Johnno by David Malouf

How did I get almost a quarter of a century into my life and only just become acquainted with such an important, talented Australian writer as David Malouf? I suppose I shouldn’t let it concern me too much, rather excite me with the promise of similar surprises in store.

Often described as semi-autobiographical, this was Malouf’s first novel – published in 1975 (during a six-month sabbatical in Florence, Italy). It begins with the narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the book, except for the nickname ‘Dante’) returning to Brisbane from London with the death of his father. Sorting through things in the family home, he happens across an old school photo and thus begins his reminiscence of his old friend, Johnno.

The book follows the complex relationship of the two and was, I felt – particularly towards the end – a story of unrequited love.

Johnno could be said to have three central characters – Johnno, Dante and the city of Brisbane. The shadowy damp of the Queenslander homes and the idiosyncracies of  wartime Brisbane of Malouf’s 1940s childhood are palpable throughout the novel. In fact, I finished the book feeling as though I’d got to know the otherwise unfamiliar city more than the mysterious human characters themselves.

Calling this book semi-autobiographical seems ironic to me. It is in fact a fictionalised biography of Johnno (based on Malouf’s real-life friend John Milliner who died in similar circumstances to the fictional Johnno in 1962, as revealed in the epilogue), but little is revealed about the first-person Malouf character, Dante – except as he relates to Johnno. The fact he is only known by the name given to him by Johnno is testament to that. If this book is autobiographical, it is only in the sense that it is the story of the part of his life that was touched by his friend.

This is a short book and therefore a relatively quick – but extremely rewarding – read. It’s the type of book you could easily pick up again and again, and take more from it with each reading. Johnno is poetic but unrestrained. Funny, but heartbreaking. I highly recommend it.

PANIC by David Marr

image collage: PanicPanic cover image

It is highly telling of the nature of the language that surrounds refugees in Australia that as a child, before I knew the correct definition of the phrase ‘asylum seeker’, I thought it was some sort of dangerous weapon of war – probably because of another phrase I knew from my brother’s video games: heat-seeking missile. So, when the press reported in large fonts or alarmed tones that ‘asylum seekers’ were headed for our shores, the ensuing panic seemed wholly justified to my young, wide-eyed self. Had I known the true definition of the term – to seek shelter from persecution – I may have been a little more perplexed about the anger and fear generated by, as Marr puts it, these “wretched men and women arriving on our shores in leaky fishing boats”.

Panic by Australian journalist David Marr is a collation of much of his writing from the past decade, with postscripts for the present date in each chapter, plus an overarching introductory chapter explaining and examining the premise of the book: to bring light to (or, as he says, “bell the cat” of) Australia’s capacity to generate irrational bouts of fear (moral panics), and for those fears to be used by politicians and the press to manipulate the voting public.

I felt like I was bursting out of my skin with frustration reading this book. Not by Marr’s writing – he presents his opinions logically and eloquently – but with the injustices and often ludicrousness of the issues he discusses. I could think of more than a few people who would benefit from reading his ‘other side of the story’ – largely the story put forward by a few loud and powerful voices of the likes of Alan Jones with such red-faced, frothing gusto.

Chapters in this book cover everything from the rise of Australia’s One Nation party leader, Pauline Hanson (“a white woman sticking up for old White Australia” – not that it’s all that old; the racist-by-definition policy was only dismantled in the 1970s); to the absence of any constitutional rights in Australia “to protect us all from the madness that sweeps nations from time to time”; Aboriginal land rights; the Cronulla riots; homosexuality and gay marriage; the failed war on drugs; and the moral panic ignited by Bill Henson’s controversial photography (Marr has also written a book about the latter topic).

I breathed a sigh of relief when Marr mentioned of the Chaser stunt (watch it on YouTube here) during APEC in 2007 – an effective and hilarious up-yours to the powers at be, and clear demonstration of the purely rhetorical nature of the highly visible lockdown that made Sydney look like a prison. “Howard looked foolish,” Marr says. “Australia laughed all the way to the polls. Panic can’t take a joke.”

Another consequence of the Chaser’s prank was to remind us that if there’s one way to counter this climate of fear its through humour – and that’s something most Australians are just as capable of as they are at clinging to the status quo. Here’s hoping the former prevails.

The Punch comic