Saturday, May 29, 2010


While last week's posting was devoted to The Writer's Life, this week's is about what keeps the writer alive - which everybody knows is tea.

My preference is for Indian Spiced Tea (AKA Chai).

For those who might like to enjoy it too, here is my recipe:


Spice Mix:
Ground cardamom seed x 2 sachets
Powdered ginger x 1 sachet
Cinnamon x 1/2 sachet, or break up two or three quills
Nutmeg x 1/10 sachet, or freshly grate around quarter to half of one nutmeg.

Other spices which may be added sparingly to taste include cloves, anise, vanilla, black pepper.
Mix the spices together as well as you can in a jar, then carry it with you wherever you go.


Madura black.

Full cream organic, Paris Creek or Macro the best in my opinion.

Any good natural unadulterated bulk honey, preferably bush and/or organic.

Filtered or rainwater.


Warm the pot. Spoon in the tea, 4 tsp to a medium sized pot. Should be strong - Orwell was correctly firm on this point. Add 1 tsp of your spice mix, then add water straight from the boil. Allow tea to draw for about three minutes before pouring. Add honey and milk to taste. Savour.

-Larry Buttrose

For those who have not read Orwell on the all-important matter of making tea, here is a link to his famous article on it. You will note that my recipe contravenes his Eleventh Commandment, so I'm a sinner for honey. I leave this to your palate, conscience and doctor.

Sunday, May 23, 2010



Writers should select their domicile carefully. After all, they are going to spend a lot of time staring out the window, pacing the hall and wandering the street outside mouthing phrases like any other nut. 

Unless they burn bright and die young like Shelley or Plath, writers tend to be in for the long haul. A writer can start in their teens and be hard at it in their eighties. There’s little to stop them beyond money, health, and the cruelty of The Chair. Six or even seven active decades is a very long innings in any profession, and a writer learns to ride the inevitable ups and downs - the big sixes into the crowd, the intimidation of the bouncer barrage, the sledging from the slips. But given the possibility of a long creative life, the writer has the chance to chronicle not only the world around them, but the stages of life, its distinct acts. 
As Truman Capote remarked: “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act” (though some might say his own third act was a Frankenstein monster of his own making). 
For some there’s a brightly written first act, followed by two more in which everybody nods off. For others it’s three long terrible acts, one of those endless nights in the theatre, bum-numbingly tedious, invested with much commitment but sadly leading nowhere. For others still the second act is their strongest, writers such as Virginia Woolf who in mid-career produced her finest works, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, and whose own third act ended in a note left on a mantelpiece, resignation from the human race. For F. Scott Fizgerald, there was no second act. Then there are those for whom it’s a long slow build to a climax in which all their authorial strengths, thematic threads and accumulated experience coalesce into a masterwork like Don Quixote or Nineteen Eighty-Four. 
It is a privilege of course simply to be a writer. As a cadet journalist I dreamed of one day being able to call myself that. When did that point come, I wondered: the publication of your first short story, novel, or premiere of your first play? But you find out it’s not like that. It’s not so much what you call yourself, as the life of work you have chosen, which in turn helps fashion the person you become. You are a writer because you live the writer’s life, your existence concentrated upon your work and how to better it, and make it new. 
Some years ago I accepted some work teaching creative writing at a university. Like many writers I had previously wavered before the chilling maxim that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. But grappling hard with the money demon I had little choice at the time, and in the process learned far more about writing than I ever taught. It’s one thing to know things intuitively or instinctively, another entirely to have to articulate them clearly to a group of students. For me it proved akin to driving a car for a hundred thousand miles, sometimes content enough with its performance but most often less than, and finally stopping to look under the bonnet and see how the thing works. A tune-up was in order, inevitably.
One of the intriguing aspects of teaching is the line between what can be taught and what can not. Some of it can be, in particular the all-but-lost discipline of grammar. But literature is not science, it is art, and it works in ways that defy attempts to impose the rules and categorisations of science. It’s not chemistry - it’s alchemy. It’s not digital, but derives its beauty and its strength from what exists between the digits, the unseen and unsaid, the unknown and unknowable.

Like our humanity itself, literature is mysteriously durable. It has even survived the era of postmodernism, during which an entire generation has been subjected to intellectual colonisation by a dogmatic wolf garbed in ovine pluralism, a philosophical peep-show that infected the creative arts with the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook of “Theory” encoded in a gruel of pompous jargon that was fearful and disdainful of the clarity of the plain language that would expose its blah as wank.

As Walt Whitman remarked: "Be simple, be clear... Do not descend among the professors and capitalists."

One of the many ironies of the writer’s life is that it continues beyond the grave. Consider Hemingway. Though dead nearly half a century, he’s still surfing trends of fads and taste. Among the great stylistic innovators and distinctive voices of the twentieth century - both attributes understudied with his mentor Gertrude Stein - he has been largely ignored by the academy for decades after being tarred and feathered by ideological fashion police as a meaty bearded sexist, a man who shot animals and behaved badly towards women.    
Similarly, some people would presumably have us avert our eyes from the paintings of Picasso because of the repute of his personal relationships. Presumably they themselves conduct impeccably correct personal lives, audited by an Appropriate Intimacies Sub-Committee comprising Julia Kristeva, Stephen Conroy and George Pell. 
To me the truth about Hemingway is that his novels are pretty much conventional romance stories set against big historical dramatic backdrops, but it is his voice - the hard-edged voice of troubled times, tanged with an idiosyncratic wit - which distinguishes him. But he’s not the only great talent largely ignored nowadays. Hands up who’s read any Woolf or Dostoyevsky for pleasure lately; or Mann or Mansfield, Greene or Stein or Steinbeck? Joyce, especially Finnegan’s Wake, would require a secret ballot. Even beyond the grave the writer’s life is bound up with caprice, marketing, and changes in technology. To paraphrase Hemingway, it’s a bastard of a life but there’s nothing better. 

-Larry Buttrose

Revised version of an address at Byron Bay Writers'  Festival 2006

Sunday, May 16, 2010


We set off for the Taj Mahal just after dawn. Our taxi cruised down chilly streets on which the dogs and pigs were just stirring. As we pulled up at the entrance, the elderly driver noticed I had a pen and paper, and asked if I intended to write something about what I was going to see. Kathryn said I was a poet, and always carried a pen and paper "just in case". His pink, watery eyes scrutinised me behind heavy spectacles.  
"Are you are a poet ?" he asked. "Or do you write poetry?
"I write other things too." 
But he would not let me off the hook. "That may well be," he said, "but are you a poet ? Just tell me that sir."
"I believe so." 
"Very good," he replied. "There is no charge. I do not charge poets in my taxi."
"Why not ?" I asked, surprised.
"A country's poets are its most precious possession," he said. "And besides, they have no money."
"In my country, poets are not so highly regarded."
"And what is your good country sir ?"
"They are so good at cricket," he said, adjusting his spectacles, "perhaps their minds are not easily attuned to poetry."
"What is your name sir?" asked Kathryn.
"God," he said.
"God ?" 
"I am God. You are God. He is God. We are all God.  We all have God within us. So I am God."
"Then thank you God," I said.
He smiled and nodded farewell, and drove off.
We entered the empty grounds, walking through the formal gardens and up the long watercourse, with the lovely white bulb of the Taj still swathed before us in early morning mist. We ascended the steps to the marble platform and looked up as the first flecks of sun played on the fragile dome, then crossed to the far side of the platform to view the Yamuna River. Everything was still and silent. Clouds hung in soft white billows over the mirror-topped river. 
Then, from just below where we stood, I heard something odd - a dull thwacking sound, familiar, repeated at irregular intervals. I craned my neck, and as I looked the clouds below seemed to part on cue, and I believed I saw cricket players 
in pressed creams, playing on a stretch of lush green turf. 

Kathryn peered down at the small field just above the river and nodded confirmation to me. "They've seen us," she said. "They're waving." 

We went down and joined them, a dozen friends who played early morning and late afternoon, whenever they could, cricket fanatics they said. They invited us to join in the game. Kathryn declined with thanks and went back up to the Taj, saying she would watch from there. 
And so we played, before a single spectator in surely the most beautiful cricket pavilion in the world. I scored ten runs, including a drive for four into a distant bush of red roses. My luck ran out when I was bowled middle stump by a young spinner called Jai, who gallantly apologised and offered to give me another life. But I took my place in the field, then later sent down a few offspinners of my own, netting a sharp caught and bowled. As the morning sun strengthened and the last of the mist blew away, we drew stumps. They had to get to their jobs and schools.
"You should be in the Australian team," said Jai, gracious to the last. "What do you do back in Australia ?"
"I try to make a living as a writer," I said. 
"Really? And what do you write?" 
"Lots of different things."
"I am a student," he said. "But really I am a poet. Are you really a poet too?"
"It's funny you should ask that," I said.
I told him about my meeting with God. He laughed. "He is my uncle. He is a poet too. I am a poet. You are a poet. We are all poets." He gestured up towards the dome and minarets of the Taj. "And you have come to the right place, to write your poetry. Mind you," he laughed again, "with a bowling action like yours, perhaps you missed your calling." 

I shook my head, and he walked away with a smile of farewell. 
I rejoined Kathryn up among the swelling crowds. "So what did you think of me as a cricketer?" I asked.
"God was right," she replied, flicking away a fly. "Stick with the verse."

-Larry Buttrose

This story is from my first travel writing collection, "The King Neptune Day & Night Club", Angus & Robertson 1992

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Beside a slate grey Massachusetts pond
I watch leaves of maple, oak and plane
Summoned back to the black earth. 
Trees that trust in a distant spring
Shed life in a silent firework: 
Gold and scarlet leaves acquiesce
In drifts down the byways of heaven,
And naked branches, knotted-thumbed,
Arthritic-fingered, farewell a fading sky.
Yet here, in this hushed perfection, 
Unspoken words come: this is not my country.

Back in my own country I know the names 
Of politicians, actors, the makes of cars,
Know my bank PIN and my internet password, 
When the news comes on and the garbage goes out.
But I do not know the red ribbing of my country,
The lay of valleys, the course of creeks.
I do not know each leaf, root, seed, fruit,
Have never chewed a roasted grub or moth,
Bitten the sweet of a honey ant,
Stirred the wallaby stew.

All these things I do not know, as I could know, 
As perhaps I should know, of my country. 
But yet as I stand by this grey lake,
With all the leaves settling into the sombre 
Green of these dank northern woods, 
I know that this is not my country.
Here I know my country is my country.

- Larry Buttrose

Video of my reading of the poem on 4 May 2010 at Friendly Street in Adelaide can be seen at:

Saturday, May 1, 2010


This wonderful speech by Virginia Woolf is included in my book "Speeches of War and Peace".


    “You have won rooms of your own”

Speech to the National Society for 
Women’s Service, London, 21 January 

The feminist commitment, poetic sensitivity and fearless literary innovation of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) all help to enshrine her among the finest authors of the past century. 

Born in London into an aristocratic literary and artistic family, she suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 22 following the death of her father. 
She later moved into a house in Bloomsbury in London with her artist sister Vanessa and their two brothers, and instituted a weekly get-together where like-minded people could discuss literature, art and politics: thus the Bloomsbury Group was born, its members including economist John Maynard Keynes and historian Lytton Strachey. In 1912 she married the political author Leonard Woolf. 

Her publishing debut came with the shipboard novel The Voyage Out (1915), and she is best known for Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), and the feminist essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), some of the ideas of which resonate in this speech.  

‘When your secretary invited me to come here, she told me that your society is concerned with the employment of women, and she suggested that I might tell you something about my own professional experiences. It is true I am a woman; it is true I am employed; but what professional experiences have I had? It is difficult to say. 
My profession is literature; and in that profession there are fewer experiences for women than in any other, with the exception of the stage - fewer, I mean, that are peculiar to women. For the road was cut many years ago - by Fanny Burney, by Aphra Behn, by Harriet Martineau, by Jane Austen, by George Eliot - many famous women, and many more unknown and forgotten, have been before me, making the path smooth, and regulating my steps. 
Thus, when I came to write, there were very few material obstacles in my way. Writing was a reputable and harmless occupation. The family peace was not broken by the scratching of a pen. No demand was made upon the family purse. For ten and sixpence one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare - if one has a mind that way. Pianos and models, Paris, Vienna and Berlin, masters and mistresses, are not needed by a writer. The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in the other professions.
But to tell you my story - it is a simple one. You have only got to figure to yourselves a girl in a bedroom with a pen in her hand. She had only to move that pen from left to right, from ten o'clock to one. Then it occurred to her to do what is simple and cheap enough after all - to slip a few of those pages into an envelope, fix a penny stamp in the corner, and drop the envelope into the red box at the corner. It was thus that I became a journalist; and my effort was rewarded on the first day of the following month - a very glorious day it was for me - by a letter from an editor containing a cheque for one pound ten shillings and sixpence. 
But to show you how little I deserve to be called a professional woman, how little I know of the struggles and difficulties of such lives, I have to admit that instead of spending that sum upon bread and butter, rent, shoes and stockings, or butcher's bills, I went out and bought a cat - a beautiful cat, a Persian cat, which very soon involved me in bitter disputes with my neighbours.
What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats with the profits? But wait a moment. Articles have to be about something. Mine, I seem to remember, was about a novel by a famous man. And while I was writing this review, I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House. 
It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her -you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. 
She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it - in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathise always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all - I need not say it - she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty - her blushes, her great grace. In those days - the last of Queen Victoria - every house had its Angel. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. 
The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” 
And she made as if to guide my pen. I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself, though the credit rightly belongs to some excellent ancestors of mine who left me a certain sum of money - shall we say five hundred pounds a year? - so that it was not necessary for me to depend solely on charm for my living. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. 
My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must - to put it bluntly - tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. 
She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
But to continue my story. The Angel was dead; what then remained? You may say that what remained was a simple and common object - a young woman in a bedroom with an inkpot. In other words, now that she had rid herself of falsehood, that young woman had only to be herself. Ah, but what is “herself”? I mean, what is a woman? I assure you, I do not know. I do not believe that you know. I do not believe that anybody can know until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill. That indeed is one of the reasons why I have come here out of respect for you, who are in process of showing us by your experiments what a woman is, who are in process Of providing us, by your failures and successes, with that extremely important piece of information.
But to continue the story of my professional experiences. I made one pound ten and six by my first review; and I bought a Persian cat with the proceeds. Then I grew ambitious. A Persian cat is all very well, I said; but a Persian cat is not enough. I must have a motor car. And it was thus that I became a novelist  - for it is a very strange thing that people will give you a motor car if you will tell them a story. It is a still stranger thing that there is nothing so delightful in the world as telling stories. It is far pleasanter than writing reviews of famous novels. And yet, if I am to obey your secretary and tell you my professional experiences as a novelist, I must tell you about a very strange experience that befell me as a novelist. And to understand it you must try first to imagine a novelist's state of mind. 
I hope I am not giving away professional secrets if I say that a novelist's chief desire is to be as unconscious as possible. He has to induce in himself a state of perpetual lethargy. He wants life to proceed with the utmost quiet and regularity. He wants to see the same faces, to read the same books, to do the same things day after day, month after month, while he is writing, so that nothing may break the illusion in which he is living - so that nothing may disturb or disquiet the mysterious nosings about, feelings round, darts, dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and illusive spirit, the imagination. I suspect that this state is the same both for men and women. Be that as it may, I want you to imagine me writing a novel in a state of trance. 
I want you to figure to yourselves a girl sitting with a pen in her hand, which for minutes, and indeed for hours, she never dips into the inkpot. The image that comes to my mind when I think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. 
Now came the experience, the experience that I believe to be far commoner with women writers than with men. The line raced through the girl's fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist's state of unconsciousness. She could write no more. The trance was over. Her imagination could work no longer. 
This I believe to be a very common experience with women writers - they are impeded by the extreme conventionality of the other sex. For though men sensibly allow themselves great freedom in these respects, I doubt that they realise or can control the extreme severity with which they condemn such freedom in women.
These then were two very genuine experiences of my own. These were two of the adventures of my professional life. The first - killing the Angel in the House - I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful, and yet they are very difficult to define. Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different; she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. And if this is so in literature, the freest of all professions for women, how is it in the new professions which you are now for the first time entering?
Those are the questions that I should like, had I time, to ask you. And indeed, if I have laid stress upon these professional experiences of mine, it is because I believe that they are, though in different forms, yours also. Even when the path is nominally open - when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant - there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way. To discuss and define them is I think of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved. 
But besides this, it is necessary also to discuss the ends and the aims for which we are fighting, for which we are doing battle with these formidable obstacles. Those aims cannot be taken for granted; they must be perpetually questioned and examined. The whole position, as I see it, here in this hall surrounded by women practising for the first time in history I know not how many different professions, is one of extraordinary interest and importance. 
You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort, to pay the rent. You are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning - the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms?  These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest. For the first time in history you are able to ask them; for the first time you are able to decide for yourselves what the answers should be. Willingly would I stay and discuss those questions and answers, but not tonight. My time is up, and I must cease.’

It is a tragic fact that such a vital and sympathetic mind as Virginia Woolf’s endured lifelong problems. Returning depressed from visiting Blitz-ravaged London in 1941, she drowned herself near her country house in Sussex.  

*This edited version of Virginia Woolf's speech is from the "Battles of the Sexes" chapter of my book "Speeches of War and Peace", the Concise edition of which has just been released by New Holland Publishers

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