Why the Aussie elections are so important this year: an introduction for the unwary

It’s one of those Mondays. I say this with much care and I’m drinking much coffee. Normally I would give you a book post on a Monday, but Australia’s much-awaited (by us, anyhow) election was called yesterday. This is not just any election. It’s our last opportunity to move away from rabid and corrupt politics. It matters. I asked if that meant I should post about it and Nancy Jane Moore said, “Yes, please.”

I’m doing two posts. The first one is on my Monday and the second is will be posted when Monday finally hits the US. One is about our parties, and the other will talk you through our electoral system. All the cool stuff is in this post, and I introduce the parties. I’m not hiding my opinions – you can see where my vote is likely to go if you read carefully.

First, you need to know that, in Australian popular opinion, our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, belongs in the same crowd as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. When Trump was US President, the two acted as if they were best friends. Morrison is a fundamentalist Christian of the prosperity theology variety and, until a few weeks ago, was publicly a close friend of Brian Houston, the Hillsong leader who is currently on trial.

Until a few years ago, Australia was on various lists as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Right now we’re not even considered close to achieving such an honour. In the last ten years, international influence and local decisions by the ruling party and their allies have pushed us away from our cultural standard.

How did this happen?

Just one example will explain it. In the last three years we’ve not had a week without a disaster of enormous magnitude. The Federal government put money aside to help and didn’t spend the vast bulk of it. In fact, a few weeks ago, the newspapers told us that the government had earned $800,000 on interest on unspent disaster relief. State governments have taken the brunt of getting people through disasters such as bushfires, floods, and the pandemic. Because they were promised Federal help and only a tiny fraction of the promised help came, we still have people who are living in caravans because they received none of the promised help when the 2019-20 bushfires ripped through territory the size of Syria. Some of these people have been evacuated (or even died) when the floods hit their town this year.

This is unheard of for Australia. We used to be outstanding at getting people through natural disasters with ridiculously low death tolls. We now don’t even have proper Federal policies to handle the natural disasters, and the government keeps cutting back support of the scientists who predict them and all the various bodies who normally find ways of dealing.

That’s just a small part of a complex picture. Australia is moving from being a laid-back country that really tries to do its bit, to a somewhat corrupt oligarchy. We still have our base culture, but I don’t think we can handle three more years of this culture being intentionally ground underfoot.

May 21, as you can see, is an important election. It will decide who we are and whether we care about people, about the land… about anything other than a small group of individuals making much money. The current deputy leader, theoretically representing rural Australians, has said quite clearly that money is more important than anything else. Farmers are one of his chief voting blocs, and he makes it clear he doesn’t care.

How we got this way has an interesting and sad history. It follows the same path as the changes in the US Republicans, and some of the same factors are at play. I don’t want to talk about that here. Instead, let me introduce you to who is standing for election. Our parties are not what they look like to non-Australians: their names are, to be honest, not that intuitive.

 

LNP – Liberal National Party, or the Coalition. This is the party currently in power. They are most definitely right wing.

‘Liberal’ in Australia has always referred to the small government (or smaller government) party, but these days it is the party that supports the coal and gas industries and is, to be fair, well-supported by those industries in return. In the sixties and seventies they supported cheap or free education. The free education was brought into play by the Labor party, and is the reason no-one my age ever suffered from university debts. The Liberals kept it when the Labor party was voted out. It was a Liberal leader (Malcolm Fraser) who was in charge when I was an undergraduate, and made sure that I paid no tuition fees. I paid student union fees (less than $100 a year) and for books, and anyone without income got Austudy , which was not quite enough to live on, but Austudy and a part-time job got most students through university with no debt at all. These days students emerge from undergraduate degrees between $20,000 and $100,000 in debt (or even higher) – it’s a choice between education and owning a house, even for most people who come from comfortable backgrounds.

These days the Liberals are, as I said earlier, quite right wing for the most part, despite the name. Even for a right wing party, they are light on addressing climate change, which is why Australia is labelled as bad on climate change – if you poll people’s opinions, dealing with it is important to us. It is not, however, important to our current leaders.

How does the LNP act in Parliament? One of my favourite clips (my least favourite clips make me want to weep): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7UCSpZB5Bo

 

Labor – currently the Opposition. Labor started off from the union movement. Unions are still much bigger in Australia than in the US, and considerably more powerful, though less than they used to be. It was, originally, definitely left wing but has drifted towards the right in recent years. Let me be clear, though – right wing in Australia is not the same as the US right.

The spelling of the name is due to one of their early leaders, King O’Malley. He was very important in the days when Australia became independent and he founded a party and… he was American. This is why the name of the party uses US spelling. Canberra (our national capital, where I live) reacts to this naming in its own way. O’Malley was a teetotaller, so a pub was named after him. I have met friends at King O’Malley’s many times and each and every time someone makes a joke about the spelling of Labor.

The party is now centre left (mostly) and centre right (increasingly often). It’s not a left wing party. If someone from the US were describing it, however, they might call it ‘left wing’, because of the same factors that made the old-fashioned Liberals strong on education and social welfare. Education, health, social welfare, and owning a home are four dreams that a large number of Australians agree on. Almost all of us also agree on doing far more to prevent climate change than we currently attempt. State Labor parties have a (mostly) good record on this.

Federally, Labor haven’t been in power since September 2013, so their record on all issues at the federal level is tangled with the strange politics and voting patterns of Opposition. Labor has a history, in Parliament, of not shouting loudly against things they can’t change ie by voting agreement where nothing can be done, and saving the arguments for places they can make a change. They may be not-good on climate change, then, or they may just be biding their time.

Labor has the electoral advantage of everyone’s favourite politician (OK, maybe not everyone, but a surprising number of us). Penny Wong is wildly popular. She refuses to move to the House of Representatives and become leader and every few months people say, “But why???” She’s probably right on not trying for leadership. Most leaders have come from NSW, Victoria or Western Australia and she’s from South Australia. What’s more, the bigoted parts of Australia hate her as much as the rest of Australia loves her: she’s Malaysian Chinese Australian and gay. She is targeted by many, many bigots and the way she handles these people is one of the reasons she is so popular.

She is also popular because of how she handles difficult issues. We watch her for her facial expressions as much as her words and her attitude. When she looks at someone in Senate Estimates and waits a moment before saying something, a clip will be sent around social media, to illustrate a moment where someone not doing their job was forced to explain. Her ethics matter to us. Clips of Wong are always circulated when Senate Estimates (one of our methods for ensuring government accountability) is at work. Let me show you. First, something very everyday (and actually Senate Estimates, where Wong is seeking answers from a minister for things done): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ein2OPaX4GI It’s not the most colourful of the clips, but it shows the everyday work she does and why she’s liked. It also helps that she does things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5pxE4RXpjc

 

Greens – the next largest party (mostly). Until recently they were a bit gentler than the Greens in other countries, but these days they are fixed in their policies and have very strong views. They still get a lot of the left wing vote, but some of us would really like it if they listened and were a bit more adaptable.

Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and other leaders of small right wing parties. We have them in abundance. They get up to 15% of the vote in some states and some elections. They’re a story in and of themselves. They’re important politically, but can also be problematic. The old White Australia is best represented in these parties.

 

Independents: not new at all, but a particular type of independent candidate, based on grass roots decisions in a given electorate, is gaining a bigger voice than previously. These candidates are the main reason this election is impossible to call. Their colour is teal and many of them get backing from groups such as Climate 200 – addressing  climate change is one of the few policies they all totally agree on. Much of this voice belongs to the centre-right and their supporters used to be the core voters of the Liberal Party. This election is going to be one to watch, because if these independents do well, then several ministers are in danger of losing their seats.

The Liberals are so worried about them that two Liberal candidates have shifted the blue of the party in all their advertising to a shade closer to teal and one took his party’s name off some of his corflutes. The Liberals are not just fighting Labor for a majority: an interesting number of them are fighting for previously secure seats. In the 2019 election Zali Steggall (an ex-Olympic skier) defeated the previous prime minister in his own seat. Several of the “Voices of…” (the official term for the new grassroots candidates) are ex-journalists or sportspeople.

In Canberra, I don’t know yet if there are any standing for the lower house (the election was only called yesterday), but there are independents standing for the Senate, and one of them is, indeed an ex-sportsman, David Pocock. He’s not part of the teal people, but he is the leading candidate to challenge our Liberal senator (whose name is Zed, which isn’t nearly as funny in US English as it is in Australian English – for us ‘zed’ is the final letter of the alphabet) and the moment a particular picture of him was circulated, his vote increased enough to make people start to pay attention to him. He now has an audience for his policies, but for such an Australian reason.

This is not a complete introduction, but I’ve run out of time. When I meet a couple of deadlines, I will write you the next post, and you can see why the election is so soon and some of the mechanics behind our system. In some ways it’s very different to the system is the vast majority of democracies. Almost every vote counts here. And we have democracy sausages.

Watch this space.

Raised in a Barn: Blocks

Part of the reason my father wanted to own a Barn was so that he could experiment with it. Try things out. Like trapezes. Or gardens. Some of his experiments worked brilliantly; some of them, not so much. One of the more interesting ones was a floor treatment, if that’s what you could call it. Dad cut one-inch slices of 2x4s to use as tiles in the front entry room, what we called the tack room (in the days when the Barn was a working barn, it was where various animal-related gear had been stored). It was a good experiment, a sort of prototype. Dad had big plans, see. For the kitchen. Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: Blocks”

Going to The Theater

I’m going to New York in June, and just bought tickets to see Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man. I am ridiculously excited about it.

The first show I saw on Broadway was Oliver! with the original cast: Georgia Brown, Clive Revill, Jed Allen, David Jones (pre-Monkees). I don’t remember who actually played Oliver.  I was… maybe nine? I already knew the score (we had cast albums by the dozens in my house, and I was sponge-like in my tendency to scoop up songs and commit them to memory). I dressed up to go to the theatre (which is what one did in those far-off days) and went with–my grandmother, I think. Or my grandmother and my parents, and my brother. Aside from the bragging rights and the pleasure of the show, seeing Oliver! marked my change from a pure consumer of theatre to a theatre kid. And while the performances were wonderful (Clive Revill’s Fagin was juicy in his evil glee) what really got me was the stagecraft.

By which I mean: I’d seen theatrical productions before–mostly kids’ shows–but this was full-blown Broadway, and this show did things I did not believe you could do live. Continue reading “Going to The Theater”

Difficult thoughts

Today’s book is a slow read, an absorbing one, and occasionally a very difficult one. It’s Polin, volume 22. Polin is a series of studies of Jewish history from a particular region. Polin 22 looks at social and cultural boundaries, mainly from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. I’m taking a break from it because reading about the blood libel sucks. It always does. If my life were easier I’d not have to even think about it, but I can’t consider space and boundaries without considering those where there is intentional transgression.

Imagine someone making up a nasty lie. Imagine people being killed over it. Other people say “It’s a nasty lie.” People who support those who invented the lie in the first place don’t listen to the proof of it being a lie, but add torture to the questions posed to prove the victims have done the thing they actually didn’t do. The question in this chapter, I suspect, is whether the innocent people who are being blamed for this thing they didn’t do die from the torture or from the punishment.

I’m reading it to understand how the trial could even take place and how it operates. Is there even a modicum of fairness or justice? None. Not a skerrick. This is why I need to understand the trial itself. This is the chapter I need a break from.

The thing that stopped me in my tracks was the way questioning was done, before any torture. The subject was sprinkled with Christian holy water and forced to wear Christian religious items and made to eat some blessed salt and to say a Psalm. This was to defeat any Jewish lies he might tell. All the alleged child-killer (who was guilty only of being Jewish, and who murdered no-one) did was repeat the same simple truth: there was no requirement in Judaism to drink the blood of children, and it was something that no Jew would ever do. Over and over again he was forced to explain this and over and over again it was disbelieved. I’ve seen reports from blood libel trials where the Jew was blamed even when the child appeared, perfectly alive.

The whole blood libel was an invention and still is, today. When I was accused of it in primary school and of eating unleavened bread that contained the blood of newborn Christian children, I brought a whole box of matzah to school, and made the accusers read the ingredients on the box. The ingredients were water, flour and salt. I was told I was a liar, but other children were there and they passed the box around and everyone read the ingredients aloud. Primary school children believe in the printed word and someone (not one of the accusers) took some of the matzah out of the box, ate it, and we began to talk about its flavour. That particular episode was finished for that moment. My trial was very light.

The chapter brought back that memory. There was no way out for the three on trial in this case. Innocence was irrelevant, but likewise so was the concept of evidence.

At first I kept reading, despite the gut punch because I found a piece of evidence I hadn’t seen before (I wasn’t looking for it, to be honest) and I stopped to think. I wondered… how much of the nineteenth century “Keep vampires away” tricks began as “Keep Jews away.” I’m not sure I want to find out.

I have to read it, because it’s telling me important things about what happens when Jews are victimised at a time and place when things were pretty good, compared with other times and places. I’ll get through it and then take a deep breath and, from the moment the next chapter begins, I’ll be less full of misery. Something deep inside me hurts, every time I read a trial record or a description of one where everything is set up to make the innocent look guilty.

The next chapter is by one of my favourite scholars. I’ve never met her, but I read anything I can get hold of by her. I can’t get hold of much, being in the wrong corner of a far-flung globe, but… I want to skip straight to the Carlebach chapter on a chronograph. I want to skip seeing people hurt and enjoy contemplating time and space.

I’m going to return to reading and I’m going to finish the chapter. That’s the fastest way of not carrying the weight of history on my shoulders.

Raised in a Barn: When Cracks Become Visible

Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: When Cracks Become Visible”

Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.

Why?

It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.

Influenza and Harper Lee

One of these things is not like the other.

Generally I have two books going at any given time: one on my phone (for reading when I go to and from work) and one paper-based book at home for reading when I have a moment (mostly but not always before bed). And generally they’re fiction–unless I’m researching something or a book catches my eye. Two books caught my eye recently: I just finished The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry, and The Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep. They made for very interesting co-tenants in my head.

I have always been fascinated by pandemics, medical history, and public health stories–yes, even before COVID took over our lives. Barry’s book, which is big and comprehensive, covers not only the origin of medical science in the US (it’s hair-raising to learn how recently many “doctors” didn’t actually study medicine, and those who did never saw patients or studied anything as rarified as anatomy) but the context–politically, socially, and scientifically–that allowed the 1918 pandemic to wreak the kind of havoc it did. Continue reading “Influenza and Harper Lee”

Sometimes it takes sophistication to learn to write simply

Today I wandered around my bookshelves until I found a book that made me dream. Nostalgia is one of the better side-effects of the pandemic.

Recently I’ve been working away and trying to understand how writers develop worlds for novels. I started thinking about language and rhetoric decades ago, and my research now is where that track has led me. One of my big moments of “Oh, this is so much something I need to understand” came when I was studying in Toronto in 1983-84. I was doing a Masters in Medieval Studies and one of my teachers was Sister Frances. She told her favourite student pope jokes and she taught the rest of us Medieval literature and rhetoric.

The book I have before me right now is a tiny paperback, published in 1967. Unlike most of my old paperbacks, it’s held together very well. It was one of my textbooks for that class, and I’ve referred to it many times since, so I can’t help thinking that, for a sixties paperback, it’s very robust. I would like my old age to be robust, but I’m not made that way. It’s a translation of Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova, and the translator was Margaret F. Nims, who was, in fact, Sister Frances.

I made sure, decades ago, that no-one could steal this little volume. I didn’t write my name in it. I printed a little label using a pseudo-Medieval font and an old dot matrix printer (it was a brand-new excitingly innovative printer in 1985) and the label reads:

Yee that desyre in herte and have pleasaunce

Olde stories in bokis for to rede

Gode matteres putt hem in remembraunce

And of the other take ye more hede

Whanne yee this boke have over-reade and seyne

To Gillian Polack restore yee hit ageyne.

I meant to commission several new sticky labels from artist friends for all my more recent books. I still want to do this, when I find the money.

Let me talk you through some of the reasons I love this volume.

Poetria Nova is a guide for writers by someone who knew his stuff. It taught me that it’s more important to be readable than to show off my erudition. The author shows off his erudition to write a manual, which makes good sense given the time and place of its writing. Also given its form, because it was written as a poem. It is, however, not a quick or easy read, even in English translation.

Anyone who looks hard enough into my fiction will see all kinds of daft allusions, because I am the kind of person who enjoys putting Easter eggs in my novels, but Geoffrey de Vinsauf taught me that showing off matters intellectual is secondary to ease of reading. In my dreams, my writing is elegant and learned and full of sophistication (and Easter eggs), but if readers don’t want to continue reading, then elegance and learning and sophistication are completely wasted.

Sister Frances taught me to look for the underlying rules and work out why they were applied to that kind of writing before thinking to dump them. The Poetria Nova is one of the sets of rules she used to explain this. She was explaining why rhetoric is so important to writers, and she had us apply rhetorical theory to some beautiful Middle English poems, which is why that particular rhyme marks that particular volume.

I decided I was incapable of writing poetry because I learned what was hidden by the words in just four poems. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I learned that knowing theory doesn’t improve writing unless the theory can be applied. It’s important to write and practise and create to make the theory so much a part of one’s being that the focus can be on using it to bring the world and the people who live in that world to life.

When I first read the manual, it looked like an awful lot of rules that were only good for people who like applying rules. Nearly forty years later and I can look at a rule and across to my fiction and see where it makes a difference. The thing is… I don’t apply the rules mechanically. I’ve learned (through the ‘part of one’s being bit) hear the music in the words and see the pictures they create. That’s when I’m writing at my best. I merely try to do this most of the time. The trying, though, is where the learning happens.

I don’t explain rhetoric at great length. I haven’t for years. Decades, even. I used to be able to, but not doing so means I’ve lost a lot of the words and concepts. There is, however, a few words I’ve used over and over again in teaching. This bit reminds me of the reasons for the rest. It gives me a structure to play with when I sit down to write.

The text is about the concept of structure, to be honest. It’s the idea that the order we set something down reflects the needs of what we’re writing about and makes it easier for a reader to understand what we’re saying. This is particularly important to me because my brain doesn’t work in a lineal fashion and I often have to re-order ideas to make them make sense. Knowing that there is an ideal order of words and of ideas for any type of writing helps me step back and ask how I should be writing and how I should be editing. There isn’t a single ideal order for all types of writing – writing is a wonderfully fluid and dynamic thing in that way – understanding genre means understanding what order of words and ideas work within a given genre.

The perfect order changes according to what we write, and Geoffrey of Vinsauf gives examples of how to start different types of stories. I tested all his opening styles, just the once. Medieval rhetoric is an imperfect vehicle for modern writing, but it was a lot of fun to translate into openings for novels. Since then I’ve been fascinated by openings and what they do and how they work and how they change over time and for different types of story.

One of my biggest issues with the openings of many modern novels I’ve read is that they introduce the first thirty or so pages perfectly, but not the rest of the book. It’s as if the writer has been trying for a perfect hook for a reader, then followed up that perfect hook for enough time to bait the publisher… but has forgotten that the whole novel should fall neatly into line. I feel betrayed when this hurts the whole story.

What is that bit of the text I use in teaching? It’s just a few words in the middle of the section on Amplification and Abbreviation. Geoffrey is talking about description:

“So let the radiant description descend from the top of her head to her toe, and the whole be polished to perfection.” I translate this to most modern styles as “If you need to move a character from one side of the room to another, find a way that adds to the story and doesn’t waste the moment. Isolate each element in order. Make every word count.”

I suspect most writers have books like this in our past. Not necessarily translations of Medieval technical manuals (our earlier selves always appear in our work, in their own way) but unexpected books all the same.

Sister Frances didn’t know I was a writer: I was very careful to keep that side of myself hidden from most of my lecturers in Medieval Studies. She nevertheless taught me more about writing than I learned from any other single lecturer in my whole varied academic career. Geoffrey de Vinsauf brings that back, every time, and, if it weren’t an unholy hour of the night here, I’d be hauling my volume of work by the Pearl-poet off the shelves right now and seeing what memories lurk in their lines.

Out of the Silence and into Culture Shock

Today I’m thinking about a group of older Australian science fiction and fantasy books. I’ve just finished writing them up for a magazine (several articles, will appear sometime in 2022) and I am just emerging from culture shock.

There’s a difference between reading something for fun and reading it with intent to analyse. The ‘intent to analyse’ means I have to delve into how the novel is put together, what it carries with it to the reader and a bunch more. It’s where my historian brain tackles my writer brain for my own work, and where my historian brain meets up with my editor and literary brain when I’m thinking more academically. To be honest, I have no idea if it’s possible to shift between different parts of myself in this way. I pretend I do, though, by changing my vocabulary and approach to the novels and working out which audience I’m writing for. Sometimes I go profoundly wrong in this, especially when I’m writing pure literary studies in the middle of writing novel myself, and editors have saved me from myself several times now.

Back to culture shock. The novel in question is out of copyright, so you can find a free copy and argue with what I’m saying here, or nod sagely, or simply get angry. It’s a good novel, but very much of its time. It’s Erle Cox’s Out of the Silence and was first published (as a newspaper serial) in 1919.

The thing about analysing a novel is that I’ve got to get under its skin and see how it works. This brings me up close and personal. When a story has a group of people who decide that their view of their own cultural superiority means they should commit genocide (as Cox’s novel did) I can’t politely distance myself and say, “Thank goodness I am not that person” and put the book down. I have to understand why the story was told in that way and that means reading deeply into it and analysing it word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence… I want to list all the different levels of one type of analysis and move on to another and generally prevaricate rather than address this subject. That’s how bad it is when you can’t say “I’m a superior being.”

The big question is, in this instance, why I couldn’t just say “I’m a superior being and this is something I don’t have to worry about.” I’ve seen any number of reviews and articles implying just this.

Firstly, a century later, it’s easy to see Cox’s prejudices. It’s easy to see that those who actually committed genocide were the baddies as Cox intended, but that all the good human beings were equally potentially culpable. It’s not so easy to see my own bias. Who do I condemn to a secondary position when they’re in my vicinity? How do I do this? I can explain Cox’s novel, but I’m in no position to judge Cox.

Secondly, as I said just a moment ago, Cox is of his time. He was born in 1873. During his lifetime his home state went from being a colony to being a part of Australia. In chronological order, during that same life, Ned Kelly (is Australia’s Jesse James a good description? Maybe…) was tried an executed. Women were given the vote. Many, many people Cox would have known would have died in World War I and then from the influenza pandemic after it. The Russian revolution and so many other world events changed the world as he knew it, and he saw so much of it, as a journalist. All of this was before he serialised the novel.

After he serialised the novel the world changed again and yet again. 1873-1950 is a heck of a time for a science fiction writer to live though. By the time the last edition of Out of the Silence was published (1947), Cox had seen more than one attempted genocide. His novel wasn’t prophetic – it simply turned into story what a journalist saw.

That’s the thing. We write science fiction about futures and about strange worlds. They always include us and are always about us. I can’t know if I have Cox’s level of prejudice against some people or his capacity to be honest about racism. I can say, having looked closely at his work, that he intended his novel to reveal uncomfortable truths and to help address them. I doubt if he saw his own biases clearly.

I need someone to analyse my work if I really want to know these things about myself. I do. I want to know.

It’s moments like this when honesty about ourselves when we read and analyse can bring the most uncomfortable truths into daylight, where it’s very hard to ignore them. This is the culture shock. It’s not the first time I’ve suffered from it, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. I hope I don’t ‘recover’ from it and bury these truths. Insights may sometimes be terribly uncomfortable, but both my own fiction and myself will be the better for this one.

Merlin and Benedeit Keep Appearing

It doesn’t matter what I do, Merlin appears, as if by magic. He even appeared over Christmas, as one of his stories has some very interesting parallels with a Jewish version of the life of Jesus. This led to (as night leads to day) me looking for the first Merlin-like book I could see on my shelves. It was a textbook.

Some textbooks discourage reading. Others say “Read this bit and then that, then go find the works I’ve introduced to you.” Merlin through the Ages (ed R.J. Stewart and John Matthews) is definitely one of the latter. I’ve never read the whole book. I have, however, read some of the works extracted. All the Medieval ones and just enough of the others so that I can (occasionally) feel as if I’m almost educated. I bought it when I was teaching this kind of subject and, even though I’ve no space for more books, I can’t get rid of it because… what if I need it again?

The reason I haven’t read it from beginning to end is partly because the type is tiny and partly because the table of contents is overwhelmingly male, but mostly because I have favourite Merlin stories elsewhere and every time I open this book (even when I was using it for teaching) I would have put it down within fifteen minutes. I didn’t put it down because the book was dull, but because I kept wanting to check something else. At least half the time, that something else was T.H. White. There is no extract from T.H. White in this book, you see, and I felt I owed him a re-read.

There was one other thing I did with this book. I came to it too late for it to be a source book for my first novel. Illuminations was based on medieval versions of a whole bunch of stories we take for granted, so this volume would have been perfect except… I’d already written a large chunk of the novel. I used Merlin through the Ages to remind myself of where I’d been in my research.

Just considering this takes me back to the actual research for the bits that were borrowed from the Middle Ages. I wandered through the stacks at Fisher Library and grabbed all the things I wanted to read that I had no real excuse to read, and I read them for my novel. To this day I don’t know why I thought that reading nineteenth century editions of Medieval stories was a holiday from reading all kinds of editions (and a bunch of manuscripts, not edited) of Medieval stories.

The story that got me started was Benedeit’s The Voyage of St Brendan, which I studied, word by word as part of my Masters degree. My edition of this is still sitting on the bookshelf. It was edited by Short and Merrilees, both of whom had the misfortune of teaching me. I might hand the Merlin compendium to someone who wants it more than I do and has better eyesight, but my Benedeit is going nowhere. I even slipped a quiet tribute to my teachers and to Benedeit into Illuminations.

I lard my novels with secret messages to books I love. This is, I think, a very good thing, even if I’m the only one who knows they’re there.