CHIHARU SHIOTA: Absent Bodies.
Anna Schwarz Gallery. Till 5th November, 2016

There have been a handful of occasions in my life when I have stood before a work of art meaning to look at it, appraise it and have found myself drawn into it. In some strange way I become part of the work. It is as if my imagination has merged with the imaginative space of the art work and, at the same time, any mind-body split has been dissolved. I have, simultaneously, a visceral and imaginative response to the work – the heart rate increases, the stomach plunges – and yet I am strangely incorporeal. I am all mind, I am all sensation. It is a pure, original, all-consuming experience.

The first time this happened I was standing in a large room at the old Tate in London the walls of which were covered with huge Rothkos. I was wrapped in Rothkos. Then, all of a sudden there were no edges and I was floating in these paintings and pounding with their rhythm and even more extraordinary I was filled with a type of knowing that, for someone with a strong intellectual bent, was staggeringly new. The second time, also in London, occurred at the Courtauld when for the very first time I saw the genius of Cézanne, saw the planes and shadings, saw the landscape through Cezanne; it changed the way I have looked at landscape – real landscape, in the world – ever since. The third occasion was coming face to face with Arthur Boyd’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall’. I remember the shock of understanding when I saw that painting, the utter conviction that this was how life was – the beauty and the terror. The fourth time was walking through Kathy Temin’s large work ‘My Monument: White Forest’ (see the posting Imagination Soup: How novels begin). I was absorbed into this large installation so profoundly that I was transported back ten years to a visit I’d made to Auschwitz-Birkenau – one of the places, I would later discover, that had inspired this work of Temin’s. There was no prior knowledge here, no intention, rather my imagination and the imaginative space of the artwork merged.

And it has just happened again. Today I saw ‘Absent Bodies’ by Chiharu Shiota (at Anna Schwarz Gallery, Melbourne, until 5th November). This beautiful art work, 15×4.5×4.5m takes up half the space of the gallery. It is a huge complex web, or rather webs constructed out of smooth red yarn. The obvious analogy is the network of neurons in the brain, the long axons, the ganglia where nerves meet, blown up to the size of a small house. But to reduce Shiota’s work to mere physical presence is to leach it of power, of effect.



Shiota’s art work knows space, possesses space in the way, say, of the Grand Canyon or the open vistas of Antarctica or, indeed, the unfettered imagination. The tangle of red string creates an environment, and even though you stand at the edge you enter it (and yet physically you can’t enter it because the strings, criss-crossing in all directions, would stop you.) Again that sense of an imaginative space being coterminous with your imagination. Where the threads meet and cross one another, they are not knotted – there are no knots in this tangled environment – rather they twist around one another. And through the middle the threads thin out, may even disappear, creating a tunnel that leads to two chairs at the end; they are vacant, they are waiting for you.

This is an environment of complexity and possibility, just like the imagination. It’s all about connection and space, creativity and insight. It is, truly, beautiful. And it opens a fourth dimension – not time, in fact time is stationary in this sort of unregulated experience – the dimension running along the consciousness-unconsciousness continuum releases the imagination itself, a numinous presence that simultaneously envelops depth and motion, memory and forgetting, experience and insight. This artwork becomes you.

LETTERS (again)

Personal letters are private. Written by one individual to another, they are composed in private and intended to be read in private.

There are few other human-to-human activities that can claim this level of privacy. Sex perhaps. And good conversation, by which I mean those passionate, exploratory, discursive exchanges that occur over many hours, during which mind and language are exercised to a magnificent degree; where the conversation is a journey, a magical mystery tour, in which the stopping-off posts and the end points are adventures to be discovered.

I have fallen in love during hours of close conversation. (As has often been noted, the brain is the sexiest human organ.)

I am currently reading Ted Hughes’s letters, selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Hughes had some fine correspondents, family of course, as well as many writers and artists; and poets, too, such as W.S. Merwin, Daniel Weissbort, Al Alvarez, and Yehuda Amichai (one of Hughes’s favourite poets – mine too). Often in reading Hughes’s letters I am pulled up short by some seriously intoned astrological aside (not sharing his beliefs, I find some of them laughable), some acutely observed aspect of nature, some superbly expressed outrage. Here he is on a particular critic who had given a bad review of a friend’s work.

Davie [the critic] is a kind of parasite in the crutch & armpits of poetry very common in the States – a strident proclaimer of the latest O.K. notions all sure to be found in a pitiful form in his own latest verse. He’s a grotesquely shrunken silly imitator of Pound, forty years after the phenomenon. He’s the old receptacle of every other critic’s – particularly the American battalion – dud cartridges & empty cases & he’s trying to fit them all together, not dropping one, into a semblance of armament….He’s the mincy mean know-all kind of little office snot – a standard English type – gone into Literature, & in the branch of poetry his own practice is about the measure of his understanding – all creak & no cart. (Letter to the poet John Montague, 1961)

I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for , not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)

I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for him, not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)

I read this long letter a second time and wish, yes wish, this letter had been public when Robin Morgan wrote her accusation in Monster (1972) and we feminists raised our fists and fury against Ted Hughes, blaming him for Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

I felt ashamed and sorry when, more than 30 years after the publication of Monster, I read Hughes’s Birthday Letters, those brilliant poems of yearning and perplexity about his courtship and marriage to Sylvia and the terrible impact of her death. At twenty I had no idea how ignorant I was. The certainties and righteousness of youth can be so brutal.

But I digress, this article is not about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, it is about letters. When published letters are by famous people you, the reader, already know the context, you know the life and the work. You are in possession of the basic narrative, a sort of connective tissue which cushions the letters and holds them together. So when Ted Hughes asks a publisher to consider a collection of poems by a poet called, David Wevill in December 1962, but expressly asks that under no circumstances should his, Hughes’s intervention be mentioned, the reader knows why. Some months earlier, Hughes and Wevill’s wife Assia had begun an affair. We know that two months after the letter was written Sylvia will kill herself, we know that Ted Hughes’s second wife will be Assia Wevill. (I find myself wanting to warn Ted.)

None of this sort of background narrative exists when letters have been written by an unknown person in an ordinary context. (An extraordinary context would be letters written by a foot soldier from the trenches in the Great War – we may not know the individual soldier, but we do know the circumstances in which he finds himself.) When it comes to an ordinary personal letter, any reader who is not the intended recipient or a confidante of the recipient is reliant on the letter itself to supply a cushioning narrative, together with the products of their own imagination. The letters of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, letters that relate loves or losses or illness or travels or local happenings or desires or disappointments provide huge imaginative space for any unrelated reader.

Sylvie Morrow, the character in my new novel, The Science of Departures, who collects letters, is trying to understand the appeal of these private communications that are not intended for her, but speak to her in an utterly irresistible way. The man in the novel who becomes her lover gives her a stack of epistolary novels, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, generally considered to be the first of the modern epistolary novels. He gives her Bellow’s Herzog, Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a verse novel in letters (and yes, she is the same Anne Stevenson who wrote Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath). He also gives her Dracula.

Like Sylvie I have struggled through Pamela and struggled part way through the Richardson’s 1500 page door-stopper Clarissa (many have started, few have finished). Indeed, I have read quite a number of epistolary novels in recent times. The problem, it seems to me, of the epistolary form is that the necessity of carrying the narrative actually bleeds the letters of their sense of privacy and intimacy, of being intended for just one person. Indeed, in many of the letters in epistolary novels one gains no sense of the recipient whatsoever, and not much of the writer either – the ‘I’ of the writer being too often crushed under the narrator function. In short, often epistolary novels do not read like letters at all, rather they are like any first-person narrative – replete with all the pitfalls of that particular point of view.

I’m yet to be convinced that the epistolary novel can be true to the qualities of letters AND the requirements of a novel.

How very different is the journal novel, of which Dracula reigns supreme. I read Bram Stoker’s novel for the very first time only recently. It is a gripper. The story is told through the journal entries of three main characters, with the addition of a few letters and some diary entries. The work is masterfully structured so it reads like a continuous narrative with changing character point of view. I could not put it down.


My character, Sylvie, reads the epistolary novels given to her by her lover. She decides that what she gets from her letter collection is quite different – and preferable. She wants the private tone of real letters, that clandestine atmosphere they create. It is, she decides, the very intimacy of the letter form that draws her into other people’s lives, lives that are not her own, lives that are far distant from her own. The letters in her collection, having no back-story require her own imagination to be active; it is she who supplies the connecting narrative. She decides that she wants letters to be letters and do the job of letters; the epistolary novels do not do that. She wants this whether it is the letters in her collection, or the volumes of published letters written by famous people. She wants letters that allow her to trespass on private lives.

I find myself in full agreement with her.


 The Fiery Maze Rehearsal

It was a dream partnership: a poet who thrived on rock music and a rock musician with a poetic soul.

In 1994, Tim Finn read Dorothy Porter’s genre bending verse novel The Monkey’s Mask. He loved the book. But there was something else. In those short, punchy lines of poetry he perceived a natural lyricist. He reached for pen and paper and wrote to Dorothy suggesting they collaborate on some songs.

Dorothy Porter was in thrall to music. It was the rock music of the 1960s, she always said, that made her a poet. She had listened to and admired Tim’s work for years. The prospect of a collaboration with him was irresistible.

And the time was right: two artists with limitless imagination and eager for creative risk-taking.

For the first time in his life Tim had his own studio. Located in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, he was in an exploratory phase, extending his musical boundaries into strange and new territory. While his focus during 1994 had shifted from performance to composing, he nonetheless had formed a new band with two Irish friends. The band was called ALT, deliberately evoking the alternative music that was its domain. The more experimental musical space in which Tim found himself was also reflected in the fact he was the group’s drummer.

At the same time, he was observing changes in the way young people were approaching popular music. The Gen Xs were open to music from times other than their own. They were listening to Janis, to Jimi, to Jim Morrison, and they were as excited by this music as had their parents been thirty years earlier. The idea of having these past gods infusing new work started to emerge. Musically, it was a time when anything seemed possible.

In the suburb of Elwood, just a few kilometres from Tim’s studio, Dorothy Porter was between books. The Monkey’s Mask had become a best seller – a rare anomaly in the world of poetry. Not tempted to write The Monkey’s Mask 2 despite considerable pressure to do so, Dorothy was in no hurry to embark on her next book. With time on her hands and her ravenous imagination on sabbatical from any specific project, Dorothy, like Tim, was ripe for anything.

In December 1994, the two of them met for the first time. Tim shared with Dorothy his musings about Janis, Jimi and Jim and other greats of the 1960s and 70s. These were the gods of Dorothy’s own music pantheon, and they would figure in the songs she would write.

But for the central theme she chose love – not warm, fuzzy, walk-off-into-the-sunset love, but blind, explosive, knock-you-off-your-feet love. The exquisite ecstasy of an unspoiled, idealised love had been a recurring theme in Dorothy’s work – as had its aftermath of pain and misery when the beloved turns out to be all too human.

Off the Planet MSDorothy Porter wrote most of the lyrics in a six-week period of white heat during December-January, 1994-95. An explosive new love begins in the Victorian town of Ballarat of all places (‘Will Ballarat ever be the same’). Some of the lyrics are laugh-aloud funny: ‘I’m always sick or sober, I’m just a boring little dag’. Others reflect the pain and poignancy when love grabs you by the throat: ‘Today I want to swim in black water…black water tastes sweeter than stale happiness.’ With each song she added a note regarding musical style; ‘dark, slow and dreamy’ (Off the Planet), ‘bitter-sweet, brooding & slow – smoky’ (Talking in my Sleep), ‘punchy, staccato beat’ (New Friends).

For Tim, Dorothy’s words and imagery were ‘intoxicating and liberating’. He went into his studio and, like Dorothy, he wrote in white heat. The result is an astonishing variety of music that is as breath-takingly original as the words. From the joyful rock of ‘Like Janis’ to the eerie, evocative murkiness of ‘Black Water’ each song has a distinctive quality and power.

There was no specific discussion about what they would do with the songs, although Dorothy, long confined to the tiny poetry world, had visions of going gold, then platinum and ultimately taking on the world. In the autumn of 1995, Tim invited twenty-two-year-old Abi Tucker to the studio. He had heard her sing at a concert in Sydney, an explosive rendition of the 1960s hit ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’.’ Both the voice and the presence of this young singer were a perfect match for the songs.

Abi had just finished work on Heartbreak High, and was soon to leave for London where she would land a music development deal with EMI. She was thrilled by Tim’s invitation.

Abi Tucker, The Fiery MazeDorothy, Tim and Abi went into the studio one autumnal evening. What emerged were the earliest versions of the songs that now comprise The Fiery Maze. Abi, hoarse from a cold, let herself rip, Tim let her have her head, and Dorothy at last saw poetry displayed in neon as she always thought it should. (She was often heard to say that poets should play huge venues just like rock stars.)

They taped the songs, but with no plans for a commercial recording, Tim, Dorothy and Abi went their own way. As the years passed. Dorothy continued to listen to the songs, and at some point, responding to an inexplicable but insistent urging to preserve the songs, Tim transferred the original recordings to a digitised form.

Early in 2008, Tim proposed that he and Dorothy shape the songs into a rock musical. She loved the idea and plunged in. But just as the project was gathering momentum, Dorothy Porter died.

Six years later, in 2014, Abi Tucker contacted Tim, to inquire about ‘those songs’. It was ‘Black Water’ in particular that wouldn’t leave her alone, a song she describes as ‘a cracker’. She wanted to hear it again, she wanted to sing it again. Tim contacted me and The Fiery Maze, a show that charts a wild, risky destructive love affair came into being.

Twenty years have passed since the songs were written. Inspired by the great gods of rock music, these songs tell a universal human story of love. They are seductive, lyrical, brilliant. They are The Fiery Maze.

The Fiery Maze is playing at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne from 20th August to 5th September, with previews on 18th and 19th August. Further information is available from the Malthouse website

(Performance photographs taken during rehearsals 12/8/16. Tim Finn is on keyboards, drums and guitar, Brett Adams on guitars, Abi Tucker is singing.) 





I have always been captivated by the idea of memory. While it has been a theme in all my novels it was THE theme in The Memory Trap. In this novel, memory in all its forms – personal biographical memory, national collective memory, memory and obsession, mementoes and memorials – was explored through the lives of the characters.

ABR coverThe American writer and film-maker, David Rieff, has made memory the subject of his past two books. I have reviewed his latest for ABR and reproduce it below

This month’s ABR has a stunning cover to accompany the announcement of the 2016 Calibre essay prize to Michael Winkler. Check out the issue at




David Rieff
Yale University Press, $36.95 hb, 145pp.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18279-8

Over the past three decades, and particularly since the prime ministership of John Howard, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of young Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Most of these people have no ancestors among the ‘fallen’, but rather are following what has become a rite of passage for patriotic young Australians.

Lest we forget, they intone. But what exactly is being remembered? And to what purpose is it being used? After all, until recently, few young people visited the site of this appalling military failure in which Australians were used as cannon fodder by their colonial masters. For that matter, until recently, flag-waving nationalism and loud-mouthed patriotism played little part in any aspect of Australian life.

Memory and its more structured form as remembrance are considered to be positive and desirable attributes. Personal memory is thought to be the primary vehicle by which individuals define themselves, while collective memory helps define a nation. Collective memories, like Gallipoli, act as the struts and foundations of nationalism, uniting poor and rich, urban and rural populations alike. As for history and memory, they are regarded – if thought about at all – as almost exactly the same, rather like identical twins.

In his excellent new book, In Praise of Forgetting*, David Rieff questions the commonly unquestioned: namely the purposes and effects of collective memory. He shows how easily history can fall prey to morally contingent, proprietorial and emotive memory. Ranging across the Irish troubles, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Israel and Palestine, Stalin’s Russia, and the Balkans’ internecine battles Rieff reveals how collective memory invariably follows a political and ideological agenda, which is itself underpinned by specific moral imperatives. He makes clear that structured, state-sanctioned memorialising is in thrall to contemporary goals and aspirations and not the past it is purporting to preserve. As well, he points out ‘that exercises in collective historical remembrance far more closely resemble myth on one side and political propaganda on the other [more] than they do history.’ Rieff will always see the elephant in the room.

In advancing his arguments, Rieff draws on a wealth of work about memory and remembrance including that of the great Russian neurologist A.R. Luria, the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz, Theodor Adorno’s classic Minima Moralia, and most particularly the Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory) and the social philosopher Tzvetan Todorov (Hope and Memory and Memory as a Remedy of Evil). Rieff sets up a dialogue of sorts with these latter two luminaries in which there is acknowledgement and agreement, as well as argument and disagreement; crucially Rieff extends the analysis of both men. As a thinker, Rieff is fearless and devoid of sentimentality. To take on those you admire is a difficult task, but if done well, as it is in this book, it yields far richer and nuanced arguments than if you were to pit yourself against a thinker with a diametrically opposing view.

Individual memory degrades very quickly while official memorialising is a tool in service to ideological and cultural currents. Rieff refers to Shelley’s pithy ‘Ozymandias’, as well as David Cannadine’s memoir ‘Where Statues Go to Die’ about the ‘inglorious fate’ of colonial monuments in India. My favourite monument story concerns the Bremen Elephant. This ten foot high red brick elephant was erected in 1932 to celebrate Germany’s colonial conquests, especially in Namibia. By the 1980s this particularly brutal colonisation had become a matter of shame; the monument was an embarrassment and there were calls to pull it down. In 1990, when Namibia gained its independence, the Bremen Elephant was re-dedicated as an anti-colonial monument, and in 2009 a new monument was built adjacent to the old to commemorate the lives of those Namibians who perished in the colonisation. Rather than an enduring truth about the past, monuments rise and fall depending on prevailing political and social concerns.

Official remembrance is big business these days. New monuments, memorial gardens, entire museums are popping up all the time. Rieff is rightfully critical of a number of these, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, where the atrocities portrayed have been book-ended in kitsch. (For an excellent book on kitsch in memorialising see Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History, 2007.) My complaint with the U.S. Holocaust Museum is in its use of experiential exhibits. The underlying premise of this fashionable trend in museum practice is that by promoting a personal involvement in the (long-past) events being portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding. So it happens that on entering the U.S. Holocaust Museum visitors are issued with an identity card of a real person who existed during the Holocaust. As you walk past the displays of horror, as you watch the videos, as you linger in the (real) cattle car, you clutch your identity card wondering if your person – your surrogate self, after all – has survived. You have been inserted into these horrendous events. As for the imagination as a means of understanding, it has fallen out of fashion. What this might mean for memory in general, given that memories involve an imagining of past events, is anyone’s guess.

Rieff, in highlighting past atrocities and the way they have influenced current conflicts, recommends forgetting as a means of facilitating individuals to move on. Many Holocaust survivors did exactly this. They had survived and it was incumbent on them to live fully – not only for themselves but the millions who were denied a future. They did not consult counsellors or psychiatrists, rather they drew on their own resilience and determination to separate from their terrible experiences and steer themselves into the future. In many instances, It was their children and grandchildren who insisted on dragging them back to Auschwitz. It seems that the parents’ very productive forgetting interfered with the children’s demands for remembrance – a peculiarly narcissistic remembrance. The therapeutic has indeed triumphed as the author’s father, the sociologist Philip Rieff, predicted in 1966.

Rieff sees more value in forgiveness than do I. I am of the belief that some acts and the policies that allow them to occur are unforgivable, such as the atrocities under apartheid, those committed by the Nazis, and the slaughter being carried out by ISIS now. Nelson Mandela recognised this when he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not a Truth and Forgiveness Commission. There can be understanding and reconciliation, there can be a future where past enemies live together in peace, and this can occur without having to forgive the unforgivable (and thereby act in bad faith).

In Praise of Forgetting explores the powerful and often brutal effects of the seemingly benign and beneficent processes of memory and remembrance. It forces scrutiny of what has long been complacently accepted. Over the past half century or so, there has been a sacralising of memory both at the personal and collective levels. For the former it has often lead to a life of victimhood, for the latter entrenched hatreds and shocking brutality. If remembering truly were so therapeutic then such undesirable outcomes would not occur with such distressing regularity.


*In Praise of Forgetting grew out of an earlier monograph Against Remembrance (MUP, 2011). I am hoping Rieff is planning a third volume titled ‘Against Forgiveness’.



The Insatiable Self

Pride, sloth, lust, greed, envy, wrath and gluttony: these are the seven deadly sins. Unlike their criminal cousins of assault, battery, rape and murder, the sins have undergone a transformation in the past few decades. Leeched of badness they can hardly claim to be sins any more. Indeed, many people would now consider the traditional sins to be virtues.

Pride has become self-worth.
Sloth has become ‘taking time for yourself’.
Lust is doing what is natural.
Greed is entitlement and, according to Gordon Gekko, it is good. (This is one of the few clear messages trumpeted by Donald Trump and parroted by his besotted and deluded followers.)
Envy is a fair response to unfairness in the distribution of society’s rewards.
Wrath is emotionally healing.
And gluttony…well gluttony is the odd one out, but this has always been the case. Of all the sins, only gluttony dishes out its own punishment. Indigestion, arteriosclerosis, liver disease, collapsed joints, diabetes, and many more physical ailments punish the glutton mercilessly and, it must be said, often fruitlessly. However, this is not the only quality that sets gluttony apart, but more of that shortly.

When the world was a simpler place there was a virtue to combat each sin. So humility would address pride, diligence – sloth, chastity – lust, charity – greed, kindness – envy, patience – wrath, and temperance – gluttony. In much the same way that many of the traditional sins have been stripped of their sinfulness, so many traditional virtues are now regarded as highly undesirable. Humility conjures up a bowing scraping Dickensian character with poor self-esteem; diligence is associated with a mindless functionary who needs to get a life; chastity is a pathology in the lay population and aligns with sexual perversion in the religious; charity promotes lazy dependence and a class of dole bludgers; kindness is all very well but only towards those you can trust, and patience is a poor achiever.

As recently as fifty years ago there was a set of sins and virtues subscribed to by the vast majority of people in western Judeo-Christian societies, and there were social structures to help maintain them: family, church, political and educational systems. Fundamental writings contributed further support. The Bible is full of admonitions against sin and praise for the virtues. Dante’s long poem The Inferno, in which the poet-pilgrim is guided through the circles of hell by Virgil, reveals numerous sins with all their horrible consequences in one of the most creative and compelling narratives ever written. Milton dipped his pen into this material as did poets as varied as Pope and Byron.

Novelists have long looked to the seven deadly sins to fuel their work, so much so that to remove greed, lust, envy, anger and pride from fiction would shrink the library to a shelf. A New York Public Library series of lectures on the seven deadly sins conducted in 2003 attracted various august contributors such as Francine Prose and the incomparable Joseph Epstein, and in my own library I have a slender hard-copy of the seven deadly sins from 1962 (a cancelled book from the Sunshine Coast Regional Library Service) with the following contributors:

Angus Wilson: on envyseven deadly sins
Edith Sitwell: on pride
Cyril Connolly: on covetousness
Patrick Leigh Fermor: on gluttony
Evelyn Waugh: on sloth
Christopher Sykes: on lust
W.H. Auden: on anger.

If I did not already own this book I would covet it, I would lust after it, I would have to have it.

Sins warrant punishment, whether it’s Adam and Eve banished from Paradise because of their disobedience, or the pride of the Hebrews who thought they could build a tower to Heaven and were punished by God for their effrontery. God split their common language into several tongues, and thereby split the people asunder (thus: the Tower of Babel). In the secular realm, the various legal systems that have accompanied human settlements over the millennia have meted out punishments for the sins of their citizens, while commonly held values and attitudes have meant that sinners were banished to the margins of society and treated as pariahs.

Shared attitudes towards sin and virtue have allowed people to live closely in communities under a system of common values. Pride, envy, anger, lust, greed and sloth all can damage others; even gluttony is at someone else’s expense particularly in times of scarcity. An awareness and value of the other, of the family and neighbours who reside in close proximity, as well as strangers passing through the community, have undergirded the proscription against sin and the encouragement of virtue.

But times have changed.

A few dacades back, the global village replaced the local village, and in our own digital age, cyberspace has replaced the global village. We are now joined with everyone else via a huge web of connections built out of ’likes’, ‘send’, ‘post’, ‘share’, and mediated by vast, rich corporations run by strangers who/that* have easier access to you than your friends and family.

To return now to gluttony. Like the other sins it has been transformed – but not to a virtue. Gluttony has become INSATIABILITY, and in its current form, it is ubiquitous. Insatiability is the power engine of modern life, it drives the modern self.Gluttony

Insatiability has put the self centre-stage. Insatiability has cut us off from others – unless they can supply something we need. Insatiability is fast killing empathy. To want more and better wealth, to want more and better sex, food, friends, family, travel, jobs, leisure, possessions – this is what we have become, this is who we are.


Insatiability separates us from other people: all that matters is our own perpetually needy, wanting and demanding self. The assault on social life is profound, but many aspects of human endeavour are threatened. For example, insatiability is anti-creative, in both the arts and the sciences. With so much energy directed into wanting/needing/expecting more and better for the self, there’s little time or desire or perceived need to create something new, something with questionable utility. Always lacking, always in a state of deficit, insatiability sees us feeding off the self in order to feed the self.

This is a madness.

Insatiability locks us into the present. We want more, and we want it now. Insatiability has no patience – and neither does the digital world. Immediacy is king. A moment ago doesn’t matter any more. On average, people check their phones every 4.5 minutes, they are checking what’s happening now – friends, news, work, leisure, arrangements – and in the now they respond. And 4.5 minutes later they tap into the now again. And 4.5 minutes later they do it again. And in each 4.5 minute bracket they may have gone to the toilet or made a quick cup of coffee or paid a couple of bills. But four and a half minutes is insufficient for a new Mona Lisa, a new Enigma Variation, a new Mrs Dalloway. Four and a half minutes is insufficient to understand the suffering of the woman next door whose husband has just had a stroke; or the harm heaped on desperate people seeking refuge among us; or the brutality of pledging an eight-year-old girl in marriage to a forty-year-old man.

Combine the digital world with craven insatiability and you have a scenario where the self reigns supreme. This self needs to be looked after, rewarded, stroked, recognised; it can never have too much attention. This self has become our god, our only God.

This self, this insatiable self has already gobbled up much more than the seven deadly sins.


* It’s impossible to differentiate the non-human corporation, that mysterious behemoth, from the people who work there.


A little over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, a short story that depicts human civilisation some time in the future. I expect Forster was projecting into the far-distant future – millennia not centuries – but in certain respects the world of his story bears a remarkable resemblance to human society today. In Forster’s story people live by themselves in their own room (children are raised in special nurseries). Within these rooms everything necessary for life is available at the push of a button. When you are hungry you press a button and food appears, when thirsty, another button produces a drink. When you want to sleep you push a button and a bed materialises, when you wish to wash, the right button will conjure a bath. If you are feeling ill, a thermometer, stethoscope and other diagnostic tools will appear to test and diagnose, following which, appropriate drugs will be dispensed. Under normal circumstances people do not meet in the real world, there’s no need and besides, touch between humans is considered rude, even disgusting. There’s plenty of company via a blue screen which links each person with thousands of others located across the world. With so many friends and so much activity via the screen, people are busy, their every moment occupied. Art has no place in this world. Creativity itself has been rendered obsolete. Nature – mountains, sunsets, clouds – is feared. With everything in hand’s reach, direct observation of the world is deemed neither necessary nor desirable. People are happy to stay in their rooms. And why not? The machine looks after all of their needs.

I read this story in my twenties during my Forster phase – what a pleasurable plunge that was. I have returned many times since to the essays and the novels – Howard’s End and The Longest Journey in particular. But I’ve never consider Forster to be an aficionado of the short story form and wouldn’t have reread ‘The Machine Stops’ if not for an article by Atul Gawande about Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker (September 14th, 2015). Gawande, a physician and writer like Sacks himself, was an admirer of the great doctor who died 30th August, 2015. Gawande met Sacks only twice, the first time in 2002 when Gawende was completing his medical training and again in 2014. The two of them did, however, correspond by letter.

Sacks, according to Gawande, never used email, rather he wrote letters long-hand with a fountain pen on quality paper. In a letter, four weeks before he died, in which he bemoaned the deadening effects of social media, Sacks referred to the Forster story.

So, because of Sacks and because of Atul Gawende and because I am months behind with reading The New Yorker I have just reread ‘The Machine Stops’. I needed this story because of a recent longing for my old, portable Olivetti typewriter which, in a state of technological euphoria, I packed up and took to the Salvos some time last century.

I want it back.

I haven’t capitulated to nostalgia. I considered those milky yearnings an excuse to escape the demands and challenges of today. The term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation to Basle University. He meant it as ‘a medical term to describe a depressed mood caused by intense longing to return home.’ (I gleaned this from an essay by Avishai Margalit on the role of the British in the making of modern Israel published in the NYRB, 7/2/2013.) A few centuries on, nostalgia relates to ‘home’ in the broadest sense: as a concept and a feeling – as well as a place. It is a notion fed by memory, by photos, by shared recollections, and by objects too. In essence there is nothing worrisome about this. The problem arises when longing for the past becomes primarily a longing for the familiar, for the known and certain. When longing for the past is used to flee from today’s rambunctious unpredictabilities.

My pangs for the old Olivetti tossed out during a technological high of several decades duration relates very much to concerns I wrote about in ‘Escape from Cyberspace’ (5/2/15) and the two posts about letter writing (‘Epistolary Pleasures’ – 22/6/15, and ‘The Passion of Letters’ – 16/7/15). In those articles I mounted a case for uncommitted time: time to think and imagine and create. Being constantly digitally connected is like being on speed: fabulously energising but not particularly productive. I have a desire for slow time. The manual typewriter, like writing letters, like the delights of onion skin paper, like my digital-free Saturdays, is in service not to nostalgia but a desire for deep and prolonged thought, and remaining with a train of thought long enough for ideas to emerge and be fleshed out, and understanding (quite different from knowledge) to be furthered.

My long discarded typewriter has been on my mind for months. The combination of Forster’s story, the fact that Sacks wrote letters longhand, and my own admiration and gratitude for Sacks work prompted me finally to make a move.

Having an Olivetti back in the days of yore wasn’t the same as having a Remington or an Olympia or an Underwood. It was akin to driving a Renault, reading Borges, travelling to Peru, and sitting through festivals of central European films. I was so taken by my Olivetti I made a tapestry of it. (And perhaps this is the time to confess that my Olivetti was actually not mine. Although it did become mine, but whether by fair means or foul, I can no longer say.)

Olivetti Typewriter

For decades I have noticed a shop near Melbourne University in the inner-city suburb of Carlton. The shop is called Elite Office Machines. The window display is a jumble of typewriters and adding machines. Some of these machines are not real but rather cute models. I have often wondered whether the owner of this shop collects typewriters or sells them. This morning I rang the proprietor. He’s a seller all right, a seller and a repairman, in fact Zeljko Koska is one of the few remaining typewriter repairmen in the country – possibly the entire world. He’s been operating from this location for 50 years, and yes, he said, he had a portable manual Olivetti.

I checked my phone. It was 38 degrees outside. Only a necessary mission would drive me into such heat (25 degrees is the upper limit of what I find tolerable). To Carlton I drove and found a parking spot right outside the shop. The parking gods are clearly partial to a manual typewriter, I decided. I entered the shop. Mr Koska – Tom – had just finished checking the Olivetti he had in stock. I looked at it. I looked at the case. It was mine, my old machine. I’m sure it was my machine. I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on it.

As it happened fingers, hands, wrists, indeed whole arms were needed. I had forgotten the pressure required to depress the keys of a manual typewriter. But the noise, that soothing yet driving clacking sound, was writerly Bach.

I went to an ATM to get some cash – no credit cards at Tom’s business – and decided that as much as I wanted an Olivetti, I also wanted a manual typewriter that was comfortable to use. On returning to the shop I tried a Brother Deluxe 750TR, a machine that would be a good decade younger than my Olivetti. The clack was even more musical and there was a spring in the keys that delighted my fingers. I tore myself away from my Olivetti – it was hard, very hard, but either I could capitulate to nostalgia or I could buy a typewriter that I knew would assist in a slower more meditative approach to work.

And here it is.

Olivetti tapestry

Tom, while fit and trim, is a man of a certain age. It turns out he is 73. If he’s not around who will service my typewriter? Who will supply the ribbons? He told me he had no plans to retire. He also revealed that people in their 20s and 30s make up a good many of his customers these days. Young people who seek the sort of slow, contemplative, creative intellectual stimulation that comes from books and digital-free days and manual typewriters.

In Forster’s story, diversity among people has disappeared. Fortunately in this aspect of his futuristic view he was wrong. Although the noise from social media, Google, iTunes and the rest fills our lives, the readers and creators and thinkers are still out there – in small numbers, but that has always been the case. And while they are, there’ll always be a place for hand-written letters, portable manual typewriters, and afternoons spent reading books – alongside the convenience, the wonders, the speed and the reach of digital technology.



Recently I wrote a piece about the desires one has when it comes to the books of friends, the responsibilities of reviewing and the murkiness that can creep into public evaluations of a new book. The same applies when the work is painting, sculpture or film. So I’ll not reiterate here, it’s all in the previous post.

My friend Sue Brooks’s new film, Looking for Grace, will be released on 25th January, 2016. I’ve seen it and it’s a beauty. Sue’s résumé is full and glowing; of her previous work I would single out Japanese Story as my favourite. Images, textures and the overall atmosphere of the film remain with me ten years on. I expect I’ll be saying the same about Looking for Grace a decade hence. Both films were shot in rural Western Australia.

The state of mind I bring to films is similar to that I bring to books. I want to be absorbed, immersed, I want to enter the fictional/filmic world. In short, I want my own imagination to be fired. With this in mind, I sit towards the front of the cinema and always on the end of a row – as far from other viewers as possible. As reading books is a solitary creative experience, so, too, is seeing a film. I want to be enthralled.

Of course mostly I’m disappointed. The glitches and failings of the film pull me from my reverie and I end up in my own skin and thoroughly irritated. But from the opening credits of Looking for Grace I was captivated. These credits set the tone of the film for me. The wheat belt of Western Australia is shot from the air. It is gorgeous – strata and patterns in yellows, clays, whites, browns, caramels, huge and painterly vistas. And then the credits come on in white print. A lesser director or one with a looser eye would have used dark lettering. I settle back. This director knows exactly what she’s doing; I’m happy to trust her.

The story is simple, Grace, a sixteen-year-old only child, runs away from home with her best friend Sappho to see their favourite band play a gig. To finance the journey she takes a large amount of money she regards as ‘family money’, earned through her father’s business.

So – Grace goes missing, her parents Dan (Richard Roxburgh) and Denise (Radha Mitchell) along with a post-retirement private investigator (Terry Norris) search for her, they find her, they set off back home.

As Sue Brooks has said: ‘I wanted to make a film like life as I experience it. There is no heroic journey. There isn’t even a hero. If you believe people shape their own destinies, this isn’t a film for you. If you believe that we all have a destiny that is outside our control and we all spend every day trying to belt it into the shape we think it should have, then this might be a film for you.’

One of the great pleasures of this film is its structure. The film moves from one character to the next, showing the story from different points of view. We begin with Grace’s story in which a largely-empty bus is speeding through the vast Australian countryside carrying Grace (Odessa Young) and Sappho (Kenya Pearson); the girls are sharing ear-buds and rocking along in unison to the music. They’re young, they’re carefree, they’ve run away from home, they’re having a great time. The film goes on to portray Denise’s perspective, Dan’s, Norris (the detective) and others. Slowly the story is built up, layered in a multi-dimensional way – as indeed happens in real life. Whilst stunningly visual, this is a film that draws strongly on that most powerful of novelistic devices: character point of view.

All these characters reveal flaws and frailties. Dan, the father, seems out of his depth most of the time, Norris is struggling with the inevitable advance of age, Denise, trying to create and maintain family life is not sure who she can rely on any more, and Grace is that most aggravating of creatures: a sixteen-year-old girl who believes the world exists only to serve her. She is played to perfection by Odessa Young. (Watch for a scene at the end of the film when you know exactly what is playing through Grace’s mind even though she says not a single word.) No heroics here, but plenty of authenticity.

There are comedic sequences in this drama. There was a full house in the preview I attended and the audience responded positively to the humour. While the humour contributes to the variation of pace and tone that a movie requires, for me, such variation is amply provided by the changing character point of view. Also, given my experience of watching a film – just me, the screen and an empty theatre – the laughter from the audience pulled me out of the film, reminding me I was not alone

Elizabeth Drake’s score provides an excellent emotional current to the film, Katie Milwright’s photography is glorious and the camera always where I wanted it to be. This is an Australian film with themes which are universal. It has already been applauded at various festivals around the world and I can see why.

Sue Brooks is a friend of mine, I wanted to like her new film, Looking for Grace. I did.