Tag Archives: Robert Manne

Lesley Lebkowicz’s Petrov Poems

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems (2013)

1pp I was seven years old in 1954, and have dim memories of what Wikipedia bills as the Petrov Affair. Vladimir Petrov, third secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canberra, defected, and some days later his wife Evdokia followed suit, generating a dramatic front page photograph showing two burly Russians manhandling a distraught woman across the tarmac of Sydney aerodrome – tellingly, the woman has lost one of her shoes. It’s not clear that the Petrovs had anything substantial to reveal about Russian espionage, but their defection was a boon to the Menzies government’s anti-Communist machinations and has fired the national imagination, or sections of it, for decades.

The affair was the subject of Ralph Peterson’s 1959 play The Third Secretary, which was part of The Currency Press’s first Playtexts Series in 1971, in teh august company of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous and Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe.  Robert Manne’s exhaustive account, The Petrov Affair, was published in 1980, and again in a revised edition in 2004. The Petrovs feature offstage in Ursula Dubosarsky’s magnificent 2006 children’s book The Red Shoe. So far I was keeping up. Then Noelle Janaczewska’s Mrs Petrov’s Shoe won a Queensland Premiers Literary Award in 2006 (back in the days when the Queensland government gave money to the arts), and Andrew Croome’s Document Z got a gong in the NSW equivalent in 2010. How many books could one minor incident sustain?

I tried to read Andrew Croome’s book. It’s probably very good. But I couldn’t get past the first line of the first page, so strong was my reluctance to read one more word about the Petrovs. They may be our only spy scandal, I thought, but they’re just not that interesting. Yet when someone at our book club (the one where we swap books, not the one where we discuss them) offered Lesley Lebkowicz’ book of poems, I surprised myself by taking it home.

I don’t think any book could have completely dispelled my pre-emptive ennui, but this book came pretty close. It’s pretty much a verse novel, keeping a fairly tight focus on the two main characters, known mostly by their pet names Volodya and Dusya. It begins as they arrive in Sydney, seen from Dusya’s point of view:

Volodya is solid – more than a husband – an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth, the play
of slack flesh over bone. Softness had long fled
his mind. He had seen hundreds shovelled
into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants
swept away by hot water.

The narrative takes us through the process of disaffection to their defections, their interrogations and then their dislocated new life. It ends, after Volodya’s death, with Dusya living with her sister Tamara in suburban Melbourne:

Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh

like any two women from Europe.
They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.
They talk about whether to buy veal
for diner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever

Tamara says makes Dusya happy – it’s hearing
her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya

and Tamara looks at her
but says nothing. His name falls out of their lives.

So it’s as much the story of a relationship that plays out in extraordinary circumstances, a migrant story with higher stakes and the glare of publicity. The part of the story that struck home most forcefully for me is in the last two sections, ‘The Petrovs at Palm Beach’ and ‘The Petrovs in Melbourne’, where they continue with their lives after the drama, neither celebrated nor left alone. From ‘Sentences’:

‘I am Petrov,’ he tells a fellow in Manly,
expecting some sign.
‘Congratulations,’ the man says and walks off.

His photograph regards him every day from The Herald.
What he’s done must mean something –

From ‘They know we are Petrovs’:

The whole street knows they are Petrovs –
too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.

A kind neighbour builds a gate in their fence
so when the journalist comes, they slip out
through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different –

no one would have known who they were.

The verse is always clear and sharp as this. A lot of it is in unrhymed sonnets, but there’s much variety in form. If you haven’t read much about the Petrov Affair, and OK even if you have, this is a good story well told. If you want to read more about it, I recommend the excellent review by Sue at Whispering Gums.

awwbadge_2013This is the last title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013. I seem to have read 15, and it’s been fun. I’ve signed up for the 2014 challenge.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 2

Friday began wet and grim but cleared up to a spectacular harbourside brilliance, only to pelt down as darkness fell. But that was only he weather.

I only managed two events.

As a common or garden blogger and minimally published writer, I would have felt remiss if I didn’t attend Writers Who Blog. The four panellists came at blogging from quite different perspectives.

Mark Forsyth writes a short blog entry every day, always about some peculiarity of the English language (while here he met the word yakka for the first time). He admitted that he had started his blog The Inky Fool in the hope that it would lead to a book contract, and it did, to two books in fact.

Tara Moss already had a number of books published when she stumbled into blogging – she did a gig as guest blogger for the SWF a couple of years ago and wrote 21,000 words in a week. The appeal of writing and publishing without a moderator was irresistible, and as she has done more over the years, breaking all the standard rules about length, range, language level and frequency, her sense of herself as a writer has transformed.

Lorraine Elliott blogs full time at Note Quite Nigella, a blog about food. For her, blogging was a way out of the advertising world, which is ‘all about money’. I didn’t quite get how she does it full time, that is, whether it generates an income, but she told lovely stories of ow her blogging has created a bridge in her relationship with her mother.

Angela Meyer, of Literary Minded, was a participating chair who necessarily focused on chairing and made it look effortless. I would have liked to hear more about her own blogging experience, which she described in her intro as being in part about tracking her own trajectory as an emerging writer.

All four panellists seemed to count their hits in the hundreds of thousand. My biggest day scored 228. My impression is that questions at the end came mainly from bloggers on my scale. I got to ask the first question, and resisted the temptation to be one of those grey-haired gentlemen who seizes the opportunity to tell his life story. I asked about difficulties with comments. Mark had a ready, sensible answer: ‘Don’t start an argument on the Internet.’ Tara took the microphone: ‘My advice is, Start arguments on the Internet.’ They were both right, of course. I liked Tara’s final note: ‘When you do get into an argument, don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see quoted in the newspaper.’

One key observation – I don’t remember by whom – chimed with Robert Green’s reflections on creativity the day before: blogging is still very new, and there are no hard and fast rules about how it should be done, and each of the panellists said that the rules as formulated so far as guides for beginning bloggers didn’t really apply. Come back in 50 years and we might have a set of clear rules like the ones that govern journalism now, but for the time being the field is wide open for creativity and discovery.

At half past two I had to choose among Beyond Climate Denial on a Neoliberal Planet with Jeff Sparrow, Robert Manne and others, Dermot Healy in conversation with Luke Davies , and Turning the Tide with Lionel Fogarty, Melissa Lucashenko and others. Would I opt for anxiety, pleasure or pain? It was a toss-up, and in the end I went for anxiety and climate change: I admire Jeff Sparrow’s writing and editing – I was interested to hear him and Robert Manne in conversation; I had read the article on climate change and neoliberalism in the current Overland by Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud, of whom the last two were also on the panel, and would love to hear its implications teased out in discussion.

It was probably a wrong decision. There was no conversation. Jeff Sparrow was a non-participating chair. Each of the three panellists delivered a paper, they didn’t address each other’s points except to complain that the session was too short, and as far as I could tell none of the presentations added anything substantial to what had been said in the previously published articles. ‘As far as I could tell’, because Jeremy Walker read so fast and assumed so much prior knowledge of (I think) economics that I was completely at a loss to know what he was saying. In short, Robert Manne thinks there’s little reason not to despair. Antoinette Abboud warned us not to be seduced by the neoliberal three-step strategy of denialism, carbon trading and geo-engineering. Jeremy Walker said something very complex and possibly profound.

The first person to speak in question time said we should all pay attention to Bill McKibben, and all panellists seemed to agree. ‘Why aren’t we out in the streets screaming about this?’ the same man asked when instructed by the chair to get to the question. Robert Manne had a ready answer: ‘Because we’re consuming.’

The problems of the world weren’t solved, and if Robert Manne is right they never will be. But change is never linear, and hope, the thing with feathers that perches in the breast, lives on.

Correspondence on Manne (no sonnet)

Quarterly Essay No 44 is just out. It may be a while before I get to read the essay itself, Andrew Charlton’s Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet, but I went straight to the pages up the back with correspondence about last quarter’s essay, Robert Manne’s critique of the Australian. In the past I have been glad that QE doesn’t include correspondence from the name-calling, straw-dog destroying, science-denying voices that dominate some other forums. This time it would have been odd not to have a contribution by someone from Rupert Murdoch’s empire – and indeed the discussion is kicked off by Nick Cater, editor of the Weekend Australian. He comes out fighting:

For thirty years or more, Manne has distinguished himself through his rare determination to exercise his intellect in the town square. There is no sign that he intends to relinquish his position as a public intellectual, but with this essay he has retreated further into the cloisters. He has become ever more abstract, aloof and contemptuous of his interlocutors. I mean no disrespect by suggesting that Manne needs to get out more.

Clearly he does mean disrespect. And so when the other correspondents make what might seem to be outrageous assertions and implications about the ethos of the Australian – that it is not a newspaper so much as an organ for political propaganda whose employees are in a state of denial that results in their responding like cornered beasts to any criticism, for example, or that it would be a good idea if they tried to represent accurately the arguments of people they disagreed with – there is a living, breathing example of the kind of thing they are talking about just a few pages earlier. Manne’s contribution or the correspondence is to thank the other correspondents and then attempt to extract the actual arguments from Cater’s piece, ignoring the abundant ad hominem elements, and counter them methodically. It’s a good read, though one is left with an uneasy sensation that Cater and Manne have widely divergent assumptions about what constitutes an argument.

It’s a pity that the correspondence doesn’t include anything from the left, putting the kind of position that Tad Tietze did on the Overland blog a while back. While appreciating the great service Robert Manne’s article has done us, among other things he laments Manne’s lack of analytical tools in relation o the media, gives a brief account of the Propaganda Model of the private media, and concludes:

Manne seems to believe that we’d have a better country if The Australian was somehow reined in, but this gets things the wrong way around. It is because things have gotten worse, and because elite hegemony has been unravelling, that we have been blessed with The Australian we have today. Better to stop obsessing about Murdoch’s apparent omnipotence and figure out how our side can more effectively prepare for the battles ahead.

Overland 204

Jeff Sparrow, editor, Overland 204, Spring 2011

At a time where the terms of Australian political debate are set by the self-styled ‘centre-right’ Australian to the extent that vehemently anti-Communist Robert Manne is seen as left wing, everyone who’s more socialist than Ghengis Khan should subscribe to Overland. It has been appearing regularly for more than 50 years as a journal of ‘progressive culture’, unashamedly of the left from its beginnings, creating a space where dissenting voices can be heard (arguing with each other as often as not), and staying for the most part readable by people (like me) who wouldn’t know Althusser from a hole in the ground. Unlike the Australian, it has no Rupert Murdoch to prop it up. You can read most of every issue online. The point of subscribing is to help sustain it.

In this issue, in no particular order:

  • ‘The birthday boy’, a short story from an early Overland updated and retold in sequential art (ie, as a comic) by Bruce Mutard. While the story here stands on its own merits, I’d love to read the original, by Gwen Kelly, so as to follow the process involved in the updating (who were the 1955 equivalents of 2011′s Sudanese students, for instance?). I couldn’t find it on the Web. Maybe I’ll make a trip to the State Library …
  • John Martinkus, in ‘Kidnapped in Iraq, attacked in Australia’, tells the story of his capture and release by Iraqi insurgents in 2004 and the attacks on him by the then Foreign Minister and rightwing ‘journalists’. There’s nothing new here – I wrote to Alexander Downer’s office at the time and received a boilerplate reply – but it’s very good to be reminded of this shameful moment just now when Downer has been on the TV denouncing David Hicks again and one of the ‘journalists’ has been wailing about free speech after being held to account by a court
  • an interview with Afghani heroine Malalai Joya. I was glad to read this after attending a crowded meeting in Marrickville Town Hall where the acoustics and sight lines made her incomprehensible and invisible to me. The interview gives a sharp alternative to the mainstream media’s version of what’s happening in Afghanistan and it’s a great companion piece to Sally Neighbours’ lucid ‘How We Lost the War: Afghanistan a Decade on from September 11‘ in the September Monthly
  • some splendid, almost Swiftian sarcasm from Jennifer Mills in ‘How to write about Aboriginal Australia‘: ‘First, be white. If you are Aboriginal, you can certainly speak on behalf of every Aboriginal person in Australia, but it is best to get a white person to write down what they think you should be saying.’
  • Andy Worthington’s When America changed forever and Richard Seymour’s What was that all about? reflecting on the damage done to democracy in the USA and its allies by the ‘war on terror’
  • Reading coffee‘, a short story by Anthony Panegyres that reminds us of anti-Greek violence in Western Australia during the First World War (and is also a good oogie boogie yarn)
  • Ellena Savage’s ‘My flesh turned to stone‘, which I may have misunderstood (it quotes Lacan, and refers at one point to gender-based torture, which may or may not be how the academies nowadays refer to torture of women), but seems to be putting the eminently sensible proposition that terrible experiences have lasting after-effects on individuals and communities, and expecting people to just get over them isn’t realistic
  • A number of poems, coralled off together in a section up the back, printed in white on pale green, which is either a cunning way of making us read the poems slowly or a case of a designer for whom readability isn’t a priority. The ones that spoke most to me are Jill Jones’s ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline‘ and John Leonard’s ‘After Rain‘. Jill Jones discusses the former on her blog here. You may have to be fascinated by swallows to enjoy the latter – which is very short – as much as I did, but who isn’t fascinated by swallows?
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s ‘A one-man writer’s festival’, a hatchet job on Clive James’s poetic aspirations. I found myself asking why. The poor bloke’s got cancer. Leave him alone.

I didn’t read everything, which is pretty much a hallmark of the journal-reading experience. You can skip things because of an annoying turn of phrase on the first page (as in a reference to Sydney’s western suburbs as perceived as ‘some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale’ – Annandale! I doubt if that would have got past the editors in a Sydney-based journal). You might be put off because something looks too abstract, or promises a detailed discussion of a book you plan to read. Or you might be pre-emptively bored by anything about publishing in the digital age, even while admitting the subject is important.

I read this Overland in a grumpy post-operative state. And enjoyed it.

Robert Manne and the Australian

Robert Manne, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation (Quarterly Essay N0 43, 2011)

These days I keep up with the Murdoch commentariat mainly at second hand, most regularly by way of the delightfully caustic Loon Pond, where someone identifying as lapsed Catholic ‘Dorothy Parker’ from Tamworth holds a satiric mirror up to their venomous name-calling, impassioned defence of the rich and powerful, and self-serving illogic.

I guess everyone knows what kind of beast the Australian is, though it’s striking how reluctant people are to say so in public. On the Book Show just last week, for example, someone said that it was perceived ‘rightly or wrongly’ to be right wing, and Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief, describes it as centre right. Robert Manne’s essay grasps that nettle and at the same time demonstrates that people have good reason to be cautious in calling a spade a spade in this matter. He has done a careful analysis of a number of case histories: its impassioned promotion of Keith Windschuttle, an amateurish historian with an agenda, to a major player in Australian culture wars; its unremitting support for the invasion of Iraq, and complete failure to acknowledge having got so much wrong; the bullying of Media Watch and the ABC until Australia’s only major non-commercial source of news and opinion was running scared; the bizarre attack on science and reason in its coverage of climate change; its elevation of itself to key political player in first supporting and then campaigning against Kevin Rudd; and, most appallingly of all, its sustained attacks on individual tweeters, one for correctly reporting a negative public comment from a former Australian employee, the other for what was manifestly a joke that would have been cleared up by a simple apology if the Australian hadn’t made it the subject of no fewer than five front page stories. I had to stop reading every now and then to go out and get some fresh air.

This wouldn’t matter so much in, say, the Green Left Weekly, though I doubt of the GLW would ever be so vicious in attacking someone who wasn’t a high-profile millionaire. But Rupert Murdoch controls a huge percentage of the Australian print media, and the Australian is his heftiest newspaper. I learned in this essay that at some press conferences in Canberra more than half the journalists are from the Australian, that the members of what Robert Manne calls the political class read it without fail, that it is influential out of all proportion to its actual circulation.

People who depend on the Australian for their national and international news in print (and it is after all the only major national newspaper we have) need to read this essay. As always, Manne’s writing is lucid, his tone judicious even at his most combative – and he does get combative. I believe there have been no fewer than eight vigorous replies in the newspaper. I read only one, and if the others distort Manne’s arguments as blatantly as that, it’s all the more important that readers of the Australian read the actual essay.

Strikingly, one line of attack has been to say that Manne is arguing for censorship, for closing down debate. Yet Paul Kelly, the Australian’s editor-at-large, pulled out of a scheduled debate at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centrelast week, and no one from the Australian could be found to stand in for him. So actor Max Gillies read the bulk of Kelly’s published response. You can see the Slow TV of the ‘debate’ here. You can read Manne’s ‘deconstruction’ Kelly’s published response on Manne’s blog, here. I have no idea why Kelly and the rest declined a debate, but if my arguments had been taken apart so very deftly I would probably remember a previous engagement too. All the same, it’s a bit rich to accuse someone of wanting to shut down debate and then refuse to engage in a debate with them outside the protective confines of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship. Even more striking is Australian‘s the report on the Australian‘s no-show – at this point I weaken and give you a link: the journalist seems to be suggesting either that this was an excellent prank on the part of Kelly and Co, or that it would have been completely unreasonable to expect Kelly and/or others to actually face the big bully, who threatened to use reason at them.

This must be the most vigorously discussed Quarterly Essay yet. I wonder what editor Chris Feik will do for the correspondence section in the next issue. I imagine he will need to allow some space for the Australian‘s apologists (though they may well decide to ignore that opportunity as well). I hope he will also find space for comment along the lines of Tad Tietze post on the Overland blog, which while appreciates Manne’s careful accumulation of evidence, and goes on to offer interesting observations from a left perspective.

Mungo on Kevin

Mungo MacCallum, Australian Story: Kevin Rudd and the lucky country (Quarterly Essay issue 36, 2009)

Mungo MacCallum is now, according to the blurb of this Quarterly Essay, one of Australia’s most influential political journalists. He was probably already influential all those years ago when he was telling Nation Review readers how well Prime Minister Gough Whitlam filled a pair of swimming trunks, but now he is an elder. Mercifully, he is also still a bit of a smart Aleck.

There are no hints here about Kevin Rudd’s physical endowments – the essay’s main interest is in the nature of his appeal to voters. The essay quotes poetry, mainly bush verse, including a savage parody of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’:

He was poisoning the water when he chanced upon a slaughter
So he joined in patriotically to massacre and rape
And he sees the vision splendid of the native problem ended
and a land made safe for cattle from Tasmania to the Cape.

The essay takes the odd potshot at contrarian right-wing columnists. It produces some fabulous quotes, including for example a definition of a modern progressive as ‘a fella that stumbles forward every time somebody shoves him’. (Sadly there are no footnotes, so we often don’t know what wits are being quoted – I’m guessing Mungo himself did the Paterson parody.)

That is to say, there’s a lot to enjoy in this essay. It also has substance – of an airy sort. It deals with policy, that’s true, and Kevin Rudd’s largely successful response of the GFC, but mainly it argues that he taps into some deeply held myths about what it means to be Australian – egalitarianism, fairness, the larrikin–dutiful citizen dichotomy, that reluctant progressiveness, ‘fervent, if understated, nationalism’. ‘For all his nerdiness and prolixity,’ he concludes,

there is something very Australian about him, and the voters recognise it. In a totally unexpected way, Rudd has given them back their Lucky  Country – and this time not in a spirit of irony, but one of self-belief.

Hmmm … But I enjoyed the ride.

This issue also includes the 2009 Quarterly Essay Lecture, ‘Is Neo-Liberalism finished?’ a search for the meaning of what he calls the Great Recession by the chair of the editorial board, Robert Manne. The lecture isn’t as much fun as the title essay, covers some of the same ground, occasionally manages to be incomprehensible when explaining (yet again) how the Great Recession came about. Where MacCallum takes cheerfully bitter potshots, Manne eviscerates in earnest.

And then there’s correspondence about Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope. A number of the correspondents join in Pearson’s left-liberal bashing, and there’s a certain amount of jockeying for position from politicians and activists. Voices from the old Howard Government era talk of Pearson’s pre-eminence as an Aboriginal public voice on the national scene, without mentioning that the deliberate dismantling of ATSIC had destroyed any more organised and representative voice. Christine Nicholls, former principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendemu, is the only educationalist to write a substantial response, and she does a brilliant job of respectfully taking Pearson to task for his straw-man arguments against ideologically driven educationists. The only Aboriginal voice is that of Chris Sarra, who gently chides Pearson for dismissing elements of his own educational work without having ever visited it. Over all, the correspondence confirms that Pearson’s conversation is mainly with conservative white leaders, but it also shows him as eager to do more than simply pontificate as a lone voice.