Fishermen – and the Adelaide Writers’ Week 2015

carpentariaI’m slowly making my way back into the daylight world after some travels through the underworld. As it happens, I’ve been reading Alexis Wright’s astonishing novel Carpentaria for about the fourth time, which is exactly the book to be reading at such a time. And by chance I was up to the part where the fisherman Norm Phantom rows his dead friend Elias out into the ocean, to take him home:

‘”So it’s time old mate,” Norm said, as he balanced himself in front of Elias to untie the ropes holding him in place. During his journey, Norm had become quite nimble as he moved around the small vessel, as though he had always possessed a corklike buoyancy with the movement of water. “It’s time for you to go home.” He remembered the coral trout and undid the lid of one of several plastic containers kept behind the ends of their seats for storage. The fish in their bags were emptied from the container and Norm placed them in Elias’s folded arms. Then he lifted his friend, knowing he had to let him go, but not wanting to either, because once he did, he knew he would be alone. Betrayed by feelings of loneliness, and a sadness which was only half reserved for Elias, he sat holding the body. He could feel Elias’s spirit resisting his hold. Very carefully and reluctantly, Norm lifted Elias over the side of the boat and placed him into the strangely calm emerald green waters. Elias sank deeper and deeper, gently through the giant arms of water waiting at every depth to receive him, until finally, Norm could see him no more. Then he knelt down in the water on the floor of his little boat, and prayed for Elias, and was thankful he had brought his spirit safely to his final resting place.

‘In time, when he looked up again, he found himself alone. All the gropers had departed and the day was almost gone.’

As with the best novels, each time I read Carpentaria I see it anew. This time it seems to me to be Wright’s Odyssey, her Ulysses.

In other news, I’m very excited to be heading to my first ever Adelaide Writers’ Week, which starts this Saturday 28 February. It will also be my first ever trip to Adelaide.

I’ll be speaking to Julian Meyrick about my new book Six Capitals at 3.45 pm on Thursday 5 March on the West Stage. Julian is Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University and one of his current projects concerns accounting for cultural value. I am very much looking forward to some pithy discussion. Hope to see you there.


Posted in Novels, poetry, book news, Six Capitals | Leave a comment

Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood – for my mother


What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind,
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be,
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering,
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And oh ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Think not of any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquish’d one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that do gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


Judith Lee Gleeson-White, 27 June 1928-8 February 2015



Posted in Other news and marginalia | 10 Comments

Natural capital – bees, forests, water, soil – comes to Australian farming: NAB is adding natural capital to its lending policies


Once again natural capital is in the news – this time with the announcement last week by the National Australia Bank (NAB) that it’s changing its policies to start accounting for the sustainability of farming business practices. NAB is Australia’s largest agribusiness lender, so this is big news for farmers and big news for natural capital.

The NAB’s move comes amid warnings about the economic risks incurred by businesses ignoring natural value. Australia is running down its natural capital assets (forests, water, soil, energy) and this poses a material risk to the economy. According to the advocates of natural capital accounting, this means businesses should treat natural capital as they do other financial risks and assets.

NAB’s plan to include natural capital in its lending policies means that farmers who manage the environment better should eventually receive higher credit ratings. Why? Because these farmers generally have a more resilient business model. According to the NAB’s manager of agribusiness, Khan Horne, there’s a clear correlation between farmers’ environmental performance and their profitability: better environmental practices tend to produce more reliable yields and lower input costs.

For the moment, it seems NAB’s move to natural capital is focused on having conversations about it with the aim of translating natural capital into its financial practices, such as its credit assessments, within three to five years.

Here’s what the NAB says about incorporating natural capital into its practices: ‘We recognise that if we fail to consider natural value as part of our decision making, we may be blind to the significant risks and threats to our future business sustainability.’

‘Eventually, as business decisions become more informed by natural value considerations, it will be easier to place an actual financial value on natural capital (bringing it explicitly into the balance sheet) and to start to adjust the way we think about growth strategies, future value of businesses and the real impacts of sustainability.

‘For example, over 65% of agricultural production in Australia is dependent on pollinators such as honey bees. Pollination services are estimated to contribute directly to AUD$1.7 billion in agricultural production.

‘And, in Melbourne, the water supply is dependent on protected forests for purification. Without these forests, Melbourne would need to build a new water treatment plant at a cost of USD$500 million to USD$1 billion with additional operating costs running into hundreds of millions of dollars each year.’

NAB is one of the pilot companies in the new ‘six capitals’ global accounting framework initiative launched in December 2013 by the International Integrated Reporting Council. In December 2011 it was also one of the two inaugural signatories to the Natural Capital Declaration (NCD). Launched by the United Nations and the Global Canopy Programme (which protects forests as natural capital), the NCD acknowledges the risks and opportunities natural capital poses for the finance sector. It aims to integrate natural capital reporting into private-sector accounting and to make natural capital part of business decision making by 2020.

The 40 signatories to the declaration – including China Merchants Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, First Green Bank and Earth Capital Partners – acknowledge the importance of natural capital to a sustainable global economy and the fact that the ‘ecosystem goods and services‘ natural capital yields provide trillions of dollars worth of food, fibre, water, health, energy, climate security and other essential services to the global economy.

As I’ve already written here several times, most recently in December 2014, natural capital is a contentious concept. It’s also an idea we’re going to be hearing a lot more about this year, this decade, this century. Stay tuned.



Posted in Economics, Environment and the planet, Six Capitals | 1 Comment

The 2015 Perth Writers’ Festival – and John Lanchester’s ‘How to Speak Money’

The program for the 2015 Perth Writers Festival was released last weekend with star authors including John Lanchester, Hilary Mantel (via satellite), Elizabeth Gilbert, DBC Pierre, Bob Brown and Joan London. I’m going to be in Perth speaking about my new book and I’m extremely excited to be interviewing John Lanchester as well. Lanchester is one of my favourite writers on economics and finance. He’s the author of the best book about the 2008 global financial collapse – IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, as it was called in the USA (its UK title was Whoops) – and the novel Capital, among several others.

UnknownI’ve just started his new book How to Speak Money: What the money people say – and what they really mean, which will be the focus of our conversation. Lanchester is a compelling writer with a gift for simplifying economic doublespeak and untangling financial obfuscation – and he’s very funny. He’s also wrestling with one of the most important subjects of our times: money. As his book says, ‘Money is our global language. Yet so few of us speak it.’

One of the book’s two epigraphs is a brilliant quote from one of my favourite economists, John Maynard Keynes (in a classic Lanchester move, the other is from Some Like it Hot). Here’s part of the Keynes quote:

‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’

Indeed. And here’s how Lanchester introduces his subject:

‘When the economic currents running through all our lives were mild and benign, it was easy not to think about them, in the way that it’s easy not to think about a current when it’s drifting you gently down a river – and that, more or less, is what we were all doing, without realising it, until 2008. Then it turned out that these currents were much more powerful than we knew, and that instead of cosseting us and helping us along, they were sweeping us far out to sea, where we’d have no choice but to fight against them, fight hard, and without any certain sense that our best efforts would be enough to get us back to shore and safety.

‘That, in essence, is why I’ve written this book. There’s a huge gap between the people who understand money and economics and the rest of us. Some of the gap was created deliberately, with the use of secrecy and obfuscation; but more of it, I think, is to do with the fact that it was just easier this way, easier for both sides. The money people didn’t have to explain what they were up to, and got to write their own rules, and did very well out of the arrangement; and as for the rest of us, the brilliant thing was we never had to think about economics.’

As well as my interview with John Lanchester (Money Money Money, 4-5pm on Sunday 22 February), I’m talking about my new book Six Capitals in two sessions at the Perth Writers Festival: The New Super Heroes (2.30-3.30pm on Saturday 21 February) and Gripping Truths (10-11am on Sunday 22 February). I hope to see you there.

And in other news, apart from this Perth festival and other talk fests, I’m back in serious writing mode until the spring, so I’ll be blogging here somewhat sporadically.

Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Six Capitals | Leave a comment

Women in Love – a work of very great genius OR insufferable, tedious, impenetrable, so bloody difficult?

WomenInLoveHaving blogged about Women in Love yesterday I later found myself listening to its great champion – novelist and literary scholar Howard Jacobson – discuss it on the First Tuesday Book Club in 2011, along with philosopher AC Grayling and the regular crew of Jennifer Byrne, Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger.

I was mesmerised by Jacobson expounding on Lawrence and his novel’s genius. He called Lawrence ‘the most extraordinary genius of the English novel’ and called Women in Love ‘a novel of excruciated beings’. He said:

‘It’s about people at the very end of their tethers. One of the reasons that it drives some people mad … is because the language is so extreme and wild and at times chaotic. None of that bothers me because … it’s trying to render people in a way that the novel has not rendered them before … Character, I’m not sure he even believes in character. It’s a novel that’s trying to find where we are as human beings, what we are as human beings, at a particular time in history, too. We are at the end of our tethers because the First World War has happened. The world has collapsed and Lawrence is thinking about how we rebuild this world, not politically and economically, but emotionally and spiritually. How do we rebuild ourselves?

‘But for me it goes on living, not as a historical document, because I happen to believe that we actually are continuing, we are still at the end of our tethers and don’t know who we are or how to find ourselves, we don’t know what language there is to describe who we are – and this is a novel that attempts to find it.’

I was completely absorbed by this, by Jacobson’s sense that Lawrence was thinking about how to rebuild this world destroyed by the First World War. Lawrence like most people thought this war would be over by the end of 1915, which is why he called his earlier novel finished in March 1915 The Rainbow, to herald the forthcoming peace and the promise of a new beginning for England and for the modern world. When peace did not come, Lawrence wrote: ‘I’m afraid I set my rainbow in the sky too soon, before, instead of after, the deluge.’ And so he wrote a sequel – Women in Love – about the deluge. I was particularly struck by the way Jacobson distinguished the fact that it was emotional and spiritual rebuilding that Lawrence was thinking about, not political and economic. This seems to me to get to the crux of this novel and of Lawrence’s work in general. And it is profound work indeed. I think Jacobson is right to say that we, (western) women and men, are still doing this work – or, that we are still at the end of our tethers and that this is work that still needs to be done, emotional and spiritual rebuilding.

So I was utterly dismayed to find that not one of the three regular readers on Australia’s only television show devoted to books and reading could stomach Women in Love. Jason Steger was ‘ambivalent’, Marieke Hardy called it ‘insufferable’ and Jennifer Byrne said ‘I struggled like crazy’.

AC Grayling called it ‘a work of very great genius’.

Byrne said ‘It’s so bloody difficult, Howard.’

Jacobson said ‘So what if it’s difficult. It’s a book. Do you want it to be readable? You want it to be unputdownable? You want to be able to read it in 5 minutes? It can be hard work because it’s asking you to think.’

Byrne halted the conversation mid flight (time ran out), concluding that Jacobson and Grayling see Women in Love as a ‘novel of ideas’. She then asked: ‘But is that enough? These days, do you actually need to make it a good novel, a good novel that you can understand, that makes sense to you …?’

Jacobson said he caught Byrne on the verge of saying ‘Shouldn’t it be a good read?’ – ‘And,’ he continued, ‘you know what we would all think about talking about wanting a novel to be a good read, when a novel can be so much grander than that.’

Hear hear Howard Jacobson. A novel can be so much grander than that. It can be Women in Love – or War and Peace.

My dismay over the fact that not one of the regular readers on this book show could enter into Women in Love in any fruitful way has only compounded my heartbreak over this show’s treatment of four great novels in November 2013. It so happens that Howard Jacobson made the documentary Brilliant Creatures shown on the ABC last year. It was about four supreme Australian thinkers, the great Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes and Barry Humphries. I’ve not yet seen Brilliant Creatures, but I was intrigued to read Myf Warhurst’s review of it in the Guardian. She says it all, really, about these thrilling, scintillating Australian minds – and about the dullness of today’s media landscape in comparison. She wrote:

‘The show also reminded me that those with rugged, robust and inquiring minds like the aforementioned foursome are rapidly disappearing from our media landscape. And they probably won’t be replaced. … This vigorous lot challenged the status quo at the time. Of course, this meant they weren’t always loved. But they didn’t seem to care much that many Australians thought they were “up themselves”.

‘Compared to those heady days, the current lay of the land looks pretty dire. Public figures are more likely to be applauded if they appear to be just like us. In this new age of TV, likeability is the king, never mind that it’s dull.’ She’s talking about the plague of cooking and renovation shows, but without the visiting brilliance of Jacobson and Grayling, I’d be adding this book show to the list.

Howard Jacobson and Germaine Greer

Howard Jacobson and Germaine Greer

Posted in Classics, Novels, poetry, book news | 7 Comments

‘don’t you really want to get married?': DH Lawrence’s Women in Love

imagesIn 1913, having recently eloped to Europe with a married woman, DH Lawrence began work on a novel which would encompass his vision of 19th-century English provincial life. Set in the Midlands, it focused on the changing fortunes of the Brangwen family, farmers in a region being slowly overrun by coal mining, and on the associated problems faced by modern men and women as their traditional ties to the land were increasingly severed. As Lawrence wrote at the time: ‘I am so sure that only through a readjustment between men and women, and a making free and healthy of this sex, will she [England] get out of her present atrophy.’

Originally called The Sisters, the manuscript became too big for a single work, and Lawrence turned it into two novels. The first, the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, was published as The Rainbow in September 1915. Two months later in a notorious trial, it was prosecuted for obscenity for its immoral portrayal of sex, and the publisher was forced to withdraw it from sale. Crushed by the trial and filled with despair by the continuing world war he had expected would end in 1915, Lawrence returned to his Brangwen saga in 1916 and reworked the remaining material into a fierce and powerful sequel he eventually called Women in Love.

Determined to make sense of the destruction of the war years, Lawrence struggled through his novel to articulate his vision of marriage and sexual love for the 20th century. Women in Love takes up the story of the two Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, now sophisticated, worldly women. It opens with Ursula embroidering and Gudrun drawing as they sit together in the window-bay of their father’s house.

Ursula and Gudrun in Ken Russell's film of Women in Love

Ursula and Gudrun in Ken Russell’s film of Women in Love

The first words come from Gudrun, who asks her sister, ‘Ursula, don’t you really want to get married?’ Ursula replies that she doesn’t know, ‘It depends how you mean.’ Like most things in Lawrence’s world, marriage no longer has a fixed meaning, and Ursula’s ambivalence to marriage is one of the driving forces of the novel: ‘When it comes to the point, one isn’t even tempted – oh, if I were tempted, I’d marry like a shot. I’m only tempted not to.’

Ursula’s contrariness compels and frustrates her lover, the school inspector Rupert Birkin (based on Lawrence himself). She resists Birkin’s urge to dominate her and there is a chance these two might find the quivering, delicately balance union of independent beings – ‘two single beings constellated together like two stars’ – that Lawrence believed was possible between men and women. But Gudrun’s passionate affair with the mining magnate Gerald Crich is an expression of something much darker in the human psyche and of the broader dissolution of the war years. Their relationship is founded on a shared, magnetic coldness – as a pet rabbit struggles in Gudrun’s hands, Gerald sees, ‘with subtle recognition, her sullen passion of cruelty’.

Gudrun and Gerald

Gudrun and Gerald

On finishing Women in Love in November 1916, Lawrence said the novel frightened him because ‘it’s so end of the world …’ As Lawrence’s friend John Middleton Murry acknowledged (despite not liking Women in Love), Lawrence was one of the few writers who ‘struggled with the spiritual catastrophe of the war in the depths of their souls’. Lawrence did not find a publisher for Women in Love until 1920. When it finally appeared in London in May 1921 it was attacked by the conservative, jingoistic newspaper John Bull as ‘a loathsome study of sex depravity leading  youth to unspeakable disaster’.

DH Lawrence

DH Lawrence

David Herbert Richards Lawrence was born in Nottinghamshire in 1885, the fourth child of a barely literate coal miner and his educated, religious wife. Aged 12 he won a scholarship to Nottingham High School in 1898, but left school at 16 to work as a clerk in a factory. Forced by pneumonia to give up his job, Lawrence found work as a teacher in 1902 and began writing poetry in 1905. Writer Ford Madox Ford published Lawrence’s poetry in English Review and recommended Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, to publisher William Heinemann who published it in 1911.

Soon after, Lawrence fell passionately in love with the German aristocrat Frieda Weekley, who was married to a professor at Nottingham University College. The lovers eloped to Germany before moving to Italy where Lawrence began The Sisters. Following Frieda’s divorce, they were married in London in 1914 in the Kensington Registry Office. Their witnesses were writers Katherine Mansfield and her lover, John Middleton Murry, who moved with the Lawrences to Cornwall. Here Lawrence worked on Women in Love, drawing the charged relationship between Birkin and Gerald Crich from his intense love for Murry. So potent is the homoerotic undercurrent between the two men that in Ken Russell’s 1969 film of Women in Love, the wrestling scene between a naked Alan Bates as Birkin and a naked Oliver Reed as Gerald caused a sensation on its release. (The film also starred Glenda Jackson as Gudrun, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1970).

Lawrence and Frieda

Lawrence and Frieda

Lawrence and Frieda were expelled from Cornwall in 1917, accused of spying for Germany on the suspicion they were supplying provisions to the German submarines along the Cornish coast, and forbidden to leave England. Disillusioned with England and believing life to be elsewhere, after the war they moved to Italy and never lived in Lawrence’s homeland again. They spent the years until Lawrence’s death in 1930 travelling the world in search of a better life, visiting the United States via Sri Lanka and Australia (where in six weeks Lawrence wrote Kangaroo, published in 1923). In 1925 they returned to Italy, where Lawrence began Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was published privately in 1928 and banned the same year. He died five years later in Vence, France, aged 44. Lady Chatterley’s Lover only became freely available after 1959 (in New York) and 1960 (London).

Women in Love is an extraordinary novel, for many reasons. Particularly striking are Lawrence’s intense, nuanced probing of human relationships and the dazzling precision with which he observes the natural world and transforms it into a language to evoke the almost inexpressible knowledge of his blood. Here he describes Ursula watching Birkin throw stones into a moonlit pond:

‘Ursula was aware of the bright moon leaping and swaying, all distorted, in her eyes. It seemed to shoot out arms of fire like a cuttlefish, like a luminous polyp, palpitating strongly before her … Then again there was a burst of sound, and a burst of brilliant light, the moon had exploded on the water, and was flying asunder in flakes of white and dangerous fire.’

‘Oh, there is something so loveable about him and his eagerness, his passionate eagerness for life – that is what one loves so,’ said Mansfield of Lawrence. The passionate eagerness of Lawrence the man is everywhere apparent in Women in Love – both in his character Birkin, as well as in the vitality of his writing and the urgency with which he insists on his vision, rhythmically pounding it out like a preacher:

‘And why? Why should we consider ourselves, men and women, as broken fragments of one whole? It is not true. We are not broken fragments of one whole. Rather we are the singling away into purity and clear being, of things that were mixed.’

In 1913 DH Lawrence wrote to a friend: ‘My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect … All I want is to answer my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of my mind, or moral, or what-not.’ For Lawrence, sex was the key to understanding life and the universe: ‘I shall always be a Priest of Love and a glad one.’

Birkin (Alan Bates) and Gerald (Oliver Reed)

Birkin (Alan Bates) and Gerald (Oliver Reed)

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Happy New Year! Books that change your life – and novels you live

Last year I was asked to write about four books that had changed my life. Despite the hundreds of books I have read and loved, it was a strangely uncomplicated task. I scribbled down four immediately – and revised only one a few days later. The list was published in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s regular column on the subject last November. All the books that – seriously – changed my life, that made me different from what I might have been given the world in which I grew up, caused me existential angst, soul wracking, the books that THREW ME, I read before I was 20. The four books were, are:

9780141025117But I realised last week – when a friend told me she’d started reading War and Peace and had fallen into it so utterly that she could function in no other part of her life, and I told her it was my all time favourite novel – that the books that most change your life are not necessarily the books you most live in, or even the books you most love. Well, certainly in my case they’re not. Because War and Peace is my favourite novel, perhaps my favourite book of all time (along with the Iliad and the Odyssey and probably King Lear). But it didn’t even occur to me to include it in the list of books that changed my life. As if that category is almost too functional, too utilitarian, for a book such as War and Peace. Perhaps such books don’t so much change your life, as ARE your life. I think George Orwell says something similar when he writes so astutely and plainly (and yet so profoundly) about the joy of Henry Miller in his essay ‘Inside the Whale':

‘But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. “He knows all about me,” you feel; “he wrote this specially for me.” It is as though you could hear a voice speaking, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylised, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with recognisable experiences of human beings.’

I’ve read War and Peace so many times – and have already written about it here – but thinking about it last week, returning to its irresistible opening pages, made me immediately buy the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky to read when I am again free to read as I please, round about October 2015. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since it came out, having read their translation of Anna Karenina a few years ago, as mentioned here, which brought the novel to life – especially Anna’s devastating passion for Vronsky and its terrible unravelling, as well as the wonder that is Levin – in whole new ways.

My other all time favourite novel – and there really are so many, including Don QuixoteMoby-Dick and Wuthering Heights, all of which just sprang to mind – but my other ALL TIME favourite novel is DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. At the same time as I was reading Anouilh and Marx, I was devouring every single thing that DH Lawrence ever wrote, and Women in Love is my favourite of them all. And as with War and Peace, it was a book I lived, and lived in.

Women in Love

Women in Love

DH Lawrence has few fans these days. In 2013 The Guardian‘s Sam Jordison called Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers ‘sloppy, repetitive and even silly’. Although he did also concede that ‘Lawrence does have something special’. I’m not sure I personally know a single person who professes to love Lawrence. But writers Howard Jacobson and Geoff Dyer both love and have written about him. And I was very pleased to read two weeks ago that Rachel Cusk (who’s new in my reading sights and whose book Aftermath will join War and Peace in my reading for next October) said of Lawrence, ‘I would so love to have had him as my friend.’

So, Happy New Year! To ring in the new year DH Lawrence’s Women in Love is up next.

DH Lawrence

DH Lawrence

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