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Election year food, sex and meaning

  • 08 February 2013

 The Best Australian Essays 2012 (Ramna Koval, editor). Black Inc Books, 2013.


Writers are a breed apart. Brave, masochistic souls. I say masochistic because there's a degree of suffering in wrestling with words and ideas.

Not so much suffering for art, for me at any rate; rather it's a case of having to 'suffer the little children' in pursuit of time and oxygen enough to write. Mid-draft I'm perched atop my stool to commune with essays and essayists, having extricated myself from playing with Transformers and the six-year-old son and heir, and delicately talking down the spouse and Ms Nine from a violin practice-induced skyscraper discourse over vibrato.

Blink once, I'm baptising dishes; then there's swimming lessons, playdate chauffeuring, grocery shopping, visits to the doctor and a pharmacy, paying tradies and vacuuming away their detritus. Blink twice and the sun is in full retreat. It hits me that I'm yet to indulge in breakfast, lunch or dinner. Thankfully the selections on offer in The Best Australian Essays 2012, from 27 intrepid scribes, are like so many cakes.

And it's while deeply engorged in the everyday obsessions covered — food, sex, meaning, joy — that I found this volume's greatest joy: Maria Tumarkin's 'Sublime and Profane: Our Contemporary Obsession With Food'. Educational and provocative for a non-foodie. Tumarkin posits spiritual, psychological, sociological and sundry other reasons for chefs being our new rock gods; the shared meal reborn as the pinnacle of being human.

I savour liquored meditations on mortality from Louis Nowra, and Tim Flannery's inestimable 'The Naked Critic: Memories of Robert Hughes' (the much-mourned Hughes drunk as a lord and as naked as envy). I relish the high art of quality reportage, à la John Bryson's 'The Murder of Azaria', with its aching examination of the trials and tribulations of a family cruelled by fate, intolerance and hungry canines.

Heavy fare such as the deposing of a PM (James Button vs Rhys Muldoon) and David Marr's live vivisection of a prominently-eared opposition leader ('Political Animal') is interspersed with dashes of wisdom and wit from Helen Garner, Gideon Haigh, J. M. Coetzee and Clive James etc.

Great writing nourishes. Quality muses prompt tears, ribald laughter, recognition and, significantly, thought itself. There's good reason why many of us huddle at night, turning pages. Nodding to ourselves, while salvaging a cup of kindness, unclaimed treats from the fridge and the spouse's Christmas chocolate cache.

The kids are asleep. Grab your copy and