How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.

 

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Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 17: The Wife Drought – Why Women Need Lives and Men Need Wives (Annabel Crabb, 2014)

Books left: 9. Weeks left: 14 (it’s when the first number gets higher than the second that we’ll really need to start worrying. Until then, so far so good). 

the wife droughtNow, I know we’re up to Q, but I didn’t have any Q authors so thought I’d substitute this as it was a Christmas present from the Matriarch and I could actually review a contemporary, relevant title.

Just to shock you all.

I have been a hopeless Annabel Crabb fan-girl ever since I discovered her work while knee-deep in my journalism postgrad. The seasoned political columnist and host of ABC show Kitchen Cabinet is the only writer I know who can so successfully pair politics and humour, so when I heard The Wife Drought was coming out, I swallowed my characteristic queasiness about non-fiction and wrote it down on my wishlist.

I think Leigh Sales puts it rather well in this interview she did with Crabb:

LS Between your television show, newspaper columns, radio appearances, and raising your three children, you’ve now written a book, The Wife Drought. When are you going to get off your lazy bum and actually do something with your life?

My excitement to hear about Crabb’s nutso productivity was nothing to the excitement that built after I started the book. Finally someone was putting numbers and facts to my own beliefs and anxieties on the subject of women and work, and by some miracle, doing so amusingly. Central to the book is an investigation of the social construct of a ‘wife’ as not necessarily a man or a woman, but any partner who draws back on work responsibilities in order to run the couple’s household and/or family and enable the other partner to work. Crabb argues that any professional man or woman in possession of a ‘wife’ has a powerful economic and social asset backing their career. It just so happens that it’s usually the men who get wives, and women don’t get this luxury.

Crabb manages to both talk about the reasons for this without simplifying them into the two baskets she says explanations usually fall into – ‘women are hopeless’ and ‘men are awful’ –  and, moreover, says the end result is that it’s not just women who are missing out.

The book faced some criticism after its release for not adding much in the way of solutions to the debate surrounding this subject, criticism any book on this subject would probably face. But I would argue it rounds out the discussion in an unprecedented way by not only focusing on what women are losing out on, but on what men are losing out on too. Crabb illuminates a subject rarely spoken of – the barriers, both official and unspoken, that prevent men from adjusting their lives to take part more fully in family and home life. It turns out that men who would like to adjust their working lives after they have children are less likely to ask – and if they do, they’re less likely to be told it’s OK.

Crabb sets her solid base of compelling social research in the context of the unique perspective her life as a political journalist has afforded her – the revelations about some of the country’s most high-powered men and women and how they approach work-life balance, or lack thereof, are fascinating. Topping off this powerful mix are wry and frequently hilarious observations from Crabb, a mother of three in a dual-income household. Together, this combination of historical context, modern insight and personal experience makes the book a slam-dunk portrait of what the ‘wife drought’ is – and why we need to talk about it.

By writing this Crabb has cemented her place in my heart as the Terry Pratchett of Australian politics and society. I have an almost pathological fear of non-fiction (despite hoarding an entire bookcase full of the stuff) but I speed through this in days and, believe it or not, giggle out loud for much of it.

I feel I have hardly done justice to the level of insight in this book and cannot overestimate its importance. Women should read it, but men should read it too – and what’s more, they’ll like it.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 12: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin, 1974)

Books remaining: 14. Weeks left to read them: 23 (I blame Christmas).

Even from the brother there is no comfort in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall.

Stack of Ursula Le Guin books

Got to keep it real if these are allowed to stay.

I have loved Le Guin since I read her A Wizard of Earthsea, which got made into typically beautiful Studio Ghibli film Tales of Earthsea

I know I have been doing a lot of sci-fi in this project, but I have numerous Le Guin books, so I thought I had better get stuck into them to see if I still wanted her taking up valuable shelf real estate.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed tells of two planets, Urras and its moon Anarres, first populated when a group of anarchists decided they wanted a socialist society without government, law, property or profit. On Anarres, they dreamed, humans would contribute voluntarily to achieve common goals for the good of all, and they voluntarily broke away from Urras.

There is now little contact between the two – eight spaceships a year exchange limited goods, news and publications – until Shevek, Anarres’ most brilliant physicist and a man renowned on both planets, accepts an invitation to be the first Anarresti to visit Urras. There, he will work among his peers and teach for a period at an Urrasti university.

Shevek, though he loves Anarres and his family, is frustrated by not having other brilliant physicists to talk to (I know just how he feels, obviously) and decides to make the journey, both in a desire to develop a scientific theorem that could revolutionise both worlds, and in a belief he can unite the two societies and bury their mutual distrust.

Shevek, however, soon realises that just as he never quite fit in on Anarres, neither does he fit among Urrasti, and his difference begins to weigh heavily upon him.

He had worked hard on his speech, a plea for free communication and mutual recognition between the New World and the Old. It was received with a ten-minute standing ovation. The respectable weeklies commented on it with approval, calling it ‘a disinterested moral gesture of human brotherhood by a distinguished scientist’; but they did not quote from it, nor did the popular papers. In fact, despite the ovation, Shevek had the curious feeling that nobody had heard it.

Shevek slowly begins to see beneath Urras’ beautiful surface and realises he is not an honoured guest, but a prisoner ill-equipped to deal with an all-powerful government that has him entirely at its mercy. His mission is not only impossible but dangerous, and he has made a terrible mistake in coming to Urras.

The loneliness, the certainty of isolation, that he had felt in his first hour aboard the Mindful, rose up in him and asserted itself as his true condition, ignored, suppressed, but absolute.
He was alone, here, because he came from a self-exiled society. He had always been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his society. The Settlers had taken one step away. He had taken two. He stood by himself, because he had taken the metaphysical risk.
And he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong.

Reading this book was like slipping into a warmed pool of water. There was no discomfort, no reluctance, no resistance, just delicious ease and forward motion. And yet it is not bland, but suffused with droll humour in its depiction of people, worlds apart, but trying to understand each other.

“The one thing everybody knows … is that you don’t drink alcohol. Is it true, by the way?”
“Some people distil alcohol from fermented holum root, for drinking – they say it gives the unconscious free play, like brain-wave training. Most people prefer that, it’s very easy and doesn’t cause a disease. Is that common here?”
“Drinking is. I don’t know about this disease. What’s it called?”
“Alcoholism, I think.”

Scorn and anger running through many of the scenes on Urras, where woman serve purely as decorations, is also illuminated with humour.

184The prose is soaked in political and philosophical ideas, but its simplicity and humanity mean it does not lecture. It is no morality tale, but a story of infinite subtlety and a piercing contemplation of loneliness.

The world had fallen out from under him … he had always feared this would happen, more than he had ever feared death. To die is to lose one’s self and join the rest. He had kept himself, and lost the rest.

I was thoroughly overstimulated, as you can see from my rabid note-taking, and overcome by relief at reading a truly compulsive book again.

photo 2
Keep or kill? Look, I’m keeping it, but I got rid of this pile of L books and surrounds to assuage my guilt (kept all the Le Guin ones though).

203

Note: This is one of several excellent titles I have read from Gollancz’s Sci-Fi Masterworks series, for example, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Dune by Frank Herbert, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

For more titles in this series, click here and particularly, if you have not read I am Legend, banish the movie from your mind and fill the space you made with the original, readable and infinitely more meaningful novel.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.

Dreams From My Father (Barack Obama, 1995)

A simple but beautiful narrative that showcases Obama’s gift with words and soul-searching bent.

It’s not a particularly political book. It’s a traditional autobiography, dealing with childhood and coming-of-age. It does, however, cover how Obama first got into politics and public life when he became an adult. For those interested in his entry to the political arena , it offers a valuable insight into the challenges of those early days, but it’s still very much tied in with his youth and the motivations that brought about his entry into this life.

Though it’s not by any means a lofty philosophical work, remaining accessible and simple in structure throughout, the most striking aspect of the work that lifts it out of being just a chronology  is Obama’s continuing preoccupation with questions of identity, belonging and change – about reconciling your self, your family, your past and your future.

Obama betrays a sensibility of the higher issues dealt with in philosophy and academia in relation to these issues, but never alienates the reader by becoming dry or impersonal in style or language.

Instead he shows that he feels keenly the same struggles that all men and women encounter in their hearts and asks himself the same questions we all ask of ourselves: about who they are, what they should do with their lives and where in the world they might belong.

And in his case, of course, the answer turned out to be extraordinary, but I think for that you have to read his next one, The Audacity of Hope.