Orwell’s Ghosts


Recently I was asked to write a piece for Island that connects freedom of speech issues between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the likes of George Christensen and Cory Bernardi and their blatherings about the Safe Schools Coalition. This is something of a rehearsal for that piece, which will probably be longer and hopefully published later in the year.

Orwell finished writing Animal Farm in early 1944, with World War Two still about fifteen months away from its European conclusion. In my opinion it is the finest thing he published, certainly the best of his fiction; it achieves that magic quality that should arguably govern all good fiction, that of simple complexity. He had difficulty getting it published; his contracted publisher at the time, Victor Gollancz, turned it down, as did TS Eliot at Faber. Finally Secker & Warburg came to the party in August 1945, after Victory in Europe (and at about the time when the War was also coming to an end in the Pacific). The main reason for Orwell’s difficulty in finding a publisher was the book’s depiction of Soviet leaders as pigs; after the Yalta Conference, Stalin worked with the West to defeat Germany and it wasn’t considered cricket to then step on his toes by publishing something he would almost certainly regard as offensive. (When it was finally published it was banned in Russia for forty years.)

It is the use of language as a tool for oppression in the novel that interests me here. Squealer is its agent of propaganda–a pig who is very persuasive and has the job of selling leader Napoleon’s ideas to the rest of the animals, who for the most part lack sufficient education to really know what’s going on. There are several excellent examples in this but the famous one is the replacement of the original Seven Commandments of Animalism at the end of the book with one final absurd statement: ‘All Animals are Equal, But Some are More Equal Than Others.’ In an afterword included with a recent reprinting, Orwell states that if liberty has any meaning at all, it is in the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Which is a noble sentiment and one with which I tend to concur. It makes a discussion of free speech difficult, however, and in our current age of terrorism (and recent attempts to change the Racial Discrimination Act) the issue is as complex and compelling as ever.

One of my favourite hobbies is getting blocked from Facebook pages. Facebook is clearly a very open church (pun intended), until you start telling people what they don’t want to hear. My most recent victory came in a visit I paid to the Facebook page of a group called Family Voice Australia, which is described as “a Christian voice for family, faith and freedom”. (Not, apparently, freedom of speech–of course.) Not surprisingly this page is used to take regular aim at issues like marriage equality and the Safe Schools Coalition–things, in other words, that are contrary to narrow white middle-class fundamentalist notions of family.

I was blocked by them after I commented on a story they posted in which Queensland LNP MHR George Christensen attacked the Safe Schools Coalition using parliamentary privilege, as he has done several times. What caught my particular attention was his use of the word ‘grooming’ to describe how the Safe Schools program (intended to provide support in schools for students who may be LBGTI) could be seen as regarding students the way a paedophile regards potential victims. A truly moronic, uninformed, appalling thing to say. My comment in response asked them to consider how much ‘grooming’ had taken place in the Catholic and Anglican churches over the last few decades, and then to find a dictionary and look up ‘hypocrisy’. I took a screen-shot, knowing the comments wouldn’t remain for long–and they didn’t. Less than a couple of hours.

I was further amused a few weeks later when Senator Cory Bernardi derided a group of protesters who, angry with his opposition to Safe Schools, stormed into his Adelaide office and trashed it. Lefty totalitarians, he called them, a ridiculous phrase both historically ignorant and semantically contradictory. (In that, to very briefly explain, totalitarian regimes have always emerged from the Far Right.)

The agenda of our current Coalition Government’s conservative rump is clearly ideological; they are clearly offend by anything which deviates from clearly defined parameters of ‘normal’. Invoking religion to support such ideals is nothing new but the level of bigotry and ignorance demonstrated by fundamentalist groups such as Family Voice Australia should be alarming–indeed, for breathtaking hypocrisy if nothing else.

However, and here’s the difficult bit: they should be welcome to their views. Orwell’s definition of liberty allows them to be welcome. At the same time, his definition allows me (and anyone else of a similar mindset) to remind people how ugly and ill-informed those views are, and how detrimental the likes of Bernardi and Family Voice are to many of the core values of faith–compassion, inclusion, unconditional love.

Orwell had a somewhat contradictory attitude to religion; he was mostly agnostic, yet believed that we should behave like God’s children. He insisted in his will on burial in a church graveyard (which he was, after extended and delicate negotiations). I don’t know what he would make of our conservative politicians or their fundamentalist cheer squads.

I like to think, however, that he would have been reluctant to join them for a game of cards.



Jura Days



I know, I know. A very long between drinks on the Frog, yet again. Sorry.

I think one of my earlier posts was about writing a play and the transition to writing for theatre from writing fiction. Since then I’ve finished a reasonably polished draft of my next novel The Sand (not quite there yet but a good way along the road!) and the play I wrote last year, I Am A Lake, goes into rehearsal in the next few months  for a season in Queenstown, Launceston and possibly a statewide tour.

And last week, I started writing another play. Curse my theatre muse, I noted on Facebook. But I know better than to argue with it!

The chap at the typewriter in the image above is George Orwell. In the last few years of his life, crippled by grief at the sudden death of his wife after they had just adopted a son, he vanished to a cottage called Barnhill on the Isle of Jura, one of the Inner Hebrides off the wet coast of Scotland. While he was there, he went for walks, played with his son, nearly drowned in the infamous Corryveckan whirlpool, smoked a lot and wrote 1984, the novel that would cement his phenomenal literary reputation (for which Animal Farm had laid the foundations when it was finally published in 1945). This period of his life is the subject of my new play.


Barnhill, on the Isle of Jura, where 1984 was written.

One thing fascinates me, and one thing terrifies me. I am fascinated by the fact that this has to be a play. It has not come to me in any other form–it could work as a novel and one day I may have a crack at that. But something about it screams theatre. On the face of it, a play about the writing of a novel might seem strange, but of course the play is not about the novel, although references to it (and some of his other works) will no doubt feature. The play is about a man, coming to the end of his life prematurely owing to a TB diagnosis, struggling with the demands of finishing a novel (and the constant demands his growing fame placed on him) while coping with the death of his wife and trying to be present as a father. Just today, I was reminded of Boxer, the enormous draught horse who is a tower of strength in Animal Farm, whose maxim is ‘I Will Work Harder’ and does so until the day he collapses, completely spent, and is sold to the knackers for a crate of whisky by those bastard Pigs. Boxer worked himself to death; arguably, Orwell did something similar in order to get 1984 finished. He died about six months after it was published so was able to see the success he’d created…but only just.

What terrifies me is the notion that I could have the audacity to place words in the mouth of this man. Clearly there are some responsibilities to be met when dealing with historical figures–one has to remain ‘true’ to them, whatever that means. Perhaps I’m kidding myself–I’ll get into it and realise I’m wasting my time, it’s not working, I couldn’t possibly bring to Orwell to life in any meaningful way. But I won’t die wondering.


So I’ll keep the words moving for now, finding arcs and shapes and tensions and playing with them. I’m not sure when exactly I became a playwright–but I’m not complaining.

Thanks for reading.



Back to Work


I started back at work yesterday, for the year. That sentence seems strange, because my perception of what my work is has changed. A Facebook Friend commented on one of my posts a few weeks ago that I ‘sounded like a writer’ or something like that, I can’t recall the exact wording; my response to her was that I AM a writer. Everything else is tourism.

Over the last few weeks I’ve earned about $3500 from my writing. There are lots of statistics out there about annual income for writers and so on, but the general upshot is this: it’s paltry. Half of a fifth of one percent of writers are able to support themselves with their words; okay, I made that fraction up, but you get the idea. I may never get to that point, especially since I have other mouths to feed than mine. But I’m very, very happy to have had such a lucrative month.

An endless list of famous writers had to support themselves with ‘daytime jobs’–Trollope worked in a post office, Philip Larkin was a university librarian, David Ireland wrote a couple of his early novels–The Unknown Industrial Prisoner among them, I think–while working at a Shell oil refinery in Sydney.

So for my day job, and for my sins, I teach high school English. (So did Stephen King, before he became one of the half of a fifth of a percent.) This is good and bad; it’s good because teenagers fascinate me endlessly and I get to talk to them all day about literature. It’s bad because, done properly, teaching is thoroughly exhausting and time consuming. It’s difficult to find the balance, then, between being a teacher and a writer. I’m writing this at 6.15 in the morning and my habit has been to rise at about five or five thirty and write for an hour or so in the mornings before my family wakes up, and I hope I can continue this well into the school term, before exhaustion sets in.

But, and this is important, I’m only teaching now to pay the bills. My real work happens in that hour every morning, when I do what I was made to do. I hope that every writer, every artist, reaches that point in their creative lives sooner rather than later. Money is a merciless god; I would much rather worship words.

Thanks for reading.

Changing Masks: Writing for the Theatre


A couple of weeks ago I finished the current draft of a play, I Am A Lake, for the good people of Mudlark Theatre. The opportunity to write for the theatre is something I couldn’t pass up. I trained as a drama teacher (although I’ve mainly taught English) and so an attraction to the performing arts has long been in the blood. I dabble in acting here and there but will confess to having no significant talent in that field, beyond being perfectly happy to make a fool of myself on cue. And followers of this blog–yes, both of you–will know that I have recently been asked to write for Mudlark Theatre’s scintillating One Day project, which I’ve now done twice.

I am supposed to be writing a novel, of course, so switching masks to work on a play seemed a bit like cheating on a girlfriend…but I got over that.

One of the things I was interested in is what I would learn about fiction from working in a different domain. I was told at the outset that the processes, the ‘headspaces’, are not the same; and this is true up to a point.

The notion of The Audience is perhaps the most interesting issue. Some writers will tell you that they don’t give a crap about their audience, their readers. Others will tell you that if you don’t bring your readers along with you, you’re more or less wasting your time. One of the things I love about the theatre is its immediacy–everything is happening right there, in front of you. So there is a fairly clear need to involve the audience in what’s happening. This doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything, of course–you can imagine what sort of theatre that might create. But they have to find a connection with what is happening, they have to be carried along–they have to be engaged.

One of the most powerful forces–if not THE most powerful–in fiction is ambiguity. In simple terms, this means not spelling everything out. The best fiction relies on a reader doing some of the work, I think; I have heard reading described as a more creative act than writing for this reason. So it can be with viewing.

So in writing my play, I had to find a line between letting the audience do some of the work and being explicit, and this is possibly the single most difficult challenge. Even more of a challenge is trying to create the red herring; getting an audience (or readers) to think they might know what’s happening, and then surprising them. Effective writing, in any domain, is built on those surprises. Reading (and viewing) is, I suppose, a kind of conversation you have with the book or film or play.

Example: I recently saw Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner. Before viewing it I predicted on Facebook that because he had three sons, one of them would survive Gallipoli. And so it proved. So I wasn’t surprised–and left the film being very slightly disappointed because of it. The Turkish story is actually more interesting than Crowe’s, but we’re digressing.

The other interesting lesson for me was in writing dialogue. I love writing dialogue. In fiction, though, it’s only one tool you have among many–you can establish scenes, explain and examine relationships, describe action and so on without it. Plays have dialogue and only dialogue and everything (apart from some action, perhaps) must be channeled through it. It’s important to get it right, then, and not have vast expository speeches where characters fill the audience in on their background, their motives and so on. Finding subtle and interesting ways to use dialogue to advance action, reveal innermost desires, establish character and conflict and so on is probably the core challenge for someone wanting to write for performance.

Finally, the thing I probably enjoyed most about developing the script to its current stage (development is set to continue for another year or so, at least) is incorporating filmic elements–trying to create images within the parameters of what is possible in a theatre. These are things that aren’t as easy in fiction, where words are the only medium–again, you rely on the reader to visualise or connect with the world in your pages.

What I’m keen to see now is whether, when I return to working on my Novel in Progress, I bring elements of the theatrical to it. I’d like to think that a fairly heavy diet of cinema has given me some capacity to think visually, even within the narrative confines of fiction: so, we’ll see. Interesting times!

Thanks for reading.

Merciless Christos


For Christmas I treated myself to Merciless Gods, the first collection of short stories by Christos Tsiolkas. After The Slap and Barracuda, I was interested to see where he went with the short form; the answer is perhaps predictable but no less compelling for that.

If I felt like being a little bit unfair, I would characterise the general ethos of Tsiolkas’s writing–his aesthetic, if you like–very simply: everything is shit. There’s a lot of angst at work in his fiction, a lot of anger, a lot of darkness and resentment. Some of the adolescents I work with might pigeonhole Tsiolkas as an ’emo’. But this is, as I said, to be rather unfair. There’s a lot more going on in the worlds of his fiction than that.

Merciless Gods–which I thoroughly recommend–collects stories going back to the mid-1990s–based on the ‘previously published’ list at the front of the book, the earliest story in this collection is ‘Civil War’, first published in 1995. The title story unravels the complex relationships of a group of dinner party guests who decide to play a game which ends with an especially shocking revelation; I think my favourite story is possibly ‘The Disco at the end of Communism’, which tells of Saverio and his conflicts in having to fly north and deal with the death of his brother. The two men could not have contrasted each other more sharply.

In an Overland interview in 2005, Tsiolkas said: “What I actually want from a novel I read, or a film I see, is to actually go into dark places and difficult places because that’s when I feel most alive and engaged by my interaction with the work.” (Overland 181, p.20.) I remember reading some criticism of The Slap when it first appeared, along the lines of no characters in that book being likeable and the overall situation being fairly grim and relentless. Barracuda is similar, although I think it’s a better novel for its dissection of the Australian obsession with sport.

It’s not my intention with this post to discuss whether or not characters should be likeable in fiction–feel free to chat about that amongst yourselves. I am much more interested, as a writer, in the honesty that Tsiolkas brings to his work. He does not flinch. Merciless Gods brings us all manner of copulations, ejaculations, sexual ambivalences, hatreds, drug uses, violence, self-loathings and doomed relationships. My second favourite story, I think, is ‘Sticks, Stones’ for its searing depiction of a mother who witnesses some very unpleasant behaviour by her son; her situation is tragic in a sense, wanting to hate the boy yet obligated by innate maternal desires. I don’t think any of the stories are wrapped up neatly with polite little happy endings; Tsiolkas is most definitely not a polite writer. I should also mention ‘Petals’, with its unique voice derived from having been written first in Greek and then translated by Tsiolkas; the effect is startling. If I wanted to be slightly unfair again, I might characterise Tsiolkas’ writing as ‘car crash fiction’–what you see is awful, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

Which I think is why I’m drawn to him. Some of my own writing is quite ‘dark’–my novella deals with a terminally ill father and the consequences of this for his son, ‘Catch Me’ dealt with parental grief, and the play I’ve just drafted for Mudlark Theatre features some fairly brutal violence, including a mother belting the living shit out of her daughter. I’m not necessarily a violent person; quick-tempered at times perhaps. So where does this stuff come from?

It comes, I hope, from that sense of honesty. I suspect much of Tsiolkas’s work comes from a similar instinct. You need to know that this stuff happens, Tsiolkas seems to tell us. Look at it. To deny it is to lie. Although I don’t feel as qualified to mention this, I also think that Tsiolkas writes homosexuality beautifully–he normalises it, in a society where marriage equality is still something of a long-term ambition and homophobic bigotry is never far from the Letters pages of our newspapers.

Finally, there are some interesting questions here about why we read. Don’t pick up a book by Christos Tsiolkas if you want a pleasant afternoon’s escape; you probably won’t like what you see in his mirror. But that mirror must be held up, and sooner or later we should all look. Humanity isn’t just about happy endings; it’s about Knowing. Perhaps, if we know, we can understand; and perhaps, if we understand, we can have empathy. Between you and me, I don’t think it’s possible to have too much empathy.

Thanks for reading.

Blog Hop: Terrible Titles


I was asked by the fabulous Kate Gordon to have a go at this, and I thought it would be a nice break from my usual ranting. The challenge is to scroll through my current work in progress and find some ‘terrible titles’ for it based on letting the cursor stop where it does.

My current work in progress is a play, thanks to the very supportive and wonderful people at Mudlark Theatre in Launceston. I’ll post more about this soon. Anyway, here goes:

Ocean Beach

Near the Fire

There Were No Other Sides

Only for One Person

Drawing Chalk Lines

Every Opportunity

A Lesson I’ve Clearly Failed to Deliver

Opening a Way

His Next Move

None of Them Give a Shit.

(I think I actually quite like that last one.)

Keep the pen moving everyone! Until next time.

Last post sequel: Turing and the Truth


I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. So, given that this is my third post in just over two days, you might think I have resolved to post more, but that’s not the case. Inspiration has met opportunity.

Since my last post, on the film The Imitation Game and the parallels between Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde, I have participated in a somewhat feisty exchange of views on Facebook with a military historian. Perhaps arguing on Facebook is fairly pointless; nevertheless, it provided me with an interesting diversion from some otherwise mundane tasks. For a little while.

My historian friend took exception with The Imitation Game for several reasons and I won’t bore you with them here–suffice to say that he does not consider the film to be an accurate historical record. Now, he has a point there and I am happy to concede it. Five minutes on the internet will probably reveal a more precise account of the events of Bletchley Park and Mr Turing.

I consider his vehemence interesting for a couple of reasons and I thought I would explain them here. Firstly, I made it clear in our exchange that the film is An Entertainment. I even used capital letters to reinforce the importance of this. It tells A Story–and a very engaging, challenging, well crafted one at that. And I use the word ‘crafted’ deliberately. I don’t deny that facts are important but I will argue that facts and the truth are not one and the same. My Facebook quarry and I saw the same film, but have taken very different truths from it.

So then I arrive at this issue: what obligation do films that are ‘based on a true story’ have to a commonly accepted, reasonably accurate version of the truth? If the makers of The Imitation Game had attempted to stay close to actual events, they would have made a very different film–one that, perhaps, I would not have enjoyed nearly as much. We all know how World War Two ended–countless films, of very mixed quality, have revisited this era. Turing’s work (and that of his team) shortened it by approximately two years. Turing was a homosexual when this was illegal. On their own, aren’t these facts a little bit bland?

But in the hands of the film makers, and of Benedict Cumberbatch, they become something tragic, compelling, provocative, enduring. I go to the movies for those truths–not an ocean of facts. It is entirely feasible that someone will see The Imitation Game and be inspired to learn more, and then the film will have done its job.

Finally, films manipulate us. Lots of texts manipulate us. We can choose whether or not we want to be manipulated but part of the joy of cinema for me is opening up to that experience–saying, I want to be moved by this story! I want to laugh and cry and think about this film again in a week!

Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to judge a film according to their whims. But when it comes to a good story, it is absolutely necessary at times to dispense with facts if they get in the way. If people know how to think critically, they will ask all the right questions in response.

For another film recommendation that will get you thinking and arguing, please see Gone Girl. I have not read the novel but I have finally decided that the film is very good. It took me a while.

Thanks for reading.