Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2022

The Human Factor, by Graham Greene

October 2nd is the anniversary of the birth of Graham Greene (1904-1991) so this was a good time to read one of his few novels that I hadn’t already read.

As it says on the dustjacket of The Human Factor, spy agencies are usually the stuff of thrillers, but…

…Graham Greene has made it the background of a perceptive and compassionate novel.  For an officer of the service, espionage can only be a part of life.  Life is also the private relation to which he returns in the evening, the dangerous human factor of the title.

The ‘human factor’ that drives this novel set during the Cold War, is loneliness.  Almost all the men of Greene’s intelligence service ‘looking after’ postcolonial Africa in the seventies, are lonely people.  Castle is happily married to Sarah, who knows a little about his work, but he hates being evasive about his work with his son Sam.  Colonel Daintry’s marriage failed, and his relationship with his about-to-be-married daughter is fraught because of the lies he has to tell.  Davis, who fancies himself as a man about town and went into the secret service with James Bond fantasies, is bored and fed up because it’s hard to chat up the girls when you can’t impress them with your job.  And Doctor Percival, who’s had an integrity bypass, is an enigma.

The story begins with a discussion about a leak in the department.  It’s not that the information matters much — not much in Africa matters much, apparently, except that it’s important not to upset mining interests which concern the US and UK economies, i.e. gold, diamonds and oil. As C explains to Castle:

‘Have you ever wondered. Castle, what would happen in the West if South African gold mines were closed by a racial war? And a losing war, perhaps, as in Vietnam. Before the politicians have agreed on a substitute for gold.  Russia as the chief source. It would be a bit more complicated than the petrol crisis.  And the diamond mines…De Beers are more important than General Motors.  Diamonds don’t age like cars. There are even more serious aspects than gold and diamonds, there’s uranium.

(Younger readers may need reminding that Thatcher opposed sanctions on apartheid South Africa. This article claims she opposed white rule in South Africa as a sin against economic liberalism rather than a crime against humanity.  Well, maybe.)

Still, in Greene’s novel, what really matters is the scandal, because after Philby, Burgess and McLean the secret services can’t afford another public embarrassment.  Their strategy, led but not implemented by the enigmatic ‘C’, is to identify the culprit, and get rid of him discreetly.

The leak is traced to two possible culprits in ‘C6’ division.  One is Maurice Castle, now an ageing bureaucrat looking forward to a quiet retirement, but who had to make a quick getaway from his post in South Africa because his wife Sarah is black and they were infringing the apartheid race laws.  He had help back then from Carson to get out across the border — at a time when most of the South African activists running the escape routes were linked to communism. The other man under suspicion is the younger man, Arthur Davis, who doesn’t take security seriously enough.  He gets caught taking a file out of the office to read it over lunch; his superiors detect the ‘appointment at the dentist’ which was really a lunch date with Cynthia from the office; and he plays flippant spy games with Castle’s son.

Well, the wrong man is ‘disposed of’ and the novel then deals with duplicitous behaviour, duty, guilt and entrapment by circumstances.

And as always with a novel by Greene, there is a melancholy tone, and signalling that it won’t end well.

…Castle lay awake a long time.  He had at such moments an enormous temptation to trust her, to tell her everything, much as a man who has had a passing affair with a woman, an affair which is finished, wants suddenly to trust his wife with the whole sad history—to explain once and for all the unexplained silences, the small deceptions, the worries they haven’t been able to share, and in the same way as that other man he came to the conclusion, ‘Why worry her when it’s all over?’ for he really believed, if only for a while, that it was over. (p.194)

I know that this novel was made into a film, because I stumbled on the same copy as mine, for sale at AbeBooks for $551 because it is signed by Otto Preminger (Director) and Richard Attenborough (in the lead as Colonel John Daintry) and Nicol Williamson, who played Maurice Castle. Apparently there’s also an on-set photograph of the two men and a letter from the film production company notifying residents of dates and times shooting in the Birkhamstead area. Wouldn’t that be a nice copy to have!

Author: Graham Greene
Title: The Human Factor
Jacket design by Michael Harvey
Publisher: Book Club Associates, The Bodley Head, 1978 (First edition)
ISBN: none, hbk, 339 pages, later assigned ISBN: 9780370300436 (0370300432)
Source, personal library, $2.00, OpShopFind.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2022

The Tower, by Carol Lefevre

Composite novels a.k.a. short story cycles, can be tricky things to read: though they have the form of short stories the reader can’t just ‘move on’ to the next one because you know that the stories are linked in some way.  You need to remember who’s who and what their issues are, so that you can discover the connections so cunningly woven into the text. So it is with The Tower, Carol Lefevre’s latest venture with this form, following on from the highly regarded Murmurations (2020, see my review).

This is the blurb:

Widowed after a long marriage, Dorelia MacCraith swaps the family home for a house with a tower, and there, raised above the run of daily life, sets out to rewrite the stories of old women poorly treated by literature.
Throughout this winding story, Dorelia and the elderly artist Elizabeth Bunting are sustained by a friendship that reaches back to their years at art school, and bonded by the secrets of a six-month period when they painted together in France.
The loneliness of not belonging, of being cut adrift by grief, betrayal, or old age, binds these twelve connected stories into a dazzling composite novel. Within its complex crossings and connections, young and old inhabit separate yet overlapping firmaments; grown children, though loved and loving, cannot imagine their parents’ young lives. For most, the past is not past, but exerts a magnetic pull, while future happiness hinges on retreat, or escape.

The character of Dorelia captured my attention from the outset.  I liked her appearances in the stories best of all.  Those of us who’ve had the experience of caring for elderly parents are only too familiar with the emotional tug of war between enabling them to maintain independence and providing care.  Dorelia is a feisty woman whose choice of a tower to live in for her old age disturbs her adult children.  From the moment she was widowed she was alert to their plans for her future:

When her Geordie died, it had been a shock to come up against that sudden, implacable absence.  It was like being slapped hard by an icy hand.  Then, in the terrible limbo between his dying and the funeral, she’d caught glimpses of him everywhere, so that coming indoors at dusk, as she reached for the light switch, Geordie’s shadow would darken his favourite armchair; in their bedroom, she surprised a flash of his old mustard corduroy coat sleeve in the wardrobe mirror.  Every mirror in the house held fragments of Geordie, even the little circular hand-mirror with the crack in it he had used for shaving.

Dorelia would have covered them all with cloths if it hadn’t been for the children.  They would have pounced on that as a sign that she was not holding up — she imagined Laurence and Hannah frowning and reaching for their phones.  Apparently, they stored within those devices lists of suitable places they researched on their parents’ behalf. (p.2)

(Yes, been there, done that, and my mother in particular was not best pleased about it.)

It was Dorelia’s great good fortune to have stumbled upon the tower house during a rare window of inattention from her children. (p.23)

Ha!

Dorelia and her friend Bunty are creatives and in their early years they struggled with the conflicting demands of art and relationships.  Their career paths diverged but their friendship endured.  And I loved this aspect of the book: the enduring friendships of older women is such a special phenomenon, it’s beautiful to see it depicted in fiction with such perception.

Over tea and doughnuts, Dorelia reveals her ambition to rewrite the stories that put old women in a  poor light, the wicked stepmothers and the evil queens of folk lore, starting with Rapunzel’s witch, a figure from fairy tale who doesn’t have a reader with even a smidgeon of sympathy.  Bunty understands this immediately.

Bunty gave a snorting laugh.  ‘She suffers from childless woman syndrome,’ she said.  ‘I’ll be cheering you on if you can redeem the poor creature.’

Dorelia patted Bunty’s hand that wasn’t holding the doughnut, depositing a glitter of sticky sugar.  They had often discussed the suspicion that attached to childless women; it was ages-old, a malign and subtle undercurrent.  Even now, when many women were childless by choice, you could still rub up against that prejudice, though at Bunty’s age it tended to manifest as pity.  (p.26)

There is a long history between these two that is so exquisitely wrought in this excerpt, prompted by Dorelia’s musings on how her life might have been different if she’d devoted herself to art instead of husband and children.

‘I will write, too’, she said.

‘You should never have abandoned your memoir.’

Dorelia had finished her first doughnut and was wondering whether she should save the second for when her energy levels dipped in the late afternoon. ‘Not the memoir,’ she said. ‘At least, not for the moment.’

Bunty pulled a face. ‘Do you mean to say you’re going to allow our wonder years to be ploughed under into the great nothingness?’

‘It’s been so long since I wrote anything.’ Dorelia’s eyes grew wistful, and she reached for the second doughnut.  ‘I thought I’d get my hand in first with something subversive.’

Bunty rocked forward in her chair and clapped, two sharp smacks, a familiar gesture of approval.  She raised her eyebrows, or the place on her high pale forehead where her eyebrows had once been two beautiful dark arcs.  The thinning of their brows made old women’s faces look naked, thought Dorelia, although it threw the emphasis back onto their eyes, and her friend’s delicately moulded, deeply set, prune-black eyes, were lit with enthusiasm.

Where would she be without this friendship, Dorelia wondered? A shiver went through her whenever she thought about which of them would die first.  Selfishly she hoped she would go before her friend, but on the other hand it gutted her to think of Bunty alone.

Bunty was waiting, doughnut poised, for Dorelia to explain.  (p.25)

There is more to The Tower than the Dorelia’s story.  There are other characters and their stories are a treat in store for readers to discover. Her daughter Hannah, for example, has her own poignant story, but there are others whose lives entwine in unexpected ways.  There’s a thread about some missing pearl earrings which offers hope that the cold case of a murdered girl might be resolved.  The unimaginable and enduring pain of those not knowing what happened to their loved one reminded me of Stephen Orr giving life to the grainy images of lost children in Time’s Long Ruin and Sarah’s quest to find her missing sister in Philip Salom’s The Fifth Season.

(#Newsflash, BTW, Salom has a new novel out in November with Transit Lounge: it’s called Sweeney and the Bicycles.  I’m going to try and read one of his early novels beforehand.)

Each short story in The Tower is prefaced by a B&W photograph, mostly of houses which illustrate the preoccupation with towers.  In the Acknowledgements, Lefevre writes:

Once you start thinking about towers, they are everywhere, double-edged, of course, for a place that provides refuge may also confine.  A family can be a tower, as can a marriage, childhood, friendship, memory, the past. Home, if one can find it, is always a tower, which is why the inclusion of tower-like features in Australian colonial architecture, as well as in contemporary suburbia, represents so much more than mere whimsy.

Old age, it we reach it, may be the final tower. (p.250)

Indeed.

Author: Carol Lefevre
Title: The Tower
Cover design: Deb Snibson, MAPG
Photography by the author
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781925950625, pbk.,300 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2022

More Awards News!

The Educational Publishing Awards has never been on my radar, but I was alerted to its existence by a press release from Melbourne University Publishing, who were recognised with two books that I’ve read, and one that is apparently their largest selling Health and Medicine title in MUP’s 100 year history.

Here’s what the press release said:

… later in the evening at the Educational Publishing Awards Australia at the Wheeler Centre, Professor Janet McCalman’s Vandemonians: The Repressed History of Colonial Victoria (Miegunyah Press) received the Scholarly Book of the Year Award, while our two other titles, within the strong shortlist of five, were highly commended: Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, by Professor Peter Sutton and Associate-Professor Keryn Walshe, and The Secrets of Women’s Healthy Ageing, by Cassandra Szoeke.

By one of those strange coincidences that wouldn’t be credible if put into a book, Vandemonians, which I reviewed here, just happened to crop up in a dinner party conversation last night.  (As readers know ad nauseam) my house is full of books, and the glass fronted shelving that holds our Australian history books collection faces whoever is sitting at the head of the dining table.  Like all our other bookshelves it has reached capacity, but artful rearrangement means that some titles are facing front cover outward (as in bookshops).  And so it was that our guest noticed Vandemonians through the glass, and I gave a brief summary of who the Vandemonians were.

It always amuses me that Victorians assert that our state never had convicts.  It’s true that there was no transportation here: convicts were sent to NSW, Tasmania and WA.  But that doesn’t mean that convicts didn’t make their way here. The Vandemonians were emancipated convicts from Tasmania who came here once settlement had reached its limits in Van Dieman’s Land a.k.a. Tasmania, and it was that group that Janet McCalman researched.  Not for nothing is the subtitle of her book ‘The Repressed History of Colonial Victoria’ because obscuring convict origins was what respectability required!

I noted in my review that the book is written in an approachable style that is easy to read and digest, but it is good to know that unlike some popular histories written by people who are not historians, Vandemonians is based on scholarly research which impressed the judges.  Likewise the Highly Commended title Farmers or Hunter-gatherers, The Dark Emu Debate which I reviewed here, In my review I noted that…

In contemporary Aboriginal studies, including history, archaeology and anthropology, academic expertise includes respecting the knowledge of The Old People, i.e. Aboriginal collaborators in the research who share facts and insights from their expertise.

Australians are moving into an important new era of truth-telling about their history, and for the process to achieve its aims, it’s important for people to feel confident that what they read, hear and see is authoritative.  At lunch this week with Ladies Who Lunch After Lockdown, we were discussing the SBS Series The Australian Wars, and the question was asked, ‘how do they know that these frontier wars happened?’  That’s a natural reaction when confronted by a story that still isn’t widely known despite the best efforts of historians like Henry Reynolds who has published extensively on the subject for decades.

So awards like the Educational Publishing Awards have a role to play in guiding our choices about what to read.  I was pleased to see that the winner of the Primary Teaching Resources category was the Indigenous Discovery Big Book Series  by Emily Bruce, and Leanne Mulgo Watson (Learning Media Ltd)… it would definitely have been on my shopping list when I was buying for the school library!

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

It is my pleasure to pass on not one, but two awards announcements made last night,

From a shortlist of ACT authors, the judges chose Subhash Jaireth’s Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets, (Transit Lounge, 2020) as the ACT Book of the Year.  As you can probably guess from my review, this exquisite book occupies a special place on my shelves and I am delighted that it won.

The ACT award brings attention to their small but impressive writing community.  This was the shortlist for the award.

  • Oil Under Troubled Water, Australia’s Timor Sea Intrigue by Bernard Collaery.
  • Utterly by Dr PS Cottier
  • Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets, by Subhash Jaireth
  • Nigh by Dr Penelope Layland
  • The Trials of Portnoy by Dr Patrick Mullins
  • Doggerland by Moya Pacey

There are brief summaries of the books at the Canberra Times. You can also listen to an interview with Subhash at Radio National here.

BTW Subhash is a poet too, and you can find reviews of some of his poetry here.

Readers of the Canberra Times can find out more in this article.


One of my favourite awards is the Barbaris Jefferis Award.  Predating the Stella Award by five years the award is offered biennially with a feminist agenda and is open to  writers of any gender for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.

From the shortlist below, the judges selected S L Lim’s second novel,  Revenge: Murder in Three Parts. completing a quinella for Transit Lounge who consistently publish some of the most interesting books in Australia!

  • Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down (Text Publishing)
  • Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery (University of Queensland Press)
  • Benevolence by Julie Janson (Magabala Books). see my review
  • Revenge: Murder in Three Parts by S.L. Lim (Transit Lounge), see my review
  • Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan (Brio Books)
  • The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (Penguin Random House Australia)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers, and especially Barry Scott at Transit Lounge!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2022

2022 Historical Novel Prize shortlist

The Historical Novel Prize shortlist for 2022 has been announced.

With thanks to Sally Wood, a publicist who makes it easy to share this information, here is the Press Release:

The Shortlist for the 2022 ARA Historical Novel Prize – Adult Category is:

  • Horse by Geraldine Brooks (Hachette Australia)
  • Corporal Hitler’s Pistol by Tom Keneally (Penguin Random House), see my review
  • Cold Coast by Robyn Mundy (Ultimo Press), see my review

The Shortlist for the 2022 ARA Historical Novel Prize – Children and Young Adult (CYA) Category is:

  • Katipo Joe: Wolf’s Lair by Brian Falkner (Scholastic New Zealand)
  • Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief by Katrina Nannestad (HarperCollins Publishers Australia)
  • The Wearing of the Green by Claire Saxby (Walker Books)

The ARA Historical Novel Prize is worth a total of $100,000 in prize monies. The Prize will award $50,000 to the Adult category winner, with an additional $5,000 to be awarded to each of the remaining two shortlisted authors. In the Children and Young Adult (CYA) category, the winner will receive $30,000, while the two shortlisted authors will receive $5,000 each.

The Winners of the 2022 ARA Historical Novel Prize will be announced on Thursday 20 October 2022.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2022

2022 NIB Literary Award shortlist

The 2022 Mark and Evette Moran Literary Award shortlist has been announced.

Established in 2002, the NIB is an award that focusses on excellence in Australian research and writing, and it’s the only major national literary award of its kind presented by a local council, i.e. Waverley Council (in NSW).

This year’s total prize pool is $28,500. Finalists each receive the Alex Buzo Shortlist Prize (6 x $1,000) and will be eligible for the Nib People’s Choice Prize ($2,500) and the Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award ($20,000).

Alas, I have read only one of the nominees — but that’s enough to know that Signs and Wonders must be in fine company.

  • Two Afternoons In The Kabul Stadium by Tim Bonyhady (Text Publishing)
  • Signs and Wonders by Delia Falconer (Scribner Australia), see my review
  • The Asparagus Wars by Carol Major (ES Press)
  • Mafioso by Colin McLaren (Hachette Australia)
  • Mortals by Rachel Menzies and Ross Menzies (Allen & Unwin)
  • Here Goes Nothing by Steve Toltz (Penguin Random House)

The winners of the Nib People’s Prize and Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award will be announced on 16 November 2022. You can find out more at the award website.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2022

Time and Tide in Sarajevo, by Bronwyn Birdsall

Time and tide wait for no man, attributed to Chaucer’s Prologue to the Clerk’s Tale but probably a proverb older than that, is a warning against procrastination.  It’s like seize the day, it commands us to be decisive and get on with things that need to be done.

In Bronwyn Birdsall’s compelling debut novel, however, decisive action is not a simple matter.  Time and Tide in Sarajevo is set in a city still recovering decades after the siege by Serbian forces during the Bosnian War and the Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995). After these years of atrocities the Dayton Accord was negotiated but that was not the end of the matter.  Wikipedia tells us that

The agreement has been criticized for creating ineffective and unwieldy political structures and entrenching the ethnic cleansing of the previous war.

In Birdsall’s story the city is suffering under the weight of the Accord and there is widespread distrust of politicians. Politics is an everyday concern, and the issues are very complex.  For an outsider, this means treading a careful path not to alienate the people on whom she depends for company, friendship and advice about negotiating everyday life.

Into this city fraught with tension enters Evelyn, a twenty-something woman escaping the tedium of her Australian job in admin by taking up a job teaching English overseas.

The blurb offers a spoiler-free summary of the novel’s trajectory:

Life in the city is tenuous yet welcoming. Dedicated to her work preparing high-schoolers for a scholarship that could change the course of their lives, Evelyn feels more herself here than at home in Australia. But when the teenage son of a local hero is stabbed and it seems like a cover-up will let the killer go free, Sarajevans take to the streets in protest.

When Evelyn discovers evidence that could ignite the volatile situation, putting both her students’ ambitions and her friendships at risk, she faces an impossible decision.

Evelyn’s circle includes some young men and some after-hours drinking pals, but the most important friend is the feisty Aida, a journalist in new media.  Aida is still suffering some PTSD after effects of the war, struggling to cope with home alarms that jolt them out of their sleep and remind her of the sirens warning of Serbian attacks during the siege. Her mother Vesna shares some of the trauma that Aida never talks about.

‘No one ever talks about the silence,’ Vesna continued. ‘It would be silent, and then gunshots, screams, footsteps. Imagine complete silence, but knowing at any moment a shell would hit, that someone you love…’ (p.137)

She also explains that Aida’s relationship with Nedim (one of the young men in their milieu) didn’t survive their ideological differences, so Evelyn is cautious about offending her friend.  It seems prudent not to mention that she’s moon-lighting as an English coach for Mirsad, a neoliberal politician much despised by Aida.  And that makes it very difficult to explain how she comes across a vital clue to the murder of the local hero’s son.

(The way Evelyn comes across this information is very cleverly handled, and so realistic for teachers struggling with out-of-date technology!)

Her decision about when and how to share her information is fraught.  The information she has will make the demonstrations more volatile, and her students who are caught up in it are about to sit an all important exam.

It’s no easy task for a novelist to deliver what may be an unfamiliar background to all this complexity.  Birdsall tackles it through her central character’s observations, just occasionally straying into slabs of commentary which are noticeably different to her lively style elsewhere in the novel:

They talked politics constantly, the way everyone else did, but always with a long-range context that made it both easier and harder for Evelyn to follow, tracing the paths that had led to the current political deadlock.  Sead, in particular, grieved what he saw as the massive failure of the city’s citizens to uphold the true value of the solidarity in the aftermath of the war, yielding instead to stifling conformity and nationalistic divides.  Especially upsetting to him was the way politicians constantly exploited emotions about the war to cement these divisions, for their own profit, when Bosnia and Herzegovina had always been considered the most integrated of the former Yugoslav republics. Sead regularly gave examples of what he dubbed the ‘new Sarajevo’, building up a mountain of evidence of the unwillingness of those in power to enact the constitutional reform needed to resolve the inertia.’  (p.35)

An editor could have suggested that this info might better have been more smoothly delivered through dialogue or maybe a pastiche of media reports.  Easy for me to suggest, not at all easy to do when writing about a situation that’s not exactly on the radar of most readers.

But this minor flaw doesn’t detract from an interesting and ambitious novel.

Just recently I read a novel set in postwar Italy: its sunny representation of harmony in Florence was somewhat implausible for a country recovering from the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini (1922-1943).  Time and Tide in Sarajevo is much more realistic.  It’s a vivid portrayal of the long-term fragility of peace in the aftermath of war and political upheaval.  People don’t just set aside old hostilities and then live happily ever after. Tension and resentments can lead to outbursts of temper (or worse) which may seem out of proportion to outsiders who are not nursing grievances, suffering PTSD or keen to see their society evolve into a better future.  Friends and family alike have to tread carefully so as not to open up old scabs.

Birdsall looks like an author to watch… I look forward to her next novel!

Theresa Smith liked it too. Se her review here and also Cass Moriarty’s here.

Author: Bronwyn Birdsall
Title: Time and Tide in Sarajevo
Cover design by Mika Tabata
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781922711670, pbk., 288 pages
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 25, 2022

Stardust and Golden, by Doug McEachern

It’s surprising, really, that there is still so little Australian literature about activism to end Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War.  For some of the generation that was impacted by it, it left scars that have never gone away, and while Anzac Day brings up stories of returned soldiers still suffering the effects of that war, there’s very little acknowledgement anywhere about the heroism of those tried to end it.  That struggle tore families apart and for some that estrangement lasted decades.

Perhaps this neglected aspect of our literary story is because between 1965 and 1972, conscription in Australia directly impacted only 15,000 conscripts and their families.  Most of the rest of the population of 12 million-odd ignored 202 deaths on active service and 1279 wounded* and kept voting to support the war until 1972, going blithely about their lives without any concern for those national servicemen, who were cynically conscripted when they were too young to vote.  Summer’s Gone by Charles Hall (2014) captures this insouciance well, showing the reader that for many, the Vietnam War was so far off-stage that they had no understanding of its impact.

*Needless to say, Australian casualties are swamped by casualty numbers for civilians and military in Vietnam.  Numbers are contested, but all the estimates are horrific.

Family conflict about the Vietnam War makes an appearance in some novels, such as Leaving Owl Creek by Sandy Gordon, and the impact on young lives is central to Kristina Olsson’s novel Shell in which a family is estranged for decades.  Estrangement also features in some non-fiction titles about activism such as Not Going to Vietnam by Garrie Hutchinson.  Mirranda Burton’s Underground is an attempt to bring a story of activism against the war in a form palatable to YA readers, but there are unfortunate elements in the text best countered by reading the definitive history in Save Our Sons by Carolyn Collins.

Vietnamese refugees and their descendants in Australia OTOH have a different perspective on the war. Although there is a large, well-established Vietnamese community here, there are few Australian novels that explore that different perspective. These include Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore; and The Lady of the Realm which sites the war amid the long history of conflict in that country.

Novels that include characters suffering from war-related PTSD from Vietnam include Seeing the Elephant by Portland Jones, while The Rainy Season by Myfanwy Jones is about a daughter’s search for  father who went missing there during the war.

There is, as you’d expect, a growing number of NF titles about the War, some of which are on my TBR.  And while women were not ever subjected to conscription, Our Vietnam nurses provides a glimpse into the contribution that they made.

However, apart from Some Here Among Us by Kiwi Peter Walker, I don’t know of much fiction about the protest movements at all.  So I was pleased to come across Doug McEachern’s debut novel Stardust and Golden. (The title is an allusion to a Joni Mitchell song.) The author profile at UWAP tells us that he is a ‘late bloomer’, achieving his PhD in Creative Writing after retirement from his academic career.  Significantly for the theme of Stardust and Golden, which is set in the 1960s, it turns out that his adolescent ambition to become a writer was led astray by the political urgency of the campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription. 

Bookended by chapters in the present day, the novel is narrated by the central character Mark David who is revisiting his university years in 1969.  He and his mate Stryder wait with trepidation for the conscription ballot which is to decide their fate.  Neither of them support the war in general or conscription in particular but are undecided about what to do.  Their options include failing to register, either quietly or overtly to make a protest, with a penalty of two years in gaol if they are convicted.  They could try registering as conscientious objectors, though the courts are reluctant to confer that status without a long history of pacificism.  Or, they could register, and then fade into a quiet life if they aren’t called up, or if they’re unlucky and their number comes up, defer on the grounds of study commitments for as long as possible.  (It’s 1969 and they sense that the war is coming to an end, but it may not come soon enough.) If all else fails, there’s the option of disappearing overseas, but that involves severing all contact with family and friends.

For these two characters what is equally important is not just their own fate, but the fate of others and the need to protest effectively to bring the whole hateful system to an end. The contrast in their personalities, however, affects what they do.  Mark is a fatalist governed by inertia, while Stryder is an optimist and has more initiative.

As the future looms, that optimism  begins to look shaky:

‘We’ll be okay,’ Stryder said. ‘We’re not going to be called up.  I’ve never won a prize in any lottery before.  Why should my luck change?’ He turned to me, knowing I disagreed. ‘We’ll play this silly game, but we’re not going into the army. We’re not going to support this war. We’ll do anything we can to stop it.’

This was the most explicit speech I’d ever heard Stryder make about Vietnam and conscription.  Normally he was so optimistic it was scary.

‘We won’t be called up.  We’ll organise mass protests and the government will change its mind.  The government will lose the next election.’

I didn’t think Stryder would get called up either; his charmed, privileged life would continue on its inevitable course.  For me, on the other hand registration was just a step on the way to jail. (p.37)

Enmeshed with these political concerns, which are reluctantly accepted by parents or vehemently rejected, there are the usual entanglements of life for young adults.  A shared household called The Chasm is the setting for a motley bunch of students, who behave well or badly according to their personalities.  There is music, drug abuse, drunkenness and late night parties, and not enough study going on.  There is also sex and its consequences, and the stress and tension of these become too much for one of the housemates.  There are rowdy meetings debating the philosophy and effectiveness of radical activism v peaceful protest, and there is also a street protest where the naïve young people discover just how ruthless the police can be.

In addition to the generational conflicts depicted in Stardust and Golden, there is also class distinction. Mark David is a scholarship student at a time when most university students had wealthy parents to pay the fees. (Tertiary fees were abolished by the Whitlam Government that also stopped the war and conscription, in 1972.)  Having wealthy parents was an asset if they were willing and able to contest wrongful arrests in court, and/or pay the fines for summary offences at protests.

There is a melancholy undercurrent in the novel, which reinforces the long-lasting enmities of the era, so apparent when in the present day Mark encounters Stryder’s still angry mother in an aged care home. Stardust and Golden is well structured to make room for these persisting effects while the writing in the main body of the novel is a vivid and authentic portrayal of the era.

These things happened. I personally know of a court case where one of the defendants was represented by a QC, and the rest were not.  I know of a case where estrangement lasted twenty years, and another where the hostility persisted until death.  I know of activists from within the army whose mental health was ruined by punitive strategies to suppress dissent.  There’s unacknowledged collateral damage too.  One of my friends could not cope with her conscripted husband being on active service and tried to take her life. She ended up in a mental hospital where she was given shock treatment for depression.  I know about the confusion and distress of younger siblings witnessing but not understanding the conflict, and I know about the distress of parents seeing their families torn apart.

The generation that lived through these things is passing on, and before long the opportunity to interview those with lived experience will be gone. So apart from the qualities that make Stardust and Golden a fine novel, I’d like to see it get more air in the hope that a serious novelist somewhere will be inspired to bring more of these stories into the light.

Author: Doug McEachern
Title: Stardust and Golden
Design by Ten Deer Sigh
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2018
ISBN: 9781742589732, pbk., 208 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from UWAP $24.99

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2022

2022 Voss Literary Prize longlist

The Long List for the 2022 Voss Literary Prize has been announced:

Michael Mohammed Ahmad, The Other Half of You (Hachette Australia)

Larissa Behrendt, After Story (University of Queensland Press), see my review

Emily Bitto, Wild Abandon (Allen & Unwin)

Katherine Brabon, The Shut Ins (Allen & Unwin)

Michelle De Kretser, Scary Monsters (Allen & Unwin), see my review

Jennifer Down, Bodies of Light (Text Publishing Company)

Graeme Friedman, What the Boy Hears When the Girl Dreams (Brio Books)

Hannah Kent, Devotion (Picador Pan Macmillan)

Susan Johnson, From Where I Fell (Allen & Unwin), see my review

Alice Pung, One Hundred Days (Black Inc)

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The Voss Literary Prize is an award dedicated to the memory of Vivian Robert de Vaux Voss (1930-1963), an historian and lover of literature from Emu Park in Central Queensland who studied History and Latin at the University of Sydney and modern languages at the University of Rome. His will stipulated that a literary award be established to reward the best novel from the previous year.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2022

Jack of Hearts, QX11594, by Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro

Cultural warning: First Nations readers are advised that this review contains images and names of people who have died.


Jack of Hearts QX11594 is, as its title suggests, a loving tribute to a father who died too young as well as an account of his service during WW2.  Sisters from the Bidjara / Birri Gubba nations in Queensland, Jackie Huggins (b.1956) and Ngaire Jarro set out to find out more about the father who died when they were only small children.  It was an emotional journey retracing his steps on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway where as a POW used as slave labour by the Japanese, his health was ruined.  He was lucky to survive.

Relentless labour on inadequate rations in a deadly tropical environment caused huge losses. By the time the railway was completed in October 1943, at least 2,815 Australians, over 11,000 other Allied prisoners, and perhaps 75,000 romusha were dead.

The prisoners’ sufferings on the railway have come to epitomise the ordeal of Australians in captivity. The railway camps produced many victims, but also heroes who helped others to endure, to survive, or to die with dignity. (Australian War Memorial) 

John Henry (Jack) Huggins III met the love of his life on his return and became a respected member of his community in his home town of Ayr, Queensland.  He died, however, seven years later in 1958 from war-related injuries when he was only 38. Like many, he had not talked about his experience as a POW, and his wife Rita had died in 1996 so it was up to his daughters to research what they could, consulting people who knew him, and exploring records, photographs, letters and defence force records.

Although he died when we were young, (Ngaire was only three, Jackie was two and Johnny just four months old), we do have some memories of him. Sadly, the only memory Ngaire has of our Father is a tall dark man standing in front of her in our little house in Soper Street. (p.23)

Jackie, like other very small children experiencing high levels of emotion, remembers the enormous sadness and trauma around the time our Father became very ill. 

As we never lived far from the hospital and Mum couldn’t drive at that time, she would push us in the pram every night to see Dad at the Ayr Base Hospital.  Sometimes she might get a babysitter for us but believed we should all be there for him.  How we would sit there for hours, talking and comforting him, praying and willing him to get better.  Unfortunately this was to no avail.  On 27 November 1958 he passed. (p.25)

But their mother, who remained devoted to Jack all her life, passed on many precious memories. Ngaire recalls that…

She told me that because I was his first born I was special to him.  He was very protective of me.  I was always the ‘soft’ one.  She constantly told me this story about him.  He would always say to her that if anything were to happen to him, to make sure she looked after me. He would say that Jackie had a hard head (in more ways than one!) and she could take care of herself but I could not.  Dad knew us so well in his short time with us.  It’s so very sad that he was taken away from us in his prime. (p.25)

In 2019 the sisters made a five-day tour of SE Asia for descendants of Aboriginal POWs to visit sites where Jack Huggins had served between 1942 and 1945.  There they were able to access some POW and other military records at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, and learned about other First Nations soldiers also held in captivity by the Japanese and used as slave labour, including some who did not survive such as George Cubby aged 30, from NSW; and Cyril Brockman aged 33, from WA.

Readers of my post Decolonising a Blog…a work in progress #2, Learning about the emergence of Indigenous Life Writing may remember that I consulted Writing Never Arrives Naked, Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia by Penny Van Toorn.  Referring to Auntie Rita (1994) written by Jackie Huggins in collaboration with her mother Rita Huggins (i.e. the wife of Jack Huggins, the subject of Jack of Hearts), Van Toorn noted the difference in style between mother and daughter.  Rita’s tone was intimate, and the readers for whom she was writing were people she knew. It was story telling for entertainment and she omitted distressing elements because she wanted to give enjoyment, and her Aboriginal readership all knew and shared a similarly painful personal history. Jackie OTOH was addressing a wider public in a more formal tone, providing background information that placed her mother’s life in its historical context.  Her purpose was to educate the reader-as-stranger about Australia’s black history.

It seems to me that Jack of Hearts shares this innovative blend of collaborative writing to meld the personal with the political.  It tells of an emotional journey to ‘know’ the father that the authors lost when they were young, and it also educates the Australian public about First Nations service in WW1 and WW2.  Through both these narrative lenses, the authors also compare the life chances of their parents and grandparents: how those who were ‘exempt’ under the Aborigines Protection and Preservation Acts of 1897 had more freedom of movement and opportunities but lost connection with their culture and family members, while those who lived on missions, reserves and settlements under the restrictions of the Act were used as unpaid labour, were often subjected to abuse, and had only rudimentary education, if any at all.

This hybrid approach to history storytelling puts a human face on events and speaks to the emotional toll in researching and telling important stories.

If you are interested to learn more about the complexities of First Nations war service, see my review of Our Mob Served, and for more about the iniquitous Exemption system, see my review of Black, White and Exempt.

Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro are from the Bidjara / Birri Gubba nations in Queensland.

Authors: Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro
Title: Jack of Hearts, QX11594
Cover design: Jo Hunt
Magabala Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781922613127, pbk., 178 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Last time we had friends over for dinner, I made a dessert of home-made avocado ice-cream, with brownies. I should have taken a photo because it was scrumptious, despite the recipe‘s claim that the brownies had only 91 kcal per serve because they were made with yoghurt instead of butter. I don’t care about calories, but I do try to offer desserts that are healthy-ish.  OTOH if I’m only going to make brownies once or twice a year, I want them to taste decadent.

So I am pleased to add River Cottage Good Comfort, to our recipe book collection.  (That’s the British River Cottage TV series with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (HFW), not the Australian adaptation with Paul West.)

With recipe books, which are usually expensive, it’s important to identify the target audience before you choose.  The obvious decider is whether the book is for experienced or inexperienced cooks; but also keen v unenthusiastic cooks who can’t cope with more than four or five ingredients; and cooks who take shortcuts with packets, jars and tins v those who would starve rather than buy carrot or cheese that’s already grated or use a packet to make a ‘home-made’ cake.  There are also cookbooks pitched at those for whom nutrition or ideological principles take priority i.e. vegan, vegetarian, organic, non-allergenic, heart-healthy etc etc. With River Cottage Good Comfort there’s another audience I’d never thought much about before: it’s pitched at people with a habit of eating unhealthy so-called ‘family favourites’, who need or want to take a healthier approach to food and cooking, with or without the support of the rest of the household.

You can see this pitch in parts of the blurb:

The perception that the food we love can’t also be good for us is swept away by this stunning collection of delicious, heart-warming recipes that also happen to be packed with good things that help keep us healthy.

And Good Comfort is in every way generous, as Hugh makes our favourite foods healthier, not by taking stuff out of them, but by putting more in: the best whole ingredients, celebrated in all their colourful and seasonal diversity.

The book begins with an Introduction.  It’s the usual cook’s philosophy section, which in this case is HFW’s mission to recreate comfort foods that are not heavy, cloying, too rich or too sweet.  His key principle is ‘Go Whole: The more whole, unrefined ingredients we can get on to our plates, the better.  But he doesn’t just mean the grains and pulses we typically associate with the term ‘wholefoods’.  He means foods that are whole, or very close to it, when we take them into our kitchens.  (I heard these described the other day as ‘foods your granny would recognise’.) Minimally processed is ok, so he includes dairy foods such as yoghurt and cheese, and some tinned vegetables (such as low-salt tomatoes canned with just water and a little salt.) He stresses that it’s important to get the balance right: overdo the pulses and you’re in the danger zone of ‘padding’. Likewise, full-on wholemeal flour can take you a little far from textures you know and love, so ‘half-wholemeal’ is a better choice.

I’m already onboard with reducing sugar: I find most modern recipes and storebought cakes have far too much sugar for my taste.  My cakes, biscuits and puddings mostly come from battered recipe books from decades ago.  HFW’s other mission is to encourage cooks to use a variety of good ingredients, which is my culinary mission too.

#Digression: Just out of idle curiosity, I just counted how many different vegetables we have on hand today.  Fourteen: potatoes, sweet potato, pumpkin, onions, lettuce, fennel, snow peas, beans, tomatoes, spinach, cucumber and spring onions, leeks and kale in the garden. Carrots are on the shopping list. (We’re only just starting to plant again after the fallow season, the celery went in two days ago).

So, on with the recipes!

There are ten chapters:

  • Breakfast and Brunch:
    • I like his Bruschetta ideas: beetroot and fennel; beany mash; mushrooms and greens; or sardines on tomato toast.
  • Soups:  I wish I’d had this book at the start of winter because I love homemade soup for lunch in cold weather.  (We had cream of asparagus yesterday which was scrumptious.)
    • Cream of roasted tomato soup looks divine, the roasting is obviously key to its deliciousness (and though HFW doesn’t mention air fryers, we now have one and can use it for jobs like this);
    • Cream of roasted mushroom soup, thickened with cashew nuts, again roasted and then zapped in the blender.
    • English Onion Soup! The method is the same as French Onion Soup, long slow cooking to caramelise the onions, but made not with beef stock but with red wine, strong black coffee, soy sauce and vegetable stock.
    • Smoky fish chowder looks very enticing, with potatoes, sweetcorn or peas, spinach, kale or spring greens, and of course you can make it with other seafood e.g. mussels if you like.
  • Pasta and Rice: this chapter is a bit ordinary for an experienced cook because the sauces look pretty much like the ones we make anyway. But that is, of course, what this cookbook is about, and it’s not pretending to be anything else.  It’s basically all the old familiars, supplemented with extra vegetables and/or pulses. What’s different (for us, that is) is the wholemeal pasta and brown rice. Or, hmm… homemade nettle pasta. I do make my own pasta sometimes, but adding nettles (or spinach) makes an easy task into a performance IMO.
  • Stews, Hotpots and curries: This chapter OTOH is about shifting the balance of protein and veg, and adding to the diversity in vegetarian favourites.
    • Chunky chilli con carne reduces the protein to 100g per serve of beef plus 25g pork belly per person, topped up with sweet potato, kidney beans and other veg;
    • Cauli curry with spuds and cashews, looks very appealing indeed.
    • Vegged-up dhal has extras like carrot, celery and tomatoes.
    • Fish stew looks a lot like a bouillabaisse, but our usual French recipe doesn’t have chick peas in it. (Or preserved lemon which I associate with Middle Eastern food, especially Moroccan.) The point about this chapter is that once you’ve mastered the idea, you can adapt your own recipes.

My version of Beef and Pepperberry Pie, serves a generous four

  • Pies and Tarts: My favourite pie of all time is Beef and Pepperberry Pie, which derives from Matthew Hopcraft’s season on Masterchef and Food to Feed the Family, the cookbook that he subsequently published see my review (here). You can see from my (not professionally styled) photo that it has a lovely golden pastry crust, but from the photos in HFW’s recipe book, it looks as if that can also be achieved with a half white/half fine wholemeal mix of flour. This variation to the usual pastry recipe is the focus of this chapter.
    • Prune, chestnut and apple sausage rolls (similar in taste to the chestnut and apple pie I make for vegetarian friends?);
    • Onion tart with greens is basically a spinach quiche, but with reduced dairy for the custard);
    • Chicken and leek pie is made with a rough puff pastry with step-by-step photos to show you how to make it.  (I have never even tried making puff pastry, but now I’m going to.)
    • Crispy Kale-topped pizza looks bright and colourful and enticing (and if you’re not in the mood to make his wholemeal pizza dough you can always use a wholemeal wrap a.k.a. flatbread for the base instead.)
  • Pan and Griddle: This is the chapter for people who like hamburgers, steaks, chops and sausages.  There’s a recipe for Cauliflower pakora with radish raita that I like the look of, but it involves shallow frying in oil which defeats the purpose IMO.
    • Mussels with leeks and fennel OTOH is cooked in cider and I like the sound of that!
  • Bakes and Roasts: like the previous chapter this one is pitched squarely at the cook who’s trying to dial down the unhealthy qualities of ‘family favourites’.  Most of them are things that are never on our menu anyway (macaroni cheese, toad-in-the-hole, moussaka, pork ribs) but there are some which appeal as substitutes for our favourites.
    • Kale and mushroom lasagne: this is nearly the same as my Mushroom Lasagne with Roasted Peppers from The 90s Vegetarian but I would make it with ricotta instead of Béchamel sauce so it’s less fatty.  (But if you were trying to train a recalcitrant to eat an adaptation of a family favourite, you’d use the Béchamel, of course.)
    • Creamy potato gratin. I confess I am a glutton for a real French potato gratin, made to the recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But HFW’s version, made with stock and cream instead of milk and cream, and no butter and no cheese, does look delicious too.
  • Leftovers: I skipped this chapter. Leftovers are not a problem in our house!
  • Puddings: these feature the half-plain and half-wholemeal pastry from the pies and tarts chapter, so apple pie, and a pear and almond tart, but there are also fibre-rich fruit crumbles, a lighter, less sweet custard, and a choc mousse which looks pretty decadent to me. I’m also keen to try the Basque-style cheesecake made with creme-fraiche and labneh and the Pannacotta made with yoghurt as well as cream.
  • Teatime Treats.
    • Wholemeal chocolate cake or Sesame banana bread with a tahini topping?  Maybe. Definitely the Carrot Cake with a labneh topping that halves the sugar content. Oaty dunking cookies are Anzac biscuits made with wholemeal flour and no golden syrup.  I’m going to try the Fruit scones sweetened with minimal sugar, dried fruit and a grated apple.

I’ve already tried one of his ideas, albeit in a slightly oblique way.  For this week’s batch of muffins, (using up the whey after I made some yoghurt), I replaced 1/5 of the flour with chickpea flour (which we had left over from some recipe that involved me grinding it myself from chickpeas.) I also reduced the sugar by 10%. They tasted just fine but the muffins didn’t rise quite as much as usual so maybe chickpea flour needs a bit more baking powder.

The layout of Ingredients and Method is clear, the font is big enough, and the instructions are easy to follow.

There’s also an appendix of ingredients, and a comprehensive Index. Every recipe is photographed in full colour. What’s missing — and this is a serious omission considering the purpose of this cookbook — is the nutrition panel for each recipe, listing fats, sugars, fibre and proteins, plus the kcals for each serve.  I also like my recipe books to indicate how long for prep and cooking time, whether or not some or all of it can be done ahead of time, plus storage times, including whether the food can be frozen or not.

I shall update this post with photos of the recipes as I try them.

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Notes on our trials:

22/9/22 Pasta ‘Pestomega’, green beans and spuds. The pesto is made with walnuts and seeds (we used pumpkin).

24/9/22 Sardine bruschetta: we added more garlic and it needs a squeeze of lemon in the sardines.

24/9/22 Chicken and leek pie: the flavour and texture are great, but the liquid proportions are wrong.  100ml wine plus 300ml of chicken stock makes the filling too runny.  The instructions say to reduce and thicken the wine, but adding 300ml of stick after that and simmering it for 5 minutes isn’t long enough for it to thicken properly.  Either the recipe needs more flour, or less liquid or much longer to simmer.  We used Dijon mustard instead of English because we prefer it.

Photo credit: Brownies: https://thebigmansworld.com/greek-yogurt-chocolate-brownies/

Author: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Photographer and illustrator: Simon Wheeler and Lucinda Rogers, respectively
Title: River Cottage Good Comfort, best-loved favourites made better for you
Cover design by Peter MoffatPublisher: Bloomsbury, 2022
ISBN: 9781526638953, hbk. 350 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury AU.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2022

2021 ACT Book of the Year Award shortlist

The ACT Book of the Year Award shortlist has been announced. I’m delighted to see that one of my favourite books of 2021 has been nominated.

From their website: 

Six books have been shortlisted for the 2021 ACT Book of the Year, which recognises quality contemporary literary works by ACT-based authors.

A total of 21 eligible books were nominated for the 2021 award representing a diverse range of genres including fiction, non-fiction, history, biography, short stories, children’s books and poetry.

The winner of the ACT Book of the Year will be announced on 29 September 2022.

The nominees are:

  • Oil Under Troubled Water, Australia’s Timor Sea Intrigue by Bernard Collaery.
  • Utterly by Dr PS Cottier
  • Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets, by Subhash Jaireth, see my review.
  • Nigh by Dr Penelope Layland
  • The Trials of Portnoy by Dr Patrick Mullins
  • Doggerland by Moya Pacey

There are brief summaries of the books at the Canberra Times.

ACT Book of the Year award shortlist

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2022

Medusa’s Ankles, Selected Stories by A S Byatt

Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate.  And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, hoped-for-or-lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard.  And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness.  The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or quiver.

Gerda Himmelblau is back in the knot of quiet terror which has grown in her private self like a cancer over the last few years.  (from ‘The Chinese Lobster’, in Medusa’s Ankles, p.149)

I keep telling you, my readers, that I tend not to read short stories, and that is because so few of those that come my way pique my interest in characterisation.  But there are exceptions, and A S Byatt’s short stories in this new collection are so satisfying, her topics so thought-provoking, and her writing (as you can see from that excerpt) is so superb that I have no hesitation in describing these stories as exemplars of the craft.

‘The Chinese Lobster’, is one of a number of stories as cunningly titled as the titular ‘Medusa’s Ankles.’  Like many of those in the collection, it shows Byatt unafraid to tackle awkward issues.

Dr Himmelblau, Dean of Women Students, chooses the restaurant for her meeting with Professor Perry Diss because it’s convenient to their workplace in Bloomsbury. Possibly infringing university procedures, she has elected to have an informal meeting to discuss a student’s complaint about the behaviour of Professor Diss.  She shares the student’s badly spelt and incoherent tirade with the professor, who responds with his version of events. She should be failed and sent on her way, he says, and her accusations are a fantasy.  The disputed truth of events is not the issue.  It becomes the mental health of the student, and whether supporting her should take precedence over her unsatisfactory dissertation (which is meant to be a feminist critique of the way Matisse used the female body, though the student, it seems, knows nothing about Matisse). The excerpt above brings depth to the characterisation of these two professionals for whom academic integrity matters. Their internal baggage, mutually inferred, brings the reader to a reassessment of all the characters in this exquisite, profound short story.

Another that struck a chord is ‘Heavenly Bodies’.  An obscenely wealthy man with nothing better to spend his money on, sends his fantasy of a woman into the sky.  Our sky.

She sailed into the sky without annunciation, around the winter solstice.  She had been assembled in space, like a pontoon bridge, from a series of tiny satellites, carrying light-emitting polymers and mirrors, and when she was ready, she was unfurled over forty or so kilometres, twinkling and glittering. She went into a non-geostationary orbit, riding calmly round the earth seven and a half times in twenty-four hours, and could be clearly seen with the naked eye to be a reclining woman, full-breasted, narrow-waisted with a cloud of shimmering hair and shapely legs. She appeared to be as large as a jumbo jet on its descent. (p.325)

Seriously.  Can you imagine this, and the affront you would feel?

Remember those BBC adaptations of 19th century novels where the local farm workers object to the arrival of the railway? The way this story is so cleverly constructed reminded me of the tropes that offset that fear and loathing: admiration for the progress that the noise and smell of the train represents; respect for the technological innovation imposed on quiet pastures; and mildly patronising responses to the uneducated lower orders who recognise that not only can this intrusion on their world not be ignored, but also that they are powerless to be rid of it.  A 21st century reader must infer their resentment that rich people can do things that impact on others without any repercussions. 19th century novelists barely recognise the inchoate anger that being contemptuously ignored amounts to being silenced.  Byatt lays it bare.

She describes the marketing of this assault on the senses that obliterates the night sky.

Although there had been no publicity before her appearance, an orchestrated stream of information appeared in all the media immediately after it.  Her name, it was revealed, was Lucy Furnix, which was also the name of a singer who was associated with Brad Macmamman, the tycoon, one of the few people powerful and rich enough to assemble a skywoman without fear of international complaints about light pollution, or advertising controls. (p.325)

In the wake of a recent celebrity death overseas, we here in Australia are witnessing saturation coverage of a similarly orchestrated campaign to foster acceptance of a new order of things over which we have no control. Lucy in the Sky with a diamond in her navel comes with sentimental stories and assertions of usefulness.  In the story, most people responded with indulgence, and cultural studies pundits talked about a new age of feminine values.  

But after a time her rapidly reiterated appearances began to be greeted with indifference, and then with irritation, and then with increasing distaste and loathing. (p.327)

Graffiti appears.  Governments and the UN are impotent: dismantling the steadily smiling object was found to be impossibly expensive or dangerous. 

*sigh*. ‘Heavenly Bodies’ was written in 1998, and I find myself wondering what triggered this accidentally prescient story.

There is such wisdom, perspicacity and compassion in these stories! But what I really like is the way she sprinkles myth, literature and art through the stories, adding that frisson of delight in her allusions.   ‘Dragon’s Breath’, for example, tells the tale of three young people in a village bound to its traditional ways.  They are beset by boredom and briefly excited by the existential threat of dragons which emerge from the mountains above and all but destroy the village, as dragons do.  It was written in 1994 but it made me think of intransigence to the perils of climate change, which are now upon us because the world refused to act in time.

There are eighteen stories in this collection, all previously published in magazines and journals.  They include early works from the 1980s and then the1990s, and seven published in the 21st century.  My favourite is ‘Medusa’s Ankles’ even though I dislike its conclusion, that the rage of older women treated with contempt can be spectacularly explosive… and then things go back to the way they were before.

A S Byatt was born in 1936.  I wonder if there is a chance we shall see another novel?  In 2011 Ragnarok, the end of the gods was published, but her last novel was The Children’s Book (2009) which (as you can tell from my review) was IMHO her best novel ever.  (And I’ve read nearly all of them.)

Author: A S Byatt
Title: Medusa’s Ankles, Selected Stories
Cover design and painting by Anabeth Bostrup
Publisher: Vintage International, Penguin Random House, 2022
ISBN: 9780593466858, pbk., 444 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House, with thanks to Demetris Papadimitropoulos, Associate Publicist at Alfred A. Knopf.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2022

The Grease Monkey’s Tale, by Paul Burman

If you’ve ever done a bit of driving off the beaten track in Victoria, then you’ll know places exactly like the setting for this intriguing novel.  Paul Burman’s A Grease Monkey’s Tale put me in mind of remote small towns in the back-blocks of Gippsland but more specifically of Woods Point in the Great Dividing Range (pop.37 in 2016).  An old gold-mining town, it’s actually only 120 km northeast of Melbourne but it takes about three-and-a-half hours to get there over difficult terrain.  The town itself is at the end of a long winding road and you need nerves of steel to drive it in bad weather.  When I was last there Woods Point appeared to be a favourite haunt of intimidating bikies.  With apologies to anyone with tourism ambitions for the town, it wasn’t a place to hang about and we didn’t.

But that was my second visit to Woods Point.  The first time, back in the 1980s, I was rather enchanted by it.  We stayed the weekend there because one of The Ex’s pals in the legal fraternity had plans to acquire an old miner’s cottage there, under adverse possession.  He needed people staying in it in order to maintain his claim.

Adverse possession is a property law principle that allows a person to claim ownership of land without paying for it. Adverse possession occurs where a person has enjoyed uninterrupted and exclusive possession of land for a period of 15 years. Source: Civil Law Victoria.

Woods Point Bridge St (Wikipedia)

Whether this is a dubious way to acquire property or otherwise, I think that lawyer fancied that the cottage had possibilities as a snow-resort getaway, but now after reading Burnam’s novel, I wonder if its very remote location might have had other more nefarious possibilities!

In The Grease Monkey’s Tale, the novel begins with the central character Nic on his way to the fictional hamlet of Gimbly, where this unsuspecting young man is about to get himself into #NoSpoilers Serious Difficulties. (Gimbly is a character in Warcraft but I don’t think that’s got anything to do with things, though there are clever interpolations of twisted folk tales in the novel.)  Then comes the back story: Nic, a.k.a. the grease monkey is alone and lonely in Melbourne after he lost his entire family in a helicopter crash.  The insurance payout means he is well off, but he works as a mechanic and panel-beater because that’s what he enjoys. And when his boss is there at work with him, it means he has company to talk to.  At home there’s only his dead sister’s pet rat Polonious and her goldfish named Ophelia.

Well, one day when his boss is away on holiday Siobhan roars into Nic’s life in the sort of Porsche beloved of young men who are mad about cars.  She wants it fixed urgently, and by him, even though there’s a Porsche dealership just down the road.  Before long Nic is besotted, even though Siobhan is very adept at sidestepping questions about herself and she often disappears ‘on business’.

Then, on another occasion when his boss isn’t there, he gets another urgent job.  This time it’s one of those anonymous white delivery vans that are everywhere in the city, and it has some easy-to-repair damage as well as a profusion of electrical goods in the back.  The client is a creep: rude and horrible and Nic would rather have nothing to do with him, but Siobhan has asked him to do it as a favour to her.  And he just can’t say no to Siobhan.

And because we know from Chapter One that Nic is driving away from the city to start a new life with a name that’s just a label, a tag, and signifies sweet nothing, we know that Things Are Going To Go Horribly Wrong.

And they do. The novel is constructed to that we readers see what’s coming before Nic does.  This nice but rather naive young man is blinded by Love!

Abandoned by Siobhan, unemployed with no prospect of re-employment, alone and friendless with no one to advise him except the voices of his dead parents and sister, Nic has nothing to do except play albums of Blues recordings that Siobhan had bought him.  Then gosh! a fairy-godmother rings his doorbell with a job offer!

Against the background rumble of traffic and a crackle that had crept into the speaker, he had to ask her twice, but she either told him she was from Something Correctional Services or from Something Personnel Services.  She wasn’t collecting for the Lost Dogs’ home or selling God through instalments, that much was clear.

She was a short, bespectacled lady — the stereotypical image of a fairy-godmother, down to her brogues and tweed woollen suit, her tight bun of ice-white hair — and once she’d been invited in, she stood in the middle of his living-room, waiting to be offered a seat.  Quaint. (p. 95)

Oh dear.  When something seems to be good to be true, it usually is too good to be true, right? The warning bells are ringing but Nic is too dispirited and desperate to hear them.

So off he goes to Gimbly…

This, then, is how Nic came to be on the road, viewing his departure from a city of tall buildings through the rearview mirror of his glossy black 1972 E-Type, Series 3. [A Jaguar, like this one.) Once he’d overtaken the slow cattle truck he’d got stuck behind, he’d accelerate towards the freedom of a new start, towards an unboundaried sky and limitless horizons.  New people, new places, new life.  The past would diminish into the tiniest of specks and then disappear, because everything vanished after its time: good and bad, happy and sad.  Any last doubts he’d had about this journey would vanish as surely as the road unravelled.

Driving beyond the dry, deserted plains of old market gardens, where billboards and elaborate facades advertised city-expansion housing estates and off-the-peg, instant suburbs, he thought he could smell a faint whiff of newness blowing through the air vents and brightening the windscreen.  Yes, he was sure of it.  Unwinding his window, he took a deep breath as he peered at the hazy green distance and its horizon of rising hills, patchwork farms, forest shadows; he wondered how long it’d be before he returned and what new, whole person he’d have become.

Sometimes you’ve just go to leave a place in order to begin again.  Sometimes you have to leave in order to return. Sometimes you return only to find that nothing can be the same again.

Anything had to be an improvement on the last six months. (p.99-100)

Ah… no. Not necessarily…

Do things get worse when he makes his way to Gimbly to take up a new job with employers prepared to overlook his #NoSpoilers ‘experiences’?  Alas, they do.

The Grease Monkey’s Tale is only masquerading as a love story/mystery/thriller.  While there is superbly controlled narrative tension, the novel is also a meditation on the grief of an overwhelming tragedy; a cautionary tale about the vulnerability of love; and a thoughtful depiction of character transformation as Nic loses his naiveté while retaining the fundamental integrity bequeathed to him by his parents.

Highly recommended.

Paul Burman is also the author of The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore (2009) and Night-night, Sleep Tight (2017).  For more information about these books and Paul’s other creative work as an artist, visit his website.

Image credit: Woods Point Bridge St, by Mattinbgn (talk · contribs) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22613799

Author: Paul Burman
Title: The Grease Monkey’s Tale
Publisher: Legend Press, London UK 2010
ISBN: 9781907461163, pbk., 284 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Blarney Books, Port Fairy $25.00

Available from Blarney Books and Art, and there’s also a Kindle edition.  (they also stock Night-night, Sleep Tight.

 

CC BY ND I have never done this before, that is, republished content from elsewhere through Creative Commons,. but this review, published at The Conversation 7/9/22 by Sue Joseph, Associate Professor; Senior Research Fellow, University of South Australia is a good follow up to my review of We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know by Sophie McNeill, and a prelude to my reading of You Don’t Belong Here, How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War (2021) by Elizabeth Becker, so I wanted to share it.


Bravery, insight and simmering fury: Australian female correspondents on speaking truth to power.


Emma Alberici writes about the Fourth Estate with a combination of despondency, scorn and hope.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

Sue Joseph, University of South Australia

A confession: I am an academic and a journalist, but the name at the top of an article means little to me – whether my own, or anyone else’s. It never has. I am always far more interested in elegantly rendered content. Whether it’s written by a man or a woman is irrelevant.

This gender disregard may seem counterintuitive. But being a woman does not change the craft of journalism. I know it changes almost everything else, but to survive as a woman in many (if not most) industries needs a sense of bloody-mindedness about our right to be there, and a weary robustness born of battle.


Review: Through Her Eyes, edited by Melissa Roberts and Trevor Watson (Hardie Grant)


Does gender matter in journalism?

In their preface, the co-editors of Through Her Eyes, Melissa Roberts and Trevor Watson, touch on the sexism experienced by all female journalists.

Like me, they think and write: “The gender of a correspondent shouldn’t matter.” They qualify: “But the reality is that until very recently, gender determined all in journalism, particularly opportunity.” This is also true.

Several of the correspondents in this book hurdled gendered obstructions to their career and set out alone to foreign lands, funding themselves by freelancing. So, in many ways, reading Through Her Eyes is humbling. Not because it collects the stories of 29 Australian female foreign correspondents who fought hard for their place, but because it collects the stories of foreign correspondents.

Most of these stories are deeply reflective. These chapters are the ones that resonate most – and will, I hope, make readers truly think. They reflect not on being an Australian woman in the field, but on the job and the skills of journalism. On speaking truth to power through written words.

Emma Alberici’s personal perspective

Emma Alberici’s chapter, “What’s news?”, is the one that really stands out. It’s not so much a running mission of gathering news in war-torn, dangerous and corrupt countries, but more an essay on the state of play of news-gathering culture. Alberici writes with a simmering, recognisable fury.

She begins with the fiasco that was the Tampa incident in August 2001 – “one of the most shameful periods in our political history” – and the subsequent spiking of the scoop she and Terry Ross gathered for Channel 9’s A Current Affair on Nauru, where Australia dumped 434 traumatised people, most of them Afghan refugees.

A Current Affair replaced the shattering and shameful story of Australian government callousness Alberici and Ross had filed with an interview with an inventor who claimed to have created a cure for sweating. After 30 hours of getting to Nauru and manically interviewing, writing, filming and filing there, Alberici tells Ross that back in Sydney, their work has been shelved. Ross vomits at the news.

Emma Alberici called her move from Channel 9 to the ABC, where she became their European correspondent, ‘serendipity’.

She writes of “serendipity” launching her from the commercial Channel 9 to the ABC later that year. Seven years later, she became the ABC’s European correspondent. And then there are several eviscerating pages on the Murdoch press, particularly in the United Kingdom, circling the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry. It is a verifiable and considered unpacking.

She writes a tad despondently about the Fourth Estate and public interest notions of journalism, and scathingly about how “media houses continue to undermine the trust bestowed on them”. But she ends hopefully, invoking multi-platform news outlets, writing that “younger audiences and readers are voting with their feet, taking advertisers and philanthropic money with them”. This chapter is a personal perspective from inside an industry still desperately reshaping and reforming itself. It’s cogently argued, with a succinct rhythm.

Writing women correspondents back into history

We all know women are written out of much historical narrative – they have been for centuries. The book redresses this, retrofitting stories of past female foreign correspondents between those of contemporary journalists.

These historical chapters – on Lorraine Stumm, Diane Willman, Kate Webb and Margaret Jones – are compiled by editors Watson and Roberts. They are shorter by comparison and told in the third person, so give the text a slight imbalance. But they aptly place these women in the vanguard of Australian foreign correspondent work, alongside their contemporary counterparts.

Kate Webb covered the Vietnam war and ‘broke the khaki ceiling’, from 1967.

The arc of this text performs an important function, honouring this work between the covers of a book, patching up and correcting the historical imprint of Australian foreign correspondents. The editors write:

Women correspondents are the equal of their male counterparts. They are among the bravest and most insightful journalists we have at a time when the hot zone is more dangerous than it has ever been.

They argue that the type of journalism historically covered by female journalists, what they call the “soft” stories, are now the “big” stories. This leap, infused with the argument that women report with more empathy than men, is polemical. By making it, the editors inadvertently differentiate between the product that male and female journalists produce. This is less than helpful in chasing equality for women – but I understand it, in this context, as counterbalance.

Each of the 29 stories in Through Her Eyes has the impact of a blockbuster film.
There is some powerful writing. Every chapter is an eye-opening glimpse into a world gone crazy – continuously, for the past 80 years. This is my biggest take-away: the ubiquitous corruption, greed, inequality and hatred we perpetrate on each other.

The granular lens through which most of these chapters are written is scintillatingly thought-provoking: the current Ukrainian plight; the fall of the Soviet Union; the highly surveilled China; coming face to face with the Taliban; being in Pakistan when a US elite squad executed Osama bin Laden. Beirut, Syria, Gaza, India, Central Africa, the Pacific and more. The stories are as riveting as they are horrifying.

When practitioners lean into their craft and write personally about what they see and feel, it invokes Dan Wakefield’s 1966 foundational text Between the Lines: A reporter’s personal journey through public events. Clearly a thinker before his time, Wakefield was one of the first to discuss the story behind the story – the story between the lines on the public record.

This is what Through Her Eyes gives us: the rest of the story, imbued with each writer’s personal experience and perspective, separate and additional to what was published or broadcast. It’s the journalist’s experience of gathering the story: what else she saw and felt.

Strong and authoritative

All the book’s chapters are strong and authoritative: Barbara Miller on the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Cate Cadell on technological surveillance in China; Anna Coren in Kabul; Kirsty Needham’s expulsion from Beijing; Tracey Holmes in China and the Middle East; Ruth Pollard in Syria; Gwen Robinson in Manila; Sue Williams in Caledonia.

It is a stellar cast of gifted reporters: some dodging bullets, some dodging predatory men (including, for Janine Perrett, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser), some getting deported, some running towards the World Trade Center on 9/11 when everyone else was running away. Yes, they are as brave, courageous and insightful as their male counterparts – but that is not surprising to any thinking woman. And it should not surprise any thinking man.

Women historically – and still – are blocked, excluded and obstructed in their careers, personal lives and education (more in some parts of the world than others). Just because they are women. Through Her Eyes offers a significant rebalancing act, for what was once deemed a male province.

But what is my real dream? To wrap my hands around a text written by Australian foreign correspondents of diverse identities and genders, within the pages of one book. A balanced, thoughtful and considered compilation of a cross-section of excellent Australian reporting from afar, continuing to speak truth to power through writing.The Conversation

Sue Joseph, Associate Professor; Senior Research Fellow, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2022

2022 NT Literary Awards winners

The 2022 NT Literary Awards winners have been announced:

ImageWith thanks to @DaveClarkWriter (who won the poetry award) these are the shortlists, and the winner is in bold.

Brown’s Mart Theatre
Steeplechase – Oliver Coulter
Under the Table – Sean Guy
The Holidaymakers – Michaela Vaughan

Charles Darwin University Creative Non-Fiction Award
Dysfunction and Beauty on its Sleeve – Dave Clark
A World on the Wane – Naish Gawen
An Aboriginal Healer lifted my PNG Curse – Annalise Ingram
Homage – Carol Maxwell

Charles Darwin University Essay Award
Towards A Set of Guidelines for the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ITAS): A Tutor’s Perspective – Stephen W. Enciso
Rewriting Indigenous Women Stories – One story at a time – Botimi Russell
Unsettling heritage: Difficult histories in the Red Centre, 1884 – Ella Syme

Flash Fiction Award
An extra hour – NG
Earthquake – Julie U’Ren
Lollipops and Lazulites – Olivia Wall

Kath Manzie Youth Award 
In Those Churning Waters – Maya Purdon
Flight – Elisha Pettit

Velocipede by Dave Clark, used with permission

NT Writers’ Centre Poetry Award
Velocipede – Dave Clark
SENSUIKAN I-124 – Ynes Sanz
For my sister on our holiday – Leni Shilton
FORGIVENESS – Dina Davis
Leaving Ikuntji – Meg Mooney
Passing Through the Gate – Janice Barr

Zip Print Short Story Award
Ghosts of the Circus – Sally Bothroyd
Bacha Posh – Dave Clark
Into the Storm – A’Mhara McKey

Where can you read the winners?

The NT Writers Centre * Library and Archives NT have produced a book titled Works by Winners and Finalists. Contact them here for more info.

You can also contact the Writers Centre for more info. Their shop also sells copies of their members’ books and that is how I got my copy of Living With Hope by the late Frank Byrne which won the NT award in 2019.

*Update and correction, with thanks to Bill, see comments below.


I missed the announcement in July that Mark McKenna won the Chief Minister’s Northern Territory History Book award for ‘Return to Uluru’.  Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip reviewed it here.

The following is from Library and Archives NT.

Return to Uluru’ brings to life a cold case: the 1934 shooting of Aboriginal man Yokunnnuna by Bill McKinnon, a white policeman. The book highlights the Commonwealth’s inquiry into the case and the story of racial politics in the Northern Territory at the time.

Also, congratulations to Matt Garrick and Yothu Yindi co-founder Witiyana Marika who were highly commended for ‘Writing in the Sand’. This book details the epic journey of Yolngu/balanda rock band Yothu Yindi and the movement generated from their ground-breaking song ‘Treaty’.


Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2022

So Far, So Good, Aaron Fa’Aoso with Michelle Scott Tucker

The following is reblogged from Bill’s review of So Far, So Good at The Australian Legend.  You can read the rest of his review here.


Aaron Fa’Aoso (1975- ) is a Torres Strait Islander man who has been a professional (rugby league) footballer, dancer, bouncer, a remote community health worker, an acclaimed actor and now has his own media production company.

As I follow/watch neither rugby league nor television I had no idea who he was when Michelle said that she was going to be co-writing this autobiography. I was in touch with her off and on over the three years it took and it was obvious that she was getting a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from the process – described here – and now the book is out, you can see that the collaboration worked well and does them both credit. And I now know a bit more about Aaron.

He snarled, full of menace yet pale and sweating in the tropical Cairns heat, saying something like, C’mon xxxxx, I’ll have ya. …

At 15, I already had years of martial arts experience behind me, regimens of barefoot running and full-bodied sparring that these days would be considered more like child abuse than training. Add to that my fitness from footy, basketball, pushbikes and swimming … And thanks to my Tongan dad, I was a big, solid kid.

And so we start as we mean to go on. Aggressive. Not taking a backward step. I could say ‘unapologetic’, but that is not quite true. Aaron lays his life out before us, with all its aggro and mistakes, and at least implies that he wishes he had done things differently, and that those who follow him would take heed of the lessons he has learnt.

 


You can read the rest of Bill’s review here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2022

2022 Historical Novel Prize longlist

This is a super quick post because Life is In The Way…


Later the same day:

Ok. I’m back on deck and have edited this post to add in the Children’s & YA category longlist as well, and links to other reviews.

The Historical Novel Prize longlist for 2022 has been announced.

I’m very pleased to see books I’ve reviewed and admired on this list, links go to my reviews:

I’ll hunt out other reviews later.  (I know Theresa Smith has reviewed some of them).

Theresa Smith has reviewed these ones, links are to her reviews:

 

And here is the Children’s and YA longlist:

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2022

Marlo, by Jay Carmichael

Let me tell you, I am not, as a general rule, interested in relationship stories about love. Falling in love, years of married/partnered love, loss of love, frustrated love, failings of love, betrayed love… with apologies to all the authors slaving over such themes, meh, I am probably not interested.  (But lots of other readers are, so don’t let me discourage you.)

Love is important, of course.  But I suspect that the reason the riches of the English language don’t include any words to describe the kinds of love that matter to us is because the Brits, and those of us that retain a bit of Brit despite many years elsewhere, tend to retain some reserve about it. Of course we desire, and sometimes enjoy the love for which our language is lacking: the love of lovers, of long-term spouses and partners, of parents, of children, of siblings, of best friends, of fur babies and even for horses, plus the love for substitutes for all of these when they fail us as they so often do. (Well, not dogs, and I am not joking.  My dear old music teacher loved dogs more than people all her life, and they never failed her.  They repaid her with devotion till they died.)

But equality in love — the opportunity to find it, feel it, be swamped by passion, to marry or partner, to make a family, to muck it up or to lose it, that’s a different thing.  Being denied love because you’re the wrong one, or the wrong colour, or the wrong class, or the wrong religion or the wrong gender — when authors tackle that, whether in Pygmalion or Coonardoo, I am interested.  Especially if there are institutional barriers getting in the way of a fundamental human right.

Marlo, Jay Carmichael’s follow-up to the well-regarded Ironbark (2018), reveals the hostile environment of 1950s Melbourne for a young man discovering his sexuality when the laws of the land denied him the right to be.  It’s a very powerful, moving novella, tracing the coming-of-age of Christopher, a young gay man escaping the constrictions of the small Gippsland town of Marlo.  Although this is a tender story written with dignity and hope, Marlo makes it impossible not to feel angry about the anguish of the two lovers, who are negotiating fear of rejection, of detection, of mockery, of police and community brutality, of press condemnation and of judicial punishment.

There are many things to admire about this novella, and one of them is the assumption that readers will understand the significance of a certificate of exemption for Indigenous people.  It is a sign of maturity in our literature that an author can acknowledge this aspect of Australia’s Black History and expect that readers will find out more about it if they don’t already know. (See my review of Black, White and Exempt, edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones, for example.)

The counter to my ignorance, however, came in the Author’s Note at the back of the book, where it was made plain that this story is imagined because there is no literature of gay love in Melbourne at this time.

(There is Fairyland by Sumner Locke Elliot, reissued in a Text Classics edition, is Elliott’s ‘coming-out’ novel, published in 1990, and it provides a vivid picture of ‘camp life’ in Sydney in the 1930s and 40s, when homosexuality was illegal and therefore necessarily covert.  See my review.)

Because of the surveillance and victimisation of homosexuality in 1950s Melbourne, Carmichael says that despite his research in the public archive… he found no holistic account of the lived experiences of male homosexuals in the 1940s and 1950s.

Here in Australia, we are struggling to understand our own history when there is very little in the public record that was authored by working class and First Nations people, and that is because education, and therefore literacy, was denied them.  But what Carmichael reveals here is that the voices of people of a certain identity are absent from the historical record not because they were illiterate, but because they had to suppress that identity.  They were not supposed to exist.

… there’s a gap in what we today can know and understand about how life was lived by a male homosexual under societal scrutiny and persecution during mid-century Australia.  Such lives must be largely inferred.  This is the task of the historical novel. (Afterword, p.146).

Carmichael alludes to this in Christopher’s anxiety about contacting Morgan.  They have met briefly, and Morgan has covertly passed his address on a scrap of paper to Christopher.  Christopher’s roommate Kings is a journalist, and he often regales Christopher with the content of his salacious reporting about impending court cases.  (Whether there is suspicion or personal malice or merely crassness in this is left for the reader to decide).  Christopher tackles Kings about the way other cases aren’t reported with the names, addresses and even the jobs of those charged; whether they are ever convicted or not, these men are already vilified in the press with headlines such as ‘Growing Menace of Sex Perverts’.

Around that time, there was a major criminal trial happening in one of the city’s courts.  A newly arrived prisoner at Pentridge was awaiting bail after being entrapped by the Vice Squad.

A former Lance Corporal, Mr Michele Alazone, who resides at 2/23 Glentree Road, Malvern West, has been alleged in court today to have assaulted a 19-year-old private from his artillery team during a training session at Camp Bonadee six months ago.  Mr Alazone, a naturalised Italian alien, was arrested last Saturday.  His trial started today. He has in the intervening time been demoted from his military duties.  (p.47)

Christopher is terrified that a reply to Morgan would amount to a confession. 

Perhaps we were guilty even prior to writing.  But if we did write to each other, and over time those letters accumulated, all someone had to do was chance upon them and speculate as to their cause. Perhaps Kings himself would find them, would read them, would say something to the wrong person about my being in possession of such letters, and then all that wrong person had to do was declare the news in the press or to the police.  I might not have been a corporal in the army, but that did not seem to matter.  What mattered was speculation and editorial policy.

Morgan ran laps in my head.  His voice had first attracted my attention, his countenance had fixed it, and his manners confirmed him to me. Swish: a code word, shorthand. For now, perhaps forever.  When Morgan handed me that piece of paper, somebody could have seen.  We could have become front page news.

This weighed on me as I considered writing to Morgan; a letter could become evidence and send us both to prison. (p.48)

I came of age in an era when my boss’s homosexuality was known to the staff.  It was sniggered about in the packing room, but was not a problem as far as his continued employment was concerned.  I really liked him: he was funny and clever and took risks on giving me opportunities, and he used to give me a lift home after overtime and it was nice to feel confident that there would be no #MeToo moments to fend off.  In the 1980s a different boss used to arrive early at school to remove the daily graffiti speculating about two female teachers; in the 1990s at another school a colleague came out to friends but not to staff.  As late as 2017 we had that awful, awful and wholly unnecessary plebiscite which caused rifts in families that still resonate today, and then the last parliament had to fend off the Religious Discrimination Intolerance Bill.

Marlo reminds readers that the battle for equality is a continuum with a history.

See also the review by Jack Callil at The Guardian.

Jay Carmichael’s profile at Scribe Publishing is as follows:

Jay Carmichael is a writer and editor whose first novel, Ironbark, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2019, and whose writing has been published by Beyond Blue and appeared widely in print and online, including in OverlandThe Guardian, SBS, and The Telling Tree project. Jay lives and works in Melbourne.

Author: Jay Carmichael
Title: Marlo
Cover photo: Foundation Day, 1930, courtesy State Library Victoria.
Publisher: Scribe, 2022
ISBN: 9781925713695, pbk, 150 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

 

It’s been really interesting to read this Quarterly Essay in the wake of contemporary events…

In the Uncivil Wars, How contempt is corroding democracy authors Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens unpack the decline in public debate, identifying changes in the way contemporary philosophers have reconsidered contempt as a reactive moral emotion, giving examples of its corrosiveness, and identifying three kinds of contempt, which they say pose a threat to democracy:

  • Patronising contempt: it’s one way, top down, a form of knowing without being known; of speaking without being addressed.  The example given is Turnbull’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which mischaracterised the Voice, rejected a proposal the Uluru Statement never made, and declared the matter closed without any public debate.
  • Disgust: the contempt of racists, of segregationists and anti-miscegenationists.  (Interestingly, anti-Semitism is not included in this list; it should have been.) The example given is slavery, in which humans are conflated with animals, chattels, and fauna.  Again, this form of contempt is hierarchical.
  • Moral superiority: a form of censure, of judgement, an affirmation of one’s moral superiority over another.  

[LH: Is this last form of contempt the one that more of us would admit to, though for a variety of reasons, perhaps keep it private or are circumspect about it?  Most of us, I suspect, would be upfront about our contempt for Nazis or Hansonism, but maybe not about vaccine refusal within families.

One example the authors give is Hillary Clinton’s contempt for Trump’s ‘deplorables’, but they also give the example of Robodebt:

a signature example of moral contempt, literally automating the judgement of people as welfare cheats (often incorrectly) and then depriving them of a human ear to which to make their case. By relegating people to the unaccountable calculation of machines in this way, the government was instituting a program of bureaucratic shunning. (p.17)

Moral contempt is everywhere: it is the kind of contempt we are likely to encounter in the maelstrom of culture  wars or the trench warfare of politics.  It is a staple of the tabloid media.  ‘Cancel culture’ (which, who knew? began as a joke) is a an example of moral contempt:

Perhaps nothing better fits the definition of moral contempt than online ‘cancel culture’, whereby someone whom internet users deem to have transgressed a sacred moral standard finds themselves at the bottom of an online pile-on, a rapid swarm of public shaming, often accompanied by calls for them to be shunned, boycotted, fired from their jobs or worse — in short, “cancelled”.  The contempt is embedded in the language: cancellation carries with it the sense of something being annulled, destroyed, undone, neutralised, erased or terminated; in other words, it is to delete both the thing itself and its very memory. (p.17)

The example of Yassmin Abdel-Magied shows that one sacred moral standard not to be transgressed is Anzac Day, and now we have another.  The only social media I interact on is BookTwitter, but even BookTwitter is not a safe place for The Indifferent to Royalty such as myself, but it’s an even more risky place for The Hostile, especially, it seems to me, if they are expressing contemporary interpretations of colonialism and social inequity.  I have been astonished at the repellent interactions that have crept into my carefully curated feed.  I was so intrigued by one of them and its subsequent pile-on that I explored the tweeter’s academic site and discovered that in contrast to the savagery of her keyboard warfare in 280 characters, her podcast about creating inclusive classrooms to empower learners of English was gentle, thoughtful and wise.

But cancellation is totalising.

It almost always charges its target with being guilty of some -ism or -phobia — allegations that stick to the very being or soul of a person who is thereby -ist or -phobic by nature.  Accordingly, the cancelled person becomes of low rank when judged by the moral lights of the cancelling swarm, who, of course, assume a position of unassailable moral superiority.  (p.17-8)

And…

… contempt by its very nature marks the end of the conversation.  It is a full stop.  A contemned object, as a morally inferior being, has nothing to offer, no contribution to make, no reason to be heard.  (p.19)

The authors quote Kant for whom contempt violates two cardinal principles: the principle of human dignity and the principle of not using others as a means to one’s own end.  

Contempt violates the former because it denies the worth of the whole person, and it violates the latter because it makes another’s humiliation merely the means of one’s own self-aggrandisement. Central to Kant’s moral vision is an idea that is central to the very concept of human rights: that humans have an inalienable dignity simply by virtue of being humans: “a worth that has no price”.  Contempt, meanwhile, is “[j]udging something to be worthless.” (p.21)

Kant, as quoted, argues that such contempt is based on a supposition that the “vicious human being” can’t be improved, and that “this is not consistent with the idea of a human being, who as such (as a moral being) can never lose entirely his predisposition to the good.” 

Yeah, but… Hitler and his enablers? It’s all very well to use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to interrogate moral good and prospects for reflection and self-improvement, but the elephant in the room was a cohort of moral monsters.

The authors also take issue with the fashionable online phrase “educate yourself”.

This is typically the language of activists seeking to charge people with something like racism or sexism, but it does so by disavowing engagement altogether.  Naturally “education” is presumed to yield only one possible outcome, and that is agreement with the activist’s worldview.  We see this in the popular genre of online articles (inspired by the title of a bestselling book) that explain “Why I’m no longer talking to….” The assumption here is that the other’s prejudice is so rank, their moral position so retrograde, or their blindness so total, that they do not deserve to be addressed. The activist is urging people to accept an argument, but disavows any obligation to persuade those who disagree, on the basis that the argument is so self-evidently right that opposition to it must be in bad faith.  Certainly, that might be true of some people, and in some cases it really might be the wisest thing not to persist arguing over a stalemate.  But it is altogether different to dismiss a whole class of people in this way, and to do so publicly as a kind of performative affectation.  (p. 20)

Yeah, but… I think the authors are ignoring the exhaustion factor.  For some minority groups such as Indigenous Australians and disability or LGBTIQ+ activists, where the education of the mainstream is expected to be the responsibility of a small number of people, it must seem relentless.  Women, I think, can be forgiven for running out of patience too. Some of us have been explaining since we were teenagers.

The authors go on to argue that opinion pieces in the media whose fierce conviction and frankly contemptuous, unanswerable tone mask an underlying lack of clarity and an even more disturbing absence of hope in the moral possibilities of persuasion. 

And thus, the implications for democracy.  Whether Right, Left, Indifferent, Not Interested, or somewhere in between, public discourse is fraught.

It’s an interesting essay, albeit pessimistic.  I was fascinated by the ‘digression’ into the emergence of tabloid newspapers in the US as exemplars of founders Pultizer and Heart’s insight into human nature, insights which now underlie the monetising algorithms of social media that prioritise conflict.  Aly and Stephens are onto something when they say that one of contempt’s chief moral problems is that it presumes we can sit in quasi-divine judgement on one another….but social media a.k.a. the “outrage factory” undermines every effort to provide the means by which any judgement must be weighed: evidence, openness to contrary evidence, restraint, and a certain diligence and balance in forming moral judgement of a person.  

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens co-host The Minefield on ABC Radio National, where they discuss ethical dilemmas, contradictory claims and the complicities of modern life. I catch a bit of it sometimes when I’m in the car.  It airs on Thursdays at 2pm and is repeated on Saturdays at 12.00am, and Sundays at 10am, and there are podcasts at this link.  This episode, for as long as it’s live on their website, addresses the content of this essay. (Skip the prattle that goes for about 3 minutes at the beginning, the program improves.)

Update, the next day: Hmm, the option to be indifferent is denied me by the announcement of an unscheduled public holiday. I can turn away from saturation media coverage, I can read alternative news sources and I have other entertainment options. But now I have had two medical appointments cancelled, one of which I’ve waited months for. I can’t even make a new one yet: ‘management’ has to negotiate with doctors who are willing to work extra hours to accommodate these cancelled appointments, and then they will presumably prioritise which of us is accommodated first.

PS, also the next day: I have just discovered that there is a more incisive review of this essay by Ryan Cropp, a Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, at Inside Story.

PPS I found this too: Social distance can be good for democracy by Robert Talisse. I particularly liked this:

[Democracy is] the ideal of self-government among equals. It asserts that a decent, stable, and relatively just social order is possible in the absence of royals and overlords. In a democracy, we are equal partners in government, and we all hold power. We are citizens, not mere subjects. Participants, not spectators, in this morally serious business.

#WryNoteToSelf: try not to feel moral superiority contempt for people who do not take politics seriously.

Authors: Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens
Title: Uncivil Wars, How contempt is corroding democracy
Quarterly Essay #87, published by Black Inc 2022
ISBN: 9781760643560, pbk., 123 pages, of which this essay comprises 64 pages
Source: personal subscription

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