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Friday, April 22, 2011

April 5th

Author Interview: Cory Taylor author of “Me and Mr. Booker”

My first guest was CORY TAYLOR, Brisbane-based author of “Me and Mr. Booker”, reviewed last week on “The Blurb”.

Cory has written children’s books “Rate Tales” #1 and #2 and worked on film scripts. She spoke of the positive influence of an inspiring English teacher and the poet GEOFF PAGE.

Cory is currently working on a novel, which takes up the character of Victor, Martha’s Mittyesque father.

Interview with Robyn Rowland

ROBYN ROWLAND was in to talk about her current work, and to publicise the Geelong Regional Library’s next “Conversations With Poets” which will feature Catherine Bateson and Alex Skovron. Last month’s evening was sold out, so contact the library if you intend going. More details next week.
Meanwhile as we mentioned a few weeks back Robyn was recently awarded the Irish “Writing Spirit Award” for her recent writings. She read a recent poem about BILL HENSON’s photos and we talked about our concerns regarding the sexualisation of children – a natural follow on from my conversation with Cory Taylor.

This Week’s Review: “Angelica” by Arthur Phillips

JOHN FOWLES hit the literary scene with a bang in the 1970s,with “The Magus” soon followed by “The Collector” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. [The last two were made into very good films.] The last book apparently came out of Fowles’ teaching about the English novel at university. It was his attempt to write a “Victorian” novel. Think George Elliot, Thackeray, Hardy. Yes, the book’s language had a somewhat archaic and stilted period feel to it, but the novel worked very well without apology or explanation. I loved it back then and must find time to read it again. Today’s book reminded me very much of Fowles’ for the style and setting Phillips has adopted. A far cry from “Prague” which I reviewed last year [though apparently closer to his later “The Egyptologist” which I am yet to see.] “Prague”, you may remember was a very talky but enjoyable contemporary story about a group of English 30-somethings ‘on the make’ in Central Europe. A comedy of manners, really.

Phillips is in a darker mood here. Inevitably the blurb mentions HENRY JAMES’ classic novella, “The Turn Of The Screw” [made into a brilliant black-and-white horror film in the 1960s, starring Deborah Kerr in one of her final roles. One of my favourite films.] The novel echoes the earlier book’s themes somewhat and the tone is decidedly gothic with evident sexual suppression and bottled hysteria [like James’ governess.]

Constance, the wife, was a lowly, orphaned shopgirl until she was wooed by the handsome Barton [nee “Bartone”, Italian parentage…as in hot-blooded, of course.] He never quite made it through medical school and is a reasonably well-off research scientist, working in immunology and experimenting with live animals which the reader finds out well ahead of his wife. Constance has managed only one live birth, Angelica, from three pregnancies and has been warned that another will be fatal. Naturally then she dotes on her eccentric [at least] daughter. Barton is clever and arrogant. He enjoys an independent social life and is finding the near abstinence from sexual contact very difficult [being, as he is of Mediterranean lineage!]. Constance tries to play to his needs, but this only seems to encourage animosity and resentment from her husband.

Meanwhile their daughter is having “episodes”: perhaps they are supernatural? Or is it hysterics? Now, at this stage, it is good to recall that our word “hysterics” comes from the same Greek word as “hysterectomy”,etc. In Victorian and earlier times, hysteria was the name for the female ‘complaint’ of sexual enjoyment. As Constance observes Angelica’s night time experiences, she comes to wonder whether they are somehow connected with or even caused by her husband. Coupled with the eerie atmospherics of the house and its history, there is a domestic who seems to know more than she should. If “Little People” [last week] belongs in the genre melodrama, what is this book? Constance reacts to her husband’s edict to sleep in their bed by sneaking down nightly to sit with her daughter…Are the nocturnal phenomena real? Surely an external, objective witness is called for. Enter, Anne Montague, a spiritualist who has her own interesting history and commanding presence.

What is going on here? One critic called “Angelica” a ‘psychological detective story without a detective’ and so it is. The novelist lets the story be told by using four voices, as it were, none of which is entirely omniscient [I think], but rather - layer upon layer – the facts might finally emerge. Yes, the plot is somewhat convoluted, but it all comes together in the end. There are some wonderful elements: the night “dreams”; Constance’s visit to her husband’s laboratory; Barton’s relationship with his boss, Harry; the awful “women’s specialist”, Dr. Miles, which Constance is sent to. And all the Freudian connections are on show: daughter-father; fear of sex; sex and death; the latent power of childhood trauma to affect adult life. Phillips is a young writer who may already be at the top of his form. He is not afraid of long paragraphs with sentences containing lots of complex clauses, but he is always in charge. If the plot remains murky right to the end, I believe that is precisely what the author intended. Listen to the opening sentence:
“I suppose my prescribed busywork should begin as a ghost story, since that was surely Constance’s experience of these events….”

Shades of “The Catcher In The Rye’ or “Portnoy’s Complaint”…Who is speaking? To whom? We should have known we’d be kept guessing….

SCORE: ****
ARTHUR PHILLIPS: “Angelica”, Scribe pb, PP 331, rrp $35

And speaking of OPENING SENNTENCES: in a few weeks’ time, I’d like to offer listeners what I think are come classic openings from some well-known/well-liked novels. You may like to contribute some. Send them in to me at PULSE.


This week you heard “Stormy Weather” by Steve Murphy. Steve can be heard every second Friday at “The Wrong Crowd” in Moorabool Street, Geelong.

March 29th

This is The Blurb…with Bernard, Emma…and our fortnightly guest, JOHN BARTLETT

Book & Publishing News:

* We found DAVID MALOUF’s “Quarterly Essay” fairly heavy-going as Malouf looks at the big philosophical question: What is happiness? Some very good Letters in response to the last Essay [“Trivial Pursuit”.]

* VICTOR FRANKL was a Holocaust survivor who became a leading psychiatrist, founder of the school of Transactional Analysis. His excellent book, “Man’s [sic] Search for Meaning” was widely read in the 60s – and has now been re-issued.

* I have recommended “Eureka Street” before; yes, it is published by the Jesuits, but is in no sense proselytising. It features some of our best commentators on issues of the day. Available free on-line.

* Local writer ROSALIE HAM [ “The Dressmaker”] has a new book coming out soon: look out for “There Should Be More Dancing”.

* When I spoke about MICHAEL DUFFY’s “The Tower”. I didn’t realise that the second Troy novel, “The Simple Death”, was already out…and I think it is even better than the first. I believe Duffy has just raised the bar in Australian crime fiction. I will speak with him in a couple of weeks time.

* What is it about Autumn? Isn’t it just the best season? JOHN KEATS thought so; not many of our Australian poets do the Seasons, although many talk of Summer in passing. Today John will read the beautiful opening stanza of Keats’ “To Autumn”.

* Last week I spoke with MEG MUNDELL about “Black Glass” – reviewed in “The Age” at the weekend…And there was an article yesterday about SCOTT BENNETT’s “Pozieres” which I spoke about a few weeks back: just reminding you how current we are here at “The Blurb”….And I had written my review of “Little People” last week – before it was covered in the weekend papers…

* PAUL CLEARY”s “The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground” [“The Blurb”, October, 2010] has been nominated for a Walkley Award this year.

* JAMES LEE BURKE’s daughter, Alafair, has ventured into the crime fiction field, not very successfully, I’d say. The son of ELMORE LEONARD, Peter Leonard, however, has written a ripper of a pulp-fiction book called “All He Saw Was The Girl” which is fast-paced, funny, dark, global – all that a contemporary thriller should be.

* The book on which the current film, “The Way Back” is based – “The Long Road” – has been re-issued in paperback.

* Next week, ROBYN ROWLAND will be in again and I hope to talk to CORY TAYLOR [“Me and Mr. Booker”] in Brisbane.

* I spoke yesterday with KATHRYN from that her great little bookshop in Barwon-end Pako, PATON BOOKS: she or someone from the shop will be in regularly to tell us what is happening there. [I reckon the WEST end of Pako needs a bookshop too…The food down there is getting better by the day!]

This Week’s Author Interview: Benjamin Law

John spoke with BENJAMIN LAW, the popular author of the proclaimed and best-selling memoir, “The Family Law”.
[In the not-too-distant future, “The Blurb” will be available for you to podcast and listen to via iPod.]

This Week’s Reviews:

‘Little People’ by Jane Sullivan

This is a very clever book. Jane has discovered some larger-than-life historical characters – especially Charles “General Tom Thumb” Stratton – and re-created the world of late 19th century SE Australia for a rollicking story of showbiz, love and adventure the likes of which we don’t see often [though again I was reminded a little of E.L. Doctorow’s work.]

‘The General’ did in fact visit our shores at the time the novel is set, but Sullivan creates her own tale, via her invention of the interesting Mary Ann, an impoverished pregnant governess through whom we see most of the events…though the author is not content with a straight-forward third person narrative, as I’ll show later. The “little people” reveal all the human traits of love, intrigue, rivalry and adventure-seeking lest you scoff at the public’s adulation of such “freak” shows, I remember the Fat Lady and the “pygmies from Africa” at the Melbourne Show in the early 60s! Anyway the real genius of the show business phenomenon was the legendary P T Barnum who had discovered the child who became ‘The General’ when the latter was a young child whom we meet as an ageing star, and this onward march of age will be his greatest threat – as well as a fellow member of the troupe.

* Our “little people” – Sullivan tells us in a useful Afterword – probably had Pituitary Dwarfism, caused by a deficiency in growth hormones. Their heads, body and limbs were in perfect proportion, they may have been born to parents of normal height – and any offspring might have been of average size.

As to the book’s style and form, Sullivan uses the conventional chapters for a chronological account, but inserts ‘sideshow’ vignettes
[termed “Acts”] from the various minor characters which works very well in letting the reader into the whole picture, complete with authentic period photographs. [This is another beautifully-designed paperback from “text” publishing.] The tour begins in Melbourne with ‘The General’ apparently rescuing Mary Ann from drowning in he Yarra. Then it’s Tasmania, Adelaide, back to Melbourne, thence towards Sydney via Seymour where there is a brilliantly-depicted flood emergency. There are some wonderful characters in this novel: ‘The General’ and his beautiful wife; her sister, the desperate-for-love, Minnie; various underlings who keep the show on the road, including ‘The General’s’ rival, Rondia. Then there are “villains” of the almost hiss-able type. Mary Ann’s plight is realistically portrayed: this was the era long before any social welfare; being single and pregnant was doom-laden; her situation is desperate and yet she acquits herself admirably. Yes, it is a bit That Sort Of Book, though at no stage does it become mawkish or predictable. We await the birth of the child with Mary Ann and her unusually supportive employers.

The historical novel has always been in vogue, I suppose, but I seem to be coming across them more than ever, and they are of consistent quality. Sullivan [literary editor of “The Age”] is an intelligent and hard-working writer. The research she did for this novel shows in the realism of the settings – and the lives we encounter in this very entertaining novel. In the meantime, however, I came to sense as I read that she was consciously entertaining her reader, that is – in McLuhan’s famous phrase – the medium here IS the message…The book is “show time” in print! If this makes it “melodrama” [as one critic put it], all well and good. Read Dickens again. Watch the films of Stephen Spielberg and Tarantino, etc. Melodrama is KING! And, as for “genre-driven”; what is flavour-of-the-decade CORMAC McCARTHY but a writer of WESTERNS, albeit a very good one?
I really enjoyed everything about this book.

SCORE: ****
Jane Sullivan: “Little People”, Scribe pb, pp 342, rrp $34-99

“Me And Mr. Booker” by Cory Taylor

Another FIRST novel. Cory Taylor is an experienced writer, however, with a background in children’s books and writing for film.

I found this a challenging book, not because it was hard to read: Taylor writes fluently, has a keen ear for dialogue and the subject is certainly arresting. I was surprised by my personal response to the novel’s central fact: a sixteen-year-old school girl having an affair over a year or so with a married university lecturer in his late thirties. Call me old-fashioned, uptight, repressed, whatever, but I had difficulty finding the author’s point of view in this book. It wasn’t so much the hot sex scenes, but the age difference, first of all, plus the fact that the affair is given at least tacit approval by the cuckolded wife as well as the girl’s mother who meanwhile is about the only likable character in the cast. What also annoyed me – on a different level – was the girl, Martha’s, utter stupidity in falling for and maintaining a relationship with an utterly-unattractive male. The eponymous Mr. Booker [Martha’s term of address throughout the story] is a heavy drinker who is hopeless at his job, socially inept with his peers; he speaks in clichés and cracks age-old jokes…I am waiting for some women to tell me their reaction to this book. Okay: ever since “Lolita” and probably long before, exaggerated “May-September” sex has been a seller in fiction, but this is the 21st century. Surely the mores of male-female culture have been re-written? I assume Cory Taylor is serious with this book. Next Tuesday I will be speaking with her so I am sure we will find out more.

As I said initially, this is a crisply-written and contemporary novel and certainly has elements of raw social comedy and satire. Taylor’s suburban Brisbane middle-class families are deftly sketched. I loved the estranged dad eventually taking up residence in a caravan in his family’s driveway. Martha’s mother is almost a tragic figure, shades perhaps of “Muriel’s” mother in the classic PJ Hogan Australian film, “Muriel’s Wedding”. I say “almost” because there is for me no reason why SHE should have fallen for the Bookers just because her teenage daughter does. Finally I think Taylor is a cruel observer, but maybe this is a valid perspective on what is a very dysfunctional set of relationships.
Please read this book and tell us what YOU think.

Cory Taylor: “Me And Mr. Booker”, text pb, pp 208, rrp $32-95

Sunday, April 3, 2011

March 22nd

Book & Publishing News:

* Today’s poem is from the veteran BRUCE DAWE, commenting on the events in Libya [ to be read by my guest, John Regan.]

* Last Night my fortnightly colleague JOHN BARTLETT compered a very successful evening at the Geelong Art Gallery where nine poets from the region, who featured in last year’s Best Poems…

* I have mentioned before this year the centenary celebrations at ST. PAT’S SCHOOL in West Geelong. If you have suitable memorabilia, their archivist Glen Turnbull is working solidly on the history. Contact the school.

* I am just starting to get into yet another book entitled, “Gallipoli”, but this one is from the person in charge of Oral History at London’s Imperial War Museum, Peter Hart. It is like no other book I have come across so far on that awful campaign in that there seems to be equal sourcing from the Allied and the Turk [and GERMAN] sides. I will talk about it closer to April 25th.

* Last week I referred to the recent publication of an anthology of mystery stories by the venerable and prolific Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favourite writers, now in her Seventies. Blow me down if she hasn’t another new release, a memoir, based on her 46 years’ marriage, “A Widow’s Story”. I am really looking forward to reading it. Great reviews so far.

* JANE SULLIVAN will be well-known to readers of the Saturday “Age Review” for her weekly newsy column about books and writing. I have just begun her new novel, “Little People”, based on the life of a late 19th century world-wide show business phenomenon, the diminutive “General Tom Thumb”. Very amusing and even engrossing so far.

* Next week, I will talk about “Little People” [from Scribe,pb] and an arresting first novel, “Me and Mr. Booker” by Brisbane-based screenwriter, Cory Taylor [whom I will be interviewing the week after.]

This Week’s Reviews:

‘The Tower’, by Michael Duffy

This man is a jack-of-all trades. A publisher in his youth, he is now both a print [ Sydney’s “Sun-Herald] and radio [ Radio National’s “Counterpoint”] journalist. He is a recent newcomer to the ranks of our already-formidable crime writing fraternity, with “The Tower”, and this month’s “Simple death”.
Knowing a little of Duffy’s background, I wasn’t surprised by elements of his work which separate him from the current Australian crop who operate in this popular genre. Firstly, this is a longer book than we usually get from the likes of Corris or Maloney certainly. Secondly, his main character, Troy, resembles Conelly’s Los Angeles-based Bosch or Rankin’s Edinburgh-loving Rebus than his Australian compatriots. Troy is eternally reflective. He is married to Anna, an Indian-born nurse who is suffering prolonged post-natal depression – or at least their marriage is in a sexual no-go phase which is causing Troy considerable pain. His angst seems also spiritual. Orphaned while still a child, he became a street-kid, rescued from a pointless life by the intervention of Fr. Luke, a Bob-Maguire-type suburban priest who helped him develop a sensitive conscience – and a love of the Scriptures, to which the policeman turns in times of stress. Another characteristic is the mild sophistication of some of the other characters. Shannon, is the Irish engineer-cum-security operator, coke-sniffing and randy, who can quote WB Yeats on cue. We get to know Shannon very well and his role in the novel is central.

The location is contemporary Sydney. Skyscrapers continue their upward thrust; Chinese money is pouring in; building unions are highly-politicised, as is the police force…Strangely though, I feel the newcomer [from a few weeks back], Katherine Howell:”Violent Exposure”, caught the feel – smells, sounds, emotions – of the harbour City with more intensity than Duffy, in a far less-ambitious novel. There is lots of CBD busy-ness, but none of the excitement even I was able to sense on my recent visit of a few days.

Troy is a member of the Murder Squad at “Sydney Central”, called in to investigate the suspicious circumstances of a woman from the upper level of a new building site, “The Tower”, set to become Australia’s highest skyscraper. From the first day of his involvement, Troy is in the headline-boasting spotlight. Almost overnight, the squad is investigating three killings. In-house competition and politics are bubbling away and Troy just doesn’t know whom to trust. Becoming his uncertain sidekick is “Mac” McIvor – who reminded me of “The Bill’s” sexily-balding Burnside of years ago: a little bit dodgy, maybe, but reliable finally in a scrap. Troy’s superiors seem unsure of our hero’s capabilities and he is being shuffled about, meanwhile finding out key information on his own…and seemingly with the unselfish help of afore-mentioned Shannon. Shannon is a vital link to the powerful, assured and very smooth Chinese businessman, Mr. Wu, the force behind the new building. If this sounds complex, it is, somewhat; Duffy weaves a mean plot with just enough red herrings to keep the reader alert. I had difficulty sorting the relevance of one or two characters, and the goings-on “below stairs” were a little incredible. By and large, however, the story is pretty well anchored in current events in our big cities [and, remember, Duffy’s day job is as a crime reporter, so he knows!]

The crime investigation/procedural dimension is handled very well, but it is the characterisation of Troy that gives this book its edge. He is a genuine feeling…and therefore troubled 21st century male. This is not just a crime novel, then. He is trying to make his way in a job he loves and thinks is important, while balancing the usual personal responsibilities. I found him thoroughly credible.

MICHAEL DUFFY is a most welcome new novelist [to me] on the scene.

SCORE: ***+
MICHAEL DUFFY: The Tower,[ A&U pb, 2010,pp 465, rrp $22-99.]

‘The Colony’ by Grace Karskens

The latest history of the early years of our nation is called simply “The Colony – A History of Early Sydney” – when it deserves to be called fresh and revisionary. Karskens lectures in Australian History at the University of New South Wales and she is an excellent teacher who maintains just the right balance between thorough and far-reaching information and the sort of human interest that derives from fluent story-telling. You may wonder what is there that has not been said before. This time last year Tom Keneally enthralled me all over again that this period was largely all about individual people [as did AN WILSON in last week’s “The Victorians”.]

Isn’t it ironic that the further we get from, say, our colonial history, the more information seems to be becoming available, thanks to our ICT records-keeping and research capabilities. Karskens’ early “Sydney Cove’ is, of course, a very harsh place, but – unlike Robert Hughes’ unrelenting “Fatal Shore” – Karsken’s is a place of hope and enterprise [ not just in business.] In spite of the repeated instructions from ‘Home’ to maintain a punishment regime, almost from the beginning there were realistic opportunities for reform and the pursuit of a way of life that the transported – and, indeed, the free settlers could only have dreamed of in Britain. Our writer cites carefully four elements of colonial Sydney which more or less guaranteed not just survival but not-too-distant prosperity. Firstly, Sydney was a MARITIME settlement, [many of us still rush to make our sea changes!] The discipline was of a naval/military bent which was inevitably and continually scaled down in the practice if not the letter of their law[s]. Secondly, for the first 40 years, there was no central monetary system. This meant the officer class, paid in sterling, quickly achieved a monopoly in trade, with lots of illegal side effects, sure. Though illegal, it meant a thriving little economy in practice, in rum, sealing products, etc. Further, the geography of the little colony – on a harbour, locked in North, South and West by the Hawkesbury Estuary, the Blue Mountains and the Wollongong escarpment respectively – was inevitably drawn into the commercial life of the “East Indies” and India. Finally, the convicts actually brought with them a thriving consumerism: they wanted “things”. They were mostly urban people and, though money-poor, quickly developed bartering systems for all manner of goods.

This is a very brief look at this excellent book. I would like to talk more about the section on “The Macquaries” [sic]: the author points out the influence in policy-making – especially regarding infra-structure – which Elizabeth Macquarie wielded.
Many of “her” gardens around the Harbour survive to the present. Lachlan himself –“the father of Australia?” – is given a bit of a going over by Karskens though finally he is seen not quite as progenitor of the nation we became, but much more than the over-sensitive squanderer of public [i.e. British] monies Commissioner Bigge would have him to be, the lay visitor to Sydney can hardly miss such Macquarie “relics’ as the “Rum Hospital” [now part of the NSW parliamentary precinct],The Hyde Park Barracks, St. James Church [as well as St. John’s at Parramatta],the South Head Lighthouse, etc.

This book is a marvellous new contribution to our treasury of knowledge about the “Foundation Years”. I liked the latter parts where Karkens revisits the conflicts out on the Cumberland plains – now the source of political battles, at State and Federal levels, interestingly. Indeed, the book continually goes “beyond the fringes”, as does the author, to push our assumptions about where we came from as a “Commonwealth”. A terrific book.

SCORE: ****+
GRACE KARSKENS: The Colony, A&U pb, pp 670, rrp $49-95

This Week’s Poem:

“Libya 2011” by Bruce Dawe [courtesy of “The Australian”, March 20th]


This week we were celebrating the visit of two rock’n’roll veterans and you heard,

- “Ridin’ With The King” by BB King [and Eric Clapton]
-“Heartbreak Hotel” by Leon Russell [and Willy Nelson]

March 8th

Book & Publishing News:

* Happy International Women’s Day…not that I am practising affirmative action here…except to welcome EMMA to assist me in production…And she’ll be doing some reviewing later too, we hope.

* February’s ALR was less ‘academic’ this time…More reviews [ including one by the author of “The Colony” which I spoke about a fortnight ago, I think] and essays that might reach readers of “The Oz” at their level.

* The March edition of “The Monthly” includes a long essay by the redoubtable Robert Manne on Julian Assange, BEFORE the recent releases. Young Julian is definitely politically – New Age anarchist? - motivated and has been since his youth.
There is also a review by aspiring political leader MALCOLM TURNBULL…

* One of today’s books, “That Deadman Dance”, has just been named Best Novel 2010 by the PACIFIC Region Commonwealth Writers’ Board.

* “The Bush Orphanage” by last week’s guest JOHN HAWKINS is available at all our regional small bookshops, and in the Library, of course

* I use the library’s excellent DVD collection for my films and we finally saw “Patriot Game” last week. an action film closely based on TOM CLANCY’s bestseller of 20 years ago. The setting is the final days of the fracturing of the IRA and the rise of Sinn Fein as a valid political entity…Quite interesting. The title surely comes from writer Brendan Behan’s folk song from the late 60s: Behan was notorious for his “Borstal Boy” which could only be published in our fair and just isle in about 1970 by converting the numerous F*** bombs to “fugh” and its variants. Nowadays even the ‘midday movies’ are full of four-letter expletives. Are we a better society for that?

* Book-Into-Film No. 27 or so. As a young fella, I hadn’t read a serious novel until “The Power and the Glory” [GRAHAM GREENE] and “The Return of the Native” [THOMAS HARDY] – which were set texts for Matric [sic] English [sic] Literature. Inspired perhaps, I also read SLAVOMIR RAWICZ’s “The Long Walk”
and “ Seven Years In Tibet” by HEINRICH HARRER. In spite of my being a good little right winger, I had never read anything about Stalinism till then. Soon after, came ARTHUR KOESTLER’s “Darkness At Noon” and the SOLZHENITYN oevre….Anyway this is all by way of saying I saw “The Way Back” last week, PETER WEIR’s epic based on the Ramicz book. Was “The Long Walk” authentic? The journey and the hardships stretched belief, but human endurance saw men survive the Burma railway, of which the definitive account for me is IAN DENYS PEEK”s 2003 book, “One Fourteenth Part Of An Elephant”.

- The next Poetry and Conversation- APRIL 10th
- An Afternoon with Henry Lawson- March 19th at Woodbin Theatre

* Queescliff’s Mystery Bookshop in Hesse Street has a new proprietor in JOAN CANTY. We wish her well in her endeavour. A great little shop.

This Weeks Reviews:

“That Deadman Dance”, by Kim Scott

Listeners will know that I recently looked through some little history books about the Meredith district. My attention was caught by the merest mention in one of them, that the existing oval had been the favoured gathering place of a local clan of the Wauthorung nation. The site which is still a sort of central location for the town’s events was especially blessed because it was covered by native forest! The mention was from the early 1840s…then came sporadic European settlement, followed by the gold “rushes’ [as Geoffrey Blainey insists on calling the events of the 1850s,quite correctly, I feel.] Local Indigenous people disappeared very swiftly. “THEIR ghosts may be heard” too, perhaps, if we listen really carefully….

Anyway, today’s author is a NOONGAR, an Indigenous man from the South West corner of Western Australia. He acknowledges having read Tiffany Shellam’s wonderful “Shaking Hands On The Fringe” in preparing his novel, so it is no surprise for his story to be, by and large, a positive one. Central to it is a character known as Booby Wabalanginy who survives the first white arrivals, and remains a local identity throughout the 19th century. It is really Bobby’s story. The first encounters between local and the invaders were apparently not only non-violent but downright peaceful and laced with a spirit of co-operation and mutual support.
Because Bobby sees everything from the very first moments the sailing ships arrive, we too become privy to an ‘ordinary observer’s point of view, while being introduced to a lively cast of minor characters. He is no naïve bystander: he quickly becomes a fluent English speaker and a friend of the children of the leading member of the settler group, a relationship which has a tragic finale because this was no paradise after all.

I thought of some of the earlier classic works, which have attempted to imagine the encounters between the First Australians and the Europeans. Not in any order: Xavier Herbert’s “Capricornia” and “Poor Fella My Country”, KS Pritchard’s “Coonardoo”, Randolph Stow’s “To The Islands”, Nene Gare’s “The Fringe Dwellers” and more recently, Alexis Wright’s highly original “Carpentaria.” To the usual elements of colonial encounter – convictism, ham-fisted would-be-humanitarian British administrators, “settlers”, pastoralists, warriors, sheep – add Indigenous leaders and whalers, such an important part of the early European adventure in the “Swan colony”.
Perhaps the plot arrangement somehow resembles the ‘songlines’ of Aboriginal mythology [which is what Wright seems to be up to with her novel about the North]
Woven amongst the various episode from Bobby’s life are references to the dichotomy between the littoral colony and what was going on “beyond the fringe”; asides about animal and plant husbandry; whaling experiences – all told with Scott’s inimitably exquisite language, poetic yet earthy. Bobby himself behaves as some sort of ambassador, at least in the better early days when the Europeans want to learn from the locals – before the redundant whalers are forced to become land-lubbers and bring cruelty and exploitation with them. Bobby must also go through initiation and once a man of his people, pressures to hold the rapid expansion of the whites onto Aboriginal hunting land increase. He must make choices.

There are other interesting characters. This is a novel on a grand scale – though it never becomes sprawling due to Scott’s economical use of language. The escaped convict, Jak Tar, loves the new land for the freedom it offers, and for a time the security of his love relationship with a Noongar woman, Binyan. His immersion in the land and a new culture are beautifully depicted. There is, of course, pain, brutality, betrayal, misunderstanding, but they are represented realistically, and with surprising objectivity. One of the sharpest-drawn characters is the entrepreneurial Chane who dares all, but suffers great loss. He is a true humanist, engaging with the Noongar on their terms while trying to remain an Englishman of culture. This is – as Alex Miller has commented – both a “beautiful and a heart-rending book”. It succeeds because the novelist has empathy for both sides in the restless encounters. By the end, the days of whaling are over; there are the beginnings of a thriving agricultural and pastoral industry built on sheep. Small communities are becoming towns from which cities such as Perth will emerge.
This is an excellent addition to an existing collection of fine writing about the early days of European “settlement”, in a region which will be fairly new to most readers. It can only help us to look again at the realistic plight of the peoples who were displaced.
SCORE: ****+
KIM SCOTT: “That Deadman Dance”, Picador pb, 2010, pp 398,rrp $32-99.

“The Victorians” by A N WILSON

Does anyone remember and care about the “culture wars” of the 90s? One of its saddest side effects was demonising of that great Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey who somehow was claimed for the Neo-Con corner by people like the rascally Keith Windshuttle. Here in Australia it became a tug of war over Indigenous fatality statistics in colonial times and since. Meanwhile the controversy did nothing to harm the political rise of Hanson and her all-but apologist, Howard. What can be a more interesting debate might come from asking: what really are OUR myths?....traditions?...certainties from our brief past? It’s good to see some of our military historians re-examining Gallipoli and other WWI events. [I will look at a new book “Pozieres”, in coming weeks as well as one on Gallipoli specifically, this time by a British academic from the Imperial War Museum.] I discussed briefly a few weeks back the lively “Zombie Myths Of Australian Military History”, a best-selling paperback out at the moment. There is nothing like thorough revision in history.
…And that is what A N Wilson [famous for excellent earlier books, “Jesus” “Paul”, “The Jews”] has done with a recent book looking at the second half of the 19th century. There are some “Great Figures of History” in this book, but Wilson challenges the status of many of them and questions there effectives and/or influence for good which is what made it an enthralling read for me. I managed to read it during a very distracting week beach-side at Manly a fortnight ago.
Perhaps some would call Wilson a Left-wing historian; he certainly tends to approach events from a Marxian analytical perspective [yes, especially when he’s discussing religion, in the earlier books mentioned.] That is his framework, not his political philosophy.
One is not far into his book until one realises [again] just how much of who we [still?] are derived not just from Britain, but from Victorian times specifically. So it is no surprise to recall that until ANU’s was established in, I think, about 1970 that there was no chair of Australian History in any of our universities. Remember your secondary school history courses? In my student days, there was a section on the British History Matric exam which looked at Australia [ well, on the Wars, the Depression…] So it was with joy that I saw Wilson challenging so many of the assumptions we all entertain about those Victorian times. Queen Victoria suffers at his hands: she is revealed as a peevish little haradan whose only good ideas came from her short-lived husband. She was certainly no absolute monarch. Probably not her fault, but many of the “reforms” of the era don’t stand up to scrutiny [eg Poor Law, Factory, etc.] To mention one in particular, though the 1830s produced Wilberforce and “the end of the slave trade”, the actual business still underpinned the business interests of many British MPs through to the 1890s [when the generation of slaves in the West Indies, died out.] There was no emancipation as such.
Our education system still really follows the model that emerged out of the British “public schools”, immortalised in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” – and wonderfully satirised by Dickens in his “Nicholas Nickleby”. Wilson argues that British schooling was always intended to maintain a rigid class system [ and until the current mess surrounding funding currently fermenting is properly sorted, some of these elements surely remain here in Godzone.]

With his judicious mix of events and people, Wilson never becomes boring throughout 800 pages [with good photos, bibliography and index.] Readers are forced to look again, for example, at Ireland’s “Great Famine” of the 1840s which sent many of our ancestors to the colonies that became Australia. The often cavalier attitudes and overt racism that was behind so much Imperial policy towards Ireland still rankles in some of us! And the second half of the 19th century saw the height of the British Raj in India, “the jewel in the crown”. Wilson talks about what has been called: The Indian Mutiny” [ cf Andrew Ward’s “Our Bones Are Scattered” for a full treatment of India 1857. ] They were awful events, none more than the retribution the British visited on any suspects. Wilson suggests there was no mere “mutiny”, but a mismanaged revolution – which would be another century in the making.
Earlier, of course, there was that tragic farce, the Crimean War: thousands of British soldiers died of cholera before a shot was fired. Tennyson’s celebrated “Charge Of The Light Brigade” was a disaster overseen by incompetent fools. It would take, however, a ”Great War” before the British Army finally reformed itself
from its nepotism and gerontocracy.

The title of this worthy book is telling for it is finally a story of PEOPLE. From Tennyson to Disraeli, the Prince Consort to the Rosettis, Wilson reminds us that the Victiorian Age was the first time permanent records of any great scope became available to the historical researcher: there are so many documents of every size and from every source. There are newspapers, magazines, diaries, court records, government minutes…
This is history for the lay person: fluent, accessible, amusing, concise – for all its length. I found it a leisurely read which cannot be said, alas, for a lot of histories – though I would suggest we are getting better at it [even if we don’t have a lot of Macaulays around these days.] In closing, let me note a reference by Wilson to someone who claimed that there in those days a “favoured 10,000”. “Within this group, all the decision-makers could be found: the Royal Family and a vast aristocracy, church leaders, key academics, famous writers and artists, soldiers, politicians, military officers – very many of whom were connected by blood and/or marriage, of course.”

SCORE: ****
A N WILSON: “The Victorians”, Arrow Books pb,2006 [?],pp 738

This Week’s Poem:

‘Sonnet 29’ - by William Shakespeare


‘Something’s Coming’ by Oscar Peterson