Monday, November 25, 2013

High Tide: Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach

"They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy."
So Ian McEwan begins his latest novel, a short but highly charged work of fewer than 180 pages. The year is 1962 and the newlyweds are Edward and Florence, names that reek of an old world the '60s would soon transform.
When the book opens they are being served dinner in their hotel room on the Dorset coast of England by two trussed-up local lads who seem as awkward with the occasion as they are. In the distance the waves of Chesil Beach can be heard breaking, a sound of "gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against the pebbles".
Initially, McEwan's writing is restrained and formal, a quint- essentially British tone befitting the time in which it is set. One thinks of old BBC radio plays and "hears" the story being told. It would be easy to mistake this as tame fare indeed but for a sly humour and confidence percolating beneath McEwan's voice:
"This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a glazed cherry ... It would not have crossed Edward's mind to have ordered a red."
McEwan's intent, however, is not drawing room comedy. Ominous descriptive traces like the "hissing against the pebbles" and far rawer feelings are pulsing within a few pages. The internal mechanics of the book quickly reveal themselves as we discover who Edward and Florence are (he an aspiring historian, she a young violinist), diving into their thought patterns and family memories, reliving the romance between them and returning to the events of the wedding night as seen through the eyes of each.
Virtually everything that happens in On Chesil Beach occurs during this one evening and the tidal intensity, the back and forth between Edward and Florence, is palpable as it leads us down, finally, to the beach itself and the book's climactic scene.
McEwan exposes the rationalisations and self-deceptions we all succumb to in situations of great emotional uncertainty, the shifts in perception that show what changeable and unpredictable beings we can be to ourselves, let alone one another. In doing so, the book takes us deeper into two people's lives, counter-pointing the tensions of the present with the great backwash of their past and the surging of a future neither can fully see.

As the extent of Florence's fear of sex becomes clear - "her whole being was in revolt against the prospect of entanglement and flesh ... sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but the price she must pay for it" - we are clued into Edward's long-standing awareness of her repressive personality. Florence's genuinely loving affection, along with her passion for playing the violin, has allowed him to deceive himself of what must be "her richly sexual nature" and what he mistakes for simple shyness. Florence, of course, is at pains to make it seem this way. Edward, not entirely insensitive to these tensions and resistances, tries to be understanding, to take their wedding night slowly. By the time she is moaning in disgust at his touch he is interpreting it as the sound of ecstasy.
It's hard to say more without giving away the plot of this slender book. Suffice to say the emotions and ideas are profound in what might seem like the narrowest of circumstances. And though the focus remains overwhelmingly intimate - newlyweds in a hotel bedroom, mutual concerns about when they will have sex and how it will go - McEwan summons up the Cold War atmosphere with textures like the wireless playing downstairs, from where Edward hears the word "Berlin" and to where Florence wishes she could flee, "to pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on their floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned seriously into the news, into the gale of history".

McEwan has always been a political writer, as demonstrated in works as varied as his film script for The Ploughman's Lunch (1983), a critique of life in Thatcher's Britain, or his last brilliant novel, Saturday (2005), an attempt to grapple with the nature of violence and human connectedness in a post-September 11, 2001, world. His reflections in The Guardian on the events of September 11 still stand out among the best things written at the time. Whether penning an elegy for a deceased author like Saul Bellow or speaking with deep ambivalence about the Iraq War, he remains committed to the engaged notion of a public intellectual.
And yet there's a provocative, almost mathematical coolness to his writing that undercuts the comforting status of a literary good guy.
His debut collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), opened with the tale of a boy telling you, in a bemused tone, how he raped his sister. McEwan's ability to evoke the psychotic pull of a murderer in The Comfort of Strangers (1981) or a stalker's obsession in Enduring Love (1997) similarly displayed his taste for evil and violence in ways that appeared irresistible, almost mystical.
This interest in the sexually aberrant, the bizarre and the psychologically unsettling led to McEwan being nicknamed Ian Macabre early in his career. Over time McEwan's books have become less overtly strange (one of his most acclaimed short stories, Solid Geometry, deals with a man who discovers how to fold his wife up like a piece of paper and make her disappear) and more everyday in their intensities. And yet the same neo-gothic traits of lives lived in secret and looming darkness infect all his works with threat and fear.
When McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam it was largely seen as a lightweight work in his career, a tightly plotted entertainment. On Chesil Beach is similarly short, but far more serious, harking back to the compressed nature of his early and most haunting short stories, as well as McEwan's long-running interest in the random and banal ways ordinary lives can be shattered.
It is proof that no life is completely private or shut off from the world, that we can be victims of ourselves and, if we're unlucky, our historical moment, too.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books, April 6 2007

+ Photo of Ian McEwan taken at Paris Book Fair, 2011. Accessed via Wikipedia Commons. Image made by The Supermat -

Monday, October 28, 2013

Paul Kelly: One Day at a Time

Paul Kelly's back in town. I meet him at a King's Cross hotel where his daughter, Madeleine, is turning her slice of cheese into a jigsaw puzzle that makes sense only to her.
On his new album, Deeper Water, Kelly has named a song after her. The chorus? "Madeleine - you never let me sleep." Fathers everywhere will empathise.
While the four-year-old tugs persistently at his hand, Kelly's two-year-old daughter, Memphis, is in another room recovering from carpet burns to the face after she dived off a hotel lounge headfirst onto the floor.
Actor Kaarin Fairfax is, meanwhile, seeing an old friend, the portrait photographer Wendy McDougall, out the door. Kelly met Fairfax in 1988 when she starred in Sam Shepard's Lie Of The Mind. "We were just hanging at the bar," Kelly recalls, throwing the memory to Fairfax like an old joke.
The pair married in 1993. With two young children and stretches of time in Los Angeles - where Kelly has been based kick-starting an American career - Kaarin Fairfax hasn't had much time for acting. That's changing now the family is back in Australia.
"I did Correlli," Fairfax says, acting tough, pushing words out the side of her mouth, "playing a criminal's goil-friend."
At the centre of all this, Paul Kelly just hangs back quietly. Despite the hyperactivity, it's clear his family life protects him - that Kelly pulls it around him like a warm blanket. Seeing him on the couch with Madeleine when I arrive, he's oddly calm, oddly vulnerable.
As he will say later, when discussing his returns to Australia after overseas jaunts: "I like to come home. It's OK here."
Kelly's manager, Rob Barnham, starts ticking off the day's media itinerary with Kelly. I'm tagging along for the afternoon to get a closer look at one of Australia's favourite songmen.
Late last year Kelly toured Europe and America and he's playing at home this month. In typical Kelly fashion, the songs from Deeper Water have become part of our lives.
"That's why you write songs," Kelly says, as if it's nothing special and certainly obvious. "You want them to be in people's lives."
With the Helen Demidenko/Darville controversy still percolating, Kelly's eager to say The Hand That Signed The Paper “is good writing. But all the Jews in the book are communists. So it's bad history." It's a crucial distinction for Kelly, whose poet of the common man credentials are built on both good writing and accuracy - whether it be something as subtly textured and local as allusions to "a Silvertop" taxi (‘To Her Door’) or Randwick bells (‘Randwick Bells’), or a turning point in the history of the land rights movement (‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’).
"I've always liked concrete writing with pictures and details," says Kelly with relish. "Chuck Berry was a great example of that. I'm very conscious of it. I wanted to map where I came from the way Chuck Berry mapped out America."

Dressed in a brown bomber jacket with a blue T-shirt and jeans, Kelly's hair is close and short. I'm sure he has dressed this way for ages, rock 'n' roll basic, nothing too flash. As he says of writing: "Simple is always best."
But the 40-year-old seems slimmer than a year ago, somehow sharper than the sated, middle-aged bloke who last toured. Wanted Man, from 1994, was a critical low point for Kelly. Despite some great live shows, the album sounded like a songwriter falling off the face of American FM rock with a dull thud. Was the guy losing his touch, or getting soft because of family life and success?
Ask Kelly about Wanted Man's artistic failure, ask him about Deeper Water and its profound return to form - his best form ever - ask him if he sees Deeper Water as more coherent, more feeling on every front, and he just shrugs his shoulders.
"My friends like this record better," he finally admits, under pressure. "It's more of a band record I think." Then he laughs. "All my records feel like they're scraped together. Deeper Water is just what I did this year."
Rather than shy or aloof, Kelly's just a quiet guy. Stillness is one of his most potent qualities. It makes him easy company. Strong company, too.
Back when he was the socket-eyed, leather jacketed poet of the early '80s Melbourne music scene with his band The Dots, that stillness simmered with self-destructiveness.
Listen to Post, his stark account of heroin use, inner-city relationships and people dying, hear ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’, and you'll get something of the world he left behind when he came to Sydney to live for a few years.
Kelly prefaced his book of lyrics, (called Lyrics) with a quote from Chekov: "I don't have what you would call a philosophy or coherent world view, so I shall limit myself to describing how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die and speak."
On Deeper Water parenthood is Kelly's dominating theme. But Kelly's propensity for mawkishness is absent, and his spare eye never lets the colloquial slide into cliché. Deeper Water's take on family, growing older and love also has a dark edge to it, something in the territory around the songs, that gives the album an unusual intensity and warmth.
Kelly weighs up what I'm trying to say with that observation, weighs it quite considerably.
"I have a pretty good life now," he finally sighs. "But it ... feels like it's endangered. Or precious, or fragile - maybe that's what I'm trying to say. Maybe it's to do with having children or something but, as a parent, you have to be prepared for disaster."
He starts to talk about his song ‘Gathering Storm’. "It sounds like someone waiting for a lover. What was at the back of my mind when I wrote it was a parent worrying about a child. And how there's so much ... a lot of danger."
If Kelly deals with parenthood and the powerfully related theme of mortality in songs like ‘Deeper Water’ and ‘Gathering Storm’, he also deals with sex with unusual rawness and heart. His song ‘Blush’ exalts to the summer beach lyric: "When we kiss she tastes so salty/On her cheek and her neck/I can't wait till I get with her/So I can kiss her salty breasts."
"It's really hard to write about good sex or write straightforwardly about sex without being banal about it," he says. Citing Motown music, Kelly adds "the great thing about a lot of soul music is that they wrote about sex and joy really well. Whereas the singer-songwriter tradition is about things that went wrong, the complications and the unrequited."
He shakes his head. "When I was last in America I was listening to modern r'n'b, urban radio. They played rap, hip-hop and they'll have balladry, but horrible songs all about sex and "doing it', and always the singers doing vocal gymnastics that are very explicit and ... well, just horrible."
At Soundcom, an organisation responsible for Ansett's in-flight music as well as in-store sounds for the likes of Just Jeans and Woolworths, Kelly's asked to play a couple of songs, and it turns into a free concert for the staff, who file in smiling, waiting nervously for him to begin. The intimacy in the small conference room between Kelly's performance and this audience of 20 is absurdly reverent and close.
He chooses ‘Blush’, then ‘Queen Stone’, a thinly disguised paean to heroin, the dark muse, written by his old guitarist Maurice Frawley. Then he follows with ‘Difficult Woman’, which he wrote for Renee Geyer - "I got my hands full with a difficult woman."
Overall it's a sweet, gently intense effort. Everybody claps, absolutely beams appreciation. The love is palpable. Kelly puts his guitar down, embarrassed. "If I'd known you were all coming I'd have practised more."
Outside, in the daylight, Kelly says the experience was "a bit strange". He seems quite rattled, then he laughs. "During the last song I suddenly got a flash of one of those Elvis Presley movies." I tell him about a saying I heard at a party a few months ago. "Scratch an Adelaide person, find an Elvis." Kelly snorts, keeps laughing to himself, then finally says between fits of chuckling: "I'm from Adelaide, you know."

- Mark Mordue

* Story first published as ‘Poet of the Common Man’ in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro, January 12, 1996.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Learn to Fly

Burn the birds
Burn them now
Use our fire, breath fear on their wings.
We gulp down lies and simplifications
Like petrol
Spit it out. Circus jerks.
“Here we are now, entertain us.”
My vote for you protects my perks:
Islamic racists loving mini-skirts.
Burn the birds
Let’s wipe the sky with tongues of flame
Keep them out. The old, the young, the lame.
We love a sun-fun country
A lad of chefs and sushi trains.
To many fuckers, too many fish with feathers.
Call the monk. Club and crucifix.
Burn the birds. They have no name.
Perks. Jerks. Soon we’ll all be running
Bad weather is coming.
Hide the money from our children.
Down in Antarctica among the last stones
Someone called The Leader can explain
Why it was we ate tomorrow.
Bird bones in our throats. No brains.

- Mark Mordue

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"What will survive of us is love": Isabel Fonseca's Attachment

It's 10am in Primrose Hill, London. The author Isabel Fonseca sits in her kitchen, "tanking up on coffee". An American by birth and a New Yorker at heart, she says, "I can't believe I've lived in England for over 25 years or whatever it is. It's payment for my sins. Or maybe I just forgot to leave."
Her tone has a throwaway flash to it; just joking, right? Fonseca corrects me immediately. "I'm not, you know."
Why such resentment towards her adopted home? After all, England made her, so to speak. From a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Oxford to her role as an assistant editor at The Times Literary Supplement and the publication of Bury Me Standing in 1995, a non-fiction study of the gypsies of Eastern Europe.
That book involved five years of participatory journalism, living and breathing her subjects' lives from Albania to Estonia. Upon publication Salman Rushdie called it "a revelation: a hidden world"; Edward W. Said praised its "profound sympathy and brilliant insight".
In the meantime, Fonseca was making other news over her affair with Martin Amis. She had already picked up the nickname "Funseeker" on the London social circuit, as well as a slew of admirers that purportedly included John Malkovich, Clive James, Bill Buford and, yes, Salman Rushdie.
Men fairly wilted before Fonseca and to this day, at age 46, there is not an article on the internet from The Sunday Times to W Magazine that does not still remark upon her beauty. A formidably intelligent brunette, her dark looks reflected the heritage of her Uruguayan father, a highly regarded sculptor, and her Jewish American mother, a painter and heiress to the Welch grape juice family-company fortune.
Amis would eventually leave his first wife, Antonia Phillips, and their two sons; get a hotshot American agent, a seriously big American publishing deal and even get his teeth fixed. Fonseca was the scarlet woman behind this scandalous Americanisation of a British icon, a cliche that ignored Amis's long-running transatlantic obsessions, not to mention the fact Phillips was an American academic. Fonseca and Amis would go on to marry in 1998 and now have two daughters, Fernanda, 11, and Clio, 9.
When I ask Fonseca about her antipathy to England, she's quick to refine it into something more good-natured: "Oh it's all right. London's just too expensive to be loveable … Actually we just spent a few years living in South America. And it was wonderful, charming, heaven. But I don't mind being in the wrong place. I think for a writer being in the wrong place is often a very good thing."
Back in 2004 Fonseca and family decamped to Uruguay for 2½years in the wake of her father's death. There Fonseca attempted to write and then abandoned a major non-fiction work on her extended family. During that time she turned to "what was, I thought, a short story at first" before it evolved into the highly intimate book she now calls Attachment.
Attachment is not only Fonseca's debut novel it is her first major work since Bury Me Standing. In it she quotes these crucial, if ambiguous words from Philip Larkin's An Arundel Tomb: "What will survive of us is love."
Like the Larkin poem, Attachment takes a somewhat anti-romantic view of romance, before leaving us with a bittersweet and defiantly fragile ending. The book's central character is Jean Hubbard, a syndicated American health columnist married to a high-achieving British advertising executive called Mark. Mark is described as "six feet four in bare feet and striking with his grayed hair swept back, wind-eroded dune grass above the expanding beach of his face". This alone sounds like an awfully good depiction of Amis with a height boost, not to mention a more commercialised slant on his and Fonseca's literary preoccupations.
Like Fonseca, Hubbard has a background that includes having once worked as a paralegal for the summer in New York; she similarly buys pot as a teenager in Washington Square; studies at Oxford; is shadowed by a brother who has died tragically young; deals with a father who is critically ill; and copes with the unexpected appearance of a young woman who might be her husband's daughter (Amis discovered he had an unknown daughter called Delilah Seale in 1997). That the opening of Attachment is set on the imaginary island of St Jacques - supposedly located somewhere near Mauritius, but also a hot, exotic place not unlike Uruguay - brings it even closer to home.
When Attachment begins, Hubbard discovers a sexually provocative letter that leads her to a secret email link and an affair her husband has been having. To find out more about it Hubbard begins writing to "Giovanna" as if she were her husband. This incites Hubbard to abandon herself to a night of infidelity back in London, and to later flirt with an old lover in New York while her father hovers on the critical list in hospital. "Everything was sullied and she was rotting from within," Hubbard reflects as she delves into a world of internet affairs and online pornography. Later, as she embraces a path of disillusionment to license her own betrayals, she admits "this was the consequence she most feared: her own revulsion for her world, for all that she had. Auto-eviction."
Britain is already abuzz with Attachment as an adulterous and confessional insight into a less-than-happy marriage - as well as the critical complications of dealing with a work that may or may not be a roman-a-clef. Attachment is a novel of great promise but it ebbs and flows in its intensity according to the proximity one feels between the author and her "truths". In short, the things Fonseca seems to have experienced are powerfully evoked; the things she appears to have imagined feel forced or contrived.
Fonseca runs a nice line in self-deprecating humour and frankness. But in the course of an hour's conversation she puts herself to the test of her own thinking repeatedly and seems to find herself wanting. Talking on the phone there's that strange, floating sense you have not so much entered her home as her headspace: an inner world so thoughtful and honest it can leave you feeling cowardly by comparison.
"There's a long period of merger in the beginning of any relationship," Fonseca says. "Then with children you sense you have to keep a united front. My daughters are nine and 11 now. Old enough to get your space back a little. You see that you still have a long way to go - I hope! That I'm only halfway … But you also ask, 'Is that it?' Not as a matter of complaint, more as a matter of stupefaction." Fonseca almost laughs. "Here I am, I've made babies, but who am I now that I am on my own again?"
She's adamant "adultery is not the subject of Attachment, but ageing is. There's this disappointment about your decrepitude, this realisation you are going to die which you have never quite accepted. Adolescence and middle-age actually share a lot of parallels. The unease about the body and the sexual awareness that's associated with it, only you have this death awareness that gives it a particular pungency in middle age. Things like the way your parents suddenly demand your attention with their mental or physical fragility or both; or something as simple as the way your children won't do what they're told any more."
Coincidentally Bury Me Standing and Attachment both resound with a quest for home. "Whenever you write it is to investigate some anxiety. Writing about the gypsies there was some public anxiety with identity. Fiction is more about scratching about in a silent anxiety. And your sense of identity often relates to what home means, I guess. I didn't set out to do that. But I see now there's a lot of homesickness in the story [of Attachment] … Maybe it's a cliche of fiction that the past is another country. But this nostalgia for the time before is so often identified with place as much as time."
"You know I still go to New York about four times a year for various reasons. One of the real, but less legitimate reasons I do it is you can imagine life before it happened to you, when things could have gone 19 different ways. I think that's why I'm lucky to be a writer. Because you can think about and write about such things, just to see how you feel."

-                  -  Mark Mordue

·                  *  First published as ‘Well written in the Wrong Place’,
    Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, June 14, 2008

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Lost Worlds: Anna Funder's Stasiland

"I am hungover and steer myself like a car through the crowds at Alexanderplatz station. Several times I miscalculate my width, scraping into a bin, and an advertising billboard. Tomorrow bruises will develop on my skin, like a picture from a negative."

And so we begin. Caught inside a "headspace." Having trouble with our borders, as if the damaged compass of our narrator will map its own unpleasant realities across us the further as we move into her story. Bruises of another kind.
In the company of the Australian writer Anna Funder words have a cool poeticism and metaphoric sharpness that prick deep, reflective emotions inside the reader. It is the language of ice, winter, enclosure, and, of course, death.
So it is that you don't just browse through the Stasiland's pages on some idiosyncratic tour of present-day, techno-grooving Berlin (as the sexy cover art for the Australian edition might suggest); instead you pass through a netherworld of bad historical memories and the damaged lives that still inhabit it.
With a fearlessness that seems guileless for someone so perceptive, as if Funder has never been truly hurt or endangered before, the author dives into the history of the laughably named "German Democratic Republic" and its former security force, "the Stasi", whose surveillance culture dominated East Germany during Communist rule and continues to haunt many of its populace today. She does this simply by posting an advertisement in the local paper "seeking former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators for interview." It is the opening act on the proverbial can of worms.
"People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head," Funder writes. "I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in Stasi men's minds as something they hope one day might come again, and in their victims' minds too, as a terrifying possibility."
Stasi headquarters was known as "the House of One Thousand Eyes." Funder explains, "At the end, the Stasi had 97,000 employees--more than enough to oversee a country of seventeen million people. But it also had 173,000 informers among the population. In Hitler's Third Reich it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin's USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the GDR there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have put the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens."
In this kind of world, secrecy and surveillance were not without their bureaucratic absurdity. At one point Funder cites a Stasi file note from 1989, the year the Wall finally fell, in which "a young lieutenant alerted his superiors to the fact there were so many informers in church opposition groups at demonstrations they were making these groups appear stronger than they really were. In one of the most beautiful ironies I have ever seen, he dutifully noted that it appeared that, by having swelled the ranks of the opposition, the Stasi was giving the people heart to keep demonstrating against them."
The preying density, the absolute complicity of it all, leads Funder through a world of broken and repressed lives that no shorthand summary can do justice to: a mother separated from a critically ill son by the building of the Wall in 1961; a budding young linguist denied a career, then a love life, and finally the ability to love, by the encroaching thuggery of the State; a maverick rock star refused his public existence by the annulling force of the security apparatus. You meet them all in Funder's strangely permeable company; feel something of their lost quality as one might feel the hurt of familiars. At one point Funder admits, "No one can ever tote up life's events and calculate the damages; a table of maims for the soul." But in Stasiland she most certainly tries.
Beyond the victims she speaks to collaborators, propagandists, apologists and people who felt they were just doing their job, as well as Stasi men still living a secret life, still absorbed in the possibility of another turning point back into history: a nostalgia for the ice age of totalitarianism that is surprisingly prevalent beneath the surface of east German life today. I'd argue the successes of Le Pen in France, let alone the mood beneath the regimes of China and Russia, suggest this mood is not so delusional--or exclusively Teutonic in flavour.
Funder certainly gives it chilly credence here. She visits office spaces and torture rooms, has murky assignations with Stasi men at bars and churches and curtain-drawn homes, places that emanate a banal evil all their own. Human coldness is manifest in the architecture around her, in bereft public spaces, even an empty chair. Everything feels soiled.
Finally she meets "the puzzle women in Nuremburg" who seek to piece back together the shredded documents of the most bureaucratized police state the world has ever known, the stories of lives that were destroyed--often covertly--by the Stasi: thickly plotted "mysteries" of lost jobs, suicide, murder and divorce, all puppet-pulled from invisible strings above people's heads. Indeed many of the victims Funder meets exist themselves in fragments and gaps, as unrestored to meaning as the shredded dossiers and files on their lives. Never to be put back together again.
One of the most interesting themes to Stasiland is the way "many people withdrew into what they called "internal emigration." They sheltered their secret inner lives in an attempt to keep something of themselves from the authorities."
For Funder's young and beautiful landlady Julia this defensive response has become a prison of its own. "It's the total surveillance that damaged me the worst," Julia confesses to her in one of the many startling set-pieces of the book, a kitchen scene choking with regret and claustrophobia. "I know how far people will transgress over your boundaries--until you have no private sphere left at all. And I think that is a terrible knowledge to have... That's probably why I react so extremely so approaches from men and so on. I experience them as another invasion of my intimate sphere."
On that masculine point it's interesting to reflect that the GDR had the world's oldest leaders at the time the Wall was brought down and the Communist regime finally collapsed. Julia speaks of her earlier dreams that they would all eventually die off, though later she discovered they were injecting themselves with sheep cells, taking oxygen, doing anything to prolong their creepy grip on power. A female cleaner attending to the old Stasi headquarters--now a museum--speaks of how when she first arrived all the rooms emanated "the smell of old men."
One feels in these irksome descriptions--along with the spidery quality beneath Funder's own encounters with aging Stasi men--the incontinency and anxiety of this culture at its very end, its repulsive dankness and needy aggression. If there is meta-psychology to the book, it's a view of the state as a people held tight in daddy's oppressive fist. It's this perspective that leads me to wonder if only a woman could fully negotiate and sensitize the political mystery of totalitarianism in the manner Funder has achieved. But perhaps that's being way too Freudian and deterministic for such brilliant inquiry into the soul of a nation at its lowest depths.
By the end of Stasiland Funder is weighted by the sorrows she has heard and the death of her own mother back in Australia. Grief comes down upon her "like a cage." She leaves Germany with no great wisdoms to offer, but when she returns almost three years later it is spring, not the winter she lived through. Berlin is now "green, a perfumed city," a place she knows yet does not know at all from the winter-world she previously passed through. Though there is the vague feeling of Funder self-consciously looking for meaning in these final chapters, a flicker of her narrative control losing confidence, she still delivers a heart-rending denoument: a recognition of other, humbler human secrets, infinitely lighter than the world she submerged herself into.
The queen of Australian literary journalism, Helen Garner, has rightly acclaimed this book with a cover note that states it "makes us love non-fiction." With her debut Stasiland Anna Funder has certainly announced herself as one of the leading non-fiction writers of the present day, Sydney's very own answer to Joan Dideon. Like Dideon at her early best in books like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Funder's writing persona is taut and pale, interior and existential, yes, but absolutely enmeshed in history. We are fortunate to witness her arrival.

- Mark Mordue

Review first published online at Freezerbox (USA) on 16.06.2003.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sunrise: The Dream Is Not Over!

Ladies and Gentleman, I have read with increasing alarm of the demise of Melissa Doyle at Channel 7’s morning breakfast show, Sunrise. And of concerns how the “Sunrise family” will take to such Game of Thrones type savagery.

It is my belief the savagery should increase - and that those involved should resolve the controversy one morning as soon as possible with an all-in knife fight.

This should take place in a pit where both on-air staff and back-room executives spill blood beneath a large photo of Marlon Brando as The Godfather, with a Channel 7 badge pinned to his lapel in the subtle name of corporate branding.

With everyone either dead or dying after the knife fight in said pit, I’d like to then see Kochie seated on a platform above the action. He would need to be wearing a gold turban with his yearly wage of some $700,000 or more inscribed upon it. The wage might be best presented in a digital format with equivalents in Yen, Deutschemark, the English Pound and the Estonian Kroon.

There on the platform, lounging among brocaded pillows, with his wage flashing in a variety of currencies across his scone, Kochie could then be left to pontificate in an increasingly hallucinogenic and endlessly philosophical way on various incoming news events as he smokes a hookah.

Images of Melissa Doyle and Samantha Armytage could flash by in a reasonless manner, ghosts in the machine of his consciousness. At times he could perhaps confuse them, all the while he quotes the greats: Rumi, Nietzsche, Bolt.

It be would be especially good if Kochie's ravings became more lunatic as the week progressed - before he finally levitates at the end of Friday morning's show and self combusts into an explosion of gold coins and cheap paperback joke books.

Kochie would of course return each Monday and the cycle would begin anew.

I regard this as the best and most competitive way of re-branding Sunrise as a kind of infotainment cross between It Aint Half Hot Mum and The Monkee's movie Head. Which is what breakfast TV news has been crying out for, for like ages man!

In this way, and only this way, can a weary Sunrise compete with former producer Adam Boland’s new morning program being mooted on Channel Ten.

I'm here and ready to take Sunrise to the next stage of its evolution and compete like never before – and of course available to work as the show’s Producer and indeed a Svengali. In doing so I am confident I will be acclaimed as both a 'new boy wonder' and 'the Adam Boland of Acid News Now'. Channel 7, I await your call. 

- Mark Mordue

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In A Silent Way

I DON'T WANT to tell you where. It seems too private. Not that I have all that much to tell, only what I saw. Midafternoon, a warm sun, the wind whipping off the nearby ocean so blustery and fresh I am almost cold and warm at once.
And there I am ... running through a graveyard on the south coast of NSW. The cliffs fall away and the water heaves. As far as the eye can see, north or south, the coastline stretches into a salty mist until it disappears.
I'm plugged in to Miles Davis's In a Silent Way on my iPhone. I've had this record for years, but this is the first time I have really listened to it, and it's astounding. The way Davis plays: as if he is not quite in the music but above it, a great bird flying over a cool landscape.
It's the first track, Shh/Peaceful, that sucks me in - time 17:58, what would have been all of side one in the days of black vinyl. Oh, the pleasures of headphones and hi-tech mobility when it comes to our listening experience today. Hearing it makes me feel as if I, too, could fly, just like Davis's shining trumpet, serene and above it all.
I've come south and separated myself from home and family for a few weeks to work on a book project, a biography of another musician as it happens, Australian singer and songwriter Nick Cave.
Back where I've come from in Sydney, there's a tribute concert built around Cave's many great songs, with some fine artists performing, but I have an inkling Nicholas Edward Cave has already moved on from all that is being celebrated.
Last year, when we met, Cave spoke of Davis's On the Corner (1972), arguably the jazz master's most forward-looking, street-wise and darkly funky work. I can see how the fusions, fury and fun Davis was having at the turn of the 1970s - when the trumpeter began accelerating across the divide between jazz and rock 'n' roll, progressing from acoustic formations into electronic grooves, Afro-beats and Stockhausen-inspired cut-ups - has more recently informed Cave's sonic palette with his prog-rock blues band Grinderman.
Art is a hall of mirrors: connections, ambitions, echoes, heroes and their struggles. As Cave's biographer-to-be I am looking at not just his work but also everything that affects it: from Samuel Beckett's novels to German expressionist art, from Davis to King Crimson and David Bowie. What I seek is more than a study of the influences; it's the fuel that can lift me up to places where I don't just know something, I feel it by dint of the force of those same influences on me.
Of course I can get distracted and go in way too deep to be practical. And so it is that I end up exploring everything about how Davis electrified his sound, beginning with the crystal ambience of In a Silent Way (1969) and metastasising into Dark Magus (1974), a storming live show documenting what some perceived as the height of improvisory rock 'n' jazz madness. Somewhere in the middle of all that was the genre-defining fusion landmark, Bitches Brew (1970). And yet another dark spark, the September 18, 1970, death of Davis's friend Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist with whom the trumpeter had been hanging out and jamming during the late 60s. I wondered to myself, listening to it all: did Hendrix's death give Davis an added sense of purpose, a desire to fill the breach, seize the day? Davis would certainly not be the first man to discover that another's death sets you free, or demands a new freedom of you.
It's perhaps the biographer's lot to also discover that another's life can entrap you. To be someone's biographer is, in a sense, to try to live another's life in a matter of a few years. That's quite a compression chamber to dive into. I've been thinking lately I might never make it out of Cave's world and all that it involves, when Davis's In a Silent Way picks me up again. Raises me up high over the material, even over who I am. The way Davis plays his trumpet: cool but not cold, gliding not forced, great without trying too hard. It's an inspiration, yes it is. Done with such ease; in a spirit of ascent and release, as if Davis has let go of everything.
What I don't know is that it's the start of a recording era stimulated by heroin use. By 1975 Davis would forsake his journey in music for his overwhelming addiction. His old collaborator and friend, pianist and arranger Gil Evans, would be more circumspect in explaining Miles's retirement: "His organism is tired. And after all the music he's contributed for 35 years, he needs a rest." Rumours would persist across the next five years that he was fixing to die. But by 1981 Davis would step out of his own oblivion and go searching for new possibilities, brushing up against everyone from Prince to Public Image Ltd along the way.

SO THERE I AM in a graveyard on the south coast, In a Silent Way pouring through me, filling me with new resolve and energy. Time to go back to the little shack I am renting and set to work writing again. As I turn and run puffing up the hill - gasping with purpose - I notice a woman lying on the grass, using a long stone beam that runs along the ground for her pillow. These terrazzo beams are where the engraved memorial plaques are set to mark the remains of the cremated.
There are fresh flowers beside the woman, and what looks like a picnic basket. She has been there a while and will be there some time yet. She is right at the back of the cemetery, and there are no other plaques imprinted yet along the rest of the beam where she has her head. She is gesturing and talking to someone I can't see.
It becomes obvious to me this woman is lying beside her dead husband for the day. Some lines from a Cave song called Jesus of the Moon pop into my mind as I look at her, then glance away, as if something in me knows I should never have looked at all:
Well, I kept thinking about what the weatherman said
/ And if the voices of the living can be heard by the dead
/ Well, the day is gonna come when we find out / And in some kinda way I take a little comfort from that (now and then)
I  have always had a thing for graveyards. Visiting them; writing about them. I guess I do take a little comfort in them. I have to ask myself why.
It's impossible not to feel the pull of tragedy and grief, of course, along with the humbling clarity of lives that appear to have been well lived. Perhaps there's an existential clarity in those extremes that is worth being reminded of.
A good graveyard song always gets to me, that's for sure: the devilish humour and childish superstitions of Tom Waits's Whistlin' Past the Graveyard ("Whistlin' past the graveyard/ steppin' on a crack"); the ecstatic sadness of the Smiths' Cemetry Gates ("So we go inside and we gravely read the stones/ all those people, all those lives/ where are they now?").
Here, today, I find myself moved as always by the simple invocations and resorts to the Bible, to prayer and verse. And by the even simpler summaries of a person's life and work: doctor, nan, brother, teacher, mother, daughter, trade unionist, father, beloved and loved. "Forever in our hearts", "sleeping peacefully", "sadly missed" are the primary and most repeated words in this place. Peace, memory, God, love: these are the precipitate wisdom of the generations.
The Catholic section, the Anglican area, the buried, the cremated: death is social as well as devastatingly intimate for family and friends; it has its own communities, rituals and burial processes, even its own class systems and real estate that tell you something of the surrounding world.
Graveyards often map a town's history, too: a plague of influenza, a mining accident, a fishing village wounded by wild weather. You bear witness to the life of a particular place within the events scored into the stone and the plaques. Certain graveyards seem to stop in time altogether, a measure of a town growing old and declining.
Always it's the small stories that emerge. Totems of affection among the fresh and wilted flowers: a large green crystal, a faded blue fishing lure, a ceramic light-house, a toy horse, a VB stubby (unopened), a baby's rattle ... I notice a grave and see that a child has been buried there, dead at 4 1/2 months. Then, just one year later, the father, wounded in battle. It could be to do with Afghanistan, but it's World War I and France that have taken him.
The grave is old and the writing ready to fade, the words already on their way to becoming Braille as I touch their meaning.
Losing your daughter and your husband within a year of each other: how much grief can one life take? And how did you live afterwards, nameless wife and mother? And where and with whom were you buried? There's no answer. But for a moment I am inside the world of another.
In this way the gravestones continuously remind me of Ernest Hemingway's insight that a very little can say a lot - and his famous, if apocryphal, example of a short story done in just six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

I CAN REMEMBER being taken to country graveyards from a very young age, to visit an obscure great-aunt's plot, to see other country relatives who meant nothing to me amid the overgrown, crackle-dry summer grass. But probably my most significant visit was when my family went on drives from Newcastle up into the Hunter Valley, and on a few occasions my grandparents made us stop over at the East Maitland Cemetery.
Here lay the early 20th-century boxing champion Les Darcy, who had died in the US on May 24, 1917, at 21. Because I was partly brought up by my grandparents, I was given a high regard for Don Bradman, Darcy and Phar Lap as three of the greatest sporting stories to emerge in Australia.
Only the Bradman machine ran counter to the general passion for romantic tragedy in every heroic tale I heard, from Gallipoli to Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills and, yes, Darcy and Phar Lap too. A thread that seems very Australian to me, a flame, a dream, a premature end.
Now, apparently, Darcy's coffin lies broken and his family vault flooded with mud. Yet a small public outcry across the valley about this state of affairs shows that the boy-hero Darcy is not forgotten completely, at least not by the locals.
One might turn to it being a matter of historic import or, more crassly, tourism in any argument about the costly restoration of his grave. But there is a deeper psychic tissue ingrained in our concerns for how the dead rest, a feeling that we owe them something.
To be honest, it was just a bunch of stories floating above my head until my grandfather died when I was nine. It was then that the ritual of visiting a grave became much more significant. Cleaning the grit from the black marble, replacing the dead flowers, kissing his photo. Speaking to him. Until, of course, I visited less and less, said even less. Forgot even who I was speaking to.
Now my grandmother lies beside him in the same grave. And once every blue moon I will go there - if I can find the spot - and think about them, as well as the boy I used to be and how I left that world behind.
It seems like Mars to me and it is hard to remember much of it, so foreign is the feeling. Yet I know I lived there on that world with them. And maybe that's why the aptly named Sandgate Cemetery, set just outside of my home town of Newcastle, stays in my mind, flat as an old sheet drying in the sun.
As a teenager I would be startled by Nicolas Roeg's science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). I loved it but my friends thought it was stupid. They didn't understand the visions that the alien, Thomas Jerome (played by a red-haired David Bowie), has of his old planet dying from lack of water. Jerome is on a mission to ship water back to his planet, but he becomes enmeshed in the corruptions of life on Earth - money, power, sex, alcohol - and he fails.
Thanks to the release of Low a year later, and Bowie's continuing insect-thin alien paleness, not to mention the funereal and aloof, hyper-modern pop he had begun making as a result of his stay in Berlin, it felt as if the singer had moved into some post-apocalyptic space from where he viewed us all.
He was seductive, strange, bleak, other-worldly, romantic, the most important popular music artist of his day. I'd look at him on the cover of Low, remember him in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and envision a man in the reddened, atomic nowhere of a dead world.
Well, I can't tell you how thrilling that was. I knew something of what it was to be like him. I was 17 and I was an alien, too, and I was ready to leave my dying planet for another.

THERE'S A BLEAKNESS in my mind, to Sandgate Cemetery that has not deterred me from visiting other graveyards since, or from finding far more peaceful possibilities in those visits. I'm not running from the end, I guess; I am trying to become familiar with it.
I'm not leaving anywhere; I'm trying to get back home.
Which is much more like Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth than I understood as a teenager. As in his album Low, it is not the disintegration that is romantic; it's the search for integration that brings nobility to the aloneness.
His song Be My Wife is a telling example of that:
"Sometimes you get so lonely/ Sometimes you get nowhere/ I've lived all over the world/ I've left every place/ Please be mine/ Share my life/ Stay with me/ Be my wife..."
Yet, of course, his daring move to make all of side two of Low a set of instrumentals in collaboration with Brian Eno would sound like a funeral rite, like music for a European graveyard. It is not just people who die, whole worlds and cultures do as well. He'd break up with his wife, he'd push on alone.
AT this cliff-top graveyard on the coast, it occurs to me that my name need not even be on a cross or tombstone when I go, that I'd prefer it marked down that I loved my partner and my children, and that their names might be written there in stone as if I were still loving them long after I had gone, as if I were still writing to them and speaking to them.
This conversation between the dead and the living is something that matters greatly to me. As I revisit this coastal graveyard I will start to notice other visitors speaking to the stones and the flowers and the wind. A man arrives towing a small caravan. He has obviously come a long way to pay his respects. Another man, in his late 40s, astride a bicycle, stands for a long time before a very large tombstone. After he is gone I walk up to it and see it is for a boy who died aged 20 in 1987. A story takes shape in my mind and I suspect the man on the bicycle to be the boy's brother, now a middle-aged man.
It is early morning and I have taken to tuning in to Davis on my iPhone and going for a jog through the graveyard and down a dirt stairwell to the beach, before climbing a hill and heading back to where I am staying. The path demands just a little more of me than I am easily capable of. I think to myself: I am getting older and I need to get healthier.
As I head down into the graveyard, I go over to the corner where I had seen the woman resting her head on the terrazzo stone beam. There I find not a picnic basket left behind, as I had thought from a distance, but a collection of toys and offerings. It was not her husband she was lying with, it was her daughter.
Small enamel blocks with butterflies imprinted on them decorate the head of the memorial plaque. One of the butterflies has the word "BELIEVE" on it. There's a large toy ladybird in a small pot of flowers. A few tiny, multicoloured windmills are planted in the ground. They seem to half spin one way, then turn the other way in a brilliant, decisive flutter for a while.
As I look around I see quite a few of these windmills here and there throughout the graveyard, ebbing and flowing with the breeze. A lot of children seem to be here. The grave of a boy who died after only six days of life in 1939 is not that far away. There is a fresh sunflower in front of it in a gaily-painted spotted pot, a gift. Who would leave something like that for a stranger nearly 100 years on? I guess the hearts of people are bigger than we can ever know. Elsewhere for Christmas there is tinsel tied to crosses and gifts of all kinds.
The morning sun is shining on the water so brightly I can barely look out to sea. It is as if someone spilled a jar of blazing honey all the way to the horizon. Am I headed into the light, I wonder - is that where death waits for me too? But I see I have it wrong, and that I am not following this trail of light, it is being poured towards me by the sun. Poured back to the here and now where life and love are to be found.
And with tiny toy windmills turning and the graveyard alive to the sounds of the ocean breaking and the breeze blowing I start to run again. Turning the music up on my iPhone. Making my journey home in a silent way.

- Mark Mordue

* First published as ‘Me and Miles Davis, in a silent way’ in The Australian, December 31st 2011