Monday, September 8, 2014

Seeds of Thought (Literary Review)

Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the garden
My Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies is reviewed in the September issue of Literary Review (UK).

In 'Seeds of Thought', Miranda Seymour covers the chapters neatly, criticises my Orwell and Kazantzakis chapters (for reasons that don't quite fit with my book's philosophical premise), and adds generously that "Young writes with a delightful combination of humour and insight."

I was particularly pleased by Miranda's celebration of the Leonard Woolf chapter, which is perhaps my favourite. Woolf was a mensch.

You can read the full review here.

(Photo: courtesy of the Keynes family)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Tale of Three Cities: Melbourne, Christchurch and Brisbane Writers Festivals

The rage monster and the Hulk, Brisbane Writers Festival 2014
August began with moving house (again). It ended with moving me (again): to festivals in Australia and New Zealand, then back to Australia again. Here is a quick summary, as I withdraw into my manuscript like snail eye stalks...


Late last month was the Melbourne Writers Festival, in which I had two gigs: an exercise 'walk' over Melbourne, and a Q and A at The School of Life.

'Torso of an Athlete'
The walk began at the National Gallery of Victoria, where I gave a lecture prompted by 'Torso of an Athlete'. Then we strolled to the Janet Clarke Rotunda in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, chatted about memories of PE (chiefly bad) and sprinted while thinking of mortality. (One dude yelled 'DEATH!' before he ran.) 

KL and DY, exercising minds
A couple of hours later, still in my Lycra, I was interviewed by School of Life director Kaj Lofgren. 

Kaj had read How to Think About Exercise carefully, and his questions prompted some great conversation. 

While at the Festival I had a chat to Paddy O'Reilly, whose new novel The Wonders is aptly named. Do read it.


A few days later I was off to Christchurch, New Zealand, for the Word Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. 

Sweating in Hagley Park,
I had five events, but my first job was straightforward: to enjoy a quick run in Christchurch's gorgeous Hagley Park. Plenty of paths and turf for boundless bounding. Rejuvenating after hours sitting, and lost to longitude.

My first event was 'The Stars Are Out Tonight', in Christchurch's stunning cardboard cathedral, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. The line-up included poet Anis Mojgani, singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh, and novelists Meg Wolitzer, Noviolet BulawayoDiane Setterfield and Eleanor Catton

I gave a reading on swimming and the sublime, from How to Think About Exercise (more in the The Guardian).

The Townend Conservatory,
Christchurch Botanic Gardens
On Saturday was a talk and reading from Philosophy in the Garden, hosted by the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. In the audience were some devoted diggers, pruners and Jane Austen fans. ("Did she garden, or just point?") Diane and I were also given a special tour of the gardens. My highlight: the alpine conservatory, with its rows of cyclamen.

Later that day I read My Nanna is a Ninja to a room of curious, chatty kids, and received a hug from one little girl. (She also told me that "cake is on the top of the food pyramid".) Reading before me were Gavin Bishop, Melinda SzymanikCharisma Rangipunga and Kristin Hersh.

Sunday morning saw me chatting to lawyer Marcus Elliot about How to Think About Exercise. Half of the interview was actually about philosophy, including the dangers of commercialising curiosity, and corrupting the autonomy of scholarship. (I had Bourdieu's work in mind, but didn't cite him). All good questions. Then we chatted more casually about mind and body, and the pleasures of striving.

JK, KH, DY, DH, with
festival director Rachael King
Photo: @ChristchurchLib
My fifth and final event at Word Christchurch was 'Capes and Tights', a panel on superhero comics with comic writers/artist Dylan Horrocks, novelist Karen Healey and filmmaker and comic artist/writer Jonathan King

It was a pleasure to see Dylan again, and to pick up his typically nuanced new collection: Incomplete Works. Karen and Jonathan were insightful and hilarious.

Avon River, Christchurch
Christchurch is a marvellous little city, and this 'little' isn't pejorative: perhaps my favourite town in Australia is Hobart, which is noticeably smaller than Melbourne. Christchurch is, for me, walkable civilisation. And breathable. And drinkable. (Amazing tap water.)

Having only briefly visited the city, I'll not pretend to comprehend the trauma of Christchurch. But from only a handful of conversations, it's obvious that the anxiety, grief and frustration remain -- everyone has a story about the earthquake and its consequences (immediate and ongoing). 

But there are also surprises: all about the city are pop-up gardens, exhibitions, artworks and more. The poetry slam, held on Friday night, was moving and fierce. In short: Christchurch folk are tough and innovative. 

I was, to be honest, very moved by the city's generosity and hospitality, and I hope to take Ruth and the monsters back if we can afford it. (My very small 'thank you' was a donation of signed books to the Christchurch City Library.)


On Monday I flew straight to Brisbane for the Brisbane Writers Festival. Leaving New Zealand I gained two hours and a few kilograms of books.

Sweat and light, Brisbane
To begin: an evening run along the river. The warmth, water breeze and lights: damned sexy.

My first four gigs were for the 'Word Play' program: sessions with hundreds of school kids, from all over Queensland. (The children from Chinchilla had driven four hours to be there.) 

DY and PC playing onstage
Illustrator Pete Carnavas and I taught poetry and illustration techniques, asked kids for their nanna suggestions ("jumping into a volcano with a duck on her face") and ran a quiz. 

It was a joy working with Pete, meeting the students and hearing them yell 'NINJA!' We also did an online session with kids across Queensland, which was strange but fun. 

Next on Friday was 'What is a Mind?', with medical researcher Kate Richards, psychologist David Roland and novelist Sean Williams, hosted by the ABC's Anthony Funnell. It was an intense conversation, often touching on illness and stress. There were also lighter moments, courtesy of Sean. 

I spoke about dealing with confusion and powerlessness (philosophy copes well with doubt), the horror of 'foreignness' within us (footnoted to Kant), and the importance of seeing the collectivities behind minds: organs, other selves, objects, landscapes.

BM, SW, AS, DY sharing the Who love
Photo: @nickystrickland
My next gig was a panel with actor/writer Ben McKenzie, novelist Angela Slatter and Sean Williams. The topic: DR WHO. 

I've not laughed so much in a long time. Bravo to my fellow panelists, and to the Brisbane Writer's Festival for programming such a groovy event.

My seventh and final event was a philosophy 'masterclass' (BOW TO THE MASTER, NOUS SLAVES). There were many more students this year, which is promising: perhaps philosophy is growing in popularity. 

The drama of philosophy: sitting
and thinking at BWF14
The point of my class was not just to talk about philosophy, but to do it: with essays, aphorisms and 'The Wind' prompted careful analysis and speculation.
poetry. Some excellent debate -- and once again Alison Croggon's 


After four writers festivals in three weeks, I've the numbness of a long run -- but my legs are still jittery. My ambivalence about conversation remains: every time I shrank into silence, I met another novelist or poet to talk with. (And, for the most part, did not regret it. To paraphrase Willy Vlautin: how often am I around book people, you know?)

Before I sign off to quietly play Father's Day in our domestic jumping castle (yes, that's a metaphor), my thanks to those demiurges of literature, the festival directors: Lisa Dempster, Rachael King and Kate Eltham. I'm also grateful to the producers, program managers, coordinators and volunteers for their ongoing logistical (and psychological) support.

Special thanks to Marianne Hargreaves, Julie Beveridge and Megan McGrath for their 'above and beyond' labours; and to Xanthe Coward for fuelling my masterclass with fruit bars when my credit card failed.

Back to the manuscript. Snails eat paper, don't they...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Coming up: three festivals

The audience for last year's Jane Austen panel, Sydney Writers Festival
Last weekend I was at the new Word For Word nonfiction writers festival. Over the next fortnight, I've gigs at three literary festivals here and in New Zealand. Click below for the details:
Melbourne Writers Festival.
WORD Christchurch.
Brisbane Writers Festival/Word Play (kids' events)
Both of my Melbourne events are sold out, but the others are still available. If you're nearby, do drop in for a chat about philosophy, minds, exercise, ninjas, Dr Who, superheroes, and more.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I think, therefore I exercise

In today's Australian Financial Review, Geoff Winestock discusses exercise, health and philosophy in 'I think, therefore I exercise'.

With a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek attitude to matters philosophical, Geoff nonetheless gets to the heart of my arguments in How to Think About Exercise:
Young quotes J.R.R Tolkien, who said that a “real enthusiast for cricket is in the enchanted state of secondary belief”. Tolkien added that as a spectator he could never experience the same thing. “I, when I watch a match, am on the lower level. Willing suspension of disbelief.” 
Jogging is of course a brilliant way to develop a sense of consistency, and Young quotes the writing about running by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. He invokes 18th century conservative philosophers writings on “the sublime” to extol the virtues of sea swimming. 
None of these forms of exercise will suit everybody and Young suggests switching between sports can tone up different aspects of our personality. His basic line is that “intelligent exercise” is not an oxymoron.
(Photo: Walter Miller, Library of Congress)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

ABC Sunday Profile: exercise, gardens, ninja and philosophy

I was interviewed by Richard Aedy on ABC Radio National's Sunday Profile.

As always, Richard was a pleasure to speak with (he first interviewed me six years ago, for Distraction).

We chatted about exercise, gardens, ninjas, martial arts -- and philosophy.

You can listen here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

It's true: "grandmothers are loads of fun"

The literary editor of The Australian has an excellent write-up of kids' books this weekend.

In 'Wrath, greed, sloth ... and zaniness', Stephen Romei (with his son's help) details some corkers, including The Last Viking Returns, which sounds like enormous fun. (A dog called Wolverine wearing a colander helmet.)

Pig the Pug also sounds hilarious, in an 'I don't care about your niceties' kind of way.

Stephen also gives a nod to My Nanna is a Ninja, writing:
Shock tactics are the order of the day in My Nanna is a Ninja (UQP, $24.95), by Melbourne philosopher (and dad) Damon Young, with illustrations by Peter Carnavas. We’re told lots of nannas do lots of different and variously interesting things, but only one, it seems, dresses in stealthy black, carries a sword and is accompanied by a bemasked cat. That sword comes in exceptionally handy when there’s a watermelon to share — though I had to dissuade Syd from trying this at home. This is a lively book that reaffirms what every kid knows but adults tend to forget: grandmothers are loads of fun.
I can't argue with this. (By the way, if you want a copy of My Nanna is a Ninja, hang on - it's sold out across Australia, and is being reprinted. Huzzah.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Civilised leisure: capitalism, free time and the garden

While I was in Amsterdam for the 'G8 of Philosophy', I gave a talk on capitalism, free time and the intellectual value of the garden.

Drawing on the life of Leonard Woolf, detailed in my Philosophy in the Garden (Filosoferen in de Tuin in the Netherlands, Voltaire's Vine in the UK), I showed how the garden's combination of humanity and nature is an invitation to reflection and reverie. It is, in short, a kind of civilised leisure.

You can now watch an edited video of the talk, produced by Jos de Putter, on De Correspondent.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Happy two-hundredth birthday, Mansfield Park

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price in Patricia Rozema's adaptation
of Mansfield Park (1999)
Happy birthday, Mansfield Park.

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen's first work of maturity.

To celebrate this, the Jane Austen Society of Australia held a day-long conference in Sydney, to which I was invited. (My Voltaire's Vine/Philosophy in the Garden devotes the first chapter to Austen.)

My essay, 'Fanny Price in the Garden', will be published later this year. For now, a short extract on my love of Mansfield Park's quiet heroine:
Jane Austen’s genius was character: painting subtle portraits of selves. Not just the saved and damned souls of Protestantism, but a variegated gallery of virtues and vices.  
And it is testament to this talent that Austen can make Fanny Price loveable. Fanny Price the wallflower. Fanny Price the wowser. Miss Price is not a charming Lizzy Bennet: “as delightful a creature,” as Austen put it, “as ever appeared in print.” Fanny is not even a Catherine Morland, with her verve and simple boldness. Fanny’s families do not hate her – they just barely notice her. And when they do, she is simply the moth to make their butterflies brighter. One Victorian critic, George Saintsbury, had the right word for Fanny: “insipid”. 
No quips. No harp performances. No flirty repartee. Miss Price has, Austen writes, “faults of ignorance and timidity.” This ignorance is remedied with Fanny’s own good sense, alongside her cousin Edmund’s careful education, and the household’s lessons of elegance and taste. The timidity is tempered by age and company. Still, on the surface, Miss Price lacks charisma.  
And yet: I love her. Now, this is neither capital ‘R’ Romantic love nor Georgian lust – the carnal love of Boswell’s alleyway trysts. I do not have a ‘thing’ for Fanny Price as I do for Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. (She was never “only Anne” to me.) This is love in Hume’s eighteenth-century sense: pleasure. I get pleasure from Miss Price. 
This reads cynically to modern eyes, but pleasure need not be mercenary. In his Treatise of Human Nature, published a generation before Austen was born, Hume argued that love is an “indirect” emotion. We hear someone’s words, see their gestures, smell their scents, and these impressions give pleasure. They might suggest trustworthiness, gentleness or generosity, for example. These impressions, in turn, are associated in our minds with the idea of character. So we never really see, smell or touch the psyche – we imagine it. And this fantasy borrows the pleasure offered by the senses. 
So my confession of love for the heroine of Mansfield Park is a revelation of delight: in her “constant little heart” as Edmund puts it (with some condescension), and her sincerity and warmth. These suggest the idea of a beautiful soul, which I happily imagine. I see past the surface, in other words – there are depths to Miss Price, to continue the metaphor, of moral loveliness. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Journey to the centre of the turf

Not couch grass - grass couch: Emilia on her turf seat
I've an essay in the new Australian Garden History journal, 'Journey to the centre of the turf'. (The puns. They burn.)

I'm investigating grass in general, and 'fake grass' in particular: synthetic turf. What is so special about lawn? And is artificial turf just a simulation, or can it be its own real thing? A sample:
Grass is primal. In Genesis, as soon as there is dry land, the Lord says: “Let the earth bring forth grass,” alongside herbs and fruit trees. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, delivers a rare paean to the Athenian countryside, including “grass, thick enough on a gentle slope to rest your head most comfortably.” This is a common celebration: of the sacred grove outside the city, with spring, scented flowers, shading canopies, and lush grass underfoot.  
In the gospels, Jesus feeds thousands of followers with bread and fish – they all “sit down by companies,” reads Mark 6, “upon the green grass.” Grass decorated Roman villas and medieval seats: the so-called “turf bench”, often graced by virginal maidens.  
This was not a lawn, of course: vistas of cut grass were for fields, not gardens. Christopher Thacker, in The Genius of Gardening, reports that thirteenth century estates “could have open grassy spaces only by laying new turf, cut from downland pasture, and beating it down firmly with mallets.” Theologian Albertus Magnus, a student of Thomas Aquinas, wrote of the “green cloth” of hammered grass, including seats so that “men may sit down there to take their repose pleasurably when their senses need refreshment.” This tedious job continued for some five centuries.  
Then technology and mobility intervened: by the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the mechanical mower, lawn become common – but not vulgar. Grass retained its suggestion of idyllic comfort. It can be wild but benign, fecund but not smothering – part of a vision of what Bloomsbury author and publisher Leonard Woolf, with some irony, calls “snakeless meadows…wildflowers, and the song of larks.”  
There is labour, of course. But this is all part of the charm: turf is necessity constrained by artful freedom. This is the luxury of the Touchett estate in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, with its “delightful” afternoon tea: “the flood of summer light had began to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.” Smooth and dense: this rhizome is thick with fertility, yet firmly lopped and cropped by the staff. For over two thousand years, grass has accompanied civilisation as an intimation of divine blessing or proudly tamed wilderness. 
And good news: you can now download the whole glossy, thought-packed issue of Australian Garden History (Vol. 26, No. 1) here.

(Illustration: 'Arcita and Palemone admire Emelia in her Garden', c.1460, from an illuminated manuscript of Boccaccio's Teseida, courtesy Austrian National Library.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Revelling in bodies - "How to Think About Exercise" on BBC6

Putting on weight (but not enough)
I was recently a guest on BBC6 with Maryanne Hobbs, talking about How to Think About Exercise.

For one of Maryanne's 'Three Minute Epiphanies', I discussed the intellectual and emotional rewards of fitness -- how to revel in our bodies, instead of just tinkering with them out of duty.

You can listen here.