Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita

It’s a complete mystery why Gaita’s two Romulus books are so little read. Perhaps if he’d called them #1 and #2, with the hope for people that there would be a #7 and a #34.

I cannot do justice to this book, an elegant but simple, sorrowful but not, self-contained whilst being wide open to the world, recollection of his father. I guess the general unknown of this outside Australia is a spurning of the edge of the world in part. But most problematic is that people only want to read biography of Important People. The Importance can be the way of utter triviality, but it has to be public. Big.

Romulus, however, isn’t Important. He is only important. And apparently that doesn’t cut it. I’m not going to write about the book, I could not possibly do justice to it, a point on which I have brooded over the past months since reading it. So, to resort to vulgarity, it’s a fucking amazing book and anybody who reads it must come out the other end a better person. If enough people read it, at the end the world would be a better world.

Update: 1 February 2017 I return to Gaita thinking if there is something in the world to neutralise that evil we see playing out around the world now, it is surely his works.

The rest I wrote some years before I managed to read the book.

Update: 26 March 2011 walking around London. The Westminster city council has decided that homeless people should find somewhere else to be. So, as well as declaring that the homeless will no longer make the city their home, the Council has told charities that they aren’t allowed to feed the homeless any more. My friend S-L who told me this said that the Council did that to get rid of pigeons, now they are doing it with human beings. Attention Londoners, no feeding the homeless.

Lady Di is quickly forgotten. I don’t they they would have dared do this if she were alive.

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Lost on the way to the theatre this evening, a chap stopped to direct us. After we moved on, Henrietta said how nervous she was, the guy was a drug addict. He looked like a perfectly ordinary chap to me, but she insisted. Maybe because I’ve shared my life intimately with drug addicts from time to time, I see them differently. If a drug addict wants to rob you, which was her fear, it is only because society for no good reason cripples these people financially. If drugs were ‘free’ or thereabouts, nobody would be robbed to pay for them. It seems to me a reason to be outraged on their behalf, rather than scared of them.

As we were walking along I talked to her about my experiences on Grey St, St Kilda. It was a street I travelled up and down daily for six months or so while I was living at one end of it, my PO Box at the other. It is a strip full of crazy people, mostly men, and to begin with I felt as nervous as she did. It didn’t take long for me to realise, however, these were human beings. Ordinary human beings. Strange to think that we fear people simply because they are powerless, that we somehow invest power into their powerlessness. Strange to think we are scared of people because they have nothing and live on the street. So, before long, these were people I knew, not in any intimate way, but in that sense you do people you see every day. We’d smile, nod, say hello. I might add that these people were empathetic. They were quite capable of ignoring you if they felt that is what you wanted.

As I’m telling all this to Henrietta, who believes not one word of it, I was regretting not walking along there anymore. I’m now torn between thinking that would be a lovely thing to do, but wishing to stay away from a place that has memories that are sometimes painful to evoke. I seem to be scared of making the trip.

Back from the theatre, I continue something I’ve been doing the last couple of days: reading what I can of Gaita online, having watched the film Romulus, My Father over a couple of nights. I come to this point. The Sacred Heart Mission is in the heart of Grey Street and accounts for the nature of the street’s inhabitants:

In the same week that Romulus, My Father received a literary award, with all the glamour attached to such ceremonies, I read from it at the Sacred Heart Mission, in St. Kilda, reluctantly, for I was aware that people came for lunch, not for literature. At one stage a man, obviously mentally ill, called for me to stop. He raised his head, which he had held in his hands and exclaimed “God is in this book!” Remembering the times I had worked in mental hospitals, I was anxious about what he would say next. “I mean, that it’s filled with love”, he explained. His words moved me deeply. I remembered the day when my father and Vacek visited me at school. That tribute, by a man destitute of all worldly goods and achievements, quite without status or prestige and also quite mad, moved me, gratified me and convinced me of the worth of what I had done more than all the accolades the book has received.

I hope you all now understand that you must see this movie, read this book. And take a walk down Grey St if you can.

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a sort of book that perplexes me, a gentle English style which I just can’t take to, and I don’t understand why. And so, despite the high regard in which it is held, it seems awfully written to me in every respect. As far as structure goes, I genuinely thought, when I turned the page at the end, that I was into part two, but it turned out that it was finished and that ‘part two’ was an entirely different  novel. It just stops in a way which makes the end of Alice Munro stories seem polished and careful. ‘Enough of this novel, be gone with you’!

I couldn’t believe the characters. Outstandingly Tilda, of course, who is six but has the vocabulary, context and maturity of a forty year old. I should be able to believe in that. I was charmed when my niece’s son at the age of two, said to me ‘Thank you, they were absolutely delicious’ big smile on his face. I wished I’d been there when, still aged two, he said to his grandmother who was running late ‘Shake your arse, grandma.’ At that age he would follow adult dinner conversation intently and ask you to slow down if he wasn’t quite with it. I watched my nephew besotted with Tom Lehrer at about six years old and at the same age reading The Odyssey (adult version) and clearly following every word as he regaled people with the story in great detail.

But I still don’t believe in Tilda or any of those around her. In my mind’s eye I can’t summon up the slightest hint of a picture of Richard. Or Nenna. Or her husband.

As I read it, I felt like it was written by someone who knew a lot about boats and living on the Thames. It turns out that’s because Fitzgerald did. And she had a life she could bring into this story, the kids are based on her own, the fictional (ex?)-husband has issues which came from her own marriage. The poverty and the damp and the lack of schooling for her kids. All true. How could it all leave me so unmoved then when turned into a story?

Well, I don’t know. I haven’t done with Penelope for good, I’m starting another right now. But it’s by Lively not Fitzgerald. And I’m afraid that my lovely Everyman Library copy of Offshore combined with another copy of small novels of hers, is on the pile for the English book stand at the market.

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Until my dying day I will remain mystified by whether Peter Carey is a writer once good, gone bad, or whether I was seduced by home-sickness into adoring Illywhacker.

This is awful, I’d like to hand it over to Reger of Old Masters to properly trash it to death. I have no need to rant about it myself, plenty of others have expressed their bemusement online. But I felt need to note that I tried and that any failure is not, in my opinion, the fault of the reader.

I do wish I hadn’t wasted valuable book buying funds on this one.

After watching Under Milk Wood

I watched Guy Masterton’s amazing Under Milk Wood in Adelaide some years ago (back for two performances at the 2016 Adelaide Fringe, it’s a must see if you are in town).

As it happened, the next day in a comments thread on goodreads somebody said they were waiting for someone to write a story called “Slow Thighs” – from the poem “The Second Coming”. Apparently they are about the only words in the poem that haven’t been used.

So, in bed, still cocooned in the words of Under Milk Wood, I wrote this over the next two minutes.

A just woken up haven’t had a cup of tea yet poem.

Slow thighs wait. Patient.
Wait for man. Men. A man.
And should they chance upon one,
Open up, invite him into the dark of darkness, that sloe black,
Slow black place where he dreams wicked and
In that dark of dark places cries out
As he becomes impossibly light.
He floats away.
And slow thighs wait, patient, for him to return
For the Second Coming.

Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitters ed. Ann Hood

This isn’t a book, it’s a piece of crochet, haphazardly put together from random squares of indifferent colour combinations.

We may take a moral from it: no number of highly qualified birds does a swallow make.

This book has prize-winning and NYT best selling authors coming out of its what’s it. But in the end it is that creature to be avoided at all costs, the one to which, ironically, knitting never descends: the crocheted blanket squares. The one everybody’s grandmother made and 99% of the time they are a hodgepodge of the consequences of ‘waste not, want not’ with no concern whatsoever for the general notion of aesthetics or any particular person’s sensibilities. Uggggh.

I cringed every time I read one of these writers talk about how amazingly impossible it is to knit and how they took twenty years, or isolation with their grandmother or some other extreme measure to learn – that’s those who succeeded. Quite a few of them took up astro physics or open heart surgery instead because you know. Knitting is SO HARD.

It’s not that I don’t want to sympathise. I can look back to my first knitting day, my complete frustration because I couldn’t figure out for myself how to do purl, this being just pre-internet – that is, there is no longer any excuse. But Simon showed me how and Simon hadn’t even knitted before, he’d simply watched women knit 50 years earlier when he was a young boy and remembered. With all due respect to Simon, this means knitting is NOT THAT HARD.

Like most things in life, becoming a wonderfully accomplished practitioner is hard, but becoming competent is SO NOT HARD.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sympathise with women talking about how it took them hours and hours and hours and years and generations to learn how to wind a bit of string over a stick. It’s a time for embarrassment, not sympathy.

I wanted to sympathise with the writer who ended up giving somebody something that was complete shit, suddenly in the zen of the notion that it’s THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS. But I can’t. If that’s the thought: I’ve given you something perfect and you give me in return something shit, I get the thought and it isn’t pretty. It’s insulting. My friends reading this please take note. I never want to get a lousy meal in return for a good one, a lousy scarf in return for a beautiful one, a crap book in return for a magnificent work of art. Please give me nothing. I will take the message that you care. Not as much as if you’d given me something lovely, but more than if you’d given me something crappy. IMPORTANT NOTE: anybody reading this who is under the age of six is excluded from the above principle.

I wanted to sympathise with the people talking about how knitting got them through things. How it marked moments. I have those too. I have a jumper I was knitting when a friend called to say his partner had died. I knitted a mistake into the jumper. That’s happened to me more than once. I couldn’t knit hats for a long time because the first hats I knitted were for my father who was having chemo. Even after he was dead, the association was there for years.

But sympathy rarely came. I felt throughout like I was reading bits and pieces provided out of obligation or a deadline. There are a few pieces in this book that are genuinely moving or interesting, but most of it isn’t any more than a blog entry put into a book. This is not to deprecate the notion of a blog entry, this, after all, being one. But a piece on a blog fits into it in some way, it is there on a day for a reason, it may provide light or shade or reflect in the very immediate present, like this moment here, some emotion of the moment. It may simply provide surprise. Whereas this collection is an odd combination of ill-fitting pieces that nonetheless have a same, same, same quality. Maybe that means it should be dipped into rather than read.

I gave this book to two knitters last year before reading it myself. Sorry about that.

The Philosopher as Expert by Richard Rorty

This is an essay which anybody who has ever regaled a professional philosopher should read. It will make you snort with laughter as Rorty tells you exactly how it is, these guys in their glass castles having obscure debates about nothing that matters, when we all know that philosophy is about the things that do matter. Well, it should be anyway, right? It’s lost its way, it used to be vital, now it’s irrelevant. We all know it except the professional philosophers and you have to wonder why they are so thick that they don’t get it.

So, there you are, chortling away, thinking how hilarious Rorty is, and how brilliantly he has captured what makes you right and them wrong, when at some point you start thinking you didn’t laugh at all on that page and you turn and, well, you don’t laugh on this one either, or when you do, it’s getting a bit half-hearted, and you note that you are still there on the page, but shit, somehow Rorty is starting to explain that you are a complete arse-hole, an ignorant narrow-mindeded bigot of an amateur philosopher. He explains exactly what philosophy is, so that even you can understand it and understand why it is doing exactly what it should be doing. And why every time you told a professional philosopher his business, you were being a complete dick.

I don’t know if I will get to the book that comes with the essay, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but for the first time in my life I have half a clue what philosophy is and why it’s important. What a pity there does not seem to be anything in the way of a Rorty-Feynman exchange. One cannot help feeling Feynman would have been put in his place too.

You can find the essay here.

Harry Harrison and Christopher Fowler: aka the good bad and the bad bad.

Deathworld I admit it. Harry Harrison’s bad style irritated me. For a while. Mainly it was these. The short sentences. If you can call them that. Sentences.

I did manage after some encouragement from the ranks to get over that and I’m glad I did. It’s a good bad-book. The Wildside edition I read was horribly proofread, but not nearly as badly as the academic books I’ve been reading lately. Nothing, at any rate, that distracted me from a punchy story, good characterisation as sci fi goes and a really interesting idea for world in which the story takes place.

As it happens I next picked up The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. I thought this was going to be another good bad-book for a few pages, but it doesn’t take long to discover it’s a bad bad-book. Really so bad on all levels that I don’t know what I find more mystifying: that is is consistently praised on goodreads or that it is the tenth in a series. The tenth! It’s messy, heavy handed, repetitive, characters so badly drawn that one never recognises any of them and this in turn adds to the confusion of dialogue set out so that it is impossible, as a rule, to tell who is speaking. In fact it’s the first thing I’ve read that makes me wonder if Harry Potter might be well written after all. Yeah. Maybe I should upgrade HP to a good bad-book.