Poetry: Clive James

“At the moment, I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.”

– From an interview in The Spectator

The thing about Clive James is he’s still around and his poetry just gets better and better. Several profiles have appeared following the publication of his much lauded poem Japanese Maple, first published in The New Yorker last September, including those in The Spectator, The New Republic and The Weekend Australian Magazine. Together they help explain why his star is growing brighter as he (gradually) dies. Despite his long sojourn in England, he’s still one of us and it shows in his writing and his interviews. He never lost his Australian sense of humour, that laconic, dry, self-deprecating humour that means home to me. It’s wonderful to hear it in these interviews, despite the serious tone of his recent poems on death and dying.

Here is the poem that inspired such interest:

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Clive James

Tony Abbott again…


Hilarious. Tony Abbot has brought the wrath of Russia upon us in the shape of four warships heading our way – Vladimir Putin’s response to Abbot’s aggro posturing a month ago. We’re all rolling around laughing here, wondering how Abbott will worm his way out of this debacle. Thick as two bricks. Ah well.

The lucky country.

That’s us. We’ve got Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. You can’t argue with that.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Oh, how I’m going to miss Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of our greatest actors. One of the best tributes I’ve caught up with is Jason Bailey’s on Flavorwire, who posted this scene from Magnolia, one of the best scenes in one of my favourite movies.

Julian Barnes on Penelope Fitzgerald


In the introduction to his book of essays on literary fiction, Through the Window, Julian Barnes sums up the value of the novel:

Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it.

The subject of his first essay, the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in the year 2000 at the age of 83, was one of the novel’s greatest practitioners. I had only vaguely heard of Penelope Fitzgerald as the 1979 Booker Prize winner for Offshore, one of a series of novels she wrote when she was in her 60s about events in her own life, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading her. It wasn’t until I read Barnes’ essay on her work that I started to read her later books and was astonished by her brilliance.

Fitzgerald started writing novels in her 60s, but it was the four historical novels published in her 70s, culminating in her final novel The Blue Flower, published when she was 80, which established her standing as among the greatest of English novelists. There are heaps of online reviews you can look up, but I can tell you The Blue Flower is a slight book that’s as intellectually challenging and daring as any I’ve read.

If you haven’t yet discovered her work, Julian Barnes’ essay stands out as the best reason to seek it out. As well as evoking the books, Barnes offers a warm and compassionate reading of the author herself, an understanding that beneath the slight scattiness and ordinariness of her person, Penelope Fitzgerald was a truly great writer:

Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life she liberated herself into greatness.

Picnic day at Frodsley Farm

I love Tasmania! All these beautiful old colonial homesteads. On Sunday we went to Frodsley farm in the Fingal Valley, where a fund-raising picnic was being held for a community organisation. The farm was only 30 minutes from home but we hadn’t visited it before. The homestead was at the end of a long avenue of mature pines with broad paddocks on either side. Our expectations were high, but even so it was a surprise to discover such an enchanting place on the river. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Review: TransAtlantic


I was so disappointed that TransAtlantic failed to make the Booker shortlist when it clearly deserved to be there. The Guardian calls the 2013 selection ‘the best shortlist in a decade’ and I’m certainly looking forward to reading several of the listed books, particularly NZ author Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (although I didn’t check the page count when I downloaded it – over 800. Yikes! I’ll still be reading it next year).  

Still, despite the quality of the list, I would have placed TransAtlantic ahead of at least two that made it. Maybe it didn’t make the cut because its author is a long-time resident of New York. Anyway, it’s on my own list of favourites. 

TransAtlantic is a wonderful book, full of passages that need to be savoured and characters, real and imagined, whose crossings by air and sea between Europe and America through generations give the book its themes of risk and resistance fading to stoic endurance as the characters age. After reading Colum McCann it always takes me a long time to appreciate the writing of other authors again. He’s a writer whose style is so lyrically idiosyncratic that it makes most contemporary novelists seem part of a herd. Most of all, his evocation of places from Missouri to Ireland is just amazing. I could say more in praise but if you appreciate great literary fiction, read the book.