There were a couple of pieces in the Review that I could really relate to. The first is a profile of Bill Bryson, whose work I enjoy.
Bryson can take on the grating tone of the disillusioned bumpkin idealist in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. He shuns political posturing and decries the pressure for big-name writers to become public figures.
“I don’t have any sympathy for George Bush or the things that he’s done,” he says. “And Tony Blair is a complete mystery to me in terms of his international relations with America and Iraq. But I’ve never had anything very insightful to say about that. I’m just kind of mystified by it.”
Yet his beaming surface is deceiving because he is in fact a devastating critic of modern America. He grieves over the replacement of the close-knit small-business communities of his youth with strip malls, chain stores, an obesity epidemic and, worse, the death of the American sense of humour: “I can tell you it was a lot more pronounced when I was a kid.” He suspects that people in the US have become just very serious about work and succeeding in careers. “In Britain and Australia or Canada, the English-speaking world, to cultivate a sense of humour is a positive thing. But in America there is more of a tendency, you know, ‘I don’t know about Bob, he’s a bit of a joker, I’m not sure he’s with the program.’ In a lot of places, I think it could be a handicap to be seen as a person who makes quips.”
The second was former Western Australan premier Carmen Lawrence MHR on reading. This is an edited version of the Dorothy Green Lecture given to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in July; full text available here.
It has been obvious for some time that our leaders seem to place no value on literature, Australian or otherwise, or the arts more generally. I find it amazing there was no public gesture of welcome from John Howard following the decision by Nobel prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee to become an Australian citizen. I’m not as unkind as Mungo McCallum, who suggested that the last theatre Howard attended was to have his tonsils removed and the last book he read was the Boy Scouts Book of Knots, but in trawling acres of newsprint and transcripts that capture his every utterance, I found almost no evidence of him taking pleasure in reading fiction or celebrating the achievements of our literary high-flyers. This can be no accident from a leader who weighs each word. It is a message: the arts have no great value and artists are forever tarnished by their association with a previous administration and beyond the realm of “mainstream Australia”.
It may be that some of us no longer enjoy or have never learned to enjoy reading fiction, perhaps because we fear the contagion of ideas. Some Australians clearly feel threatened by any challenge to treasured certainties. In this world, literature becomes a dangerous force because of its capacity to carry the attentive reader through the intense experiences of respect, love, trust and generosity and to direct these feelings to unexpected others rather than being contained within the confines of family and nation.
These empathic responses are not much in fashion these days and can get you into serious trouble with right-wing commentators and other establishment enforcers who increasingly occupy positions of authority in the arts world…
Right on, Carmen!
It may well be the case too that increasingly we get our stories from film and DVD, which is not always a bad thing, much as I love books. I have been delighting lately in one of my most recent borrowings from Surry Hills Library — John Doyle’s Marking Time, a Romeo and Juliet story set in a NSW rural city.
Told with warmth, humour and acute observation, MARKING TIME traces Hal’s journey from boy to man over the period of one year. At the outset, the town and the country are intoxicated with the spirit of the Olympics, and the Centenary of Federation. Hal gets his licence, first car, the right to drink, the right to vote, and falls in love with Randa, a young Afghani refugee. But there is a shifting of consciousness in the town and the nation about refugees, border protection and their place in the world. Hal’s heart is broken when he realises that his town is one in which he no longer belongs. MARKING TIME is the coming of age of a boy and a nation.
I saw it back in 2003, and it stands up very well indeed, warm, acerbic when need be, intelligent, beautifully written, directed and acted.
I notice too it was filmed in Singleton. Funny that, given my mother’s memoir which I recently transcribed (see the “early last century” tab above) ended with her family about to set off for a time in the same town. So I found myself watching the landscapes in Marking Time more attentively this time round.