Diary

At a sports carnival early in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, the schnockered schoolmaster Prendergast, unsteadily wielding a starting pistol, shoots poor Lord Tangent in the foot. Thereafter, Tangent barely appears in the narrative, with only a sentence now and then charting his slow medical decline. ‘Everybody else, however, was there except little Lord Tangent, whose foot was being amputated in a local nursing home.’ And later still: ‘It’s maddenin’ Tangent having died just at this time,’ some old sea dog mutters.

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These writer’s scribblings, handsomely reproduced, cover two distinct periods in Murray Bail’s life: London from 1970 to 1974; and Sydney from 1988 to 2003. The notebooks from the London period, which represent roughly two-thirds of this book, were previously published as Longhand: A Writer’s Notebook (1989). While readers may find some interest in comparing the formative and the mature writer, the older Bail’s reflections on ageing and death represent the most consistently penetrating writing in Notebooks.

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Here we have the first intimations of the coming flowering of the Donald Friend diaries, which are to be published by the National Library with support from Morris West’s benefaction. Friendliness was not always the same as ugliness or cleanliness when he was alive. So, it is somehow comforting that two Australian artists, so different from each other in lifestyle, should after their deaths find common cause.

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‘Unerring muse that makes the casual perfect’: Robert Lowell’s compliment to his friend Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind as I read Helen Garner. She is another artist who reveres the casual for its power to disrupt and illuminate. Nothing is ever really casual for her, but rather becomes part of a perfection that she resists at the same time. The ordinary in these diaries – the daily, the diurnal, the stumbled-upon, the breathing in and out – is turned into something else through the writer’s extraordinary craft.

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The fortieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras might have been an occasion for unbridled elation. Held in March of 2018, the celebration came soon after the bitterly fought battle to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. Dennis Altman, a pre-eminent figure in Gay Liberation, paints a different picture of the Mardi Gras. His new book, Unrequited Love: Diary of an accidental activist, conveys a sense of unease despite the frolicsome charms of such festivities.

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Anyone who keeps a diary day in, day out for decades knows why Helen Garner, a few years ago, destroyed her early ones, deeming them boring and self-obsessed. Incineration has a long, proud history: think of Henry James, late in life, at his incinerator in Rye, burning all his letters and private papers – that lamentable blaze. The sheer misery and tedium of our early journals can be dejecting. ‘What is the point of this diary?’ Garner asks herself in 1981. ‘There is always something deeper, that I don’t write, even when I think I’m saying everything.’

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The final volume of the diaries of Donald Friend covers the years from 1966, when he was fifty-one, to 1988, the year before his death. For a little over half this period (represented by more than two thirds of the diary entries), Friend lived in Bali. He did so in some splendour, waited on by a retinue of houseboys and visited by the distinguished and the celebrated. This was before mass tourism. There are extensive descriptions of Balinese life – the people, their customs, the religious festivals – and of the ancient monuments. These are of interest, but there is little of Friend in them. He could have been writing a travelogue. There is much on his collecting expeditions for Balinese artefacts, his property developments and his problems with thieves. It is not the quotidian nature of these activities which is the problem. A skilful diarist allows us to see the mundane afresh, through his or her peculiar lens. Here, again, Friend seems to have gone missing.

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Memory is actually anxious to be heard.

                                                       A.F. Davies

What a year, and how lucky we are that our country can only play a timid, cringing, subservient role in Iraq – which is not at all to disparage the soldiers we send there. It must be a bastard of a job for those young men, at the accursed interface.

February 6: We fly to Hobart for our Coles Bay holiday, pick up a car and gradually find Sarah and Gordon’s evasive house on its steep hill. The following morning he starts me off with a long stiff walk over the mountain slopes: easier at his age. But I could eat a horse afterwards, were that required.

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It’s the silence. Even by the river, my ears are straining. It’s the silence. At this moment it’s a warmish humid silence with the grass outside lushly mesmerising the eye.

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Attending a poetry festival is not normally considered a life-threatening event (not even if you are prone to deep vein thrombosis from constant sitting) but when I told my family I was going to Struga, I was greeted by worried looks and expressions of deep concern. Struga is in the Republic of Macedonia. Just days before, Macedonian hotheads had set fire to a mosque in Prilip (not that far from Struga) in revenge for the death of a Prilip policeman in a road-mine explosion planted by Albanian terrorists. The hair-trigger tensions in that country were clearly dangerous, and possibly escalating.

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