Speak to anyone of school age in the fifties and they may recall hearing or chanting cruel names and running a mile from the callipers of polio survivors. London’s latest novel is a poignant and important story set in a convalescent home for victims of the disease after WWII when Australia was thronging with new arrivals and refugees from Europe.
This book is strong on place but especially on people; their inner lives and anxieties around separation and containment. London knows people, their motivations and disappointments and she knows of their resilience and ability to adapt. ‘The Golden Age’ is written in elegant and confident prose with the added bonus, to me, of it being about an aspiring poet, Frank.
‘Meyer knew Frank loved him intensely. As Ida did. As had his parents and his brothers and his one poor little sister, Roszi, and his friends, nearly all of whom, had died in the war. Wherever he went he carried their love around with him, their mysterious, unasked-for gift, like a bundle on a stick over his shoulder.
He sometimes thought he only loved properly in retrospect.
He’s often wondered whether he has a cooler temperament than others, and that was why he had survived.’
Ida and Meyer Gold are Hungarian Jews fleeing Hitler’s gas chambers, seeking a new beginning in the strange, empty city that is Perth in the fifties. They have brought their precious only son Frank with them. Themes of attachment and containment rub up against those of dislocation and freedom as in life when it is so difficult to know how much freedom is too much, how tightly should we hold and be held. These delicious notions of Melanie Klein and Winnicott infuse the story.
Whilst there is melancholy and a sense of loss when Sullivan the real poet and inspiration, loses his fragile grasp on life and where relationships and marriages are put to the test, London never sinks to the maudlin or sentimental.
In Perth, Ida, the mother has lost her core strength and has trouble connecting at any level. Her future as a concert pianist is never to be realised, and Meyer as a romantic and something of a leader is relegated to driving a truck. The only glimmer of hope is in their only child, thirteen year-old Frank in this dust bowl of a place where nobody walks after dinner, nobody sits and drinks on the verandah and where they find themselves in a dead city in need of character, habitation and love.
And then Frank is stricken with the polio virus and a lengthy stint at the convalescent home called, ‘The Golden Age’, a name typical of that era of optimism and hope over death and deprivation. The action is centred around the home which is ironically illuminated by factory lights at night, showing the city in its manufacturing heyday.
London’s style is tender and objective and does not shout for attention, but is surprising in the terrain that it covers, from rape in war to European cake-making and yet the narrative is uncluttered. There is no moral judgement, no hint of the salacious when we read of Meyer’s peccadilloes, his physical attraction to Penny and her casual encounters with other men. There is pathos in the description of Frank and Elsa trying to connect in a dimension beyond the platonic and horror when the sunny, loving atmosphere of the home, where patients are treated with kindness and compassion, is suddenly compromised and the magical spell broken.
The story is full of love in all manifestations; love of country, fellow creatures, familial love and romantic love. And while the power of the first love is a key element and could have taken over the main plot, London uses restraint in maintaining focus on sub plots and vignettes that show on the one hand our need to be free, on the other, our need for containment.
London shows the power of the survival instinct and the strength of the human spirit, the nuances that make us human both disappointingly and gloriously real. Meyer and his predilection for romance outside the marriage can be forgiven so easily.The cake that appears at Ida’s concert recital is as good as any in Vienna. The Golds and post- colonial Australia were becoming. They were forging a new way to be.
The sense of place is strong and significant but is not overwritten. We are transported to war ravaged Budapest then to the Australian desert, inhospitable and remote. Yet time allows adjustment to the most challenging situations. Humans adapt like animals to new surroundings. Nowhere is this more strikingly displayed than in the scene when the black stallion gallops out of the desert with his thirsty mares demanding a drink, and being turned away. But people are London’s primary focus.
This novel made me cry on a few occasions because London makes the characters and situations so universal and a reminder of how much we struggle for life, meaning and belonging, and of how randomly tragedy and horror can strike at the heart of a country and its people.
The Golden Age deserves the accolades. It provides an important glimpse into our relatively unexplored social history. Its subtleties demand reflection. Its unadorned, gentle rhythm and style can lull the reader into thinking that this is a simple tale. Don’t be fooled. The History syllabus would be richer for texts like this to encourage research, debate and tolerance. This is a story for our times without a skerrick of the didactic. It is a thoroughly human, glowing and golden story. I loved it.
When I knew it was World Toilet Day I couldn’t resist posting this piece. I wrote it a while ago and, of course, try to include every word for a toilet that I could think of and because I’m English have always enjoyed a good bum, poo or fart joke, except this is a serious matter.
Australia is a world power when it comes to the disposal of shit. We’re so comfortable around the subject that we make films about it. Just ask Kenny. At the same time 2.6 billion people around the world do not have access to a decent bog. We joke about stuff giving us the shits without pausing for a second to consider the billions whose lives in developing countries are cut short because they really do have the shits.
Diarrhoea alone claims two million lives every year from diseases like cholera and dysentery. More people die from lack of a clean toot than from war and most of these victims are children. For many, their education is affected. It’s not hard to imagine why pubescent girls stay home from school, (if they’re lucky to go to school in the first place), when they’re having their period.
The privileged in developing countries make sure they park their posteriors on proper toilets so why are they so constipated when it comes to installing decent sanitation for their people?
It costs money, organization and compassion and would leave less for Mercedes, mansions and stockpiles of loot. And people living in countries with fancy flushing toilets also demand other things like education, public health and free speech.
Excrement is not trendy or sexy. It’s embarrassing and smelly and entrepreneurs may not see the financial returns they would expect that would encourage them to invest in such technology or infrastructure. At the same time, many people living in what we would consider squalor, don’t always see the value in working sanitation. I was surprised to learn that while millions in the developing world have mobile phones, they often have little interest in having a toilet.
Jack Sim, the Singaporean (where there are among the best self-flushers in the world) who established the World Toilet Organization, has said that it’s not easy persuading people in developing countries of the benefits of good sanitation.
He says if you build a room for a toilet, it will often be converted into a store room or some other space. He knows that selling the idea of good clean sanitation often has to appeal to emotions such as fashion or status before you go into features and benefits.
He thinks that toilets should be trendy in style and colour and promote interest in this way. He gives the example of how a company like IKEA would be well placed to design and distribute mass volume of smart, stylish designs.
We are preoccupied with food security and providing clean water, noble and necessary, but we need to consider both ends (of the argument) because in the meantime we are losing valuable effluent which could be going towards something useful like saving lives and powering machinery with methane and doubtless a lot of other ingenious technologies.
There has always been money in muck as the saying used to go. World Toilet Day sees rich countries encouraged to appreciate the dollar potential in the sheer volume of demand for sanitation in developing countries. It’s a hard sell because while everyone loves to be able to say they’ve installed running water and a tap, nobody wants to boast of installing a pan and a ballcock.
Empires have risen and collapsed under the weight of gross human product. It’s a long and winding sewage system that has got countries to where they are today. And we shouldn’t sit on our laurels if we have the latest dual flush integrated system because world powers, like the efficiency of their WCs, come and go.
A milestone in the history of Frankston occurred in April 1991, when the last three pan-closet toilets or ‘thunderboxes,’ were removed. Typhoid, dysentery and cholera had been eradicated. Melbourne used to be called ‘Marvellous Smellbourne’ in the 1800s because of its open drains and lack of reticulated sewage. Not any more. Most of our toilets are clean, easy to use and okay. The weirdest addition which I hope doesn’t take on is the Tardis usually found on the outskirts of small country towns or out of the way places. Large metal boxes that lock you in, watch you do the business, flush automatically, self clean and do everything except wipe your arse. These are terrifying.
It’s hard to believe that a fully reticulated sewer with stone drains was found in Knossus on the island of Crete dating back 4000 years when you look at the curious and woeful plumbing arrangements in Greece today. Perhaps it was an earthquake that blew everyone’s brains out and in the aftermath they remembered how to make moussaka but forgot how to make a lavatory. The sanitation hasn’t changed for 2000 years.
Pythagoras shouted ‘Eureka,’ not when he discovered the formula, but when he found the plastic waste bucket to put his toilet paper in. Anyone on a Contiki tour of Corfu will have exactly the same experience, unless they’d thrown up in it first. I suppose you could think of these waste baskets as not so much dual flush as dual purpose, so not all bad. Alexander the Great would not have put up with a waste basket because he lived in a time when Greece enjoyed hot and cold running water, like the Romans, and not just in the toilet.
The British Empire did not rise on the seat of a toilet. The Romans, bless them, gave us wonderful language but completely wasted their time laying down sophisticated plumbing systems in Britain two thousand years ago. The effluence of the Dark Ages which poured forth when they left saw Britons sink back into a sewer of its own making.
The plumbing in Britain still defies description, so does the toilet paper which is thin and ineffectual, like its House of Lords. The Brits have the hang of toilets but baulk at running water especially when it’s hot. Most would still prefer a shallow dip in a bath than stand naked under a shower. In any case you need a degree to operate the showers. Sadly, the Romans have since disappeared off the radar except to design a frock or a pair of shoes or make a lot of noise around soccer fields. Everyone knows Georgio Armani but only a handful remembers Mark Anthony.
Catherine the Great died on a toilet, true, and I bet it was travelling at 100kph on the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Paris. They say she died of a stroke. Crap. The shock of relieving herself on that train would have been enough to kill her and the Russian Empire all in one go.
My husband as far back as the Seventies reports his experiences on this iconic train. He recalls opening the flap, parking his bare arse on its wooden rim and getting his meat and veg snap frozen in an Arctic whoosh from below. If any of you have difficulty imagining this scene, remember James Bond in Casino Royale.
Thanks to Jack Sim public toilets in Changi Airport in all their hi-tech splendour are a delight. (How do they know when you’ve finished and to activate the flush? Is there a peephole?) Whatever it is, it’s a wonderful experience.
Vietnam has the best of toots and the worst of toots. It’s on the cusp of Uranus, not knowing which way to turn. At the back of a restaurant you might find a flat tiled room to squat and pee on, communally, then flap dry in the absence of paper, and a cubicle for number twos. I didn’t venture into those.
There are signs on train toilet doors When train parks in station do not have bowel movement. Only the faint hearted could piss in those stink holes with the starting blocks, thank you France. Not.
However, up north, past Sapa among the indigenous people, the village toilets of the Hmong were the cleanest and most ingenious of all, built of bamboo erected over creeks taking everything down to the shit field that fertilizes the rice. I heard of some soldiers during the war finding themselves up to the neck in these at times. These village drop dunnies were clean, environmentally sympathetic and useful.
Japan has disappeared up its own arse and gone bankrupt by spending too much on its toilets.
– urine and stool analysis for medical monitoring,
– blood pressure, temperature and blood sugar level testing
– digital clock to measure time spent in the toilet
– auto lift operation, heated seats
– deodorizing fans
– automated paper toilet seat cover replacements at the push of a button.
The trouble with all this paraphernalia is that nobody would ever want to leave the toilet to go to work. Maybe this is how great powers did it. Take over a foreign land, hi-tech it so it gets so happy that it never complains. It never wants to do anything except take a dump.
It’s almost impossible to find a public toilet in New York and when you do you have to have a key to get into it. They are shabby as all get out like the city, running down but not to worry, there’s enough methane coming from the Whitehouse to power the Developing World. The rest of the world, if it wants to become the next empire is going to have to catch the US with its pants down, pull their fingers out and stop pissing in the wind which brings us to…
The Chinese are going up market with fancy Japanese, US and European influenced cutting-edge toilets oozing high-efficiency flushing systems, heated seats and built-in bidets. Nearly nineteen million toilets are sold in China annually, about double the number sold in the U.S. all companies fighting for their share in this exploding market. Here is an empire the second time around, this time with a rush of plumbed water, hot and cold.
Napoleon was at his greatest outside France. He wasn’t exiled to Elba-he was avoiding the pissoir in the Bois de Bologne which is the filthiest toilet I’ve ever not squatted in, splattered as it was by every excretion made possible by the human excretory system. The Ottoman Empire rose to greatness on the rim of the Roman john but again, the same old story; Romans out, crap in.
We eat, we shit, but above all, we forget. The rise and fall of civilizations is like watching someone with Alzheimer’s-lights on, lights off, while
tracts of knowledge are flushed down the massive, neverending pan of time.
I’m often interested to see where poets are getting their work published. If you’d like to see which journals and anthologies have published my work I’ve listed publications in Australia, UK, Europe and the US.
AUSTRALIA The Age, Australian Poetry Journal and Anthology, Avant, Blue Pepper, OzBurp, Cordite (39, 46, 46.1), Divan, 8d Erotica, ETZ 7, 8 and 9, Famous Reporter 44, foam:e 9 &10, Gangway, Hecate, LiNQ, Overland, Plumwood Mountain, Rabbit, Regime, Southerly, Stylus, Tango Australis, The Best Australian Poetry (UQP), The Paradise Anthology, The Red Room Company, Tincture,Verity La, Wet Ink, Windmills. Forthcoming in Australian Poetry Journal.
UK/ Europe And Other Poems, Angle Poetry Journal, Antiphon, BODYLit, The Emma Press anthologies (Motherhood and Dance), Eunoia Review, Flarestack Poets anthology: Sylvia is Missing, Flash, Gangway, Indigo Dreams, Heartshoots anthology, Ink, Sweat and Tears (including 12 Days of Christmas 14/15), Kumquat Poetry, The Interpreters House, The Lake, Mslexia, Obsessed with Pipework, New Linear Perspectives, Orbis, Poetry Salzburg Review, , Shadowtrain, Shearsman (93/94, 101/102) Under the Radar, Wandering Words, Sensing Spaces Pamphlet (edited by Abegail Morley, Emer Gillespie and Catherine Smith).
Forthcoming in New Walk Magazine
US/Mexico Cultural Weekly, LA (Feature poet), ‘Dogzplot, B’, (Barbie anthology) Kind of a Hurricane Press, Sundress Blog-Best Dressed feature collection for Kiss of the Viking, The Ofi Press, Penduline, Poetry (Chicago), The Bond Street Review, The Nassau Review.
I’d like to thank Random House for inviting me to review Robert Dessaix’s latest memoir.
I came face to face with Robert Dessaix in the early nineties when he came to speak to us about ‘Night Letters.’ What he had to say was engaging (more European than Australian in directness and flair) and witty in a candid, self-deprecating way. He reminded me of nobody else.
Conversational and derisory, this latest memoir is both playful and reflective. It’s a style relished by keen readers of his works. Each of the thirteen chapters is assigned a day of the week, playing into the title and line of Larkin’s poem ‘Days’ and tracking his recovery after a massive heart attack. When a semblance of rational thought returns it ignites ideas of the spiritual.
What, he muses, have his days been for? What and who has he loved – and why?
On the third day, Wednesday (Chapter 3), he rises again, and whether this is fact or fiction it is such a delicious nod to the Bible for a writer like Dessaix. He is thinking of things spiritual, after all, as he regains consciousness, at the same time grooming us for one of his customary forays into a foreign land,
‘..in my case there is usually a kind of Shinto side of travel. Although I know nothing about Shinto.’
Of course, he knows a lot about Shinto when he goes on to talk about his ‘torii’ as his front door where his ‘sando’ begins, but undercuts this knowledge in self-parody.
‘(goodness me, I nearly said ‘spiritual’)…restoration.’
Dessaix mentions that some people find him ‘pompous’ and suffering from ‘rigorous snobbishness.’ This might be evident in lines like…
‘…India is awash with comfortably-off Westerners decked out in crumpled dhotis and shalwar kameezes like down-and-out Bollywood extras, ecstatically pretending to be what they patently are not.’
Observations like this, and there are many, could just as easily be seen as funny, even hilarious and true. They certainly represent one side of Dessaix’s writing prowess. He seems to take great delight in creating these tableaux in which he pokes fun at Asian spirituality, bureaucratic torpor and veiled criminality (the light-fingered magician). Later, you can feel him squirming when he receives ‘a poem about a goddess’ from his friend, Prakash, then renders the situation humorous in the act of it being ‘emailed.’ This juxtaposition of the exotic against the pedestrian makes for entertaining reading and while he is often blunt he is never cruel, recognising folly as necessarily or inherently human, perhaps.
Occasionally, we are yanked from Dessaix’s meanderings and dumped back, unceremoniously, to his hospital ward where the inmates smell ‘strongly of takeaway’ and are glued nightly to Channel 7 punctuating the air with,
Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!
At quieter times the language is pared back as he considers the big questions.
‘I can feel my old eagerness to learn more and more about love falling away.’
And ….’there must be good ways, and also how to die, what days are for, in other words, when you’re old and death is in the offing.’
These moments are well placed in the narrative and give the text gravitas which balances the more Baroque aspects of his writing.
In an interview with Gail Bell in ‘The Monthly’ in 2012 he says of his own writing,
‘Anyone who reads a large number of my books gets used to this kind of spiralling shape, and so I just take my time, and I just spiral around. I try to mention the main things I want to talk about in the first chapter, and then I spiral and come around and talk about them from a different angle again later. That’s what I’m doing.
There is more than spiralling around going on in this memoir. A linear narrative is played out at two levels below the circuitous.There is a chronological path as we witness Dessaix’s recovery in days and chapters and, alondside the anticipation of opening night of his first play, and which he will undoubtedly miss. The presence of the play adds another stratum to his story where it’s hard not to think of Shakespeare’s ‘Tomorrow’ speech and man who struts and frets. Through clever segues between one vignette and another Dessaix shifts cannily from death to life.
Along the way we are in the august company of Jane Austen, Francis Bacon, Dario Fo, Alan Bennett, Samuel Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Voltaire and Turgenev, often in quotes or scenes from their works which convey a point and add yet another layer to his embroidered text.
Taking his title from a Larkin poem, which means he was actually reading a Larkin poem, I was curious to read in this memoir that he states he does not like poetry, so little moves him. Given his breadth of reading this is hard to believe. He certainly writes poetry because every word, every phrase has been carefully crafted to maximum effect and frequently an elegant symmetry.
‘ from glowing nub to glowing nub, joining what’s Western about me to what is Eastern…’
Over the course of thirteen days/chapters we travel with Dessaix outwardly to India then back in time back to his childhood, always the return to his enduring relationship with Peter. In this way the memoir functions as a tribute to the longevity of this union while pondering spirituality, love, infatuation, intimacy and what matters in the end.
What matters to Dessaix in the face of death comes back to simple things expressed in prose which can teeter on the sentimental, but juxtaposed against the down-to-earth is reined in, giving the reader time to pause for breath.
‘I smell rain. I smell wet wool. I open my eyes, It’s Peter. He’s back. My continuance. My wholeness. His happiness at being here again fills the room. ….
‘You flew again,’ I say
‘And what about the dog?’”
This is the kind of memoir that speaks to me; exotic yet familiar, colourful, philosophical and ultimately life-affirming.
Following Pascale Petit I am bringing you the joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize from 2012, Preston poet, Terry Quinn. He was recently runner- up in the BBC Proms Competition with a clever and droll poem.You will find him in the menu under Guests.
This blogging business can throw up surprises. Random House invited me to review Robert Dessaix’s latest memoir What Days Are For which was fun since I enjoy his writing so much and had the entire book read and reviewed in 24 hours. I’ve decided that this is a very effective way of getting books read. I usually procrastinate.
Last week I ran a poetry workshop and 18 people turned up to practise their craft. I was thrilled and really enjoyed myself and hope to run a lot more over the next year. We looked at memoir poetry and Japanese forms.
This Sunday, Nov 9, my pamphlet, Kiss of the Viking, published by Poetry Salzburg, will be launched in Geelong by Cassandra Atherton so if you’re anywhere near please drop in.
3pm 3/329 Paton Books
This week I’ve been reading the poetry of Tony Hoagland, Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson and the whole of Cordite Poetry Review. I’ve also just read and adored Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster.
I spent one afternoon making submissions after a few weeks’ break when I got my garden into shape. The bush fires have already started around Sydney which does not bode well.
In this time I spent a lot of time looking out for baby hares-we have triplets-three generations in all, and fledglings tottering all over the place. Pruning one tree, a nest fell out with two speckled eggs belonging to a wattle bird. Oops! On the other hand, they are territorial and seem to scare a lot of the smaller birds away so two fewer won’t alter the balance too much.
Parrots have been making a racket-corellas and galahs swooping and diving around the house. Lorikeets are quiet and squat in the bird bath like Toby jugs.
I planted kangaroo paw, iris and pulled out bin-loads of weeds. It’s going to be a long, hot summer judging by the insects in the garden; the mozzies and chunky blowflies lurking so have to mulch and trim pronto.Veggies looking good but not my domain. I just pick and cook.