Truth-Telling in the Commonwealth

In this excerpt from his recently released book Print and Prize: Travels in the Commonwealth (Connor Court) Nicholas Hasluck (above) draws upon his years as Chair of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize to explore current contemporary issues, from post-colonial critiques to debates about truth-telling, national identity and role of the monarchy.

Some years ago, I received an invitation from the Director of the Commonwealth Foundation in London to act as Chair of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (CWP). The invitation was unexpected but not entirely surprising. I had just completed a term as Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. I had also travelled widely in Commonwealth countries and spent a period as writer-in-residence at the National University in Singapore.

I kept these experiences in mind while weighing up whether to accept the invitation. I was conscious that some observers of the global scene at that time, accustomed to speaking well of the United Nations, were in the habit of discounting the importance of the Commonwealth, as though it should be disregarded due to shadows in its past. To me, such a view seemed short-sighted. In contemporary circumstances, the former British colonies comprising the Commonwealth were generally inclined to take account not only of what happened in the past, including the colonial era, but also, and more importantly, to acknowledge the opportunities opened up in later times, especially in the years after the Second World War when so many countries achieved independence.

This memoir appears in Quadrant‘s March edition.
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A positive approach of this kind was reflected in the objectives of the prize. The CWP was described as a way of “promoting new voices, recognising excellence and building understanding between cultures”. It was essentially an annual award for works of prose fiction in two categories—Best First Book and Best Book—the entries in each category to be of reasonable length, by a citizen of a Commonwealth country, for a work of literary merit. 

The guidelines suggested that works of literature are a valuable way of understanding what is happening in other places, for often the best way to understand a place is to read its literature and get to know its writers. According to the Harare Declaration of 1991, the special strength of the Commonwealth is to be found in the diversity of its membership and a shared inheritance of language and the rule of law. Freedom of speech, including the right to hold opinions without interference, is thought to be essential for the maintenance of strong and efficient governments throughout the Commonwealth, subject to respecting the reputations of others and laws for the protection of national security, public health or morals.

All of this brought to mind my experiences as writer-in-residence at the University of Singapore and related travels. Skilful storytellers can show things as they are in memorable ways. They can reveal underlying flaws in systems that seem to be working well; they can bring to light complexities that might otherwise be overlooked. One of the gravest threats to human rights is to subvert the power of independent thought by depriving a person of the capacity to convey what he or she feels deeply. Too often, the language of human rights is framed in general terms and fails to acknowledge this reality.

I had passed through Singapore on several occasions but knew little about the island apart from some basic facts. It became a trading post of the British Empire in the Victorian era. Occupied by Japan in the Second World War, it returned to British control as a crown colony upon Japan’s surrender. Under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore gained self-governance in 1959 and became part of the new federation of Malaysia, but broke away from the federation in 1965 to become an independent sovereign country within the Commonwealth.

The quality of the creative writing submitted to me was variable. Most of the younger English-language writers were still pursuing their studies, which meant their manuscripts were often limited to events in the educational system. I was conscious also of a pervasive reluctance to speak caustically, or even ironically, about what was happening around them, as a result of which there was a noticeable absence of satirical works or parodies.

Like lesser-known Australian writers, Singaporeans were having to compete with well-promoted overseas competitors. They were at a disadvantage also when it came to writing about post-colonial or significant “literary” themes. When these are reflected in the works of writers such as Salman Rushdie or V.S. Naipaul or Derek Walcott, widely-respected in influential centres such as London or New York, they are seen to be relevant, and are often of interest to a broad audience. But serious themes in works by lesser-known writers in far places are usually ignored.

A local magazine called Commentary was funded by the university to serve as a forum for constructive discussion about contemporary issues. One of these issues was a tendency in the post-colonial phase of independence to emphasise a newly-independent country’s own cultural identity, although this sometimes weighed against a local writer’s prospects in the global arena. In Singapore, the editor of the magazine observed, the pervasive state presence meant that many creative people became passive observers of public affairs, jeering or cheering in the privacy of their homes while, at the same time, actualities on their television screens seemed as unreal as the fictional programs that framed them. “The cost to the country, the risks of such switching off by what should be the most concerned, articulate and perceptive members of society, may be discovered too late.”

It struck me that these somewhat Orwellian ruminations reflected the overly compliant acceptance of the status quo I had noticed in a number of the manuscripts handed to me: as if the presentation of contentious characters or viewpoints might seem unpatriotic.

Upon completion of my term as writer-in-residence, my wife joined me in Singapore as we embarked upon an excursion to Malaysia. We found a driver willing to take us across the straits to the southern tip of the peninsula, then northwards by road through the former Dutch settlement at Malacca on our way to the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Malacca was of particular interest for it was the birthplace of a poet known to me, Ee Tiang Hong, who was now living in my home state of Western Australia. He saw himself as a political émigré from Malaysia, where the anti-Chinese race riots of 1969 had led to humiliating reductions in freedom and authority for Chinese Malaysians. As a seventh-generation Straits-born Chinese, whose family had assimilated many aspects of Malay and Western cultures while retaining their own, Ee had a powerful sense of the town of Malacca and its surroundings as “home”, and was accustomed to taking pleasure in the multicultural influences of the area—Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, British, Chinese. His departure to Perth was brought about by his sense of an authoritarian monocultural tendency in Malaysia that seemed impossible to change.

Upon reaching Kuala Lumpur we visited museums and art galleries and some of the stately government buildings. Malaysia was a constitutional monarchy in the Westminster style with upper and lower chambers of parliament. The constitution granted freedom of religion while establishing Islam as the religion of the federation of thirteen states. We finished up at the splendid central railway station for a train journey back to Singapore.

The train advanced through scatterings of villages, kampongs and tiny isolated dwellings on the edges of fields and densely timbered rubber plantations. We were keen to take in all of this but, surprisingly, as a concession to the pervasive presence of American cultural influences perhaps, the railway officials kept lowering the window shades around us so that most of the passengers could watch soap-operas or American westerns on the screens overhead.

We were determined to find our way back to Malaysia and did so a few years later by travelling to Penang, a small island with narrow coastal plains and a mountainous interior. The main city on the island, Georgetown, had an intriguing mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Thai cultures. I had been provided with introductory letters to some local writers, so I contacted them without delay.

We had dinner with Lee Kok Liang, a local solicitor and author of a well-known novel, The Mutes in the Sun. After leaving the restaurant we took a leisurely stroll along the waterfront of Georgetown, keeping to the line of the sea-wall. The pavements, bedecked with coloured lights, were thronged with bystanders enjoying the balmy evening. Here and there, opposite barrows laden with cassettes for sale, youngsters sat waiting to see what lively music the nearest tape-deck would offer next. We bought some bowls of bean-curd, sweetened with black-sugar-juice, and dipped into them with little spoons as we chatted.

Our companion began talking about contemporary literature and local theatrical performances. The Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies in Malaysia had recently staged a production of Harold Pinter’s play Old Times, but a script based on hints and suggestions and menacing pauses didn’t do well in Malaysia. Ambiguous utterances pointing to snobberies and hidden sexual traits depended on English accents. Dialogue of this kind was scarcely intelligible to the local audience.

At the end of our walk, Lee invited me to join him at a regular Saturday morning get-together at the Penang courthouse with members of the local legal profession. I found my way there at the appointed hour and was greeted on the front steps by the secretary of the Bar Council. Some of those in the lawyers’ common room must have come straight from court, for they were wearing black bar jackets and, at the neck, small white bibs, or jabots in the French style, trimmed with lace. A table laden with curries and pastries stood in the centre of the room, cooled by a slowly revolving overhead fan. I was offered a glass of sherry and a sweetmeat from a passing tray: a cube of coconut ice wrapped in a sliver of palm leaf.

As I moved about the room, being introduced to various members of the profession, all of them friendly, it emerged that many of the barristers had rounded off their legal training at the Inns of Court in London. They were proud of this connection and inclined to mention some of the famous British advocates they had worked with or seen in action. One of them told me, in a cheerful tone, that he had a fine collection of vintage cars, purchased mostly from dealers in London.

I finished up talking to one of the local judges, a quiet, dignified fellow, sipping a cup of tea. It turned out that not so long ago he had presided at a trial that had gained considerable notoriety in Australia, a trial leading to the convictions and eventual executions of two youthful Australian drug-runners, both of whom claimed to have had no knowledge of what lay in the packages entrusted to them before being apprehended at the airport. The judge, in a thoughtful tone, spoke about the case quite openly, and about the discomfort he felt in imposing the fatal sentences. But there it was. It had to be done, he said. That was the law.

We were encouraged to visit a legal-aid clinic on the far side of the island. A driver arrived at our hotel next morning. We passed through a number of settlements with glimpses along the way of various holiday resorts, balconied structures looming above the surrounding foliage like galleons careened on a palm-fringed shore. The road narrowed, bringing us to townships crowded with barrows and flimsy stalls, bungalows on stilts, derelict signposts, cows grazing under bridges, tracks curving into the jungle.

The right-hand section of the Nissen hut we came to eventually, according to a faded placard above the entrance, was now being used for community health services. Women with babies in their arms were seated on wooden benches beneath the placard. The doorway to the other side of the dingy building, flanked by a mesh-clad window, was the legal-aid clinic.

We were introduced to Kim Aun, the young Indian lawyer who was on duty at the centre. “We are catching up on the backlog,” he explained. That said, he sat down and smacked the table in front of him. Those on the bench against the wall, as men do in a barber’s shop whenever someone steps down from the main chair, glanced at each other cautiously. A paunchy fellow with a large manilla envelope in his hand decided that he was next and came forward to claim his place at Kim’s table, producing some photos from the envelope as he launched into his tale, but speaking in a language unintelligible to us.

A formal air on both sides of the table was ever-present as one client followed another, as notes were made, and advice was given. After an hour or so, before we departed, Kim gave us a quick overview of the sort of cases he had been dealing with: disputes about livestock, boundaries, domestic assaults, defective goods, difficulties with citizenship. We wished him well and left him to it.

A few days later, back in Georgetown, we caught up with Cecil Rajendra, a lawyer/poet, and co-ordinator of another out-of-town legal-aid centre. Born in Penang, he spent most of his childhood in a fishing village, attended the University of Singapore, went on to Lincoln’s Inn, and founded the Black Voices forum for Third World writers during his lengthy sojourn in London. He had returned to Penang eventually to practise law, although this wasn’t the main thing on his mind right now. Yes, he was in a fine mood. One of his poems had just been included in the English-language textbook used for the General Certificate of Secondary Education in the United Kingdom: a poem called “When the Tourists Flew In”. It was based on the damage done by tourism which, too often, was seen as a panacea to economic woes in Third World countries.

Later, when I turned to Cecil’s book Child of the Sun, I found that the title poem opened in this way:

Do not ask

who am I?

I am what I am

child of the sun

ashes and quinine

jade and jasmine

I am lamentation

I am celebration.

According to a note on the cover, Cecil Rajendra, a political activist, had never been fully accepted as part of the literary establishment, at home or abroad.

I travelled to other places on the rim of the Indian Ocean, such as Mauritius and Trivandrum on the southern tip of India. These trips not only broadened my outlook but also, for a novelist always on the lookout for intriguing characters, unusual settings and challenging themes, they nourished my desire to look further afield.

In a world subject to many changes since the UN was formed in 1945, the idea of a clearly defined political entity known as a nation-state had been transformed not only by political upheavals but also by post-colonial critiques. Governmental policies and institutions were now increasingly subject to pleas for self-determination by activists and minorities, plus related tensions. Issues of this kind were apparent in the places I visited and in Australia also.

I gave thought to writing a novel about a penal colony supposedly established by France in the revolutionary era somewhere in the south seas, a settlement on islands off the coast of an imaginary continent, a region charted by various European navigators, governed as French colonies initially, but finishing up under British rule. My novel, to be called The Country Without Music, would be a way of exploring post-colonial issues in an oblique but thought-provoking way. Some further research would be necessary in real places with similar features. My quest for graphic details took me to New Caledonia and to Akaroa in New Zealand.

In the late eighteenth century, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach Mauritius, the French navigator St Alouarn had sailed on to reach the mysterious land mass pictured on maps compiled by the early Dutch navigators. He buried a coin on Dirk Hartog Island, raised a flag, and took possession of the place in the name of the French king. But French hopes of establishing a penal colony in that region were thwarted when some years later the British sent a force to what is now Albany in a southern corner of Western Australia.

This led to French colonists settling at Akaroa in New Zealand, but with little success. The Treaty of Waitangi signed by Maori leaders conferred entitlements on the British. Vestiges of the French settlement are reflected in the housing styles at Akaroa, in street names, and in epitaphs on headstones in the old cemetery.

A year or so after completing The Country Without Music I was invited to attend a Law Asia Conference in Sri Lanka. Here, in Colombo, my wife and I were introduced to members of the local profession. A number of them, like their counterparts in Penang, had been admitted to the Bar in London after enrolment at one of the Inns of Court. Papers presented at the conference had a bearing upon some of the themes underlying my novel.

The original Indo-Aryan inhabitants of Sri Lanka were from north India. When the Portuguese came to the island, they occupied the coastal provinces, but lost them to the Dutch in the seventeenth century. In due course the British displaced the Dutch and captured the inland kingdom of Kandy, creating an imperial colony called Ceylon, renowned for its tea plantations. These were worked by indentured Tamil labourers brought in from India. Three ethnic groups—Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim—made up the greater part of the country’s population. When British rule ended in 1948, the newly-enacted constitution made provision for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

A few years later, we were on our way back to Colombo to attend a conference organised by the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. Our flight was accompanied by a degree of apprehension. At that time Tamils in the north and east of the island had been fighting for secession for over a decade in a war that had claimed at least 35,000 lives. A few days before we set off, two “Tamil Tiger” suicide bombers had set off an explosion in central Colombo to highlight their opposition to a governmental plan affecting the country’s Tamil minority.

At this time, my work as a barrister included membership of an anti-discrimination tribunal in Perth. Before setting off, a staff member with family links to Colombo had arranged for me to meet one of her relatives, Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam, a Director of the Sri Lankan Law and Society Trust. We took a taxi to the Trust’s premises in Kynsey Terrace, close to the city centre. Wreckage along the way was a reminder of the current state of emergency. The approach to the premises was sealed off with barricades manned by armed guards. Our host, an experienced lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Yale, had perfect manners but, not surprisingly, seated by a window overlooking the troubled scene outside, he seemed ill-at-ease. He was constantly interrupted by incoming calls, and left the room abruptly from time to time.

Neelan had entered the Sri Lankan parliament as a representative of the Tamil United Liberation Front. He became a key supporter of constitutional reform and the government’s current plan to change Sri Lanka from a unitary state to a union of regions and with greater recognition of Sri Lanka’s various minorities. This plan was generally welcomed in Sri Lanka and abroad but was under attack by Sinhalese nationalists and Tamil militants.

We talked about these issues as best we could between the other and clearly more pressing demands on his attention. The heightening of racial and ethnic conflict, he said, in a number of countries, including Sri Lanka, was now often accompanied by ideological orthodoxies on university campuses. This meant that academics were under increasing pressure to develop portrayals of the past lending legitimacy to the racial group to which they belonged. It then became dangerous to question not only the beliefs of any rival racial group but also orthodoxies adopted by one’s own group. This was happening here and now in Colombo.

It struck me that tensions of the same kind were increasing in New Zealand and Australia as to indigenous causes, albeit in a less violent form than the situation he was now describing. As it happened, I never had a chance to return to this point with our host. He was called away to attend to some urgent message and we felt obliged to depart. A few years later, outside his premises in Kynsey Terrace, a man threw himself onto the bonnet of Neelan Tiruchelvam’s car, detonating an explosive device that killed them both. The militant Tamil Tigers were widely blamed for the assassination, allegedly due to Neelan’s betrayal of Tamil interests by supporting the government’s watered-down devolution package, an acute reminder that there can be divisive factions within minority groups. Neelan was honoured posthumously for his work in promoting social justice and human rights in Sri Lanka.

Australian writers attending the literary conference in Colombo were interviewed by a reporter from the local press. Beverley Farmer said that with its great influx of migrants Australia was fast becoming a multicultural community. She had been on both sides of the line, first as a native Australian and then migrating to Greece with her Greek husband. As a child she had grown up with British literature, but as a generation of young people went off to Europe, they found Australian culture too narrow and now people didn’t regard Britain as the mother country any more.

Satendra Nandan, now living in Australia, disclosed that he had been a cabinet minister in Fiji but came to Canberra after two Fijian coups d’etat in 1987 to take up a research fellowship. Robert Drewe observed that there were instances of racism in Australia but he was of the opinion that on the whole Australia had to be viewed as a comparatively peaceful place with respect to migration. He argued against the suggestion that Australia was a land without myths. He mentioned Ned Kelly, a mythical figure in the Irish-Australian consciousness as depicted in Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine, the tale of a bushranger, tried and executed in Melbourne eventually, whose exploits outgrew his life.

When I was asked about my recently-published novel The Country Without Music I began by explaining that it was a historical fact that the French came close to establishing a penal colony in the south-west corner of my home state, Western Australia. Aware of this, in embarking upon the novel, I surmised that they did so by occupying islands off the coast of a continent supposedly named Grande Terre. The controversies and viewpoints of the characters in the story became a way of talking about national identity and multicultural concerns which had now become an increasingly important facet of the Australian political agenda.

In the light of my recent discussion with Neelan Tiruchelvam, I added this:

For a lawyer and a writer like myself, interested in politics and social transformation, one of the major problems in contemporary literature is to find a genre or a style which gives a freedom to bear witness to what is happening which will not be immediately and dogmatically pre-judged or condemned by representatives of all the current orthodoxies or preconceptions that are likely to confuse the picture. One solution is to create an entirely fictional realm with the result that the characters are not restricted by prevailing attitudes or entrenched opinions about the so-called facts of history.

The reporter closed his article by saying: “This aspect sounds all too familiar to Sri Lankan writers—more intensely perhaps—for freedom of expression seems less tolerated in this part of the world.”

The Australian writers, especially an academic from the University of Sydney, were then distracted by a drama on the home front reflecting some uncanny intersections between fact and fiction and issues concerning identity.

The academic was one of five judges of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award for a work of fiction. This year’s prize had been awarded to Helen Demidenko for her widely acclaimed novel The Hand That Signed the Paper, a story apparently based on the dire wartime experiences of the author’s Ukrainian family. Now, in Colombo, the academic was suddenly informed by colleagues in Sydney that the author had been exposed as an imposter. Helen Demidenko was actually Helen Darville from suburban Brisbane. She had perceived apparently, as satirists often do, a degree of naivety (or hypocrisy) in the Australian literary scene—publishers, critics and competition judges were currently inclined to favour contestants with indigenous identities or links to multicultural communities. So she had fabricated not only a foreign name but also an exotic Ukrainian background, and brought her satirical caper to a satisfactory end by winning the prestigious prize.

Not surprisingly, although they themselves had helped to create the mood behind the fiasco, various columnists and critics were now solemnly of the opinion that the Miles Franklin Award judges must have succumbed to the pervasive identity-dusted orthodoxy: the current vibe or zeitgeist. For several days phone calls and telegrams were hurtling to and fro.

The Helen Demidenko caper certainly left questions in the air as to what was an “authentic” identity, questions that have lingered and are still with us at a political level. Fortunately, however, for most of us in Sri Lanka when the news broke, there was much to take our minds off distracting issues on the home front. Papers at the conference covered a vast field of post-colonial insights and related research.

It was a matter of interest to me that many Australian academics seemed to think that the only creative works of any consequence in South-East Asia were novels set in villages or kampongs, presented mostly in a simplistic way by decent but essentially parochial storytellers about deprivations referable to callous European rule. Academics of this persuasion seemed to be blissfully unaware, or had chosen to ignore perhaps, the presence of people working in modern towns and offices, such as politicians, government officials and skilled professionals, as if characters of this kind didn’t really count.

It is true, of course, that educated elites in any country are always only a tiny fraction of the entire population. Their comparatively affluent and well-ordered lives may seem to lack the confrontational or poignant encounters to be found in remote communities or village streets, the tense or tender moments usually of most interest to creative writers. But any portrayal of social interactions that blissfully or wilfully ignores the work of those who are bound to influence what goes on in the community as a whole is at risk of presenting a misleading picture.

The same group of academics, or so it seemed to me, heeding the post-war push for self-determination reflected in UN pronouncements, seemed to assume that local or indigenous writers in emerging or newly-independent states had only one objective in mind, namely, the laudable aim of producing works that would help to define and thus enhance a distinctive ethnic identity, this being done solely for acclaim within their own communities, and principally by condemning pernicious colonial practices.

There were, indeed, many successful writers of this hue, but it had become apparent to me that there were also other factors at work. Like artists generally, many writers sought and deserved the stimulation and approval of the metropolis. For some, given the limited publishing opportunities in their own countries, this quest for wider acclaim was inevitably linked also to financial considerations.

Towards the end of the conference in Colombo, I recall crossing an expanse of patchy lawn known as Galle Face Green. Once the scene of British military manoeuvres, but now graced by cricket-players and teenage kite-flyers, this boasted the National State Assembly at its northern end, together with an array of bronze statues of the political heroes of Sri Lanka’s independence movement, and the famous Galle Face Hotel at the southern end, an imposing legacy of imperial days with verandas overlooking the Indian Ocean. We settled down to a round of drinks on a patio by an inner courtyard.

On the way out, we paused to admire a small car on display in the foyer, a 1930s sedan, carefully polished, cordoned off by ropes from which were suspended some informative placards. This old vehicle was said to have been driven by Prince Philip during a visit to Ceylon in the early days of the Second World War, when he was unmarried and serving as a youthful naval officer. His passion for seeing all there was to see, wherever the chance offered, was already strong apparently.

Colombo, like so many other parts of what is now the modern Commonwealth, was a place Prince Philip would see again. His marriage to Princess Elizabeth in 1947 was followed apparently by a congenial period when his bride joined him in Malta and was able to live normally, much as any other naval wife. It was her first and perhaps her only complete escape from palaces and constant formality and she seems to have enjoyed it. One sometimes wonders whether the experiences of the royal couple in their early married life may have played a part in their commitment to the Commonwealth throughout the Queen’s reign, from her accession to the throne in 1952 to her demise in 2022, seventy years later.

The Queen and her husband travelled to all corners of the Commonwealth and their presence undoubtedly added a memorable quality to a vast array of ceremonial public occasions and to more informal communal events. Many commentators agreed that right through to the end of her reign she viewed time spent on Commonwealth affairs as one of her most significant personal endeavours. She saw the Commonwealth play a constructive role in the reconfiguring of the post-war map of the world, in Africa, the Indian Ocean, South-East Asia and the Caribbean. Movements within the Commonwealth transformed Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand into the multicultural societies of today, but with a continuance on the whole of important civic ideals such as parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

When the original members created the modern Commonwealth after the Second World War, they searched for a way of keeping the royal connection while continuing to include newly-created republics such as India. The monarch was given the non-hereditary title of “Head of the Commonwealth”. This was accepted by the newly independent nations as well as by the white leaders of the old Commonwealth. Towards the end of her reign, it was agreed unanimously that Prince Charles should be approved as the next Head of the Commonwealth.

It was clear to me, upon agreeing to chair the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, that in a country like Australia, which at a referendum in 1999 had come close to reconstituting itself as a republic, a prize linked to what was thought to be a reactionary body was bound to be disdained in various virtue-signalling literary quarters. I liked to think, however, that others on the literary scene would be more open-minded, acknowledging the need for genuine diversity in the provision of support for writers. The CWP and related interactions with audiences and educational bodies would serve a number of beneficial purposes. These would include not only financial rewards for deserving writers but also, and more importantly perhaps, a degree of recognition and publishing opportunities that might be withheld or otherwise unavailable in certain countries.

It may now strike some readers that one of the best ways to try and understand another country is to relate what seems to happening elsewhere to what is happening or taking shape in one’s own country, a task more easily accomplished where there are matters in common, such as language or laws or social customs, as in many former British colonies.

In the words of Osip Mandelstam: “Wine ages—therein lies its future; culture ferments—therein lies its youth. Preserve your own art: those narrow clay jugs, buried beneath the earth.” Mandelstam was a widely admired Russian poet, but in the end a casualty of social upheavals that ruined the nature of his homeland. His words suggest that a country’s culture is precious and can’t be moulded simply by nurturing grievances from the past. It has to be constantly renewed by looking forward, with an awareness that much of value is shaped beneath the surface of daily life. Voices involved only in public debate, affected by current orthodoxies and short-term goals, often sound shallow. The small personal voice of a creative writer makes its presence felt at a deeper and more enduring level. It shapes its own accent; its own melody.

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