We were at Gnomesville the other day. Since the 1990s people have been leaving gnomes in the bush by the side of a round-about in a sparsely-populated corner of the Ferguson Valley. There’s thousands of gnomes spread around the trees and along the tracks. A few of the gnomes are broken but not many; I think the broken ones must be removed. One of the main stretches follows a seasonal creek-bed and the flat clear surface is filled with shiny new gnomes with dates from recent weeks written in texta. Perhaps, like me at first, they didn’t notice it was a creek. A good proportion of gnomes on higher ground are spattered with mud, survivors of at least one year of winter’s rains. Others were probably washed away.Continue reading
Tributes to writers who are dead always sadden me. I know how much better it would have been to appreciate their work when they were alive. But, today, I am happy to be talking about Miles Franklin, whose novels are among the finest written in Australia, and who still lives and works among us – glory be!
It’s Katharine Susannah Prichard, in a 1944 ABC broadcast about her friend Franklin. Captured in print in the year 2000 in Delys Bird’s edited selection, KSP: Stories, Journalism and Essays, it sounds ghostly: the “today” is ghostly; the “lives and works among us” is ghostly. Franklin had ten years left to be celebrated before she died, and Prichard a whole twenty-five. I hope they felt appreciated enough in their lifetime, but I don’t think either of them did.
Did Prichard imagine the posthumous tributes the people of the future might pay her? Would these imagined tributes have been any comfort to her, or only a sadness?
The Christian tradition talks of the “great cloud of witnesses” observing the living. The cloud is a metaphor but the concept is meant quite literally – the dead await the resurrection in the New Testament; their story is not done, their awareness is not finished. Yet even the NT does not talk much of a duty to remember the dead, beyond remembering the example of their faith. We remember them for our sake, not for their sake.
Prichard didn’t believe in life after death; she regarded all supernatural beliefs as superstitious. I can’t be paying tribute to her, then, for her sake. Or not exactly. Not “her” as a living being, but possibly “her” as our cultural memory of her. I can pay tribute to her as a dead person, occupying that peculiar state all the dead occupy. (It’s overwhelming to start trying to conceptualise just what a dead person is.)
We pay tribute to the writers of the past for other reasons than how it makes them feel. We do it because it deepens us. It recognises the reach of the dead into the present. It recovers a piece of the past, the best we can hope for, snatches and scenes of stories from the rubble.
‘Should he continue in the wide field of literature he will assuredly become one of our first writers of romance,’ wrote Launceston’s Daily Telegraph, reviewing journalist Thomas Prichard’s novel, Retaliation: An Early Tale of Melbourne (1891). It was not to be. This is the only novel Prichard was to publish before his death by suicide in 1907; in addition to his journalism, the rest of his oeuvre is filled out with two known short stories in The Bulletin and two serial Christmas stories in newspapers, as well as poems and some works of non-fiction. Retaliation was published in a cheap paperback edition with a green cover and sold for a shilling. Trove, the combined catalogue of libraries across Australia, lists six copies held in Australia; there may be several more in libraries not listed, and a few in private hands, but essentially, Prichard’s novel and his literary career have been forgotten. Retaliation is a popular fiction of its day, and while competent and representative, is not especially memorable. It does, however, read as a fascinating document of its time, especially in relation to the work of Prichard’s famous daughter, Katharine Susannah. Continue reading
Today we buried Uncle Philip at the Harvey Lawn Cemetery. It would be hard to say where his home was; he moved around a lot. I think he did live in Harvey a short time, at some stage. He died in Bunbury, but that’s mainly because the hospital was there. It often happened that he would get upset at his neighbours and move to a different town. He was probably autistic, and he liked his routines and his own company. Philip loved not horses (as his name means) but dogs, and he didn’t like being around people.
At other funerals, it seems wrong that the person himself is not there. But for Phil, his absence seemed appropriate; he didn’t turn up to social events. I should have appreciated how significant it was the times I saw him at his brothers’ weddings, at his dad’s 70th birthday, at a couple of Christmases. These wouldn’t have been easy appearances for him.
His middle name comes from his grandfather, an architect of some note in Perth who raised his family in a beautiful house on the foreshore at South Perth. I wonder what the architect would have made of his grandson living much of his life as part of the welfare underclass in WA? If the wealthy are not often a single generation from destitution, they can easily be two generations away from it.
All the time I knew him, Phil struggled with his weight. It pains me that my first memory of him was asking him, when I was about five, ‘Why are you fat?’ Dad took me aside and said that was not something you asked someone. I didn’t understand. Philip was a shy, sensitive man, and I hope he forgot or forgave me.
He didn’t want to hear about God. I’m not sure whether that was out of incredulity or a sense that this is not a world with much good news in it. I cannot fathom a God who would, in an afterlife, deepen and perpetuate the miseries of those who have suffered in this life, confirming their despair that life was hopeless. Weren’t Jesus’ great warnings about reversals of fortune? The mighty laid low, not the lowly laid lower?
I think Philip Alexander Winning (1953-2014) should appear somewhere on the internet, if only here, on this blog. He loved his dogs, each of them his companion for a decade or so of his life; their names were Sam, Barney, Pippa, and Toby. A photo of Toby went down into the grave with him. He liked camping with his brother, he liked walking the dog on the beach, and he liked doing his own thing in his own way.
Tracy Ryan, Unearthed (Fremantle Press, 2013)
Margaret Atwood once said, “A divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there’s less of you.” I’ve always imagined this to be true, but my friend Tracy Ryan’s collection of poetry, Unearthed, depicts divorce not as an amputation but a haunting. In the first section of the collection, “Karlsruhe”, a series of connected poems follow a narrative of remembering. After fighting vivid dreams for two years, the narrator looks up her former husband only to discover he died two years ago. ‘You came like news on ships in former times / or like the stars’ far light, already out.’ (We know instantly when the famous die; but it is the unfamous people we were once close to who stop existing without us knowing, and that is a difficult thing.) The haunting, of course, is intensified.
A highlight to the book is the breadth of allusion and the appreciation of unusual words, an education for the reader worn lightly; I have learned new words like ‘aestivation’ (an animal’s state of dormancy) which illuminate love and loss in new ways.
The process of remembering and the sense of haunting is evoked not just by allusion to a wide range of literature, but also the new ways of relating to the past which technology brings. I like the poem “Dural Way” in which the narrator ‘stalks’ her own past on Google Street View and ‘what was unique, generic / into the garden once hidden / any browser may look / but hindsight is mine / alone.’
Then there are the memories around objects, something which has always fascinated me. In “Offertory”, there are ‘tomb objects’ which have survived the late lover, a hole-punch, a blue stapler, which are ‘small unexploded ordnance’. In “The Pawned Wedding Ring”, the narrator contemplates the fate of the eponymous ring, its history since.
Loss, of course, comes in many guises, and the section of the book is entitled “Other Elegy”, extending from elegy for lost friends to elegies for nature and finishing with a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Requiem for a Woman Friend”.
This is poetry that could draw in even those unaccustomed to poetry, accessible yet still with the density and surprises of language which makes poetry poetry.
Since I saw that Philip Seymour Hoffman, my favourite actor, was dead on the television news-ticker this morning, my mind has kept hiccuping: PSH is dead! Initially the hiccups were strong and happened every five minutes; by now, they’re less frequent and less violent.
Is it grief I feel when a celebrity I admire dies? Is it a less intense version of what happens when someone I know dies? Or something else entirely, given the ‘relationship’ with the celebrity runs only one way? I don’t know.
(Note on the news ticker, saying ‘breaking news’: it was a delayed broadcast from the east, three hours old, and the presenters didn’t even know about it, the news hadn’t hit them yet. This is what happens when WA is three hours behind the east: sometimes a time bubble opens up, and one becomes aware of watching something from the past, different in an important way to the present.)
Hoffman was amazing – he appears in so many of my favourite films, lighting up so many of them. We watch him age in Synecdoche, New York, and it feels like we have followed him through a lifetime. We want him to be innocent in Doubt. We live in fear of him in Punch-Drunk Love. I don’t think it’s going too far to say he was the quintessential face of film in the first thirteen years of the century.
The way we work, we wait for anniversaries to commemorate anything. It seems arbitrary; why not remember the things worth remembering spontaneously? That would never work. We need a roster of commemorations, something like the calendar of saints the church has. Since 9/11, the terrorist attacks has received a big annual commemoration, but already it has become smaller, except for the decade anniversaries. The last time anyone made a concerted commemoration of JFK’s assassination and the beginning of Doctor Who was ten years ago, and now their time has come again.
I like to make something of coincidences; it’s what drives the work of my favourite novelist, Paul Auster. The 22nd November 1963 was a day thick with coincidences. An hour before JFK was mortally wounded so publicly, C.S. Lewis had died quietly in his bedroom with only his brother around; twelve minutes before this, Aldous Huxley had also slipped quietly away. Lewis’s stepson tells of that day. He learned of his stepfather’s death after news had broken of JFK’s death. Alister McGrath’s biography tells how Lewis was to be buried with few in attendance at the funeral. Christian apologist Peter Kreeft has written an expanded edition of Between Heaven and Hell, an imaginary posthumous conversation between Lewis, Huxley and Kennedy, three representative figures of the twentieth century.
But the anniversary the daily Google search page chooses to commemorate is that of Doctor Who – which doesn’t turn fifty until tomorrow, 23 November. The Doctor is a counterpoint to all those deaths, a messiah who can regenerate, who is not limited by space and time. Perhaps Kreeft should have added him to the conversation, but maybe that would just get silly.
The Monday after JFK was shot, Perth’s most infamous murderer, Eric Edgar Cooke went on trial. I remember the author of Broken Lives, the account of his murders, remarking that Cooke would have been sorely disappointed that his infamy was overshadowed by the death of JFK and then the death of his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. As much as that is true, Cooke’s years of terror shaped Perth far more than Kennedy”s death. Everyone who remembers that time in Perth has a story about Cooke, has a distinct memory of hot summer nights when they were suddenly too scared to leave the door open or sleep on the verandah.
I’ve read snide remarks by people sick of hearing about JFK’s assassination in these couple of weeks. Yet for me, it is endlessly fascinating, the quintessential American event. It brings together so many great American themes – presidential celebrity, criminal celebrity, the Cold War, the South vs the North, gun culture, and conspiracy theories. It has produced two novels I like immensely – Don DeLillo’s Libra and Stephen King’s 11/22/63.
The Doctor, JFK, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Eric Edgar Cooke – such a bizarre and fascinating juxtaposition as only coincidence and history can serve up to us.
Friday was a long journey from Munich to Venice, finishing with a slow “vaporetto” (water bus) journey to the far end of Venice.
We had booked a place through airbnb; ‘urgent maintenance’ meant that at the last minute we were moved to a place in St Elena, the furthest edge of the island; it was a bigger, more expensive apartment, our host reassured us. He met us at the vaporetto stop and took us through a park loud with all the local children playing to the house.
The apartment was a shrine to a dead man.
The dead man was a doctor, a paedetrician, a plaque in the entrance told us. Inside, the apartment was surely much as he left it when he died nearly ten years ago. A good collection of novels in Italian, frozen in the early noughties. Knick-knacks in the cabinet from his travels around the world – a boomerang, even. The atmosphere brought to mind the house of my dead grandparents, and that of my wife’s dead grandparents: the accretions of a life centred on the late 1950s. Old furniture mixed with new. A green kitchen with odd crockery and cutlery only years of living could produce. A smell of many years of living in that one place.
In the spare room, on the wall, his framed degree remains on display.
A tour guide told me there is no room to bury their dead on Venice. They take them out to an island and bury them there for a decade or two until the gravesite is required again and the bones are transferred to a communal ossuary.
Yet this doctor, even as he lies in the ground on the next island, has a great shrine right where he always lived. Tourists come and live in his shrine each week, as if on pilgrimage. The apartment awaits his return.
My novel-in-progress is about im/mortalities; so it’s fascinating to stumble upon the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died in 1951, but whose rare cells have been replicated in laboratories around the world to the point where there are 50 million tons of them. And this without her permission or her familly’s benefit. The tattered black and white photo of her on this post is haunting.
It is probably not a healthy thing for me to be writing a novel about death, given my preoccupation with it. And why did I google ‘cremation’ just then in the name of research?
I didn’t find quite what I was looking for, but this instead:
Now we can create a custom cremation urn for ashes in the image of your loved one or favorite celebrity or hero, even President Obama!
So you can either have a bust made of a celebrity and store your ashes in that, or a spooky likeness of yourself made to sit forever on the mantlepiece watching your family? Such a strange concept, that you would be interred in the likeness of another, a person you never met. It is bizarre in a folk-religious way, the ultimate outcome of our celebrity worship.
I wish we were better at memorialising. In my novel, Tom contemplates the macabre possibility of preserving people’s heads and having them sit on the mantlepiece. I wouldn’t want that, in case you’re wondering. But I hate the thought of bodies – faces particularly – decaying and lost.
The marble or copper busts of Great Men made in the past seem to me, in some ways, a fitting memorialisation. But these advertised ones are, paradoxically, too realistic (in a tacky way), causing what the nerd from 30 Rock and John Safran inform me is the ‘uncanny valley’.
If I was earlier into my novel, I would have to incorporate these busts, but it’s too late for that.