Read The Best Australian Essays 2015 Online

Authors: Geordie Williamson

The Best Australian Essays 2015

Published by Black Inc.,

an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd

37–39 Langridge Street

Collingwood Vic 3066 Australia

[email protected]

Introduction & selection © Geordie Williamson and Black Inc., 2015. Geordie Williamson asserts his moral rights in the collection. Individual essays © retained by authors, who assert their rights to be known as author of their work.

Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of material in this book. However, where an omission has occurred, the publisher will gladly include acknowledgement in any future edition.

ISBN 9781863957779 (pbk)

ISBN 9781925203608 (ebook)


No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publishers.



* * *

Sebastian Smee

Confronting the Unthinkable in Goya's Art

Anwen Crawford

The World Needs Female Rock Critics

Maria Tumarkin

No Dogs, No Fruit, No Firearms, No Professors

Tim Flannery

How You Consist of Trillions of Tiny Machines

Nadia Wheatley

Belsen: Mapping the Memories

James Bradley

Strange Weather: Writing the Anthropocene

Tim Winton

Havoc: A Life in Accidents

Gerard Elson

Bibliomancer: Nick Cave, Writer

Rebecca Giggs

Open Ground

Alison Croggon

Trigger Warning

Mungo MacCallum

Malcolm Fraser: Obituary

Sophie Cunningham

Staying With the Trouble

Jeff Sparrow

Re-reading the Famous Five and Biggles

Nicolas Rothwell

The Northern Wilds: How to Build History into a Coastline

Karen Hitchcock

Too Many Pills: On Lifestyle Diseases and Quick Fixes

Tegan Bennett Daylight

Fully Present, Utterly Connected

Drusilla Modjeska

The Informed Imagination

Noel Pearson

Remote Control: Ten Years of Struggle and Success in Indigenous Australia

Delia Falconer

Seven Poor Men of Sydney

Kirsten Tranter

Go, Little Book

Stephen Romei

An Uneasy Masterpiece

Helen Garner

The Insults of Age

Anna Krien

My Granny's Last Wish

Guy Rundle

L'état, C'est Charlie

Ceridwen Dovey

The Pencil and the Damage Done

Matthew Lamb

The Meeting that Never Was

Ashley Hay

Mirror Rim: Lost and Found on the Abrolhos

Christian Ryan

The Thirty-ninth Summer of DK Lillee

David Walsh

Skin in the Game

Mark Mordue

The Library of Shadows

Felicity Plunkett

Sound Bridges: A Profile of Gurrumul

DBC Pierre

Leaving Ourselves at Home

Publication Details

Notes on Contributors


The essays I like best are those which swerve across the midpoint of the author's argument like a drunken driver over broken white lines, climb their ideas like a fakir up a magic rope, roll delirious inside their own thought's pitch and yaw. You know what I mean. Think of Thomas de Quincey on the gentle art of murder:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

Or the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin on storytelling:

This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation that is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places – the activities that are intimately associated with boredom – are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeated stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained.

Or Annie Dillard, writing of the perceptions of those whose sight has been restored:

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it.' It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker creek and thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I'm still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells un-flamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

If you felt the final syllable of Dillard's concluding sentence like a physical blow; if you returned immediately to the beginning of the passage to read again and ask, full of wonder, ‘How did she do
?' then you really do know what I mean. You may even enjoy the anthology in your hands, assembled as it was from essays published in Australia over the past twelve months that had me asking, full of wonder, ‘How did she do

Likely the situation is more mundane. You're standing in a bookshop (I'm indulging an antediluvian fantasy of the book as physical object – you're probably hovering over the one-click-buy button on
), wondering whether to get this book as a Christmas gift for an uncle you know is
a reader
but whose age/politics/dress sense render the contours of his interior life opaque to you, hence the gentle dodge of an anthology.

Get him a copy, of course; cover the bases. But also one for yourself.

Because the essay, in all its guises, all its weathers, has turned out to be the most durable of literary forms to make its way from paper page to iPad screen; and it is also, I would argue (highly invested as I am), the most exciting field of writerly endeavour being practised in Australia (and indeed the Anglosphere) today. In recent months Princeton University Press published a handsome hardback with the deceptively simple title
Note Book
. It collected hundreds of short pieces written by Princeton professor Jeff Nunokawa: miniature essays in the spirit of Francis Bacon, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf and Joseph Roth, which touch on everything from his mother, old boyfriends, Aristotle and Roland Barthes to Romantic-era poetry and screwball comedies of the 1930s.

What made this book curious was that each essay was first published via the little-used Notes feature of Facebook. And the significant thing about Facebook's Notes is that they are open to editing after posting. Nunokawa was able to return and polish them online, over and over again, in the hope that he might gain some insight into the passage of his self through time by doing so. In this willingness to revisit and revise his work, the good professor reminds me less of any other digital-era author than of Michel de Montaigne, fifteenth-century nobleman and inaugurator of the essay form. He, too, spent the latter part of his life constantly reworking mental doodlings on his mother, Aristotle and old boyfriends (well, one old male friend who was the most important person in his life).

Montaigne thought of his essays as, literally,
(the French word
didn't have the literary implications of the modern
in 1580; it was more speculative, experimental in sense). Over the years, Montaigne's essays would shift, shrink and expand. Yet these many extant textual variants aren't dusty footnotes of interest only to scholars of Renaissance lit; they are the record of the shifting substance of one extraordinary man. In a moment when apparently enduring concepts such as literature-with-a-capital-L are up for grabs (the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year has just popped up on Twitter: it's Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist whose non-fiction works braid together oral testimony from multiple sources – see what I mean?) there is great comfort in watching very old and very new iterations of the essay clasp hands.

But the essay today isn't just about the medium via which it is published. The very shape (or shapelessness) of the form makes it an ideal sail for catching the capricious billows of the zeitgeist. At a point when we are drowning in information (during the two minutes it took to write these last few sentences, 700,000 tweets were sent – a volume of words equivalent to 175 copies of
War and Peace
), the essay can serve as an antidote to the massed chatter of what philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has called the ‘conventional totality'.

Indeed, the bigger the data cloud, the louder the pop when pricked by the needle of the essayist's insight. One example: in past weeks and months, the question of gun violence in America has spawned a thousand op-eds and millions of Facebook comments, most of them of an avidity in inverse proportion to the poster's grasp of the issue. But it only took one paragraph from Marilynne Robinson in the
New York Review of Books
to capture the sober sense of an insane situation:

I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them. I have tried to live up to my association with them. And I take very seriously Jesus's teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword. Something called Christianity has become entangled in exactly the strain of nationalism that is militaristic, ready to spend away the lives of our young, and that can only understand dissent from its views as a threat or a defection, a heresy in the most alienating and stigmatizing sense of the word. We are not the first country where this has happened. The fact that it was the usual thing in Europe, and had been for many centuries, was one great reason for attempting to separate church and state here.

So, yes, the essay can be agile, written with brevity and rhetorical force and distributed in a second to countless inboxes with a click. But it is as the distinct utterance of a singular mind that it most counts. Wonky, idiosyncratic, fragmentary, paradoxical, drunk on words, the essay has something that the AI algorithms and content-wallahs and social media provocateurs of the web do not: character, style, oomph! – a uniquely human thumbprint that only other thinking people recognise and open their carefully keylocked attentions for.

I'm typing these words on the deck of a restaurant on the Cerro Alegre (the happy hill) in Valparaíso, Chile. The sky is clear enough to see beyond the city's working harbour to the high-rises of Viña Del Mar, a kind of South American Gold Coast across the bay, all the way to the snow-capped Andes. To get here, I rode a vertiginously angled, century-old funicular up from sea-level streets, past houses of turquoise, lemon, ochre and rusted corrugated iron clinging fast to their respective cliff-sides, over waste ground where wild fennel, nasturtiums and artichokes sprout among the weeds. I speak little Spanish, make mime with the waiter, and feel very far from home. But the cultural and geographical distance also permits some clarity about how the Australian essay is different to the other children.

First of all, there is humour, a keen sense of needing to evade the most sensitive bullshit-detector in the known universe: the Australian reader. I challenge any of you to refuse inclusion of an essay that begins (as Rebecca Giggs' did) with the sentence: ‘Every few months my mother flies north from Perth to Karratha with a prosthetic penis in her carry-on luggage.' That the piece evolves into a serious and exquisitely
meditation on geology and destiny in post-mining boom Western Australia does not gainsay so much as highlight the necessity of the chortling opening gambit.

And just as Giggs is emerging as one of the most ecologically literate of younger Australian essayists, several other pieces in the anthology approach from various angles that sense, stronger in Australia than elsewhere (I suspect because our political class has sought so assiduously to remove the topic from discussion) that climate change is no longer one serious topic among many, but, rather, the one wicked problem from which all other topics necessarily flow. To read James Bradley – whose recent novel
is an elegant fictional adumbration – on the subject of the literature of climate change is to enter a space where science is translated into kindhearted, tough-minded, reasoned argument. The combination is terrifying and consoling in equal measure.

Writing from a continent where patriarchy is embedded at the level of grammar, the question of gender in Australia remains depressingly contested ground. I could have easily included every recent review by Robert Forster, that hugely knowledgeable and thoughtful music critic, as well as the miraculous genius of Australian songwriting (I am a fan). But I'm sure Robert would agree that Anwen Crawford's piece for the
New Yorker
, noting a lost history of, and arguing a future for, the female rock critic, deserved to be included – and included as much for the way it is written as for what it is written about. I should really append a trigger warning to Alison Croggon's piece on sexual violence, an essay which never relinquishes its intelligence or retrospective honesty, despite dealing with her personal experience of rape, pitched somewhere between a deadpan Dorothy Parker monologue and a late poem by Sylvia Plath.

The other violence examined in these pages is political, religious, as nebulous and disparate as it is omnipresent. This morning I listened to ABC radio online for the first time in a week and learned of a shooting outside Parramatta Police Station by a fifteen-year-old boy, an act of terrorism apparently inexplicable, yet one I immediately fitted to a larger pattern. This anthology opens with an essay by an old, good friend, Sebastian Smee, in which the Pulitzer Prize–winning Australian art critic of the
Boston Globe
examines last year's Lindt Café siege through the prism of a Goya exhibition in the United States. It is a grave, perplexed and moving piece, a fitting act of respect accorded to the Dawson family, who lost their barrister daughter Katrina on the day – college friends of the author and a family I have also known personally for thirty years. Guy Rundle's piece on
Charlie Hebdo
is more evidence, if it were required, that he is the most articulate and insightful political commentator we possess.

I was wary of including too much literary material. It would have been like being offered an art exhibition and then framing your boxer shorts for the occasion – too fine-grained a celebration of your personal tastes. I now regret the many wonderful pieces excised as a result: Don Anderson's reviewing masterclass in the
Sydney Morning Herald
on American avant-garde writer Renata Adler for one; anything by Stephanie Bishop, Melinda Harvey, Emmett Stinson and Richard King for another. The list of Australian literary critics I admire has lengthened frighteningly in the decade and a half since I began writing ‘professionally'; frighteningly, because they are better and smarter and more industrious than me – just google Adam Rivett's review of Jonathon Franzen's
if you want to see how it should be done. And then turn to Mark Mordue's essay on ‘dark books' in this anthology to see how it is done in high definition.

One simple joy of the anthology, and something that seems archetypally Anglo-Australian, is the attention paid to the miscellaneous and the eccentric by our essayists. What other culture would bother to furnish us with a paean to the panel van, as Anna Krien does in these pages? Or would think to twin Dennis Lillee with the legendary writer of
New Yorker
feuilletons, Joseph Mitchell, as Christian Ryan does here too? A more complex satisfaction comes from the inclusion of essays which belong to immemorial Australia but are gifts to its later arrivals, whether you call them invaders, settlers or fellow flotsam thrown up by the century-long tsunami of colonialism and globalisation. Felicity Plunkett's profile of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is one of these; Noel Pearson's examination of Indigenous affairs since the demise of ATSIC is another. Missing is Tony Birch's revisiting of Tom Keneally's
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
– it really should have been here.

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