Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


March 8

774 ABC Melbourne Culture Club

These three reviews were broadcast live on 774 ABC Melbourne on Thursday 8th March 2012.

1) ‘The Seed’ is an MTC production being performed at the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre. Written by Australian playwright Kate Mulvaney, this is a play that draws on the playwright’s own life and family history. It’s about a 30 year old woman called Rose Maloney who travels from Australia to England with her father to meet her Irish Catholic grandfather for the first time, on his 80th birthday.

There are familiar and potentially engaging themes in this play – family secrets, skeletons in the closet, stories revealed, lies uncovered, and the longterm impacts of the Vietnam War on those who fought over there. Rose’s ‘Grand-da’ turns out to be kind of monstrous – a braggart and a bully – and Rose’s relationship with her father changes in the course of this visit.

But to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy this play very much. I thought Sarah Gleeson, the actor playing Rose, was a bit of a weak link. I found it hard to believe in her, and given she’s the central character, that puts a spanner in the works right from the beginning.

Max Gillies plays the Grandfather and he plays the comedic aspects of that character beautifully, as you would expect. He’s got the Irish accent just right, again as you would expect from such a wonderful mimic. But Gillies mis-timed quite a few lines on opening night which makes you nervous as an audience member, and when the comedy turns to tragedy, I lost faith in the character.

The strongest cast member is Tony Martin, best known for his role in the TV drama series ‘Wildside’. He plays Danny Maloney, a Vietnam vet who’s a real survivor, both of that war and of his own dysfunctional family. He’s a man who fled his tribe and we find out that that was for good reason. He’s the most convincing character.

I think there are some structural problems with this play. Every now and then the ‘Rose’ character breaks the flow of the drama and suddenly moves into a long, fragmented and not entirely interesting monologue about going crayfishing with her father when she was a child (feels like a bit of a Tim Winton moment) and it mucks up the narrative tension of the play.

And towards the end there’s a scene where Danny gets really upset and angry and starts throwing furniture around and it just goes on a bit too long. undermining the drama of the scene. I think the problem lies with the direction there. (The play is directed by Anne Louise Sarks)

So I couldn’t really recommend ‘The Seed’, which is a shame given that two weeks ago i was banging on here about the importance of getting more Australian plays on the mainstream theatre stages. ‘The Seed’ is on until April 4th.

2) I wanted to talk about a new production of ‘La Boheme’, even though it’s perhaps not the best show to focus on on International Women’s Day – this is yet another one of those operas in which the heroine (Mimi) dies in the end. Opera composers and librettists have always LOVED killing off the women. I can immediately think of at least seven or eight others: Violetta in La Traviata, Aida in Aida, Cio Cio San in Madame Butterfly, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Isolde in Tristan and isolde, Carmen in Carmen, Floria in Tosca, Desdemona in Otello….


But this is a Melbourne Opera production of Puccini’s very popular opera about struggling artists living in a Paris garrett at the end of the l9th century. If you were thinking about sending someone to the opera for the first time, Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ would be a good choice. It’s in a style called ‘verismo’ which refers to a more naturalistic approach to the drama. So a lot of the time the characters – the writers and artists in the garrett – are just mucking around, chatting away, trading jokes, trying to keep warm – but all this is done through music – they’re singing their chat. This opera also has some of the most beautiful melodies ever written for the human voice – ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’ is probably the most famous.

This production has a lot going for it. including some really strong performances from the lead roles, especially from the male cast members, including tenor Roy Best who sings the role of Rodolfo, the hero of the story (Roy is best known from his success on the reality TV series ‘Operatunity’) and Rodolfo’s friends Marcello the artist, sung by Philip Calcagno, Schaunard sung by Nathan Lay and Colline sung by Steven Gallop. They’re all really fine singers and lovely actors.

The chorus were pretty ragged – they sounded under-rehearsed – and the pace was often a bit slow from the orchestra, or rather from conductor Greg Hocking – so they were not always entirely in synch with singers. I’m not sure the set entirely works. It’s a small stage at the Atheneum Theatre and whenever the chorus came on it seemed completely crammed. (I think with opera in general you can afford to spend less money on complicated sets and let the audience use their imagination a bit more.)

The opera was written in Italian but it is sung here in English which in some ways is great – it makes it more accessible, theoretically, because you don’t have to have surtitles. Except that the English that opera singers sing is inevitably distorted by what we have to do with our voices, so at times the audience struggled to make out the words and follow what was going on (we might need surtitles even with English.)

But it’s a solid production with beautiful singing, a nice way to dip your toe into the opera world if you haven’t yet.

‘La Boheme’ is on at The Atheneum Theatre in Collins St until March 18th, and they’re also doing a performance at Monash Uni at Robert Blackwood Hall on March 31st. Tickets range from $25 to $98 dollars so they’re quite affordable at that low end, especially compared to Opera Australia production tickets – $57 to $250!

3) ‘Stripped’ opened last night at La Mama theatre in Carlton, a one woman play which has been adapted from a novel written by the actor Caroline Lee. I have to declare here that I know Caroline quite well. This is a small town; if you’re interested in theatre you end up knowing a lot of the people involved, but i thought it was important to mention it.

This is incredibly intimate theatre, in more ways than one. The space at La Mama is intimate, and the actor in this show is confined to a small raised platform that looks like a cross between a cat walk and a coffin. She has limited space to move, a couple of meters at most I’d say, so every movement, every gesture becomes loaded with meaning. And the set works in neatly with the themes of this play, which are about sex and death.

The story revolves around two sisters, Sophie and Lilian, one a stripper, the other a lawyer. Lilian is diagnosed with cancer which becomes terminal – and I’m not giving anything away here because we learn at the very beginning of the play that she’s going to die.

It’s very moving and confronting material. We’re brought literally face to face with a dying person, with their thoughts, their feelings, their sexuality, their pain, and with those loved ones who have to look after them.

Caroline Lee does work role-playing patients with cancer in training sessions for medicos and i think she may have used that experience in writing the book and now in creating the theatre adaptation. She has won several Green Room awards for her one-woman shows, most of them (including ‘Stripped’) beautifully directed by Laurence Strangio. She has specialised in this very challenging performance style. Virtuoso performances are required when you’re the only actor – and are delivered.

My one question about this show is how easy it will be for people who haven’t read the book (as I had) to follow the different characters and their stories. Caroline Lee does a great job of embodying the seven different characters but there are not always easy signposts to know which one is speaking at any one time. Because I’d read the novel I generally knew who was who, but someone I sat with found it a bit hard at first to differentiate between all the characters.

There’s a helpful diagram in the program which explains the characters and their connections, which is worth looking at before the play begins. And copies of the novel are on sale outside the theatre too for people who want the full story.

‘Stripped’ is on at La Mama Theatre in Carlton until March 18th.

March 3

Australian Writer Profile – Deborah Robertson – ‘Sweet Old World’

This profile was published in the March 2012 edition of the Readings Bookshop magazine:

Deborah Robertson’s latest novel began life as a story about three sisters grappling with the impacts of infertility. Eighteen months into the first draft, the Melbourne-based author was so bored with her own project that she ditched it.

‘It had the tone of a Sunday newspaper supplement. We all know about childlessness and it’s all been about the woman’s body and the woman’s longing. There has been such a feminisation of infertility and of parenthood in recent decades’.

Robertson hadn’t lost interest in exploring the experience of childlessness through fiction. What interested her more, she realized, was the silence of men on this subject. She began again and the result is Sweet Old World, an exquisitely melancholic tale of a middle-aged man who longs to be a father.

In 2009 the Irish-Australian journalist David Quinn is living alone in a cottage on one of the grey stone Aran Islands, at the mouth of Galway Bay, where his sister Orla runs a B & B. David is haunted by the image of a ghost-child whose absence fills him with a ‘black and icy…feeling of extinction’.

In a quiet café in North Fitzroy, Robertson ponders the word melancholy; ‘David loves the world. He’s not a misanthrope, but the fact that his deepest wish hasn’t been fulfilled renders him vulnerable. Perhaps melancholy is what vulnerability looks like from the outside.’

One of Robertson’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to convey the infinite variety of human emotional states. ‘The problem with melancholy,’ thinks David, ‘is that melancholy doesn’t admit anger, or perhaps it’s anger suppressed’ (p.35). Robertson teases out the subtle affective transformations that can lead to dramatic shifts in people’s lives. When does embarrassment morph into shame? How does shame lead to silence, and what happens when silence becomes a habit?

’I’ve always been interested in masculine silence and the way women try to talk into that silence’ she says. ‘Why do men so often feel ashamed of wanting to be fathers? I discovered this male friend of mine was in complete despair about it but he had never talked about it, he just went about his life. And these days, with the availability of medical technologies for women and of adoption for gay male couples, a single heterosexual man is completely on his own with this desire to have children.’

Vulnerability, particularly that of children, was a dominant theme in Robertson’s last novel. Careless (Picador, 2006) won the Anita Kibble Literary Award and the Colin Roderick Award and was short-listed for half a dozen other literary prizes. It tells the story of a shy girl called Pearl whose young brother dies as a result of a random act of male violence. Robertson says she has ‘an ongoing horror of children suffering and of children not feeling safe in the world’.

In Sweet Old World the suffering child is a teenage traveller called Ettie who has an accident on the island that leaves her hospitalised in a coma. David, who has met Ettie just once, becomes her only visitor until Ettie’s mother Tania arrives from Australia. David collects Tania from the airport: ‘Her face is lovely, but he wouldn’t be able to describe it. A bright light shines from her and makes him look away, a warning light that says don’t you fucking dare.’ (p. 68) But of course he does dare and while Ettie lies silent in her hospital bed the two embark on a stop-start courtship.

Given the ubiquity – and narrative predictability – of popular romance writing, trying to convey the experience of falling in love with fresh prose must be one of the hardest tasks a writer can set themselves. Robertson is up to the challenge. She remembers the small, vivid details that most of us forget once we’ve moved from being-in-love to simply loving; the sudden sense that the world has been made to your specifications; the desire to show your lover the world through your eyes.

She describes David catching the ferry back the island and consciously trying to remember in exact detail the look of the Elvis impersonators on board, ‘so he can paint (Tania) a picture, so she can be there’.

‘One of the wonders of falling in love’, says Roberts, ‘is that the world suddenly stretches wider. It lets you out of the closet of your own life – as expansive and as rich as that might be – and gives you access into someone else’s world. Francoise Sagan said once that being in love meant having someone to look at you. I think that’s really smart, but it’s also having someone look at the way you see things.’

The growing attraction between David and Tania tantalizes the reader with the possibility of a happy ending that Robertson says ‘would have helped me sell another 10,000 copies’ of the book.

‘But I think it’s impossible to reach middle age and not be deeply defined by your past, as these two people have been. I do think character is destiny. The romantic fantasies of popular culture bear as much resemblance to real love as pornography does to real sex and I’m not in the business of peddling a romantic fantasy’.

Robertson also turns her unflinching gaze on the suffering body, both human and animal. David remembers covering a story on ‘The World’s Fastest Turkey Plucking Championship’ at an English industrial factory farm when he was a young journalist:
‘The stink of bird fear, there’s nothing in the world like it. Behind the curtain, turkeys were shitting and screaming and beating their wings; it was probably the most activity they‘d known in their lives, the closest they’d ever been to their bird natures, and it was all about to end’.

David recalls this gruesome scene when a back injury renders him immobile and bed-ridden for several days and his emotional vulnerability is suddenly mirrored by his physical incapacity: ‘The light wakes him, or it might be his pain, or hunger… Now life has come down to a few choices: should he bend his leg or keep it straight? Arm across his eyes or out to the side? Pain is the nucleus of everything.’ (p. 103)

‘I believe that once that happens in a body, an injury that is never repaired,’ says Robertson, ‘once mortality comes in that way, the difference between that sort of human body and the body that has never know pain or illness is greater than the difference between the human body and the animal body. Pain deeply insinuates itself into the way you look at the world and respond to it.’

Robertson plays with the analogy between the slow deterioration of David’s body and the erosion of his adopted home, an island that is literally falling into the sea. And as the Atlantic Ocean carves chunks off the coastline, the Irish economic crisis is gouging away the economic foundations of the island community. Everyone, it seems, is feeling vulnerable.

‘It was a very melancholy time for Ireland’, says Robertson. ‘The prosperity that came from the so-called roaring Celtic Tiger was unusual because Ireland’s history had been all about poverty and emigration and colonialism. Then the Celtic Tiger ran away from them. But melancholy is not nihilism; it’s not a failure to believe in anything. It’s an appreciation of potential riches and a sweet reflection on the gap between potential and realities – that’s the case for Ireland at that time and also for David Quinn.’

February 24

774 Drive Culture Club – Theatre Reviews

I’ve been to see three plays in the last fortnight but I’d have to say the most interesting theatre around at the moment is the K Rudd vs J Gillard Show. Is it a tragedy or is it a comedy?

Or is it a sport?

You might remember a sport called farnarkling which was invented by comedian John Clarke several decades ago. He’d give fake reports on the results of farnarkling games and it was entirely bewildering – you couldn’t really understand the rules, or how the scoring worked, or how many players there were, or how they got their injuries – or even why anyone would bother playing this game. It seems to me the Labor Leadership Game is a bit like farnarkling to most of us. You hear the commentators talking endlessly about it and it seems so irrelevant to your daily life and you just shake your head and wonder why anyone would bother playing.

But there are some parallels between what’s happening inside Labor and some of the plays I’ve seen this week.

1) ‘Tribes’ is an MTC production, a newish work by English playwright Nina Raine, and it’s beautifully directed by Julian Meyrick.

It’s a play about an English family – a tribe – who seem to be at war with each other – sounding familiar? Every conversation involves multiple layers of insults and innuendos, endless blaming and criticizing.

Mother Beth is a writer and father Christopher is an academic who seems terminally disappointed with his three adult children (two boys and a girl), all of whom are still living at home and one of whom, Billy, is deaf. Christopher believes ‘everyone should be laughed at’ and he is the master of the vicious put-down.

This is what many critics would describe as a ‘brave’ play because it goes where few would dare to tread. It takes a long hard look at the idea of disability, and how people treat those who are differently abled. It’s willing to be critical of the deaf signing community, a ‘tribe’ that one character describes as gossipy and insular. It treats mental illness with a casualness that almost makes it seem normal. And it shows us that we can behave most cruelly towards the people we love the most – the people with whom we have most in common.

The question at the centre of the play is – where do we belong? Which tribe should we identify with? Our family? Even if our family seems totally dysfunctional, even if they let us down? Or should we try to find another tribe to belong to – in which case, will the other tribe love us as much as our family will? And what concessions do we have to make to earn our place in the tribe?

The acting in this production is wonderful, especially Alison Bell who plays Sylvia, a young woman who is going deaf, and who people might know from the ABC comedy series ‘Laid’, and David Paterson who plays Daniel, a young man who in the end seems even more disabled than his deaf brother.

At times I thought Brian Lipson, who plays the father, was a little too shouty. Everything was in top gear, which left him nowhere to go when the most crucial dramatic moments came along. But overall this production is highly recommended. It’s exhilarating, illuminating and exhausting to watch. Warning – there is plenty of strong language from the very first moments.

‘Tribes’ is on at the MTC in Southbank until March 14th. The performances on Saturday 25th February at 4pm and Monday 5th March at 6.30pm are captioned for the deaf community.

2) The second production I saw is a play called ‘Good People’ by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, a Red Stitch Actors Theatre production. As many would know, this is a small theatre ensemble based in St Kilda which has been punching above its weight for many years, doing great work on tiny budgets.

‘Good People’ is also about tribalism and disability, and about class – yes folks, it does still exist. The play is set in Boston, Massachusetts – working-class South Boston, or ‘Southie’ – where people struggle to pay their rent and spend their Saturday nights playing bingo, hoping for a win so they CAN pay their rent. Everyone’s name has an ‘ee’ at the end of it in these parts – Margie, Mikey, Dottie, Jeanie, Stevie – which is kind of a way of saying, everyone’s equal, and everyone’s also equally diminished by their hard lives.

Margie is a single mother of an adult daughter with a disability, and at the beginning of the play she loses her job at the check out counter. She may also be about to lose her home, because she can’t pay the rent. Margie meets up with an old flame, a doctor she calls Mikey, who escaped his working class roots and ‘made good’. Mikey has come back to town with a beautiful wife and a daughter in tow. Mikey is what Margie calls ‘good people’ – a decent bloke – part of Margie’s tribe, in spite of his success – or is he?

The drama revolves around what Margie hopes Mikey can do to help her out, what she knows about Mikey’s past, and who she’s prepared to reveal it to. I don’t want to give any more away or I’ll spoil it but there is a really satisfying dramatic end to this play. The acting from ensemble cast of six is excellent. It’s hard to single anyone out but do keep an eye out for Olga Makeeva, a Russian-Australian actress who plays Dottie (who is Dottie by name and dotty by nature) and who has brilliant comic timing.

There’s a simple, ingenious set design by Peter Mumford for this tiny, intimate theatre, and the direction by Kaarin Fairfax is spot on.

‘Good People’ is a great night out. It’s on until March 3rd.

3) ‘The Wild Duck’ is a production that began life in Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre and is now having a season at the Malthouse Theatre. Many people would have heard of or seen the original Henrik Ibsen play of the same name (you might have studied it at school perhaps) but writer and director Simon Stone has taken the original play, pulled it apart, and put it back together again, setting it in contemporary times and using colloquial Australian language. (Simon is also the new Artistic Director of Belvoir Theatre.)

The characters have the same names ( though I think they’re more likeable in this version than in Ibsen’s) and the plot is very similar: a young man called Gregers returns to his father Werle’s house supposedly to attend his father’s wedding to a much younger woman, but in fact he’s come to wreak revenge for his mother’s suicide by exposing some family secrets.
He re-establishes contact with his old friend Hjalmar and Hjalmar’s beloved wife and daughter, but when Gregers finally reveals some home truths to Hjalmar, tragedy becomes inevitable.

This is a GREAT production. I was on the edge of my seat the whole evening. Simon Stone has done a really interesting thing, he’s put the actors very clearly behind the so-called ‘fourth wall’ – in this instance, he’s put glass windows between the actors and the audience, and then miked the actors – so we’re watching them as if we’re peering through someone’s living room window, like voyeurs.

And the mikes ensure that every tiny sound or breath the performers make can he heard. There’s none of that loud declamatory style that most stage actors have to use to get their lines across, it’s very, very subtle. It’s odd to be so separate visually and yet so close aurally. You imagine it might make us feels distanced from the characters but actually they remain almost unbearably real and close.

The acting is superb from a very even cast. John Gaden is a veteran of Australian theatre who plays the father Werle. Ewan Leslie plays Hjalmar. He’s the ’it’ boy of Australian theatre at the moment, an incredibly talented stage actor. And Hjalmar’s teenage daughter is played by Eloise Mignon. She’s actually in her mid 20’s but is entirely convincing as a fifteen year old school girl.

Go and see it, if you can get a ticket. ‘The Wild Duck is on until March 17th at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank.

January 18

Walking the Blues Away in the Snowy Mountains

No wonder so many Samoans were grumpy when they skipped a day in 2011 to jump over the international dateline. They also lost their status as the last spot in the world where you could watch the sunset; a major attraction for visiting honeymooners. Love and travel have always gone together like a judge and gavel, and the tourism industry has been the biggest winner.

When love unravels, though, most of us want to journey no further than under the doona. Grief feels like a backpack of boulders that even the most laissez-faire airline would ban from the luggage hold, for fear they might bring down the plane.

After my heart was trampled on recently, a wise woman advised me to get out from under the doona and look at the horizon. So when I was invited to go walking in the Snowy Mountains I decided to take her advice and see if some of the most spectacular horizons in Australia could help lighten my load.

On Boxing Day I packed a small suitcase and was driven by my friends Caroline and Charlie all the way from Melbourne to the southern NSW lakeside town of Jindabyne. Just west of the town along the Alpine Way we checked into an eccentric guest house called Bimblegumbie in the foothills of Mount Crackenback (‘great location for a chiropractic conference’, suggested Charlie, trying to raise a smile from his quietest passenger)

Established by owner Pru Parker in the late 1970’s, Bimblegumbie (meaning ‘whistling spear’ in one of the local indigenous languages) began life as a small house on a tree-covered hillside. It has since grown to a rambling collection of one and two-storey cottages dotted around the much-extended main lodge.

Canine pets are welcome here. Dogs can potter around the landscaped gardens dotted with sculptures – everything from a tower of rusted hanging chains to a tree covered with exotic masks. There’s even a piano sitting in an open shed complete with stool for anyone wanting to play a few tunes for the wildlife. The dogs don’t seem to deter the wallabies from grazing on the garden’s lush summer grass.

Up the hill behind the main house Pru’s companion Craig has carefully positioned a wicker chair overlooking the green valley below. He’s also stashed a couple of sets of binoculars in a nearby tree for better viewing; just one of many small, thoughtful touches at Bimblegumbie.

I stayed in the Rose Room of the main house (deep red and green walls) and my friends were in a small studio in the garden. Each day Caroline consulted the maps and planned a different walk for us while Charlie packed the lunches.

Day One we drove back through Jindabyne, past the ski resort of Perisher and up into the Mt Kosciuszko National Park. Parking at Charlotte’s Pass (named after Charlotte Adams, the first woman to reach the summit of Mt Kosciuszko), we added an extra layer of clothing against the cool alpine wind and set off for the Blue Lake.

A paved path led down the steep hill towards the Snowy River. In spite of the summer sun there were still some luminescent puddles of snow on the distant mountain peaks. Purple, white and yellow wildflowers were strewn beside the path as if from a giant’s basket. Crossing the wobbly rocks over the river, we began the steep ascent towards Carruthers Peak.

My grief-clogged lungs were soon protesting but I ignored them. This was exactly the treatment they needed. When you’re struggling for every breath, there is simply no energy left for rumination and regret. We stopped to watch some children sliding down a patch of remnant snow beside the track before we descended to the Blue Lake.

With clouds piling up overhead, the lake was more slate grey than azure. A couple of giant granite boulders provided a windbreak as we ate our packed lunches and listened to the water rushing out of the lake towards the Snowy River. Then we followed the river until we reached another body of water, Hedley Tarn, where patient birds dived for trout. When Charlie suggested we cut across country to re-join the return track above the Blue Lake, I was initially nervous – what if the clouds descend even further? After carefully checking the map, though, we decided to embrace the challenge.

I tried to think about fearless Charlotte Adams as we picked our way carefully across lichen-stained boulders, marveling at the infinite variety of cushiony grasses and the reflective pools of melted snow all around us. My anxiety melted too and I could even summon a smile when Charlie pointed out a rock shaped like an American Indian’s face, complete with feathered headdress. By the time we reached the return path my lungs felt expansive enough to try a spot of alpine yodeling.

Day Two we drove to the busy holiday village of Thredbo and caught the Kosciuszko Express Chairlift to the top of the mountain. Our destination was Dead Horse Gap, a largely downhill walk of about ten kilometers. On the way up I ventured the yodelling chorus from ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ and a man standing beneath our chairlift responded by opening his arms wide and hollering ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’.

Above the tree line at Ram’s Head Range the three of us turned in slow Sufi-like circles, taking in the 360 degree views of the Snowy Mountains banked up against the skyline. The wise woman was right about the curative effect of those horizons. I’m surprised she didn’t mention the benefits of yodeling too.

Then down we went along the gently winding track through silvery stands of dead gums. Fierce bushfires in 2003 have left these trees looking like bleached coral stranded thousands of metres above sea level. At Dead Horse Gap we found a warm flat rock for our picnic lunch, then walked back to the village along the Thredbo River path. Pairs of brown trout chased each other in circles just under the surface, inspiring us to take a gasping dip in the shallow icy river.

Day Three involved a trip back to Victoria and a much-needed rest for our legs. Tom Groggin, west of Dead Horse Gap and close to the Murray River, is a popular camping spot. Four-wheel drivers can ford the shallow river there but as our car only had two-wheel drive we put on our bathers, hoisted our rucksacks and waded across the stony riverbed into our home state.

On the edge of the Alpine National Park the three of us lay under a shady tree and read books all afternoon. In between chapters we watched a kingfisher defending its territory against wattlebird incursions. On the drive back we stopped at dusk and walked down into a grassy valley where a dozen wild brumbies stared at us in panic before taking off into the forest.

Day Four was another tough climb. From the Guthega Dam (on the confluence of the Munyang and Snowy Rivers) we clambered northwards up a narrow overgrown path, looking for the trig point of the ridge. Grief had snuck back into my rucksack overnight and with every step it seemed to be getting heavier. Just as my legs and lungs were about to go on strike we reached the summit. There were those breath-taking horizons again, and not another human in sight. Yodelling was beyond me but smiling became possible again.

On the final day of our holiday we drove into town and found a shady park beside the Jindabyne Lake. The weather was steamy and the water almost warm compared to the body-shock of Thredbo River. I struck out towards the middle of the lake and trod water there for a while, looking back at the sun-bleached fields surrounding Jindabyne town.

Treading water: that’s how you deal with grief. Not waving, not drowning, just waiting till you catch your breath and you’re ready to head back to shore.

(A version of this piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Travel section on March 17th 2012)

December 11

2011 – A Year of Reading for Pleasure

Reading, reading, reading, so much reading to do, newspapers and blogs and street signs and advertising billboards and recipes and fine print and magazines and journals and emails and tweets and birthday cards and subtitles and surtitles and love letters and lawyer’s letters and texts, sub-texts and textbooks and – most importantly – BOOKS FOR PLEASURE.

Here’s my list of the twenty best books-for-pleasure I read in 2011 and why I think you should consider reading them too:

‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ – David Mitchell

I loved Mitchell’s novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ so I was primed to love his latest. It’s an extraordinary re-imagining of the clash between two trading cultures on the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries; the Japanese and the Dutch. But in case that makes it sound too much like a worthy historical text, in fact it’s a gripping love story between a truly good man and the daughter of a Japanese samurai. It’s also a page-turner that gives you a unique insight into a lost world you might never otherwise encounter.

‘Let the Great World Spin’ – Colum McCann

McCann takes an event from recent history – Frenchman Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers – and uses it as the fulcrum of a series of fictional character portraits of New Yorkers in 1974. From prostitutes to priests, judges to grieving mothers, these people get under your skin as their lives intersect in unexpected ways. Grief is ever-present but the stories are, in the end, life-affirming. Beautiful, beautiful prose and a clever (but not ‘clever-clever’) jigsaw-puzzle structure.

‘Piano Lessons’ – Anna Goldsworthy

If you’ve read Peter Goldsworthy’s ‘Maestro’ you will probably recognize the real characters upon whom Anna Goldsworthy’s father based his fictional story. Anna G’s memoir describes in painful detail the internal life of a prodigiously talented young student and musician, and her relationship with the mentor (her piano teacher) who taught her about so much more than pianistic technique.

‘The Inner Voice’ – Renee Fleming

Another musician’s memoir, this time from one of the best singers currently performing on the opera stage. American soprano Fleming outs herself as a shy girl who has battled her fears and emerged triumphant. A fascinating insight into the training and the daily life (and grind) of an international star. Plenty of useful vocal tips for singers here, too. Listen to her recordings of Strauss opera heroines while you read it, and try not to melt.

‘The Year of the Flood’ – Margaret Atwood

In a year in which humans were beset by natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and floods, and in which local politics were dominated by the carbon tax debate. Atwood’s dystopian fictional vision of our future seemed disturbingly prescient. This is the prequel to ‘Oryx and Crake’, a novel which haunts me still, and I reckon both books should be compulsory reading for all climate change doubters.

‘The Help’ – Kathryn Stockett

The trailer for the recent film adaptation of Stockett’s novel looked so bad I didn’t bother (Wendell Pierce, African-American star of the US TV series ‘Treme’, sent several tweets confirming that verdict) but the novel is well worth reading. It’s a suspenseful depiction of the lives of African-American domestic workers in the deep South of the USA in the 1960’s. As the civil rights movement gains pace, these women are offered the chance to tell their stories of oppression, but the risks they take in the process are huge.

‘The Amateur Science of Love’ – Craig Sherborne

Don’t read this book if you’ve been unlucky in love lately. If you’re feeling okay, then read it and laugh (and cry) about the ill-fated couple in this Australian novel who suffer from ‘the sickness’ of love, and who try to keep love alive in the face of real sickness. Dark, funny, sad, original, fresh writing.

‘Hand Me Down World’ – Lloyd Jones

I have a special affection for Lloyd Jones and not just because he shares the same name as my beloved late grandfather. The novels of this New Zealand writer are always imbued with empathy, compassion and psychological insight. This time he imagines the life of an African refugee who makes her way from her homeland to Europe in search of her lost child. The structure ensures we read everyone else’s version of the woman’s life before we read her own, and we’re never quite sure which of these narrators are reliable. A disturbing and beautiful novel that should be compulsory reading for all those who want to ‘turn the boats back’.

‘As The Earth Turns Silver’ – Alison Wong

Wong, another New Zealander, is also a published poet, and it shows in her first novel, a story about a Wellington woman’s attraction to a newly-arrived Chinese greengrocer. Wong depicts New Zealand society at the beginning of the 20th century as unselfconsciously racist and chauvinist. But there’s a dreamlike quality to the writing which somehow protects the reader from the full impact of the tragedies that unfold.

‘A Kindness Cup’ – Thea Astley

Astley’s novel is also about racism and I re-read this one for the Meanjin magazine’s inaugural Tournament of Books. Scroll down this page to my blogpost of September 2011 and you will find my full review. It’s out of print now I believe, but you should find a copy in good libraries, and it’s worth checking second-hand bookshops to acquire your own copy. (If you find one in good condition, I’ll buy it! Read my review to see why… )

‘The Secret River’ – Kate Grenville

I also re-read this novel for Meanjin, so scroll down again for a full review. (I would read Kate Grenville’s shopping list, so impressed am I by her courage and insight as a novelist. ‘Dark Places’, her 1994 sequel to ‘Lilian’s Story’, took my breath away. I’m just sitting around, waiting for her to write another one, really.)

‘The Lieutenant’ – Kate Grenville

In the meantime I caught up with Grenville’s more recent re-imagining of the first contact between the First Fleet and the first peoples of Australia. Lieutenant Daniel Rooke finds himself caught between the conquering culture of his fellow Europeans and his growing loyalty to Sydney’s indigenous inhabitants whose language he is learning. Simply brilliant.

‘Five Bells’ – Gail Jones

I loved Gail Jones’ novel ‘Sorry’ and looked forward to reading her latest, named after Kenneth Slessor’s 1939 ‘Five Bells’. Like Slessor’s poem, the geographical setting of this tale is Sydney Harbour, and Jones’ work sits somewhere between a novel and a long prose-poem. The action takes place during one long day and though the paths of the four main characters do cross that day, only a couple of them know each other well. Jones teases us with the possibility of a redemptive happy ending but, you know, life just isn’t like that, and neither (usually) is good literature.

‘Melbourne’ – Sophie Cunningham

Hard to be objective about this non fiction book about my home town, written by a friend, in which I’m mentioned a couple of times. There, I’ve made my declarations. But if you want to get a sense of how the sediment of individual lives lived in inner Melbourne gradually accretes over the centuries and decades to make up a vibrant culture, this is the book to read. Cunningham has been involved with many of the city’s most progressive and influential arts institutions, and it has given her a unique insight into how Melbourne became (arguably) the cultural capital of the nation. Personal AND political, it’s also a jolly good read.

‘Stripped’ – Caroline Lee

Declaration number two – Caroline’s a friend of mine. But she’s probably also known to many of you as an award-winning Melbourne theatre actor. ‘Stripped’ tells the story of two feuding sisters who are re-united when one of them becomes seriously ill. The ending is told at the very beginning of this short novel, so I give nothing away when I tell you this is a story about coming to terms with death. Moving, poetic and illuminating.

‘The Discomfort Zone’ – Johnathan Franzen

Like Grenville, Franzen is a writer whose every word I am happy to devour. This one is a memoir whose title promises revelations about the author’s ‘discomfort’ in the world. But he is a tease. It’s more like a loose collection of sometimes-related autobiographical essays. There are digressions into topics such as the cultural importance of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy cartoons and the joys (and sorrows) of bird-watching. Beautifully written, funny, sad, but in the end I’m not sure I got to know Mr Franzen as well as I thought I would.

‘The Blindfold’ – Siri Hustvedt

I’d loved Hustvedt’s later novel ‘What I Loved’ (excuse the pun) so I went back to an earlier one to see where that complex, courageous, writerly mind began its work. ‘The Blindfold’ is almost like a series of novellas with the same main character; disturbing stories about people on the edge of madness. My favourite section is where the main (female) character becomes a cross-dresser by night, going to bars with a short haircut and a man’s suit and name. Thought I might try it out myself some time. Though in this instance it doesn’t end so well.

‘The Secret History of Costaguana’ – Juan Gabriel Vazquez

I shared a cab with this Barcelona-based Colombian writer at the Ubud Writers Festival in October, and though we didn’t really strike up a conversation, it made me curious about his writing. This novel covers the history of the separation of Panama from Colombia, and the political and propaganda wars surrounding the building of the Panama Canal. The narrator is a hollow man, an observer of others lives, a man who blames himself for his unwillingness to intervene in history’s great events. Reading it was a great way to learn about Colombian history but there was just a bit too much Aspergian detail (names, dates, makes of guns, ever-shifting political allegiances and divisions) for this reader.

‘Stasiland’ – Anna Funder

When I heard Anna Funder had a novel coming out I decided to re-read her wonderful non fiction book about the Stasi secret police in Communist East Germany. Or more accurately, about the devastating impact of the Stasi’s system of state surveillance on the people who lived through those terrifying years. Funder’s role is the ‘innocent abroad’ as she leads us through Stasiland, where madness was normalised and normal people were driven mad, all in the name of the great Communist utopian vision. We humans just love to police each other, don’t we? Should be compulsory reading for – well, for everyone, really. (Hmmm, speaking of policing each other, there’s a lot of ‘compulsory reading’ in my list, isn’t there?)

‘All That I Am’ – Anna Funder

Sometimes you read a book at just the right time. This is a novel about Nazism and the brave souls who tried to prevent it. About cruelty on a national scale and about the cruelties we perpetrate against the people we care for, in the name of art or politics or love. About selfishness and selflessness and about growing old and never getting the chance to grow old. A perfect way to end a year of pleasurable reading.

Feel free to email me via the Contact page with your suggestions about books for my reading pleasure in 2012.

September 23

Tournament of Books

In the wake of the recent debate about the paucity of prize-winning female Australian authors, and the mooted establishment of a new literary award (The Stella Prize) specifically for women, Meanjin literary magazine is running a Tournament of Books to promote great books by Australian women.

I was invited to review two books from a shortlist of fifteen chosen by the Meanjin panel and ‘rank’ them:

‘A Kindness Cup’ by Thea Astley Vs ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

In the acknowledgements to Thea Astley’s novel ‘A Kindness Cup’ she mentions an ‘incident’ at The Leap near Mackay in Queensland which provided the ‘impetus’ for her book. Impetus is far too polite a word to describe the inferno of rage that appears to have inspired this novel. And for ’incident’, read Aboriginal massacre.

The novel was first published in 1974, just a couple of years after Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam established the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights and a year before he handed back some Gurindji land in the Northern Territory to its traditional owners. Gurindji, like many other indigenous groups, had been dispossessed, massacred then exploited as free labour over the previous decades. At last these stories were beginning to be spoken and written about by European Australians.

My copy of ‘A Kindness Cup’ is now thirty-five years old and it fell apart, one page at a time, as I re-read it for Meanjin. This literal disintegration became a metaphor for the story printed on the yellowing pages. The main character, Dorahy, is invited back to the (fictional) QLD town of The Taws where several decades earlier he witnessed the results of an act of white male mob violence. There is to be a twenty-year town reunion and Dorahy, a former schoolteacher in The Taws, can’t keep away. He is still seeking justice and the quest is sending him mad.

Dorahy hovers around the partying townsfolk like a blowfly circling a pack of dogs, goading the perpetrators and trying to enlist support for his cause. But in this seaside town the leaders of the pack have since been knighted. One dismisses the massacre as the town’s ‘growing pains’. The present blurs with the past as Dorahy’s mind obsessively rehearses the events leading up to the crime. One of the victims, Lunt, whose sympathy for his Aboriginal neighbours nearly cost him his life, is now a recluse. As Dorahy wages his righteous campaign, Lunt’s accommodation with the past and Dorahy’s inability to let it go are distilled down to a New Testament versus Old Testament view of humanity.

Astley’s prose is rich with poetry, especially when she’s describing the alienating Australian landscape where ‘the sea still burns its blue acid’ and ‘the terrible brown and green distances eat away at the compass outside.’ Occasionally she over-reaches and the images jar: ‘Gracie lies there and in a conglomerate of memories she inspects husbands one and two’.

There is a cast of fully fleshed-out white characters: Boyd the kindly newspaper editor who is sucked into the wake of Dorahy’s fury; Gracie the returning opera diva who sweats in the tropical heat and yearns for her younger, Sylph-like self. Most of the Aboriginal characters, though, are shadow puppets flitting wordlessly around the edges of the white man’s sub-conscious.

Embodied in the character of Dorahy, the author’s rage carries the reader along with immense energy. It’s the kind of anger that so frightened critics of the ‘black armband view of history’ three decades later, they refused to utter the word sorry. Astley demands our empathy; in the end, though, she rewards us with despair.

Thirty years after the publication of ‘A Kindness Cup’, Kate Grenville traversed similar territory in ‘The Secret River’. Like Astley she drew on some historical facts in creating the story of William Thornhill, an English convict transported to Sydney Cove in 1806 where he makes a new life with his growing family on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.
Thornhill falls in love with the Australian landscape and, more importantly, with the seductive pleasures of land ownership. But when his ambitions are challenged by the indigenous owners of the land he calls Thornhill’s Point, tragedy becomes inevitable.

Grenville’s canvas is wider than Astley’s. She takes us all the way from Thornhill’s childhood in London, a life of constant hunger with ‘the gnawing feeling in his belly, the flat taste in his mouth, the rage that there was never enough’, to his old age as a wealthy colonialist whose ‘children wore boots and (who) was never without a chest of the best Darjeeling in the house.’ Her cast includes some of the same ‘types’ found in Astley’s novel: Thornhill’s neighbour Blackwood who is sympathetic to the local indigenous tribes; the bullies Saggity and Smasher who see the ‘savages’ as less than human. But the Aboriginal characters are also given distinct personalities, and thereby dignity.

As in ‘A Kindness Cup’, the fulcrum of Grenville’s narrative is an Aboriginal massacre described in horrific, moment-by-moment detail. Re-reading it five years after I first encountered ‘The Secret River’, the sheer horror of this scene once again left me weeping with rage and sorrow.

Describing a novel as having a ‘project’ is a risky business, but it seems to me both these authors wanted their readers to confront and vicariously experience the shameful history of the colonisers’ dealings with indigenous Australians. Both are critical of the brutal patriarchal worldview that defined land as territory to be conquered, just as you might conquer a woman (‘Ah you bitch country’, says one of Astley’s characters, sucking a pinch of dust from his fingers, ‘I love you’) and Aborigines as vermin to be eradicated.

In ‘A Kindness Cup’, Dorahy’s rage against this worldview is disabling and, in the end, futile. Thea Astley’s own worldview, it seems, is a dystopian one.

‘The Secret River’, though, ends with the image of William Thornhill scanning the cliff tops through his eye glass, searching the forest for ‘a man as dark as the scorched trunk of a stringybark’. Thornhill has been changed by the cruelty he has both witnessed and perpetrated – he is sorry – and in his regret there is the promise of redemption.

Kate Grenville gets my vote this time but PLEASE read them both.

August 3

Rescue Mission

In the back room of the Innisfail Historical Museum, past the antique egg cups, the yellowing christening gowns and the old war rifles, is a collection of black-and-white photographs labelled “Cyclone, March 10th, 1918”. The images show wooden buildings littering the main street like spilled matchsticks. Men in braces and hats stand beside the piles of wood, hands on hips.

There’s something familiar about the cheerful look on their faces. It’s the same expression I’ve been seeing all week on the faces of Mission Beach residents – like the woman in the supermarket who told me ‘I’d rather have a cyclone than a flood or bushfire any day!’

On February 3 2011, Cyclone Yasi hit tropical north Queensland, destroying property and crops along the length of what’s known as the Cassowary Coast. The category-five storm caused massive damage to the resort infrastructure at Dunk and Bedarra islands and they won’t be taking bookings until at least April 2012.

At Mission Beach, two hours south of Cairns, the waterfront facilities (including the Clump Point Jetty and boat ramp) were ripped to pieces. Most buildings suffered some kind of structural or water damage. The irrepressible residents, however, have picked themselves up, repaired their buildings and resumed the coastal tourist trade. According to Angi Matveyeff, the manager of Mission Beach Tourism, two-thirds of the town’s cafes and restaurants are operating and almost all accommodation has reopened.

We’re staying at the beachside Castaways Resort and Spa, where the gym remains closed due to water damage. Otherwise, Castaways is fully operational and many rooms have recently been refurbished. Accommodation bookings are steady and the resort’s Bibesia restaurant is popular with locals on their night off.

Walking south along the beach towards Wongaling Beach we marvel at the resilience of Mission Beach’s picturesque coconut palms. The tidal surge that followed Yasi gouged the sand from under these trees, leaving their spaghetti-like root systems exposed. Most clung on, though, and have survived.

Occasionally we come across a rusting fridge half buried in the sand. It’s hard to know whether this is detritus left by Yasi or if it’s been here since Cyclone Larry swept through in March 2006. Two decades before Larry, Cyclone Winifred damaged 190 buildings in and around Innisfail (On the road between Mission Beach and neighbouring El Arish, one wag has left a hand-painted sign: “Hi Winifred, I’m in ELarrysh, got my Yasi kicked by every cyclone.”)

Cyclones aside, this part of north Queensland is one of the wettest regions in the country. The nearby town of Tully receives an annual average of 4000 millimetres of rain, symbolised by its giant Golden Gumboot monument. The week we visit the Cassowary Coast (spanning from Babinda in the north to Cardwell in the south), there are showers almost every day. There’s a strong wind, too, which is bad news for our planned island-hopping day trip with Coral Kayaking.

It’s good news, however, for the people hiring out BloKarts from the Adventure Centre (rebuilt on wheels after Yasi, for a quick getaway). I watch these go-carts with sails hurtle up and down the hard sand while I brave the choppy surf of Mission Beach.

We make the most of the sunny breaks, dropping in at the visitor information centre and the C4 Environment Centre next door to find out how the endangered cassowaries have survived Yasi.

These flightless blue-necked birds have inspired their own monument at South Mission Beach. Bus drivers like to advise backpackers that the ten-foot tall concrete and steel “man-eating” cassowary is “life-size”. (Fortunately most don’t buy it).

“Their habitat has been damaged, so the cassowaries are confused and hungry,” we’re told. “They’re wandering into places they don’t usually go, like car parks, looking for food.” Fortunately the birds can usually find a meal at one of a hundred rainforest feeding stations established on the Cassowary Coast, where rangers leave fruit for them each week.

The rainforest damage is starkly visible on the Licuala Fan Palm Walk in the Tam O’Shanter National Park. A decade ago I wandered here under a dappled canopy of native palms, keeping an eye out for wallabies and cassowaries. Now we marvel at the trunks of immense eucalypts, their roots bared, lying fallen beside the path. The little signs alerting visitors to different plant species have become advertisements for ghost trees. (The wallabies seem to have migrated to South Mission Beach where they’re feasting happily on lush front lawns.)

Five kilometres north of Mission Beach we tackle the walk up Bicton Hill in the Clump Mountain National Park. Some glades and gullies of rainforest remain unscathed. At the top of the hill the cyclone has stripped away foliage, creating a stunning new 360-degree view of the Cassowary Coast.

Intrigued by descriptions of Innisfail as the “art deco capital of Australia”, we head north up the Bruce Highway through canefields, stopping to pick up a heritage walk brochure at the Innisfail Tourist Centre. The roof here is still covered with a giant tarp but otherwise it’s business as usual.

Innisfail is architectural proof that good things can come from bad. The cyclone that ripped the town to pieces in 1918 prompted an art-deco building boom in the 1920s and ‘30s. Wooden constructions were replaced with more sturdy concrete and brick buildings, with the decorative curved and hand-tiled facades, porthole windows and geometric leadlight designs of the era. Starting at the Johnstone River, we follow the heritage walk around town, pausing to admire the freshly painted deco-style banks, arcades and cafes lining the streets.

The Innisfail Historical Museum is housed inside the blue-and-white deco glory of the Memorial School of Arts, where we stare at old photos of the cyclone-ravaged town. Finally we head up the hill to where Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church presides over the town. It’s a grand confection of cream and gold turrets, fully refurbished after Cyclone Larry in 2006. Like the rest of the town, it seems to have survived Yasi’s fury with minimal damage.

We drive back along the winding Old Bruce Highway, known as Canecutter Way, through a long valley of canefields flanked by cloud-topped mountains. As we pass the silver towers of the Bundaberg Sugar Mill in South Johnstone the sickly-sweet smell of processed sugar follows us down the road.

At Mena Creek we pull into a crowded car park and follow the signs to the entrance of Paronella Park. We can hear rushing water as our tour guide leads us down a steep path towards a patch of remnant rainforest. Suddenly, looming up from under the tall trees, there’s a ruined castle with turrets and balustrades, and right beside it, a gushing waterfall drops into a hidden valley.

Our tour guide explains that a Spanish immigrant named Jose Paronella made his fortune in the 1930s buying and selling Queensland cane farms. He bought five hectares of rainforest, built a small cottage for his family to live in and employed local labourers to construct this astonishing Spanish-style castle right beside the Mena Creek. He hired out the glamorous ballroom for weddings and dances and invited courting couples to wander along the landscaped paths he created in the rainforest. Visitors played on his tennis courts, swam in the creek at the bottom of the falls and bought ice-creams made by his wife, Margerita.

Paronella was an innovator, installing Australia’s first privately owned hydro-electric power plant under the waterfall. After his death the property changed hands several times and a fire in the ballroom caused extensive damage. Floods and cyclones have also taken their toll, and these days the castle is a series of picturesque moss-covered ruins. But someone has always rescued the heritage-listed Paronella Park from natural disaster and these days it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.

On the way back to Mission Beach we detour via Silkwood to visit the Murdering Point Winery. Here the Berryman family produces award-winning wines with tropical fruits including mango, passionfruit and Davidson plum. We buy a bottle of sweet lychee wine and that evening we raise a toast to the never-say-die spirit of tropical north Queenslanders.

(A version of this blogpost appeared as a travel article in the Fairfax Traveller in August 2011.)

July 15

Beware the ‘S’ word, Prime Minister

‘Shy’: such a small word, and it begins with an instruction to keep quiet: shhhh. It’s used to describe the timid, unconfident people in our midst, those who prefer to remain silent as a way of avoiding attention. At least, that’s one common stereotype we attach to this particular temperament trait. And unfortunately it’s a description that simply doesn’t fit the public perception of our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Yesterday the PM admitted to being shy at a Press Club Luncheon; a gathering of perhaps Australia’s most cynical political journalists. Today’s headlines are entirely predictable: ‘Gillard’s ‘Shy Girl’ Plea For Understanding’, ‘Gillard Confesses She’s A Shy Girl’, ‘Shy PM Fights Back Tears’. Whether it was a strategic move aimed at gaining sympathy and thereby political advantage, or a simple statement of fact (or both), it was a mistake.

Our perceptions of shyness are a veritable Rubik’s Cube of contradictory behaviours. On the positive side, we associate it with empathy, sensitivity, loyalty and with being a good listener. We often assume that behind the blushing façade, shy people are sweet-natured and harmless.

Few of these stereotypes fit our image of the current Prime Minister. Her perceived lack of loyalty to, or empathy for, her predecessor Kevin Rudd still hounds her, and those opposing a carbon tax claim Julia Gillard is not listening to their concerns.

On the negative side, shyness is linked with self-consciousness, hypersensitivity, self-pity, emotional withdrawal, social awkwardness, ‘goody-goody-ness’ and a lack of assertiveness. Shy people are often thought to be simply unwilling (too lazy, perhaps) to make an effort in social situations or to be ‘team players’ at work. Shyness is perceived as a form of weakness, a character flaw that should be erased with the help of assertiveness training, psychological counseling or even pharmaceuticals.

Publicly ascribing these qualities to one’s own personality, albeit tacitly, is clearly not the best way to win friends or influence people. Indeed, confessing to shyness more often provokes bullying than sympathy. Even our use of the word ‘confession’ implies that there is something shameful about being shy. And after all, who wants to vote for a weak leader?

Many, though, would find it hard to believe that someone who has climbed the political ladder to become the first female Prime Minister is timid. The Prime Minister usually presents herself in the media as calm, confident, assertive and in control; in her own words, a woman of ‘steely determination’.

So by ascribing any of these stereotypical shy attributes to herself, positive or negative, she risks being perceived as ‘Ju-liar’ once again, only this time we’ll assume she’s lying about her own personality. Television reporters have already begun joking about ‘the REAL real Julia Gillard’, and one Age Online commentator described her as ‘looking like a woman trying to get out of a speeding fine.’ If she’s not directly lying, then at best she appears to be trying to make excuses for her own perceived failings.

But what if we were to take her at her word?

Psychologists I have interviewed about shyness claim the essence of this temperament trait is ‘fear of negative evaluation’. We all experience this fear at times, but for shy people the anxiety about how others perceive us is much more extreme, persistent, and at times disabling.

As Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has frequently been criticised for not sticking to policy positions and promises, for doing political ‘backflips’ and for being overly concerned with opinion polls. Admitting to being shy is like admitting those criticisms are valid; she’s so worried about negative evaluation by Australian voters, she can’t stick to her guns.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Prime Minister in admitting to shyness is her gender. Many of the stereotypical attributes of shyness are traditionally associated with ‘typical’ female behaviours. Men are assertive, women are timid. Men are the speakers, women are the listeners. Men stick to their guns, women are easily swayed by their emotions. Most female political leaders are forced to try to counter these stereotypes throughout their careers or risk being dismissed as unfit to lead. (I suspect Malcolm Fraser is deeply shy but his emotional reserve was deemed acceptable because he was a man.) With one small word, Julia Gillard has confirmed the prejudices of those voters who were already suspicious of her simply by virtue of her gender.

Many of these myths and stereotypes about shyness (and gender) are just plain wrong. Shy people find strategies to overcome the anxieties accompanying this particular temperament trait. I’ve interviewed self-describing shy people who have become highly successful actors, musicians, teachers, broadcasters, corporate leaders and politicians, often adopting alternative ‘personae’ that enable them to lead their professional lives in public while they protect their private lives from scrutiny.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem here. With Bob Hawke, what you saw was what you got – an extrovert with no need for a self-protective professional persona – and much of his popularity was based on our sense that he was ‘the real deal’. Perhaps our obsession with the ‘real’ Julia Gillard reflects our prurient desire to strip away the political persona and see the vulnerable person underneath. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, women rarely gain sympathy by stripping.

In admitting to shyness the Prime Minister sought our understanding, perhaps even our pity. I fear she is more likely to have lost our respect.

(A version of this article was published in the Sunday Age on July 17th, 2011.)

July 10

The Disappearing Woman

If you haven’t heard of Ned Kelly, indeed if you haven’t developed a passionate view on the question of whether he was a murdering criminal deserving of capital punishment or a folk hero martyred by the criminal murdering Victorian justice system, you probably don’t deserve to be called an Orstrayan.

[Ned Kelly]( has made it into our cinematic canon, been fictionalised by some of our best novelists, eulogised by some of our best songwriters, and taught on the school syllabus. Ned has inspired local tourism ventures all over country Victoria, and every year a bunch of eminent lawyers get together to re-enact his criminal trial.

But what of his sister Kate?

It’s a cliché to say that history often ignores women, but clichés usually become clichés because they are true. These days, few Australians have any knowledge about what happened to the pretty teenager whose resistance to police sexual harassment fuelled some of the ensuing conflict between her bushranging brother and the local constabulary.

While the process of festishising dead Ned’s body parts and armoury was getting underway, Kate Kelly was getting on with her life. According to novelist and scholar Merrill Findlay, after Ned’s death Kate briefly became a teenage celebrity:

‘(She was) as famous, perhaps infamous, as many of today’s celebs. People queued to meet her and to watch her ride. They bought postcards of her in her mourning outfit, a fashionable black silk riding habit. And then she disappeared. She fled her fame, her family, her friends, the north-eastern Victorian hill country she had grown up in; she changed her name several times; and then re-emerged, in the mid-1880s, on the flat inland plains of central western NSW.’ (

The story of Kate’s life once she reached NSW has become an all-consuming interest for Merrill Findlay. Her research into Kate’s life and tragic death in the NSW town of Forbes inspired her to write a series of poems about ‘Mrs Catherine Foster’, as Kate was known during this time. Merrill then commissioned award-winning New Zealand composer Ross Carey to set her five poems to music, and together they have produced the Kate Kelly Song Cycle.

But wait, there’s more.

Merrill wanted to share this story with the local community in Forbes, where she herself now lives, and for the past year she has been working to create an arts festival during which the Kate Kelly Song Cycle will be premiered in early September 2011. She has enlisted the support of a range of community organizations and creative artists to help produce this ever-growing community festival:

‘The inaugural Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival will be held beside the Forbes Lagoon, central western New South Wales, on 3-4 September 2011, as the opening event for the NSW Landcare & Catchment Management Forum. It will be directed by Stefo Nantsou, resident director with Sydney Theatre Company, and feature the premiere of The Kate Kelly Song Cycle … plus live musical performances from Classical to Country, a Lantern Parade, an Arts & Crafts Village, a Writers & Readers Tent, a Farmers & Landcarers’ Tent, a Healing Arts Alley, art exhibitions, ‘slow food’ stalls, wine tastings in the Festival Lounge, markets, sports and much much more.’

When Merrill Findlay’s novel, ‘The Republic of Women’ (pub. UQP) was launched in Melbourne in 1999, she invited me to sing an aria from Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’, an opera about a woman haunted by her past, desperate to create a new life for herself, but who comes to a tragic end.

A decade later Merrill invited me to sing the inaugural performance of the Kate Kelly Song Cycle, a chamber opera about another woman haunted by her past, desperate to reinvent herself, but whose life ends in a mysterious tragedy:

‘The premiere takes place beside the very lagoon in which the body of Ned Kelly’s sister Kate was found in October 1898. This legendary woman’s story is told from diverse perspectives in this new work, including that of her abusive husband Bricky Foster, and Quong Lee, the grocer at whose corner store she would have shopped.’

The Festival is only the latest in a long list of Kate Kelly projects inspired by Merrill Findlay.
She has also been largely responsible for initiating:

– The Kate Kelly Walking Trail and occasional Kate Kelly Heritage Tours in Forbes
– A campaign to stop the demolition of the historic Quong Lee’s Store next to where Kate’s inlaws the Foster family lived from the 1860s and where Kate herself would have shopped
– A leaflet about Kate’s life in Forbes which is now distributed through tourist outlets
– Signage and landscaping near where Kate’s body was found, including a walking trail

Other ongoing benefits from the growing interest in Kate Kelly include:

– Restoration and revegetation of the lagoon foreshore where Kate’s body was recovered
– Rehabilitation of remnan native grasslands near the lagoon
– An increased awareness of the richness of the region’s indigenous and non-indigenous cultural heritage and histories
– Several new ‘tourist destinations’
– A heightened sense of place within the local community

So if you’re anywhere near Forbes during the first weekend of September, I invite you to come and celebrate the life of Kate Kelly with us, and meet the people who’ve worked so hard to create a place for this ‘disappearing woman’ in Australian history.

(See ABC radio website for a review of the Kate Kelly Song Cycle premiere)
(Addendum: In 1982 English-born Australian writer Jean Bedford wrote a controversial novel based on the life of Kate Kelly entitled ‘Sister Kate’, but is no longer in print. And Frank Hatherley wrote a comic play called ‘Ned Kelly’s Sister’s Travelling Circus’, last performed in 1980)

June 9

Go Back To Where You Came From

About eight years ago I paid a visit to Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. It was an eye-opener. Tall barbed-wire fences, security gates, bored blank-eyed guards, and a community of alternately hopeful and hopeless detainees from all over the world, stuck in limbo. Statistics became living breathing people for me during the few hours i spent inside those fences.

I was reminded of that visit when i watched some previews this week of a new SBS television series called ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’, due to be screened on June 21 – 23, during Refugee Week. The producers have embraced our ‘reality hunger’ (as American writer David Shields calls it) and created a three-part documentary in which a group of six Australians literally go back to where many of our asylum-seekers have come from. Most of these Australians don’t approve of the re-settlement of asylum-seekers in our community and believe they should be sent straight back home.

The six Australians meet refugees in their new homes in Sydney and Wollongong, then board a leaky boat and travel to Malaysia where they meet some of the people waiting to come here. Then they fly to the countries in whose refugee camps these frightened asylum-seekers have spent time waiting to be offered a safe haven. They put faces to statistics, embrace real live weeping human beings, and have their preconceptions challenged in ways few us are willing to allow.

It is riveting television and my only regret is that it will be screened on SBS to an audience who are most likely already ‘converted’ to the cause of refugees. In an ideal world it would be screened on all the commercial TV channels in prime time, and reach an audience who may have little knowledge of the traumas suffered by people desperate to leave all that is familiar, board these leaky boats and seek safety.

You can listen an interview with the presenter of the new SBS series, Dr David Corlett, on [The Conversation Hour]( on 774 ABC Melbourne, which i co-hosted today with Jon Faine.

After my trip to Baxter i wrote a series of columns for The Age about some of the people I had met there. These stories inspired the most correspondence of any of the columns i wrote over three years. I have posted them below for your interest:


‘Cream Cake’ said the label in big black letters. It looked fresh and delicious, but I hesitated for a moment at the cash register. Maybe cream cake was culturally inappropriate. Maybe they had already tried Australian cream cake and found it too sweet, or not sweet enough. Maybe there was something else that I should be taking with me. But what?

Distracted on my arrival by the two tall rows of barbed-wire fencing and the no-man’s-land of white pebbles in between them, I forgot about the cake. It wasn’t until after pressing the red button and waiting for the giant steel door to open, walking along a mesh-enclosed corridor to the next steel door, entering the reception area which was buzzing with flies, handing over my three different types of photo identification, filling out five separate forms, emptying my pockets of personal items, putting them in a locker and walking through a metal detector, that I remembered the gift.

So back I went for the cream cake, through the metal detector and the steel doors, and when I returned one of the guards held out his hands. “I’ll take that.” “Why?” “Because that’s the rule.” “Can’t I take it to the people I’m visiting?” “No.” “But what will you do with it?” “It has to go to Property.” “What will Property do with it?” “They might take it through tomorrow, if they have time.” “Why not today?” “Because that’s the rule.” “So my friends won’t be able to eat the cake today?” “No.” “So if they get the cake at all, it will be stale?” The guard just smiled at me. Stale, mate.

Inside the waiting room the Coke machine hummed loudly, and I wondered why Coke was okay but cake was forbidden. A door opened and a slight young woman was let into the room. She kissed me on both cheeks, holding my hands tightly, and thanked me for coming. She’d been here at Baxter for three weeks, after two years at Curtin, after many days at sea, after five months in Indonesia, after her husband had had ‘big problems’ in Iran and they had fled for their lives.

She was teaching herself English, but a dictionary couldn’t relieve the dead weight of boredom that hung over every long day. A cat called Rosie had adopted her, and kept her company when she lay awake in her compound in the small hours of the morning. I wondered about her husband, locked in a separate compound with no cat and no wife to keep him company. “I brought a cake, but they wouldn’t let me bring it in”, I explained. She smiled again and shrugged. She was used to people saying ‘no’ for no good reason.

Two more detainees were allowed in through the security door. One wore a white chef’s coat which smelt of fried chicken. He was working eight hours a day in the hot kitchen, earning one point an hour, one dollar a point, to buy phone cards. He was another recent arrival from Curtin, where there was nothing to eat from five pm until breakfast time, and the detainees were often hungry. Here at Baxter, where there was plenty of food, he had lost his appetite. Perhaps it was because he had exhausted every possible appeal option, and after three years behind barbed wire, he could soon be forced to return to Iran. When I mentioned the cake he simply held up his hands and shook his head sadly.

The other man carried a white stick and said little. Twenty-eight days on a hunger strike in Curtin had robbed him of his sight, and possibly of his mind. The others led him gently into the court-yard so he could sit with us in the afternoon sun. They talked and talked, as if they’d been starved of communication, until it was time for me to leave.

And as I walked out through the steel doors, savouring my freedom, I knew that even though the cream cake would be stale by the morning, our conversation would be fresh in their minds for days to come.


Tried ringing M’s lawyer again last week. No one there. Left another message. Wonder if M has been able to get out of bed today. Wonder if she knows that yesterday was World Refugee Day. Wonder if she’d think it was some kind of sick joke.

Most days M doesn’t get out of bed until lunch time. Some days she goes back to bed around mid afternoon. Sometimes I ring late in the afternoon, and after I’ve scrabbled around, trying to find the scrap of paper on which I’ve written her detainee number and have been put through to the right compound, I wait on the end of the line for a long time until the loudspeakers have woken her up and she’s stumbled out of bed to the public phone. M’s always glad to hear from me, and always sounds surprised that I’ve bothered to ring again. She rarely complains, but I can tell she’s struggling.

Three years in limbo would take its toll. Three years of trying to hang onto hope, while those around you are sinking deeper and deeper into hopelessness. Escaping from her home country probably saved her life, but it has already cost M her marriage. How do you keep a relationship together when you have nothing to do all day, nothing new to talk about, no children to care for, no home to renovate, no garden to tend, and neither of you know what your future will be? You’re both fenced inside the same small enclosure, but the emotional gap between you grows wider and wider, until eventually it is unbreachable.

Most of the time M stays in bed because she’s run out of reasons to get up in the morning. Recently, though, illness kept her there. She had shooting pains in her guts, and was worried that it might be her appendix. M’s mother and both her brothers had to have theirs removed, so perhaps it runs in the family. She tried to explain this to the detention centre guards, but she’s not sure whether they understood her, because M’s English still falls apart when she’s under stress. After about a week of severe pain, a nurse came to see her and gave her a couple of Panadol. She hasn’t seen a doctor yet, and doesn’t expect they’ll organise one for her. I’m outraged, but she’s used to it.

A few months ago, M rang me herself. It was early in the morning, so I knew something good must have happened to get her out of bed. She’d just found out that she was to be given a temporary protection visa. Soon she would be free, at least for a while. She sounded so happy, it was as if I was speaking with a different person. I sent her some postcards of Melbourne landmarks, and promised to show them to her when she was released from detention.

Even though she had been granted a visa, she’d been told there would still be a wait of ‘a couple of weeks’ while the Australian Federal Police ran a ‘character check’ on her. I could tell them a few things about her character, I thought to myself. I could tell them about the first I met M, in a sterile waiting room in a remote detention centre, where she offered me a cup of tea and half a precious chocolate bar which she had saved for her visitor. I could tell them about how even the stony-faced guards smiled when M spoke to them. I could them about how she’d given the cake that I’d brought for her to another woman in the same compound, because it was her birthday. I could tell them about M’s love of Hollywood romances, which has had me scouring my local video stores for films with guaranteed happy endings to mail to her. But I don’t suppose the police would be interested in that kind of information.

It’s been almost three months since that early morning phone call, and M is still in detention. I rang her case officer from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs about six weeks ago, but he didn’t know when M would be released. I rang again a couple of weeks ago, and he suggested I try calling M’s lawyer to check that the original request for a character check had actually gone through to the Federal Police. I rang the lawyer’s number but there was only an answering machine, and no one returned my call. So I rang again last week; still no response. The case officer reckons M will have to send in another request to the police, but he doesn’t know how long she’ll have to wait after that.

Tried to ring M yesterday afternoon but she was asleep and even the loudspeakers didn’t wake her. Happy World Refugee Day, my friend.


When the mobile phone rings I recognise the interstate number on the little screen, and hesitate before answering. Please let this be a good day. A day marked by the kindness of a stranger or the promise of work. A day with dignity.

I take the call and it seems that, today at least, things are okay. Hello, M sings into my ear. How are you, my friend? How is your family? We talk about the events of the past week, and she can even laugh about the afternoon she got completely lost in the big city, caught the wrong train and ended up way out west with no idea how to find her way home. It all took several hours, by which time she’d missed her weekly English lesson.

I can tell M feels ambivalent about this. She is trying hard to learn our unwieldy language, and her spoken English is getting better by the day, but the classes are frustrating. They are full of refugees just like her, people from every corner of the globe, but most of the time she can’t understand what they are saying because their accents are even stronger than hers. She persists, though, because she still finds herself falling through the gaps in her English several times a day. I speak carefully to her over the phone, slow enough to be clear but hopefully not so slow that I sound patronising. I know how it feels to be spoken to as if you are deaf, or stupid, rather than just foreign.

M is happy today because she has finally met the lawyer who argued her case for a Temporary Protection Visa, and ended her long years in limbo. She shared a meal with him and his wife, and they invited her to visit them in Melbourne. That makes two more people in this country who know she exists. Which probably makes it easier for her to believe she exists, when she’s having a really bad day.

I wanted her to come to Melbourne when they let her out of the remote detention centre. But M had made a friend in there, so she went to the town which her friend had moved to after his visa came through. On the first day they spent together outside the high wire fences, he had taken M for a long bushwalk. After three years in confinement, the sudden sense of space made her feel dizzy. They walked for hours until her legs couldn’t go any further. She had expected that, once she was free, the constant tiredness which had been afflicting her in the detention centre would lift. But freedom was tiring, too.

It was tiring, dealing with something new every second of the day. New language, new customs, new rules. Street signs, road maps, train schedules, government bureaucracies, they were all bewildering. A woman had stared at her for a long time at a bus stop. Finally the woman approached and said she wanted to take a photo of M’s beautiful face and put it in a magazine. The woman gave her a phone number, but M isn’t sure if she should ring. Is it a nice magazine or something sleazy for men? Will she be able to tell the readers of this magazine why she had to leave her home and family and spend three years behind bars, and how it feels to know that she might be sent back again when her three year visa is up – or will they want her to take her clothes off?

The next day she rings me again. It’s not a good day. The man at Centrelink has just told her that they are stopping her unemployment benefits. They’re the rules, he says. She has no work and no income, and the generous stranger with whom she has been living for the past three months needs her spare room back. The church is trying to find M somewhere else to live, but they’ve had no luck so far.

I am helpless. We both are. M wants to come and visit me soon, but until she knows how she will get through tomorrow, she can’t plan any further ahead than today.


Missing out on the end of a story can be intensely frustrating. Like hearing a couple on a tram discussing whether they’re about to break up, and then watching them get off the tram before the question is resolved. Like watching a couple of enticing episodes of ‘Carnivale’ on ABC television and then missing the rest because you’re out every Sunday night for a month. Or like reading several ‘This Life’ columns about an Iranian refugee in a remote detention centre, and not finding out what happened to her once she’d been released.

I’ve been contributing regularly to The Age for three years now. Of the one hundred and fifty columns I’ve written during that time, the stories I’ve told about my friend M and her slow journey through the Australian immigration system have elicited the biggest response of all. ‘Whatever happened to that woman’, people ask me, ‘the one in the detention centre? Is she okay?’ So in the interests of ‘narrative closure’, as the film buffs call it, and to satisfy those readers who wrote to me expressing their concern about this anonymous young woman, here are the facts.

M spent three long years in detention, waiting for her status as a genuine asylum-seeker to be formally recognised. I first met her one hot afternoon in a sterile visitor’s room at Baxter, where she held my hands tightly and talked about the two young brothers who she hadn’t seen for years, and about the cat that she had adopted in the detention centre and how it was helping to keep her sane. We stayed in touch and I sent M postcards of Melbourne’s green parks, promising to show them to her when she was released.

M was finally granted a Temporary Protection Visa in 2003, and made her way to Sydney with her adopted cat. M’s partner had been living there since he was released from detention, a year before M’s visa came through. Freedom was hard for M. She had been ground down by years of boredom, uncertainty and anxiety. She found it difficult to commit to anything, like her regular English lessons or the waitressing job she finally found after months of searching for work. She missed her family back in Iran and worried about their safety. M loved Sydney’s big air-conditioned shopping centres, but her partner couldn’t persuade her to go to Bondi Beach with him. All that bare flesh was too much for a modest Iranian girl.

But M stuck with her studies and focussed on the idea of becoming a nurse. She liked caring for people, and had heard that there was a shortage of nurses in her new country. M’s English gradually improved, and early in the New Year she was interviewed for a place in a nursing course. M was so nervous before the interview, she thought she was going to be sick. But she passed the language test and was accepted into university.

Two weeks ago M phoned me. She was in Melbourne for a brief holiday before her studies began, so we arranged to meet for a picnic. I gathered together some friends, and we met M and her partner in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens on a Sunday evening. She looked a little different to when I had last seen her in Sydney. There were blonde streaks in her dark hair, and her smile came more easily. We sat on a rug eating cold chicken and toasting her new nursing career with glasses of bubbly. After dinner we all played boules on the soft, summer grass and the young Iranian couple won every game. They apologised but I could tell they were delighted with their beginner’s luck. When the sun disappeared we packed up the picnic and said our goodbyes. She’s going to be okay, I thought to myself.

I’m sorry, readers. You’ve been misled. I’m afraid I can’t finish this story. When M’s Temporary Protection Visa runs out, it’ll be up to the Federal Government to decide whether she stays in Australia or is forcibly returned to Iran. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed.