Once Upon A Writer

Once upon a time I was a writer… No, not once – thrice upon a time.

First time: in second or third class the teacher directed us to write a composition. We did as we were told. I enjoyed writing. My composition was chosen and read to the class. I was a writer and one year later, when the Melbourne ‘Age’ published a little piece, I was a published writer.

Second time: at medical school, achieving mediocrity in exams, I found relief editing and writing for a paper. I published what I wrote.

Third time: with a family now grown up and my own parents failing, I was a writer heavily charged with material. I wrote and my friends and family responded. Among the responders one friend in particular responded decisively. Often enough she responded derisively; and not just often enough but more often than enough.

I had good reason to pay attention to my critic friend. She had been an adult reader for many more years than I had been an adult writer. Further my critic was trained in criticism while I was untrained in writing.

Curiously my early vulgarity didn’t trouble her much. My sentimentality (an abiding tendency) excited little reproof. And even the structural shambles, the way narrative fell upon narrative by accident into a happy enough heap, provoked no rebuke.

The problem with my writing was the writer. Contrary to my critic’s command I did not write of Howard the way Howard should write of Howard. In truth this was not willful delinquency (another abiding tendency) but incomprehension. So stratospheric is my critic’s sophistication, her principles eluded me.

The pages of my first two books are Howard-haunted. Howard Bloody Goldenberg is to be found in the middle of every page or in its margin or inescapably behind every page, pages that can never be thick enough to disguise Howard. This drove my critic mad. It was not that Howard was full of himself (he is that) but that Howard was represented without precisely the ‘self-reflexivity’ (my critic’s term) that she demanded. ‘Howard’, she wagged her finger imperiously, ‘Howard, you are refusing to become the writer Howard should be. Your subject, your great subject, is Howard…’

This criticism, emphatic and oft-repeated, merely increased my self-consciousness. Eventually it would drive Howard from the page. Thus, in book number three (‘Carrots and Jaffas’) there exists a character who resembles Howard but is not Howard. Although that character is a male in his sixties, a compulsive storyteller, an outback doctor with a large nose and lavatorial obsessions, he is not Jewish, not Howard per se. In truth I no longer trusted Howard to create Howard. My critic had achieved something worthwhile; she had demolished a formerly impregnable exhibitionist. This was surely to the good, for Howard the person showed an objectionable and retrograde refusal to adopt my critic’s view of the world. (The critic started adult life as a social activist, becoming a member of a commune, a welfare worker, resolutely a conscious and conscientious proletarian. In time she learned the profound error of her ways and unlearned her early amused tolerance of Howard’s political softheadedness.)

Meanwhile Howard had become a blogger and my critic became my bloggee. I would write, my daughter would post and my critic would criticise. More and more my critic criticised Howard for not being my critic’s faithful disciple. At one stage, in outraged surprise, she accused me of being ‘green’.

Given this blog’s unrepentant diarising of Howard’s life, his thought, his memories and stories – in short this blog being Howard on the virtual page – my critic found the entire exercise personally provoking. Possibly intentionally so. Her criticisms of Howard were now unrelenting, and of course, public.

It is timely here to remind my reader that my critic is a friend, that she certainly wishes for nothing more than my improvement. She has in mind my ascension into a literary realm which exists clearly in her sight and quite outside my powers of vision. In her private love of Howard this friend is staunch. In public she is an attack dog. At first puzzled, later a little hurt, eventually wryly amused that such a thing might be, I accepted her blank rebuttal of my private objection to her tone. ‘Howard’, she wrote (publicly of course), ‘Once your writing emerges into the public sphere you cannot expect criticism to remain private.’ Fair enough. Perfectly logical, fully consistent with literary purity. And perfectly blind to the imperatives of friendship.

I came to accept a painful reality:

The moving finger writes,

And having writ, moves on;

Nor all thy piety nor wit

Can lure it back

Nor cancel half a word of it

(From the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam)

Eventually the moderator of this blog published guidelines of the limits to decent blogly conduct; and the critic, declaring herself to be my ‘troll’ (to me a new concept), banished herself from these pages.

My critic helped me immensely. She forced me to examine every self-syllable I wrote. She required of me an intensification of my self-consciousness. To this day she shadows every line I write, shaping my writing to conceal my thought, as she peers through the ether for Howard malignancy, stimulating me to a meticulous attention to some standard I never grasped but for which I blindly reach. Of course the cost is a friend who, in the name of friendship, has shat upon friendship.

Blogging On

I wrote a post a few days ago expecting it to pass with a yawn. That it did not is a surprise. That it might matter is an astonishment. That I’ll persist is the fault of the addressees below:

Dear palmerglassbox,

I am gratified to bring a ray of sunshine twice a week, but I am concerned about the other five sunless days. Please ask your doc to measure your vitamin D levels.

Dear Lionel Lubitz,
I like the idea of opening you (plural) up. It is ages since I performed a laparotomy. Thank you for your unhyperbole and for the teasing notion that the blog can annoy you (again plural). Someone’s taking notice.

Dear Susanne at Bilingual Options,
Your response delights me because you delight in the stories that delight me most, those about family. As one very familiar with the grandrats (Susanne is the model for the speech therapist in Carrots and Jaffas, and my twin grandsons were her patients), you know well their suicidal energies. And as for wordpress, it conquers even the mightiest intellect. Only my daughter can be its blogmeistress, and that by virtue of her power of persistence (in her childhood, read ‘stubbornness’.)

Welcome kaisywmills, who like Janus, has two faces, one feminine, the second bearded.

Claire McAlpine, bloggist and book critic, says blog on. Same to you, Claire, and more so. Your blog and your reviews bring good books to our attention.

Thank you Sulfen for what I take to be encouragement. It is no chore to write, the contrary in fact; my fear is creating a chore for the reader.

And Kerryn, who wrote so thoughtfully: Kerryn, when you encourage me to tell stories, you give my inner minstrel voice to sing. And your suggestion for a story about the bloke in my wedding photo is irresistible. (Watch this space.) Further, if, dear Kerryn you were born on New Year’s Eve about 35 years ago, you might have been delivered by me; and in that case you have met that man, you knew that face: he is my forever friend, my former partner in the medical practice you attended in childhood.

And dear Louis De Vries – the publisher all writers dream of and none can deserve – we know where the readers are: they are all reading on tablets, which were invented to bankrupt you, to frustrate me and to allow people to read in the dunny.

Dear Miriam Abud,
How delightful to find you finding me in this way. Suddenly the invention of the computer is justified, the existence of the internet worthwhile. The thought of anyone settling down to half a dozen of my writings thrills and amazes me. That it is YOU fills me with smiles of pleasure. I’ll keep going. And I think the radio would bring out all that is boring and pompous and opinionated in me. But if it would sell books…

And you, Helen, in urging more poetry you open a mare’s nest, a can of sperms, and a mix of metaphors. My own verse is largely limited to medical referral letters where, because they are confidential and hence unpublishable, the verse does least harm. On the odd occasion I post the verse of true poets, women – generally young undergraduates – drool and swoon, a pleasant surprise for an old gent. I suspect poetry drives many men away.

Hello, misssophiablog, welcome to this blog. I am impressed that yours has a FAQ section. Golly. When I need fashion advice I’ll turn to you, Courtney.

Hello Spot, your remark, ‘in the outback you give us another window on the world’ is unexpected and brings the sudden thought that a casual smartarse blogger might actually be some sort of postman to another person waiting for a letter, any letter. Suddenly, all this might be serious. Or significant. Thank you and golly!

Hello dear Faye Colls,
No writer could ever earn your unwavering loyalty. You are a warm and kindly spirit. Fair dinkum.

Dear Dear Bruce,
In your steadfast attention to my musings you create a blog of your own, revealing a soldier of the law who defended the weak to his own cost. You show us your wounds of honour, your human vulnerability. In all your humility you lift us up.

Dear Hilary Custance Green,
As well as having the very most remarkable and unforgettable and rhymable name an author or a blogger could desire, you write most thoughtfully and I should say, faithfully. Everyone should read your new novel, which I will buy in the UK in January – despite Amazon’s best efforts to sabotage you – and which I’ll review in this blog. Please ensure Foyles stocks the book.
I have just received your remarkable (and generous) review of Carrots and Jaffas. You have expressed my purposes so adroitly and divined my approach so comprehensively, you’ve actually deepened my understanding of my own book. Thank you, quite humbly, HCG. (in my trade hcg is the acronym for human chorionic gonadotrophin, which is the substance in a woman’s urine that tells her she’s pregnant when she pees onto a stick. You have elevated HCG to a more refined level.)

Dear Nick Miller,
Like you I find myself thwarted by wordpress. I’m all the gratefuller for your close attention to the blog, as to all of my writing. Carrots and Jaffas would have been a much poorer book without your criticisms.

Gerard Oosterman, hello, and thank you for commenting. Your own blog is masterly and you seem to have conquered wordpress. Bravo! (note to readers – chase up gerard’s blog: it’s a ripper!)

Dear I L Wolf, dear Margot Mann (in fact, beloved MCM), dear Glitchy Mind, dear Claire Word by Word, dear the chattyrachel, dear M. Talmage Moorhead (a name to rival Hilary’s), dear mannyrutinel, dear amandalyle, dear fictionistasan (intriguing monniker), dear M. Funk l PHOTOGRAPHY, dear Greg Mercer, MSN, dear jackiewilson, dear bluchickenninja – you all liked a blogpost that ran the risk of becoming a fishing expedition for compliments. You forgave me and you wrote. Thank you all.

And dear DovTheRov, you make me larrf, Thank you for the encouragement. You write a mean weekly newsletter. How many rabbis can make a minyan smile?

In Hebrew we have an expression: “acharon, acharon chaviv” – last mentioned, most beloved. Thank you Rachel, thank you, thank you.

Yours, twice weekly, I’m afraid.

Robert Hillman’s Review of Carrots and Jaffas

Identical, red-haired twin boys are born to Luisa and Bernard Wanklyn, who live in Melbourne. The year is somewhere in the fairly recent past. Since we’re in Australia, the twins are naturally nicknamed Carrots and Jaffas, the only alternatives being Bluey and Ranga. Luisa, the mother, is a native of Argentina; Bernard was born in Australia. When the boys reach the age of ten, Wilberforce Reynolds, an addled one-time addict, makes an attempt to steal them from their parents. There’s a bleak irony there – ‘William Wilberforce’ and ‘Henry Reynolds’ being the names of emancipators. Indeed, Wilbur Reynolds is acting out of a grotesquely misconceived impulse to redeem a life of ratbag behaviour by making a gift of the two boys to Greta, an Indigenous woman of the Flinders Ranges who played a role in raising white Wilbur many years past. Greta’s own two sons had been taken from her in the 1950s by men with the legal authority to do so. The two red-haired boys will compensate her, so Wilbur hopes. But Wilbur manages to steal only one of the boys, Jaffas. The agony of Jaffa’s parents is matched in its intensity by the agony of the twins, each left yearning for the touch of the other.

The impression the reader will be left with after a quick reading of Howard’s novel is of a drama constructed around an appalling crime and its widening repercussions. Hearts are torn out, and in the broader community, people who hear of the abduction on the news put a hand to the head and murmur: “Dear God!” But the story told here is far more thoughtful, far more involving than that. As it was bound to be. This is Howard Goldenberg’s first novel, but two works of non-fiction precede it, “My Father’s Compass”, a memoir of Myer Goldenberg, Howard’s dad, and “Raft”, a book that records Howard’s engagement as a doctor with Indigenous Australians in remote communities all over the continent. Each of these earlier books is distinguished by the vernacular philosophy of a thriving intellect, and by a quality of observation that yields one poetic insight after another. If we speak of intensity of feeling, insight and quality of enquiry, Carrots and Jaffas is of a piece with those earlier works.

The broad strategy of the novel, in my reading, is to allow the story to unfold through five movements – Birth, Growth, Catastrophe, Healing, Reunion. With this strategy in place, Howard gives himself the liberty to riff on the themes that brace his story: the binding force of love; the rigour of grief; the perseverance of hope; the will and the wherewithal to imagine the life we hope for, and especially, what we expose ourselves to when another human being becomes more crucial in our vital life than our own wellbeing. (We might think of Bacon’s Hostages to Fortune lines: “He who hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune” but we should cheer Bacon up a little and subvert his meaning by saying: “Anyone who loves has given hostages to fortune.”)

Out of these themes emerge the book’s two arguments. The first establishes the enigma of individuality, taking in the sources and purpose of human individuality, and the second demonstrates the stubborn persistence of those forces in the world that oppose evil.

Let me return to love, the great emphasis in everything that Howard writes. Here is the mother of the twins experiencing the growth of love for her newly born, prematurely born children:
Luisa laughed the laughter of tenderness and body fluids, of manic collapse, of sleepless necessity.
On an impulse, or in forgetfulness or in simple exhaustion of thought, Luisa picked up both babies at once…offered each baby a breast. Both sucked….two small heads swiveled and searched, bony limbs extended, antennae into the void. One arm, flung outwards, came to rest on a brother’s shoulder. Gazes locked, spines unarched, mouths resumed sucking, smoothly, to satiety.

This conveys the growth of love of a mother for her children, and also the dependence of each twin on the other. Carrots and Jaffas cannot satisfy themselves individually; both must be satisfied together.

Later, Bernard, the father, in his quest to grasp what being the father of two children who can barely be differentiated involves, quotes from a poem on the subject of identical twins:

“The twins retain/intimate knowledge of each other,/ Theirs alone-/Of mind and body and being –/a knowledge preceding speech,/Transcending speech: Knowledge subtle as song,/Deep as the womb,/Pure as echo./Identical twins: One? Two? One?”

I wrote an endorsement for Carrots and Jaffas before its publication, and said this, amongst other things: “Howard Goldenberg’s story of identical twins, violently parted at the age of ten, reveals the hunger that dwells in all of us to stand distinct in the gaze of God.” To achieve that distinction in the gaze of God is our human struggle; to demonstrate that we cannot be packed by the gross; that we are marked with an individuality that honours, in its way, the teeming variety of life in the world. Think of Hopkins poem, “Pied Beauty” in which God delights in “All things counter, original, spare, strange…”But for Carrots and Jaffas, that struggle for originality is over at birth, or even at conception. The gaze of God is the gaze of the identical twin. The suggestion of Howard’s book is that the mystique of the identical twin is closely related to the mystery of divinity in our lives. We are unlikely ever to know what the identical twin knows, and unlikely ever to know what God knows. But one thing we can know is this: God is Himself, Herself an identical twin.

Wilberforce Reynolds parts Carrots and Jaffas. He hadn’t meant to. He had intended to steal both boys. It is a feature of acts of violence that they often do even greater harm that the perpetrator intended. Wilbur’s hope is that he will win the approval of a woman, Greta, who suffered the theft of her own two boys. In Archie Roach’s haunting song, “Took the Children Away”, Archie says: “You took the children away, The children away. Breaking their mother’s heart, Tearing us all apart, Took them away.” Those who took away Indigenous children decades ago knew that they were causing grief, but felt that a greater good justified the harm. And this is also Wilbur’s rationalisation.

My head will be right, doing this good thing…it’s the right thing to do, to bring kids, to steal them and replace kids stolen from blackfellers.

Howard makes very clear that Wilbur’s failure of imagination re-enacts the failure of imagination of those who had conceived the scheme of parting Indigenous parents from their children so much earlier. Jaffas, after his abduction, cries out in his anguish: “Run! Run back to Carrots! Run!” and we think of Leah Purcell’s song, ‘Run, Daisy, Run!’

Jaffas finds himself in the care of Greta and the white Doctor Burns up in the Flinders Ranges, the oldest place on earth. The creation of each of these characters are amongst the finest accomplishments of the novel. This Healing movement of the book sees Greta revealing to the traumatised Jaffas stories of the land, of her country, while the Doc contributes tales of scientific discoveries, of Indigenous distress, of the land as understood by a white man. Neither the Doc nor Greta know the true story of Jaffas abduction; Wilbur had spun a plausible tale to explain why he was leaving the boy with Greta. The Doc begins to suspect that Wilbur’s story is rubbish, and he wonders whether Wilbur’s real motivation has something to do with Greta’s past. He asks her, one day, about that past:

My boys, they take my two boys. Never come back. I reckon they big fellas now, fathers. Maybe grandfather. I never see them. Maybe they die, maybe they just lost….That what happen. That what they do. Steal ‘em…

But back at Jaffas home, his brother is tearing himself apart with grief, while his mother, Luisa, torments herself with stories of the unspeakable things done to other abducted twins by a certain Doctor Mengele during the Second World War. The strong suggestion is that Luisa, herself a one-time victim of hideous violence under the Junta in Argentina, will go mad if she is never to see Jaffas again. I spoke earlier of those forces in the world that oppose evil, and of their power. While Luisa is losing her mind, guarding her remaining son with a maniacal determination, Greta and the Doc are painstakingly rebuilding hope in the abducted Jaffas, mending, healing. In the oldest region of the earth, the aged (and Doc Burns is no longer a young man, nor Greta a young woman) dispense hope and love to the young.

Howard Goldenberg’s novel brims with suggestion, as a novel should. And the suggestion I want to make a big deal out of is this: that love, human love, is the finest accomplishment of the imagination. Maybe it is too easy to use a word like ‘evil’ and expect that everyone agrees about what evil is. But we do know what ‘wrong’ is. It is wrong to snatch a child from the street and drive away on some mongrel errand. It is wrong to wrench children in their thousands from the embrace of their parents on some state-sponsored mongrel errand of larger scale. It is wrong to gather people in their millions into camps, reduce their existence to wretchedness, then murder them. To do wrong requires no imagination at all; merely malice or egocentricity. To do good requires imagination. The Doc and Greta imagine the path to recovery that Jaffas might follow, then urge him along it. Their imagination stands in strong distinction to Wilbur’s crude lack of imagination.

Howard Goldenberg’s book is itself the product of a fine, creative imagination, and of a big heart. Like all such works of literary art, Carrots and Jaffas adds a welcome something to our chances in the world.
Robert Hillman is the renowned author of sixty books, including “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif ” (Wild Dingo Press). His most recent works are the celebrated novel, “Joyful” (Text, 2014), and a young adult novel, “Malini” (Allen and Unwin, 2014)

Robert launched Carrots and Jaffas at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2014 with his speech above. 

How to Widen the Gap

In my novel “Carrots and Jaffas” a whitefella doctor working in an outback Aboriginal community has a recurring daydream. The doctor’s dreaming is of a pathway into a healthier unobese, normotensive, undiabetic, heartwell community. That pathway is the path of a sugarless past, a path followed by gatherers and hunters, who are not fast and fizzy food consumers.

That dreaming, a sort of longing for escape from the simple carbs that destroy his flock, that widen the Gap, is born from the reality the Doc sees at the checkout in the community’s foodshop. The local people stock their trolleys, proceed to the checkout, proffer their paycards and wait. The cost of the foods frequently exceeds the funds in the card. The customer removes this food, that food, the next – until the tally equals the funds. First to go are milk, vegies, fruit. Then meat. Finally the customer is left with white bread and brown fizzy cola.

The Doc reels at the choices, at the grip on appetite and taste of these poisons: “more harmful – because more widespread  – than alcohol”. The Doc, an old utopian, dreams of a switch to the Zero option, the sugarless drinks that will please the taste for sweet and the pull of caffeine…The Doc does not fear the scaremongering over artificial sweeteners; thirty years ago these were going to cause cancer. Thirty years on he is still waiting for those cancers. Meanwhile sugar’s harm is here, everywhere…

The experience of that old doc is my experience precisely. In fifty communities, over twenty five years, I have seen these carbs at work on babes in arms, on youths and matrons, on aunties and uncles. In go those carbs and the gap widens that we are successfully closing elsewhere.

Coincidence

“My grandfather happened to be in Britain at the start of the First World War. He and his brothers farmed the family property in the Victorian high country. Somehow though, he was visiting England, a war was on, we were part of the Empire, so he joined up.
Meanwhile back in Australia, his brother volunteered. They wrote to each other with their news: it turned out both had been posted to the Middle East, but to different units in different locations.

“Grandfather and great-uncle tried to keep in touch, and when Grandfather was given leave on Christmas Day he wrote to Uncle Bob promising to meet him outside the General Post Office in King George Street in Jerusalem on that day. He’d meet Grandfather there at noon. It didn’t surprise him that he didn’t receive a reply – there was a war on. His brother’s silence didn’t make him change his plans.

“At noon on December 25 – I think it was 1916 – Grandfather took up his station outside the Post Office and waited for Bob. By 1.00pm Bob hadn’t appeared, but Grandfather wasn’t worried or surprised. There was a war on, they both had to cadge lifts from army transport vehicles. He waited. Grandpa was excited and nervous; he and Bob hadn’t seen each other since before the war.
Grandfather said he needed to go to the toilet but didn’t dare in case Bob came and found he wasn’t there and they’d miss each other. He told me he danced around for hours with his bladder filling and his hopes fading.

“By four o’clock it was getting cool, the day was coming to its end and Grandfather feared he’d wet himself. Bob never showed. Another soldier passing by told Grandfather there were public toilets around the corner and one block down.
Grandfather strode down the street, turned left and collided with another man in uniform. “Sorry mate”, he said, untangling himself. Through the gloom came the same words in the same voice. The two men peered at each other. It was Uncle Bob.
‘The funny thing was’ – Grandfather told me – ‘Bob never received my letter!’”

That story was told to me by a workmate in 1974. It has stayed with me these forty years. I know that post office, I know the cold and dark of evening in Jerusalem at Christmas.

Today I received a flattering (and I must say insightful) review of my novel “Carrots and Jaffas” from a lady I’ve never met who lives, reads, reviews and blogs in France. (Coincidentally, we found each other by chance.) Claire McAlpine is my reviewer’s name. Somehow Claire managed to compose her review through a period of family medical crisis. How the empty page draws the pen!
Towards the end of her piece Claire McAlpine remarks on the long arm of coincidence that reaches out towards the end of my novel. She is right. As I wrote the section in question I had in my mind the accidental finding of kin, of brothers, between my friend’s grandfather and her great uncle Bob. This closing stage of the book gives voice to a daydream that I fall into from time to time in my work as a locum doctor in outback Aboriginal communities. Medical work in those places is full of nightmare: so much loss, so much suffering , almost all of it preventable. In my reverie I dream of a utopian resolution of the actual. My writing always hopes for redemption. In the closing pages of “Carrots and Jaffas” I gave voice to that wishful state; I allowed the intelligence and the questing longing of my character ‘the Doc’ to be rewarded by coincidence.
And I know from first hand stories of Holocaust survivors who have been separated from kin, for decades beyond hoping, that fate is not always cruel, that brothers are sometimes found.

I Reblog her review and thank Claire for the time and effort she put into it during a difficult time.

Word by Word

Allia NurseAll quiet on the blogging and reading front recently as life’s dramas intervened and demanded my full attention. Our daughter had a diabetic crisis 2 weeks ago and has been in hospital, she is stable now and happy to be home and said I can use this new picture she created for her Facebook page.

Consequently I have been carrying Carrots and Jaffas around with me and rereading passages, though I finished it more than 2 weeks ago and finally today had time while our son was at hip hop to move my scribbles here. Apologies Howard for taking so long to share your wonderful book.

Carrots and Jaffas is a wonderful example of how the virtual world allows us to come across writing voices that we don’t always find in bookshops or through mainstream publishers, that don’t require one to have publishing connections or be in the know. Just to be open…

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