After Romulus

The business of growing up starts with distancing ourselves from our parents. It ends (as far as it ever ends) with drawing them close again. Instead of disappointing giants, we recognise them at last as fallible, unique humans beings. We recognise them in ourselves, and so they become real to us …

In the October issue of the Australian Book Review, I write about Raimond Gaita’s new collection of essays, After Romulus, which tackles what he calls the ‘unfinished business’ left after the success of his memoir, Romulus, My Father, and the subsequent film version.

The always-fascinating transition of book to movie is discussed by Gaita, along with his continuing relatonship with his mother and father. ‘Biographies often continue after the person whose life is narrated has died,’ writes Gaita  – identifying our attitudes to our parents as markers of our own evolving maturity.

For details of After Romulus and to read the review, see the October 2011 issue or subscribe at ABR.


The very wonderful Lucian Freud died in London last night.

He seemed such a quintessentially English bohemian artist, that it was strange to think this was Sigmund Freud’s grandson: a raffish, gamblin’, drinkin’, fightin’ Londoner who mixed with gangsters as well as royalty, and fathered over a dozen children by almost as many women … none of which matters in the least of course beside the work he leaves behind for us – including the huge After Cézanne in the National Gallery of Australia. (Image: David Dawson)


Can you tell which city this is?

It’s not a photograph from space, but a map of geotagged tweets (blue) and flickr uploads (red) – with white dots signifying both.

Digital cartographer, Eric Fischer’s beautiful images show the difference between where we are moved to take photographs and where we want to say something.

See the excellent Flowing Data website for more images.

Pelagius in Japan

The Pelagius Book, my novel about the end of the Roman Empire and the mysterious figure of Pelagius, makes its appearance this month in Japan.

Published by Hara Shobo, and translated into Japanese by Tomoko Ito, the book is a handsome hardback volume and it warmed the cockles of my heart to open a parcel containing the author’s copies this morning …

THE GREAT GATSBY mansion to be demolished

Lands End, the Long Island mansion said to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Daisy Buchanan’s house in ‘The Great Gatsby,’ is to be demolished and the land sub-divided. It seems suitable somehow:

The were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Photographer, Jen Ross, has captured some final images.

The great dark pillar of cloud rises high in the air then arches sickeningly across the sky – a satanic arm about to scoop up the world in a terrible embrace.

It seems higher and more menacing by the second, as though every childhood fear he’s ever had are all now made visible and noxiously palpable. Between the stormclouds and the earth twist whirling, intersecting cones of wind and hail and rain, persecuting the tiny figures who crawl across the craggy ground in the distance, bowed against the wind but still pushing one step out in front of the other. The scene is full of dread and awe, of the overpowering force of nature, yet it also evokes the sheer will of humanity, enduring in the midst of this vortex of chaos.

Turner moves from the window where he has been feverishly drawing this scene on the back of a letter. He calls out to the young boy playing with a cat by the fireside.

 ‘Hawkey, Hawkey, come here! Never mind puss, come and look at this thunderstorm. Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it sublime?’

It is 1810. Turner is thirty-five years old and staying at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, the home of his friend Walter Fawkes.

‘Shall I fetch you a block of drawing paper, Uncle?’ asks his host’s son, Hawkesworth.

‘Not at all, Hawkey, this will do fine.’ He scribbles arrows and notes on the sketch, describing effects of massing and colour for use later.

‘I do like thunder and lightning, Uncle, don’t you?’

‘Nothing like it in the world,’ says Turner, smiling at the boy. ‘There Hawkey,’ he goes on, holding out the crumpled letter covered in scribbles, ‘in two years you will see this again and call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps.’


An excerpt from Turner’s Paintbox.

Best Australian Blogs 2011

This website has been nominated for the Best Australian Blogs Competition, in the Words category. An initiative of the Sydney Writers Centre, the competition runs until 21 April, so feel free check out older posts and leave comments …

The Midsomer Slaughterhouse

One idyllic English county. 240 dead bodies. What’s going on?

There comes a time in everyone’s life when – tired after a long journey or a heavy week at work – you surrender to watching an episode of Midsomer Murders on TV. On a winter’s evening perhaps, and with a glass of wine in your hand, you realise you are enjoying it in a perverse kind of way.

In the course of thirteen series, Inspector Barnaby has investigated (and failed to prevent) around 240 murders – a good proportion of the population of the county in which they take place, and resulting in enough corpses to fill two Boeing 737s.

The rate of slaughter is par for the course in a murder-mystery series, of course (think of the charnel house which is Miss Marple’s Saint Mary Mead). The stunning incompetence of the police is also a tradition of the genre, allowing a series of murders to take place, sustaining tension and comfortably filling an hour’s television. In the end, the detectives are more patients than agents, officiating at the deaths rather than preventing them.

It is not the drama (such as it it) which fascinates me about Midsomer Murders, but the setting in which it takes place. It is always a summer’s day. There is hardly any traffic (the curse of real-life English country towns). No mega-supermarkets are ever seen. With the exception of mobile phones (and other modern plot-necessities), it might be the recreation of an idealised 1950s England.

Midsomer, in fact, is curiously like the limbo-worlds of The Prisoner, Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes. Nothing ever changes (and if it does, the police politely ask you to help them with their enquiries). This eerie ‘sameness’ can be seen in the characters, who have the wooden predictability of their Cluedo counterparts: the jolly vicar, the eccentric aristocrat, the hippies up at the manor house, the spinster postmistress, the brash property developer from out-of-town, and so on.

Midsomer life is only threatened by the murders which symbolise a threat to its unchanging predictability – a predictability at once reassuring and horrifying, as though the characters were condemned to repeat the same summer’s day over and over again. The success of the series – watched by around 9 million viewers a week in the UK – indicates the seductive charm of this make-believe England for many people. It is England as some wish it were. Somewhere it doesn’t rain. Where you can find a parking spot. Where you do your shopping with a wicker basket in the local post office and pop into the pub for a drink with the cheery landlord afterwards. And somewhere you only ever see white faces …

The show’s producer was recently forced to step down after revealing it deliberately avoided employing ‘non-white’ actors in order to preserve its so-called ‘britishness’. This ugly racism indicates an extreme conservatism and hostility to change which appeals to many in its audience. It is a fairytale bastion of an English rural idyll which never existed beyond picture-postcards of Cotswold cottages wreathed in honeysuckle. The appeal of Midsomer is grounded, then, in a fear of the new, fear of the unpredictable, fear of change.

I know these English villages well. Crime is not uncommon, if trivial, and murder not unknown. They are murders like those anywhere – whether in London, Melbourne, or Copenhagen. Overwhelmingly they are caused by drunken young men senselessly beating or stabbing each other to death on a Friday night, or people murdering their partners in a rage. The Midsomer murders are different. They are secret, random, and often with causes deep in the past. They could be committed by anyone, from the local vet to the lord of the manor. They are eruptions of passion and violence and unpredictability into the ordered world of Midsomer: outbreaks of anarchy to be crushed by the police so that its eerie sameness can be restored.

Midsomer Murders is a monument to a very English form of conservatism. ‘Don’t change,’ whispers Chief inspector Barnaby to the viewer, ‘and everything will be all right.’ Won’t it?