Book’s beauty beats e-book

Books need to be beautiful, says the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes, if they are to withstand the onslaught of the e-book.

BOOKS need to be beautiful, says the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes, if they are to withstand the onslaught of the e-book.

Accepting the prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending, Barnes thanked the book’s designer, Suzanne Dean, and said, ”Those of you who’ve seen my book – whatever you may think of its contents – will probably agree that it’s a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

Barnes finally won the £50,000 ($A77,000) prize after having been shortlisted three previous times and following a bitter controversy over this year’s shortlist, which was criticised as being too populist for focusing on ”readability”.

A group of writers, publishers and agents announced plans to set up a rival literary prize that would reward the artistic achievement of a writer above ”readability”.

Chairwoman of the judging panel and former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington said the publishing world had given the judges glee by behaving like ”the KGB at its height”, using ”black propaganda, destabilisation operations, plots and double agents”.

”We were certainly always looking for quality as well,” she said. ”The fact it’s been in the headlines is very gratifying.”

She said Barnes’s 150-page novel had the markings of a classic of English literature: ”Exquisitely written, subtly plotted and reveals new depths with each reading.”

The story is narrated by a middle-aged man, who reflects on the paths he and his friends have taken as the past catches up with him via a bequeathed diary.

Barnes, 65, is literary editor for the New Statesman and TV critic for the Observer. He has written 10 previous novels.

The other nominees were Carol Birch (Jamrach’s Menagerie); Canadians Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) and Esi Edugyan (Half Blood Blues); and debut authors Stephen Kelman (Pigeon English) and A. D. Miller (Snowdrops).

First published in The Age.

Trophies without winners


TRYING to explain the national obsession with football, a fresh-faced young woman says innocently, “It’s something nice for people to believe in.”
That is the first and last time innocence appears in the documentary Footy Chicks. For the most part, the people who are its subjects detail with artless vulgarity the pornographic sexual pastimes of players and the often painfully young women who are their groupies.
This film’s material is fascinating, if appalling, but it has been pulled together in a way that is ultimately shallow and unsatisfying. It could even be argued that it exploits the young women to whom the filmmakers had wanted to offer a voice.
Director Rebecca Barry has said the idea for the film came from news of allegations of sexual misconduct by professional footballers, which “really disturbed me. Whether or not the allegations were true, it became apparent that in the footy world, there were real problems in players’ attitudes to women.”
Barry found the media reporting sensationalist and was frustrated not to hear from any women who were part of the game’s off-field activities. She made Footy Chicks – with the help of producer Michaela Perske, who also did much of the camera work – as a way of redressing that imbalance.
The documentary, scheduled to screen the night before the AFL grand final, portrays a Darwinian world in which footy players are hunted by young women who see them as the ultimate trophy males (“as close as you can get to prime beef, I suppose”, says one male sports journalist). The women’s comments back this up: they talk of wanting to have sex only with big strong men who have great bodies. One woman displays a picture on her mobile phone of a naked young man and says, “He loves his body. I love his body.”
An 80-year-old woman who is a veteran fan of the Manly Sea Eagles in the NRL says the women to whom the players are attracted also tend to be a type: tall, slim (“anorexic of course!”), with hipster jeans and dirty blonde hair. There are stories here of gang bangs, of rape and near-rape, of the infamous “pig on a spit” phenomenon. This is a culture fuelled by youthful insecurity, booze and narcissism, in which the men and the women use sexual scoring to prop up egos apparently frozen in adolescence. For the men, it’s the age-old confusing of dominant sexual behaviour with manliness. For the women, it’s the same equation employed by middle-class suburban trophy-wives: they derive their social status from the men to whom they attach themselves, however briefly.
In several of the anecdotes told, moral and legal lines are badly blurred: encounters that began as consensual ended up with women feeling violated, or a woman who had sex with one player found herself unexpectedly accommodating half the team.
One retired player describes a scene in which “a young lady known for having enjoyed the attentions of more than one bloke” was drunkenly vomiting over a balcony at a party. A player came up behind her, pulled down her knickers and began having sex with her. The story-teller seems confused about his own moral stance: “I don’t think there was anything malicious in it – but of course there was, she wasn’t consenting and was being sick. The last thing you want when you are being sick is to have some bloke come and shove his willie up you.” But his voice is uncertain and he laughs awkwardly. It’s like he can’t find the words to express his disquiet and so pushes it aside.
This film seems to do the same thing. In some ways it lacks a moral compass. The only value endorsed by those analysing the phenomenon is rejection of the sexual double standard that judges women more harshly than men. Is it as simple as that? Does perceived equality mean that it is now impossible to criticise women for conducting themselves as some men do, for aping the worst of male behaviour?
That the women consent and pursue these encounters disguises the underlying power dynamic. The men still regard them as spoilt goods, unfit material for being brought home to meet mother, in a different category to their wives and real girlfriends. The women say they’re OK with that – but they also say they are looking for something more, for a “real relationship”. The women talk about how they have to know “where to draw the line” so as not to be abused, but the film does not explore what that line is or how women enforce it. It ignores some very uncomfortable questions about the risky behaviour of women who could be seen as “asking for it”.
Several of the young women are photographed and their first names used. All of the men talking about personal experiences do so anonymously (at their own insistence). The unintentional result is that it is women who will bear any odium associated with this venture.
There are also many things this film does not tell us. What kind of class or family background produces a footy chick? Where does she go when her time is done? Does she find that this phase of her life was psychologically destructive?
And how universal is this behaviour among the players? Would a competition for best and fairest off the field have few contenders?
This is a sad film but worth watching with your teenagers as a talking-point. The moral that mine drew from the story is that it might be “nice” to believe in football, but it would be emotionally healthier if these young people believed in themselves.
Footy Chicks screens Friday at 10pm on SBS.

First published in The Age.

At the smoke of midnight

FILM They started with a film deemed too heavy for a usual showing. But as Karen Kissane reports, midnight screenings took on a life of their own.

IT WAS, IS, AND EVER WILL BE a seriously weird film. El Topo is a mystical, spaghetti-western, coming-of-age movie with references to Taoism, Sufism, Tarot, Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism, a hero who is both a killer and a saint – and bucketloads of gore.
Its violence is grotesque in form and Biblical in volume: whole towns are massacred, a room swings with hanging men, animals are butchered and people are raped, tortured and castrated. Perhaps the most arresting of the film’s surreal images is that of a genuinely legless man riding on the back of a genuinely armless one.
Ben Barenholtz first saw El Topo (The Mole) screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Half the audience walked out, but he was fascinated. He was the owner of New York’s Elgin Theatre and he decided to screen previews of the film at midnight because “it was too heavy to be shown in any other way”. There was almost no advertising but the film soon took off among counter-culture cognoscenti (former Beatle John Lennon saw it three times). Part of its attraction, cinema historians later concluded, was due to management’s resigned tolerance of marijuana consumption in the balcony.
Barenholtz did not know it then but he had just played midwife to the birth of what would become an avant-garde ritual of the 1970s: the midnight movie.
Between 1970 and 1977, a handful of films – mostly low-budget and recent, some revivals of old movies, but all deviant or shocking in some way – shattered social and sexual taboos. They became the blockbusters of the witching hour, with queues stretching around city blocks and big theatres filling to capacity.
The Melbourne International Film Festival recently screened a 2005 documentary on the phenomenon by writer and director Stuart Samuels titled Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. From this week, ACMI Cinemas will run late-night showings of several of the key works: El Topo, the gruesome horror Night of the Living Dead, the champion gross-out Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s dream-like Eraserhead, the reggae outlaw movie The Harder They Come, and the madly camp, cannibalistic and sexually omnivorous Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its sweet transvestite Transylvania-a-a-a-an.
They are not for the faint-hearted. One of the investors in the low-budget Night of the Living Dead was a meatpacker. He arrived on set with sacks of animal intestines for the filming of human-flesh-eating scenes. In Pink Flamingos, the “heroine”, the flame-haired transvestite Divine, is the queen of filth until her title is challenged by the delivery of a gift-boxed turd from a pair of rivals. Divine reclaims her title in an epilogue to the movie that involves a fluffy poodle and coprophilia (head for your dictionary, dear reader, as the definition does not sit well in a family newspaper). Suffice to say the film was compared to an exploded septic tank.
Flamingos director John Waters saw viewer repugnance as a professional triumph. “To me, bad taste is what it’s all about,” he said in one interview. “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” Critics analysed Waters, a lapsed Catholic, as a director who depicted humanity with a mixture of amused tolerance and metaphysical disgust.
Some cult movies of the ’70s were historical artefacts. Reefer Madness, a black-and-white “documentary” from 1936, with a melodramatic tale of murder, madness and suicide caused by the demon weed cannabis, was viewed for its unintended humour, usually through a sardonic haze of reefer smoke. Audiences could get high just breathing the air in the cinema, one theatre director told Stuart Samuels.
Freaks is an even earlier movie (1932), by director Tod Browning, who used real people with disabilities to play the sideshow freaks of the title. They included conjoined twins, a limbless man known as the Human Torso, and people with pathologically undersized brains who were referred to in the film as “pinheads”. Browning’s treatment of them was sympathetic – the moral of his tale is that beauty is only skin deep, and it is the “normal” characters in his film who are wicked. But his cast was so shocking to filmgoers of the time that Freaks was banned in Britain for 30 years.
According to Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman, who wrote the classic book Midnight Movies, transgressing taboos was only one of the two essential ingredients for a cult film. The other, they argued, was that the film should offer “immediately relevant social metaphors”. In real life, the maker of the bloody El Topo had been present for the aftermath of a mass shooting by Mexican police that killed dozens of university students. The director of Night of the Living Dead told Samuels he had tried to imitate the grainy horror of nightly TV news reports of the carnage in the Vietnam war. Rocky Horror played with the changing sexual politics of the ’70s. To the cultist, these films were deep and important.
In Melbourne, at least part of their attraction was prosaic, according to Cinema Nova director John Rouse. He was a media student when midnight movies were running in Melbourne, which was then a very tame town: “In the context of the late ’70s, there was nothing else to do. There was no late-night TV, pubs closed at 10, we didn’t have video stores. Melbourne came to a screeching halt at 11.30 pm.”
Later, Rouse went on to run the Valhalla Cinema. For years the Valhalla’s cult-program posters hung on the back of the dunny door in every self-respecting inner-city student house in Melbourne. He says the Valhalla can claim the credit for turning the droll musical The Blues Brothers – the Sound of Music of cult movies, one that parents can happily watch with their children – into an international midnight-movie phenomenon.
Like Rocky Horror, The Blues Brothers had initially failed on general release and was written off as “one of the all-time box-office flops”. Rouse and his colleagues thought it was fun and that it was bigger than the response to it suggested. They took a punt and programmed it every Friday night for six months.
It ran for years. Regulars started to arrive dressed as characters in the show and acting out scenes as they were played on screen, “including small, minor bureaucratic figures, just so they could have their own tiny moment in the sun when their character came on. People from the military and police loved it; they would rappel down from the balcony. It was a complete party.” Its Melbourne success led producers to rethink, and the film was re-released around the world. “We invented the Blues Brothers phenomenon,” Rouse says.
He says Melbourne was slower to catch on to the audience theatricality that became such an entrenched part of the Rocky Horror experience. It was not until the 1980s movie Fame, with a scene in which characters dressed up and acted out roles at a Rocky screening, that Melbourne cinema-goers “got it”.
For ACMI’s screening of Rocky, curator Lisa Pieroni has organised an original participant in the Melbourne parties to co-ordinate the live aspects of the performance. “I’ve asked the cleaners if they can cope with rice (for the wedding scene) and water pistols (for the rainstorm),” she laughs.
How influential were midnight movies? Geoff Mayer, associate professor of film studies at La Trobe University, believes they did not affect the making of mainstream movies but did help develop a greater sophistication in audiences: “People are more knowing now. People are more literate with regard to form. But we have still got only a small audience here who look forward to more innovative films that will be in your face and formally challenging.”
But Pieroni believes midnight movies have changed mainstream entertainment more generally. “Isn’t it something that is part of the Big Brother thing? When they televise turkey-slapping, people are up in arms about it but they also enjoy it to the nth degree. You can still see why these films appealed to people; we enjoy being shocked and intrigued and having the boundaries pushed.”
Freaky Fridays Spotlight: Midnight Movies, will start from 18 August at 10 pm at ACMI Cinemas, Federation Square,
The book Midnight Movies, by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is published by De Capo Press.

First published in The Age 12 August 2006.

Every mugshot tells a story


Two exhibitions have captured the very essence of life at the time of the photographers, writes Karen Kissane.

TODAY’S FAMILY portraits take on a different meaning when they reach newspaper files. The family members who had been so carefully staged by a studio photographer, snuggling up and smiling at the camera as if they are the picture of happiness, have now endured the kind of catastrophe that brings media attention: a death, a disaster, a crime perpetrated from without or from within.
Perhaps the camera had captured a fleeting moment of wholeness and affection; is that not the point of the family portrait, to be a reminder of happy memories? But in some cases – the mother who killed her five children, the father who abducted his four – it is clear that the portrait was about the construction of a polite reality for public consumption. As in the film Ordinary People, the contrived images veiled the anger, sadness and distance of the people behind the smiles.
In previous generations, studio photographers did not strive for good cheer. The boomers’ parents and grandparents stared solemnly at the camera, poses formal and fixed, immaculate in their Sunday best. Even brides and grooms failed to show a glimmer of a smile, perhaps because they had already discovered some grim realities of married life (those pictures were often taken weeks after the actual wedding).
This is why the images in a new exhibition of family portraits by Sydney photographers Harold Cazneaux and Cecil Bostock are so enchanting – in terms of their humbleness, their joy and their spontaneity, they are out of their time.
Cazneaux and Bostock were founding members of the Sydney Camera Circle, a key group in the development of photography as an art form in Australia. Cazneaux died in 1953 and Bostock in 1939. As well as their formal work with landscape and studio images, the two took tender, intimate pictures of their children and their extended families that are as remarkable for their unpretentiousness as they are for their romantic lighting and composition.
In Bathing Baby in 1909, Cazneaux photographed his wife Winfred washing their daughter Rainbow in a small tin laundry tub, gentle light filtering through a nearby window on to the head and shoulders of the pensive babe and her mother’s puffy Edwardian sleeves. The ordinariness of the scene is attested by the household mess of an apple core, and soap that sits in a broken dish.
In The Quest in 1910, Rainbow is a toddler. She holds a cloth toy and a piece of fruit as she leans forward with sweet eagerness to peer at something out of frame. Rainbow is now 98. According to her daughter, Sally Garrett, who has helped with the exhibition, as that picture was shot, Rainbow’s parents were asking her, “Where are the fairies? Look for the fairies in the peach tree.”
Leanne Fitzgibbon, acting-senior curator at Bendigo Art Gallery, says of the exhibition: “We are peeking into the artist’s private life. In the photographs you can feel the parental gaze, the love that comes from behind the camera.”
We think of the “glamour portrait” as a new fad; the catering to narcissism of the woman who has herself – and sometimes her children – made over and photographed and airbrushed to maximise allure.
In fact, even Cazneaux’s pictures have their own “glamour”, in the original sense of the word as a magical enchantment, a spell that makes something appear more attractive than it really is, like a crone in the guise of a damsel. His “glamour” is the idea of childhood as an age of freedom and innocence. The studio portraits of earlier eras are seeking “glamour” too: that formal dressing, those stiff poses, project an image of orderliness and propriety, and reveal little about the inner world of the subjects.
But there are other, grittier portraits from that time that are filled with soul, even though their artistry was accidental.
City of Shadows is a Sydney exhibition of police photographs from early last century. Many of them are noirish shots of city alleyways and dingy lodgings that were the scenes of killings or accidental deaths. But many are mug shots, and they are quite unlike the dispirited flash photos of head and shoulders that are the mug shots of today.
They were taken in natural light, on glass negatives, and many are full-length. The criminals in front of the lens seem utterly relaxed: the jauntier ones flirt with the camera, the belligerent ones glare. Conmen who have dropped their mask of charm have a hostile, snaky gaze; women who have been jailed look back at the photographer with eyes luminous with despair.
“These police photos, for accidental reasons, look more like modern photos,” says Peter Doyle, curator of the exhibition. “They just got people on the hop. They seem to freeze something out of the flow of expressions and human animation. It gets some real essence of character.
“They got around the affectations and mannerisms and respectable expectations of the day because they were rascals. No one expected them to be bunging on any side.”
Several times, visitors to the exhibition have introduced themselves as relatives of people in the photographs. Two elderly men pointed to one thief and said, “Yes, that was our uncle.” A Melbourne family has identified one of Doyle’s most successful conwomen as someone from their family tree.
Among the rogues’ gallery are some members of the same families who were “in business” together. The McFarlane brothers, photographed with a third man in 1921, were semi-hobos with serious criminal records who went around like rag-and-bone men, in a horse and cart, stealing.
Robert seems the extroverted one, almost smiling at the camera. He stands with feet planted firmly apart, defiantly cocky despite the worn patches on his trouser knees, and the way his toes can be seen through the holes in his shoes.
The McGuinesses were also related. Hazel, 21, was arrested three times in 1929 on cocaine peddling charges, along with her mother Ada, who ran a brothel. On the last bust, Ada threw the dope packets to her daughter and shouted, “Run, Hazel, run!”
In their photographs, Hazel’s eyes are demurely downcast, as if she is almost ashamed to find herself arrested. Her hard-faced mother, on the other hand, stares back at the camera with thin-lipped indifference. In court, a drugs bureau detective called Ada “the vilest creature it has ever been my misfortune to encounter”, but the whole bureau felt sorry for Hazel, who had been “reared in an environment of immorality and dope”.
In this case, it seems the camera did not lie.
Family Portraits: Harold Cazneaux and Cecil Bostock, is at the Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street, until August 6.
City of Shadows is at the Justice & Police Museum, corner Phillip and Albert streets, Circular Quay, Sydney, until February 11, 2007. The hardcover book City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 is published by the Historic Houses Trust (NSW) and distributed by Thames & Hudson, $65.

First published in The Age.

The art of darkness

Autopsies as entertainment? A stillborn child as performance art? It’s not radical, it’s repugnant, writes Karen Kissane.

HE’S a lovely teenage boy; bright, witty and courteous. He told his mother, a friend of mine, that he was going to the skate park. She wanted to know why he wasn’t taking his gear. He wasn’t going to skate, he explained; another boy had had a bad accident there the day before and he wanted to see the blood.
Voyeurism? Schadenfreude? Relief that it hadn’t happened to him? He was expressing the same fascination that causes adult motorists to slow down as they pass a car crash, hoping for a glimpse of gore. It’s the force that makes commercial hits of splatter movies and that has made a gothic icon of celluloid cannibal Hannibal Lecter.
The yuck factor can be high even when gruesome entertainment is feigned. What about when it is real?
In London, more than 500 people paid for tickets (another 1500 missed out) to an autopsy in which a doctor gutted a human corpse. The show was later broadcast on national television by Britain’s Channel Four, the same station that this past week aired a documentary in which performance artist Zhu Yu discusses cannibalism while showing photographs of himself apparently putting in his mouth parts of a dismembered stillborn child.
Australians will get their chance to spend a Sunday afternoon browsing other work by the doctor who performed the public autopsy, Professor Gunther von Hagens. He is known as “the Walt Disney of death” for his creation of exhibitions of flayed, preserved human corpses. A show is planned for Australia some time after current tours of Europe, the US and Asia have finished.
Psychologists would have a field day analysing these cultural equations. There is the narcissism of the performers, who win public attention by zooming like heat-seeking missiles onto hot taboos. They preen themselves as contributors to “education” (on the doctor’s part) and “art” (on Zhu’s).
There is the exhibitionism – or, perhaps, the longing for immortality? – of the people who signed their bodies over to von Hagens. He now claims to have 5200 people who have promised he can strip their corpses of skin and preserve them for public display. If you and your naked body didn’t make it onto Big Brother – hey, here’s your last shot at celebrity.
And there are the audiences. Is this about being so bored and jaded that real death, now, is the only spectacle that can titillate? Or about being so anxious about death that there is a longing to face it vicariously? Or about something more sinister, some dark pleasure that doesn’t bear too much looking into?
There have always been artists who express the primitive part of the imagination that was Freud’s terrain. Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Son contains the same image of a man eating a baby that Zhu created. There have also been people who wanted to bequeath their persons to posterity: the 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham had his corpse preserved and it is stored sitting up on a chair (fully dressed, and still attached to its skin) in a cupboard at his old university.
In earlier times, it was Christianity, looking for means of spiritual crowd control, that channelled people’s curiosity about the macabre, with dreadful paintings depicting torture and death and public display of the mummified corpses of saints. Rome still has an ossuary open to tourists that is decorated with the skulls and bones of hundreds of monks.
In the 16th century, the church even supported public autopsies in Europe on the grounds that they fostered an understanding of God’s creation. (Beijing-based Zhu has said his Christianity influenced his performance – “Jesus is always related to death, blood, wounds” – although his professed belief sits oddly with his other claim that he was illustrating that “we are all just meat”.)
Today, the popular Western outlets for gruesome interest are movies and books about serial killers. Classic detective stories, such as those by British writers P. D. James, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, dispose of bodies in a few brief lines. Corpses are merely a plot device on which the rest of the narrative turns and killers are relatively normal people driven by one of the four Ls of detective fiction: love, lust, loathing or lucre.
Today, some of the bestsellers are those by American authors such as Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs, who almost lasciviously detail mutilation and the forensic examination of slaughtered bodies. Their murderers kill for lingering, sadistic pleasure. Sometimes their heroines return again and again to memories of the corpse and its bloody state – meaning that so, of course, do the readers.
Such interest is only human, says British actor Anthony Hopkins, who plays Hannibal Lecter. He told one interviewer: “I don’t think anyone is sick or disturbed because they like Hannibal, any more than they are if they go to see Jaws or Psycho. It’s a need to titillate ourselves through destruction because that is what finally happens to all of us, the destruction of the body.”
But Hopkins is talking about fiction, about cultural channels that provide imaginary ways to release these fears. All the participants, performers and viewers, authors and readers, are aware of the artifice. It might be off but it is also arguable that it does no real harm.
Zhu and von Hagens are dealing with the bodies of real people. In the case of Zhu, questions must be asked about how he obtained a baby’s body (if that is what he really did). Did some impoverished mother accept payment for it? That would be as nauseating as his “performance”.
You don’t have to be religious to feel it is important to treat the dead with reverence. Almost every culture has surrounded death with ritual, recognising it as the last great rite of passage, even if the expression of those rites has varied enormously.
A body is treated with respect because it was once the vessel for a human being who experienced the world through it; the brain played with ideas, the mouth loved and laughed, the heart beat with joy and fear and anticipation.
The same cannot be said for a stillborn baby such as the one Zhu claims he abused. There, you find yourself struggling for Victorian words to justify your repugnance: it is indecent, unseemly, barbaric.
Reducing a corpse to cheap entertainment, even with the dead person’s permission, is degrading. It is something soldiers do to their dead opponents in war as a way of dehumanising the other side. Indulging post-mortem prurience in peacetime is even more offensive, in a way, because it is more cold-blooded. It is not about the glint of steel but the glint of commerce.
There is a difference between the healthy breaking of taboos and the failure to respect civilised boundaries. It is shameful that elephants treat their dead more tenderly than some people do.
It might be that the forces fuelling these extreme phenomena are expressions of normal human nature. In that case, I’m with Katharine Hepburn, who told Humphrey Bogart in that wonderfully human film The African Queen: “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

First published in The Age.

King of the kids: John Marsden

John Marsden likes to write about the gritty side of teenage life: sex, suicide and mental illness have all featured in his books.

John Marsden is struggling like a comedian at a grog-free gig. He tries to charge up his young audience, hitting them with one story after another like a doctor with cardiac paddles. He tells them about the boy who swallowed the goldfish and the child who called pins and needles “lemonade legs”. They sit still and silent.

He’s talking to the Islamic students of Ilim College in Broadmeadows about writing: voice, character, plot. He gives them Tom Clancy’s recipe: What if? What next?
Towards the end of the hour-long talk comes the part that makes them realise he’s on their side: the role of status in story-telling. “Low-status people apologise all the time. They get run over by a truck and apologise to the driver,” he says.

“I apologise for everything. I was buying a jacket at the January sales. I turned around and realised I hit someone behind me. Then I realised I’d hit a mirror and was apologising to my own image.” They giggle.

By the time he’s mimicking a pontificating principal – sending up the way high-status people speak slowly because they know they won’t be interrupted – they’re laughing out loud. John Marsden, king of the kids.

He’s an unpretentious monarch. He arrived this day in baggy pants and a windcheater, his face bearing a faint five o’clock shadow. He’d been digging up worms for an injured magpie just before he left home, he says later, glancing at his hands as if to check for lingering traces of excavation.

His fellow travellers on the train to Broadie would never have picked him for a millionaire. They would be unlikely even to know his name, unless they were teenagers or English teachers or plugged-in parents.

But Marsden, 52, is one of Australia’s most successful authors. His 31 books have sold three million copies worldwide and been translated into 15 languages, including French, German, Japanese and Korean. A poll by Angus and Robertson on Australia’s favourite books found Marsden’s best-loved novel for teenagers, Tomorrow, When the War Began, came in fourth, ahead of the Bible at number five.

Those who admire his work talk of his gift for taking on the adolescent voice and the way he believes in their ability to navigate a challenging world. His critics wish he would show the same faith in adults; they claim his teenage characters often inhabit bleak worlds bereft of adult strength or kindness, and that he exposes kids too early to adult themes such as sex and suicide.

“Why can’t we let kids be kids, and let them enjoy their innocence and freedom from these worries?” says Bill Muehlenberg, vice-president of the Australian Family Association and recipient of complaints from outraged parents. He concedes he’s had no reports of kids being upset.

That’s because they don’t see his work that way. Says Lauren Kenrick, 14, who attended one of Marsden’s writing workshops: “I love his books, especially the Tomorrow series, because they’re real and everything that they were feeling – I knew exactly how they felt. I would be, like, ‘Mum, get the next one, I need it!”‘

Marsden also knows what makes kids laugh. The Great Gatenby is a comic novel about the wisecracking Erle Gatenby. Erle’s mother erupts into anxious, inane reminders as she drops him off at boarding school (Krapp House) for the first time. He tells her in return, “Don’t go talking to strange men while I’m away. Keep off the hard liquor. Don’t answer the phone unless it’s ringing.”

But some of his work has been seriously controversial. In his guide to life for teenage boys, Secret Men’s Business, Marsden said boys looking for “trophy sex” should use a prostitute rather than exploit a trusting girl – and then told them how to find a brothel and what to expect upon arrival.

The book that caused the most outrage was Dear Miffy. Some booksellers refuse to stock it and schools often keep it off their shelves. The book is written as letters from a youth in prison to his old girlfriend, Miffy. The boy is violent, rage-filled and lacking in moral insight. A failed suicide attempt has left him savagely mutilated, as trapped in his body as he is in his mind. Utterly black, the book ends on a howl of hatred.

So what’s inside the head of this man who’s inside the heads of Australia’s kids?

MONEY might not buy happiness but Marsden’s home shows it can buy beauty. He lives in the country near Romsey, an hour north of Melbourne, on the 400-hectare Tye Estate: manicured gardens and Edwardian buildings surrounded by sweeping stands of eucalypts.

He bought it for just under a million five years ago and has since spent that much again buying the property next door. Together with the improvements, it’s an investment of $2.5 million.

He reels off the numbers politely when asked but it’s clear they don’t excite him. It’s different when he’s asked about the graceful figure in the fountain near his winding driveway: a 1930s statue of a woman with a cloche hat and a flirty swirling skirt. He found her in bits in a box and had her restored, he says, his face lighting up.

It lights again when he’s asked what one man does with 400 hectares: “Keep it as safe as I can for trees and birds and animals.” He is an ardent conservationist. At the last election he handed out how-to-vote cards for the Greens, and in the 1980s he served a week in jail for protesting against the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. (Ever the recalcitrant, he nicked the list of rules off the wall of his cell and later used them in a novel).

Animals are not the only creatures allowed the run of his place. Marsden, a former English teacher, runs writing camps for kids using log cabins set up as bunkhouses and a classroom. He seems to follow Dolly Levi’s dictum that money, like manure, should be spread around helping young things to grow.

He did try to be an idle sybarite. “I’d made good money from writing and I thought, ‘OK, this is the life.’ I bought the nice house (in Kew) and the nice car and I thought I’d have a coffee in Lygon Street every morning and Brunswick Street every afternoon.

“And after four months I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I should be doing this when I’m 75, not 45.”‘
He shares his home with the arthritic Trevor, a refugee from the lost dogs’ home, and Coco, a shih tzu with a temperament that leans towards the Latin. As we lie talking on the grass she plants herself nose to nose with the interviewer, as if warning that there’s to be no messin’ with her man.

Marsden grew up in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, the third of four children who moved around following the postings of their father, a banker. He is as cagey as the next person when asked about that crucible of tortured creativity, the family.

“I lived a very typical life for the 1950s, very protected, where you didn’t have any awareness of the wider world. Mum was at home ironing the sheets – at least I think she did, she certainly ironed everything else.

“When I was a child my father seemed to dominate every field he was in, which was powerful for me.

“The family was conservative; strong moral standards, we went to church every Sunday. Anglican. Sir Robert Menzies ruled and God was in his heaven and everything was Nice, with a capital N.”

Marsden is more forthcoming about the way his school helped make him the man he is today: an anti-authoritarian who carries a deep anger about the abuse of power and an equally deep empathy for outsiders and underdogs, especially teenagers. He spent his adolescence at The King’s School in Sydney. (“Don’t forget the ‘The’ or the world will stop spinning,” he warns.)

He had a rough time there. “I didn’t like the cruelty that was part of the school’s structure. I got punished in every way. I was ostracised, more by the teachers than the kids. But the prefects were the ones who really hurt.

“Prefects were allowed to beat you with a sandshoe on the bum. They’d do things like get in the biggest room possible, and they’d bend you over at one end and they’d stand on a window-sill at the other end and launch themselves at you. And these guys were big ¤ 14 stone, 120 kilos. They were powerful, and they’d do it for anything.”

Marsden felt duty bound to give them cause. “We challenged Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam war, and the compulsory militarism at King’s, by skipping corps parades, by dumb insolence.

“In year 8 my mother was told by the housemaster that the teachers were afraid of me because I was so ruthless with them. If a teacher made a mistake, I would ridicule him. But if I was bored and angry, it was probably a by-product of that.”

The most intense experience he had at the school was actually a positive one, at the hands of a new headmaster who arrived towards the end of Marsden’s time. Marsden had charge of a table of small boys whose dinner he had to supervise, “All very English 1890s.” One day none of them ate their meal because they didn’t like the white sauce on their corned beef.

Like Oliver Twist, Marsden braved the housekeeper, a notoriously fearsome woman, and asked if she could put the white sauce in jugs so the children could choose whether to have it. Enraged, she marched him up to the headmaster. “He listened, and he said to her, ‘It sounds like a very sensible suggestion.’”

Marsden was floored: “It was like I had just been struck by lightning.”

It might be one of the reasons he ended up becoming a teacher himself rather than fleeing schools forever. “The main motivation to teach was to prove that you could teach in a different way.”

For all its flaws, the school had provided a structure to Marsden’s life, and without it he crumbled. Half-way through his first year in arts-law at Sydney University he became suicidally depressed and spent two months in a psychiatric hospital. “It was comforting in many ways because I learned a lot. I really started to understand how the mind works, I suppose.

“To me it was a new world. When people are in psych hospitals feelings are laid bare because there’s no point pretending any more; you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re basically there because your life is not working. To admit that was quite a relief, and then you can go on somewhere.”

The experience has informed a lot of his writing. The main character in his award-winning first novel, So much to tell you, is based partly on memories of a silent girl he met in the psych unit. It is the tender, perceptive story of a girl with severe depression who has not spoken for months, her face and her feelings scarred by an acid attack her father had intended for her mother. Her counsellor tells her that she does not speak because she is afraid to face her emotions about her parents and about herself; they will be a mix of love and hate.

She has lost her identity – her face, her voice, her family, her friends – but by the end of the book has built tentative new connections. Only when she begins to talk do we learn her name, Marina. That was like a baptism of the new person, Marsden wrote later: “For many people adolescence is like that; a search for a new identity built on the realisation that one’s identity as a child has started to dissolve.”

Tony, the nihilistic boy in Miffy, also comes from real-life experiences. Miffy followed a time when Marsden had helped look after a state ward “who was leading a life that I thought was unremittingly bleak and horrifying, and I used to wonder why she was like that, and what was going on in her mind”.

He is irritated by complaints of the book’s grimness. He points out that most teen fiction is lighthearted. “Also, the bigger argument is that I don’t think reality is the problem. I think protecting people from reality is the problem. And to keep young people in ignorance is unforgivable. So you have to help them to come to terms with the world, and that includes the awful aspects of the world.”

What critics failed to understand about the book, he says, “is that Tony’s tragedy is that he lacks honesty and insight and because of that he’s trapped.”

Troubled boys led to Marsden writing his guide to manhood. He says about 20 boys he has taught in schools have died, either from suicide or risk-taking. After one funeral he decided to do something about it.

In Secret Men’s Business – Manhood: The Big Gig, he tells boys that to be a man who is mature, independent and wise takes more than birthdays. He lists 12 steps to a boy achieving manhood, including leaving home, earning his own money, recognising his feelings and experiencing success. Top of the list: defeating his father in a field in which the father used to be superior.

“The part they find the most powerful is the part about defeating your father,” Marsden says. “If I’m talking to a really wild audience ¤ about how, when the moment comes, you’ve got to have the courage and strength to defeat him, suddenly they’re absolutely intent.”
Most of Marsden’s advice on sex would pass muster with any grateful parent: your penis doesn’t rule the world, no one ever died from blue balls, betrayal and casual sex are always bad karma. So what’s with the brothel advice? How can a man who thinks male criminals are damaged children fail to recognise that female prostitutes often have similar histories of child abuse and drug addiction?

“I hadn’t thought that part of it through,” he concedes. “What I was trying to say was at least if you go to a brothel it’s an honest transaction. If you lie to someone to get sex, it’s a dishonest transaction ¤ I’m not saying it’s good to go to a prostitute.”

His book also gives kind, shrewd advice about depression and avoiding drugs and suggests that boys with no father figure find themselves one. But he sees dire problems with the western template for fatherhood.

“You’ve got to read the Bible to understand the fabric of our society,” he says. “There’s a lot of very dark and horrifying episodes in that book. Abraham and his son is just a foul story. And I think there is this pattern; Abraham takes his son off to sacrifice him on the altar, God sends his son to sacrifice him ¤
“Men in Western society have grown up with that as the dominant image of the culture, that fathers send their sons to be killed. That’s with us consciously and unconsciously every day of our lives. It’s a very straightforward message that your father’s gonna nail you to a cross and leave you there to die.

“Why fathers don’t just sacrifice themselves and be done with it is never explained. But I suppose it’s some sort of primeval understanding of the death wish that fathers have for their sons.”
It doesn’t seem quite the moment to ask why he has never had children of his own.

MARSDEN’S classroom on the Tye Estate is an airy log cabin bounded by gum trees and rosellas. On the shelf sits a Pooh poster with the verse, “Pooh’s whole world is the 100-acre wood/ He loves it as much as any bear could.”

Another frame holds a school permission form sent home to parents about one of Marsden’s talks. On it the father of Debbie from 8C scrawled, “I do not give my permission for my daughter to go to listen to an author of a novel. Novel writers are persons with a lawless mind.” An amused Marsden agrees: “All the best novels are subversive.”

The hostility between Marsden and parents is not all one way. When he talks about parents, it’s often with a spurt of irritation at their overprotective or controlling behaviour. He tells the kids about parents who phone about this camp and ask if the staff are trustworthy: “What’s the point of that conversation? Am I going to say ‘Oh no, they’re all paedophiles’ or ‘We specially recruit serial murderers?’ I feel like asking them, “What about your children – are they bullies or drug addicts or thieves?’”

He tells of asking one hairdresser about how parents respond when their kid gets a radical haircut: “The next day the parents are there waving their mobile phones and threatening to get the lawyers.”
For all his talk of revolution, his classes take a conventional form. He sits up the front behind a desk and does most of the talking.

But the content of his teaching is different. He offers the kids freedom. Says Lauren Kenrick, “When I’m at school, my English teacher says you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, it has to be 1500 words, or you lose marks. John said, ‘Forget all that.’ And that’s how I like to write, from the heart.”

But he also structures their work with practical exercises. He asks them for stories, each student having to say a sentence starting with “I remember”, and then one with “I used to believe”. He comments on each short tale gravely, like a parent admiring the whorls and colours of a child’s treasured seashells. Sometimes he critiques; the penguin story needs more detail to come alive, he tells one girl.

He tells them that people who are unaware of the truth about themselves are funny, like Basil Fawlty, or tragic, like King Lear. He teaches them about voice by making them write a scene in which students answer a teacher’s roll call in ways that illustrate their personalities, and then he responds to each of their characters as if they’re real. The character who blows a raspberry: “He’ll be expelled within a fortnight.” The character who mumbles: “He might be on drugs. I’d be watching his pupils.”

On his desk sits Dr Seuss and Joyce’s Ulysses, for lessons in how to play with words. He had them write a short passage about a storm without using the letter ‘A’, an exercise that frees up the unconscious. Twelve-year-old Michael Biczok wrote, “The storm willed revenge. Every time lightning struck it struck with solid power, with brute force. Clouds frowned down upon the beings below. Fury in solid form.”

At break time the younger ones clamour around him in front of the big photograph of Crosscut Saw, a long ridge of rock in the Australian Alps that he used for the setting of his Tomorrow series. The books are about teenagers who hide out in the bush and become guerilla fighters after Australia is invaded; Enid Blyton meets Alistair MacLean, on one level.

But they are also stories about kids wrestling with growing up – do they keep themselves safe, as their parents would have wished, or do they risk going into town to see if their families are alive? They decide they have to live their own lives now.

His friend and fellow children’s author, Paul Jennings, says of Marsden, “Something really lovely about him is that he doesn’t just write for teenagers but he genuinely has an affection for them and their problems.” He cites the way Marsden got him to run a joint writing workshop at a school in Port Arthur on the first anniversary of the massacre: “It was his idea; nobody paid.”

At day’s end Marsden is tired but cheerful, talking about how teaching kids always energises him: “Makes me feel like I’m doing something valuable.”

The kids have taken off to be fed by his female lieutenants, three young women who cook and care for the visitors. He lounges at his desk in the empty classroom, Coco luxuriating tummy-up on his lap as he runs his fingers through her coat, plucking out burrs.

He’s had a difficult year. There was a heart attack early on – he’s had to give up the chocolates he used to chomp as he wrote – and another health scare more recently; nothing with a nasty prognosis but enough to focus the mind on mortality.”I find it frightening,” he says.

Does he regret that he has no children? “Yeah, I really do. I haven’t given up completely but I think it’s unlikely to happen.” Families are special, he says a bit wistfully.

“This kid told me … he used to go and stay with his grandfather every holidays and he used to hate it, because his grandfather was grumpy and uncommunicative.” The grandfather attacked the boy for reading the first Tomorrow book, saying war was terrible. The boy dared him to read it.

“His grandfather became besotted with the stories and it’s transformed the whole relationship. My eyes were filling when he was telling me.”

What happened that Marsden didn’t settle down and have his own kids? He looks away and leans back. “Most recently I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me, so that’s pretty simple¤

“I’ve had two major relationships. One would have been six years, the other four years. They both sort of fizzled out.” Suddenly he’s impatient. “Oh, I don’t know. How do these things happen?”

But the little boy whose teacher wrote that he would do very well once he got over his daydreaming has achieved a lot. “He’s made a tremendous contribution,” says Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, manager of the Australian Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria.

She sees the Tomorrow series as modern classics: “All the responsibility and action is put back on to young people and he shows how intrepid and responsible and imaginative they can be. It’s a hallmark of his whole world view.”

She concedes, though, that “In some ways he doesn’t always give adults the opportunity to prove themselves; I think perhaps there are more good adults in the world than he makes it appear.”
Jennings takes a milder view. “People say his work’s subversive but I don’t think that’s the word. He has a dark sense of humour, but I don’t think he’s so much against adults as he is on the side of the kids. Someone’s gotta be.”

Maybe the benefits flow both ways. Marsden has a new book out, a fairy tale commissioned by Australia Post to provide pictures for a series of fantasy stamps. In his story, an old man needs healing water from deep in a forest, and it is kids who set out to find it for him.

Do they get it? “If anyone’s going to write a fairy story where they don’t find what they’re looking for and return empty-handed, it’s me,” he chuckles. “But no. They find it.”

Is he cured? “That’s left unresolved.”

First published in The Age.

Taking tea with Julia



JULIA BLAKE sits gracefully in her armchair, legs crossed demurely at the ankle, hands fluttering around her expressive face, recalling how she first learnt about orgasm. She says she was such an innocent, even after leaving university, that when the word cropped up in conversation she had to ask what it meant.“People fell about when I asked. I remember flushing and somebody saying, `You can’t be for real!’ But this bloke said, `You don’t know, do you?’ And he put on a scats vocal of Ella Fitzgerald and he said, `That is a musical orgasm.’

“And once I discovered what an orgasm was,” she says with amusement, “I then understood. It’s an incredible thing, where Ella almost goes into a sort of moaning” – the actress in her takes over, and Blake moves into soft, sensual cries of “aah, aaah, AAAH …”
Then she snaps back to herself. “It’s an incredible piece of music,” she says crisply. “I’m sure it’s still available, but at my time of life it would be more than I could bear to hear it, probably.” And she throws back her head and laughs.

Most actors are charming – they live by their ability to cast a spell – but Blake is utterly beguiling. Artlessly open, she lays her life out for this interview like a generous but distracted hostess preparing a sumptuous tea tray for a guest. The preparation may not be orderly, as she flits from one story to the next, but the result is a feast.

Blake, 64, grew up and trained as an actress in Britain but came to live in Australia in 1963 after marrying the then actor (and later state MP) Terry Norris. She arrived knowing little of the country but what she had learnt in Chips Rafferty films and Patrick White novels.

Now she is to play four roles in the world premiere of a play based on the The Aunt’s Story, White’s favorite among his own works. The tale of a spinster’s emotionally deprived life and slide into madness will star Helen Morse as Theodora Goodman (the aunt) and has been adapted and directed for the stage by Adam Cook for this year’s Melbourne Festival.

Blake met White once, under circumstances that still cause her to rail at her ability to fumble a big moment. It was 1988 and she was acting in a play called Ghosts in Sydney. White, who was just out of hospital and very frail, asked to see her after the show to congratulate her on her performance.

An awed Blake found herself stranded in the dressing room part in and part out of a corset, unable to free her arm from its strings and with no one to help untangle her. “So I grabbed something and flung it round my shoulders and ran through in my underclothing with my breasts hanging out and he was walking out and I called `Mr White! Please Mr White!’

“And he stopped and he turned around and he looked me up and down and he just got this little twinkle. And I said, `I’m so sorry, as you can see I’m sort of …’ And he said, `Excellent work.’ And walked off. He died not terribly long after, but he had this incredible face, with piercing eyes, blazing intelligence and the look of a disapproving eagle.

“I felt terrible, and I still do now. I thought, `What is it about me that always messes things up? What is it about me that always has an accident?’ My great moment, and this writer whom I’d admired for years and years and of whom I was terrified, and I’d got my bloody arms in the strings of a corset!”

This view of herself as a tragi-comic incompetent is not shared by others. In Australian film and theatre, she is seen as highly professional and accomplished: director Richard Franklin dubbed her “One-take Blake”, and her cultured British accents and luminous delivery keep her in steady demand.

Paul Cox has directed her in several movies including Man of Flowers and his latest film, Innocence, the tale of two elderly lovers who meet again after many years apart and resume their affair. He says: “She’s one of our finest actresses. She’s always played minor parts in the past but now she’s finally being seen in the light she deserves.”

Her strengths? “She’s real. She feels what she says, she breathes it, it becomes part of her skin. She’s like a very delicate Stradivarius violin, something so deep and perfect, it’s a delight to work with her. She has dignity and pride. She really carries (Innocence); without her it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

Blake lives in just the kind of house one imagines she would have; a pretty timber home that has a verandah complete with pots of lacy flowers, an old cane couch and a snoozing cat.

Terry Norris, tall and gravelly-voiced, appears briefly with an offer of tea. “You’re a darling,” Blake tells him. Then she explains: “I gave up my career for years and looked after the (three) kids and just as I was about to come back to the industry, in 1980, he was preselected for Parliament. So that was quite difficult, but he’s made up for it since.

“In the last few years, he does most of the cooking and a lot of the cleaning. I just swan around and read” – she giggles with delight – “and I’ve taken to handpainting little boxes and things.”

There are stories behind those little boxes; the first about her childhood, and the second – perhaps linked to the first – about the nervous breakdown that kept Blake out of the industry for three years from 1991 and almost saw her permanently retired.

“I started (painting boxes) as therapy because of depression. My father died. He was an artist and I wanted to be an artist when I was young, but because my father used to pick holes in my work the whole time, I swore that I would not paint any more. So at the age of 14, I stopped.

“I had this urge to do it in the last couple of years of my father’s life and bought paints and just could not do anything. It was an absolute block. I was even nervous about unscrewing the tops off the paint tubes. I would hyperventilate.”

Then her father died in England, and a week later she found herself smearing ultramarine paint with her fingers, like a child, along the side of a box that was to hold a present for a friend.

“I thought, `Oh, that’s lovely, the color itself is so pleasurable!’ And then I thought it was a bit Matissey so I did a little mock Matisse on it. Then I did a Japanese hiroshiga thing and then I did a Van Gogh self-portrait on the other side, and so on.”

And now she has bright stacks of small hand-painted boxes sitting on shelves in her living room.

This happened as she dropped out of the theatre, unable to cope emotionally partly, she thinks, as a result of the stress of rarely having Norris home during his years in Parliament (he finally retired in 1992). “It was a combination of things,” says Blake, looking back. “I’d done so much work I was burnt out.

“Also … I didn’t like being so well known. I would go to work and see my photograph in the theatre in Sydney and – I dunno, it was my own stupid fault. I’d allowed myself to get trapped by worrying about people’s expectations.

“I worried that I wasn’t going to give them value for money or that I wasn’t going to be able to do the performance. I just felt exposed.

“I became very unhealthy. It was all totally negative thinking, all the hangovers from my childhood of my father being a perfectionist and wanting me to come top of the class.”

She says she had been feeling for a long time before this that she was on the edge of a precipice, “And in fact I was: the precipice was the breakdown. And when I was ill, I think my body was saying, `Rest’. But I made the fatal mistake of thinking I didn’t want to act any more.

“I didn’t want the exposure, I didn’t want to be up there in front of people. But when I dropped out, it actually got worse because I had nothing to channel my energies into … and I suppose I started to think of myself as filling in time before the grave, `Well, these are my final years, and there aren’t going to be many roles anyway.”‘

She was pulled out of it by a canny Scotsman, Alan Madden, who was determined to cast her in his first film, Mushrooms. “He was Scottish enough to be entirely obdurate,” she says fondly.

When she insisted she had left the industry, he insisted on sending her the script for critique. She thought the role wonderful and hasn’t looked back since.

Blake, the oldest of three children, has been acting in one form or another since she was three. Her parents were church-minded and she remembers being given the chance to preach a sermon when she was so small that she had to stand on a box to reach the lectern. “I loved it,” she says. “I think what I liked most was the sense of power it gave you.

“I used to sing sometimes and I used to register myself for talent competitions and win books. And I would organise – God help me, I must have been a terrible child – performances in the backyard and force my brothers to sit and listen.”

Her mother died last year, “still struggling with mental health problems; chronic depression, manic depressive, although I don’t know what her formal diagnosis was”.

“She would swing from one extreme to the other; she either wouldn’t go anywhere, or we’d hear her running up the street with heavy shopping, everything in a rush. And I have that in me as well, so I understand her; just exuberant, then exhausted. A lot of actors are like that.”

Blake would skive off from school to catch French movies at the local cinema and later studied drama at university, but says she never would have become an actor had the Bristol Old Vic theatre and its troupers, not been a big part of the city’s life.

“The Bristol Old Vic theatre was the best theatre outside London, so people from the theatre would come up and see me. Peter O’Toole came up to see me, though he wasn’t a star then.” Did he hit on her? “He did, he did! And I said no,” she says with amused regret. “I was so nervous of him. I was really conditioned by my religious background at the time.”

Theatre is still her first love; she has a more ambivalent relationship with film. “I’m passionately addicted to theatre, and I don’t care if I never do another screen thing. (It’s) the lack of creative control. People cut your performance to ribbons, and once it’s there it can never be altered. “In theatre, it’s re-lived every night, and you still have that … relationship with a given audience.”

BUT she is full of excitement about her roles in The Aunt’s Story and brings out the exercise books in which she has scrawled notes from White’s novel to help her characterisations. She will play Theodora’s mother, “that dreadful, damaging mother”; the schoolteacher, Miss Spofforth – “She’s intellectual, she’s astute”; an American country woman; and a vulgar American tourist called Elsie Rapallo.

“I’m just so excited. What a lovely thing to be able to do. It’s sort of a mystery, theatre. People will pay a lot of money to go along and see a group of grown-up people dressing up, pretending to be somebody else. “It’s an ancient ritual that appears to be necessary for society.”

It is clearly necessary to Blake. “The work sort of eats me up and I give myself up to it willingly and I get burnt out and I worry over it and I will sometimes fling myself on the floor and weep because I think I’m not getting it right. But I love the sort of pain/pleasure of the artistic process. I really do.”
The Aunt’s Story is at the Playhouse from October 25 to November 10.


Julia Blake, actor

Born: England, 1937

Educated: Bristol University and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Career Highlights: “(The film) Innocence, because it broke down all those perceptions about age and love affairs. In the theatre, Ghosts for Neil Armfield, and Hannie Rayson’s Life After George.”

Lives: Kensington, with husband Terry Norris.

First published in The Age.

Inside the world of a cinephile


ADRIAN Martin has a great yarn about a childhood portent of his adult obsession with film. “When I was seven, I dreamt, with hyper-real clarity, three scenes from an extremely fanciful science-fiction type story. A year later, I nearly jumped out of my parents’ car barrelling down the highway when I saw a billboard advertising a new film: it was The Planet of the Apes.“Demanding to see this film the next day, I saw there the three scenes I had dreamed in precise detail, showing a race of apes rounding up and imprisoning human men and women. A friend of mine reckons, from this evidence, that I was obviously destined to be a cinephile, since for her this is the very definition of cinephilia: a desire for cinema so strong that you dream films before you even see them.”

Martin swears the story is true. A downmarket twist on Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, perhaps? He laughs. “I don’t know that Planet of the Apes counts as a Jungian archetype, but perhaps it should.”

Today, Martin is one of only a handful of full-time critics in Australia, and one of an even smaller subgroup: Australian film critics with an international profile. This year he has spoken at the University of Paris, the Tate Gallery in London and the Buenos Aires film festival. Next month, he goes to the Vancouver International Film Festival where he will be one of three judges for the prestigious Tigers and Dragons Award for Asian Cinema. He will also speak on “Does Film Criticism Exist?”

Martin has written two books: Phantasms, (McPhee Gribble) in 1994 and, as part of a series for the British Film Institute in 1998, Once Upon a Time in America.

He has been commissioned to write three more: The Films of Terrence Malick (also for the BFI), The Films of Brian De Palma (for Illinois University Press) and Mad Max (for Australia’s Currency press).

In his home town, though, he is best known for his radio and newspaper film reviews – not always fondly. Last year, he suffered a drive-by character assassination following his enthusiastic reception of a Yahoo Serious film, Mr Accident: “I saw it with an audience of five-year-old kids at the Jam Factory and I became a five-year-old watching that movie. I wrote a very enthusiastic review saying it was the best Australian movie of the year.”

Later, waiting at a tram stop in Flinders Street, he was accosted by four well-dressed men – “South Yarra types, they looked like advertising executives” – in a car stopped at traffic lights. “One guy puts his head out and says, `Are you Adrian Martin?’ And I go, `Yep’. And then they talk.

“And then another guy puts out his head and goes, `Did you give four stars to Mr Accident?’ And I go, `Yep’.

“And then a third guy goes, `You should f—ing resign!’

“And with that, the car burned off from the lights with all these guys yelling and swearing at me, totally exploding. And I thought, `Boy, that review got a response’.” He finishes the story with the smile of an ingenuous child; no offence taken.

Martin’s a bit of a cool dude. He presents for this interview in de rigueur black with a lime green shirt and has chosen as the venue a Richmond cafe called The Groove Train. (He lives with his elderly father, who is unwell, so he keeps visitors to the house to a minimum.)

He is just as protective of his own privacy. He talks animatedly for hours about films but is reduced to monosyllables when asked about his life outside of them. For the record, he is 41, no longer married and child-free. “I have an open mind on (marriage); who knows what tomorrow will bring. But at the moment I feel very happy with my life, I must say.”

It leaves him time to roam the world of the imagination, his preferred terrain since boyhood. Martin was a shy, introverted, intense sort of child. He had two older brothers, a father who was a carpenter and a mother who was impatient with all forms of fiction. She died in 1985.

“I was very close to my mother, and she was a very passionate, curious and driven sort of person,” Martin says. “I think some of my enthusiasm comes from her. But she didn’t like make-believe. She disliked the fantasy element; she regarded it as a distraction from facts, from things that you had to understand about the world.”

Martin, on the other hand, devoured fiction. “When I was younger than 10, I was into books like The Pilgrim’s Progress. The more alien the world the better; the more distant, different, foreign from me the better.”

By his early teens he was addicted to sci-fi novels and subscribed to a fan magazine in which reviewers listed their favorite sci-fi films. Orderly and perfectionistic, he made lists of the films and hassled his father into driving him to the University of Melbourne for after-hours screenings of obscure classics such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Godard’s Alphaville.

“I was so excited by these films that I gave up science fiction almost overnight and then I was into film,” he says. Which led to further lists, this time of the 100 greatest films, as culled from coffee-table books. “I would tick them off as I saw them one by one. I was obsessive and I still am.”

Now he gets all the storytelling he needs from cinema and can no longer finish novels. “In life one must make choices; there’s limited time. I’ve sometimes been accused of somehow perverting the course of western civilisation by not reading novels, but I don’t believe it.”

It is the newest of literary forms, cyberwriting, that most unexpectedly led to Martin becoming known overseas. He was initially reluctant to publish on the Internet. “Basically, why do I want to give my work away for free? And I didn’t think the Internet was a real form of communication.”

But it is work on Internet publications that drew the attention of overseas festival directors, who then used cyberspace to search for more of his work. “I hadn’t realised its international(ising) effect,” he says.

After leaving school, Martin flirted briefly with the idea of teaching – “I thought, `I need a good, secure job”‘ – but became so absorbed by his college’s unit in film and media studies that he dropped out of the course. “I still, to this point, don’t have a university degree.”

Two years later, he was publishing in movie magazines and had part-time work lecturing on film thanks to one of his teachers, Tom Ryan, who is now the movie critic for The Sunday Age.

RYAN still remembers Martin’s first essay at Melbourne State College, on a director called Frank Tashlin. “My first reaction was, `Oh bloody hell! I’ve got another student who’s just nicked an essay out of Screen (magazine)’. Then I realised it hadn’t been plagiarised at all. In fact, I realised there was a lot of stuff I would have to read in order to do justice to this essay. It just blew me out of the water.”

Ryan says he is still amazed by the breadth of Martin’s reading and by the number of films he sees. “And his memory for detail is remarkable – he taught himself to remember things. He actually trained himself to remember with little exercises.”

It’s no wonder Martin knows so much about film; he does little else. When pushed, he admits to listening to music and reading non-fiction, but his real idea of time out is hiring half a dozen videos and ploughing through them with omnivorously like-minded friends. He pursues cinema with the kind of zeal others reserve for religion.

Ryan says Martin has dislikes that have become “bees in his bonnet”. “European art films, the old-fashioned ones that used to be shown at film festivals, and anything that bears the brand name of Sundance (an American film festival for independent film makers). They’re full of good taste, and good taste is something he reacts against on instinct, although he often comes around to saying they’re worthy of interest.”

Martin acknowledges that he dislikes “people thinking that there’s a rigid system of values of good and bad. That’s a very defensive thing; it’s sort of the anxiety of taste. You know, `I’m a quality person, I will go for a quality movie … (and it says something) about what I exclude and what I include’. It seems to me that the moment you start breaking down or escaping from your own prison of taste, you open yourself up to new experiences.

“Hitchcock films were once considered trash; now we think of them as the highest art.”

Martin has a testy relationship with the Australian film industry. Rick Thompson, senior lecturer in cinema studies at LaTrobe University, says Martin helps keep film culture alive in Australia. “He appears at conferences and public forums and panel discussions and is very generous about going out to universities and talking to young people interested in film and film-writing.”

But it is rare for Martin to greet an Australian film with enthusiasm. “I think Australian movies don’t go far enough, or lack intensity,” he says. “They often lack energy.”

He puts it down to lack of groundwork. “They’re not real film buffs. I don’t think they’re watching enough films … because when they go to make an action film or a mystery or a comedy, it’s like some part of their brain shuts off and they’re starting from scratch. They’re trying to rediscover the rules for how to make a film like this.

“Whereas my advice would always be, `Watch 100 movies of that sort, and then do something different if you want to, but at least know the rules’.”

A cinema critic, like a journalist or a therapist, has a vicarious professional life; he feeds off the stories of others. Does Martin ever feel that he ends up living in a half-light, with the world of cinema more real – or at least more satisfying – than the world outside?

“I’ve had a few melancholic moments of that sort,” he admits, “but not many. No, I honestly feel that cinema is something that can illuminate life and not deaden it, not cloak it in darkness.

“I do find it a completely fulfilling thing. I’m often suspicious of people who – they may write about film or music or whatever it is – but when you get to know them, you realise that their real passion is skiing or cricket or something else. It seems to me a little dissociated or inauthentic.

“But that’s how a lot of people function; they have their work in one part of their life, and their pleasure or their relaxation in another. As it turns out, I don’t need to, and I don’t want to.”

Adrian Martin, film critic

Born: Melbourne, 1959.

Educated: St Joseph’s College, West Melbourne.

Career: Lectured in film studies before becoming a full-time writer. Won the Byron Kennedy Award (Australian Film Institute, 1993) and the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing (1997). Written two books on film with three more commissioned. Movie critic for The Age since 1995.

Lives: Richmond, with his father John.

First published in The Age.

A literary feud born of family trauma


This is a tale of two sisters. The elder, poet and novelist Lily Brett, has built an international literary career on her memories of childhood as the worst of times.
Her parents were Holocaust survivors and she has told of growing up in “a house full of anguish”. Her traumatised mother would weep and weep in front of her; her mother screamed in the night; her mother was tyrannical and envious of her daughter.
The younger sister, psychotherapist and writer Doris Brett, remembers their childhood in Carlton and Elwood as the best of times. In a memoir published this week, Eating the Underworld, she challenges Lily’s accounts of their history and of their mother, Rose, who died 15 years ago.
She says she shared Lily’s bedroom until Lily was 13 but she never heard her mother scream in the night; that her mother never wept in front of her and barely mentioned the Holocaust; that their home was a haven to which children of more damaged survivors were drawn for comfort. Her mother was no tyrant but cosseted both daughters and was “as good as she was beautiful”.
The family problem was not her mother but Lily: “There were a lot of tantrums and she certainly had an explosive temper, and I think my mother was very hurt by that.”
Doris Brett says that at 18, after years of trying to ingratiate herself with Lily, she realised she could never win her big sister’s love. She later came to believe that Lily would never forgive her for having unseated her as the only child: “She hated me.”
A relatively private estrangement has now become a public literary feud. Lily Brett, who lives in New York, and her father Max, who is in Melbourne, were sent copies of Eating the Underworld. Lily Brett issued this statement through her publisher: “There are some things not worth replying to. This book is one of them.”
There was also a statement from 85-year-old Max Brett: “This book, Eating the Underworld, by my daughter Doris, is a book of madness. It makes me very sad. I recognise very little of our family life in this book. My daughter Doris has made up a picture of her sister Lily which I don’t recognise at all.”
Doris Brett was expecting this kind of response: “My father basically said that if I wrote anything that hurt Lily’s career he would denounce me; he would call me a liar … It just didn’t matter how many times I said, `This is not aimed at Lily.’ ”
Is this a case of terminal sibling rivalry? A Helen Garner-like row over a writer exposing one side of shared private moments to the public gaze? A reflection of the way some children of survivors end up with their parents’ experience as a big part of their identity, and others don’t? Or an object lesson in the way truth is never absolute, and memory is at best a fuzzy reconstruction?
Lily Brett’s publicity material tells her parents’ story as part of her own. Rose and Max Brett were married just before they were imprisoned in Poland’s Lodz ghetto. They were sent to Auschwitz, where they were separated. They found each other six months after the war and Lily was born in a German camp for displaced persons in 1946. They came to Melbourne in 1948 and Doris was born a year later.
Lily, 54, has won prizes for her Holocaust poetry, Poland and Other Poems and The Auschwitz Poems, as well as an international audience for her novel Too Many Men, in which the main character travels with her father to Auschwitz. Lily is married to artist David Rankin and has three children.
Doris, 51, is married with one daughter – she says having Lily as a sibling made her reluctant to have a second child – and is also an award-winning poet. Her work includes the novel Looking For Unicorns, a book on therapeutic storytelling for children called The Annie Stories, and The Constellation of the Crab, poems about her battle with ovarian cancer.
Eating the Underworld is largely a memoir of the cancer battle but it also reflects on questions she had been reluctant to face until the prospect of death forced her to reassess her life. These included the need to defend her mother’s memory.
She writes that she had held her silence for a long time, “Because I was told it was shameful to expose differences. Because I wished to protect people … Because of the difficult question of who `owns’ shared stories … Because of my concern that if I spoke out, then I would only be doing what I had criticised my sister for. And also, I am not proud to say, because of fear … All too often, the bearers of news which bursts bubbles … are themselves turned on …
“It has been painful seeing the accounts of my family recounted so publicly by my sister … I have had strangers stop me in the street and commiserate with me for having had such a terrible mother. I find myself saying again and again to them that no, that was not my experience. I have had patients who have come to see me as a psychotherapist because they had abusive mothers and, having read my sister’s books, they `knew’ that I had one too and would understand.”
Doris writes that she does not recognise Lily’s view of her mother: “It is clearly the way Lily has chosen to interpret her experience and yet in the minds of many, it has become who my mother actually was. It is how she will be remembered by readers, critics, academics; people who never knew her.”
Her parents did not discuss the Holocaust with their children because they wanted to protect them, Doris says. But they failed to protect her from her sister’s antagonism as they were growing up – perhaps because they were blind to it, perhaps because the death camp had engendered a kind of passivity in her mother, she writes.
Doris first challenged Lily in a letter to the Jewish News in the late 1980s. In her book she writes that Lily stopped speaking to her then and that her father, who had initially approved the letter, rang her close to tears after speaking to Lily. He accused Doris of trying to wreck her sister’s career.
The Brett sisters are in fine literary company. The chill between British writers A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble, who also have differing views of their mother, has been much written about. But Doris Brett says their situation is different: “They were each allowed to write, even though they didn’t like what the other wrote. I was silenced. It was made very clear that I shouldn’t be writing about these things and I shouldn’t be talking about these things.”
Now, “The reader can read Lily’s, they can read mine, and they can make up their mind. And that’s how it should be.”
But what is the reader to make of such contradictory accounts? Is this bitter tussle itself a symptom of the emotional damage caused by the camp experience?
Psychiatrist Dr Paul Valent has treated children of Holocaust survivors. He says he cannot comment on the Brett family but that in Holocaust families generally, “one child can take the brunt of the family’s (bad) experience and the other child might represent the hope of all the good things that should come in the new life …
“It often happens that the oldest child is colored by the Holocaust experience, whereas the youngest child escapes it, relatively speaking – especially if, for instance, the older child was born in a displaced persons’ camp and the younger child was
born in Australia,” he says.
Louise Adler is an arts and literary commentator whose Jewish father fought in the French resistance. “Lily’s central preoccupation has been with making sense of that moment in history and how it affected her life,” she says. “That’s a legitimate activity.
“The problem of fiction is the morality of using material that you share with other people. For Lily Brett, the added problem is that there are other ways of viewing the family history. Is this struggle between these two sisters a poignant symptom of the drama of the second generation struggling to make sense of the horror that actually belongs to another generation?”
Doris Brett, who has been a psychotherapist for nearly 30 years, shares Dr Valent’s view that siblings often emerge with entirely different experiences of the family. But she also points quietly to Lily Brett’s acknowledgement in interviews that she tends to embroider stories.
Doris says, “For me, the issue ultimately was that I had been living with the sense that if I kept silent, that it would somehow fix things in the family – on a personal level, with my father … But in the end, I realised my silence wasn’t fixing anything.”

First published in The Age.

A faithful translation: The King James Bible


A TRANSLATION, a French writer once said, is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is not beautiful.But that’s the French for you. The English would say that if it was both faithful and beautiful, it must be the King James translation of the Bible. It is so revered for its literary grace and the way it has shaped English that even non-believers study it as they would Shakespeare.

But while its text may be sublime, it was conceived in ignoble, self-aggrandising politics, commissioned in order to cement the privilege and power of the British Establishment.

The story of the King James Bible, first published in 1611, shows how greatness can spring rather undeservedly from shabby beginnings. It shows how people with power fight the spread of ideas that threaten them. And it offers reassurance to those who fear we are speaking a “dumbed-down”, degraded form of English today; their concerns echo centuries-old anxieties among intellectuals about the way language evolves.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, is a new book on the subject by a professor of historical theology at Oxford University, Alister McGrath.

McGrath writes with a scholar’s eye for detail and disdain for frivolity. He devotes six pages to the technology of the first printing and a mere aside to the titillating fact that good King James, whose name for centuries has been linked through this Bible with conservative religious righteousness, had strong homosexual tendencies and was given to lecherous fondling of his favorites in public.

James was a man with an eye to the main chance in other ways too. According to McGrath, he snatched at the idea for a new translation of the Bible in an attempt to placate Puritans who had expected him to reform the Church of England along their severely Protestant lines. James, who feared Protestantism because he saw it as linked to republicanism, had no such intention.

But he was happy to authorise a new translation that would eradicate the alarmingly democratic language of the then-popular Tyndale New Testament of 1526, which often translated “king” as “tyrant”, “church” as “congregation” and “priest” as
“elder”, thus undermining both monarchy and episcopacy.

The Geneva Bible, from which Shakespeare drew the quotations for his plays, was even more open in its challenge of the divine right of kings. It suggested royal orders should be disobeyed if they conflicted with the will of God and warned that tyrants’ days were numbered.

English authorities had tried unsuccessfully to ban English-language biblical texts and the next best thing was to produce their own authorised version. For James, writes McGrath, political and religious unity were to be achieved through him as monarch and through a single version of the Bible issued with his authority as king and as head of the church.

Luckily for literature, the 50-odd Oxford and Cambridge scholars given the task tried to translate faithfully from the Hebrew and Arabic of the original Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. They aimed for accuracy, not beauty, but the unexpected byproducts were poetry and pungency.

For centuries, the King James Bible was the main book illiterate people heard read, and those who were literate often learned to read from it. It was a unifying force in that it set modern, standard English.

Before then most people spoke strong dialects, and spelling was idiosyncratic (according to Melbourne linguist Dr Mark Newbrook, the Elizabethan seafarer Sir Walter Raleigh signed his name at least five different ways). The King James also enriched the vocabulary and imaginative power of English. The many Hebrew idioms from the Old Testament now taken for granted as English include “to pour out one’s heart”, “the land of the living”, “sour grapes”, “like a lamb to the slaughter” and “to go from strength to strength”.

New Testament translators drew from the earlier work of William Tyndale, to whom English owes much. He coined pithy expressions such as “the powers that be”, “my brother’s keeper”, “the salt of the earth” and “a law unto themselves”. He also invented new words to accommodate Biblical ideas, including “Passover”, “scapegoat” and “atonement”, although his aim was to produce a text that even a ploughboy could understand.

Let’s hope he received his reward in the next life. In this one, he was burnt at the stake – mercifully strangled first, it is thought – by church authorities in Belgium. Clergy were enraged by translations into the vernacular from Latin, the official language of the church spoken only by elites, because it threatened their control of religious belief.

Temporal rulers were anxious too. The term “liberation theology” may not have been coined, but it was feared that if ordinary people could read and interpret the word of God themselves, they might revolt.

After the publication of the King James Bible, an archbishop publicly burned a Geneva Bible and England banned all English-language Bibles printed in the more radical atmosphere of Europe. The excuse was that it protected the livelihood of English printers; in reality, it prevented the importation of ideas that challenged authority.

The divine right of kings is no longer an issue, at least in the West. But the translation of the Bible into English was opposed for another reason that still resonates today.

In 16th century England, the elites spoke English only to their inferiors, confining themselves otherwise to the more “refined” French or Latin. They feared religious texts would be cheapened if translated for commoners. “To translate into the language of the people was to vulgarise and trivialise the message,” says Dr Peter Horsfield, a lecturer in communications at RMIT.

Today, paradoxically, the English translation they feared is held up as a beacon by those who think 20th century English has become impoverished. “It seems to me it emerged from the period where the English language was at its most expressive and beautiful,” says David Silk, Anglican bishop of Ballarat and a member of the church’s liturgy panel. “It has a music, a poetry, a rhythm and a vivid style which the English language hasn’t really aspired to since. When people start to recite the 23rd psalm, `The Lord is My Shepherd’, it’s the King James version they still slip into.”

He says modern English is verbose and has replaced the active and the vivid with the passive and the abstract. “If Columbus set sail not in 1492 but now, he would not have said the world was flat, he would have said the world is an open-ended on-going situation.”

Newbrook, a lecturer in linguistics at Monash University, acknowledges the force of the King James Bible in the development of English; it was so dominant that many did not realise it was a translation and opposed change to it with the argument that “If the King James Bible was good enough for St Paul, it’s good enough for me”.

But Newbrook takes a more cynical view of its claim to grandeur: “Often something does sound very august and full of dignity and nicely written when it’s a bit archaic. At the time of Jesus, it was thought that really good Greek was speaking as Athenians had spoken 500 years earlier.”
Much of the impact of the King James Bible is being undone by the march of history. Its unifying effect on the language boosted English nationalism, but colonialism has since made English an international language. The King James Bible helped standardise usage and spelling, but email and cybertalk are “de-standardising” again with grammatical shortcuts, abbreviations, phonetic spellings and neologisms, according to Horsfield.

After electronic media, advertising is the main influence on language today, he says. “Advertising is continually working with language to make it do new things, such as creating ambiguous sentences that connote rather denote; `Just Do It’, for example, or `We do it all for you’, where it actually invites the reader to share in the construction of meaning.”

HORSFIELD says there is still debate about which level of culture should carry faith. In Sweden, entrepreneurs plan a glossy new version of the Bible aimed at young people in which mass-media icons are photographed as Biblical characters; supermodel Claudia Schiffer is tipped for Eve and Pamela Anderson’s ex-lover Markus Schenkenberg for Adam. There will be some nudity, said one of the promoters, “because the Bible is very sensual and we are going to exploit that”. Some church figures are appalled; others think anything that draws people in is a good thing.

“This is another attempt to translate the Bible into the vernacular,” Horsfield says. “The same struggle is going on now: Should Christian faith be preserved in an elevated language which is no longer the language of the marketplace?”

Alister McGrath would say no. McGrath loves the King James Bible. Like every child born in Britain in 1953, the year of Elizabeth’s coronation, he was given a copy by command of the Queen. Probably unlike most of them, he pored over it, fascinated by the words and the stories. But, discussing the pressure from traditionalists who wanted to retain the King James Bible, he argues that they “actually betray the intentions and goals of those who conceived and translated it – namely, to translate the Bible into living English”.

The man who preached to the poor and the dispossessed in marketplaces 2000 years ago would probably agree.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, by Alister McGrath, Hodder and Stoughton, $34.95.

First published in The Age.