About Carol Middleton

Melbourne author and critic

1984 – are we there yet?

I remember holding my breath for the whole year in 1984, wondering if George Orwell’s dire predictions would come true. I looked around me in December, relieved to find that, at least on my side of the world in England, life was still rosy. I’d read the dystopian novel in the sixties (it was published in 1949), and now I was living in Thatcher’s Britain – not an ideal world, but still innocent enough, with no thought police and no TV programs named after Orwell’s Big Brother.

What did emerge within a few years, though, was the manipulative concept of political correctness, which may have had worthy aims of smoothing out inequality between the privileged and the under-privileged, but which succeeded in mangling the English language and producing gobbledygook. We ended up with ‘political speak’ and ‘business speak’, reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, designed to eliminate all nuance from language and diminish the power of thought.

When I went back to Orwell’s novel recently, I found it almost unbearable to read. The story is grim, the prose stark. But it is more than just depressing. Reading it thirty years on, in a different and more threatening world, the story fills me with dread.

The latest stage production of 1984 is playing at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until 10 June. Check out my review:

http://www.australianstage.com.au/201706038320/reviews/melbourne/1984.html

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Listening to a Laureate

Last night I saw Irish author Anne Enright speak about ‘Family and fiction’ at Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne. In conversation with Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, she rolled up her sleeves and entertained us with her down-to-earth womanly wisdom, her reflections on writing and her wry humour.

She started by reading from her latest novel The Green Road ((2015) in her lilting Irish brogue, with an eyebrow cocked and great dramatic expression. Six whole minutes of being read to by Anne Enright – what a treat!

The only work I’ve read of hers is The Gathering (2007), which put her among my favourite Irish women writers, those friends I like to cuddle up with in bed. I am reminded of Edna O’Brien and Edith Pearlman, but Enright’s humour, bleak at times, sets her apart. That novel won her the Man Booker Prize. Now she is the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.

After the talk, she signed my battered copy of The Gathering, while I complimented her on her dramatic reading.

‘Yes, I like to ham it up,’ she said, smiling with satisfaction.

If only more writers would take their cue from her.

Talking of humour, and drama, take a look at my review of Lally Katz’s latest comedy, now playing at the Arts Centre in Melbourne:

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-arts/4094-minnie-liraz-melbourne-theatre-company

Revisiting the ’90s

Better late than never! I’m reading Women Who Run With The Wolves, written by Jungian analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I dipped into it when it was first published in 1992, when my Wild Woman was in hiding, overtaken by full-time work. Now’s my time to enjoy this retelling of myths and fairytales, through which the author explores female creativity. It’s a passionate and erudite work.

I was never exposed to Jung’s work in my student years, so am now searching libraries and friends’ bookshelves, to complete my education. I need to know more about the terms that are so familiar: the archetypes, the collective unconscious, the shadow self. Written in the 1950s, Jung’s words about the ‘undiscovered self’ ring fresh and pertinent today, with the need to reclaim individual responsibility from those who abuse power.

At the beginning of the year I set up a new habit of writing for an hour before breakfast. Writer friends keep telling me how much their writing practice was influenced by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1993). I have dug out a copy from the bookshelves, to see how I can refine my new pre-breakfast writing routine with her ‘morning pages’.

By the way, on the subject of women and power, I recently reviewed an MTC production of the 1946 comedy Born Yesterday. Very appropriate for our times. Check it out.

Hey, Mr Tambourine Man

The New York Times calls him Mr Dylan; Obama calls him Bob; we know him as Dylan. For those of us who grew up in the sixties, he was the one who shook us from our roots and made us question everything about our lives. He has kept the faith, in his own unpredictable way, and now has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. What a turn-up for the books!

Oh to be a fly on the wall when the Academy discussed the pros and cons of giving this modern-day troubadour the award. Is Dylan following the oral tradition of the ancient Greeks, like Homer and Sappho, as Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said when making the award announcement?

I was first ‘turned on’ to his music in England in 1965. For a week in August, I lay in bed, suffering from a bout of tonsillitis, listening to the latest songs on the radio. The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was top of the charts, ahead of The Beatles, Lulu, The Animals and Joan Baez. Then they played Dylan’s original version. As soon as Highway 61 Revisited was released later that month, I hurried to the record shop and handed over the cash, slightly embarrassed by my boldness, as if I were crossing a line.

After two weeks of silence, Bob Dylan has accepted the award. There were murmurings that he was rude and ungrateful, but he emerged into the world again, gracious and humbled by the honour. Maybe he had to take time to adjust to being less, or more, than a rebel.

Most of us adjust to being less rebellious in later life, but it’s good to know Dylan is still shaking things up, and being acknowledged for it.

 

Dennis Potter binge

Nothing brings out my inner Brit like Dennis Potter. I had already migrated to Australia in when I first saw his TV series Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective and Lipstick on Your Collar, which collectively blew my socks off. They almost made me turn again for ‘home’.
I discovered a copy of Seeing the Blossom (as in ‘smelling the roses’) at South Melbourne market the other day, which has the transcript of his final TV interview with Melvyn Bragg, Potter’s last will and testament. He smoked, drank champagne and swigged morphine (by necessity) throughout the interview, telling Bragg how he still managed to write ten pages a day, in spite of the pain, rising at 5am while his energy allowed. He was determined to complete his final two TV scripts (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus), which he did before he died two months later.
Today I told my librarian I was on a Dennis Potter binge, as she swiped my loan copy of Potter’s The Art of Invective. Here is an antidote for the mealy-mouthed writer. And if there’s anything to put some lead in the critic’s pencil, Potter is your man. Just read his opinion of Rupert Murdoch! And if you are tempted, as I am, to explode the highbrow/lowbrow myth, look to Potter for some ammunition to level the ground. For him, the most popular medium of the time, television (his ‘palace of varieties’) was the place to reach people. He certainly reached me. And the actors who played the leads in his plays performed for him at their peak. The characters played by Bob Hoskins, Michael Gambon, Ewan McGregor and Giles Thomas are still clearly imprinted on my memory. Time to revisit those TV series, I think!

Barbara Blackman is back!

I’m stuck on essays, can’t get enough of them – American anthologies, Janet Malcolm and home-grown writers Robert Dessaix, Helen Garner and now Barbara Blackman with All My Januaries. It’s almost 20 years since Barbara Blackman brought out her autobiography Glass after Glass. Now she’s 87 and has been rummaging around in her archive boxes, fishing out some gems and writing new ones for her latest book of essays. Inspiring life and writing!

She mentions recording her dramatic monologue Eliza Surviva with singer Maggie Noonan and what fun they had. Synchronicity! I was about to review Maggie’s daughter Katie Noonan’s gig, were she was to sing poems by Judith Wright, a close friend of Barbara Blackman’s, set to music by Australian composers.

It was a wonderful evening at the Melbourne Recital Centre. You can read my review here:

http://www.australianstage.com.au/201604307767/reviews/melbourne/with-love-and-fury-|-katie-noonan-and-brodsky-quartet.html

 

Did you miss me?

Sorry to disappoint those (millions?) of you clamouring to read my blog or check out my website. It disappeared over a week ago, but I can assure you I still exist in the real world. And here I am, putting the first brick of my online world back in place.

Last week, when I wasn’t waiting in a phone queue to seek tech support, I was reading. Two memoirs were stand-outs, both published posthumously shortly after their authors had died. The Memory Chalet is by Tony Judt, a historian who contracted the auto-immune disease ALS and wrote over his final two years, dictating to an assistant, as paralysis took over his body. He relied on his ‘memory chalet’ to store his memories (a reference to the ‘memory palace’ that dates back to Greek and Roman authors). If, like me, you’re a fan of  Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, you’ll know it as Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’. Judt’s book is beautiful, both as a memoir, written in a series of essays, and as an insight into his brilliant mind.

The other memoir is Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, the story of a neurosurgeon who dies of lung cancer at the age of 37, leaving his wife and baby behind. The author studied literature before he became a surgeon, and his writing and his life are exemplary. In the first half, he takes us into his day-to-day work as a surgeon, focussing on the doctor-patient relationship. In the second, he details the progress of his illness and discourses on the nature of death and time. He had helped his patients face death, and now he had to find his own way there.

Both were remarkable men and fine writers. And, in extremis, they found a way to write down their experience for the world to read. An inspiration for all us writers.