We live in cruel times, times in which rapacity is configured as a virtue, when endless, anything-goes personal accumulation is valorised, deemed the supreme goal of human endeavour. Greed is good. Compassion is passé. A refuge, this latter, for the weak of mind and the emotionally soft who can’t make it in the ruthless cut and thrust of the roaring market. A value for losers.
The hard-heartedness of our times manifests in contempt for appeals to social and environmental justice. ‘Fairness’, ‘dignity’, ‘sustainability’ are arcane words belonging to a time past. An abstract economic engine is all that matters now; development uber alles, along with massive private wealth accrual for the small few in whose interest this works, and that is anything but abstract. The most prominent enthusiast of the ascendant hard-heartedness is the Liberal Party of Australia, and we have just decisively elected it all over the country. Our new Liberal governments are led by men who feel little need to soften the expression of their shrivelled-up moral code in what they say and what they do.
I live in Australia’s small island state, a land of soaring natural beauty and wonderful knockabout people – yet it is mired within one of the most poisonous political cultures in the ‘democratic’ world. Its public realm is impoverished, its organs of cultural expression marginalised and declining, its mainstream media outlets (with one or two embattled individual exceptions) compliant, complacent, unreflective and unimaginative. The space for critique, for disinterested analysis, for negative feedback – the definitive qualities of democracy its very self – melts away, maintained only by a few people who stoutly insist that these things matter, but whose exclusion from the island’s closely policed avenues of influence renders them mere voices in the wilderness. Sometimes literally.
This is the context in which James Dryburgh lives, works and writes. The results are collected here. They amount to a visceral reminder that justice matters – that, indeed, it is through our empathetic mergence in the stream of life, human and non-human, that our own species being is realised.
Here we meet Chico, comfortably ensconced for 25 years in Australia, who is moved, nevertheless, to return to his native El Salvador to do what he can to rectify great wrongs. We meet the people of the Potosí mines in Bolivia. We encounter Ingrid Betancourt, leader of the Colombian Greens and a former presidential candidate who endured more than six years in the Amazon jungles as a captive of outlawed revolutionaries. We meet Martin Lynch, the Belfast playwright whose writings did so much to expose the infamous political prison of Long Kesh. We experience the joy of welcoming a newborn babe to the world, the grief felt at a friend’s death kayaking a river in California, the lyrical wonder of a dream in which a grown man encounters himself as a boy. We find literary inspirations as diverse as Pablo Neruda, William James, Cesar Vallejo, Eduardo Galeano, and the Polish writer, Ryszard Kapuściński, who knew that ‘one cannot have understanding without imagination’; that ‘you must live and experience what you report, to penetrate it as deeply as possible’.
These essays bring literature to the service of analysis and commentary. James asks big questions. On grief: ‘memory is more than a collection of dead people and dead moments. We remember to keep things alive, to recognize that they still have a place in the present, to trump death… Grief is coming to terms with the realisation that a particular family of memories will no longer grow’. On our deep, healing embeddedness in nature: ‘within the natural world we find a reality less contaminated, manipulated, deluded – as pure as sadness or joy. Perhaps it is when we converse with nature that our memories are most able to awaken and return to the heart. Memory alive in leaf, stone and water – our story flowing like the river, shaping and shaped by all it touches’.
Big questions, resolved with beauty and wisdom in equal measure. And all within a scope that is global, though with a strong focus on Central and South America, where James has spent potent time. The Potosí mines are insightfully compared to Tasmania’s own Rosebery mine. The startling, terrible history of Tierra del Fuego is brought into dramatic juxtaposition with the startling, terrible history of Van Diemen’s Land, in an essay that is, in my view, a masterpiece of Tasmanian historical contemplation.
This geographic linkage is entirely appropriate. The two regions share a Gondwanan legacy; they are close geological and floristic cousins, the vast intervening reach of the Pacific Ocean notwithstanding. And this is a profoundly Tasmanian book, the prism of other histories refracting sharp light onto our own. ‘Why did I learn so little of the Tasmania story at school’, James rightly laments. Well, if the Liberal Party’s cultural totalitarians have their way we’ll be learning even less of it – or, at least, we’ll learn nothing beyond the government’s sanitised, officially approved myths. There will be none of that critical inquiry without which history descends into propaganda (I did not choose that word ‘totalitarian’ lightly). James stands in the counter tradition, the Enlightenment tradition that mandates the hard light of fearless critique.
We should all read this book. To do so is to encounter a prose of power and a fearless critical intelligence. This book is what the beautiful island’s incongruously deformed public life so desperately needs. I wish it a deep and fruitful absorption into the hearts and minds of my island’s folk.