Congratulations Adam Aitken — 2021 Patrick White Award!

This is a big thing in the world of Australian Literature.

If Adam Aitken wants to celebrate winning this year’s $15,000 Patrick White Award, it might be appropriate for him to down a Victoria Bitter. That’s because the Sydney poet is a direct descendant of Thomas Aitken, who brewed the first VB in 1854 in East Melbourne.

The prize, which White established with the money he received for winning the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, is given each year to a writer whom the panel of judges deems not to have had adequate recognition for their work. Aitken says it’s apt that he should get it as it’s the first award he has won. He has published seven books, including a memoir, and his next collection of poetry, Revenants, will be published in February.

Adam Aitken — photo from Rochford Street Review.

The Far East

I remember the school ground:
eager to kill, I punched him, but gently, diplomatically,

Why didn’t I just
poison his sandwich?

Named the Inscrutable
I was angrier and more silent
than I looked.

In private moments I would
devise sermons on fear and fathers

in the voice of my mother.

Having never given up
loving you, you became
the template of my becoming.

After so much talking
so much cutting down of forests
to make the barricade

my mother just made more talk,
gesticulating to the Danish envoy,
who, beaten down by humidity,
could never enjoy

But in the long run
I came to accept that for my type
the Celtic poet in Game of Thrones
might decide to cut off our heads.

I share no need to fly to distant prisons
where a thug I could have been
stews on what it is that got him there.

Some days I’m so extreme,
in the sense of far away,
too far away to even think of trade,
like Marco Polo locked in a castle
on the edges of a distant green sea.

But on a sliding scale I’m
neither Oriental nor mean.
My tender presence brings you the key:

the gates open, at least an inch,
and the corridor sounds again,
with all the merchants of my desire
wanting a sale, offering closure.

Adam’s family — from his Facebook profile

Adam Aitken was born in London, England, in 1960, to an Anglo-Australian father and a Thai mother. He spent his childhood in South-east Asia, before migrating to Australia where he graduated from the University of Sydney in 1982. He was a co-editor of the poetry magazine P76, named after a failed Leyland car model, and for a time was associate poetry editor for Heat magazine. He has traveled widely, visiting Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia; his experiences overseas continue to inform his poetry. — Australian Poetry Library.

I was thrilled to be told by Adam last night about his well-deserved award. He is a Facebook friend. He said:

Thank you for being one of the first mentors Neil, what a great time we had. And I still live in Glebe. xxx

I don’t recall doing all that much! I do recall a June 1989 conversation we had on Oxford Street one day about what was happening with the students in China….

It isn’t every day I can feel, however tangentially, part of a big moment in Australian Literature! Look at some previous winners!

1985 Judah Waten (posthumous)
1984 Rosemary Dobson
1983 Marjorie Barnard
1982 Bruce Beaver
1981 Dal Stivens
1980 Bruce Dawe
1979 Randolph Stow
1978 Gwen Harwood
1977 Sumner Locke Elliott
1976 John Blight
1975 David Campbell
1974 Christina Stead

From the press release which Adam messaged to me last night:

The award recognises Dr Aitken’s achievements as a poet and non-fiction writer. Aitken’s work has attracted other honours, including shortlistings for the Kenneth Slessor Award and the Prime Minister’s Literature Prize, and a longlisting for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal.

Dr Aitken commented: “I feel deeply honoured to win the Patrick White Literary Award, which validates my lifelong commitment to poetry and storytelling. The recognition it confers gives me the self-belief to continue writing, as it has for previous recipients. I am more convinced now than ever before that each book I have written speaks of this country with all its complexities, and that my own struggle to express my part in it has been worth a lifetime of labour.”

Thanks Adam!

Noting the comment Adam has just written below, I refer to Various lockdown hacks and escapes — 66 — Glebe, Neos, John Hawke: poet.

That’s Gavin Murrell and Richard Allen and ?Lyneve around 1982-3 above Cornstalk Bookshop — a Neos meeting. Photo by Matthew da Silva.

Various lockdown hacks and escapes — 66 — Glebe, Neos, John Hawke: poet

In 2005 I posted this:

Twenty years ago Neos came to an end…


In September 1981 Rob Duffy (19), John Hawke (15), Michael Stevenson (16) and I (age indeterminate) started Neos Young Writers, a magazine for — you guessed it — young writers. Raina MacIntyre (17) provided some spectacular art-work based on Eliot’s “Gerontion”.

In time other editors joined us: for issue 2 (February 1982) the team was the same. The magazine continued until 1985, published by Gleebooks. Later editors included Gavin Murrell, Richard Allen, Hung Nguyen and Lyneve Rappell. We won a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Award for service to young Australians, and a Literature Board Grant. We had the odd subscriber in England, Ireland, Italy and the USA! We even score a little entry in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (ed.2)….

The link takes you to WordPress, where I have just republished some highlights from the first two issues. This is just a sample. And keep in mind that John Hawke was still 15 when Neos 1 was published!

And in 2011:

Speaking of Neos, I see that old copies go for $15 a pop now! Shame I no longer have any…

John Hawke went on to academia, including a time at the University of Wollongong where he published Australian literature and the symbolist movement in 2009. There have also been poems, but so far no collected work. I wonder if there will be? There was this poem in Jacket, December 2001:


“This ‘peace on earth’ has seen headier days when the sealers and whalers came with their aboriginal women they had torn from their tribes and slaughtered relentlessly the beautiful creatures of the deep.”

— Touring Tasmania, vol.XI.

The lake of charity, the ice-cream sandwiches,
the moulting lagoon: it is all falling
into the past inevitably, like the last
pack of cigarettes you’ll ever buy —
the barbershop reek of the cardboard,
a black metal comb in its milky glass,
the colour that bleaches a neglected letter
dated to the final day. Then the baby is born,
a new calendar of life commences,
yet somewhere it is September 1986,
a white car speeds endlessly through the spinning
night of ragged coastline sea-towns,
past Murder Creek, over Bust-Me-Up Hill,
to the no-time of the eternal casino,
into those infinite bunkered weeks, that basement dark,
the merz that goes without a name.
And I’m feeling sorry for all the noise
beautiful poems will never contain,
because I am ‘modern’ but want to go back
for a few words, not many — that’s selfish,
but when things seem desperate you have to act
some way, and I don’t believe it’s late.
Remember: this is how your parents were
before you were born  —   nostalgia for her
golden body a charm against death,
and too much emotion ever to adequately
deal with or ignore. This makes it
history, but how did we ever get that old,
answering bitterness with tenderness.
In the hamburger warmth of the pinball joint
we shared our flippers, made out
on a midnight slippery-dip, on a Disney ride,
in a maze of mirrors, on a ladder,
by the verdant banks of a tea-coloured river.

Matt da Silva  published some archival photos a while back.

That’s Gavin Murrell and Richard Allen and ?Lyneve around 1982-3.

I met John Hawke at Fort Street High in 1981. Interesting place and time — there was for example a very active underground student paper, The Liberator, with which John was involved. In fact I suspect John and his friends were The Liberator!

I became aware of John’s poetry quite early and was amazed by what I read. I felt it needed to be published somewhere, but where? The ultimate answer was: start our own magazine. Neos 1 came out in September 1981. I wrote the following in the early 2000s.

In September 1981 Rob Duffy (19), John Hawke (15), Michael Stevenson (16) and I (age indeterminate) started Neos Young Writers, a magazine for — you guessed it — young writers. Raina MacIntyre (17) provided some spectacular art-work based on Eliot’s “Gerontion”.In time other editors joined us: for issue 2 (February 1982) the team was the same. The magazine continued until 1985, published by Gleebooks. Later editors included Gavin Murrell, Richard Allen, Hung Nguyen, Matt Da Silva and Lyneve Rappell. We won a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Award for service to young Australians, and a Literature Board Grant. We had the odd subscriber in England, Ireland, Italy and the USA! We even score a little entry in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (ed.2).

John Hawke has continued to write and publish poetry, but has not yet had a book published (aside from editing a number of issues of the Newcastle Poetry Prize anthologies). He studied at the University of Sydney where he tutored for a while in the English Department. The last I heard he was working in the Creative Writing Department at Wollongong University. Richard Allen (with his wife Karen Pearlman, whom he met in New York where he lived for some time) is very active, with several books published, dance works performed, and multi-media dance/poetry/video works achieving some success.

Richard’s career has continued with much success, and Raina MacIntyre is now at the University of New South Wales and a much quoted expert: she heads the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute, which conducts research in epidemiology, vaccinology, bioterrorism prevention, mathematical modelling, genetic epidemiology, public health and clinical trials in infectious diseases.

John now has two published books of poems. He is at Monash University.

But back to Glebe at the time Neos was flourishing. In some ways I was not, experiencing what could be called burnout. I have posted about this several times, especially In 1983 I learned more than I knew I was learning…

At that time I lived in Glebe and was in some ways at a rather low ebb, in hiatus from teaching but still editing Neos. I lived for a while in a boarding house in Boyce Street with assorted students, crims and schizos and one or two ordinary folk. It was an education. Among my neighbours was a schizophrenic Aboriginal woman whom I call “Marie”.  As I listened to Marie, who was also kind of concierge to the house, I found a story emerging amid the apparent randomness and even craziness. I tried to capture that in a poem at the time. Every word in the poem she actually said, though not all at once, and I have structured it so that her story emerges, as it did for me over a much longer time. An artist who lived upstairs read it and said I had captured her exactly.

59 Boyce Street. At the time I occupied the front room. “Marie” was on the second floor at the landing. The artist had the balcony room. By 1983 the artist had moved on and I had the balcony room.
This is the very room!
The view from that balcony.

You can read my poem here. But back to John. He (and at times others on Neos) would often visit as we went through the poems and stories that had arrived for the magazine, These sessions could last all day, and I do remember one with John where we sat on that balcony and talked until dawn! My burnout was not all bad!

And from Neos 1 or 2 here is a poem from the teenage John Hawke. It is a prose poem. He still writes them, I notice. This one was singled out for praise by Patrick White!


John Hawke

Fifteen years spent in a small flat on Parramatta Road with his mother and two brothers (his father died in 1975) the second son John killed by a car to become the hundred and first road accident victim of 1981 (15 up on the same time last year) chewed on asphalt as sharp steel sheared his skin and tore him on the edges of concrete he had walked for fifteen years sucking at the same grey air to find breath for screaming through a mouth full of tar screams bouncing off ugly bricks a hot moist panting into his brother’s lungs helpless on the sidewalk and his mother who saw the crumpled white body and dropped her groceries he spent fifteen years in a small flat on Parramatta Road lived Parramatta Road until Parramatta Road chewed him up sucked between its teeth like wet cement until an iron girder scraped him away from Parramatta Road though the rest of the world passed him by.

Just a bit later:

See Gig Ryan’s Introduction to that 2015 book.

John Hawke’s forensic inquiries in this book are layered with casual erudition – Diderot, Czech poet Vladimir Holan – and locate the poem as transformative state. Many of these poems conclude with a mystical ascent into nature, reminiscent of Patrick White scenes in which the division between consciousness and the universe wavers, signifying that any reconciliation is epiphanic, claimed by art or religion. Yet nature belittles human effort – ‘The path to the point is marked by a scattering / of impermanent hand-made memorials’ – that is, the poet’s endeavours are precariously, though heroically, makeshift, overlaid; but nature is also that which threatens or devours, ‘digesting light’.

And now in 2021 we have John Hawke: Whirlwind Duststorm. Critic Martin Duwell begins:

Poems come claiming many different identities. There are those that aspire to be no more than songs, those that exemplify a previously worked out aesthetic theory, those that worry at an aspect of their author’s inner life, those (“I do this, I do that” poems) that want to take a slice of random individual experience of the world, those that are slabs of discourse engaged with issues of the world, and so on. The feeling I have about the fine and rather unsettling poems of John Hawke’s second book is that they aspire to be strong, free-standing objects. And I don’t mean by this that they are just tightly structured well-made pieces – though they are that – rather that they shun being dependent on meaning for their strength and stability. At the same time, they don’t seem to relate to the generative imperatives of Surrealist poetry where, in that deeply French way, unity derives from development out of a single unified process.

The title poem appeared in Overland February 2021. It is not an easy read, but it repays spending time with it. There are depths there, but also notes that surfaced even in the work John was doing when he was 15 or 16! At least, I think I can see them.

John Hawke today

One more from Neos, 1981.


John Hawke

The wind was always dry and hot,
sweaty and dusty and we were always squinting:
the sun would bounce off the white baked roads
straight into your eyes; I felt so dark–
probably just the dust, but it never seemed right, it seemed
so empty and inhuman.

I don’t know if I saw a leaf all the time I was there:
the trees all stunted and bare and twisted;
never many animals: the occasional snake,
and sometimes those long-necked birds, graceful,
but brown and dappled so that
they were never very beautiful.

You couldn’t say the country was either,
but there was something about it–
a sort of majestic calm, lifeless and menacing,
as if it were the starkness of the earth itself
that could suck you dry, twist you like the trees
and leave you as colourless as everything else.

Some other July days in the past decade or so… A photo post

Looking through my archive for July 2016 I see retrospectives that are worth selecting from. So here are some, nothing too heavy.

Posted on July 13, 2009

1207 006a
Passing parade — Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

Posted on July 24, 2009

glebe 021
Cornstalk Bookshop, Glebe — owner Paul Feain at the freebies table…

Posted on July 11, 2010

Sunday lunch — Trinity Bar, Surry Hills

Posted on July 14, 2011

On Wollongong City Beach looking towards Port Kembla.

Posted on July 19, 2011

Lunch at The Diggers Club.

Posted on July 27, 2011

Wollongong Harbour.

Posted on July 20, 2012

Lunch at the Steelers Club — the club and the neighbourhood are totally changed since then!

Posted on July 13, 2013

A rare sighting of Michael Xu in Wollongong, at the back entrance to Illawarra Grammar School in fact.

Posted on July 29, 2014 

From my window, Mount Kembla on the left.

Posted on July 11, 2016

Lunch with Chris T at Ziggy’s House of Nomms, which included two treats especially, the first being a sencha tea delicately scented with flowers. Lovely. The second we tried because we didn’t know what it might be, but it turns out to be a thing! Taiwan Taco Gua Bao.

Dreaming, blogging — and an impressive fellow-blogger

I don’t usually remember my dreams, but I slept later than usual this morning and consequently remember a bit of the dream I woke from. Chronology, setting and character have rules of their own in dreams, so it is unsurprising that this one was set during World War 1 in Glebe in an Alexandra Road house I once really lived in, but 1978-9, not 1914. Michael Xu was there too, which is pretty unlikely. The nearby Chinese temple does not feature. I was in uniform and setting off to join the war… And that is pretty much it!


Glebe: Sze Yup Temple

That’s not a bad segue into the next bit — the impressive fellow-blogger. (The note on this blog can wait.)  I refer to Russell Darnley OAM, who is also a former colleague from Sydney Boys High where, in the early 2000s, he was in Social Science (Economics, Geography) while I was English/ESL. Here he is today, literally, looking much better  preserved than I do.


He currently lives in Singapore. The Order of Australia Medal came from his efforts in Bali after the tragedy of the first Bali  bombings of 12 October, 2002.  Many more details of Russell’s life — and why he is also Maximos — may be found on his blog.

Aside from the fact he has said nice things on Twitter about some of my posts, including yesterday’s — and I am coming to that — it is a major book (five stars in Goodreads) he has written that got my attention yesterday because of the following video which I had not seen before.

There is a section of the blog devoted to it.

Australian engagement with Asia and Melanesia spans a vast time. Aboriginal Australians are descendants of a diverse group of people who journeyed through the region at the very dawn of human awareness. Western historians have sometimes been reticent in their willingness to accept the evidence of a long and varied Aboriginal contact with the regions to our north, but time will reveal more of its extent.  Such ancient occupance is already clearly inferred in such things as the rock art sites of Arnhemland and the ancient trade in intellectual property manifest in the emergence of the dugout canoe. Their presence and custodianship is everywhere present and their customary land rights affirmed and undeniable. They are the very foundation of modern Australia.

Those Australians, and their descendants, who have arrived since 1778, at first largely of European heritage, have completed a far shorter journey. Some still must return to the lands of their origins to make sense of their place in the world. Many continue to look directly to Europe, but as a quest for identity, this is as if through a glass darkly, a glass full of the muddied waters of a self that, in a sense, belongs elsewhere but is now grounded in Australia. Such quests can serve to obscure the subtle yet compelling forces that shape us and offer us new meanings of self, here in our region….

My own time in Asia and Melanesia has had a significant impact on the way I see the world.  It has brought me into contact with the practices of the region’s primal religions and also the more recent expressions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. It has allowed me to step outside Western paradigms. From this place and subsequent encounters with Egypt, Turkey and finally Greece, I have found my way to Orthodox Christianity and a point in life where I’ve come to acknowledge that the mystery of creation cannot be fully expressed with the tools of western scientism.

Perhaps the following two quotations sum up best where I stand in my approach to this body of work.

. . . there is an invisible dimension to all things visible, and a beyond to everything material.  All creation is a palpable mystery, an immense incarnation of cosmic proportions. [1]

All things worth knowing about the world, in fact, came in incompatible pairs: position and momentum, energy and time, wave and particle.  Knowledge of one somehow destroyed the possibility of knowing the other. [2]….

There is another sense in which I’ve used the unseen world, this is its application in the political domain.  During the Howard years, and central to the Howard Doctrine, were several basic beliefs that could only be held as reality if one was to completely ignore the elephants in the room.

For me the Howard Doctrine rapidly unravelled post Bali Bombing.  This was a period in which any last challenge that it might have presented to my sense of reality was totally dispelled.  My own involvement in the relief effort following the bombing of October 2002, was a watershed experience.  Ironically it crystallized much of this work in my mind.  Such was the impact of the bombing that I’ve written two pieces on that time and one set in the immediate aftermath.

I begin this journey in 1914 with the story Sid Thompson and D Company the story of a little known Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF).  This was the first Australian force to engage the enemy during WWI, undertaking landings in the Bismarck Archipelago.  I’ve concluded this part of the journey with a work Headland that reappraises sacred space in Australia.

So happens that my father’s cousin, Norman Whitfield, was part of that same Expeditionary Force, later going on to service in Gallipoli and the Western Front where he earned a Military Cross and Bar.

I really commend Russell’s work to you. There is also a volume of short stories.

Now to  this blog which did by its standards quite well yesterday. Here is where viewers came from:

Screenshot (342)

I usually have a fair number of US readers, including one or two regulars who quite often hit the “like” button. Not yesterday though. Their usual form suggests they would not have been over-offended by what I said about Donald Trump.

I am wondering if it what I said about Norman Vincent Peale and The Power of Positive Thinking — and incidentally there is a clear link between Peale and the Trump family. Could it be that is a hot button issue in the American psyche? Mind you, two truly great American writers — Scott Fitzgerald and Arthur Miller — were the reason I renamed the phenomenon the Gatsby Disease or the Willy Loman Syndrome.


Ten years ago: seen in August 2009

From my dormant photoblog.

Glebe: a repost

Posted on August 7, 2009I lived in this street just around the corner from St Johns Road in 1987-8. Burgled three times in that twelve months. I was staying with Andy Smith, a former Wollongong acquaintance originally from North Carolina. Great guy. Some of his relatives visited while I was there and I got the North Carolina accent down pat and annoyed my friends no end by slipping into it it from time to time.One small anecdote: we were all in the pub one night when one of Andy’s rellies, a lovely elderly lady of impeccable manners, said she hadn’t enjoyed herself so much since the shagging competition back home in Raleigh. “The what?” I asked. “Why sure, even the pastor used to go in the shagging competition.” I was having very strange visions at that thought, but it turned out that in Raleigh “shagging” was a kind of square-dancing. In Oz, of course, it is something four letters long beginning with F.
Not all gentrified yet:



Here is where I lived in Forest Lodge…  Just a few doors up  is the Forest Lodge Hotel.


Now for Surry Hills —

Bus stop: Elizabeth Street Surry Hills:


Seen in a Surry Hills side street:


Moore Park, wintry: