Category Archives: Pandemic

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

During lockdown, the Melbourne Jewish Book Week conducted its annual gala on-line. The theme this year was Fake It till You Make It. Each of the 6 performers wrote and performed a piece. There was poetry, non-fiction, and music. I wrote a short story which I have posted below. I had quite a lot of fun writing it, and even more performing it.

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

Cleo, goddess of poetry and epic fiction, surveyed the Fake Room from her office on the mezzanine floor. It was Thursday, and the Fake Room was already crowded. She anticipated an uncomfortable crush come Sunday, just before the room was emptied out in preparation for the new week. How times had changed. At this rate there might need to be two clean-outs a week – a situation unknown and unimaginable throughout the entire history of humankind.

Cleo thought fondly of the days when weeks could go by with scant occupancy of the Fake Room, allowing her to get on with her epic poetry. And when people did come in, such a different type of man from the current crop. She remembered Clinton, who DID have sexual relations with Monica; the charm of the man, it wouldn’t have been out of the question that she, Cleo, would have engaged in a bit of canoodling herself. And Hawkey, who did NOT give up booze and Blanche despite what he said, she always looked forward to his visits to the Fake Room. Caesar had been a favourite, and a Byron week was never a disappointment, and Bellow – well, despite his five marriages or, perhaps, because of them, he was a man to love.

The Fake Room is actually the Room for Liars, but ‘Fake’ sounds so much more benign than ‘liar’. As the muse of epic poetry and fiction, Cleo is, in a very real sense, mistress of the word, but she does report to a higher authority. If left to her, she would be calling a spade a spade (so to speak). But don’t be fooled: in the contemporary era, fake is most certainly a synonym for lie and liar. 

From her cubby, she surveyed the current rabble. All the usuals were there, indeed, they might as well change their address permanently. Trump, formally of the White House was chanting ‘Make ME Great again’ while he negotiated with Putin for a new Trump towers in St Petersburg – and his return to the White House in 2024. 

‘Or perhaps Don Junior,’ he said with that peculiar pursing of the lips which reminded Cleo of porn films. 

Boris was covering sheets of paper with pithy slogans to replace ‘get Brexit done’ given Brexit was done – on paper at least. He shouted out each possibility and gauged the response: make Britain great again, he said, (Trump glared); better than French (Le Pen glared); British beer for the Krauts (in the absence of a German, the Austrian Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer glared). 

While Boris pursued his next pithy statement, Scott Morrison was putting his hopes in thoughts and prayers, as he juggled how good is coal with how good is gas with how good am I. None of the internationals took any notice of his efforts, but that didn’t bother him; seems Nero Morrison lacks more than the empathy gene; in fact, he doesn’t care about the opinion of the rest of the world: they don’t vote in the Australian elections; and, as a marketing man, he knows the importance of identifying the target audience and feeding them what they need to hear. With his handling of Covid he had the Australian people on side and how good was that? But now, with the vaccine roll-out he is struggling, and the recent spate of sexual accusations is sorely testing him. Jen is doing her best to help him understand (‘Imagine it is your daughter’), but his recent obfuscation about what he knew and when he knew it, coupled with the vaccine fiasco, has, in recent weeks, provided him with a permanent seat in the Fake Room.

Cleo again found her thoughts turning to the old days. The company was extremely good back then and she was happy to leave her desk and mingle with the throng. Aristophanes, Lenny Bernstein, Rilke, Dante – this is a men’s club, not exclusively but overwhelmingly, and it would seem that every man has at least one whopper in him. But today’s rabble is all mindless, narcissistic fakery and there’s no charm nor engagement in that. And the dearth of originality in their lies beggars belief – although belief itself, belief based on sound research seems to have become redundant. For these men with their cravings for power, no lie is too bombastic, no conspiracy theory too bizarre.

What strikes her as extraordinary is the greatest lie of all: so many of these men have pledged themselves to public service, yet they don’t give a damn about the public.

In the modern era, the Fake Room requires so much work. 

Back in the old days, emerging from some excellent conversations, her own fiction and poetry progressed through the pens of Dostoyevsky and Dante, her fellow countrymen Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and many other notable luminaries. Eleanor Roosevelt came a couple of times (the incomparable Eleanor and how Cleo wished she’d had come to stay more often). Fortunately when Eleanor did spend time in The Fake Room – it was that issue with the girlfriend – it was not during the same weeks as her husband. Ted Hughes, Philip Roth, Jean of Arc, the list goes on. These days, the goodies have mostly been forced out. 

And the dramas and highlights of the old days. There were some doozies. Like the time Plato lobbied, ex post facto, to get Homer a prolonged stay in The Fake Room for certain fabrications in the Iliad– no anachronism here as time is not linear in the Fake Room. Plato failed, but it took all Cleo’s ingenuity to get him to back down. Plato was not a good listener, he preferred to orchestrate all dialogue, making him a hard man to convince, and Cleo’s being a woman certainly didn’t help – you will recall not a single woman participated in his symposium. Fortunately though, being a woman, Cleo’s reason was tempered with patience, and she brought him round in the end.

One day during the Covid lockdown when truth-telling, one would think, was more important than ever, and yet the Fake Room was so full that social distancing was impossible, Cleo was watching the boys playing ‘mine is more powerful than yours’. And gradually it dawned on her that there was a way of stopping them, of restoring this place to what it once was. 

The solution had been staring her in the face. 

Cleo, the muse of poetry and epic fiction, had always known about the power of fiction to expose, illuminate and generally bear truths. 

It was time to act.

From that moment on, apart from marking the roll, Cleo left the Fake Room occupants to look after themselves. These guys were never going to make it, not if her plan worked. For several months, she lived on coffee and Red Bull while she wrote and revised, read and reread. When satisfied with her work, she sent the manuscript – quite a hefty tome, to her agent, who had been waiting millennia for it. 

THE BOYS LAID BARE, by Hannah Luxenburg, was published simultaneously in a dozen territories throughout the world. The media for the book was Trump-sized, it was an overnight sensation: the revelations fuelled conversations across the globe. 

Hannah Luxemburg, it seemed, had come out of nowhere. But appear she did. Immediately, the fixers, the lobbyists, the official spy agencies, the mum-and-dad conspiracy spooks got to work, striving to outdo one another in uncovering the author’s dirt – to do unto her as she had done in the BOYS LAID BARE to so many others. Because dirt there must be; politically speaking there is always dirt. And when they found no dirt, they faked dirt. But Cleo was the woman who had talked Plato round so these guys didn’t stand a chance.

After millenia of managing the fake room, Cleo knows more about faking it than the fakers. She knows that you can fake it all you like, but that’s not the way to make it. 

No, not at all. 

Call her old-fashioned, but Cleo is a gal wedded to honesty. And, with a mind full of curiosity and a pen in her hand, she has learned there’s nothing like fiction to reveal the truth.

WHEN THE VALUE OF LIFE IS LESS THAN THE VALUE OF A DOLLAR

A reading of Russian history from the 19thcentury to the Revolution and on through the Soviet years (and, some might add, right up to the present day), reveals an enduring feature: human life has been treated as a disposable commodity by a succession of Russian leaders. Under the Czars, peasants died from famine and poverty; Jews died from unpoliced and often state-sanctioned pogroms; enemies of the regime were slain, and disloyal functionaries failed to wake up for breakfast. Under Stalin, the induced famine in Ukraine killed more than seven million people; in the great terror of the late 1930s millions of Russians were murdered; state orphanages were filled with children saddled with ‘tainted biographies’ following the ‘disappearance’ of their parents; friends to Stalin in the evening were pronounced enemies over night and killed by lunchtime the next day; cavalier neglect of the people killed millions during the Great Patriotic War; the siege of Leningrad alone, when next to no help was given to the city by the regime, saw two million deaths over those perilous 900 days; throughout the Soviet years, artists and scientists were sent into exile to wither and die in the wilds of Siberia, while others were left to rot in mental asylums. For decades, the Soviet leadership murdered any opposition, whether real or fabricated.

Reading Russian history, one could be forgiven for thinking that human life counts for nothing when there’s a cause at stake: to win a war, or, for several decades to shore up the power of a despotic leader. The same could be said for China and the huge number of lives lost in Mao’s, euphemistically titled, Great Leap Forward. In a mere five years, more Chinese people died than did Soviet citizens in the entire thirty years of Stalin’s rule.

I have been reminded of this each day when I read the world-wide incidence of covid-19, together with the number of deaths and recoveries for each country. Even before the statistics from the US soared to reach the top of this distressing chart, I noted how the percentage of recovered patients to incidence was worse for the US than practically any other country, indicating what a parlous state that country’s health system was in, and how all, except the wealthy, were affected by this. This was in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. I thought at the time that the situation in the US could become quite serious, although certainly not as bad as Italy, after all the US was a wealthy country. But I had not factored in Trump or his administration, or a Congress dominated by Republicans, nearly all of whom have relinquished all moral principles to follow a leader who makes no bones of having relinquished his moral principles long ago – if ever he had them.

It would seem that some people, nearly always men, will do anything to build their power, and that other people, handsomely served by the prevailing hegemony, will do anything to maintain it.

The chart below shows relative statistics on May 14, 2020.

COUNTRY               CONFIRMED CASES     DEATHS                   RECOVERED

AUSTRALIA                  702298                        98                          6301 (89.7%)

US                              1,390,406                    84,119                     243,430 (17.5%)

RUSSIA                          242,271                     2212                      48,003 (19.8%)

UNITED KINGDOM     230,985                   33,264                         1032 (??)

SPAIN                            228,691                   27,104                      140,823 (61.6%)

ITALY                            222,104                    31,106                       112,541 (50.7%)

GERMANY                   174,098                     7861                           148,700 (85.4%)

IRAN                            112,725                      6783                             89,428 (79.3%)

CHINA                          84,024                       4637                             79,246 (94.3%)

INDIA                          78,055                        2551                             26,400 (33.8%)

CANADA                     73,568                       5425                              35,177 (47.8%)

MEXICO                     40,186                         4220                             26,990 (67.2%)

ECUADOR                 30,486                         2334                               3433 (11.3%)

 

It’s easy to lie with statistics, this is commonplace knowledge. And enough is known about countries like China, Russia and Iran to treat their official figures with suspicion. There are, however, issues specific to the coronavirus figures.

  1. 1. It is commonly accepted that the number of confirmed cases is far less than actual cases. There are a number of reasons for this, first and foremost being the low level of testing in many places. But there are also particular features of covid-19, that reduce the numbers, specifically, an incubation period of at least fourteen days; and there are some infected people who will remain asymptomatic at all times. The gap between confirmed cases and actual cases should decrease with wide scale, reliable* testing.
  2. Re deaths and recoveries: neither can be determined until each known case is resolved. This also afects the numbers.
  3. In some countries, for example the UK, deaths in care homes have not been taken into account until very recently. A comparison of UK care home deaths this March-April compared with previous years, suggests a significant number of unaccounted cases of covid-19.
  4. With the best will in the world, it’s extremely difficult to arrive at accurate figures from poorer countries like India and Ecuador.

So, the actual figures are assumed to be much higher than the official numbers. But even on the lower, under-reported figures, the situation in the US is truly shocking. The US is purported to be the richest country in the world, the most advancedcountry in the world. And yet the incidence of covid-19, the number of deaths, and the appallingly low percentage of recoveries shows that the administration has failed its citizens to an astonishing degree.

Trump’s boast that there’s been more testing in the US than anywhere else is a blatant lie. Back in Mid-March according to one Washington DC report, the level of testing in the US per capita was the lowest in the world. The numbers gradually increased – many governors pleaded with the federal government for testing kits and protective gear to no avail – and according to a report in the New Yorker published May 14th, reached an average of 265,000 people per day by the first week in May. While this is nowmore tests than any other country, per capita the US still lags far behind. And given that intensive testing started so late, the country will probably trail behind in per capita testing for some to come.

The president has consistently downplayed the pandemic. Remember when he planned to have the country re-opened by Easter? One of the most extraordinary outcomes of his deceitful optimism is that during those daily two-hour press conferences in April, aka re-election rallies, he hardly mentioned the thousands of deaths, rarely acknowledged the pain and loss so many people were suffering. He treated these sessions as re-election opportunities, keen to tell everyone what a wonderful job he was doing, that hismedical expertise was better than his top medical advisers (after all, who came up with the idea of ingesting disinfectant?), that he could be trusted to manage the health crisis and the economy, and deal with China and the WHO at the same time. Trump seemed to fancy himself as a cross between Christ and Churchill. As I observed him at these daily briefings, I was reminded more of Richard III crossed with Madame Defarge.

It doesn’t matter how many deaths occur, Trump has work to do: specifically, to shore up his election prospects. His every press briefing, his every tweet is in service to staying in power. This is a man convinced he knows everything and can do anything (even delay the presidential elections in November). His intuition is infallible, and much more effective than everyone else’s reason and expertise. And should there be a mistake, he’ll blame it on China, or a formerly trusted member of his team – although there is no team. If you do not do the will of the master, then you’re out. Dr Fauci who has done a remarkable tight-walking act, will, I predict be out of a job before too long.

Trump, like Stalin before him, holds no responsibility towards his nation’s people. These people are nothing more than a means to an end, and, as such, they are dispensable – at least a percentage of them are. The death toll from coronavirus in the US will be well over 100,000. It could rise to over 200,000. Trump is good at numbers. He knows he can lie his way through 200,000 deaths and still have sufficient voters to re-elect him. To him, 200,000 deaths is not even a small price to pay, it’s no price at all, because he doesn’t care about these citizens, indeed, he’d probably dismiss them as collateral damage.** There’s only one deal and that’s to keep him in the White House, and keep him untouchable.

Stalin was the same.

To win in November, Trump believes the country needs to get back to work. 200,000 deaths touch maybe a million people. But unemployment in excess of 20% touches millions more, and not acceptable to the self-proclaimed best economic manager the US has ever known. Covid-19 started out as a nuisance for Trump, then it got in the way of his plans. If it costs lives to reclaim his agenda, so be it. Only one person matters, and not simply in America, but throughout the world, and that is President Trump of the United States of America. Much the same observation has been made of Stalin and the failed state of the USSR.

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*An astonishing number of test kits have been shown to be unreliable.

** Beware all euphemisms. Their function is to cloak the truth in something more pallatable. ‘Collateral damage’ sounds so much more acceptable than ‘people – men, women and children were killed by our actions’. ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Five Year Plan’ hide the millions of people who died as the Soviet Union and China modernised.

PANDEMIC PASTIMES

 

My favourite letter is /p/. It’s not the sound – a voiceless plosive has little to recommend it over

A page of /p/ in personal dictionary.

the musical nasal of an /m/, or the remarkable laterals of /r/ and /l/ – it’s that the most interesting words start with /p/, more than any other letter. I’ve not arrived at this conclusion through research or experimentation, rather it is a matter of experience, backed up by the personal dictionary that I have compiled over many decades. /p/ fills more pages and sparks more interest than any other letter.

In these strange times of the corona virus pandemic, the peccadilloes and proclivities that have sustained me are poetry and prose, paintings and politics. And music, of course, the piano and preludes, but much more than these.

This post is not about my favourite letter, indeed, only in unique times such as these, would I indulge my fondness for /p/; nor is this post my usual sort of article. Rather I want to let you know about a new pandemic pastime of mine.

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In 1912, in the city of Melbourne, a group of women established a club for women. They called it The Lyceum Club after the London Lyceum which had been formed eight years earlier. Both then and now ‘the Club is for women interested in the arts, the professions, science, contemporary issues and the pursuit of lifelong learning in an apolitical, non-sectarian environment.’ I’d not heard of this club until a few months ago, when I was invited to be the Lyceum’s 2020 artist-in-residence.

I accepted the invitation and, in conjunction with several of the Lyceum Circles* (clubs), I planned a program of lectures and interviews and forums.

Then came the lockdown.

The Lyceum Club events quickly shifted on-line, including a Youtube channel so the artist-in-residence program could go ahead. The first lecture, ‘Imagination and Creativity in the Digital Age’, is currently available. In mid-May, a second talk will be recorded on ‘Truth in Fiction’.

Flaubert said: ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi.’ But can we trust him? Should we trust him? And if it were true, does it enhance our reading of Emma Bovary? These issues will be explored with reference to a range of writers. The talk will include a consideration of cultural appropriation and faked biography through the cases of Helen Demidenko, Heather Morris and Bruce Pascoe.

A third talk on memoir will appear on the Youtube channel in June.

These past several weeks I have been reading a lot of poetry. Poetry, with its intensity and concision, is perfect for these times. It provides illumination and insight, it provides distraction from immediate anxieties, and it does all this in a few lines. It suddenly occurred to me: have-channel-record-poetry. So I have. Short readings of favourite poems are also there on the Youtube channel.

The Youtube channel is available to anyone interested. So, if you are wanting a poetry fix, or you’re interested in the lectures here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPas0SJNQwJs_NW9fhYVtXQ

And for more poetry the Australian Book Review has made a podcast of Poetry in Troubled Times.

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/podcast/760-the-abr-podcast/6472-the-abr-podcast-more-poetry-for-troubled-times-13

When this is over, I will resume my articles on this website, but until then I’ll be writing and recording for Youtube. But please do come along for the duration.

 

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*There are dozens of these circles including the Latin Circle, the Psychology Circle, 15+ reading circles, Italian and Greek Circles, gardening and chess, film and finance – a remarkable range.

 

Surviving the Pandemic

I am reading Colum McCann’s latest novel, Apeirogon. An apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of COUNTABLE sides – I delight in this notion. The book is brilliant. Mesmerising, with an incantatory effect in parts, it is long, structured in sections, some only comprising a single sentence. The story (though there really is not a story per se) is shaped around real events: a friendship between a Palestinian man and an Israeli man, both of whom have lost their daughters in the on-going conflict; these are ordinary men, yet extraordinary in what they do, how they understand. The book is about everything: the habits of birds, biblical characters, partition, the holocaust, the Irish troubles, tight-rope walking, every section providing another layer or another SIDE to the apeirogon. Detail by detail, story by story, the book builds a picture of…of the world really. There’s no plot, not in any traditional sense, but the book is unputdownable. It is, truly, an awesome achievement. When I first saw the title, I scoffed: how could any author be so foolish to provide a title that is meaningless to the vast majority of people. But Apeirogonis exactly right: this book is an apeirogon, the world we inhabit is an apeirogon.

While I am reading, the world beyond the book is silent, held suspended, does not impinge. While I am reading, I do not reach for my phone, I do not even think of my phone, nor my iPad, nor my computer. While I am reading, I do not think of the coronavirus. I am fully engaged in the world of the novel. And my mind is working, working hard. As the world of the novel expands layer by layer, panel by panel, I am making connections, imaginative connections; as I read, my own world grows larger and my understandings deepen.

When the world appears to be hostile and/or when you have lost your place in it, when your anxieties have fully occupied you, squeezing out both rationality and humour, fiction provides easy and readily available respite. Indeed, for my entire life, when things have gone awry, I have reached for fiction, most particularly the novels of Jane Austen – dear Jane – but many others as well. And for a time, with the novel in my hands, my dog’s head resting on my thigh, I am transported into other lives, other places, other times, other minds.

No matter how long this pandemic lasts, the fiction will not run out. Go to your book-cases and take down those classics you’ve always intended to read again. Go to the website of your local bookshops, they all have on-line ordering and delivery services. And your library has a wealth of books; best of all, if you’re set up for e-delivery, you won’t need to leave the couch. We are all going to be spending more time alone and with our immediate family. And this is where fiction is so versatile. You can read aloud with your beloved; you can read to your parents; you can read to your children, and you can read quietly, in peace, for an hour by yourself, while the world outside stumbles along.