The year began early for me, in December, when I wandered into my local library. I wanted something to read on the train from Adelaide to Melbourne. There are only two daytime trains a week now, where once there were nightly sleepers. The trip takes twelve hours because the train can’t travel any faster on the existing track. This Christmas Overland was popular, though, and more carriages were added. That’s because the airlines, recouping losses during the pandemic, were gouging and the festive-season fares were sky-high. The slowness has its advantages. In China, where I’ve travelled on the impressive network of very fast trains, everything becomes a blur. This train, the slow train, the only train, allows you to see the country you’re passing through. It slows to a halt at Murray Bridge, Bordertown, Nhill, Dimboola, Horsham, Stawell and Ararat to let people off and on. It’s a day’s journey.
On the shelf of new arrivals in the library was a book that caught my eye: The Wuhan Lockdown. I’d followed China and Covid as best I could from a distance these last three years but had not heard of this title. No doubt there will be many Covid books but they will all face the problem of lagging behind the latest information on the daily newsfeed. This book avoided that problem by its focus on the city of Wuhan in the early months of 2020 when it was the first place in the world to experience a virus about which nothing was known. It took as its source material the online commentary of Wuhan residents as they lived day by day through the first weeks of lockdown.
I recognised the author’s name, Guobin Yang, a professor of Communications and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. I had read his two previous books, The Power of the Internet in China (2009), the seminal text in the field, and The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China (2016), a close-up study of individual and generational continuities from the Cultural Revolution to the present, which the author understands well. Writing in English, Yang is that rare scholar who can balance inside and outside perspectives on China, attending to detail in the interest of a nuanced overview. I knew that The Wuhan Lockdown would be worth reading and was impressed that the North Adelaide community library had it so soon after its publication by Columbia University Press in 2022.
I couldn’t help notice the dates of the lockdown diaries of the citizens of Wuhan that the book quotes: ‘When I got up this morning and saw news of the lockdown,’ writes Guo Jing, social worker and feminist activist on 23 January 2020, ‘I was at a loss what to do. I couldn’t anticipate what this would all mean, how long the lockdown would last, and what preparations I should make.’ I knew that date. On 23 January 2020 my father died in hospital in Adelaide, aged 95. A month before he died there had been bushfires on Kangaroo Island and in the Adelaide hills. Smoke was in the air. Ash fell from the sky. There were almighty bushfires across eastern Australia in those weeks. It was hot and dry and at home my father became dehydrated. That precipitated his transfer to hospital and his final days of care. I was with him on the night of 23 January when he died. It was the cusp of Chinese New Year’s Eve. The next day the Year of the Rat would start.
It was our usual custom to organise a dinner for Chinese New Year, a get-together with Chinese friends. There was a restaurant we liked—Ming’s Palace—and we booked ahead just in case. It would depend on dad’s condition. But news was coming through from China about a mysterious illness. People were travelling for the New Year season, including from China to Australia. Friends from China warned us against going to any restaurant where there might be arrivals from Wuhan. Embarrassed, apologetic, we cancelled our booking at Ming’s Palace. It was only the beginning.
My father, Bob Jose, born in 1924, the Year of the Rat, completed eight cycles of twelve years to die on the eve of another Year of the Rat in 2020. Covid 19 was not yet named and the Australian government had not yet put restrictions in place. My father was spared that. We were able to have a large family funeral on 30 January 2020.
Reading the diary dates in The Wuhan Lockdown as the crisis unfolded from December 2019 through January and February and into March, when WHO declared a global pandemic, I relive my own calendar from that time, three years ago already, when my numb personal lockdown of grief was punctuated by a blur of public pronouncement and disputation—Morrison, Trump, Xi, Johnson—from a bad world. I could journal myself while reading the Wuhan journals Yang analyses in a manner that is also personal for him as he charts the fate of citizen activism in a China that is determined by the ‘politics of appearance’ as never before. His chapter on ‘Covid Nationalism’ is unsparing of China while recognising parallel tendencies in the rest of the world. Yang writes movingly about Dr Li Wenliang, the early whistleblower who died on 6 February 2020: ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Person’. The account has depth in understanding the highly evolved ‘coercive and ideological power’ of the party-state. Yang praises the people of Wuhan for their ‘active citizenship’ which translated ‘moral feelings’ into effective protest by resilient online communities, affective and civil.
‘Active citizens have strong moral feelings’, Yang writes, ‘conveyed through strong emotions, as well as an awareness of rights and rules. Emotional publics are moral publics.’ While not underestimating the obstacles, the author looks hopefully to China’s ‘online society’ as a new form of civil society that ‘built on digital infrastructures of commerce and service will continue to be socially engaged.’
Yet it was a printed book from a library that almost randomly linked me to the courage of those ordinary people on the ground in Wuhan, as they responded to what was then almost entirely without understanding. The death that must come, and the recursive shadow it casts.
I know Yang Guobin—that’s how I call him—from another life, when, as a Masters student in English literature, he came to Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1986, where I was lecturing at the time. He was interested in Australian literature and translated part of my novel Paper Nautilus into Chinese for Fiction World in Shanghai. He invited me to visit Luoyang, famous for its peonies. It was a rare invitation. Luoyang was snow-covered when I went. The Foreign Languages Institute there proudly demonstrated its satellite dish, turning it south so I could watch Australian television news. The library was well-stocked with copies of Penguins. Eventually Guobin moved to the US and changed discipline from literature to sociology. But his skill as a literary critic, an interpreter of texts, is everywhere apparent in his fine-grained, humane appreciation of those people who writings give voice to lives in action in The Wuhan Lockdown.
I took the book on the train but ended up reading something else, a novel that I lost myself in as the countryside rolled by, verdant after the floods and wet summer as never before, and possibly never again, sheep up to their necks in grass, trucks trundling grain to railway sidings in the mild sun.
The book I read so compulsively was The Sirens Sing by Kristel Thornell, the author’s third novel, published last year. Thornell lives in Marseille and reads French, Italian and Spanish literature with ease. I suspect she is particularly at home in Italian fiction. Something of its clarity and sensuality transfers to her own novel, which takes the form of two adjacent novellas, ‘The Blue Mountains, 1993-1994’ and ‘The Inner West, 1962-1993’. The first novella, with a focus on friends at the end of school, includes Italian lessons and an Italian woman and her husband whose seductive lifestyle precipitates an almost chemical, or trigonometric, set of violations. The second novella returns to the scene of sentimental education but a generation earlier and at Sydney University and its inner-city surrounds, to evoke the coming of age of the parents, their choices or lack of them, that help explain the world which the young people of the first novella grow into. Some things change. Other formative constraints or deterministic longings abide. There is no way out of this place and its pressures—the social and environmental determinants of a settler colony that persist, stunt, damage, notwithstanding educational mobility and individual genius or passion. All with a glorious physical intensity, remembered in the writing—the harbour waters, the mountain bush, in which hearts and minds have their bodily being. The Sirens Sing is lushly immersive while maintaining an ironic scrutiny I think of as Italian—Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani, Elena Ferrante—and Lampedusa, who wrote a story called ‘The Professor and the Siren’. As well as very Sydney.
I had been to the wake of an old friend at the Toxteth Hotel in Glebe a few weeks before. She was a wild one—actor, singer, teacher, bare-foot philosopher, reciter of poetry, communist, anarchist, left libertarian, non-believing Catholic, a blazing free spirit. It was November and the jacaranda blue was everywhere, the sweetness of jasmine, the odours of the Glebe streets as another festive season came round. The wake took us back to the 1970s when I had lived the kind of life I recognised in Kristel Thornell’s novel, a dream of possibility, not knowing that this world of passing dreams was/is all there is/was. It was all still here, going on, even to the houses where it happened—experimentation, coupling, conception, birth, death. In homage let me transcribe the last extraordinary paragraph of The Sirens Sing, the author’s summative elegy for being itself in a place and time:
The portside dreaminess, the rough inner-city cosiness, the scraping by, the restless and world-weary university students, the spunky, bouncy ones on the make, the poor crazy buggers in tinfoil-covered headgear to prevent their minds being read, the skinhead fascist that people recognise from demos, Armani and patchouli oil, fashion and its irrelevance, the ones into religions and no religion, skin and faces and gazes, choices apparent and real, desperation, the uncertainty about belonging, the everlasting guilt and sorrow of colonialism and genocide, colossal sunlight and skies so softly blue, the love affair with multiculturalism, the rosewater and cashews and sugar in your favourite baklava, the perfumed kick of that coffee you were so hanging out for, all the addicts and hedonists, rain coming and going like storms at sea, nights falling on streets overflowing with four o’clocks and jasmine, eucalypts and wattle and frangipani and fig trees like grand doors left ajar in time, savage nostalgia, bottomless want, the sex and closeness and love that it might only be possible to find in books and songs and movies and paintings and delirium and faraway places you’ll never set foot in or not till it’s too late, the swell, the heart in the ears listening for the sirens, the bright trails.
I drank coffee from my thermos and ate the sandwiches I had brought as the train headed east. I was immersed in Thornell’s Sydney, its Shalimar perfume, its fusion of beauty and radical extremity, its theme of transference, surface and depth, change, and something restless, unsatisfied, unchanging beneath. When we pulled in to North Shore Geelong, hailstones the size of golf balls came out of a clear blue sky, pelting down on the train. We waited. We were told that the company that owned the tracks would not allow us to proceed. They were presumably concerned about liability for derailment. I grabbed my bag and got off. There was a commuter line on the other side of the tracks where a V-line train had just passed. I could ride one into Southern Cross.
In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino uses a word that scarcely exists in English: icastic. Etymologically Greek, it conveys a combination of ‘iconic’ and ‘exact’. Calvino writes of:
The power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images. … [to] enable the images to crystallise into a well-defined, memorable, and self-sufficient form, the icastic form.
It’s a quality I find in The Sirens Sing.
Dragonflies swarmed this summer thanks to the rain. I saw them everywhere, individually and in multiples. They are an apex predator in the insect world. Perhaps their numbers mean there was a lot of everything else this year too. When they mate, they couple with their wings outstretched and fixed in position, like a biplane. I loved seeing them soar and dive over a pond in the Strathbogie Ranges, alighting on lily leaves, skimming rocks in the sun. Their Chinese name is qingting, written with an insect radical in each character: 蜻蜓. There’s an uncomplimentary saying in which they feature: qingting dianshui, like a dragonfly skimming the surface of the water, touching on something lightly, superficial. Maybe that can be a virtue too. It’s a dilettantism I recognise.
The way they couple makes an image of connection, or more precisely of a connector. They look like a linking piece of Lego, or a charger where it plugs into the power socket. In locking together they foreshadow the USB, or the clip on the straps of a backpack: contemporary design. In a world in which everything is connected, the connector is an essential component, a cosmic necessity. In my nightmare I am afraid that the connector is missing, an absent existential piece, the lost link.
The Buxton Museum of Contemporary Art in Melbourne hosted a retrospective of Peter Tyndall’s work over the summer. It is fascinating to be absorbed in the process and progress of this shaman artist as you walk from room to room. From HA HA he evolves a ‘foundational ideogram’ that acts as a semi-conductor on a circuit board allowing energy to run through everything, connecting and reflecting. Often LOGOS is added alongside HA HA, in a slash relation. I don’t want to rationalise it too much, but it makes sense to me. (You can read Claire’s essay for a full account.)
‘A Person Looks at a Work of Art’ it begins, and goes on. All Tyndall’s works have that title. That work is a rectangle that hangs on the wall from two parallel wires so people can look at it. If the work is empty i.e. any art work, notionally (we all see what we want to see), it can be represented diagrammatically, distilled, connected, multiplied, like Indra’s net. That’s what the artist does over and over again, in majestic works, some large, some small, gorgeously yellow-gold, with black on white, and occasionally red, showing the outline of a figure in meditative pose, an extraterrestrial, one last ten-pin in a bowling alley, looking out and looking in. These works create their own forcefield. In the exhibition they reverberate among themselves and narrate from one to the next. They joke and hum and question.
When I am there, I am often the only person apart from the gallery attendants. In my lucky bliss, it seems, there is truly a person—or no one—who looks at a work of art. This is perfect. Peter Tyndall is a cosmic comic. Each picture is icastic. You can see them afterwards with your eyes shut.
One of the works is a cartoon of Munch’s The Scream hanging in a scarily receding corridor. An advertisement for the National Gallery of Victoria. That’s where to go if you want something to scream about. On this sunny Saturday afternoon when the Buxton Centre for Contemporary Art is empty, the NGV across the road is a circus. There are people looking at works of art there in their multitudes. It makes for a yin-yang contrast, the connector in this case being the busy arterial road and the traffic lights that separate the two sites. The cars rush by. The dragonflies swarm, skimming the surface.
On 31 March 2023, the last day of the first quarter, after I wrote all this, the virus finally caught up with me. The parallel red lines of the RAT. Legs 11.
Bingo! Take nothing for granted.
 Claire Roberts, ‘Peter Tyndall: The point is the circle and the circle is the point’, Peter Tyndall (Buxton Centre for Contemporary Art, 2023).