The Convenient Untruth: Reading Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

As a child in Wales, I walked to church three times every Sunday.

St Michael’s church – Llanfihangel Genau’r Glyn – had stood at the top of the village since Norman times, nestled beside an ancient forest. A yew tree in the graveyard was said to be two thousand years old. Mattins was at 9.30 am. Sunday school in the afternoon, and Evensong at six. Dressed in cassock, surplice, and ruff, I sang in the choir, then sat quietly while the vicar recited the prayers and gave his sermon. Perhaps it was here that I discovered the pleasures of boredom, gazing around and imagining stories about the colourful figures in the stained-glass windows (the saint skewering a poor dragon with his lance; the handsome young captain who had died in the Great War). It was here that I fell in love with the sounds and cadences of English through the language of the King James Book of Common Prayer.

For the Lord is a great God: and a great King above all gods.
In his hands are all the corners of the earth: and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands prepared the dry land.
O come, let us worship and fall down: and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is the Lord our God: and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

At Christmas time, I walked with the choir through falling snow, carrying a lantern on a staff, to sing carols at local farmhouses before being ushered into the bright kitchens for hot drinks and mince pies. In summertime, the long evenings were often spent at the vicarage (eighteenth-century, ivy-covered) playing tennis with the vicar’s four, equally adorable, teenaged daughters.

By the age of fourteen, though, a stern voice within me brought all this to an end. Religion was superstitious nonsense, I told my mother in a curt, patronising tone. The idea of an all-powerful creator was no more than a pathetic delusion. I attended church no longer. Coincidentally, the vicar and his family moved to another parish around this time. There were no more summer evenings flirting on the vicarage tennis court.

My views on religion were unchanged when I recently came to read Chris Tsiolkas’ 2019 novel, Damascus. (I let books rest for a few years after publication, so my reading isn’t polluted by reviews or dinner-table conversation). Having written about early Christian history, I was interested in how Tsiolkas (a non-believer like me) would approach the story of St Paul. The Apostle is renowned for his influential epistles, for shaping early Christianity, and taking it beyond the Jewish world. He is also known for his emphasis on Original Sin and his views on women and sexuality which jar with contemporary attitudes.

Tsiolkas is interested in exploring the conflict within Paul rather than making simplistic judgments. The novel begins with a young Christian woman being stoned to death by religious Zealots for the crime of having sex outside marriage. The scene is brutal and painful to read. Only when the smashed body of the woman lies dead do we discover that Paul has been watching. It was he who exposed her ‘crime’. Paul’s actions, we begin to learn, are an externalisation of guilt and hatred of himself for his homosexuality and lust (a possibility much discussed in theological writings). The tale unfolds with Tsiolkas’ customary skill and economy of detail. It leaps across decades, locales, and protagonists, to present a rounded portrait of Paul at different stages of life: transformed by his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus; travelling the Roman Empire to spread the word that a Second Coming is imminent, and that becoming a Christian brings eternal salvation. In the novel, Paul surrenders to Christ’s message of universal love, and is prepared for his imminent return, the ‘end time’. At the story’s end, Paul has died, and his companion, Timothy, is an old man approaching his own end. They have done their task well, however, with the seeds of Christianity planted over half the Roman Empire. At the same time, factionalism and differences within the Church hint at troubled times to come.

Tsiolkas is masterful and empathetic in conveying the conflict in Paul’s mind, and the power of his impact as an evangelist. Yet I could not help being revulsed at observing the birth of the Church – not only because it infused natural instincts with guilt and shame and became such an oppressive instrument of the powerful (from the Emperor Constantine to Putin in the present day), but because belief in an all-powerful creator is simply irrational nonsense, a cruel delusion foisted on the vulnerable, alienating them from power over their own lives. At the same time, we can understand its appeal to people struggling in poverty or distress of any kind, especially slaves in ancient Rome or antebellum America. The message is essentially, ‘Yes, your life is miserable and that won’t change. But obey the Church’s laws and you will be reborn and live eternally after you die’. For people in difficult physical or mental straits, this is a seductive offer. In Nietzsche’s acerbic words, ‘Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in “another” or “better” life.’ Nietzsche, by the way, was always careful to distinguish between the Christianity of the Church and the actual message of Jesus Christ, of loving kindness to all humanity (a kindness so lacking in my own brutal words to my mother).

There’s more to it than this, however. Whatever their circumstances, humans have always needed to understand existence within some overall framework that seems to make sense of their experience, a schema into which they snugly fit. It’s their place in the world. Our sense of self turns out to be a fragile thing. This has become evident in recent years as large numbers of people have become unmoored from reality, coping with the stress of a global pandemic by clinging to risible conspiracy theories and even taking violent action inspired by them. Religion is mocked with cheap jibes by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, but as a scientist shouldn’t he recognise that people indisputably have a need for such an epistemological framework?

This need does not evaporate for people who are fortunate to live in a society like ours which is democratic, rational, and educated. Instead we become invested with a confidence in science (as happened overwhelmingly in Australia during the pandemic) and a framework of liberal values (including human rights) which begin to assume the infallible ‘natural’ authority of Mosaic laws.

It takes a further leap, perhaps, to face the fact that there is no objective, universal framework to our lives. The universe has no purpose. Life is merely an accident which seeks to perpetuate itself. Death is certain. As Camus wrote:

All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world.

For Camus, accepting the senselessness of the world is the first step; the next is to take responsibility for making our own sense of it. But do we have the courage to do this, to forego the comforting fantasies of religion and other absolutist schema? Would St Paul have embraced the Christian message if faced with the knowledge that there is no God and that death is final? How much more impressive that would be – to do good for its own sake, not as a transaction, as a down-payment for eternal life.

Image: Caravaggio. The Conversion of St Paul (1601).

Speak, Library

Review of Telltale by Carmel Bird (Transit Lounge, 2022)

In 1790, French aristocrat and soldier of fortune, Xavier de Maistre, unwisely fought a duel in Turin, in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Whether this was over a lover, a gambling debt, or some obscure eighteeenth century slight we do not know. Duelling being illegal at that time, de Maistre was sentenced to house arrest for six weeks. With only his dog and butler for company, the young Frenchman passed the time writing Voyage autour de ma Chambre, a ‘travel book’ in which he explored his room, regarding the furniture and decoration as though they were strange flora and fauna in a distant, exotic land. The book became a cult classic, light-hearted but also a testimony to how the familiar can be rendered new and strange through the imagination.

Without the support of a dog or even a butler, Carmel Bird – along with the rest of us – found herself confined to home for over a year during the COVID lockdown. Like de Maistre, she set out to make a book from this experience – drawing on the contents of her library, her memories, and her thoughts about writing. Carmel Bird has been a solid presence in Australian letters for many years – author of 11 novels, short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award three times, and winner of the Patrick White Literary Award in 2016. Bird is also widely respected as an essayist, editor, and mentor. She is especially proud of The Stolen Children: Their Stories, published in 1988. Her new work, Telltale, she says,’ is not simply an incomplete examination of the books I have read, but also an incomplete examination of myself. I suppose one can open a door upon the other. Self-examination involves, in my case anyway, an examination of my practice as a writer, bringing in many reflections on the working of the imagination, the behaviour of the unconscious mind’.

Bird begins this journey around her library with some precious volumes from her childhood, Brer RabbitAlice in WonderlandColes Funny Picture Book, and others. We are what we read, and she wonders at her different reactions to some of the stories now, perceiving the imperialist and racist assumptions which lie within them. In describing these and later favourites (Proust, Nabokov, Salinger, and WG Sebald among many others), Bird displays her love of books as objects as well as containers for words. She describes their smell and bindings, and the texture of the pages in books of different eras, noting how popular nineteenth century works are often more foxed and friable (due to the invention of wood pulp-based paper). Each book, she recognises, is a sensory experience freighted with different memories and emotions. Another realisation, as Bird voyages along her bookshelves, is how prevalent pandemics are in the background – for example, The Decameron (bubonic plague); Jane Eyre (typhus); Bleak House (smallpox), and The Secret Garden (cholera). We try not to think of them (as we are doing now with COVID) but disease and death are always with us. Bird also makes a bibliographic confession that she says her friends find ‘shocking and repellent’: when an outsize paperback is unwieldy to read (like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature), she simply attacks the spine with an electric carving knife, slicing it into manageable sections, later tied up with a ribbon. I have no words . . .

Writing about the Grimm Brothers’ folk tales, Bird confesses to fascination from an early age with horror, especially in proximity to comfort and sentiment in the tales. ‘It’s a matter of looking death in the face, really,’ she writes, ‘reading and re-reading for the music of the telling of stories of life and death. Ever after, forever and ever.’ This juxtaposition is evident in her own works, including Telltale. Along with Elizabeth Jolley in WA and Gerald Murnane in Melbourne, Bird was one of the earliest teachers of creative writing in Australia in the 1980s. Stories ‘dramatise the traces of the terrors of the human heart, and the heart picks up the traces as it registers the stories. Narrative is nerves and blood,’ she insists. Bird writes as she reads – in ‘a sort of trance’. She ponders on the necessity of solitude to writers. Quoting Robert Hughes in his memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, she notes, ‘Solitude is, beyond question, one of the world’s great gifts and an indispensable aid to creativity, no matter what level that creation may be hatched at.’ But not everyone yearns for a silent cork-lined room like Proust’s. Others can write in the midst of confusion, chaos, and worse. Some are happy to work in a busy cafe, and Bird reminds us that Behrouz Boochani laboriously tapped out his prize-winning No Friend but the Mountains on a phone while behind the wire of the infamous Manus Island detention centre.

Telltale is not a voyage in a straight line. One thing reminds Bird of another, then another, as she veers off in different directions to recount a further memory, book, or anecdote. This feels disconcerting at first. As becomes clear, however, it is deliberate. Bird wears her tangents with pride. She acknowledges this, confessing it is a way of weaving together different periods and aspects of her life regardless of chronology: ‘Telltale is composed of two different kinds of narrative. One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface?’ As she points out, while the physical details of a memory may be clear, ‘ the principal element that has been retained is the feeling. Perhaps the feeling is the meaning’. Memory does not possess a clock. Incidents which happened decades ago may feel as fresh as something that happened this morning. What binds this warp and weft of life is imagination – the books in her library – where, as Bird writes, ‘Strange magic is a given, and it has its own potent, mysterious logic – an ability to take a reader to the far side of time’.

Telltale opens with one of Bird’s earliest memories, of being a five year-old standing on a bridge over the Cataract Gorge in Tasmania, on the way to a family picnic. Below her was the terrifying spectacle of the thundering Tamar River. Ahead was a park with her family spreading out a tartan rug and peacocks calling to each other among the rhododendrons. She felt suspended between the past and future, between passivity and action, between one moment and the next: ‘I am so small, high up above those waters, transfixed and terrified, suddenly snapped out of everyday consciousness and into a brief flash of truth. A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep. I am alone in time and place.’ This moment has stayed with Carmel Bird all her life, gathering more and more meaning. She later discovers that this was the very day the allies fire-bombed Tokyo, killing over 100,000 civilians – the deadliest air raid in history. She wonders if a little Japanese girl there was dressed just like her in neat grey socks. In Telltale‘s final lines, she recalls being a child again back on a bridge over the abyss, full of horror and fascination. The memory is outside time. Bird still stands there, suspended, and – thanks to this moving and enchanting book – she always will be.

The diamond skull

Damien Hirst: For the Love of God

What is happening to Australia’s art market?

Ten years ago, Damien Hirst’s work, For the Love of God, sold for a reputed $100 million. A platinum cast of a human skull inlaid with over 8,000 diamonds, the sculpture was said to be the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold. It also ignited a controversy over the direction of contemporary art and its relationship with wealthy patrons.

Art is big business. The global market is reported to be worth over $80 billion a year. Today, as throughout human history, the rich and powerful buy and display art works to signal their wealth, good taste, and prestige. There is nothing new about this.  Public enthusiasm for art is healthy too (2.6 million visitors came to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2016). Plenty of people are making money from art it seems – but very little of this reaches the average artist. The vast majority of them are poor, and becoming poorer, with very few able to make a living from their art alone. Commercial art galleries, too, are struggling to survive. What’s going on? In particular, what’s happening to Australia’s art market, which has been devastated over the past ten years? And is it connected to the disruptions happening in the book, music, and movie markets? A conversation at Heide Gallery with Melbourne art dealer, Angela Tandori, intrigued me enough  to investigate.

At first glance, the art market looks very different to that for other media. While music and movies can be reproduced and distributed digitally in infinite numbers, each art work is a unique object. You can’t download an ‘original’ of a work by Fiona Hall as you can with a new album by John Adams, say. Nevertheless, the Internet has affected the market in other ways, creating a confusing and fast-changing market governing how artists and buyers connect.

The first thing to understand is that there is no monolithic ‘art market’, but rather a series of markets which operate more or less independently: the wealthy collector and museum market (serviced by high-end galleries such as Roslyn Oxley9 and Arc One); the experimental and avant-garde; Aboriginal art; the ‘mid-market’ of respected artists with established careers; corporate art, and emerging artists, among others.

Artists’ income also falls into a Pareto pattern, with a small number of them earning the majority of the income, and a long tail of ‘the rest’ on a modest or low income. Only around 1% of Australian artists earn $250,000 or more; some make a living, but the majority have to supplement artistic income by teaching or other means. (There are also the fortunate ‘trust fund artists,’ of course, who are supported by their families.) With the ‘superstar’ outliers excluded, the mean income for most Australian artists is around A$20,000 per annum, a figure which isn’t rising. This makes it harder to run a gallery profitably too, in a vicious circle which further denies artists access to potential buyers.[i]

The impact of the Internet on the arts was famously foreseen by Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’.[iii] Ironically, however, it is other disciplines which have experienced the greatest technological disruption rather than the traditional visual arts. The income of writers and musicians has dropped in the digital economy because of free or cheap availability of products via piracy, micro-income arrangements with streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, reluctance of many online publishers to pay for content, and the simple competition for time and eyeballs from online entertainment and information. There are only so many hours in the day, and in a contest between a book and Youtube at bedtime, the latter will often win.

For artists, on the other hand, a whole range of different factors has combined to have a major effect on how they distribute and sell their works.

Firstly, the impact of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007 led to a drastic reduction in discretionary expenditure, including on purchase of art works.

Secondly, before the market had time to recover, the Artist’s Resale Royalty Right (ARR) was introduced by the Australian Government in 2010: a 5% premium on secondary sales with a gross sale price over A$1,000. This was ‘a good thing’ intended to benefit creators of artworks, especially Aboriginal artists. Unfortunately, it had the perverse outcome of depressing the market further – 5% of gross sale price can consume much of the profit on an average sale, inhibiting trade between artists and collectors, and reducing both turnover and prices. Artist, John Walker, has written caustically of the harm done by this government intervention, and quotes a remark by fellow-painter, Ben Quilty, that only established ‘rich, white artists’ would benefit in any significant way from the ARR.[iv]

A third factor was the 2016 change in rules relating to purchase of art works as assets by self-managed superannuation funds (SMSF). New restrictions have made this impractical and expensive, with a two-fold effect of depressing the market, and of deflating prices by flooding the market with ‘must sell’ works no longer recognised as super fund assets (SMSFs were responsible for 15-20% of sales in the period after the change was announced).

The result of this ‘perfect storm’ has been dramatic.

  • The total value of collectibles (mainly art) in SMSF dwindled from $700 million in 2009 to $385 within 5 years, and is now said to be ‘negligible’.[v]
  • The number of commercial art galleries in Australia has halved from 514 in the year 2000 to around 250 today.[vi]
  • Within a few years of these changes, art sales dropped by as much as 40% by some accounts, and prices fetched at auction were also halved.[vii]

These straitened times have forced the remaining galleries to increase commission rates up to 40% or even 50% of the sale price. Other less concrete factors have an impact too. One is the numbers of professional artists practising in Australia today – some 30,000 in the estimation of Professor Sasha Griffin who has conducted invaluable research in this area.[viii] Our revenue-driven universities continue to produce thousands of graduates in visual arts every year, very few of whom will be able to make a living from their work. That is not the primary purpose of an arts degree, or course, but unarguably produces a large pool of artists destined to be disappointed.

A final, important factor is the standing of Australian art on the international scene; this has an impact on price and reputation locally as well as in New York and Shanghai. The local market is valued at just 0.6% of the global art market.[ix] The tyranny of distance, the logistics and cost of exhibiting internationally, poor marketing, and attitudes both within Australia and overseas have all hampered recognition of Australian artists overseas. A provincial market has not adapted to a global culture and economy, and is paying the price, Grishin argues. As commentator, James Valentine has noted, the Art Price Index for 2016 lists only two Australians: Tim Storrier and Rick Amor: ‘Our giants such as Brett Whiteley, John Olsen or Fred Williams can sell in the millions here,’ he writes, ‘but take them to New York – the world art-buying centre – and only the expats will turn up to bid.’[x] As Valentine continues:

For the wealthy collector in Manhattan or Monaco, there are not quite the same bragging rights in displaying work from Melbourne as there is in a piece made by a Chinese dissident . . . Like everything else, China may turn out to be the saviour. China buys 40 per cent of the world’s contemporary art. We just need to convince them that a Ben Quilty Torana is perfect for their Shanghai penthouse. [x]

Grishin makes the same point, noting that a drawing by David Hockney costs about the same in Australia as one by Brett Whiteley, but the Whiteley will only get that price here, while the Hockney can be sold anywhere in the world. [ix]

With the volume and prices of art works dropping and the traditional commercial gallery model dying, it is undeniable that the art market is in need of a radical shakeup. Duncan Ballantyne-Way observes, ‘Mired in opacity and steeped in inefficiency, the largest unregulated market in the world has been ready for digital disruption for some time.’[xi] But it would be naïve to think that the whole sprawling, complex, highly personal business of selling and buying art could move online wholesale as a sort of ebay for cultural products. It’s not that simple. Massive disruptions have happened before in the arts before settling into a new model, and we can see the same is beginning to happen in the art market today. Imagine the fate of jobbing portrait painters after the advent of photography; of sheet music sellers and music hall singers after the phonograph was invented; of typesetters and graphic designers who didn’t adapt to digital publishing in the 1980s, or musicians today who hope to be picked up by an A&R talent scout but haven’t bothered to establish their own channels on Soundcloud and Youtube.

Who will be the survivors in the Australian art market?

Generalisation about the overall drop in the local market’s fortunes masks more interesting movement in the prices gained by individual artists at auction. This can be a consequence of fashion changing, over-supply, or any number of factors. The average sale price of paintings by David Bromley, Robert Dickerson, and David Boyd for example, halved between 2007 and 2013. Yet during the same period, prices for works by Dale Frank and Ben Quilty doubled.[xii] The survivors will be the galleries which take note of Tandori’s distinction between Stars, Cash Cows, Problem Children, and Dogs, and ensure they have the right balance of artists – not over-reliant on the bestsellers of last year and nurturing those more likely be Stars in the future.

The Internet has started to make business practices for artists and dealers more efficient – for example, through services such as invaluable which provides online bidding for art auctions around the world, or artnet which conducts online auctions itself. The Berlin-based fineartmultiple site also offers an impressive and comprehensive marketplace to bring artists, sellers, and buyers together. In the burgeoning Chinese market (where the average age of art dealers is 25, rather than 50-plus in the West), the ubiquitous WeChat message app has become a major platform for buyers, collectors and dealers due to its speed and ease-of-use.[xiii] While Internet sales are now estimated at 25% of the market globally, many Australian artists and commercial galleries have yet to fully embrace this fundamental disruption of their marketplace. It’s not just a matter of setting up a website and then carrying on business as usual, waiting for the tinkle of a bell as the gallery door opens. The survivors will be the ones who make a total strategic re-think of how they use technology to relate to artists and buyers.

The roller-coaster fate of bookshops over the last ten years provides a lesson in how commercial galleries will fare. In the face of multiple challenges – ebooks, audiobooks, competition from Amazon and other online retailers – bookshops began closing at an alarming rate, including some big-name chains like Borders. In 2011, a government minister predicted that every bookshop in Australia would be gone by 2016, sharing the fate of video rental stores. It could have happened, but it didn’t. Many bookshops did close, but others adapted and have thrived. The same evolutionary process is happening with commercial art galleries. In the face of a different set of challenges, the survivors know it is not enough to rely on launch parties or the dwindling number of walk-in buyers. We can see, already, that the galleries which will adapt and succeed are those that focus on, and invest in, building trusting relationships with buyers as well as artists. It is this ongoing, hedonic experience of the relationship itself that they will nurture. They will promote a ‘wraparound’ service including advice on purchasing, investment, hanging, and valuation. They will build highly visible brands online, in social media and discussions, and at art fairs. As well as formal provenance, telling beguiling stories about the works they sell will become even more important, giving them an appealing aura.

Artists, too, need to adapt how they promote themselves in order to survive commercially. As for galleries, just having a website is not enough: an Instagram account with regular updates of images is essential, meshed with other social media and online promotion. A key goal is building up a ‘fanbase’ of people who have an interest in the artist’s work: people who will share images, talk about them, give support, attend events, and eventually purchase. The increasingly-influential independent curators of exhibitions need to be cultivated. If it’s a challenge or financially unattractive to deal with a commercial gallery, rent a space or empty shop as a pop-up gallery to exhibit your own works. For some ambitious artists, it can be worth the effort to mount exhibitions overseas, promoting yourself as an international artist based in Australia (rather than being self-consciously ‘Australian’ and pigeon-holed as such).

In the end, artists will still create, because they must. Buyers will still purchase. The business model which links them, however, has become inefficient and unhelpful to both. It is not just that it needs disruption; it has already fallen into a chaos of its own making (with generous help from government legislation). The survivors – galleries, dealers, and others – will be the ones who recognise that things will never go back to how they once were. Through a Darwinian process of elimination, those who succeed in the twenty-first century will be the ones who embrace new ways of using technology and building closer relationships with the creators and purchasers of art.

In a postscript to the sale of the diamond skull, it later emerged that this was purchased by a consortium in which Damien Hirst himself was the major partner. The artist effectively used the auction as a piece of performance art to boost his reputation and the value of his works. As Germaine Greer sardonically commented, ‘[Damien Hirst’s] undeniable genius consists in getting people to buy them. [He] is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative – revolutionary even.’[xiv]


[i] Throsby, D and Zednik, A 2010, Do you really expect to get paid? An economic study of professional artists in Australia, Australia Council for the Arts, Strawberry Hills

[ii] Henderson, B 1970, ‘The product portfolio’. BCG perspectives.
Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[iii] Benjamin, W 1968, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations (ed. H Arendt), Fontana, London

[iv] Walker, JR 2015, ‘Artist’s Resale Royalty in Australia – Strong Evidence Of A Catastrophic Decline In Both Sales & Prices’, Art, Antiques, Design. Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[v] Boland, M 2016, ‘Investment: art market painted into a corner’, The Australian, 20 June 2016. Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[vi] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, 8651.0 – Commercial art galleries, 1999-2000, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

[vii] Taylor, A 2013, ‘Brush with riches short-lived as prices tumble,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2013. Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[viii] Grishin, S 2014, ‘How hierarchies happen in contemporary Australian art,’ The Conversation, 8 December 2014. Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[ix] Grishin, S 2015, Friday essay: ‘Friday essay: the art market is failing Australian artists,’ The Conversation, 26 November 2015. Available from: < [6 June 2017]

[x] Valentine, J 2017, ‘Where are the Australian visual artists?,’ ABC News, 6 March 2017. Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[xi] Ballantyne-Way, D 2017, ‘Disruption in the Art Market – Is that it?’ fineartmultiple, January 2017. Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[xii] Taylor, A 2013, ‘Brush with riches short-lived as prices tumble,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2013. Available from: <> [6 June 2017]

[xiii] Chester, L 2016, ‘Digital technology drives younger dealers and the art market in China,’ Antiques Trade Gazette, 7 November 2016. Available from: <> (6 June 2017]

[xiv] Greer, G 2008, ‘Germaine Greer Note to Robert Hughes: Bob, dear, Damien Hirst is just one of many artists you don’t get,’ The Guardian, 22 September 2008. Available from: <> [6 June 2017].

I am grateful to the following for sparing me their time and knowledge: Angela Tandori, Annabel Nowlan, Fran Clark, Trevor Sellick, and Jonathan Cecil.

Blackman’s schoolgirls

Charles Blackman. Prone figure (1953)

Schoolgirls aren’t what they used to be, I decided the other day.

The place was the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. The occasion was the opening of the Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls exhibition. Like many Australians, I thought I was familiar with the striking paintings of young girls Blackman produced between 1952 and 1955, on display in major galleries. What I hadn’t realised, though, was how very many works Blackman produced in this remarkable series. Thanks to impressive detective work by the exhibition’s curator, Kendrah Morgan and her colleagues at Heide, over 40 works have been gathered from around the world for this exhibition – mostly paintings in tempera, enamel and oil on board, but also prints, rare three-dimensional pieces, and original material from the Heide archives. The effect of seeing them all together is stunning and deeply moving.

Why did Charles Blackman spend years painting these figures obsessively over and over again? And what is the meaning of these mysterious figures?

There’s been no lack of interpretation. The influence of Symbolist painter, Odilon Redon, has been noted. The notorious murder of a twelve-year old girl, found dead in an alleyway wearing her school uniform, was in the news. A friend of Barbara Blackman (the artist’s wife), had recently been killed in Brisbane. These murders would have made a deep impression on Blackman. After seeing one of the early paintings, his friend and patron, Sunday Reed, had also shown him a poem which deeply impressed him, ‘Schoolgirls Hastening,’ by John Shaw Neilson. Blackman’s artist-son, Auguste, read from this poem movingly at the opening of the exhibition at Heide.

Fear it has faded and the night:
The bells all peal the hour of nine:
The schoolgirls hastening through the light
Touch the unknowable Divine.

While these influences are undoubted, it’s important to remember the most important factor of all: the artist’s eye and what he saw around him.

Schoolgirls aren’t what they used to be in the 1950s. When I see them emerge from the local school at the end of the day, the little ones look like snails with enormous packs hanging from their back, full of textbooks, laptop computers, and hopes of becoming a web designer, a doctor, owning a business, or just making enough money to go travelling the world for a few years. The older girls loll at café tables, confidently swinging their legs as they sip on macchiatos and talk on iPhones with sparkly covers.

The schoolgirls Blackman saw had a very different life. For most, becoming a secretary or entering the typing pool was their destiny.  Their Melbourne was far from the buzzing, cosmopolitan 24-hour city of today. The capital of Victoria in the 1950s was a grimy industrial centre, dominated by thousands of factories. Anything you bought in Australia at that time probably had ‘Made in Melbourne’ stamped on it. Ball-bearings and bicycles, cars and ship’s chains, lawnmowers and locks – the city was Australia’s manufacturing crucible. Factory chimneys poured out smoke from Southbank to the North and West as far as you could see. Millions of homes, too, were heated in winter by smoky coal fires.

This grim environment carried over into social life too. Almost everybody smoked all the time, at home, at work, and in public places. Public houses had to close at 6 pm, leading to the notorious ‘six o’clock swill’. In the Presbyterian suburbs of the east, it was impossible to buy alcohol at all. In this oppressive social climate, being gay was a crime and meant imprisonment. Children and women were expected to put up with unwanted touching of their bodies; it could happen anywhere. It was perfectly legal for teachers to beat and hurt young children for the most minor of reasons. When a woman became pregnant, she summarily lost her job. If you ever meet someone nostalgic for the 1950s, I’d advise keeping your distance.

Blackman was soon painting these bleak urban and industrial landscapes after he arrived in Melbourne. The images are almost devoid of people. A few distant figures lurk in the shadows, like scraps of paper which have blown there. All this changes with the first Schoolgirl paintings. The girls don’t hover shyly in the shadows but irrupt in bold, geometric shapes into the foreground of those landscapes. They play and dance. They hold hands and hug each other. They do handstands. Some cover their faces with their hands – are they weeping for some unknowable tragedy or simply playing hide-and-seek? Wherever they appear, they are full of life and dominate the previously bleak and unpeopled landscapes.

The schoolgirls are fragile and vulnerable creatures in a threatening, alien landscape. At the same time, they fizz with energy, vitality, and joy. Their existence seems to flicker forever between these extremities. Curator, Kendrah Morgan, notes that Blackman’s wife was going blind at this time, and that it’s noticeable how many of the schoolgirls have their eyes in shadow. Was the painter rendering Barbara Blackman’s situation – vulnerable yet also full of her famously indomitable spirit?

There is a deeper possibility too. Blackman was a poor young man, living in a strange new city. He has said that the paintings had ‘a lot to do with my isolation as a person and my quite paranoid fears of loneliness’ at that time. He was not so much looking at the schoolgirls, then, as identifying with them. He was unknown, unrecognised by the art world at large and hardly selling anything he produced. At the same time, he must have felt intensely aware of his own creative potency. While very personal, this tension has a universal resonance too. These paintings do not simply evoke girls playing in a dusty yard, nor the blind woman walking bravely down the street, nor even the artist sure of his talent but unrecognised by the world. The schoolgirls paintings evoke life itself flourishing in the midst of adversity – an idiosyncratic and beautiful representation of the mystery of being and non-being.

We don’t know if Blackman thought through this dilemma himself in such abstract terms, of course, let alone tried to find a solution. Instead, he articulated it brilliantly in the way he knew best. He picked up his paintbrush.



As Einstein understood, to travel in time and space is not so very different.
They are, in fact, essentially the same.

Anyone who is used to spending 24 hours in a plane flying from Australia back to London Heathrow will understand exactly what I mean. Even after doing this regularly for over 20 years, I experience the same weird disorientation every time after landing. Everything is utterly strange and utterly familiar at the same time.

As always, I pick up a car and start the long drive westward. I love the transition from hellish airport to the six-laned M4 towards the Severn Bridge, then it becomes four lanes, then two as I dive deeper into Wales. How suddenly the names of town and villages change from English to Welsh in the borderlands. Nether Skyborry and Bicton on one side of a river. Bryn Melin and Llangunllo a few hundred metres to the west.

No more lines of trucks barrelling by now, only the occasional tractor. At last I am in a laneway between tall hedgerows tangled with honeysuckle, barely wider than the car, and I bump over rough ground into a farmyard in sight of the sea. I have arrived. In the days that follow, I slip easily into a different vocabulary. I give distances in miles not kilometres. The vehicle is a 4X4 and I came by the motorway route, I say (not on the freeway in a 4WD). Catching up with my brother in a pub, I don’t order chips to go with my schooner of beer, but some crisps and a pint of Seren IPA. My speech drifts back to the familar English falling intonation, sentences drawling to near-whisper at the end (instead of my Australian up-tick on the final word). After a week, I find myself talking Welsh in local shops and pubs.

All of this is done unconsciously, but what still foxes me is the sense of having travelled back in time. For all the tumultous changes in Britain over the last half-century, Wales remains hidden in plain sight and largely unchanged behind the Cambrian mountains. In the hinterland of the west, the deep green hills and woodlands, the rocky coast, the towns and villages where I spent half my life look barely any different. I could drive for hours in any direction and know every turn in the road, every hedgerow, every pub and village hall.

As well as visiting family and friends, I am going to a college reunion, meeting up with people I haven’t seen for decades. I go with a macabre curiosity, wondering if I will recognise anyone. We’re all a little weather-beaten by the years but utterly recognisable with the same strong personalities. As I stagger saunter back through the college quad to my room at 3 AM, feeling disgracefully sentimental, the eerie feeling returns. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find my younger self walking toward me out of the shadows with a smile of recognition.

Once again I feel like a traveller in time. Am I a visitor from the past who has materialised in the present? Or a creature from the future (my glittering city on the other side of the planet), fallen to earth in the past I had left behind?

Both are true, I realise, as I drift to sleep, hearing the town hall clock chime the quarter-hour. The future is only a past we have yet to discover. As each moment unrolls and become a memory, it gives a strange thrill to everyday life, an existential tingle. We are all travellers in time.

A modest proposal – let’s have a referendum every day


The Brexit Referendum in Britain has been a triumph of participatory democracy.
Let’s learn from it . . .

Like it or not, the people have spoken in a way that cannot be denied. This is surely the way forward for 21st Century government – in Australia as well as Britain. Imagine if every citizen could download an official Referendum app, so they could vote every day on the major issues that face us. When everyone on your train home is staring at their phone, they won’t just be checking Facebook, they’ll be running the country!

This would be a true, instant democracy that the ancient Greeks could never have dreamed of. Every citizen in the country could have their say and #takecontrol of national policy-making.

On euthanasia, for example, discussion by ‘experts’ and politicians about mercy killing has gone round and round for years without achieving anything. Yet polls consistently show a big majority the population support it – so let’s just ask the people in a referendum, and trust the wisdom of the public. We can take the same approach to solving asylum-seeker policy and other contentious issues too.

Or the live export of cattle . . . instead of tiresome parliamentary committees listening to veterinary and farming ‘experts’ droning on, we could cut to the chase and simply ask every Australian via their smartphone, ‘Do you want to ban live export of cattle? Yes or No.’ Job done.

Let’s have a referendum on reducing taxes at the same time as expanding public services. It’s a no-brainer.

Let’s ask the people about execution as a mandatory sentence for paedophiles . . . I think we’d all agree on that one.

The so-called ‘experts’ have fooled us for too long. We could even have a referendum on climate change, for example, to get a definitive answer to whether it’s real or not. Why did no one ever think of that before?

Let the people speak!

Polio: the great terror

Polio epidemics were an annual source of terror until 50 years ago, leaving thousands of children dead, disabled (having to wear metal callipers on their legs), or condemned to life in an iron lung, like a coffin with your head sticking out.

I wish every ‘anti-vaxxer’ in the country could read this book, which I review in this month’s Australian Book Review.

Before Rupert

Many public figures are fated to be remembered for a single incident rather than a lifetime’s work (think of Gough Whitlam’s ad-libbing outside Parliament house, or his nemesis’s trousers, forever lost in Memphis). Often, almost perversely, it is one event that stays in the mind. For Keith Murdoch (1885–1952), that phenomenon was the so-called ‘Gallipoli letter’ of 1915. Most Australians know about the young journalist who wrote a letter exposing the Dardanelles campaign as a disaster where soldiers were dying in their thousands due to incompetent British leadership. The allied armies were soon evacuated. The ‘Anzac spirit’ was born.

However, Murdoch’s role was darker, more nuanced, and far more interesting than the legend . . .


See my review of Tom DC Roberts’ Before Rupert in this month’s issue of Australian Book Review.



My double life


Here we go again.

After 24 hours in the air, traversing half the planet, I am home in Melbourne at last. In London, just a day ago, the summer trees had an almost tropical extravagance. Here in wintry Victoria, the branches are stark graphite lines against the sky. I go for a walk in the park to resist the urge to sleep which draws me to bed in the afternoon. After a few days the jetlag will pass as it always does, but a faint feeling of strangeness lingers and never entirely disappears. Where, after all, is home?

After 20 years in Australia, this is as close to being at home as I’ll ever know. Yet visiting Europe, especially the UK, also feels like going home, full of memories of an earlier life. James Wood writes of emigrating that you can never really go back to where you grew up. It continues to change in your absence. You change. The place is lost to you.

A generation or two ago, this fracture was sharper, more cruel, yet perhaps easier to deal with. Many never went back – to England, to the Lebanon, to Greece – and built their new lives here, only making contact with the old country on an expensive and tearful telephone call on Christmas Day. Today, with Internet contact and cheaper flights, we don’t have to let go of that other life. Most years I spend a month or so in that old world too: travelling in space feels like time-travelling, back to where I spent the first half of my life.

Sometimes it feels that I inhabit two parallel worlds, with their own geographies, culture and weather. The sky looks different in each; the air feels differently on my cheek. Each world has its own network of friends, of memories. I feel like a character in a Murakami novel – like Aomame in IQ84 – slipping back and forth between alternative realities, similar but different in a thousand subtle ways. Roadsigns look identical but I drive onto a motorway not a freeway. The car I overtake looks like a Holden but the badge says Vauxhall. Weetabix cereals look like Australian Weetbix but taste quite different. I hear the beeping sound of a Melbourne tram door closing, but look up and I’m standing on a London Underground train. My ways change too, without conscious intent. Little details about the way I dress, the way I speak. The references I hear and make in conversation. All the same, in Melbourne people still pick up my English accent. In England, they ask if I’m Australian.

So many of us must feel like this. After all, one in four Australians were born overseas. Sufficiently at home in both worlds, I can see each one from two perspectives, as an outsider as well as a local. For some, I understand how this might be unsettling. But as for me, I like my double life. I am grateful for this alien privilege.