Quite a mixed bag today! First, again as has become the way, to quote myself from Facebook yesterday:
Footy tipping would have ended today. I miss you, Illawarra Leagues!
OK, checked the first game — 30 minutes in and going my way so far. HT: Titans 16 Warriors 0. The Titans score again minutes into 2nd half — Warriors are cactus. 22-0. With 20 minutes to go it’s 28-0, so I am claiming this one! And at FT: 44-0. In Game 2 The Bulldogs seem to be determined to win at last! Good on them, but bad for my tipping. Well — 26-0 with 20 minutes left. Good for you, Bulldogs! 38-0.
Meanwhile and completely different — the 2021 NSW Premier’s History Awards have just been announced. These are the winners — and I am not surprised that the big one goes to the wonderful People of the River. See my post of 23 March!
Senior Judge Dr Matthew Allen praised the “imagination, courage and empathy of contemporary historians and the importance of their work”.
And the winners are…
— Australian History Prize‘People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia’ by Grace Karskens.
— General History Prize‘The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World’ by Luke Keogh
— NSW Community and Regional History Prize‘Landscapes of Our Hearts: Reconciling People and Environment’ by Matthew Colloff
–Young People’s History Prize‘Tell Me Why for Young Adults’ by @archieroach
— Digital History Prize (not pictured)‘FREEMAN’ by Laurence Billiet (General Strike and Matchbox Pictures)
Now that pianist. You know the one by now. Perhaps this image will be new:
“Shirley” Strachan was much younger (2 January 1952) — but he is gone just on twenty years! So a post on Facebook reminded me yesterday. “Twenty years today since the sad passing of Shirl! A good bloke & such an incredible lead singer. Never forgotten. RIP.”
His book takes a meandering path, through the grief and joys of his present septuagenarian living. We join Dessaix in the lush garden of the home where his partner’s mother Rita lies in a white room and recedes from her pronoun. With him, we scale the stupas of Borobudur, appreciatively notice the tight shirts of young waiters, dip into Epicurean philosophy at a gay ballroom dance. And we delight in the free-wheeling, wry and enjoyably forthright series of conversations on ageing with Dessaix’s female friends which pattern the book, in which they talk sex, death, religion and sundry. It is in these lively exchanges that ageing well is played out, and some of the book’s richest meaning resides.
Affirms Dessaix, the book isn’t about how to avoid dementia, or how to become a wise and dignified elder. It “is about how my friends are blooming. There are strelitzias on the cover. That’s your clue.”
It is a refreshing, entertaining and singular read. He wrote it, as he usually does, “imagining I was conversing with a friend of mine, a woman I’ve known for thirty years,” he tells me. “She’s fond of me, but not uncritical (that’s vital)… The reader eavesdrops.”
JEREMY SIMS, DIRECTOR: Michael has led a long, incredible, boisterous, complicated life. He’s done everything in his power, I would say, to shorten his life. And he’s still with us.
MICHAEL CATON: I just really notice that I’m losing memory. Vocabulary. You’ve got to work twice as hard as I used to probably three times as hard as I used to, especially if you get a big page of dialogue.
Helen: Michael’s mother lived till 103.
SEPTIMUS CATON, SON: Dad’s getting to that time in life. where every few weeks another one of his mates is gone. another star has blinked out and I think that’s really left dad with I’m going to make the most of the time I have.
First let me mention something that happened yesterday morning.
So there was an insistent knock on the door just now, which I eventually heard through my headphones! Not Coles — they delivered my supplies a couple of hours ago.
— Facebook post
Turned out to be Australia Post. And inside, a Wollongong Library book I had reserved some weeks ago!
I am looking forward to that one. The author is a Yuin man from the South Coast of NSW. The book has been much praised.
Also from Wollongong Library is Robert Dessaix, The Time of Our Lives (Brio 2020).
We are pretty much of an age — and in fact I met him at the ABC around 1985. Used to listen to him on Radio National as well. I am still reading it — but although he is far more cultured than I am and far more clever, I can relate to so many attitudes and riffs in it… This review seems to capture it well. The themes are aging and death — or rather, dying.
Much of this book reflects Dessaix’s musings on this as he discusses it with various ageing friends living in different countries around the world and sees how they live their lives. When Sarah meets him for breakfast at their Indonesian hotel, she tells him:
‘You can try and look young forever … like Jane Fonda and whatshername from … you know …’
‘It’s the names that go first, isn’t it. Nouns come next, apparently. Yes, her. You can try to die young as late as possible, in other words…’
‘Did you just make that up?’
‘No. Or you can do what you’ve done.’
Dessaix, according to Sarah, has failed to grow up in the first place. This sets him puzzling over a more personal question. What does she mean? As always, his musing and puzzling take him all over the place and involve people alive and dead….
Then there are two examples of left-wing history of the best kind. Each informed me of much that I had not known before but also connected with much that I did know or had experienced, this first one especially:
‘Meet Lucy Woodcock, a complex, undaunted woman in a tough and changing world. From her role as a public school principal in Depression and wartime, to her union and feminist organising, to her transnational engagements for peace, this clear and thoughtful book brings to life forgotten forms of activism. It’s the gripping story of how Lucy navigated the minefields of gender, class, race and coloniality to change her world.’
Raewyn Connell, Professor Emerita, University of Sydney
‘Just over a century ago, the last of the pupil-teachers, Lucy Woodcock, co-founded the NSW Teachers Federation. So many of the principles and traditions that underpin our union today can be traced back to the lifelong work of Lucy Woodcock. She fought for the industrial rights of teachers deep in the knowledge of the broader social and economic context in which she lived and worked. Too often the role of working-class women whose influence is profound is ignored. This biography installs Lucy Woodcock into her rightful place as pivotal player in the history of twentieth-century Australia.’
Back in 1993 when I was doing a research project for Disadvantaged Schools on the teaching of reading in the Botany Cluster of the NSW Education Department, and then in the early 2000s at gatherings for ESL teachers I spent much time at Erskineville Public School, which was the local HQ for the Disadvantaged Schools Program — a federally-funded initiative that ran from the Whitlam years until killed off by John Howard. It then became a regular meeting place for inner city ESL teachers.
So for that reason alone I find this book — which I am currently reading from my eBook library on Calibre — fascinating. But more for the insight it gives into social issues, left politics, education, the Teachers Federation, and life in the 1920s through to the early 1950s in NSW. The book may be downloaded as an eBook or PDF FREE!
And if you caught the quote on education I posted a day or so back, this was its source: Lucy Woodcock, Erskineville Public School:
“We still, in practice retain an out-of-date conception of education as the mere imparting of knowledge. Our examination system is largely responsible for the maintenance of this conception … It is necessary to remind ourselves that the real value of education is not measured by the amount and variety of knowledge we can force into the minds of the young …
“The aim, I take it, is to train the mind to observe accurately, to think clearly, to discard prejudices, to weigh evidence, to make judgements on the weight of evidence … We should aim to create a living intellectual interest in minds … The curricula of the schools should be based on the conception of man as a citizen of the world instead of a citizen of a small State …
“Our schools may be said to have succeeded if we can arouse a deep and abiding interest in the search for knowledge in all who pass through their portals. Our pupils should not be a standardized product, when they leave us, knowing so much of this and that, but young people equipped with well-balanced minds; young citizens who will go further along the pathway of life unprejudiced and untrammelled in quest of knowledge and pursuit of it until life’s journey ends.”
Next let me note one of the best Australian Left or Radical histories I have ever read.
While the author’s sympathies are clear, so is his generous humanity and ability to understand other viewpoints. He is scrupulous in his sourcing. His writing is mercifully free of stock attitudes and cliches.
So far as I know the work is only available as a PhD thesis from Wollongong University: Rowan Cahill, Rupert Lockwood (1908-1997) — Journalist,Communist, Intellectual (2013). And there will be more on that in future! But do yourself a favour and download your own copy.
Both Rowan Cahill and Heather Goodall et al almost apologise for employing a biographical approach, albeit in neither case pure biography. I can see why this is so, but for me as a reader I am glad they did! Far more interesting. And Rowan in particular writes so well!
Goodall et al:
Biography as method
This book has demonstrated for us the strengths of biographical method. Following one person’s life has allowed us to pull together the threads from diverse movements and see some of the interconnections between them. In Lucy’s life, this means her work with Jewish refugees in the 1930s and her work with Chinese Australians and students in the 1960s can be understood in terms of her commitments to economic justice, education, feminism and peace. This quality of intersecting movements has not been shown in studies of one movement or another, which characteristically focus on what differentiates movements rather than what draws the same person to more than one. Nor do movement studies shed light on those who do not seek the limelight for themselves. Those people who do the hard back-room work but do not tell their own story in some other way are also neglected. But following one person’s life allows an insight into how various movements overlapped and diverged, who was in all and who was in only one, how all were influenced by wider political currents.
(Geoff)I took the liberty of including some biographical information on Rowan, our associate beard…
Rowan is an Honorary Fellow with the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at the University of Wollongong.
He has a diversity of interests. Primarily he is interested in rebellion and resistance to the state, and in the apparatuses and methodologies deployed against these. In the area of academic/scholarly publishing he is interested in, and a supporter of, Open Access. With regard to Australian society and culture, he is variously interested in Australian militarism, labour history, and in the Cold War.
Rowan has published over 620 articles and reviews in some 108 professional, academic, literary, newspaper and online publications (see publications). With colleague Terry Irving he blogs at Radical Sydney/Radical History….
Not just any rabbit. This rabbit: At the end of December 2002 Mister Rabbit drove me out to Sutherland… Mister Rabbit wondered whether I would be writing up our day in Sutherland (and Sans Souci) beyond what I had to say on the day… Mr Rabbit was 20 at the time, and had his say as well:
We passed my father’s old school, which has a great view (“The Catholics know how to buy land”), and the place of N’s early religion, which looked, I thought, not unlike a scout hall. And then an unexpected surprise: N’s childhood home, which he hadn’t been inside since 1952, was completely empty (on account of being ready for auction), and its front door was wide open. We ventured in and had a good look around. N pointed out the many structural changes, including the removal of fireplaces; thankfully, the house itself can’t be knocked down: built in c. 1913, it is heritage. It is, however, being encroached upon by medium density housing, of which there is much in Sutherland these days. But if I had a spare $400,000 in the bank, I’d buy the house tomorrow. N was glowing afterwards, and I was very happy too.
Only $400,000? You would need maybe THREE TIMES that these days, Rabbit!
Anyway, after an absence Rabbit has reappeared on Facebook. He is no longer 20 just as I am now much nearer 80! He is also a very experienced High School English teacher — indeed Head of English somewhere in the Blue Mountains, where he currently lives.
Our latest conversation was conducted via Facebook comments. I had posted a link to the following quite disturbing story in The Guardian, which certainly raises interesting ethical and aesthetic issues.
Björn Andrésen was just 15 when he walked straight into the lion’s den, being cast as Tadzio, the sailor-suited object of desire in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Its release in 1971 made him not merely a star but an instant icon – the embodiment of pristine youthful beauty. Sitting alone in Stockholm today at the age of 66, he looks more like Gandalf with his white beard and his gaunt face framed by shoulder-length white locks. His eyes twinkle as alluringly as ever but he’s no pussycat. Asked what he would say to Visconti if he were here now, he doesn’t pause. “Fuck off,” he says.
No one who sees The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, a new documentary about Andrésen’s turbulent and tragic past, will be surprised by that answer. Visconti, he tells me, “didn’t give a fuck” about his feelings. He wasn’t alone in that. “I’ve never seen so many fascists and assholes as there are in film and theatre,” says Andrésen. “Luchino was the sort of cultural predator who would sacrifice anything or anyone for the work.”…
The Rabbit began:
Rabbit: haven’t seen the film but recently listened to the audiobook.
Neil James Whitfield: The book is very good.
Rabbit: It is. Shorter than I had realised too. · Neil James Whitfield: The movie is magnificent too — it is reading what it did to the boy playing Tadzio that gives me pause.
Rabbit: the Polish boy was played by a Swede?
At which point I posted the music from the movie.
Rabbit: well I think I will watch it during this lockdown
Neil James Whitfield: So I am rereading “Death in Venice” right now as it is in my eBook library.
Rabbit: The theme of pestilence seems relevant.
Neil James Whitfield: Parts of the last chapter seem very relevant. Yes, I have finished it now. That final paragraph really is something.
Rabbit: well I just watched the film. It’s quite something. They nailed the casting of Tadzio.
Neil James Whitfield: Yes, I was absolutely speechless when I first saw it — and I hadn’t read the book at that stage. The boy really IS Tadzio, and Dirk Bogarde is very good too. The cinematography, the music, everything — all so good. That’s why that Guardian article really does raise interesting questions.
Rabbit: visually such a beautiful film. [Referring to my comment.] Yes very true. I want to watch the new film about the boy actor and also other films with Bogarde who I don’t know much about.
Neil James Whitfield: Wikipedia as usual is a good intro — Bogarde was in some great films and had a very interesting life. What Wikipedia says about his sexuality is very true.
Rabbit: the film Victim is on YouTube and I’ll start with that.
Not all Facebook time is wasted!
Nor is listening to great music and viewing great movies a waste of time. Thanks, YouTube! Not so long ago we could not have had this pleasure.
NOTE: I am replacing the final video I had earlier as I see its maker has produced something even better, and more relevant to The Guardian article.
Things have not improved significantly. Hopefully my on-line order (see yesterday’s post) arrives this morning, keeping me in food and such necessities!
Now one thing you can do in lockdown is read. As well as my few library books, I have the vast eBook library I have posted about before. That now stands at 2,830 books! One recent acquisition — and 99.9% of my eBooks are freebies — is E M Forster, A Passage to India. I would say it has just emerged from copyright, as it was not available from Project Gutenberg before.
Now of course I had read it before, first while a student at Sydney University around 1961-2, and again later on. Naturally I also saw the movie.
All sorts of interesting things can be said about the book and the movie! We perhaps need to be reminded of three things: 1) E M Forster was a closeted gay man 2) the book appeared in 1924 3) the emphasis on the Muslim in India was one with the way the British tended to think about the “natives”. The novel, while not autobiographical, is rooted in Forster’s own experiences in India and with Indians. Much has been said, and fair enough too, along the lines of post-colonial critique; the first and still most famous example of that is Edward Said.
But what struck me most as after all this time I read the first few chapters is what absolutely brilliant writing it is. Also, that it really is better than any movie or other adaptation. Let me close by indulging in a long quotation from Chapter 1.
I quote the entire chapter!
Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped in the eighteenth century, nor was it ever democratic. There is no painting and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil. Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life.
Inland, the prospect alters. There is an oval Maidan, and a long sallow hospital. Houses belonging to Eurasians stand on the high ground by the railway station. Beyond the railway—which runs parallel to the river—the land sinks, then rises again rather steeply. On the second rise is laid out the little civil station, and viewed hence Chandrapore appears to be a totally different place. It is a city of gardens. It is no city, but a forest sparsely scattered with huts. It is a tropical pleasaunce washed by a noble river. The toddy palms and neem trees and mangoes and pepul that were hidden behind the bazaars now become visible and in their turn hide the bazaars. They rise from the gardens where ancient tanks nourish them, they burst out of stifling purlieus and unconsidered temples. Seeking, light and air, and endowed with more strength than man or his works, they soar above the lower deposit to greet one another with branches and beckoning leaves, and to build a city for the birds. Especially after the rains do they screen what passes below, but at all times, even when scorched or leafless, they glorify the city to the English people who inhabit the rise, so that new-comers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment. As for the civil station itself, it provokes no emotion. It charms not, neither does it repel. It is sensibly planned, with a red-brick club on its brow, and farther back a grocer’s and a cemetery, and the bungalows are disposed along roads that intersect at right angles. It has nothing hideous in it, and only the view is beautiful; it shares nothing with the city except the overarching sky.
The sky too has its changes, but they are less marked than those of the vegetation and the river. Clouds map it up at times, but it is normally a dome of blending tints, and the main tint blue. By day the blue will pale down into white where it touches the white of the land, after sunset it has a new circumference—orange, melting upwards into tenderest purple. But the core of blue persists, and so it is by night. Then the stars hang like lamps from the immense vault. The distance between the vault and them is as nothing to the distance behind them, and that farther distance, though beyond colour, last freed itself from blue.
The sky settles everything—not only climates and seasons but when the earth shall be beautiful. By herself she can do little—only feeble outbursts of flowers. But when the sky chooses, glory can rain into the Chandrapore bazaars or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous. Strength comes from the sun, infused in it daily, size from the prostrate earth. No mountains infringe on the curve. League after league the earth lies flat, heaves a little, is flat again. Only in the south, where a group of fists and fingers are thrust up through the soil, is the endless expanse interrupted. These fists and fingers are the Marabar Hills, containing the extraordinary caves.
I just revelled in that!
It is very tangentially related to the above, if you give yourself enough leeway! But in fact it is from our local Wollongong news, and is a marvellous example of human kindness and also of Australian multiculturalism at its best.
#Strongwomen. "I write about the power of trying, because I want to be okay with failing. I write about generosity because I battle selfishness. I write about joy because I know sorrow. I write about faith because I almost lost mine, and I know what it is to be broken and in need of redemption. I write about gratitude because I am thankful - for all of it." Kristin Armstrong