Tuesday, 14 April 2015


One of the most ancient stories in Western literature is about two men who fight until they are exhausted and then laugh out loud as they realise they have been  each other’s equal all along, and so become best friends. 

This is not just a ripping yarn but a story about what it means to be human and about what we are capable of – the bad as well as the good.

The Iliad is, likewise, not just entertainment but an account of what Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, is remembered for and why.

It’s not his prowess as a warrior but how he regained his humanity by recognising the humanity of his enemy, Priam, King of Troy.

Priam’s grief moved Achilles to tears. He then did what was required of him by the rules that regulated the relationship between strangers and enemies.

Myths such as Gilgamesh and The Iliad, like the Bible, are powerful stories that throw light on questions we may have about the stories of our own lives.

How, for example, did we mature, in 100 years, from White Australia to the Multicultural society we are today?

What enabled us to enlarge the Anzac Story by agreeing that the Turks should march with us on Anzac Day and form their own RSL Sub Branches?

Why are Vietnam Veterans returning in droves to Vietnam to the redemptive welcome of their former enemy? 

So, is there more to achieve along the trajectory we have been on, from White Australia to Multiculturalism?

Yes. Our sense of who we are and what we are capable of is not yet everything it can be.

For example, can the Anzac Story be further enlarged to include all who fought to defend this country?

Are we capable of being moved by the grief of other Australians whose forebears defended this country for 140 years against us, and finally befriending them?

Yes we can, according to the ancient and venerable stories of Gilgamesh and Achilles, because this exactly the kind of thing human beings are capable of when we are at our best.

No matter what has gone before, we can, like Achilles, respond to the grief of our former enemy and accord them the courtesies of our shared humanity. 

Like Gilgamesh we can go even further than being merely courteous and befriend as an equal the former enemy we could not defeat.

Including the first Australian patriots in the Anzac Story may seem like a big ask. But it is a logical next step on the path we have been on. It is what comes next – unless we move backwards and that is surely unthinkable.

Well, no actually. Another reason we should know the big stories of our culture is precisely that they remind us that we are capable of trashing what we treasure. 

By connecting the Anzac Story the Myth of the Trojan War we can not only understand why we have matured from White Australia to Multicultural Australia, but recognise the options for the next step along that path.

NICOLE - PART 3 - by Phil Ricketts (2004)

You are my desert moon
My ochre sand
My wave crashing down upon me
an incandescent light

My Mona Lisa, too
My Eiffel Tower
The Taj Mahal at night
The sound of one hand clapping

My pyramid at dawn
my knight in armour shining
My tiller of the soil
The calling of the dawn.

I want no more than all of this
My heart, already overflowing
Would burst its dams
Would crash down its levees
Would fill to overflowing
Would flood me

Wednesday, 16 July 2014



What is it about human nature that, no matter how much some blokes get blown off course, their homing instinct swings them back around so that their deepest urgings drive them to have a crack at what evolution made them for. Just being born male is enough to be led in the wrong direction. Peer pressure to transgress for the hell of it is just the start. Being born working class ensures that options that lead to independent success, taken for granted by the privileged few, are rarely considered. Going to war all but seals the fate of too many who take that route, whether voluntarily or by ballot. Existing, even if only briefly, as an agent of human destructiveness, all but strips away the tissue of connectivity that makes us human – all BUT! The bond that men form with one another when the life of each depends on the loyalty of others endures more widely than marriage. That bond makes it difficult in some cases to overcome the nearly universal condescension of their gender towards women. Women therefore exist in the lives of such men as a convenience at best or an unavoidable encumbrance. Children, the evolutionary point of there being men and women in the first place, are a fearful and even distasteful prospect. Yet, here’s the story of a bloke and his woman, mired in pitiful relationships with his peers, who choose each other and embrace the prospect of having children – even if the likelihood of failure can’t be ruled out.

Danielle de Valera has done something I once thought I would never tolerate: writing in the first person about the life of a Vietnam Veteran. I first encountered this phenomenon in a writing course. One of the other students wrote about an incident in Vietnam, not only as though it had happened, but as though he’d been part of the action. I was incensed! In that moment I understood the outrage of indigenous people when a non-indigenous person writes (or paints etc) as though they are indigenous. Anyone remember Wanda Koolmatrie? Or Eddie Burrup? Well, Ms de Valera has cured me of my possessiveness. (Yep, I am a VV.) I think what made the difference was that, in her use of first person narration, she does not come across as a “wannabe”. Her close association with one of the most acclaimed Vietnam Veterans certainly helps her achieve an authentic sense of “being there” without intending to claim as much. She also strikes the right tone in narrating events in Mullumbimby in the mid eighties – not as they actually happened, but as they would have, given the cast of characters in her story. There can be little doubt that she was there – as participant and as observer.

Ms de Valera’s story alternates between events in Mullumbimby in post (Vietnam) war times and moments in the thick of it in-country, as we used to say. Each episode is a panel of an unfolding mural. The first combines inconsistent messages about the Japanese - as a former enemy on the one hand, and as purveyors of the stuff of our prosperity on the other. Being denied entry to the Ex-Services Club provokes cynicism and confirms the sense and fact of isolation for the two Vietnam Vets. This commonplace episode resonates with the animosity of Second World War Returned Servicemen towards Vietnam Veterans until 1987 or thereabouts. As they drive away in the slashing rain the story segues to an operation in Vietnam, as chopper-borne Diggers are dropping through the rain into a clearing for a rendezvous with US forces for what was to be a joint operation. Not for the last time in this story would the Diggers be let down, and worse, by their so called allies. Do we hear the voice of David Hackworth, disillusioned with his own country’s military, in this story? It wasn’t just the Diggers who questioned the professionalism of their overlords. Each of the alternating snapshots has such issues embedded in the narrative. 

This is a story that can be re-read numerous times without exhausting all that is hidden between the lines. It is a Coming Home story that, in this and other works by Ms de Valera, unfolds over a number of years. That thought suggests a link with the film that bears the name of its genre. Is Michael O’Neill an Aussie version of Luke Martin – emotionally rather than physically disabled– who decides that the best way to help his mates is to escape the horror of their post war life (for its destructive nature is every bit as horrific as their experience in Vietnam) is to throw himself into something resembling a “normal” life? Does Azure thus have her Lucky Out in Michael’s self administered “cleansing”?

Monday, 16 June 2014

Aliens - Who? Us??

Thoughts arising from The Harrowing...

From the second paragraph of The Harrowing by Rita De Heer it is very clear that this is a SiFi story. So alien is the creature described that only those who like to push ahead into the unknown are likely to read on. The physiology of the creature is so unfamiliar that pushing ahead is all one can do in the hope of all becoming clear in due course. One might hope for a picture but that would be too easy. One just has to trust the narrative to give enough to keep it worth the read. It certainly does.

One of the devices used to deepen the alien experience is language itself – the very medium in which story exists. Apart from the newly minted nouns to name the species, all of the words are familiar but the way they are used heightens the sense of something perceived but not quite knowable. This is particularly so in the use of hyphens to join ordinary words to name things that require a stretch of the mind to grasp. 

Yet, despite its alien nature, there are things about this world that are familiar. The creatures procreate, though not like us. It is this difference that makes them alien. Yet in our world corals procreate, also not like us. Human procreation is not the only model in existence. Unlike corals, the creatures in this story experience something like sexual attraction but their gender relations seem to exist heedless of the whole point of gender – until one recalls that Spartan soldiers, who procreated as readily as their Athenian counterparts, did gender differently. The creatures parent their young, and if the role of the genders seems to be a bit off the planet, one has only to remember that it is, indeed, on another planet and that, on this one, seahorses do not conform with what would otherwise seem to be a universal norm. We are being asked to see the difference between a function of material existence and the way it is modelled in particular material circumstances, and perhaps to accept that there is nothing that is alien. Almost nothing, that is.

At the outset there is a strong sense of doom hanging over this world. Something has changed the environment and most of the waterbound young are not surviving to maturity. The creature first encountered has not been adequately nurtured and does not even understand the processes of its own maturation. Well, nothing alien there if you’re a female in our world, especially if you have to misfortune of being born into a society dominated by men of fanatical religious habits. But I digress. The unfamiliarity of the creatures with intrusive new elements in their environment causes them to explain those intrusive elements in terms familiar to their own experience and conceptual habits. The reader, however, is taken into the inner workings of the problem and recognises immediately that the aliens in this world are human and that they are acting with characteristic human disregard for what they do not understand and appreciate the value of. One thinks of colonisation, destruction of human and natural environments, genocide and so much more. Yes, there are aliens after all, but who would have thought it would be... us?

The creatures lay plans to foil what they think is the predator. They affirm that a heroic death in the service of their kind is a worthy fate. They are completely wrong in their understanding of the situation and there is a death but not one that can serve any purpose other than to demonstrate their utter powerlessness. The creature first encountered returns dispirited to the island, to serve, however futile it may be, the new generation demanding its share of existence. No sense here of the lament heard so often in our world that it would be condemning a new generation to a horrific existence and therefore better not to let them be born. The dispirited creature reflects on how it came to fend for itself - its parent having set out to slay the harrower did not returned. It finds the cause of the problem and finds the skeleton of one of its kind, crushed by the monstrously inexplicable presence in its habitat. Knowing he faces the same fate he tries nevertheless to play David to Goliath laying waste to his kind. As he is about to meet the same fate as his predecessor, something of unimaginable magnitude and power intervenes and he is not only spared, but the problem is vanquished. 

The creature, being amphibious can only think of what happened in terms of the environment in which it experienced it. So it was a big fish, although it was so far beyond the creature’s expectation that it was conscious of doubt about what it saw – what happened. The reader might conclude that it was a force of nature that restored equilibrium to an unsustainable situation. Either way the human mind is naming, as best it can, a function of existence itself. In this world suggestions of Divine intervention name that function without necessarily being any better or worse than explanations involving a big fish or forces of nature. 

There are no aliens except those who contemptuously assert their will at the expense of others. All manifestations of existence are kin. The patterns of being that are expressed in dissimilar “cultures” are what make all “cultures” precious. The assertion that value is found only in what is like “us” identifies the Anti-Being – the only real alien.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

MagnifiCat – an Animal Fantasy by Danielle de Valera, Old Tiger Books, 2013

Kindle Edition

It wasn’t until I reached the resolution of the crisis that drives this story that I realised why the characters had to be animals. Indeed, for the first three quarters of the book, though my attention was constantly drawn to the fact that they were cats, dogs, snakes, echidnas, rabbits and more, I kept visualising the characters as human. I saw Rupert, for example, as Finn Burridge (Arthur in The Paradise, ABC1 Saturday 7:30 pm) and Sylvia as Phyllida Law (Aunt Auriel in Kingdom, Saturday 9:30 pm). I visualised the whole as if in the cinema thinking that human characters would be totally credible – until I came to the bit where it becomes, in the Author’s own words, a fairy tale. No one would have trouble with the part of the story that dwells in hardship, but happy endings, that’s another matter. We don’t like to see happy humans!

Having said that, I do not mean to dismiss the last quarter of the book as “just a fairy tale”. Disney has much to answer for when it comes to how fairy tales are dismissed as kids’ stuff. They are actually the depositories (depositories, Mr Rabbit) of folk wisdom. Danielle de Valera’s #MagnifiCat is no exception. But I want to go further than that by saying that this book could be called The Book of Danielle, because, like another with a similar sounding name, The Book of Daniel, it is apocalyptic.

Like all important phenomena, the word Apocalypse and what it signifies, has suffered the effects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that everything turns to shit. Or, more classically, working systems break down because entropy increases. Contrary to popular opinion, an Apocalypse is not about bad things happening but a revelation of faith – which is why The Apocalypse of St John in the New Testament is called The Book of Revelation. If all you see is fire and brimstone, you missed the point. And so it is with Magnificat. If you look below the narrative you may catch a glimpse of Danielle de Valera’s faith.

Faith is not to be confused with belief. We readily accept that there is a difference between belief and knowledge. But what is faith? The intuitive answer is that faith is an instance of belief. But I want to suggest that faith is actually a form of knowledge. I can believe something that is true, but that true belief would not be knowledge unless properly justified. A false belief can never be properly justified and therefore cannot be knowledge. A true belief that is falsified by a single instance, however, is not necessarily a false belief. If I believe, for example, that all metal bars expand when heated, the discovery of a metal bar that does not expand when heated simply necessitates a couple of minor adjustments – drop one word and add another – for my belief to remain true – metal bars usually expand when heated. Faith is expressed as belief that undergoes adjustments over time. But unlike the belief about metal bars which can properly be justified and become knowledge by systematic empirical experimentation, faith is knowledge before it is a belief; it is existential knowledge which comes to be expressed as belief that changes over time. Faith withstands the most serious challenge to belief and is thereby properly justified as knowledge. I can believe or disbelieve in miracles and be right or wrong depending on whether miracles do or do not occur; but I can never know that miracles do or do not occur. Faith, on the other hand, which is usually thought of as believing, is firstly a radical un-belief – faith is un-convinced that things are as they seem. It is when faith attempts to answer the question, if what seems real is not real, what is real? that it expresses itself as belief which changes over time. You know… death is not the end of existence – that sort of thing … But what does not change is what faith knows to be true – things are not as they seem; existence is more than we observe. But I digress.

Apocalyptic writing celebrates the fact that despite all the troubles that assail us, we better than merely survive: we thrive in ways unseen to most other people. This is not to be confused with the Byronesque Dogma that if we believe that the Universe will look after us (another by-product of TSLT), we will find ourselves rolling in abundance – an assertion pitiful on the lips of someone on the dole but reprehensible in the mouths of the affluent. No, The Book of Daniel, and The Book of Revelation are not about people who don’t suffer. They are about people who know that their suffering does not define them and who, staring down the source of their suffering, know who they really are. 

As the first fourteen chapters of Magnificat show, Danielle de Valera is no stranger to suffering. She knows poverty as a sister. This is evident in the way she writes about poverty. Her characters engage with it with a complete lack of resentment. When Claude loses his job it never occurs to him to think, let alone say out aloud, “What about me? It isn’t fair!” Intriguingly, Sylvia reads Schopenhauer. Why not Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre, both of whom were champions of the kind of freedom that is to be found in taking responsibility for the quality of one’s existence? Schopenhauer was the first western philosopher to “get” that “life is suffering” and all that follows from that in the thought of the Buddha. So why not just have Sylvia chanting the mantras so familiar in the geographic location in which her story is set? Is it because suffering is not answered, by a Westerner, by putting on the livery of the Buddha but by engaging with it as a Westerner – hence her interest in Schopenhauer? 

And, of course, the title of the book is not just a pun. The Magnificat is the definitive statement of faith in the mouth of Mary, the mother of Jesus and includes the words: “He fills the starving with good things; send the rich away empty.” The story in which people are constantly on the verge of hunger, ends with a feast. But wait. Isn’t it the rich who put the show on? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not empty – living their eleventh century fantasy. 

There are depths to plum in this apparently simple tale. I will end by alluding to one of them. Is there a reason why the characters that are cats or dogs are not, say, possums or sheep or... whatever? And why are rabbits the snobs, rather than, say, camels with their haughty heads held high looking askance at the world? One thing’s for sure, it’s not a scheme that encodes references to Australian artists, otherwise Rupert would be a Bunny.