Thinking women, hope and regeneration

June 12, 2019 at 6:56 am | Posted in Andrea Goldsmith, Australia behind, Australian novels, Democracy, Living creatively, Movies, optimism, Toni Jordan | 2 Comments
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 Am I advocating escapism?

It’s been hard to find anything uplifting to say in the last few weeks. The last time I read John Milton (1608-1674) was in English (Hons) many years ago. But I just came across a quotation from Paradise Lost that seems like a sanity-saver in the world we’re enduring now.

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.’

I can imagine a certain homeless lad I see often, camping endlessly outside Dickson Woolworths, waiting for a Government flat to come up – or any of those poor, skinny, desperate blokes on Manus Island or Nauru who find themselves simultaneously in Hell and in Limbo – saying, ‘Yeah, that’s easy for him to say!’

And yes, Milton had his books and his house, music and writing, and his wife (a succession of three) and children.

But everyone has his own trials and Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, and of course when writing poignant poems like ‘When I consider how my light is spent’. His first two wives died, he also lost a son and a daughter, and he had a strained relationship with his remaining daughters.

For those of us with basic resources we, like Milton, have access to books and music, and we have movies, podcasts and the Internet now. We can find Heaven in all these things. Am I advocating escapism?

Well, yes. It helps to keep us sane in insane times. But alongside escapism there are also books (and movies) presenting realism that give us hope.

The importance of play

I was uplifted by Julienne van Loon’s The Thinking Woman (New South, 2019). In lucid prose she explores the themes of love, play, work, fear, friendship and wonder.

After interviewing American writer Siri Hustvedt, van Loon pondered such innovative thinkers in education as Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori and the way they emphasised the importance of active imaginative play in childhood and how play is a way of engaging with the world we find ourselves in. Van Loon laments that ideas like theirs ‘have been completely sidelined in mainstream education in both Australia and the United States of late, where constant testing and measurement is used to judge teachers and students alike …’

In her Fear chapter the author interviews Helen Caldicott and Rosie Batty and concludes that ‘positive change desperately requires more women to step forward and engage with politics: to speak up and speak out, to organise, and to agitate for positive change.’

When I closed this thought-provoking book I felt that I’d discovered a wonderful new writer, almost as if I’d made a new friend, and that van Loon is our own Siri Hustvedt – writing beautifully in fiction and non-fiction about art and relationships, philosophy and society, language and identity. She’s not as prolific as Hustvedt (few could be) but she’s younger – she’s got time to catch up and I can’t wait for her next book.

A way to understand the world

I also loved Toni Jordan’s The Fragments (Text, 2018), a literary mystery told from two points of view, one in 1930s US, mainly New York, and in 1980s Brisbane. The sense of place is palpable, the prose is supple and sensuous, and the twists and turns will keep you guessing till the end. Themes of identity, ambition, compassion and love are beautifully interwoven throughout.

My favourite quotation in this novel is that books are ‘a way to understand the world, passed down from person to person … Books are art that talks to us.’

A non-fiction book presenting reality yet managing to be funny in these unfunny times in Australia is The Full Catastrophe (Hardie Grant, 2019) edited by Rebecca Huntley and Sarah MacDonald. It’s a fascinating, if uneven, collection of certain people’s disasters. There’s a huge range, for example, someone who has just bought a haunted house and has a new baby to look after and a comedian with a worse sense of direction than me (!) I mean, hers is a serious disability in a way that mine is not since I do know my left from my right and have of necessity a fantastic memory for landmarks. Richard Glover’s account of being left alone with his kids while his wife has to work in Melbourne for weeks at a time is hilarious. If this is escapism, bring it on: I laughed a lot.

An optimistic new documentary about the planet!

I always want to call Damon Gameau ‘Damon Gateau’ – he made That Sugar Film, which should be compulsory viewing for its facts about the manufactured food industry and for its humour. In his optimistic new documentary, 2040: Regeneration, told with even more innovative narrative techniques than his first, he tells us that the Australian Government spends $10 million a minute on subsidies to the fossil fuel industries.

But in other parts of the world the call for change is being heeded, as he shows us in this film, made as a sort of letter to his four-year-old daughter about the future she might be inheriting. What he discovers is genuinely uplifting and rooted in reality.

He finds plenty of positive global trends, trends that will leave our country far behind. Solar power is cheaper than coal, gas or oil and the world is flocking to invest in those non-fossil fuels. He finds other examples of positive news in education, agriculture, forestry, economics and other fields, which will improve lives across the globe as well as sustain living conditions on this planet we depend on.

This documentary presents compelling evidence that the tide is turning. – Except, of course, in Australia, where we can apply what Kafka’s friend Max Brod said to him: ‘There is hope – but not for us.’

Just kidding. But the election result of 18 May did make it hard to put pen to paper for this post. It’s interesting that Andrea Goldsmith, another favourite Australian author of mine, has just this minute posted a blog that she also found difficult to write in the light of the Australian election result. You can find it here:

And happily for us, this wonderful writer also has a new novel. It’s called Invented Lives (Scribe, 2019) and is about exile and love. I can’t wait to read it.



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  1. Pen, thanks for that very practical guide to recovery from the horror of the election result. Andrea Goldsmith’s blog was similarly consoling. Sanity in insane times.
    Steph x

    • Yes, we have the sanity of art in these insane times. Thanks for painting the beautiful paintings!

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