Belated pix from mid-term break to Bali. IMG_0268


Bali was bustlier than I’d imagined, but I came to like that liveliness – streets packed with scooters, slow traffic jams, taxis that hail you with horn beeps, whether you want one or not. Then cut away from the main drag and it all stops…..


Spent a lovely day exploring temples, rain forests and the interior, including a taste of the famous poo coffee. WP_20150825_14_04_25_ProWP_20150825_13_55_18_Pro (3)IMG_0282WP_20150825_14_59_37_Pro

– caught dawn at one coast and sunset at another.IMG_0288IMG_0315


So.. finished Charlotte Wood’s new novel … and need to share something.

I was thrilled to pick up a copy at last week’s launch


and have been gingerly consuming it since. I thought it would be an all-nighter, but in fact it required slow, measured digestion: it’s a rich brew. Like Verla testing the mushrooms for death caps, you have to be careful. The thing with real writing is that you can’t stand outside it, looking in. I normally race through novels and most leave little trace. The Road is still with me, indelible, from recent years, and Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things. What else? Perhaps Charlotte’s book has just wiped my literary memory. The point is that her writing is so exact, so physical, that racing is not really an option. You have to taste the bitter weeds.

Others have summarised the situation – this review from the SMH, for example:

and other have pinpointed the exquisite prose:

I only have two things to add. As the book unfolded, it seemed to me that it was a story about bodies. Who owns them, internally and externally. The men owning the women’s bodies, unquestioningly; the women drugged or co-opted into compliance. But the women are absent from their own bodies too, at first, during abuse, and perhaps not only then. Yolanda’s story is one of occupation, first by others, then, slowly, by herself, her meat self, and finally beyond bodies into the merged animal world. Verla protects the object of her continuing affection, the one who brought her body into vivid reality, by hating others, until that comfort is removed and her body is understood as the screen of male desire, the empty space for his longing. While there are no Aboriginal characters, echoes of Terra Nullius, forced removals, and the colonised body are strongly present.

As I said earlier this is an astonishingly physical book – the women’s bones are broken, bodies are burnt, they bleed, suppurate, vomit and fart. Once in a very rare while, they sing. Simple physical existence become the overwhelming imperative as the book unfolds  – but that too is seen from different perspectives. Yolanda becomes Diana the Hunter, others form grooming pods (sprouting pubic hair is as shocking to the perpetually waxed as is was to John Ruskin). The embodied, grounded detail demands your absolute attention, moving beyond the particular.

I remember finishing the Women’s Room when it came out and the plummeting recognition of how patriarchy co-opts women. This book shows the choices available to women, from collusion to despair to resistance: it’s a bleak, narrow spectrum. I know Verla too well, unable to bear the indifference of her beloved, telling stories of matching grief until they can no longer be sustained.

My other observation – and it’s been made by most reviewers – is the detailed engineering of every single sentence. I suspect this is only possible if the writer is so immersed in the book’s reality that only this noun, that adverb will suffice. Several reviewers have mentioned that is an angry book – as if a book about the abuse and detention of women could not be – but I wonder if it is the control of language which indicates this rage, rather than the stories. The very punctuation becomes an act of defiance, of reclamation.

A rich, bloody, rabbit stew that you have to catch and skin for yourself. Read.

January 26 is Australia Day, the anniversary of the first European settlers arrival. In other words, it commemorates the last five – white –  minutes of Australian history and disregards the rest. Following the universal general degradation of patriotism to nationalism, it has been co-opted to privilege one version of history over all others. I thought this cartoon about the call on the populace to stop what they’re doing and sing the national anthem at noon was satirical. I was wrong.

First Dog cartoon

And then this morning, heard that the top Australian honour has gone to Prince Philip. Honest. Thank God that these things are handled so ineptly they feed the opposition.

BUT, but but. Something is changing in me and this seems as good as any a day to record it. For example, this is the first post in months, because I no longer experience Australia as a visitor; it’s where I live and work. I’m not really Down Under any more, just here.

I also noticed in my recent role as tourist guide and fellow adventurer with my sister, Kate,  on her first visit here over Xmas, I kept saying ‘we do this, we do that, here’. Seeing the now-familiar through her eyes was also instructive, and this post is about some of those observations (pt1).

Kate arrived with a foot infection that worsened over several days, leading to multiple interactions with pharmacists and eventually (successfully) the Emergency Room – every single person was so kind, concerned, helpful and warm. And I felt proud! You can, of course, still find this generosity in the UK, especially in the north of England and outside major cities, but it struggles against the pressures of business and rotten wages and the long years of austerity which have barely touched Australia despite various pleas to tighten belts.

I also had a great time doing touristy things that turned out to not so touristy after all. I assumed Katoomba’s  Scenic World would be some kind of sub-Disney tat, but it was brilliant. The thrill seekers took the funicular down and made their way briskly to the Up transport, abandoning the temperate rainforest of the valley floor for us to explore. The interwoven strands of roots and 19th C mining cables were poignant, like traces of a lost civilisation, which I suppose they are.



Admittedly the Jenolan Caves did look more like Disneyworld, on the surface at least, with a kind of Tyrolean look that seemed tenuously connected to the site and its Indigenous stories. But once underground, the magic was way beyond Walt’s imagination, with delicate organic structures as mysterious and beautiful – and old – as this land. Like a visit to the body of the Earth, folded and dark. The guide told the origin stories with such feeling our group of gawkers fell silent and let the tale seep into us like the crystal drips we could hear in the background. And then we emerged to the Blue Lake and fell silent again.

Jenolan Caves


Blue Lake

A day on Jamie’s boat, an 1879 Dutch sailing barge, with dad, Kate, Jamie’s partner, Cathy, and dogs Spanner and Frankie.imageimageimageimageimage

Walking through Mayfair on a warm afternoon. I was here in 68. image

matisse at Tate Modern imageimage

Lunch with Leah.  imageimage

The drivers seat on the DLR.imageimage

Flynn’s parkour palace down at old East India docks, a part of London that feels like Brazil, but has a tiny pocket of community on Trinity Buoy Wharf.  imageimageimageimage

I moved out of London in 1993, first on an experimental basis, to do an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, then permanently, a year later,  to take up a position at the university of Central Lancashire. So I’ve been a visitor to my home town for the past 21 years. But until moving to Australia in 2011, such visits to family and friend were pretty regular, only a few hours drive or train journey.

Now it’s an annual event and I’m finding that place has usurped chronology in my personal story-telling. Having been struck by the Indigenous emphasis on land not time as the main unifying narrative, a recent trip to London has illustrated how this works for me.  Every bus journey takes me through a jumble of pasts: that supermarket was the swimming pool where I learned to swim; I kissed a boy there, broke my heart here; saw Hendrix there; got drunk, got sober, worked, organised, lived, here, there, then.

None of my memories of Australia are more than two and half years old; London is scored through four decades.

Watching cop shows on the ABC here, I know from the colour of the house bricks exactly where the body is buried; can still tell north from south London accents (and loved it when the recorded announcement at Waterloo, in contrast to the usual posh advice to mind the gap, told us the next platform was dahn the escalators). This knowledge carries a poignancy, as it’s quite redundant in a new country. Who cares?

Then, walking through Regent’s Park with a friend one summer evening last week, describing the loss of this personal history, she laughed and said ‘how liberating’ and I realised she was right. I see people living in mausoleums to their own histories, defined by what they’ve been, not what they are. (And I am not immune to this – with 5 boxes of memorabilia in transit as I write.) I need to go home at least once a year to be with people who know me in the way only family and ancient friends can know you (my father recalled a childhood scene at the (long gone) Primrose Hill swings where my oppressed little sister surrendered her place to me& waited her turn –  only to be grandly informed  that ‘we don’t do turns any more’ ).

But it’s rather marvellous to come back to somewhere that tastes of the future.


Since I first arrived in later 2011, I’ve been meaning to compile a list of everyday words from conversation and media previously unfamiliar to me. If I don’t start now, I’ll forget …. Haven’t looked up their origins, so this is my translation, may correct and update later.

  • Stoush – stand off, argument (usually political)
  • Spruik – promote, somewhat shamelessly
  • A stand-over guy – thug, heavy
  • peak body – professional association
  • Eskie – coolbox ( for beers, natch)
  • pollies – politicians

General rule – take first syllable and add ‘o’ to form new word, as in rego (registration), servo (service station), arvo (afternoon) etc.

or ‘ie’, as in pollies (politicians), rellies (relatives), schoolies (end of school year holidays)



  • bludger – as in dole bludger
  • furfy – not sure, some kind of fraud


And today,  the lovely Jane Mills sent me this link to a wonderful guide to Strine, which answers everything.


Went to see John Pilger’s documentary Utopia yesterday, which  argues that nothing has changed in the apartheid treatment of First peoples since his 1985 book and film, The Secret Country,  and been reflecting on it ever since. At the end of the film, which was applauded by the audience at Mount Vic Flicks, a woman stood up and suggested we sign up to ‘do something’. I put down my name and joined some of the discussion on the street outside, all of us shamed and enraged.

But overnight, unease has crept into my response.

Reading The Secret Country  was part of my preparation for coming to Australia, so the content wasn’t entirely new. Since then I’ve seen much better, more forensic journalism on issues such as deaths in custody, like The Tall Man, a shocking case mentioned in passing by Pilger but not examined.  On the other hand, I had never seen the interview with Lang Hancock, mining magnate and father of Gina Rhinehart, Australia’s richest person, in which he advocates sterilising the water in Indigenous communities so they would ‘breed out’ – a tactic practised by early settlers who poisoned wells to clear land for their own use – but shocking to see in colour TV.

Nor was I aware of the role of the ABC news programme, Lateline, in generating the panic about abused children in Aboriginal communities that triggered the armed Intervention in the Northern Territory – an issue I would like to know much more about as one problem with this film is you can’t quite trust Pilger as a reliable source.  He does take a position and then gather interviews and footage that support him – and yet, and yet, I don’t want to join the ranks of those accusing him of failure to be objective, the sin of partisan journalism, as in this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald,

Partisan or advocate journalism has an important role in exposing the horrors Pilger finds in neglected communities, lacking electricity, water and basic amenities in the heart of one of the world’s richest countries. And because he seeks them out, he finds wonderful people with moving stories to tell, like Arthur Murray and his wife who spent their lives seeking explanation for the death of their young son decades ago. These stories are not on Australian TV and they should be – indeed it will be interesting to see what happens when – if? – Utopia is broadcast here. I know it created shock waves when shown in the UK, as everyone I spoke to in the following week or so mentioned it. Clearly the plight of many Aboriginal communities was news to those whose views of Australia are grounded in posters of beaches and Neighbours (just as many Aussies would be horrified at life on Britain’s sink estates, after gorging on a diet of Downton Abbey).

But, but, but. Another part of me thinks First Australians deserve better coverage than this. Instead of the generalised overview of Aboriginal-European relations since 1788, closer investigation of particular incidents might have shed more light. A minister, Warren Snowden, is harangued not interviewed, so his points regarding policy impacts for the future are lost not refuted. The SBS series, Dirty Money, Inside Australia’s mining business spells out much more clearly than Pilger does how government and industry contrived to evict peoples from mineral-rich lands over the past century and into the present, using interview, archival film and high research standards. It also documents the courageous resistance which actually led to the reversal of some of these land grabs. This voice of Aboriginal agency seems underplayed in Utopia. The documentary on Aboriginal history which moved me most was 88, which records activism and collectivity, including solidarity from white workers and other supporters.

One remark which hit home was the scathing comment about a Bradford woman who thought her experience with Pakistani communities would be relevant in the Western Australian prison system ( an enormous holding operation for Aboriginals) – at which the local movie audience laughed. It was assumed this meant she thought people of Pakistani origin shared cultural issues with First Australians –  but what if she meant that any public servant in the UK has to deal with institutional racism in its structure and processes and that this experience had made her more aware of her own prejudices and those of the systems she was operating in? The point is not about similarities between oppressed minorities but similarities among the systems of oppression and those that operate them. Now that’s a debate that’s barely started.