The Birth and Premature Death of a Literary Genre

About fifteen years ago I created a distinct literary genre, which, to the best of my knowledge, remains mine alone. No imitators have leapt into print in flattery of my bold success. The genre is that of the rhyming clinical letter.

In the course of my work as a general practitioner it frequently falls to me to write letters of referral to colleagues. This task awakens the creative impulse. Imagine a patient named Giles. Imagine the poor man suffering from a painful swelling in or around the anus that extinguishes the quotidian joys of defaecation.

The referral letter ought to inform and entertain the recipient and embody the cardinal* virtue of empathy. It might read as follows:

Dear John**/Julia**,

imagine the grief of poor giles –

not for him the lavatory smiles,

nor for him excretory joy

as he strains

with pains,

poor afflicted boy

and what can ail this knight at arms

alone and palely toiletting?

the sedge is withered on the lake

and no birds sing

for giles is sore in his ring

perusal of his fundament reveals

a bunch of grapes.

imagine how the poor man squeals

like a bunch of barbary apes

sitting down to canapes

i know dear john/dear julia

surgeons care not for poetic wiles:

so i’ll be brief, i will not fool ya’

giles poor boy, suffers from piles

So far so brilliant. And so obscure: the creative writer can never publish the rhyming referral for fear of violating the confidentiality of the patient.

So it is that for fifteen years I have strained my muse in the service of the ill and the illiterate.

The birth and the flowering of a special genre, the eruption into the clinical arena of lofty thought and sublime expression. A covert cultural revolution.

Farewell, a long farewell, to all this greatness.

It so fell that one such referral that described the distressing cyst-making propensity of a patient in the following


Jules*** creates full many a cyst

Jules*** is thus much offpyst…

This elegant epistle found its way to the specialist’s office, where an officious secretary took it upon herself to read it. The lady bridled, telephoned the practice of the referring GP and registered her strong objection.

We poets might describe the secretary as much offpyst.

The GP was urged to resist the poetic urge and to desist.

And so he does.

High Art, Great Literature, the World of Letters are of course much the poorer. Sic transit gloria ****

* this virtue should ring a pell

**john and **julia are names created for my fictive purpose;

i declare that there is no resemblance between these imagined names and any real person or (in the case of any surgeon you might know) of any half-real person.

*** giles is not the true name of the lady in question

**** gloria is not the name of any real lady

Dedicated to edward john anstee, robin hood with a scalpel.

The Human Race has Lost a Friend

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On March 8 this year a man died at the age of ninety. He was a German officer, born into an old aristocratic Prussian family whose sons had always been officers in the military. World War II saw the young man leading soldiers far older than he on the Eastern Front. He served his country while remaining aloof from the Nazi party. He saw his men dying needlessly. “He said it was not the business of soldiers to think too much. Orders were orders. (But) the one thing that seemed worth dying for was the erasing of Hitler from the scene.”*

Ultimately, the orders that the young oficer followed were to assassinate Hitler. He was to become a suicide bomber: he would wear two grenades under his uniform and detonate them at a planned meeting with the Fuhrer. But Hitler cancelled the meeting. A later plan had the young soldier bringing a suitcase of explosives into a conference to be held in the “Wolf’s Lair”. He wavered. But he agreed to carry out the order after his father told him: A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never again be happy in life.

In the event, the younger man was ordered not to attend. The plot failed, the father was guillotined, and the son was imprisoned briefly before being sent back to the front.

The younger man’s name was Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist.

After the war von Kleist set up the highly influential annual Munich Conferences. Scorning pacifism, he promoted debate on what was worth fighting and dying for. The great names of America and Germany attended.

To judge by a recent obituary, it seems doubtful that Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist ever smiled, certainly not after accepting his orders to kill and to die.

*The obituary quoted was published in The Economist on March 23 this year. Von Kleist’s true life prefigures the fiction of Hans Fellada (author of the magnificent “Alone in Berlin”); both the book and the life offer an answer to the question, ‘how can a sole human being stand up and stare down tyranny?’; of course, von Kleist’s obituary creates the uncomfortable realisation that we support the action of a suicide bomber.

A word about The Economist: the writing in this magazine is invariably of a high standard. It seems like a colossal waste to devote such a lot of ink and so much talent to a journal about the ephemeral, I mean Business and Economics.  However so long as people keep dying and The Economist selects individuals to obituarise, the magazine will inform, intrigue and surprise the reader.

The trick with The Economist is to start from the back.  Read the final article first. Then, if you are in the mood, read the next-to-rearmost, the reviews of books and the arts. You will be enlightened always, even (as in this case) uplifted. After the reviews you can put the magazine down, unless you lust for exchange rates and gloomy prognostications.

Reading an obituary is cheering proof that it is not your own. You might even smile.


English: MONA - Hobart, Tasmania

English: MONA – Hobart, Tasmania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MONA is the Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart.  All of its promotional materials are written with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. One such refers to Monanism, a play on Onanism. This in turn is named for Onan, a figure in Genesis whose wife had suffered bad luck with her previous husband: he went and died on her. Onan decided to prevent pregnancy. He did this by spilling his seed on the ground, at once giving rise to the eponym and leading to the naming, some three millennia later, of a parrot in the USA. (Onan the parrot belonged to Dorothy Parker, who named him thus because the bird too “spilled his seed upon the ground.”)

MONA is remarkable. Submerged in a hillside it is a museum without windows. Visitors are entombed for the duration of their visit. Dominant themes of the artworks are sex and death. All this might warn off a visitor, suggesting a visit will be a dark or morbid experience. This in turn is the museum’s little joke at its own expense, an instance of Monanism at play.

Cynics who view Hobart as Australia’s petrified forest – views that are themselves stale and petrified – simply feed into the joke and the pleasant surprise that is MONA.

We* visited MONA yesterday. It is fabulous. The entire experience is exciting, playful and confronting. To remark that the collection is eclectic is to discover how inadequate and weary is that term for artworks that range in date from antiquity to today, to tomorrow. And to some time well beyond tomorrow.

My two favourites are Arthur Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” and another work, commissioned for MONA and titled “Untitled”. This looks like a giant spud; it’s about the size and shape of a Morris Minor motor car, and like that vehicle, it has small windows through which you can peer into the interior. Here, red apples fall vertiginously from the grip of finger-like branches at eye level towards small wells, or open cupolas, containing water. The effect is enchanting, both magical and charming. And mysterious. I looked and felt as Moses might from a mountain peak in Moab: I could see but never hold a view of endless allure and promise.

(It should be obvious that I cannot recall the name of the artist; it’s an Armenian name. Like his work, he remains untitled…)

Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” recalls a work by Breughel the Elder. It expresses the artist’s mixed up, unnamable and profoundly distressed reactions to WWII. In the painting life both destroys itself and asserts itself in grotesque and cruel ways. I have not been moved so strongly by a work about war since viewing Picasso’s “Guernica” in MOMA (no relation to MONA).

My mind exercised itself throughout the visit. Tracey Moffatt’s mixed painted and photographic work is as brilliant as anything there. This Aussie artist (of mixed extraction, including Aboriginal) stands as a peer alongside any of the ambiguists and tricksters at MONA. Her work, “Something More”, seeks to confuse meanings – particularly of cultural identity – by emphasizing its own ‘fakeness’. (Wikipedia)

In my experience, culture is very hard on the feet: a trip to an art museum always leaves me footscore. Not so at MONA.  The experience set my mind to dancing. But my feet feel fine. [Unlike old Onan, who, soon after his marriage, left his bride a widow once again (See Genesis, 38, vv 1-10).]

*This blog has a spouse who accompanied me to MONA.

Nonmother’s Day

Apparently Mother’s Day is neither a public holiday nor a religious holy day. Anyone who is not a believer is nevertheless a moral outcast. Even Al Capone loved his mum, one day of the year. Mother’s Day is not ancient, rather it is the brainchild of a marketing opportunist at a greetings card company. The same is true of Father’s Day.

There is a problem with both Days: where to place the apostrophe. Is it the day of the one and only mother you happen to be celebrating? If so, it is Mother’s Day. But if all mothers, from the Madonna onwards, are celebrated, it becomes Mothers’ Day. But as mothers become more numerous, sentiment is diluted. Unless you are a politician gift wrapping pre-election pork for the barrel, you can’t get teary over every mother in the cosmos.

What should make us tearful is the abuse of the apostrophe. In the fruit shop – Lovely Navel’s; in the supermarket – New Seasons Spud’s; at the pharmacy – Retread your Old Condom’s Here.

On Quietly Going Deaf

IMG_1696 IMG_1646 IMG_1046“What?”

“What did you say?”
My family is sick of my hardness of hearing. It seems that hearing hardens and arteries harden at just the time that other things soften.
One of my body’s pumps has softened noticeably. I refer to the one with the ventricles.
What human heart can stand firm against the arrival of grandchildren?
This happy, happy stage of life where our children use their sexual organs for the pleasure of us, their parents!
Technological Man has invented old age. Nature, blind and base, has no use for us once our litters have matured and reproduced. We are supposed to wither quickly and politely die. But doctors have intervened and prolonged the moments of aging into an epoch. From fifty to ninety we live on, noting the failing function of joints and arteries, of ears and eyes. Our teeth desert us, our balance fails, our uteri prolapse, our prostates swell, our bladders leak and we dare not trust a fart.
But we have grandchildren. I can hold a newborn on my knee and croon off key and she will not object. I can hold the toddler in my arms and tell him a thousand stories, long after my eyesight darkens, for just as long as memory holds strong. And when memory fails, I can confabulate.
Who needs hearing aids, dentures, titanium hips, dental implants? We have grandchildren.IMG_0009 IMG_1603 IMG_0482

The Festival of Eating Cheesecake

The festival has  a number of names: Feast of the Ingathering of the Harvest, Shavuoth (or Weeks), The Season of the Giving of our Torah; or Pentecost (for speakers of Ancient Greek); but in practice the festival we observe is The Feast of Eating Cheesecake AND Cheese Blintzes.

In the diaspora we will celebrate for 48 hours, commencing next Tuesday night. We eat dairy foods in appreciation of the promise of a “land flowing with milk and honey.” That is the standard translation, but the Hebrew – eretz zavath halav u’d’vash – really signals a land oozing milk and honey. The root comes from the verb ‘to sweat’. The land sweats milk, beads of honey form, merge and flow upon its surface.
This is intimate, physical language, the language of love. We consummate our love by the eating of cheesecake and cheese blintzes. We have loved this land and worked it and helped it to flow now as in ancient times.
Some will read these lines and lather themselves into a fury at my suggestion that my people have known and loved this land for thousands of years. They will diagnose my true racist, apartheid-mongering self. They will hate my love.
To all who read this, my greetings: Hag Sameach, happy festival! Good Yomtov.

How Many Camels?

How many camels will you take for your daughter?
Not such an unusual question in the Gulf perhaps, but on the deck of a
large passenger ship bound from Genoa for Fremantle, it takes Herbert
I will give you ten camels. What do you say – ten camels for your daughter here?
The man indicates the elder of the two girls.
Herbert looks at his girls. He looks and sees Helenka, his firstborn,
an elf flitting and dipping at will as she plays with Masha, who is
not yet ten. They are playing with their dolls.
At this lull in adult conversation, Helenka looks up. She sees no sign
that she is the subject of the stalled conversation – nor an object.
She takes Masha’s hand and pulls her across the deck to play
The stranger is watching too. His appraising eye follows the movement
of the elf as she leaps and glides at hopscotch. He sees slim legs
flashing, a hint of fulness at the hips. He looks at the child – a
question still unasked, sees womanhood – a trader’s answer.
The stranger takes Herbert’s silence as rejection of an insufficient
offer. He speaks again: Twenty camels then. What do you say to twenty?

In his little dress shop, Herbert is in the clothing trade. Fort
Street, Fremantle is not a chic address, but his clientele is worldly
enough – they come from all corners of the world: in the course of
their escape to Australia, to Fremantle, they have seen the worst of
the world.
Worldly – and fussy too. Never mind the quality, is it cheap? Never
mind style, what’s the price?
But Herbert is worldly too. He understands that his heavy accent is
not a marketing advantage, but that a pretty face and a winning manner
might be.
His older daughter is worth twenty camels: this is Helenka whose face
might have launched so many ships of the desert. So, every day, after
school finishes and on Saturdays, Helenka works as a marketing
advantage in the clothing trade.

A couple comes into the shop. The lady has little English, has brought
her man as interpreter. They converse in a Slavic language, which the
marketing advantage happens to comprehend. Helenka shows a seemingly
intuitive understanding of the lady’s needs and her budget. She
selects and shows the lady dresses which cost no more than she is able
to pay. No more, but scarcely a penny less. The lady makes her
purchase and is content. Her bored interpreter notices the imminent
woman inside the child’s school uniform, and loses his languid air.
The child is the only person in attendance and his hungry eyes take it
all in.
A week later, the couple returns to the shop, this time as last time,
well after school closes. The lady needs her new dress altered, which
is quickly arranged. Hungry Eyes is not quickly ready to leave,
however. He chooses dresses, brings them to the young shopgirl, makes
slow enquiries, appears very interested but makes no purchases. He
says he will think about it.
I come again back, he says.

Here in Australia, people are slow and casual. Herbert and Alida are
intense and restless. After a short time, they open a second shop,
this one in Station Street, Fremantle. They still live above the Fort
Street shop. Alida has newly-arrived cousins, fresh from Europe. They
have no home and no income. Alida and Herbert install them above the
second shop, where there is sufficient space for the cousins to live,
and to sew dresses for the shops. Now the newcomers have both a home
and a business.
Freda runs the Station Street shop and it consumes her.
Herbert is an early riser. Each morning he practises yoga, standing on
his head for up to an hour at a time. During this time, his scrotum is
suspended upside down, practically weightless. At all other times, he
feels its full weight and urgency. As soon as Helenka returns from
school, she takes over in the shop from Herbert and he is free to go
elsewhere and attend to his urgency.
And above the shop, Helenka’s mother, back from Station Street,
mothers Masha, washes and cleans, and cooks for two households. Soon,
more cousins arrive in Fremantle, then more, washed ashore, wave upon
wave, generated by the after shocks of Europe. Alida helps them all,
feeding as many as will come and eat.
At such times, Helenka is alone in the shop. She is alone when – true
to his word – Hungry Eyes comes again back.
He asks for an item of apparel which cannot be found on the racks in
the showroom. Helen says she’ll go and look for the item in the
stockroom. She is taken by surprise when Hungry Eyes follows her
there. She turns to explain that he can wait in the shop – she will
bring it, but he moves forward, keeps on moving until he has backed
her against the back wall. She discovers then, as his body rubs
against hers, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards, that he is
just like her violin teacher back in Hamburg: he is a rubber. At least
he is not like her French teacher, not a feeler.
She is not surprised when the rubbing abruptly stops, nor by his
moments of gasping, nor by his rapid retreat with that funny gait.
And she is not surprised when he comes again back, again.
For his part, Hungry Eyes is most surprised by the large Alsatian in
the stockroom, which Helen has borrowed from the Greek boy next door.
And when the Alsatian snarls and bares large fangs at him, Hungry Eyes
runs, with very efficient gait, from the shop and does not return. Continue reading