All my life I’ve kept a daily journal. I’m not quite sure why I do it, but I can’t imagine not doing it – if that makes sense. Some writers’ diaries are highly literary, analytical, indeed philosophical. Mine is different – much more social – a kind of record of my work at ABR, my friendships, and the literary scene. In a way it’s a kind of group biography. Early on it was certainly a useful literary exercise – good practice at how to record events and conversations succinctly and with a certain irony.
A while ago I began publishing extracts from the diaries in the print edition of the magazine – highlights of ABR’s year laced with a bit of gossip and the odd joke.
This year’s diary is rather different in tone. Living through a pandemic has changed all of us, I think. Publishing a magazine during repeated lockdowns has not been without its challenges. Covid has also coincided with a marked deterioration in my aged mother’s health. In March last year she moved into aged care. Like so many Australians, and so many friends of mind, I have experienced the feelings of anguish and impotence that go with caring for a loved parent during lockdown.
In choosing the following extracts, I felt obliged to tell something of my mother’s story. To do otherwise would be have seemed blithe, even disingenuous.
January 1 Hindmarsh Island. Rose early and sped across the water to inspect the wetlands where hundreds of ibis were roosting – a marvellous sight. But we won’t be going to New South Wales in the middle of the month, following a Covid outbreak in Sydney. Victoria has closed the border, causing much predictable lamentation.
January 5 Three am: there’s no point not starting the day, as my mother is much on my mind after another severe illness. I begin to fear that this woman will be left with few happy memories of life. I think of Darl’s awful words in As I Lay Dying: ‘It takes two people to make you, one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end.’
But there are worse ways to start a daunting day than reading Jacqueline Rose on Freud and the pandemic (LRB). Here’s a quote from Freud: ‘We lay a stronger emphasis on what is evil in men only because other people disavow it, and therefore make the human mind, not better, but incomprehensible.’ Then I turned to Wallace Stevens’s The Auroras of Autumn, whose third stanza is full of magnificent valedictions about his mother:
… It is the mother they possess,
Who gives transparence to their present peace.
She makes that gentler that can gentle be.
And yet she too is dissolved, she is destroyed.
She gives transparence. But she has grown old.
The necklace is a carving not a kiss.
The soft hands are a motion not a touch.
The house will crumble and the books will burn.
They are at ease in a shelter of the mind
And the house is of the mind and they and time,
Together, all together …
But cool the early breeze through the narrow window.
January 7 A day that will surely live in infamy, as they are already saying in the United States, though it was January 6 there when it happened. I was listening to breakfast radio when they announced that the joint sitting of both houses of Congress, intended to ratify Biden’s election as president, had been overrun by a huge mob of Trump supporters, incited by the president and his goons, Giuliani among them. Soon anarchy prevailed at the Capitol, whose security was exposed as unbelievably lax. The representatives and senators, and Trump’s veep, were escorted to a safe room. It took hours for them to begin to clear the steps of the Capitol, while the fascists roamed around the Capitol with their smug signs and Confederate flags. I watched all day, numb, disbelieving. The sessions resumed and by 3 am Biden had been ratified. But what does this mean for the US? Will the scales fall away from people’s eyes, or will it inspire them, and Trump, said to be deranged, with a fortnight to go before the inauguration?
Alex Ross and I exchanged emails about his new book on Wagnerism, which I am meant to review for The Age. Alex is keen to appear on our podcast. I sympathised with him, and with Patrick McCaughey in New Haven.
January 9 To cheer ourselves up after our mothers’ woes, we went to Gimlet on Russell Street, Andrew McConnell’s new restaurant. Outside I saw Adam Gilchrist and Michael Hussey, in jeans and T-shirts, still trying to look in their twenties, quite passably. (C. had no idea who they were.)
January 10 On Friday Sam Watts, who is doing a PhD on race in America, proposed an article on the assault on the Capitol, citing historical precedents. It arrived this morning, and it’s good.
January 12 Up Toorak Road comes a Japanese woman, masked, bandy-legged, carrying an enormous cardboard box almost bigger than herself. She must be replacing the oven.
January 13 Read, no luxuriated in, the criticism of Alfred Kazin: his essay on T.S. Eliot and the even more remarkable and perverse Henry Adams. Is Kazin becoming my favourite critic, eclipsing Virginia Woolf? His amplitude, his elegance, his fearlessness.
January 14 Well, if Kazin is my favourite critic, Gore Vidal is the saltiest and most malicious. I have been reading some of his essays from the 1980s, when he was obsessed by tenure-seeking, theory-riddled academics. I love his riffs about Americans’ vacuity and Orson Welles’s dog – ‘a totally unprincipled small black poodle called Kiki’. No one else would/could describe a canine as unprincipled – except Henry James. Even Vidal’s brief introductions are malign. In both of them he declares that he will never write his memoirs (‘I have never been my own subject, a sign of truly sickening narcissism’). Within a decade or so Vidal had written two memoirs.
David Gelber in London likes my Garner review (‘a zestful piece’), but I was mortified, on rereading it, to discover that I had used ‘finest’ thrice. Now David is resolved to read Harry Kessler’s inimitable journals, which I extol in my review. I first met David at the Literary Review’s cramped little office in Soho. David told me about an LR event at his grandfather’s house in the country. Curious, I asked him where his grandfather lived. ‘Blenheim,’ he said quietly.
January 16 Just back from the South Melbourne Market where I visited Rod Cameron’s excellent bookshop, near the doughnuts. I found some treasures, including Martin Boyd’s memoirs. Rod, who addressed me as ‘Bobby’s son’ (which doesn’t happen often now), told me about his long career as a book valuer on 3UZ.
Martin Boyd, in Day of My Delight, is plummy, even priggish, but his self-possession at the front during the Great War was remarkable, and it’s hard to disagree with him when he writes (in 1965): ‘I do not think it unfair to say that the worst Australian characteristic is a reverence for money, and for the artificial social distinctions created by its possession in any quantity.’
January 17 Our first jazz concert in a year or more – at fortyfivedownstairs. Mary Lou Jelbart, introducing Alexander Nettelbeck and his Impromptu Quartet, seemed anxious. This was their first concert in a year. God knows what will happen to arts venues like this.
January 26 Much enjoying Mark McKenna’s new book Return to Uluru, about a police killing at Uluru in 1934. The culprit, Bill McKinnon, somehow survived the subsequent inquiry ordered by the Lyons government. Then he took himself and his bride on a 4,000-mile journey across Australia, stopping for afternoon tea with my friend Sonja Chalmer’s grandparents family at Macdonald Downs before lobbing on the Kidmans.
January 28 Nice responses to the Peter Porter Poetry Prize, which has been won by Sara M. Saleh. Sara’s family wants to frame the media release. She told us there is no letter P in Arabic, so they are having trouble processing it. When Danielle Blau, another shortlisted poet, joined us in the virtual green room the gent sitting beside her turned out to be Steven Pinker, her stepfather. At least he knows about ABR now.
Helen Garner and I exchanged emails about old photos and my volatile dream life. Helen said it seems to carry ‘a lot of psychic freight’.
January 29 Margaret Court has been made an AC in the national honours, so I fulminated in an e-newsletter. I congratulated Kerry O’Brien on declining his AO in the Australia Day honours following Court’s elevation. (Others have since followed suit.) I hope Kerry has been inundated with letters of solidarity.