Turning Pages: Remembering those we have lost

Turning Pages: Remembering those we have lost

One of the more melancholy rituals for readers in the new year is to look back at the writers we lost in the previous year, and to realise we are never going to enjoy new work from them.

It never gets any easier. 2018 saw the death of literary giants: Philip Roth, V. S. Naipaul, Ursula Le Guin, Amos Oz. And not quite so gigantic but perhaps just as influential, Tom Wolfe and the Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee.

Peter Temple had a huge influence on contemporary Australian crime writing.

Peter Temple had a huge influence on contemporary Australian crime writing.Credit:JSTEGER@theage.com.au

We also lost some great writers for the stage, screen and radio, including Neil Simon; William Goldman; and two of my favourites as I grew up in England – comedy writer Denis Norden, and Ray Galton, who wrote Steptoe and Son. Popular authors who left us included Penny Vincenzi and Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. Children and parents will mourn the passing of John Cunliffe, creator of Postman Pat.

Stephen Hawking was famous as a physicist whose brilliant mind resisted the ravages of motor neurone disease, but he was also the author of one of the most unusual bestsellers ever, A Brief History of Time, a 1988 popular guide to cosmology that sold 10 million copies. It gave me the brief but intoxicating illusion that I actually understood the universe.

Poet Judith Rodriguez.

Poet Judith Rodriguez.Credit:Eddie Jim

It's interesting how the obituarists cope with all these deaths: the writers and their works are so diverse, it's almost impossible to put them into any sort of pecking order. Even such an indisputably great writer as Naipaul, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, is a tricky subject for tribute when according to many accounts he was racist, sexist, and not very nice.

Australian writers who died in 2018 haven't made the international obituary lists, but they deserve their own tributes. We lost the two great Peters of crime fiction, Peter Corris and Peter Temple: both surveyed the gritty underworld in entirely different styles, both had a huge influence on contemporary Australian crime writing, and their respective private eyes Cliff Hardy and Jack Irish will surely live on.

We also lost an expert in true crime: historian and television writer Ian Jones, who specialised in the exploits of Ned Kelly and his gang; a reviewer and champion of Australian literature, Peter Pierce; and two women whose work I think has been underestimated: Jill Ker Conway, who wrote the splendid memoir The Road from Coorain; and Beverley Farmer, a novelist, short story writer and memoirist who created some exquisite, innovative and honest prose.

Andrew McGahan is still with us, but sadly he's been diagnosed with a terminal illness, so inevitably people have started to assess his astonishingly varied body of work, from his gutsy and grungy first novel, Praise, to his books for children and his Miles Franklin-winning The White Earth. I also enjoyed his explosive and audacious Wonders of a Godless World, which is like nothing else I've ever read; we had a great talk about the fun of chasing thunderstorms, among other things. And we can all look forward to a new novel from him later in the year.

Perhaps I am saddest to have lost Judith Rodriguez, a very fine poet and a woman I wish I had known better. Her latest collection, The Feather Boy, was published only last year. Here she is in her poem Eskimo Occasion:

"I stamp like the bear I call like the wind of the thaw/ I leap like the sea spring-running. My sunstruck daughters splutter/ And chuckle and bang their spoons:/ Mummy is singing at breakfast and dancing!/ So big! "

Those daughters are grown up now, but I'm sure the dancing goes on.


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