Bodies. Lives. Intertwined.

There is an invitation there to reflect on past relationships I’ve been in, with the non-Jews and the Jews. The textures of the bodies and the love that has flown between us. The passions and the hurt. The ambiguities and the incredible neuroses.

Two of my grandparents went to Expo 88 and brought me back a badge that I kept for a long time after.

Expo 88 was one among many ‘world’s fairs’ staged around the world since the 1790s, designed to showcase art, technology, industry, and the nation and empire, and to be spaces of leisure, bringing in economic benefit. Perhaps the most famous one was held in 1851 at the specially built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in London, with the theme ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’. They’re a bit of an odd thing, really. Highly colonial. Expo 88’s theme was ‘Leisure in the Age of Technology’ and it had ‘Expo Oz’, a platypus, as its mascot. Expo Oz had a blue bill and yellow shirt and hat, and he stood on his hind legs. I highly recommend looking up pictures of him.

Along with lots of other older Jews, my two grandparents would go each winter to Surfers Paradise for a long holiday, so they would have gone to the Expo then I assume. A little exodus of Holocaust survivors and friends from Kulin country to Yugambeh land and water to warm their bodies and bones.

I imagine them sitting and talking and drinking coffee and walking slowly along the boardwalk. Sharing stories and wearing bathers and open shirts. Their bodies sitting differently for them. A certain sexual aura in the air.

I circle around and around my grandparents’ stories, even though I know very few. On the shelf in my apartment, I have a lovely photo of the two of them: they look at me when I eat my breakfast and when I sit tap-tap-tapping on my computer. This photo keeps me company, and I wonder about them as I go about my day, listening to music, reading news and stories and people and books, catching the tram to work down Lygon Street and past the streets where they used to live and walk. In the photo they’re beautifully dressed and nice and fleshy (they’re so different from the photos of them soon after the war). They have kind smiles. My grandmother is wearing a jumper and jewellery that I would absolutely love to be able to wear today. They look content. I wonder what role romance and sex and intimate relationships played in their lives. I wonder what love meant to them.

A couple of years ago my uncle wrote on Facebook, in response to a cousin sharing the ad for a panel on remembering the Nakba that I was participating in, that my grandparents would have been disappointed in me. I don’t know if he’s right, but I hope not. My body is so completely similar to my grandmother’s—our shoulders, our hair, our nose—that I hope she would have seen what I was trying to do, even if she disagreed. But I hope that she wouldn’t have disagreed.

Jewish bodies are not simple things. Early Zionists actively wanted to reform the Jewish body, to make it hard and fast and strong and lean: not rounded, soft, gentle, tender. To make it firmly heterosexual, masculine, aggressive. In this vision, Jewish bodies were meant to take up space through strength and assertion, but to neatly contained in how they were built. These ideas continue. They remain in how Zionism is lived in the everyday: with a conscription army inside the State of Israel and the mass use of security guards and the paraphernalia of security culture among Jewish Zionist communities in Australia, we see it every day. We see it too in Zionist youth movements and in the social demands on Jews to marry other Jews and have Jewish babies.

When I was in Palestine in 2007, doing research on cultures of Holocaust memory (a trip I wouldn’t do now, because of BDS), I stayed with a high school friend who had moved to Israel. It was scorching hot, and I was sweaty and hairy and unkempt, while she was lean, with short straight hair, everything in its place, no sign of sweat ever. It was stark and fascinating.

Lily Brett’s depiction of bodies, sex, food, neuroses, relationships and Holocaust memory was published in 1988, the year of Australia’s Bicentenary, and so it, in some ways, sits as part of that moment in time. Or, maybe to put it better, I want to think about it in terms of that moment. Invited into the vast archives of Overland’s past, I went straight to the 1988 editions to think in some ways about nation-building, about how Overland might have been thinking about this moment, in its time. I love that this piece might be part of that time, not because the nation should be built (it shouldn’t: Australia must end), but because this is something other and I want stories like this—that tell of a location in place, but which do not try to build the nation—in my collective past.

There is an invitation there to reflect on past relationships I’ve been in, with the non-Jews and the Jews. The textures of the bodies and the love that has flown between us. The passions and the hurt. The ambiguities and the incredible neuroses. Garth’s new trousers had three pleats on either side of the zip. Until now, he had worn skin-tight, pegged-legged Levis. Miriam looked at Garth. She found the loose space between his legs alluring. She started to think about what lay behind those parallel pleats.

I went for a walk along Merri Creek during the long lockdown in 2021, shortly after my boyfriend and I had broken up, with a friend who has three kids, two cats and a husband, and she told me how she constantly had someone touching her.

Read the full piece here.

Melbourne General Cemetery

Begin at the main entrance, with the university colleges behind you. If you pause for a moment to listen, you should hear the traffic and trams in nearby streets, maybe distant yells from the two sports ovals you are sandwiched between.

Begin at the main entrance, with the university colleges behind you. If you pause for a moment to listen, you should hear the traffic and trams in nearby streets, maybe distant yells from the two sports ovals you are sandwiched between. Were you ever good at sport in high school, or were you the one to hang back, like me, too awkward in their body to fully commit to playing competitive sports with a bunch of sweaty, hormonal teenagers who didn’t really know you? I think I would have liked to participate in: cricket, softball, netball, le cross. Not the ones where you are tackled—my body is soft and I don’t care to be knocked to the ground. 

But anyway—walk forward and enter the cemetery. One of the first things you will see, to your right, is the Prime Minister’s Memorial Garden. Indulge me for a minute and walk inside, entering through the beautiful green pavilion with double doors and lots of windows. Once you have passed the second set of doors, you will be facing a small pool with monuments and trees on either side of the garden. Here is where old leaders of the nation come to die—well, to be buried. Even then, it is only the prime ministers who were born in Victoria. Robert Menzies. Malcolm Fraser. James Scullin. You see that triangular prism, on the north side? That is the memorial for Harold Holt, the 17th prime minister of Australia who disappeared one summer’s morning off Cheviot Beach. You know the guy—they named a swimming pool after him, there are conspiracies that he faked his death or was taken by a Soviet submarine, and he was a big fan of hot women (I mean, same). Walk closer to his pyramid memorial and read the gravestone: he loved the sea. Well, isn’t it fitting then that the sea carried him home, “like a leaf being taken out” said Marjorie Gillespie, who was with him at the beach when he disappeared. That cursed beach, already named after the wreck of SS Cheviot in 1887. 

Speaking of 1887. Somebody was born that year who I am keenly interested in, and she is buried in this cemetery somewhere. You will have to turn around and exit the PM’s garden, as she doesn’t rest here. She did, however, edit a journal with Robert Menzies while they were students at the University of Melbourne, and later argued against him at a public debate on conscription.  

Once you have left the memorial garden, turn right and walk up the entrance avenue until you reach your first fork in the road. There should be a mausoleum in front of you, and an Elvis Presley memorial close by. Much like Harold Holt, Elvis is not actually buried in this cemetery. But we do know where Elvis is, at least—unless Elvis is the one lost at sea, and Harold lies at Graceland.  

Turning left and walking north will take you along curved paths through the Roman Catholic and Methodists divisions. Turning right to head south will lead you through those buried in the Church of England section, along with a small area reserved for Chinese people and, in the far southeast corner, a Jewish section. But we are heading straight ahead, to the east side of the cemetery, where Katie Lush lies with her family in the Baptist division. 

I came here once with a girl I had a crush on, the girl who was my first kiss, and we wandered through Church of England graves commenting on names of the dead as we tried to find Katie. We were lost even though I had looked up where Katie’s grave was the night before, on a website called Maybe I was dawdling on purpose, hoping to stretch out the time with my friend and crush for as long as possible. This would be the last time we’d hang out, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. All I was focused on was keeping warm on an early winter’s afternoon and maintaining her interest with this strange game of treasure hunt. Eventually, we turned and headed towards the Baptists. 

There are 300,000 burials in this cemetery, stretching across 43 hectares. It has been collecting bodies since 1853. I have been thinking about death a lot in the past month, due to reading a book about dissection, and due to an old friend dying suddenly. Not old in the sense of age—she was only twenty-six—but old in the sense I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for a couple of years. It’s the normal process of life, I suppose. You work or study alongside someone for a few years, then one or both of you leave the job, school, or town, and unless you were the closest of friends, conversation eventually dies.  

When I heard of her death my brain unlocked all the memories I had of her, carefully filed away in folders titled Woolworths: 2012, Woolworths: 2013, right up until 2021. We worked together for almost ten years and she made me—and everyone—laugh until there were tears in my eyes. She was tall and gorgeous and once made me turn away while she took a selfie, too embarrassed to let me watch as she pouted her lips for the camera. Another time she drove me and another friend to a late-night donut shop in Springvale for my birthday. It’s a cliché to say someone who is now dead was full of life, but she truly was filled to the brim—radiant and glowing.  

Where are we now? Stop for a second to catch your breath (or let me catch mine) and take in your surroundings. We need to head to the end of Central Avenue, and then turn left up Tenth Avenue until we find ourselves between the Presbyterian and Baptist graves. If you are lost, look for the signs. You can even pause the audio if you like, until you’re ready to start moving again—I’ll wait for you. 

If you are facing the north, then to your right will be a long line of Baptists, where Katie is buried with her family. Step through the graves and see if you can find their large headstone—her grave is number 168.  

Katie Lush was born in May 1887. She taught philosophy at Ormond College and was a staunch socialist, campaigning against conscription during the first world war and speaking at public rallies in inner suburbs like Richmond. At the University of Melbourne she met Lesbia Keogh, a young woman from Brighton who wrote poems and had a faint blueish complexion due a congenital heart condition. Lesbia looked up to Katie, attended meetings with her and, after some time, developed a crush on her. In the mid-1910s, Lesbia wrote poems for and inspired by Katie, committing her affection in ink.  

I first came to this cemetery in 2019, in early August searching Katie’s final resting place. The day before, I wrote a prose poem in my notebook that went something like this: 

How long has it been since someone wrote a poem about and inspired by you? Perhaps a hundred years or more, maybe less, though I’m afraid you may have been forgotten in the wreckage of time, when once you were seen as an Amazon among women. Tall, remarkably tall, and angular—gaunt, some would say, in your later years, though that is such an ugly term. Would you prefer ‘slender’, or is the description of your mortal form insignificant to you, Katie? 

I have a few questions, if I may be so bold to ask. Were you insecure in your body, awkward amongst the small women beside you? Specifically, how did the presence of that small, delicate but bravehearted poet make you feel in your body? Did Lesbia’s love frighten you? Were you disappointed, like her, that you did not live in Sappho’s Greece where women were free to kiss each other’s soft lips? Katie, were you indeed lonely, or have you just been represented that way in Lesbia’s shadow? (Are these questions too personal for the dead?) 

Tomorrow I will visit you, scatter petals over your grave and bow my head in gentle reflection—how long has it been since warm bodies have touched the soil above you? Maybe not as long as I think. I’ll visit tomorrow but I feel I needn’t bother, in a way, because I’ve encountered your presence before. At the university, the public library, on and electric tram to Kew; you haunt Melbourne softly, impressions of your past lingering. 

But I wish I could have known you, listen to your anti-conscription talks and sit in your philosophy tutorial, speak to you and have the pleasure of knowing your secrets. I believe you would have been a woman worth knowing, I believe you are a woman worth knowing still. 

Katie is buried with her parents, brother, and her father’s first wife. They have a large monument to mark their resting place, with a prominent cross on the top. The engravings are still perfectly clear, unlike some of the cheaper headstones that have crumbled and faded through time. It gives the impression that this was a family worth remembering—or at least, this was a family with money. 

After she died, Katie’s half-sister Mary wrote a letter to their nephew, George. “Soon we are passed and forgotten,” she wrote. “Remember her, George, for a little.” How many of the people around you, under the earth, have been forgotten? On your way out, you might like to read some of the names and wonder what sort of life these people lived. I’d love to join you but I’m late for my train, so I’ll leave you here—don’t forget to blow Katie a kiss for me. 

Listen to and explore this digital piece, as part of Floodlights, on Emerging Writers’ Festival’s website here.

Spiral Syndicate

The thing about a garden is—you have to be able to see—all sides—of its / cycle—Hold it—lapidarian—in your mind.

from poetry suite ‘House & Garden Renos’

ii. Mulch ourselves a new

The thing about a garden is—you have to be able to see—all sides—of its
cycle—Hold it—lapidarian—in your mind. The human brain—primed
for waltzing—inside a scenario—of cause and effect—in the garden—it is
subject—to its host elements—in Sun—water—wind fire—stress—feral
insatiable energy—of the shared earth—out of which the real—revolution—
takes place. Aiding and abiding—never asserting cause—as if we’re ever
anything other—than loyal proletariat workers—for the Sun. Learning that
effect—is of the same texture—the same aesthetic—survivalist tendency—
that governs the brain—Squishy corralling the inputs—it requires—to thrive.
You and garden—are inside the spiral—endlessly forming—the present
centre—past and future banding—around you. Where Carlo Levi had
said—the future has an ancient heart—we read its beating—in a crinoline
skirting—of withered bean stalk—hemming end of season—clear out—for
former—future green—against green—Cocteau’s greengages—splitting
their sides—falling. This staunch syndicate—of dried mint—old man salt
bush—twists branches—gingerly vanquishing—smoke screens—inside stalk
mulching—future sessions. Either that—or the snails—stripped the whole
thing—in one swift motion—A florist defoliaging the stock market—at the
base—of the crystal vase.

Seasonable accruals—become possible again—as decline softens—to
Sun reversing striptease—farewelling elegiac leaves—dressing up of
spines—in billion dollar verdant—coppice couture—Forwarding the
privilege of abundance—back to a place—fettered and rooted—in exposed
infrastructures. Entropy—lets the light in—lets the rampage in—lets
the sugar rim—the broken mug—the flute—the casserole dish—used for
ferrying its babies—from this nature—to our culture. Cocteau’s potential
falling—from the roof—had he not built his house—out of poems. Inside
this propagation—we slacken—we let the light reach—screw—and delight—
the centre—Where green covers pathway—to begin again—begin again.
Eventually it falls—towering babel—of hair shedding nape—softened brio—
centric mass—turfed around the base—Sod wars—nitrogen fixing—sunken
agendas. Territory delimits—the small climate of beds—that sleep—the
pubic mound: Seed—meet form—with air. These archival tendencies—into
vertical shaft—thick rinsed—and mourning—with dew. When I see brown—
dry—and demise—I cut back—prepare for the charge—crumble myself—
into the circadian knowledge—of return—Fertilise a rift—into a utensil.

There is preparation for life here—when it looks—like this

Australian Poetry Journal 12.2 can be found here.

Beekeeping as an Act of Resistance 

Counter to my more mindless hobbies is the attention that tending to bees inspires in me—attention that varies in its depth of focus, ranging from passive observation to meditative focus, unlike the homogenous, habitual energy I give Instagram.

Resisting the commodification of our lives can take many forms, and one that feels right to me is beekeeping. 

I first became interested in beekeeping when a friend I was living with had a hive that he would gently tend to in our back yard. I was attracted to the attuned seasonality of keeping bees, the endless fascination they provided and the way bees drew me away from overwhelming life to focus on something immediate and tactile. I also appreciated that back-yard beekeeping wasn’t profit-driven like so many aspects of our lives are now, whether for our own profit or the profit of corporations. 

Capitalism has created mounting pressure for our lives to be as productive and profitable as possible, and not just while we’re at work. I can feel the pressure permeating my everyday activities, pushing me to strive for ‘success’ in everything I do, manipulating my priorities and exploiting my creativity every day. Even simple hobbies—ideally intended as a break from the live-to-work grind—feel output-driven as we further succumb to what Marx would call ‘commodity fetishism’. 

Other times, the product is our own attention and emotion. Take doom-scrolling, for example. Social media’s addictive architecture is creating a vacuum that harvests our attention, time, energy and emotional responses to generate profit for others while barely gratifying us. With so many aspects of our lives being manipulated in a similar way—extracting our energy for profit while offering us the bare minimum in return—it feels increasingly important to learn to resist this influence on a personal level, to reclaim a sense of connection and calm. 

Jenny Odell, the artist and writer of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, might describe beekeeping as a form of ‘resistance-in-place’. Odell examines our relationship with the attention economy, highlighting that our attention is now a currency for corporations. ‘To resist in place,’ she writes, ‘is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, 
a frame of reference in which value is deterred by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship.’ This has helped me understand the importance of making sure there are pieces of myself that can’t be so easily exploited. 

I began to see that ‘doing nothing’ in this context doesn’t mean sitting and staring at a wall or television all day, but rather reclaiming my own attention to connect more deeply with my immediate surroundings. As Odell writes, this is ‘a refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough’. And so I came to see my beekeeping as an important piece of my practice of resistance-in-place—a resistance that requires constant vigilance to fight the temptation of doom-scrolling or laying on the lounge room floor watching Daria reruns, which are all the more tempting in the mental health wake of lockdowns. 

Of course, beekeeping is an obvious act of resistance against ecological degradation, given that we can’t survive without bees, which was one of the main reasons I was drawn to beekeeping as a hobby. But in addition to the environmental benefits of managing a box full of happy pollinators, beekeeping is also imbued with a deepening of care, community, attention and connection to place. 

The history of ethical beekeeping reflects the respect that humans have always had for bees. Humans originally carried our bees on our backs as we migrated from country to country, and we have largely nurtured this relationship that has supported our survival for thousands of years. However, the commercial and arguably less ethical beekeeping practice required to keep food on our tables, where we can’t grow it ourselves, has heavily exploited this relationship. In Australia, up to 30 per cent of our fresh food is pollinated by bees, mostly in industrial farms across the country, and this is undoubtedly traumatic for the bees that are packed and shipped over and over again to pollinate crops, while also having their honey stripped for sale. 

But in the context of my back-yard beekeeping, I live in a gentle kind of co-dependency with the bees. With wild bee numbers across Australia declining each year due to climate change, disease and pesticides, I feel honoured with the privilege of tending to even one hive at my city rental. Their existence doesn’t depend on me, but I can be here to provide safe shelter for them in the hope of increasing their chances of survival without interfering too much with their needs. In return, I am increasing the rates of pollination in my neighbourhood and am given the opportunity to harvest free honey if there is excess available. This honey doesn’t exist for profit either. I never sell it, only trading a jar here or there for things like a fresh homegrown zucchini or a box set of Seinfeld DVDs for my mum. I become a passive custodian of the bees, our needs intersecting non-competitively instead of through demand or exchange for profit. 

For many back-yard beekeepers, opening the hive to work with the bees is a solitary exercise that calls for more care than many other routine activities. Bees can sense a beekeeper’s agitation, so the act of checking the hive requires a deep calm that I have struggled to find through other avenues. I move slowly and with intention, moving smoothly around the bees, listening to how they’re reacting, removing frames for inspection, surveying them with mindful visual notetaking, before returning each frame to the hive. The process is all-consuming, drawing me so fully out of myself that it feels like tunnel vision. 

Beekeeping also requires different kinds of care at different times of year, which deepens and diversifies the caregiving experience in ways that I think the commodified world struggles to do for us. For example, summer is by far the busiest beekeeping period, when regular checks are encouraged to monitor for disease, provide additional space to be filled with honey and baby bees, moderate potential swarming activity and to make sure the queen bee is healthy. But winter, when I can’t open the hive due to the cold weather, becomes a season of mindful observation and preparation for the coming warmer months. This rhythmic cycle provides a chance to reflect and improve my practice over time, which is something that feels rare in innovation-driven working environments, or on social media where you’re prompted to react immediately or lose the opportunity. 

While the tending is often solitary, beekeepers are anything but isolated, and there is an incredible camaraderie in the local beekeeping community. There are several online groups that are usually very supportive, but it’s the ‘offline’ groups that are especially enjoyable. When I started out, ten other beginners and I learnt the basics of beekeeping at a bee school, of sorts, through a local community centre. It was through this group that I eventually bought my first small box of bees to support. When I told the group that I wouldn’t be able to catch up as often because I was moving to Flemington, a suburb further away, they were excited that I would live near the roses growing at Flemington’s famous racecourses and told me to keep a tastebud out for rose-tinted flavours in the honey. I still call this group’s teacher whenever I need beekeeping advice. 

In a refreshing shift from the alienation that comes with living and working in an over-capitalised world, where it’s each for their own, these beekeeping groups act as a rare, lateral support network. Beekeepers are often charitable and generous with their time, always very happy to share their experiences with me and learn from my mistakes or lessons in kind. Stanislava Pinchuk, a Ukrainian-Australian artist, spoke eloquently in a 2020 episode of Australian podcast Mont Icons of the mutual, charitable friendship that beekeepers around the world feel towards each other. ‘There’s just such a curiosity about how you do it, what your bees are like, the nuances of your place and your seasons,’ she said. ‘You just learn by talking and doing. So beekeepers have this really amazing kind of charity wherever you go. And this real understanding of the care of what you do.’ 

Counter to my more mindless hobbies is the attention that tending to bees inspires in me—attention that varies in its depth of focus, ranging from passive observation to meditative focus, unlike the homogenous, habitual energy I give Instagram. Whereas a walk or housework might be accompanied by a podcast, there is no attention spared for multitasking while the hive is open. Through a growing admiration of these tiny creatures and a fascination with the never-ending complexity of a bee’s world, I spend more spare time quietly watching the front of the hive: alert to any unusual movement, listening to the gentle hum of worker bees and the slightly louder buzz of drone bees, smelling the sweet wafts of new honey, and admiring the rhythmic order that rules their lives. 

I find myself connecting more intimately to the environment around me as well—not to the buildings, roads or other industrial structures that usually define a suburb, but to the Wurundjeri bioregion that surrounds me yet often escapes my notice. When I watch bees coming and going from the hive with endlessly changing coloured pollen on their legs—often soft yellow or white, sometimes bright pink—I can’t help but wonder where they’ve collected it from. 

While bees use their foraged pollen to feed themselves in the short term, they are also carrying nectar that is used to make honey: a blend of nectar collected between one and six kilometres from the hive. Knowing this means that I naturally pay much closer attention to the blossoms in my local area each week, to see if I might be able to notice what the bees bring home. The colour of pollen and the flavour of honey of course changes with the time of year. From my own neighbourhood, bees forage from sweet-scented daphne flowers during winter and bright lemon or pittosporum flowers during autumn and spring. I am more inclined to notice autumn lavender and summer rosemary flowers bursting out of my neighbours’ front yards, ready to be foraged from. 

Council-planted peppermint or lemon-scented gum trees are dotted across the parks and streets, while silver banksia and river red gums line the local creek beds, keeping the bees busy and my attention pleasantly occupied all year round. Before beekeeping I would have walked to the tram stop with headphones blaring, face in my phone, but now I have the awareness to look for flowers in bloom and wonder whether I’ll be able to notice their flavours in my bees’ honey. Practising this level of sensory attention is not only a meditative reprieve from the daily grind, it also deepens my understanding and knowledge of my own spatial context and offers the salve of an enriched locality—a kind of therapy in my post-COVID mental health recovery. 

This return of attention to the meaningful detail of everyday life and how it intersects with commodity fetishism is captured in resistance poet Elena Gomez’s collection Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt

I’ll forget to pay attention. The vines in my own backyard. 

Can someone recall what we named them? 

I’m always distracted. 

I’ve got Chelsea Blue jeans. 

But I remember. The vine that was ready to escape my backyard was called Electrolyte. I remembered because I would wrap it up around me when I woke hungover many mornings. 

Through the bees and the practice of keeping them, I can feel the status quo of ruthless competition, profit hunger and hyper-productivity briefly punctuated. Their passive power draws my attention away from the forces that commodify it, directing it towards something that feels slower and more meaningful: the gift of calm connection.  

Originally published via: 


On a personal level, this resonates. Who doesn’t remember, with something more than fondness, the first scene of belonging? Who would argue for rootlessness?

André Dao on George Eliot

‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.’ So says Antonio Gramsci, the renowned Italian Communist in his Prison Notebooks—3,000 pages of history and philosophy written across 30-odd notebooks smuggled in and out of the Fascist prisons in which Gramsci spent the last eleven years of his life.

What I think Gramsci was saying is that revolution begins with self-knowledge, and that self-knowledge is not—despite what bourgeois literature and neoliberal self-help manuals would suggest—introspective. It is not even, properly speaking, subjective. It is objective; we are not self-forming subjects but objects, formed by historical processes.

I am, then, the product of French imperialism, of Roman Catholicism, of 3,000 years of Sino-Vietnamese war and culture and interbreeding, of American imperialism, of Leninist-Marxism, of the Sino-Soviet split, of capitalism—proto-, Golden Age, late stage—of settler colonialism, of British imperialism, of patriarchy in its many cultural guises, of heteronormativity, of the rice-based agriculture of the Red River Delta, of successive advances in irrigation technology, of the Internet, of English literature, of identity politics, of 1990s Californian pop-punk, of 2000s trailer park chic, and so on and so on.

Of course, such a list is entirely useless. It is only an accumulation of abstractions, when the point is to find the concrete—as Gramsci says, to inventory the traces deposited in me by each and every one of these forces. The point, then, is to begin with the concrete trace—to catalogue these traces and only then to synthesise them into abstract processes.

So—to Gramsci. I first came across him as a forbidding name to which was attached even more forbidding concepts. It was only later on, when I began to write a book about my grandfather that the man behind the name came into focus. Gramsci was thirty-five when Mussolini’s fascists imprisoned him. I write these words now the day before my thirty-fifth birthday.

Here is a manoeuvre characteristic of my technique as a writer, such as it is—the drawing of a false equivalence, the making of banal, self-aggrandizing comparisons. For in tracing the parallel, I am wondering, aloud, as is the wont of the bad, sentimental reader—if they took me in next week, would I write my own Prison Notebooks? I would want to. I would try. I am not a strong swimmer.

My only excuse for this hubris is that I have been doing this since I was very young. I have always been asking, as a sweet habit of the blood: would I have got on a boat, would I have been able to start again, where I know no one and nothing, not even the language? Most of all, I have been asking, would I have survived, as my grandfather did—if indeed, he had—ten years in Chí Hòa prison?

Such questions are ridiculous, I know. They seem to do the opposite of what I want, which is to get concrete, to understand the historical processes the formed me. They are idle, frivolous questions. And yet—it was by asking such questions that I was able to write Anam. By imagining that Gramsci, for instance, might be a mirror for my grandfather—eleven years in prison versus ten, a Communist imprisoned by Fascists versus a Catholic imprisoned by Communists, 3,000 pages of writing versus nothing, death in custody versus a dubious kind of survival—this imagining, banal, self-serving as it is, nevertheless allowed me to draw out something concrete about my grandfather, and about myself.

Though I thought about Gramsci as I wrote Anam I did not come across the quote about compiling an inventory until after I had finished, as a reference in the introduction to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Another exalted name from my undergraduate days, though I had in fact read this book—had gone as far as referencing it in my essays. But I had not noticed this quote, nor Said’s response to it, the most intimate note in the book:

‘Much of the personal investment in this study derives from my awareness of being an ‘Oriental’ as a child growing up in two British colonies…In many ways my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.’

And so, retrospectively, I have begun to think of Anam as an inventory of the cultures and forces that have dominated and shaped my own life.

‘The essence of counterpoint,’ writes Edward Said, ‘is simultaneity of voices, preternatural control of resources, apparently endless inventiveness. In counterpoint a melody is always in the process of being repeated by one or another voice: the result is horizontal, rather than vertical, music.’

He is thinking of Glenn Gould, the genius pianist and interpreter of Bach. The apotheosis of counterpoint is the fugue; a phrase is introduced in one voice (the soprano, the oboe) and then it is repeated, and developed, by other voices. 

Said makes counterpoint a central metaphor for his technique: ‘We must therefore read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented [in] such works. In practical terms, ‘contrapuntal reading’ as I have called it means reading a text with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows, for instance, that a colonial sugar plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England…contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.’

Reading Daniel Deronda contrapuntally, Said shows first that Eliot’s presentation of Zionism is in keeping with her long-standing interests in idealism and spiritual yearning. It is not only the Jews but well-born Englishmen and women who suffer from a ‘generalized condition of homelessness.’ Zion, for Eliot—according to Said—is ‘one in a series of wordly projects for the nineteenth century mind still committed to hopes for a secular religious community.’ If salvation and belonging can no longer be found in the Church, then some other organic community must take its place: a national homeland.

Counterpoint: there is, in Daniel Deronda, ‘the total absence of any thought about the actual inhabitants of the East, Palestine in particular.’ The novel ends with Deronda setting sail for the East, presumably to help advance the great cause. The ‘Question of Palestine’—the question of what will happen to the current inhabitants—is answered, obliquely, by Mordecai Cohen, Deronda’s spiritual guide: ‘[The Jews] have wealth enough to redeem the soil from debauched and paupered conquerors…There is store of wisdom among us to found a new Jewish polity, grand, simple, just like the old—a republic where there is equality of protection, an equality which shone like a star on the forehead of our ancient community, and gave it more than the brightness of Western freedom amid the despotisms of the East.’ Zionism will be, for Eliot, the ‘method for transforming the East into the West’.①

F. R. Leavis, the great zealot of English literature, famously wanted to cleave Daniel Deronda in two. ‘There are two George Eliots,’ he writes, ‘and they both—neither, it seems, embarrassed by consciousness of the duality—play dominating roles in the massive book: they dominate it together as if they were one. But the essential spirits in which they dominate are so much not one that the creatively vital of them by its mere presence as what it unmistakably is exposes the creative impotence of the other.’ The good half of the novel he proposes to call Gwendolen Harleth—a ‘major classic’, indeed, a model, and a superior one at that, for Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.

The half that is to be purged is thus Daniel Deronda himself, and the whole Zionist adventure. Though the problem, for Leavis, was not so much the Zionism itself, but that in writing about Deronda Eliot betrayed her own genius—‘her truly noble and compassionate benignity’—by her ‘profound need to feel benignly and compassionately disinterested, and sometimes this prevails as a kind of intoxication that licenses for self-indulgence the weak side of her femininity. The egoism and falsity of day-dream manifest themselves as sentimentality.’

What must be expunged, if Eliot is to be saved from herself, is her femininity, her sentimentality.

‘A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and—kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.’—George Eliot, Daniel Deronda.

Another name for an inventory of traces: nostalgia, the longing for a home. Not just any home, but, as Eliot says, an early home, that time-place where a human life might be well rooted in some spot of native land, and not through sentimentality, not through effort and reflection, but a somehow natural working of early memories, by the sweet habit of the blood

On a personal level, this resonates. Who doesn’t remember, with something more than fondness, the first scene of belonging? Who would argue for rootlessness?

I think of Jasmin, who flew from Palestine to Australia thirty-six weeks pregnant. When her daughter was born, in Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women, the staff asked for Jasmin’s country of birth. ‘But they couldn’t find Palestine. We could find any country except my country. I found out they put that I’m from Iran, they just picked any country.’ ②

When we asked her what home meant to her, Jasmin said, ‘I can see tomato plants, cucumber, capsicum, eggplants. Small farm, little kids playing around, and some chickens. I miss these things. We used to have the chickens just living in the whole farm and laying eggs anywhere. It was like I won the lottery if I found eggs before my brothers.’

Early memories. Sweet habits of the blood. But something strange happens when Eliot’s nostalgia is transposed from the personal to the political: it gets twisted, becomes grotesque.

Eliot’s final novel follows two characters—the beautiful, egotistical Gwendolen Harleth, and the serious and moral young man, Daniel Deronda. The arc of the novel traces the beneficial influence on Harleth of Deronda’s moralism (‘her feeling had turned this man into a priest’)—through him, she is able to overcome her cynical instrumentalism of others to develop a sensibility of wider communal obligations.

But as F. R. Leavis points out, Deronda’s solution to the problem of egoism is ‘the religion of heredity or race’. That is, Deronda’s sense of higher duties is linked to his discovery of his ancestry—he is a Jew.

‘It was as if he had found an added soul in finding his ancestry—his judgment no longer wandering in the mazes of impartial sympathy, but choosing, with that partiality which is man’s best strength, the closer fellowship that makes sympathy practical—exchanging that bird’s eye reasonableness which soars to avoid preference and loses all sense of quality for the generous reasonableness of drawing shoulder to shoulder with men of like inheritance.’

Later readers, including Amanda Anderson and Kwame Anthony Appiah, will try to reclaim Deronda as a paragon of universal, humanistic concern—a good cosmopolitan. ③ (The bad cosmopolitan being the one who wanders through the ‘mazes of impartial sympathy’, the one who takes the perspective of ‘bird’s eye reasonableness which soars to avoid preference’. It is a rootless, risible cosmopolitanism, and an attitude Eliot identifies at the heart of British imperialism: ‘Meanwhile enters the expectant peer, Mr. Bult, an esteemed party man who, rather neutral in private life, had strong opinions concerning the districts of the Niger, was much at home also in Brazil, spoke with decision of affairs in the South Seas, was studious of his Parliamentary and itinerant speeches, and had the general solidity and suffusive pinkness of a healthy Briton on the central table-land of life.’) 

But what is the source of Deronda’s ‘generous reasonableness’, his good cosmopolitanism? It is in ‘drawing shoulder to shoulder with men of like inheritance’. It is, in other words, in turning to ethno-nationalism. One overcomes individualism by absorbing the ego in the nation—a nation that is understood, in the Romantic German tradition, as having a soulful, organic essence. The empty pursuit of individual gratification gives way to the honour of higher duties. For Deronda, the higher duty, the honourable inheritance, is Zionism.

As I write this, the Israeli Defence Force is conducting ‘Operation Home and Garden’, its largest attack on the occupied West Bank in two decades. I look online at photos from Jenin, Jasmin’s home city, the site of the raid. In one family home, ‘three small boys knelt on the tile floor, picking up hundreds of spent bullet casings left by Israeli snipers who had used their kitchen as a firing position.’ ④

Read the full piece here.


✷ 1. Edward Said, ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ (1979) Social Text Winter, No. 1, 7-58.
✷ 2. Khan, Hafsar, Aziyah, Jasmin & Abbas, ‘Still Lives’, Meanjin (Winter 2021).
✷ 3. Aleksandar Stevic, ‘Convenient Cosmopolitanism: Daniel Deronda, Nationalism and the Critics’ (2017) Victorian Literature and Culture 45. 593-614.
✷ 4. Bethan McKernan and Sufian Taha, ‘“It’s just like the intifada”: Palestinians reel from Israel’s raid on Jenin’, The Guardian 6 July 2023.


TIME IMMEMORIAL, two sides to every coin. Two tellers brush a tale. Broken pieces. A mirage. Here’s mine. Genesis. 

I’m Tex. 

I don’t say much, just enough. But this is not my story.

TIME IMMEMORIAL, two sides to every coin. Two tellers brush a tale. Broken pieces. A mirage. Here’s mine. Genesis. 

I’m Tex. 

I don’t say much, just enough. But this is not my story. 

YOU KNOW bullshit when you hear it, like for sure, and Wazza is shitting it in bricks. 


The program lead’s unemotive face confirms, yes, he’s serious. 

You’re standing in Warren’s deluxe hole-up. It’s a scene from Deep Space Nine. A shimmer overhead screen shifts cuboids, tetrahedrons, icosahedrons and hexagonal prisms in luminescent colours – that’s the first thing that hits your vision as you enter. The man is a narcissist. The desk is a 3D model, L-shaped in silver and dark robotic hues, and on it is what resembles a joystick alongside a control panel. 

The team outside is in open-space partitions, el cheapo desks quarter-priced in bulk, hand-me-down cathode-ray screens that seem to be working – because yours does, at least. But you don’t know what half the rest of the staff members are doing nine-to-five. A lot of them are clock-watchers, but not you. 

You know they’re listening in to your tete-a-tete with the boss. Wazza doesn’t summon one to his office for bubbles or lamingtons, or to crack tinnies together in an imitation of mateship. And it’s not like the digs are soundproofed, but so what? 

Wazza is wearing his executive mask, the one with solid barriers. ‘A pitiful economy,’ he says. ‘The pandemic.’ Sweeps his hands, palms up, as though he tried, really did. But COVID. ‘Sorry, Ch’anzu.’ 

Beyond him, out the window, Southbank remains aloof, blue-green frosted glass on sleek towers vying for height, the best of them skyscraping today’s dreary cloud. 

You worm a hand through your hair – it’s not as sleek as how white people do it, the way you see it in movies: Brad Pitt licking his lower lip with that beautiful tongue, slick hand clean sweeping a yellow dangle to behave, even knowing that it won’t. 

Your hair is long enough to make a ponytail, damn right. But wound so stubbornly on itself, it springs uncoiled on stretch, spirals back on release. The kind of coil that’d puff a black mamba to hissing envy before it slinks away in disdain at its own self. Yet you insist to wrangle fingers in the brush, tougher curls of new growth pushing against your touch. Finally, you grip a fistful of hair in subconscious self-flagellation. ‘I don’t understand, Warren. First you tell me you’re slashing my contracting rate by forty per cent. With the same breath, you say no contract renewal in three months – now all you can add is the pandemic?’ 

He strokes the fat end of an expensive tie, fine-woven with birds and gravestones embossed on it. ‘Huge deficits right now. We’re in a very tight spot.’ 

There’s a lot you can show him about very tight spots, and he won’t like it. 

He looks a little worried by the brutality with your hair, as though you’re awakening a black rage that will assault his hopefully guilt-ridden self. ‘The estimate of earning was way overblown?’ As if posing the statement as a question makes the saying of it better, or the hearing of it easier. 

‘Really?’ you say. 

He shrugs. ‘No temps, no contractors. We’re in so thick, we can only do permanent staff.’ 

‘Make me a permie.’ 

He weighs his next words with such trim precision, you almost anticipate the Judas kiss before it touches you. ‘I want to, but it’s not as easy as that. You can’t make a chicken salad out of turkey feathers. Perhaps when the market picks up —’ 

‘That’s got mean to it – just nasty. Listen to your shit, are you actually saying it aloud?’ Your contempt comes out bigger than you intend. You can kick, can’t you? Most stupid fucks don’t get too much leeway with you. Still, some like this fockwit of a boss do.  

‘Sub out, will you?’ he says weakly. ‘I know you feel —’ 

‘You don’t know shit about me, let alone how I feel.’ You sense the intensity of eyes across the floor. A wry smile puckers your lips. You shake your head. ‘I’ve spiked progress for Multicorp – a long, hard slog. I’ve stood by as you fucked up. Wazza, I fixed your shit on that turbo-future program, made you a good headline.’ 

‘Don’t you think I know it?’ He doesn’t sound that convinced. 

‘Nights. Weekends, okay? I’ve done loads. More than enough for this shitshow. No one around here knows what they’re fucking doing. Cunts, most of them.’ You sweep a palm at the team outside the room to make a point. ‘See? Half-arsing their jobs. Do you know what the fuck they’re doing?’ 

‘Language, Ch’anzu.’ 

‘My marriage is on the line. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person. Would you mind language if your marriage was on the line? Boss, just do your job and appreciate the crap I’ve been putting up with. Easy ask, innit? Remember what you get out of me: whopper sales smack on target. And I never once asked for a raise.’ 

‘Yes. Yes.’ As he repeats himself, you know that he’s searching for words, and he appears to find them. ‘You steered us to good profits – we appreciate that. A lot has changed now. It’s a new world we’re staring at. This contract thing is not a measure of your value —’ 

‘My invaluability? Excellent output? Your words, Warren. What happened to that?’ 

‘You’re shouting – you want a conference room?’ 

‘I’m good.’ 

‘Honest – the boardroom’s free. No one uses it.’ 

‘You can turn it into my office. I said I’m good.’ 

‘Ch’anzu, I don’t like it when you’re being difficult like this. Look here now. We need to carefully assess what’s achievable —’ 

‘You didn’t assess too much to make Ritcho a permie. Or Gus. I’m sensing hostility to black people.’ 

‘What? No! I don’t see colour.’ 

‘Aii, pampula. That’s even worse. Boss, see colour.’ 

He reddens. ‘What is it with you folks? Jesus Christ.’ 

‘He, she, they – no one in the Bible has anything to do with your irascible work practices towards us people.’ 

‘People …! It’s just you!’ 

‘See? I knew it. Pampula.’ 

‘What does that word even mean?’ 

‘Who cares what it means? Diversity – you know? It’s my way of saying.’ 

‘No one has ever accused me of being a racist!’ 

‘Yeah, it don’t just happen in South Carolina. I tell you, if you’re black and advancing, you bob at your best, ’cos that’s all you can do – you find out pretty quick how the system’s fucked. People wrong-footing you, too easy, every which way all the time. Mate, that’s bleak. Be not white for a minute, and see. You get a heap of shoulder, nearly get your eyes taken off. Then they shut you down quick like a lynch mob. It’s outta control. Isn’t that you now – shutting me down?’ 


The universe, as if on cue, saves him. Two bleeps, a crackle, and an alarm. A speaker coughs from along the wall behind the screen’s radiance. A voice blasts from the ceiling. 

Fire alarm testing. 


One second, three seconds, five. 


‘You still need me for the conversion software,’ you say. ‘Fine-tuning the new system. None of your permies shell scripts as well as I do.’ 


One, three, five. 

‘And I’m a first aider,’ you say. 

‘Yes, that.’ He considers this point, as if the first aiding gives more weight to your cause than the scripting. ‘Listen, Ch’anzu, I have a proposition for you.’ Wazza, glowing in his pitch. Pause. The alarm blazes off again. ‘Oh, blast that thing.’ 

Then the speaker crackles. 

The fire alarm testing is over. 


The fire alarm testing is now over. 

Wazza spreads his palms: voila, here it comes. ‘We’re training in-house.’ 

You take a beat, let his words sink in. ‘You’re good,’ you say, almost in adulation at what Aunt Maé would call a lack of soni – shame. How some folk just don’t have it. Soni. She wouldn’t gloat about it, rub it in, but she’d say, You never listen, to which you’d answer, That’s right, I have an ear worm. But I have soni. 

‘Seriously, Ch’anzu. You’re a legend —’ 

‘One you’re firing.’ 

You,’ Wazza’s finger pointing at your face, ‘could be in charge.’ 

It sits you down. You hope the look you’re giving is a big Fuck Off. ‘Let’s get this square: I train my replacement?’ 

He kinda nods, the prick. 

‘And who did you have in mind?’ 


‘Not Ritcho?’ 


‘Right. I’m pretty pumped about it.’ 

‘Give the kid a break. He’s a good lad.’ 

‘Yeah. Private school kid too. And his name is all over this nonsense. I’m a bit slow – explain it to me again.’ 

‘It’s an offer. Join the party. Just say yes.’ 

‘For three months. Got it, compelling proposition. How about I don’t take it?’ 

‘Not so definitively. Refusal won’t bring the house down.’ 


‘Chew on it, mate.’ He’s actually begging you to consider the measly offer. 

You leap to your feet, glower at him. ‘A few things I could chomp on right now, and you won’t be liking it.’ 

The look on his face suggests he believes you’re a cannibal about to go at it. Chomp him alive. 

‘I’m from the jungle, I’ve got good strong hands,’ you say, for the fun of it. ‘Teeth firmed on sugarcane too – they bite hard.’ 

Fear twitches his face … 

You don’t care. You’re leaving, hand on the door. ‘I’m a skedaddle.’ 

‘If you walk out now, Ch’anzu —’ 

‘Oh, poke it.’ 

YOU’D LOOKED close enough but had missed the strutting clouds – popping, shifting, beat, beat. Weaving, bouncing, spinning in darkness. Beatbeatbeat. Even as clouds dived, and your ears rang – you didn’t notice them until you fell with them. 

This is what you’re thinking as you storm out of Wazza’s office to your desk. 

Five years at Multicorp, all fog. 

The mood on the floor as you head back is sweet poison. The ones who generally smile at you, like Gus, are the worst. You grab a used cardboard box by the copier, stride purposefully towards your workstation in the corner. It’s no window view like Wazza’s. You plonk the box on top of your keyboard. 

‘Sorry, chum.’ Evasive eyes from the other end of your shared desk. 

Ritcho’s a bit okay. But you can see he doesn’t want to get involved. Still, you see his mind, how he thinks he should say something. 

You might have been friends, but something about him … Nothing to do with the fact that he’s too soft, too skinny, too flappy for your liking. He reminds you of a lost scarecrow. There’s a weakness about him that gives you distance. 

Serengotti can be found here.

Naked Ambition

The package that emerged from the back of the delivery van was much larger and heavier than Gregory Buchanan was expecting.

The package that emerged from the back of the delivery van was much larger and heavier than Gregory Buchanan was expecting. Well, he knew it was going to be big — this wasn’t the first time he’d seen it — but he didn’t remember it being this big. It was awkward manoeuvring it into the house, with the help of the van driver. Later, of course, its size would prove to be the least awkward thing about it. He thanked the delivery chap and leaned the great object against the wall of the dining room. It was wrapped in protective layers of opaque plastic, which Gregory removed, strip by strip, until the object was revealed. He stepped back from it and worried that his initial response was trepidation. This was quickly suppressed in favour of celebration. Yes, he thought, it’s beautiful, and to reassure himself that this was true, he said it out loud. 

‘It’s beautiful.’ 

When Phoebe saw it, she’d be bowled over. Gregory was confident that she wouldn’t just like it; she’d admire it. 


When Phoebe first met Gregory, it wasn’t love at first sight. An accumulation of sightings led finally to marriage. Phoebe couldn’t say for certain that this slow accretion had also led to love. She wasn’t sure what love was, or what it might feel like. She had always assumed that one of its hallmarks was constancy, and there was nothing constant about her feelings for Gregory. He was attractive. She liked touching him, and liked being touched by him. There were aspects of Gregory, however, that even after eight years of marriage she found unappealing. 

One of Gregory’s idiosyncrasies — the one that really got up her nose — was his belief that Phoebe’s mother liked him, and that she was a perfectly reasonable woman, if a bit unmoveable on questions of religion. Phoebe’s mother, Joyce, was not a reasonable person and she loathed Gregory. His inability to see this made Phoebe wonder sometimes if he wasn’t a little bit stupid. It wasn’t stupidity, though. She’d come to realise over time what it was. It was vanity. Gregory was constitutionally incapable of grasping the idea that anyone could dislike him. His failure to notice his mother-in-law’s disdain was astonishing to Phoebe. She’d grown up in its chilly atmosphere. She’d known from an early age that Joyce’s love of Jesus was so exhausting that only unpalatable scraps of love were available for her, and, she presumed, her father. He’d died when she was just ten years old, and she had no real sense of him. When she thought about him, she wondered if he’d accepted the cancer that killed him as a medical ticket-of-leave. He went swiftly and didn’t put up a fight. 

Her mother’s ministry, as Joyce liked to call it, swept around and over Phoebe, but it was a miasma, not a flood, and it failed to sweep her away. She grew up, therefore, with daily reminders that she was not only a disappointment, but proof that the devil was abroad in the world. Joyce came to accept Phoebe’s early-onset atheism as a cross that tested her and secured her own faith. When faced with Phoebe’s defiance, she learned to meet it with a dead bat. When truly exasperated, she would say, ‘You have been sent to test my endurance, but if He can lead me to it, He can lead me through it.’ And so Phoebe’s difficult teenage years weren’t as explosive as they might otherwise have been. Mother and daughter assumed a sort of détente. They were mostly civil to each other. Phoebe moved out of home as soon as she turned eighteen, and Joyce even helped her along with a large gift of money. 

‘Your father and I put this aside for your eighteenth birthday.’ 

Phoebe had been unexpectedly touched by this, and she’d hugged her mother. Joyce had been so surprised by this sudden expression of affection that she’d become rigid. Phoebe later recalled that it was like wrapping her arms round a telephone pole, and it quickly became the subject of an anecdote she called the ‘hugging incident’. 

In the course of their courtship, Phoebe and Gregory had decided that, on balance, they were sufficiently compatible to risk marriage. The decision to marry puzzled many of their friends, but what these friends didn’t know was that Gregory and Phoebe shared a secret conservative bent. It wasn’t conservative enough to frighten the horses, but it was definitely there. They lived together for two years before they got married, so it wasn’t that kind of conservatism. Indeed, it was the decision to live together in a de facto relationship that permanently alienated Joyce from Gregory. Two years of obliging her daughter to live as the Whore of Babylon would require a lifetime of hard penance, and Gregory showed no inclination towards contrition. He was among the damned. Well Phoebe was among the damned too, of course, but Joyce held onto an unexpressed hope that her own fierce faith would go some way towards softening the Lord’s treatment of Phoebe on Judgement Day. 

Phoebe had a talent for PR and she exercised this talent in an unofficial capacity by overseeing Gregory’s move from an Arts degree into the more practical, if drab, world of local politics and then into state politics, where Gregory’s election took even him by surprise. She hadn’t exactly supervised his campaign, but she’d double-checked all of his speeches and managed his wardrobe and haircut. He’d wanted to grow a moustache for Movember, and Phoebe reminded him that he’d grown a moustache when they’d first got married and that they’d agreed that he looked like a sex offender and that they’d never revisit the experiment or speak of it again. This became known as the ‘moustache incident’. 

Gregory worked hard in his first two years in parliament, although he was conscious of the fact that he was too young to be taken seriously. His party was also in opposition, so his profile was low. Nevertheless, with Phoebe at his side, they worked for his electorate assiduously, turning up at every frightful community event to which they were invited. They were an attractive couple, and Phoebe taught Gregory how to lean towards the person who was speaking to him, hold his or her eyes, and create an effective illusion of engaged listening. 

‘If you simply repeat something they say, they think they’ve won you over.’ 

Gregory got so used to doing this that he occasionally fell into doing it at home. Whenever this happened, Phoebe would leave off what she’d been saying, walk into the kitchen and return with a jug of water, which she would empty into Gregory’s lap. He was a slow learner, so the lesson didn’t take until the third dousing, even though Phoebe had said, ‘Every time you do that to me, the water will get hotter.’ 

An early election was called during Gregory’s third year in parliament, the fixed term of four years having been altered with bipartisan support. Both major parties preferred to re-arm themselves with the weapon of an expedient and sudden election. And not only was Gregory returned to office, though the margin was tight, but he found himself in government, his party having snatched the prize after preferences. He was now seen as someone to watch. He won his seat in the subsequent election too, although with an even tighter margin. Once the business of government was underway, people tended to forget about margins, at least until they were reminded of it at the next election. 

So, in the eighth year of their marriage, and in another election year, Gregory had been promoted to the position of minister for transport, which was something of a poisoned chalice. People blamed you for traffic. Still, it was generally agreed that he was doing a good job. And despite the demands of the job, Phoebe and Gregory’s partnership was solid. 

The first real test of their marriage arose out of the ‘portrait incident’. 

On the morning the object arrived, they stood in front of where Gregory had hung it on the dining-room wall. He had in mind that this would be its temporary home. Ultimately, it would hang in the living room. Just at the moment the hook in the dining room was the only one able to accommodate its size and weight. Phoebe stared up at it and for far too long failed to say anything. 

Eventually, she said, ‘You’re a politician, a public figure. What on earth were you thinking?’ 

Gregory had been expecting enthusiasm, and he was, frankly, a little miffed. 

‘I was thinking that I’d like an honest portrait of myself. What I didn’t want was a flattering, obsequious, bland job.’ 

‘Well full marks for honesty, darling, only I don’t think you mentioned that you were commissioning a nude portrait.’ 

‘I wanted that to be a surprise.’ 

‘We’ve been married for eight years. The element of surprise is somewhat muted.’ 

Gregory stood back from the painting and ran his eyes over it, from top to bottom. Phoebe stepped back to stand beside him. 

She said, ‘It’s much larger than I expected. The scale I mean. Obviously.’ 

‘Portraits have a way of making the familiar unfamiliar, don’t you think? She’s a great admirer of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Bronzino. It’s sort of an homage to Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man. Sophie talked a lot about Bronzino during our sessions.’ 

Phoebe turned to Gregory and found him lost in admiration of the painting. She stepped in front of him and stared into his face. He was bewildered by this sudden severing of his connection with the portrait. 

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘What did you just say?’ 

‘Bronzino. Sophie admires Bronzino.’ 

‘I see. And which of those two names do you think I might be interested in knowing about?’ 

‘Have you heard of Bronzino?’ 

Phoebe remained calm. She turned, walked to the painting, leaned down to examine the bottom, left corner, and read, ‘Sophie White.’ She smiled at Gregory. ‘Sophie White. I’ve heard the name, but not from you. You didn’t actually mention that you were being painted by a woman.’ 

‘I’m sure I must have mentioned it.’ 

‘No, darling, you didn’t. So when you went off to her studio, that’s how each sitting went, with you, stark naked and standing like that.’ 

Gregory skirted the issue. 

‘It mimics the Bronzino pose. Sophie White is an artist, Phoebe. That’s like being a doctor. It’s what she does, all day, every day. She doesn’t see bodies the way civilians do.’ 


‘Sophie sees non-artists as civilians. She sees a lot of other artists as civilians too. She has high standards.’ 

‘Oh, well, that’s all right then.’ 

Gregory, perhaps as proof that his astuteness was unpredictable — or more correctly, unreliable in its application — could not understand his wife’s tepid response. 

‘You haven’t actually said what you think about it,’ he said. 

With bracing bluntness, Phoebe said, ‘I think it’s ghastly and the additional information you’ve reluctantly supplied doesn’t help my appreciation.’ 

Naked Ambition can be found here.