Tim Winton (2017) The Boy Behind the Curtain: Notes from an Australian Life.

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Tim Winton is one of those annoying kids. He wanted to be a writer when he grew up and by the time he was nineteen he was publishing. Pisses you off, doesn’t it. It’s the story of the exception to the rule. Here’s a white, working-class kid, from Perth of all places, that won all kinds of prizes and made it not just in Australia, but world-wide. Good on yer cobber I say.

My mock-Australian is like my writing, to be avoided, but I just keep doing it anyway. Anyone that has read Cloudstreet will recognise his dad. Here he is a traffic cop with a backstory in which he’s nearly killed, not expected to live, expected to be invalidated out of the service. Life with a single wage then no wage suddenly becomes something that even a kid recognises as life changing. Quick in Clouldsteet finds his feet in the love of the water and in  ‘Havoc: A Life in Accidents’ life changes in a heartbeat.

In fiction I’ve been a chronicler of sudden moments like these. Because the abrupt and headlong are old familiars. For all the comforts and privileges that have come my way over the years, my life feels like topography of accidents. Sometimes, for better or worse, they are the landmarks by which I take my bearings. I suppose they form a large part of my sentimental education. They’re havoc’s vanguard. They fascinate me. I respect them. But I dread them too.

Others like his father often carry what you cannot, but it can lead to a kind of strangeness evident in Cloudstreet with the mother of one household that shared the house sleeping outside in a tent, literally, her own space, much the same as Winton’s granny. And if you read a homage to ‘Betsy’ and find out that it’s a car built to last and last and last and embarrass a boy forever and a day then you’ll know that these smart adverts we watch about Renault is nothing new.

In ‘The Battle for Nigaloo Reef’ we see a Blue Planet and David Attenborough kind of world. A world Tim Winton grew up in and he’s held his granddaughter’s hand as she finds her feet in the waves. A shrinking world. The miracle here is like Winton’s father walking again is that the battle was won, Nigaloo Reef was saved – momentarily- but the world is shrinking and things change.

I’d read ‘In the Shadow of the Hospital’ before. This is another epicentre in which suffering seeps out and there are no civilians. People suffering and in pain have no boundaries. A car, for example, crashing into accident and emergency was no accident.

The opening story/essay ‘The Boy at the Window’ is a cautionary tale.

When I was a kid I like to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people. I hid behind the terylene curtain in my parents’ bedroom with the .22 and whenever anyone approached I drew a bead on them.

There might have come a time when he pulled the trigger. He didn’t. But that’s happenstance or circumstance or just plum good luck. Winton recognises the power of guns and having one changes who we are. All those gun nuts really are nuts. Taking away a gun is like taking away a woman’s breast or emasculation. It lessens the person they think they are. Think how having a mobile phone, even in the same room, as others, changes the focus and narrative, how much more powerful is having a gun. When we’re young we’re impetuous. Having access to a gun makes us dangerous. That’s what he’s saying, dangerous and callous.

In ‘The Demon Shark,’ for example, Winton remembers a time when the good old boys would bait shark with whale oil and meat and shoot at them because they were sharks, there to be shot at and butchered for the common good. But not the good of the shark or the health of the sea.

‘Using the C-word’ is something I’m quite partial to. Winton recognises that he’s come a long way from the working-class kid he was. He’s comfortable, by many measures, rich. But he isn’t blind and he isn’t deaf and he isn’t dumb. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns. And those that are getting screwed big time are the poorest in society. We, the working class, have lost the propaganda war and the winners are hanging us from hooks and skinning us to the bone and blaming us for being poor and stupid. Hatred. Things there were once taboo is mainstream. We don’t need to look to the moron’s moron in the White House. Look closer to home Winton is saying. Middle class Australians are quite happy to screw the working class and in the blame game the c-word is often used as a handbrake and shorthand meaning not one of us. Fuck you I say to that. It’s not the politics of envy it’s the reality of being screwed again and again and calling it Austerity – for who? – cunts.

‘Barefoot in the Temple of Art’ is a reminder that black is never white and white is never black. There’s no profit without people. And there’s no life, but just existence, without art. Read on.

Carl MacDougall (2017) Someone Always Robs the Poor

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I was aware of Carl MacDougall in an oblique way. I hadn’t read any of his work, but knew him to be the editor of one of the classic Scottish texts The Devil and the Giro: The Scottish Short Story. When I found out the Scottish Book Trust had approached him and he had agreed to be my mentor for my second novel I was chuffed.

I googled him. This is his latest short-story collection, by the now defunct publishers Freight. I admit to a bias here. A hatred of what we’ve become. Mean minded and petty. In a word it’s about class and lack of it.  Tim Winton touches on it his essay ‘Using the C-word.’ Carl MacDougall gets it right here. Someone Always Robs the Poor. The theft has become more systematic since the nineteen-seventies when we lost the propaganda war and the advent of Thatcherism/ Reeganism, the growth of individualism and if it was going to end in farce it ends in Trumpism. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in apocalyptic tragedy.  Someone always robs the poor, but with the added element of hatred –it’s all their own fault- and we’re to blame for society’s ills.

Someone Always Robs the Poor is the second story in MacDougall’s collection. It begins with the narrator watching the pigs eat her book of fairy tales. They leave behind the feudalism of Poland, the coming genocide of Nazi Germany and their family has a golden to ticket to the promised land of America. Look at the title again.

All day my father stood at the back of the cart waving his hat, and when my mother told him to sit down, he said, I am waving goodbye to Poland. I am looking to see what I have to take with me.

The narrator’s father is an older man. He has purchased his wife, who is very beautiful, and kept her as his own. Hubris leads to nemesis in Leith, Edinburgh, which is not America as the father believes. The streets are not paved with gold, but the sweat of indentured labour.  Someone always robs the poor.

‘After the dance’ is not about romance, but rape and how it curdles a person and poisons families.

In Sunset Song, Chris Guthrie’s mother dies and his father almost kills himself working the land. He calls to her from his sickbed, she’s the flesh of his flesh and he wants her. In MacDougall’s story ‘Spitting it Out’ an old man gets out of his sickbed to go and visit his estranged daughter. She’s no right in the heid he says, with they accusations. But we know the story is as old as the bible.

‘Korsakoff’s Psychosis,’ alcohol in the blood, wet brain. You know the score. Last chance for sanity. Get off at this stop kind of story.  The narrator, like many of us, have been in the wards, been in the wars where there’s no winners, only losers and those that think they can drink the same as everybody else, or like they used to, when things were better. Amy Liptrot does a smashing job in The Outrun of sinking into the words and the ways we explain to ourselves how we need to drink because that’s how we reward ourselves, and when we’re down that’s just the thing for a pick-me-up. When we see a sunset, how the day is so much sunnier with a beer in our hand. Korsakoff is that Glasgow thing. We drink to be happy and we drink to be sad. Drink it our mentor and tormentor.

Carl MacDougall writes about violence, rape, incense and murder. I guess we’re singing from the same hymn sheets. We speak the same bastardin’ language.

In the preface to Scots The Language of the People, MacDougall uses the c-word. Class. ‘The educated classes struggled to rid themselves of “Scotticisms”’.   What was left was the dirt and people that roll in it. That’s me. I’m holding my hand up. It’s no surprise that Billy Connelly is quoted on the back leaf of Someone Always Robs the Poor, ‘Carl is a hero of mine…a great storyteller’.

I envy Carl MacDougall the breadth of his education, the depth of his reading. But the thing about books are they don’t care who you are. Anyone can turn the page and if they’ve got a wee notion, they can read and they too can learn.

I was thinking for example about fucking. You’ve probably heard of it. But more in the dialect sense. When I was writing about Jaz, for example, I wrote. You fuckin’ cunt. Then changed it to you fuckin cunt. The latter is closer to the style that Bernard MacLaverty uses in his short stories. Then one of the characters in Carl MacDougall’s stories says you fucken cunt. Oh, dearie, dearie, which one of us is right?

Well, it’s Carl MacDougall, obviously, because he knows better than most than language is a living thing. Bastard. If you turn to Scots the Language of the People, the section marked Tom Leonard – read on:

The poster for the Makars’ Society advertises a

GRAN MEETIN’

THE NICHT

TAE DECIDE THE

SPELLIN’

O’ THIS POSTER

And the admission price is Thritty pee (a heid).

This wasn’t the only anachronism in the language argument Tom Leonard spotted. On the publication of Six Glasgow Poems in 1969 he altered the argument and rules of engagement by introducing the urban voice and insisting it should be heard, transcribing living Glaswegian speech to prove that language is defined by class as much as by region or country and that working-class speech is as suitable a vehicle for poetry and serious thought as any other;

Tom Leonard: The Voyeur.

what’s your favourite word dearie

is it wee

I hope it’s wee

wee’s such a nice wee word

like a wee hairy dog

with two wee eyes

such a nice wee word to play with dearie

you can say it quickly

with a wee smile

and a wee glance to the side

or you can say it slowly dearie

with your mouth a wee bit open

and a wee sigh dearie

a wee sigh

put your wee head on my shoulder dearie

oh my

a great wee word

and Scottish

it makes you proud

 

 

 

Big Cats, BBC 1, 8pm, BBC iPlayer, Narrator -Bertie Carvel

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p05q59zk/big-cats-series-1-episode-1

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09p26p3/credits

Big Cats are killers. They have adapted to every corner of the globe (not that a globe has corners). So successful are they in the Australian outback Tim Winton tell us readers in his book The Boy Behind the Curtain they have pretty much helped destroy most of the indigenous wildlife.  I’ve also read in the papers about leopards in India taking children. My own cat seemed unconcerned. It does bring back mice.  Of the 40 big cats, 33 are small cats. Downsizing seems like a good idea in these difficult times. The real killer is, of course, man. We literally create deserts of lands and seas.

This celebration of cat life is one of the wonders of the world. Beautiful and full of awe. What’s missing, of course, is David Attenborough. We might see a rusty-spotted cat 200 times smaller than its carnivore cousin the lion, but with an impressive 60% strike rate (where do they get that stat and who’s counting the mice and small birds?) it’s king of the Sri Lankan jungle. In the Himalayas we see a snow leopard doing a pee, otherwise known as marking its territory and hoping a mate might swing by. I’ve done that as well.  There’s a pride of Africa lions – no jokes here please about Gloria Gaynor and I torch songs I Will Survive. (No you willnae) Then there’s those cubs whose mum looks like BagPuss, but it’s wee  Pallas cat from the steppes of Outer Mongolia. Not Steps on Top of the Pops singing the Bee-Gee’s number Tragedy.   But the next best thing if you’re a cat fan, which I’m not. But you know the next line. I wouldnae be cruel to one.

Tim Winton (1991) Cloudstreet.

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Cloudstreet, Tim Winton’s homage to his homeland in Perth Australia has been kicking about for a few years. Winton wrote an afterword in 2015. Sometime you find a book and sometimes a book finds you. The novel I’m rewriting has many of the features of Cloudstreet. If it ever hits the light of day…well, we’ll see.

I’m not really sure who the narrator of Cloudsteet is and being a pretend writer I’m usually pretty good at hiding that kind of thing. I guess the authorial voice belongs to Fish Lamb.  He’s a beautiful boy, everybody’s favourite, and his ma Oriel’s blue eyed (although his eyes are dark) but he drowns early on. This also happens to one of my characters Angela. Like Angela, Fish is brought back to life, but he’s not right in the head afterwards (oxygen starvation) and brings back something else with him. Another sensibility.

But the book begins with the same kind of thing, but couched in a different language.

Sam Pickles was a fool to get out of bed that day…you turn in your bed and you smell your dead father beside you and you know that the shifty shadow of God is lurking. And Sam knew damwell that when the shifty shadow is about, you roll yourself a smoke and stay under the sheets and don’t move till you see what happens.

Sam Pickles, of course, doesn’t stay in bed. He gets out of bed and pays the price. The hairy hand of fate takes his hand as payment. It’s fate made manifest. His wife Dolly isn’t best pleased. She’s the kind of woman other men ogle and some men get to touch, but not too much. When Rose her daughter goes to tell her the news about Sam, Dolly is shacking up in the hotel room with some Yank, helping with the war effort.

Rose Pickle’s two brothers Ted and Chub are none the wiser. Neither of the brothers rarely are. As characters they fade into the background. This is Rose’s story. And Sam’s story. And Dolly’s story. And the story of the Lamb family too.

It’s also the story of the river, that gives life and takes life. And when the shifty shadow is lurking the Pickles family need a place to hide. They need asylum. In the way that’s what the house in Cloud Street Perth was. A rich old bitch’s folly with too many rooms and too many memories that still haunt it. When the Pickles family inherit Cloudstreet they inherit its ghosts. Fate brings them the Lambs.

The Lambs believe in hard work in the way that Sam believes in the hairy hand. Oreil the matriarch is more battalion than mother. Lester, her husband, does largely what he’s told. He’s grateful for her strength in the way most other are. Her children Hat, Elaine, Lon and Red, are like Ted and Chub in the Pickles family, distant tunes, dimly heard. Literally, that is, when the two families agree to share the same dilapidated house. The Lamb family renting rooms from the Pickles.

This is the story of Fish, the boy that drowned,  and Quick who sees things other folk can’t. He sees himself running out of the wheat fields, when, for example, he’s shoot kangaroos at a waterhole. He sees a blackman that warns him he should go home. Later with Rose and Fish, Quick and them see a nation of black children blowing through the wheat fields.

After reading this book you might see things differently too. Here it is in print, long before junk bonds was the marvel of the eighties and a house was a box you kept your assets in. A house too can have soul and breathe its characters , but only if you let it, as Cloudstreet does.