Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2020

Griffith Review 69 (2020): The European Exchange, edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica

I’m making an effort to finish off the plethora of non-fiction books I’ve marked as ‘currently reading’ at Goodreads.  My life is full of these books: in the sitting room, my library, the family room, the bedroom, the car, the handbag.  The idea is to avoid the sense of panic at having nothing to read during an idle moment, but because I flit from one to another, it can take a long time for me to finish them…

I bought Griffith Review #69, The European Exchange because I miss being a member of the European community.  (Yes, I’m an Aussie, but although I’ve never used it, a British passport was worth having before Brexit. Now it’s just a curiosity for the scrapbook.)

Ah well…

Published in partnership with the Australian National University, Edition 69 is good value, even if travel is off the horizon for the time being.  Its publication comes as Australians rediscover the ‘tyranny of distance’.  This is the blurb:

Europe has been thrown into sharp relief by the impact of a devastating pandemic. As country after country succumbs to the contemporary plague, deeply buried memories of death and destruction resurface.

But Europe has emerged from devastation before, and become stronger and more connected. A year ago French president Emmanuel Macron declared that Europe must be understood as a project – a vision of the best sort of global community. Although the COVID-19 crisis has profoundly challenged the idea of Europe as interconnected, and as accessible to Australia, the rich exchange between peoples and continents will eventually resume.

Griffith Review 69: The European Exchange explores the deep and complex relationships between Europe and Australia and shows how Australians of many backgrounds have contributed to a long-standing dialogue that enriches both continents.

In coming months both Europe and Australia will have much to learn from each other as the overwhelming pain of loss from COVID-19 gives way to a new reality in which diverse cultures work together to create a richer and more resilient globe.

Contributors include: Christos Tsiolkas, Robyn Archer, Julienne van Loon, Mat Schulz, Sanja Grozdanic, John Armstrong, Gabriella Coslovich, Christian Thompson, Hans van Leeuwen, Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung, Stuart Ward, Susan Varga, George Megalogenis, Anna Haebich, Anthony Macris, Jaya Savige, Tim Bonyhady, Irris Makler, Michael Cooney, David Morris and Natasha Cica.

Mat Schulz has captured in ‘The tyranny of closeness’ exactly how so many of us feel.  We lived in a world connected by cheap flights not Facebook and Zoom, and that mobility made us citizens of the world.  Yes, there was a price to be paid in carbon footprints, and Australians have to reckon with ‘flight shame’ which propels Europeans to travel by train rather than by air, but still, we feel compelled to travel, marooned as we are at the edge of the world.

Flight shame comes with far deeper ramifications for Australians than for Europeans.  Travel from Australia to any other country involves an enormous carbon footprint.  If we submit fully to guilt, Europe once again becomes a distant land in physical terms.  If, soon enough, Australians rarely fly any more, rarely visit the rest of the world, then the tyranny of closeness will come to mean something else — evoking a constant network of virtual togetherness that will never be truly satisfying.  (p.35)

As Schulz says, Europeans who live so close to each other, never feel the same jolt when arriving after a long-haul flight.  (I vividly remember my first arrival, in Vienna. Stupid with jetlag, I was so disorientated that I thought I was hallucinating and would wake up soon and be back in Australia).

Schulz is conscious not only of his own travel miles, but of those he’s caused as an artistic director of a music festival, bringing literally thousands of people into Krakow to attend it.  If the solution to the carbon problem is to make this festival local, then Australian musicians would be excluded.  (We have been excluded from hearing the world’s best opera stars for years and years.  They’re happy for us to buy their recordings, but they won’t make the long haul flight here to perform.)  The cancelled flights of C-19 are teaching us what our future might be like…

I enjoyed John Armstrong’s ‘The art of the Salon’.  It’s such a very European idea, gathering together to see and hear and discuss art, music, poetry and life.  While I think he has idealised to some extent the way in which taxi-drivers and bar staff engage in cultural chit-chat in Italy, I admit to a cringe when reading his portrait of Australian gatherings:

Ten people get around a table or twenty-five people stand about drinking cocktails: it’s very pleasant, everyone is good-natured, but at the end of the evening we realise we have never gone above the level of polite chit-chat.  We’ve asked people how they are and they’ve told us they’re great; we’ve talked in a jokey way about what’s in the news — though we would never give our honest views and don’t imagine anyone else would either. Our hosts have devoted the greatest care to what we eat and drink — and it is certainly delicious.  They’ve worried about the canapés and bought a new kind of balsamic vinegar for the salad dressing (and that’s a delightful thoughtfulness on their part).  But there’s no equivalent ambition that we should have a fruitful or profound conversation.  It’s no one’s fault.  Australian culture hasn’t set this up as a central concern — as a necessary, even sufficient ingredient for any social gathering. (p.40)

Armstrong says, and maybe he’s right though I hope not…

As the world feels like it is contracting or fragmenting into its smaller constituent parts, and as the COVID_19 crisis suggests that our opportunities to travel might be severely curtailed for at least some time, a new idea comes to the fore.  If we can’t get to Europe, we can bring what we love in Europe here. (p.41)

There’s a lovely memoir of Rome by Gabriella Coslovich: it’s my favourite city.

Robyn Archer’s ‘Behind the Scene’ makes an interesting point about the importance of the arts in difficult times:

…contemporary Australian artists have a hard time justifying their existence as contributors to society, and just as worthy of a working wage as those who serve in policing, nursing, firefighting, teaching, food production or garbage collection.

This is an obvious challenge at this particular time, when stimulus packages designed to avoid the economic train wreck of COVID-19 have not yet adequately provided for the artists and arts workers who were among the first individuals to lose their jobs, and for arts companies and institutions  whose futures instantly became precarious.  It’s a trap for any one of us, even those in the sector, to watch the work of those brave souls on the frontline and be persuaded that they are indeed more essential, more important than artists.  That is, until we observe what people are doing at home during isolation: music, online performance, museums-at-home, movies and TV series, books and any manner of storytelling have become the mainstay for wellbeing and an ongoing sense of what we share.

All these resources were created by artists — among the first to respond to lockdown and the changing world by creating online content free to all.  (pp.92-3)

‘Come together: The evolving social role of libraries’ by Esa Laaksonen and Silvia Micheli is about libraries.  Adopting ideas from Finland, apparently, Australian libraries are becoming increasingly multiethnic and mobile, and libraries offer services that are pluralistic and multicultural.  These new activities mean changes in design as well as changes in ambience, that embrace the concept of ‘public living rooms’ and focus less on the reader and more on the user.


That’s fine up to a point, though it seems a pity to me that a library is now a place where you can certainly still browse and borrow books, but not sit and read them in a quiet space any more.  Too much depends on how people behave, and more specifically, expect children to behave, in a living room.

There’s a library just outside my municipality that I don’t visit any more, not even if it’s the only one with a book I want.

Contemporary libraries are more of a shared living space for users, and children enjoy running among and accessing all of the bookshelves — something that one seemed unimaginable. (p. 250, underlining mine.)

This library has adopted this philosophy……but they haven’t established any of the ground-rules that make shared spaces pleasant for everybody.  The children are running amok and the noise of their screaming is unbearable.  In making libraries into places for people to meet, interact and experience a sense of belonging’ some of them have become alienating instead.

So in this instance, I’m not sure that the European influence is always beneficial!

Editors: Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica
Cover image: Piece of the Sky (detail) by Yury Avi (2008)
Title: Griffith Review #69, The European Exchange
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922212504
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings. $27.99


  1. I agree with you re libraries and their changes. I’m glad I’m not the only one with a backlog of non fiction lying around the house. It piles up so quickly yet I hesitate to wipe it all and start afresh. 🐧🌷🌻


    • It’s because (in general) we don’t *have to* read it to find out what happens. I dip into mine, a chapter of this, an essay in that…leave it for a day or a week or (in this case) a month or two…


  2. I actually like libraries being more friendly now – I find it uncomfortable if our local library is too quiet, I like to walk in and hear a librarian chatting with someone, and a couple of people talking… and the children seem to be very well behaved I have to say. They do have quiet nooks and crannies where you can sit and be quite peaceful. I can understand children running would be very annoying and distracting! I’ve had that happen in cafes when I’ve been trying to use a laptop and the parents appear to be unconcerned that the youngsters are knocking the tables and sending drinks splattering…

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who dips in and out of non-fiction – I do it all the time – I rarely read cover to cover like a novel. I guess it’s because I’m not having to follow a plot or character development. Dipping in and out of non-fiction is one of my guilty pleasures!


    • I’m not advocating for the days of total silence… (though that would have been nice in my days in university libraries when I was trying to concentrate.)
      But it’s not a problem if the children are well-behaved. I was a well-behaved child in libraries myself and my local library holds successful story times for really little children, babes in arms, and toddlers, and it’s lovely to see. I also had my school library open every day, for quiet games and reading, but every kid knew where the line was. Anyone who disturbed anyone else was out, no arguments, and in ten years I don’t think I ever had to evict anyone for running. Running, in indoor public spaces, where you might collide with, or worse, knock over someone vulnerable, is Not On, as far as I’m concerned.
      The worst thing I ever saw in a restaurant, was children jumping down from the stairs, into the path of waitstaff moving from the kitchen side to the dining side. Some parents just don’t deserve to have children…


      • Yes I remember the university library being so silent you’d see all the heads go up if someone even turned a page too loudly! Now I don’t have to study I guess I enjoy a bit of a chat!


        • It was the loud whispers that drove me nuts. Usually, The Bailleau basement was silent as the grave because only the serious students were down there reading the journals. but every now and again someone would barge in to organise their social lives and it fractured my train of thought. Classical studies was the most scholarly subject I ever did but I couldn’t take the journals home to study in peace and quiet, and being part time and in full-time work and parenting &c, I had so little time: every moment was precious. I suppose now everything is online and it wouldn’t be a problem.


  3. Like you, I have non-fiction books lying around everywhere, half read, so that I always have something to suit my mood or mode of transport. And around this time, I suddenly get the urge to finish them off, so I can start the new year with new non-fiction :-)


    • Yes, exactly, what is it about this arbitrary date that inflicts this compulsion on us, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yep, I have non-fiction lying around too – including quite a few Griffith Reviews! I don’t subscribe because I know I won’t read them all, but it is one of my favourite journals.

    I like the more cheery libraries too … but children running around, up and down rows of shelves etc, is not appropriate. It’s dangerous for older people – for anyone really. I think modern libraries need to have quiet rooms for readers, and other spaces for talkers. However, I must say that my university library was quiet, as I recollect it, but I always did prefer to do my serious reading at home.

    That Art of the salon quote you shared is very true, and sad. For some reason we Australians in general don’t seem to have learnt the art of respectful discussion. I love it when I spend time with friends with whom we do get beneath the surface, but it doesn’t happen much in social gatherings, does it. When it does, I come home feeling alive.


    • I did subscribe to the Griffith review for a year… and with good intentions, a whole lot of others over the years, but the only one I’ve stuck with is The Quarterly Essay, and more recently Australian Foreign Affairs. The others, I keep an eye on, and hope I don’t miss something that appeals. (I think I saw this one on Twitter).
      One of my friends runs a different kind of salon: he hires young classical musicians for concerts in his house, and then there’s wine and nibbles afterwards. It is just heaven to sit and listen in a more intimate space than a concert hall, looking out over his gorgeous garden in the Dandenongs. I went to a couple of salons in private homes like that with my piano teacher when I was a teenager, and I loved it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been to a few house music concerts like that too. I agree. It’s really special.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The European Exchange, Griffith Review #69 (2020) edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica […]


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