Heroes and Villains (Chapter 1)
Thanks to our recent discovery of a previously unnoticed vermin habitat, I spent a good part of this weekend reorganising my reasonably extensive collection of books, which has lately been stored in my parents’ garage. Happily our furry friend Ratty had left them largely untouched with the exception of Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country which may well have left a bad taste in his mouth, thereby saving the rest of my printed matter from becoming rat snacks.
Despite the sweaty conditions, this labour was an unanticipated delight. Like Hornby’s Rob Fleming reorganising his record collection, I embarked on an autobiographical journey of my reading life. Unlike him of course, I did not reorganise my books autobiographically, indulging instead my inner librarian and painstakingly categorising and alphabetising them. That’s how I do. But I did create a small collection of my most favourite and beautiful tomes to be near me always; some new but many long forgotten. Most of them are the books that have inspired me the most, particularly as a writer, and require regular reference and rereading. I came up with a Hornbyesque shortlist of some of my favourites, by no means exhaustive but a collection of items that have reinvigorated my literary excitement.
Top 5 Most Inspiring Books (or Collected Works) I Saved From Rat Consumption This Weekend
1. Helen Razer: Everything’s
Fine Fucked; Gas Smells Awful
Helen Razer was the first person to make me realise that you can simultaneously be unashamedly intelligent, piss funny and have phenomenal taste in music. And that it’s OK for girls to swear and be argumentative and even offensive if they fucking feel like it and/or for the purposes of hilarity.
Probably the greatest tragedy ever to occur in the Twitterverse (aside from the current vomit-inducing Warne/Hurley charade) was the day Ms Razer deleted her account, after many months of hilarious banter, to avoid possible ‘derailment’ for speaking her extraordinarily insightful but admittedly divisive mind (following the actual derailment of colleague and fellow leftwing warrior princess Catherine Deveny). Like her, I am highly critical and unafraid to voice my strong opinions in public forums, from right here to Twitter and the pages of my local newspaper (and wherever else anyone cares to publish my demi-coherent ramblings). I realise that these opinions and the way they are sometimes expressed may be offensive to some, and I am unapologetic. The fact is, many of the media I engage with are reactive, and I have no desire to moderate my reactions, particularly when they are both truthful and potentially hilarious. Whether I succeed in provoking the reaction I seek is another question, but people seem to read the shit that I write, so I must be doing something right. As a young woman Helen Razer almost singularly gave me the courage to do this (though later on I would discover Marieke Hardy and shriek with delight on a regular basis at the potential for the use of swears as punctuation). I am sure that my mother is regularly horrified.
I bought Everything’s Fine at the height of Helen’s broadcasting career in the 1990s which coincided with my mid-teens, needless to say a formative period. I remember gingerly peeling the backing off the helpfully provided ‘FUCKED’ sticker to apply to the front of the book and feeling triumphant; ‘I’m right, and this book proves it!’
Essentially a survival guide to navigating the shitful realities of (post)modern life, with special reference to Hey Hey! It’s Saturday, I vividly remember laughing until my ability to breathe was comprimised upon first reading Razer’s pernicious prose. This delightful passage, about New Ageism for fun and profit, in particular remains with me and really sets the tone for the book:
Quite apart from violating five third-world cultures in a single afternoon, these people are responsible for creating a niche market for New Age music. Now, there’s a place for a stitch of the Orb, Tricky or even The Aphex Twin in my own time. But you know, enough is enough and sometimes you just really NEED to play Back in Black. I used to really enjoy getting facials until every beauty salon became an ‘aesthetic therapist’, replaced my favourite chemical peel with essential oils that gave me a rash and started piping dinky Orca The Stupid Fat Whale Seaside Music through w-bins next to my ears. This diffident ooze attacks me at every turn and succeeds in only making me want to piss. And who is this ditzy Rapunzel shit called Enya? When is she going to choke on a poison apple? Why does some slappable skinny brunette slag who managed to stop sticking her fingers down her throat just long enough to how to use some substandard sequencing software have to whine about cock-sucking green fields and clouds and the western European goddess tradition every time I go and eat in a restaurant. There’s a burial mound baby, in County Meath and it’s got your stupid name on it, Enya! I’d rather listen to Bill Wyman’s solo album. I’d rather eat mystic dolphin poos. Nothing, not even Italian house remixes of Celine Dion dueting with Michael Bolton with solos by Kenny G, John Tesh and Yianni with lyrics by Alanis ‘Isn’t It Ironic Not!’ Morisette, makes me so livid and full of acrid tension.
Imagine my delight upon discovering that my inner monologue had a public voice more expressive and erudite than my own! To the right-wing Boltophiles who think leftwing ratbags are stifling free speech with political correctness, suck on that.
Moving right along, I had been meaning to reread Gas Smells Awful for a while. Though I do not recommended it to people who are scared of crazy ladies and postmodern theory, Gas Smells Awful is probably one of the best books by a raving nutbag for raving nutbags ever written. I am a raving nutbag, and I need help. Gas Smells Awful provides this desperately needed help not only through its practical advice regarding the usefulness of Nietschze and witchcraft as an adjunct to traditional methods of treating mental illness, but also simply by reassuring one that one is not alone, and that things will get better. Indeed, is a great source of hope that if Ms Razer has managed to overcome her mental infirmities to become and remain the impressive and respected cultural critic that she is, then perhaps I too may one day realise my dreams of transcending the blogosphere to exchange my opinionated rantings and/or more nuanced written work for cash money.
I began reading posthaste, and was delighted to find this passage which reflected my current bibliophillic activities, and my proclivity for collecting in general and the role it plays in my life:
The things one collects, the objects and articles and remnants from pop or high culture one prizes, can offer great solace. I was recently reminded of this by a Walter Benjamin Essay called ‘Unpacking My Library’ which a friend suggested I read when I was moving my own book collection. I had asked this person, who as a particular interest in Teutonic-type philosophy, ‘Why am I getting off on reorganising my books so much? Am I, like, some materialist capitalist object-fetishising pig dog?’ Fortunately, this bloke said that no, I was merely reveling in the anarchy of memories. Well, jolly good. Hate to be a capitalist object-fetishising pig dog. Benjamin asserts that we build a dwelling of the artefacts we adore and disappear within them. That our precious bits and pieces, in all their chaos, can confer a sense of order and comfort.
Once again, this makes complete sense to me. I do not simply collect vintage ceramic vessels in the shape of foodstuffs because they are so hideous it is irresistible, it’s because it makes me feel better! As long as I’m not sitting in a rocker on the porch pitching cats at passers-by, I feel that a slightly eccentric affinity for owl paraphernalia and model flamingos is totally acceptable. I would sincerely like to publicly thank Helen Razer for providing me with these and so many other valuable insights, even if the fact remains, I am still noticeably single.
2. John Birmingham: He Died With a Felafel In His Hand; Dopeland; Leviathan.
Speaking of literary inspirations, this man is a behemoth. Who could have anticipated that the author of a generation-defining biographical account of drug-addled sharehouse living would become the epic polymath he is today, churning out reams of fiction, non-fiction and opinion of extraordinary breadth and quality, from his Quarterly Essay A Time For War to Leviathan, the history of Sydney that redefined what written history can be. I don’t know, maybe those who knew him and his work when Felafel was published in 1995 would have predicted his subsequent success; I didn’t know him then, I was 12 and I didn’t even know what a bong was. But I know him now, and he’s a fucking legend.
I first read Felafel when I was living in sharehouses of various levels of squalor and chaos in Sydney and still revel in Birmingham’s peerless ability to tell a cracking story, so it has always been a text that is close to my heart. I am particularly fond of my copies of Felafel and Dopeland however, due to the manner in which they were procured.
Very recently, one of my closest friends was required to delete a certain person from her life, a person who I was none too fond of from the moment I first met him, and who subsequently betrayed my friend and my grudging trust in an epic display of arsehattery. Deleting this person involved convincing him to come and pick up what appeared to be the extent of his wordly possessions from her house, which I can only assume he had left there in order to keep a foot in the door that was so clearly going to be slammed behind his arse on the way out.
Because my friend is a reasonable person who possesses little malice, she gave said individual ample opportunities to collect these belongings, resulting in a tedious saga that will not be recounted here. Suffice to say, it culminated in a final demand that if they were not collected within a specified two-hour period they would be generously distributed amongst the community’s charity shops. This, of course, got immediate results, so we decided made a day of it, a group of buddies descending on her house to help move his crap out onto the lawn while simultaneously taking the opportunity to enjoy a barbecue and some cold beverages. Prior to his arrival, I decided to souvenir something as a symbol of the wake of hurt and destruction he had left in his path. Frankly, Felafel and Dopeland were standouts, and I knew the author would be delighted at my relation of this undertaking. Said previous owner may well be reading this, in which case, I’ve got your books, dickhead. And your limited edition Best of TISM CDs. Just in case you were wondering.
This, while a personal triumph, is a diversion from the moral of the story which is that John Birmingham is one of my all time literary inspirations, not just for his ‘work on paper’ but for his prolific online opinion pieces which, like Helen Razer’s, make no apologies for their divisive content. I mean, he has a blog called Blunt Instrument for Goddess’s sake. I don’t know what the trolls who feebly attack him in the comments threads are expecting. And to cap off his written achievements, I admire the way that Birmingham interacts with his readers and peers through his blog and social media. For a budding writer like me, the opportunity to connect with writers like him and my lady friends Maggie Alderson and Charlotte Wood is a rare gift that would have been almost unimaginable pre-interwebs. Thus ends my circuitous Birmingham fangirl moment.
3. Gillian Mears: Fineflour
Gillian Mears is a somewhat reclusive female author of renown and one who happens to come from Grafton, the New South Wales northern rivers town I grew up in and in which I currently reside. Indeed, my first (and only) literary accolade is the memorial prize for art and literature held annually at my high school in honour of her mother Sheila Mears which I won with a short story I wrote when I was 17 (the aforementioned Maggie Alderson may be interested to know I purchased her Pants on Fire, another evergreen favourite, with a portion of the prize money).
My reading of Mears’s work, of which I have long been a fan, has always been coloured by the fact that she was, at one time, the wife of my greatest mentor, who is also now my closest friend and confidante; moreover, the book that launched her literary career was a thinly veiled and viciously untruthful autobiographical account of their brief relationship.
That said, her collection of stories titled Fineflour, which I read as a young girl and is ostensibly about life in Grafton, changed my ideas about what writing can be. Her poetic prose is terse yet evocative. Though the names in this book have been changed I can see, hear and smell the places she is writing about, places which I have known from childhood and have observed both closely and unconsciously over a lifetime. More importantly I can feel them deep within me when I read these words. These places are portable, and I have taken them with me on many travels. I have encouraged people close to me to read this book to get a sense of who I am and where I am from. It has also taught me that great literature does not have to be about great people and places; that the ordinary is worthy of reflection and elevation. Patrick White taught me this too, though Mears’s work does not begin to approach the emotional complexity and nuanced storytelling of works like the Tree of Man and the Solid Mandala, which have also been a great influence in my adult life.
The story ‘Ferryman’, one of my favourites, recounts the last day of a ferry driver on his watch. I can only imagine that the story describes the picturesque and still-functioning vehicular ferry at Lawrence, a charming feature of the landscape of my youth.
This morning, the mist trails soaking the paddocks by the river, was his last. He didn’t think he’d ever see a moon so pale and fat. The moon moved slowly, a half-grown slug, casting reflections into the ripples near the ferry. Across the other side of the river, Garnett’s milk truck was passing the poplar trees. He thought he’d miss the poplars most of all. They were fast-growing trees. Every nine years workers from Fineflour’s match factory would chop down the silver trunks. The chut of axe on wood or, more recently, the squeal of saws, leapt across the river. He preferred the sounds of ploughing and the silence of new saplings being planted. It was silt river soil, dark and rich with earthworms, He watched the trees grow tall and the leaves turn from translucent yellow into green, into dead leaf drifts. The trees formed cathedral-like avenues. At certain angles from the ferry he could see far doorways of light at the end of each tree-line. Now the poplars were still bare with a thousand crosses of twigs spiking into his middle distances.
Thus ends Chapter 1 of my Top 5 Most Inspiring Books (or Collected Works) I Saved From Rat Consumption This Weekend. I had intended to knock out all 5 in one hit but this has proven far more verbose than I had anticipated, and you probably have better things to do by now. Stay tuned for Chapter 2 which includes one of my favourite essays of all time, Orwell’s ‘The Sporting Spirit’, and my prized first edition of John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), an object which tells a far richer story than simply the text within.