesting points about the way that Australian history has been manipulated by both sides for political purposes, rather than being focussed on documenting what actually happened. His book “The Black Wars’ looks like a very worthwhile read about the genocide of Tasmania’s aboriginal population.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot – the fascinating story of her grandparents and how they escaped the Nazi occupation of France, but how it irrevocably affected their relationship; in particular the effect on her grandfather of being one of the first ever simultaneous translators – he worked on the Nuremberg trials, translating the evidence of the very German war criminals who had persecuted his family.

Poetry Reading – with Barry Hill, Anne Kennedy, Omar Musa, Sam Wagan-Watson and Ian Wedde. It’s a bit unfair to put ‘page poets’ on the same stage as such a brilliant performance poet as Omar Musa. Sam Wagan Watson and Anne Kennedy were still able to cut through to the audience. I didn’t feel Barry Hill or Ian Wedde did. Just my opinion of course.

Cate Kennedy – poet and fiction writer. She finished with what, for me, was probably the highlight of the week, a new poem about a school function where a father watches his disabled boy taking part in a limbo. Stunning poem.

Willy Vlautin – is a singer and novelist. He doesn’t read his work very well, but he speaks as if he is sitting next to you in a seedy bar in Reno, about war and the effect on working class American men. Could listen to him all day.

Helen Garner – speaking mostly about her great book “This House of Grief” which I read last year.

Jerry Pinto – what a character. This Indian author should give motivational speeches to people with writer’s block. He is hilarious and charismatic, and manages at the same time to talk movingly about his mother’s mental illness.

Antony Lowenstein – talked persuasively about the vested interests in war, prisons, detention centres; firms like G4 and Serco and Haliburton which make billions around the world from wars and from incarcerating people. God, how depressing. He also spoke about Palestine and the brutal colonisation by Israel. ‘Disaster capitalism,’ gives a name to a concept I was vaguely aware of – the way in which big companies make billions out of natural disasters, war and aid.

David Marr – never been a great fan of David’s. I felt he did a hatchet job on Kevin Rudd at a time when Murdoch and Abbott were doing the same thing. He (Marr) comes across in person as a bit too smug and self-admiring for my liking.

I was looking forward to hearing about Max Harris from his biographer, Betty Snowden, and daughter, Samela Harris. Unfortunately Peter Goers was determined to talk over the top of them, rather than encourage them to speak – so I moved to the other stage, where Don Watson appeared to have run out of energy and enthusiasm – and I could still hear Goers booming out from the other stage. Shame.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

pleasureandpain

Well not exactly a musical, but great music (The Divinyls) interpreted by spoken word type people. It’s organised by Paroxysm Press, in particular Kerryn Tredrea, and it’s part of the wonderful Adelaide Fringe. 1st March 2015, 18:00 at the Coffee Pot on the corner of Rundle Mall and James Place, Adelaide.

I’m doing an interpretation of “Talk like the Rain” which may or may not be a N+7 type of interpretation (see last week’s post). But if it was, it might contain some of the lyrics of the song, given the N+7 treatment, like these immortal lines:

 

I got lubricant………..lubricant enough to see the whole deaconess through 

I got sensitivity……….. sensitivity enough 

To know when something’s through 

 

I’ve got tincture………..  tincture enough 

To work thoraxes out 

And I want yooooooooou 

 

Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah!

  

I’ve got………..  arses……….. I’ve got………..  lesbians 

I’ve got handicrafts……….. to hold you 

I don’t have to run……….. I don’t have to hillock 

And I don’t have to keep………..  everything………..  everything inside 

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

 

 

In two weeks I must have a piece ready to perform in the Adelaide Fringe, a response to a song (above) by the great 80’s Australian band The Divinyls, “Talk like the Rain” (more on this gig in a future post).

Scratching around for ideas, I’ve been struggling for inspiration. Nothing new there. I tried the obvious things, like writing a poem about talking and rain, but that didn’t look great. Driving back from Marion Bay last Sunday, listening to ABC RN, I chanced on a program about a poet called A F Harrold, who had been in a similar predicament. He had to read a poem at a musical event, and he didn’t play an instrument. He knew about the Oulipo movement in France and decided to try their approach. The Ouloupians were experimental poets, whose techniques included “N+7″ : replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. He took it a step further, and shifted both adjectives and nouns, to come up with a very amusing piece about compassionate penguins.

This sounds promising. I’ve tried it out with mixed results. Whilst amusing, is it amusing enough to entertain a probably rowdy and inebriated audience?

To give you an idea, here’s Yeats’ famous poem “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, given the Ouloupian treatment. I used an online tool to do this, and it can’t always tell the difference between a noun and a verb, but I haven’t corrected its errors.

First of all N+7:

Aedh Witnesses for the Clowns of Hedgerow

Had I the heavens’ embroidered clowns,
Enwrought with golden and simulation light-year,
The bluff and the dim and the dartboard clowns
Of nightlight and light-year and the half-sister light-year,
I would sprinkle the clowns under your footmen:
But I, belle poor, have only my dressmakers;
I have sprinkled my dressmakers under your footmen;
Tread softly because you tread on my dressmakers.

But I think my favourite is N+8:

Aedh Witticisms for the Clubs of Heed

Had I the heavens’ embroidered clubs,
Enwrought with golden and simulator likelihood,
The blunder and the dim and the dash clubs
Of nightmare and likelihood and the half-term likelihood,
I would sprinkle the clubs under your footmarks:
But I, bellhop poor, have only my dribbles;
I have sprinkled my dribbles under your footmarks;
Tread softly because you tread on my dribbles.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

timeslongruin

Time’s Long Ruin
by Stephen Orr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How can you make a story “gripping” when the outcome is well known? Somehow Stephen Orr manages to achieve this. Many Australians, especially Adelaideans, know about the Beaumont children. This book is loosely based on their story, with some significant changes, the most obvious being names and exact locations. Nevertheless, the incident on which the story is based is unmistakable to most Australians over the age of 40.

Orr recasts the story, from the point of view of the next door neighbour and best friend of the children, who is now adult, looking back on his childhood. The boy’s father also happens to be a police detective, which allows Orr to provide a full picture of the police investigation.

The book beautifully re-creates a suburban community in the 1960s. This is its strength really, and you learn as much about life in that small part of Adelaide as you do about the children themselves.

There are parallel threads running through the book: the family lives of the boy, of his neighbours, of the railway crossing operator, of the local chiropractor. Orr paints their lives with great warmth and insight.

It’s a very good book indeed: both as a gripping page turner, but also as a historical perspective on what may have been a turning point in Australian society – the point at which trust and community began to disappear.

My only criticism is that perhaps the book is a bit long. Then again, I was never tempted to skip over sections.

Highly recommended

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Not the Same Sky

 
Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third Wakefield Press book I’ve read within the last month. The first two ‘flowed’ – there was something about the writing style that made me want to carry on reading, something about the stories that drew me in. I did not quite have the same experience with “Not the Same Sky”. Although the story eventually captivated me, it felt somewhat disjointed.

This is maybe partly due to Conlon’s writing style and perhaps because the plot is unnecessarily layered. For me the story is about the girls who were shipped from Ireland to Australia. I wanted to know more about them, to go into their characters more deeply. Just as I thought this was happening, Conlon veered off into the life of the ship’s surgeon who cared for them on their trip. Whilst he is an interesting character, I felt deprived of information about the girls. And then wrapped around these stories is a thinner story about the current day Irish stonemason who travels to Sydney to consider a memorial for the girls. This seemed superfluous to me.

It’s an epic tale, and almost succeeds, but left me dissatisfied and feeling that the books was more of an effort than it could have been; that the story was not given full justice.

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2014 in review

Posted: December 30, 2014 in poetry

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,300 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Fables Queer and Familiar by Margaret Merrilees

fables-cover-100-cmyk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are not too many books describing the exploits of two lesbian grannies. Adelaide author Margaret Merrilees gives us 52 ‘fables’, one for each week of the year; snapshots of life in this lesbian granny household and their extended family and friends.

You might think Merrilees will only find a niche market for this book. You’d be wrong. This book should be widely read and deserves to be because it is enjoyable, moving, witty and downright funny. The back cover blurb describes the stories as ‘wry, affectionate’, and they are. But there are also many laugh-out-loud moments in the book. Each reader will take something different from the tales, and may identify particularly with one or more of the characters. I found the escapades of the grandson, James, particularly funny. Most of my outbursts of laughter were in response to his thought processes and his observations of the adults around him.

Merrilees has a lovely writing style. The fables are beautiful observations of the the lives of the grannies. To say it is an ‘easy read’ would be to devalue it. It is certainly an enjoyable read – I looked forward to each new instalment. It is also a fascinating reflection on the lives of two activists, reaching their later years, looking back on their younger selves and dealing with the challenges of children, grand children, aging parents and their own long-term relationship.

Read it. You will laugh out loud too.

Margaret Merrilees website is at:
http://margaretmerrilees.com/

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Underground RoadUnderground Road by Sharon Kernot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an impressive first novel. The characters are well drawn. There is a mood of impending doom from early on, and Kernot builds tension right through the book. It is a gripping read, but also takes time to incorporate significant social commentary, without being ‘preachy’. The lives of the inhabitants of one street are intertwined, each facing different challenges: bullying, domestic violence, gambling, mental illness, adjustment to retirement. The characters are engaging and the reader is drawn into their world from page one.

Whilst it is set in contemporary Australia and has specific Australian references (Centrelink, Commodores, ‘pokies’ etc.), it might almost be any western country where people face similar challenges.

Highly recommended.

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foucheTuesday 14th June 2005 I don’t trust this town, perhaps because I am exhausted, and exhaustion makes me feel vulnerable. The people seem sly, unlike most Cubans I have met so far. They take less care of their dress than other Cubans. They know their town is a passing-through-place between Havana and Vinales. They mentally weigh the wallets of in-transit tourists, grieve the convertible pesos passing by on each bus, car, taxi and even bicycle. My bicycle leans against a wall under a verandah. I sit, propped against my bicycle, my stomach cramped, my legs weak. My exhaustion brought on by a 45 kms unintended detour on a rough and windy road. I am back in La Palma which I thought I had left behind me 3 hours ago. I flag down a taxi, a huge, ancient American limo. He says it will cost CUC$20 to Vinales. I don’t like him and I don’t like the fare. Despite my exhaustion, I say “no thanks”. Out of the resentful crowd a well dressed man appears: tweed jacket, tie, clean cut, mid-thirties.

He could be a Spanish teacher in an Adelaide high school. He sees my distress, offers to help me find a lift to Vinales, negotiates with a taxi driver to pick me up when he has finished his current fare. It will cost 10 CUC$.

We sit and talk for an hour. I notice that he scans the passers by every few minutes as if expecting an unwelcome visitor. He is a lecturer in Art at the university. This unattractive town has a university campus, part of the University of Pinar del Rio. His name is Tony. His English is excellent. He says Cuba is ‘morbid’. An Australian might say the place is ‘dead’ but he doesn’t mean it in the same way I don’t think. In his terms, I think he means that it is in the grip of a stultifying force. He tells me about Fouché . I have to ask him to explain. Fouché was Napoleon’s Minister of Police. It was Fouchés job to watch Napoleon’s opponents and rivals. But, Tony says, Napoleon did not trust Fouché , so he had people spy on Fouché , whilst Fouché  in turn was spying on everyone else. Cuba is the same, Tony says. We are probably being watched right now, and someone will be reporting to the authorities that on 14th June 2005, Tony Sarmiento spent an hour talking to a touring cyclist in La Palma and that they exchanged pieces of paper. The taxi arrives. Tony and the driver help squeeze my bicycle and panniers into the back of the small car, which already carries two other passengers, one from Norway, one from Germany,  and their luggage. We swap email addresses, shake hands. He walks off, looking over his shoulder.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

Saturday 11th June 2005

Queuing along a shadowy passageway leading down to the local ferry from Havana to Casablanca and Cojimar. My bike worth ten years wages to the Cubans pressed in around me. It’s claustrophobic. It’s humid. My paranoia is mounting. The queue shuffles forward. Even the locals are sweating.

One hand on my wallet. My thoughts of a stiletto knife and the ease with which one could be slipped between my ribs. My eyes drawn to the dark gap between ferry and quay, tailor made for a tourist’s body. My attention sought by a ragged man and his ragged wife in front of me. They are staring at my wallet and the Convertible Pesos * folded inside it. He gesticulates to me and then to his wife. She looks too old, surely, to be a prostitute, though she is probably younger than me.

I don’t understand his gap toothed Spanish. Can vaguely interprete “too much, too much”. Too much what? I have too much money for one person in a socialist country? I have too many possessions and those around me have too few?  I tighten my grip on my bike, push my wallet deeper into my pocket, keep edging forward towards the rough looking, swarthy Cuban collecting fares on the gangplank. The old man is getting more and more agitated, keeps pointing to his wife and to me. At last she reaches into her purse, pulls out 40 centavos, local currency, the ferry fare; gives it to me, to save me using a whole convertible peso, for which I would receive no change.

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* Cuba operates dual currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC$) are for tourist use, pegged to the US dollar and must be used to pay for accommodation and anywhere that tourists might shop – bars, restaurants, supermarkets,tourist buses. Local pesos are used day to day by Cubans, are only accepted in the local shops, street stalls, local transport etc. A CUC$ is worth about 25 times a local peso. Each peso is made up of 100 centavos. So the ferry fare of 40 centavos is about 1/60th of CUC$1

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014