The blue wedge

The Harbour: A City’s Heart, A Country’s Soul, Scott Bevan, Simon and Schuster

Sydney Harbour is a magnificent place, its twists and turns offering glimpses, then vistas, its backwaters nestling boats, beaches and bushwalks, its wide spaces setting off rolling hills where buildings jostle for prime position, and where scrubby, rocky bushland still hangs on. It is a microcosm of the way Australian urban landscape contends with older, rougher nature, and the way we crowd around the oceanic edges of our continent. It has inspired much writing, and there are fine books about it, including the relatively recent history by Ian Hoskins. But ABC journalist Scott Bevan’s new book manages to be personal and psychogeographical, and like a harbour cruise on a perfect day, its end comes with some reluctance.

It is hyperbole to suggest, as does the subtitle of Bevan’s book, that the harbour is the ‘country’s soul’. After-all, it is unlikely Perth or Cairns residents give it much thought from one month to the other. But it is more beguiling than Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay, Botany Bay or the Swan or Brisbane rivers, and there are aspects of it, when you are by or on it, that snag the heart, especially when the sun lights up the ‘crushed diamond water’, as Clive James once put it. ‘It’s like a postcard’, says one boatshed owner. There is something spiritual about its presence as a calm, blank space in the middle of urban busyness that makes harbour-goers resort to religious metaphors. ‘It’s heaven on earth’ says one, simply. Bevan’s book labels it the ‘city’s heart’, but it is Sydney’s lungs, giving breathing space, a blue rather than green wedge.

It seems a fair argument that the harbour has remained prominent in the nation’s consciousness partly because its abundance contrasts with the country’s dry centre, especially since the long hope of finding an inland sea never materialised. (The explorers’ hunches were correct, they were just a few million years too late.)

The harbour is also unavoidable, intentionally so. Recently it has become a zone of pleasure. One could say it is the city’s erogenous zone, an interpretation made more explicit by the paintings of Brett Whiteley, who painted the harbour’s curves with the same approach he took to his paintings of female nudes. (It is difficult to imagine his sunny hedonism sprouting from gritty Melbourne. The same perhaps for John Olsen.) But the city was established here because the harbour provided a good working waterway. Until freeways took over, it was the spine of the city; the transport it allowed helped keep the city together and connected it with the world. Bevan spent a year kayaking around the harbour, exploring virtually every reach, and he notes the decline of the ‘working’ harbour. Tugs, barges, tankers, trawlers and naval vessels have largely gone. This is good for the health of the harbour, but there are those who miss its working class aspect.

Bevan notes the elitist prices of real estate when you ‘just add water’. Industrial land is continually redeveloped into apartment blocks with water views (or ‘glimpses’). What was previously principally a trade route is now a status symbol, and over time the poor and working classes have been pushed away from the harbour, once its aesthetic worth was understood. As they tend to do, the rich try and keep for themselves what should be shared (‘private landing – no entry!’, etc.), but even in Hunters Hill you can find public access if you look for it. And the harbour remains democratic. One can catch a ferry or kayak, as Bevan does, or walk its many harbour-side reserves.

The harbour has its darker side. There are sharks and there is wild weather. To stretch the body metaphor further, the harbour has also tended to be the city’s bowels. Stormwater drains connect to the harbour. Earlier, sewerage used to pollute it, and sediments still contain toxic waste from years of industrial discharge. While it has cleaned up considerably in the past couple of decades, ubiquitous plastic rubbish is still collected by the barge full.

Among the city’s bustle people find something meditative about being by or on the water, which engenders a sense of responsibility for it, in theological terms what we might call stewardship. The harbour may inspire greed and pride, but it also inspires an attitude in tune with the original indigenous view that the harbour doesn’t belong to individuals but to all of us, including those in the future yet to enjoy its bounty.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church’s Insights magazine.)


Tall, handsome, bookish

Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text) is a biography of our second prime minister, one of the founding fathers who should perhaps be more prominent in our cultural consciousness. Deakin was a tall, handsome Melburnian, an intelligent chatterbox who charmed most people he came across, and one of our greatest orators – often extemporary. But he humbly rode his bike to his prime ministerial office, was daydreamily bookish and prone to despondency. He was deeply spiritual, hungering for God’s guiding presence in his life, seeking ethical outlets for his faith, but also caught up in the fad of the times, spiritualism, attending séances and consulting fortune tellers. With Edmund Barton, he was instrumental in the federation of Australia, and this book is a window into a time of growth and democratisation, of shifting allegiances towards the common benefit of nationhood.

Muddling through

Taboo, Kim Scott, Picador

At the beginning and in an afterword to Kim Scott’s new novel about the struggle of Aboriginal people to crawl through the wreckage of the clash of cultures, he writes about the difficulty of conveying indigenous culture in the English novel. Telling the story of ‘magic in an empirical age’ can only be done in faltering steps.

This difficulty is mirrored in the adventures of the Aboriginal characters in Taboo, a group of Western Australian Noongar people who are visiting the site of a nineteenth century massacre on the land of a kind-hearted white farmer who wants to honour his deceased wife’s wishes, and his Christian beliefs, by seeking some sort of peace with the present traditional owners for the sins of the past.

Things don’t exactly go to plan. At times it is grim reading, with abuse, swearing, drugs and alcohol. But there is also love, generosity, determination and a depth of connection with the land.

The novel’s strength lies in Scott’s ability to sensitively portray Aboriginal people negotiating the complexities of how culture survives. In their muddling through and their not quite meeting expectations, there is no idealisation. Instead, Scott paints a realistic picture of the dual pressure to both fit into the white world and be ambassadors of indigenous culture, while being cut off from the land that sustains that culture.

There are parallels to a church. In the book, there are traditionalists who bemoan the lack of zeal in their fellows and who tally genuine loss, and there are those who see culture as fluid and adapt, though sometimes too much. There are flawed individuals who come within the embrace of community, who are trying to keep the threads of tradition while wrestling with the challenges of modernity.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church.)

The outsider

Not for the Faint-hearted, Kevin Rudd, Macmillan

The title refers not to the task of reading the book, but to the business of politics. Politics may take courage, but it also involves vanity, charm, ruthlessness, a sense of humour, a thick skin, high ideals and low tactics. All of these are on display here. The media tends to portray politicians as one-dimensional. Rudd’s memoir is an argument for politicians – or at least some including this one – as complex human beings.

What makes the book is that Rudd clearly enjoyed revealing himself (at length). And here are all the things Australians have loved and hated about Rudd – his ego, his frankness, his long-windedness, his cringe-worthy ockerisms, his cringe-worthy sentiment, his intellect, his self-deprecating humour. Some journalists have labelled Rudd a Jekyll and Hyde character, but like most of us, he is simply multi-dimensional – acting differently in different situations, containing good and bad, saint and sinner.

Although he argues for the worth of political life, his career makes you wonder at times why he persevered (though he boasts of being tenacious). In politics he was something of an outsider, on many fronts – a Queenslander, a progressive of the centre, not a player in the Labor factions, a self-described nerd, a former career diplomat and public servant rather than a career politician. And a Christian in a party that often sees Christians as conservatives and sometime hypocrites.

His faith is of particular interest. Catholic as a child, he is dismayed at the brutality of his Catholic education. In the fervour of youth he saw himself as a Marxist and atheist. While at university he flirted with evangelical certainty and stumbled into a Chinese church, which stimulated his faith and his love of Chinese language and culture.

Early on in the book he establishes, articulately and passionately, the grounds for his faith, with an eye on the compatibility of faith and intellect, as well as, for him, the compatibility of Christianity and progressive politics, which, at its best, seeks to make change rather than keep the status quo, the latter being, he argues, the raison d’etre of conservatives. And he makes a compelling argument for this. Of course the book will seem self-serving, but it is also an explanation as to why someone would take on the fraught business of politics, besides, and perhaps along with, the egoistic reasons.

(Originally reviewed for Journey magazine.)

Coloured glass

The latest novel from legendary Australian writer Gerald Murnane, Border Districts (Giramondo), is a strange, enticing semi-autobiographical piece that makes observation rather than plot prominent. Semi-autobiographical not only in the details of the narrator’s life, but in the way it describes the art of observation, which is the author’s craft. In summary the book doesn’t amount to much, but it is the writing itself that makes an impression. A writer, retired to the west of the Wimmera (as has Murnane), seemingly in an effort to keep his memories in order, makes notes of his earlier life, including his Catholic education. As with Murnane’s other work, light is prominent. The book is centred on the theme of light and how it plays in coloured glass. The sentences have a precise, almost obsessive quality, reminiscent of travel narratives or journal entries from a hundred years ago, with the writer constantly spiralling back over previous ground in order to clarify and re-emphasise. There seems to be a concerted effort from the narrator to get the narrative just right, I suppose in the sense that we all go over memories, not just to recover, but to polish and set at the right angle. And of course there is a metaphor here not only for the author’s craft of illumination, but also for the light of truth, the pursuit of which happens not only in literature, but in religion and philosophy.

Happy to be hitched

Mrs Luther and Her sisters: Women in the Reformation, Derek Wilson, Lion

We don’t have a huge amount of historical material on Katie Luther, even though Martin Luther is one of history’s most documented figures. So Katie becomes, for Derek Wilson, a point of entry into the world of Reformation women, and what changes in society they drove and encountered. And in compilation there is a surprising amount of material. In both quantity and quality, women contributed, and, unsurprisingly, received both praise and blame for doing so.

The first significant change to the life of women occurred with the dismantling in the north of Europe of the monastic system. For some, this was a loss, as women who previously found stability and community in the cloister were now forced out into the world where women where dependent on men and destitution loomed.

For other women, being forced into the convent was the problem, and escape brought new freedoms. Not only this, but Luther insisted that the work of childrearing, the education of children, and the ups and down of marital life were all part of God’s plan, holy in his sight, and not a lesser activity compared to the supplications and midnight masses of nuns and monks sequestered away from the corrupted world of the everyday. So nuns embraced with gusto tis new life, and were happy to be hitched, often to former monks, in fairly arbitrary fashion. (Katie Luther was one of the more recalcitrantly choosy ones.)

This is one of the Reformation’s most enduring legacies, beyond arguments over free will and God’s grace which now mystify many in the modern world. It remains in our attitudes to both the individual and the family, within the church epitomised by the phrase ‘the priesthood of all believers’, though there will always remain within the church a tendency to view ordination as something conferring a more exalted status.  Beyond the church, there remains an emphasis on the sanctity of the family, and the ability of the individual of any rank to make meaningful contributions to society.

As many have pointed out, and as Andrew Petegree does at length in his Brand Luther, the new printing presses were indispensable for the promulgation of the new Lutheran faith, and ironically, nuns picked up the new teachings, first by being educated and literate, and secondly by getting their hands on the newly printed material. In the wider community, literate women, encouraged by the Reformers, read and attempted to understand the Bible for themselves. An incredulous European visitor commented on the tendency of English women to take notes during sermons and then discuss theology afterwards.

Some even dared to teach men. Luther was magnanimous in praise of his wife’s business acumen, and probably well aware of his own propensity to destitution were it not for the management of his wife. But his praise ended at the edge of the realms of philosophical discussion, and he thought women’s attempts at teaching and preaching ‘foolishness’. As is often noted, Luther was a radical spiritually, and a conservative socially. Actually, this may not be quite right. Luther simply was concerned about the breakdown of society, led, as he well knew, by his break from Rome, and he was at pains to suppress revolutionary ideas. In the radical wing of the Reformation they weren’t so reticent, and there was a perceived logic between equality of the sexes regarding salvation and equality of the sexes regarding spreading the Gospel by print and mouth.

Threatened men, even among the radicals, argued from the Bible that women should not teach men. The women countered by arguing this did not apply to widows, or by quoting scripture that the Gospel must be preached wherever possible and that they must obey God, not men. Then, as now, the place of women in churches was debated fiercely. Unlike today, martyrdom was often the result. To adapt a phrase from the French Revolution, it was the liberty to preach the Gospel or death.

Gold serif

Well, the Kevin Rudd memoir is here, and the first thing I noticed is the obligatory gold serif title, reserved for sportspeople and politicians. This book actually looks more sporting memoir than political memoir. The design people at Macmillan must have spent a good twenty seconds or so thinking about this cover. Anyway, that’s the bad news. The good news is, Rudd’s book has welcoming heft. Unlike some politicians who seem to want to just get something out there, Rudd seems to have enjoyed writing this, if length is an indication. And it is only volume one. He says in the prologue that practical considerations got in the way of keeping his story to one volume, and by this we assume he means his long-windedness. The title (‘Not for the Faint Hearted’) refers to politics, but it could be a warning to the casual reader beginning its 600 pages. (Though this is not a bad thing. A political memoir needs to read well in both style and content, and at least here the signs are that both the tale and the telling are good.) In this perhaps he is emulating Henry Kissinger, whose three volumes of memoir came in at well over three thousand pages (and only covered his years in the service of presidents Nixon and Ford). That’s not the only comparison. Kissinger and Rudd are both academically minded, interested in and have experience in diplomacy and world affairs, particularly China. While leaning towards the progressive side of politics they both aroused suspicion that they were secretly conservatives. They are both gregarious, with a sense of humour, but also harbor a darker, Machiavellian side. They both have egos, can be histrionic or amiable, depending on mood. This is nothing unusual. Politicians are usually complex people. In Rudd’s case, it looks like all his complexities, good and bad, are on display in his new book.