Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2017

Asking for Trouble, by Peter Timms

The latest instalment in the politics of entitlement in the Oz literary scene is an article claiming that it’s necessary to live in Sydney or Melbourne to be successful.  It’s had more publicity than it deserves IMO, but amongst other rebellious thoughts I won’t bore you with I have now forgotten, it made me think, here we go again with the idea that literary prizes define success and therefore they ought to be ‘fair’.  Not only must acclaim be gender neutral, now it must be evenly distributed among the states and territories.  As if there were some kind of curve of normal geographical distribution that applies to literary genius…

(The Americans demanded their ‘fair’ share of the Nobels so long and so hard (and so irrationally) that the judges finally gave in last year just to shut them up, and by doing that made fools of themselves and the prize, not to mention demoralising the current literary greats of the USA).

I digress.  *chuckle* It’s so easy to do on a blog!

Tasmania.  For anyone who knows anything about Australian literature outside of Sydney and Melbourne, that’s really all I need to say to rest my case, (though I could just as easily make my case around WA or Qld or SA or even Canberra not to mention regional authors scribbling away in the Blue Mountains or Woodend et al).  But since I love our Tassie authors dearly I will indulge myself by naming some names: Richard Flanagan, Amanda Lohrey, Christopher Koch, Christy Collins, Rohan Wilson, Favel Parrett, Heather Rose, Robin Mundy, Helen Hodgman, Sheridan Hay and Karenlee Thompson.  That’s just the ones reviewed on this blog, otherwise we’d be here all day.

Every month the Tasmanian Writers Centre recommends some books to read:

Each month the TWC publishes four recommended reads on our website. Three of the recommendations are recent releases by a local Tasmanian writer, an Australian writer and a children’s writer. The fourth is a Tasmanian classic that you may not have got round to reading, or that you may not have read for a long time.

What’s more, they have a competition for giveaway books, and that’s how I heard about and won a copy of Peter Timm’s novel Asking for Trouble. (I’d just reviewed Peter Timm’s idiosyncratic In  Search of Hobart in the City South Series, so I knew I liked his style).

Asking for Trouble is deceptively simple.  Set mostly in 1950s Melbourne, the novel starts out with a crusty old narrator called Harry Bascombe reluctantly agreeing to be interviewed for a TV series investigating old crimes, and then it launches into his memories of childhood.  I loved reading this, because this was the Melbourne that existed ten years before our family migrated here.  I’ve been here so long now that people just assume I remember Menzies and the Olympic Games and the arrival of TV, but no, that was all before my time and so the rich domestic historical detail was a delight to read.

But even as I enjoyed the childhood dramas – the teachers good and bad, the friendships and the bullying, and the mysterious business of making sense of the adult world around Harry – my readerly brain was reminding me that there had been a crime, one noteworthy enough to interest a journalist over half a century later.  The pages whizzed by, (and if there were clues I missed them entirely) until suddenly the book took a darker turn with the death of Harry’s mother in a car accident.  Amid the nostalgia, this brought me up short: I had almost forgotten how many people used to die on our roads every year.  Victoria’s 2016 road toll was 291 – a terrible number for all those who loved the victims and a number that doesn’t reveal the extend of trauma among the injured – but still an astonishing reduction from 1034 in 1969, the year that The Sun News-Pictorial ran one of the most effective newspaper campaigns waged in Australia.  Declare War on 1034 was the slogan and it led to  .05 blood-alcohol laws, random breath testing and compulsory seatbelts, and by being effective, changed the mindset that road deaths were inevitable.  Since then we now target speed, drug-affected driving and fatigue, and our goal is a road toll of zero.  So it was disquieting to see how everybody in Harry’s world just accepts a violent death in a road crash, and Harry, big-noting himself among his friends, knows so much about road deaths that he is able to describe his mother’s death convincingly even though he wasn’t there.

There are other signals that Harry’s narration is not entirely to be trusted.  There’s a lot of self-justification going on which sits uneasily with the way he does rather too much blaming of others; he assumes a victimhood but doesn’t seem to mind it much; and the way he distances himself from feeling any emotion doesn’t quite seem to have been his choice as he claims.  His hard-hearted attitude towards his intellectually disabled brother is another jolt out of nostalgia, not just because – authentically so – Harry uses words that we would never use these days (such as ‘mentally retarded) but also because his father simply puts Frankie in a ‘home’ after mother dies, and they then dismiss him from their lives.  Harry never knows where Frankie was sent, or even if he is still alive, and despite his offhand and offensive way of describing Frankie, there are intimations that Harry was fond of him, and missed him, and regretted never asking his father where Frankie was.

Still, despite these hints and others that Harry is not just a curmudgeonly loner, the concluding scenes are a cunning surprise and suddenly this novel becomes a much darker exploration of the ‘innocence of childhood’.  It’s quite unsettling…

You can find out more about Peter Timms at his website.

Author: Peter Timms
Title: Asking for Trouble
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2014
ISBN: 9780732298432
Source: won in a Tasmanian Writers Centre competition.

Available from Fishpond: Asking for Trouble


Responses

  1. Having a lovely chuckle to myself right now about your Nobel paragraph 🤣

  2. Haha Love the Nobel comment. I have also won two books from Tas Writer’s Centre over the last few months. Not the Peter Timm one. I enjoyed this review. I have not read his books as I’ve not been interested in the subject matter in the past. I have read most of his partner’s books (Robert Dessaix) and I have also met them at the local Coles supermarket and helped the two of them pick out yoghurt as they couldn’t decide. I handed them one and said, “this is good.” My only experience with P Timms is when I worked at the local vet clinic as a vet nurse (I trained once I retired from 39 yrs of speech pathology) and he had a beautiful german shepherd he brought in (no longer with us) and we would talk about him and Inspector Rex (of whom he knew the people who ran that show. Small world. Glad you like the Tassie writers. There are some good ones.

    • Gosh, fancy running into Robert Dessaix at the supermarket! Here I am in oh-so-hip Melbourne, City of Literature, and I’ve never seen anybody famous at my supermarket.
      Night Letters is my favourite Dessaix. I loved that book…

      • Yes, I did too. I like everything he writes. I just bought his latest, Leisure something or other. He was in conversation the other day at Salamanca about it but I had something else I had to do so missed it.

        • I am well overdue for a trip to Tassie…

  3. Very interesting post Lisa. Yes, Tasmania, that’s pretty much a perfect answer to the question. And I can never say enough good things about The Tasmanian Writers Centre!

    • I’m really impressed by the TWC because they’ve reached out across to the mainland and have a presence here too, which benefits everybody:)

  4. Do you remember the Clarke and Dawe sketch where John Clarke as Paul Keating keeps saying ‘Sydney’ instead of ‘Australia’. After Keating had said it’s Sydney or the bush probably. I think there is an unhealthy Sydney centric focus to many aspects of Australian life, though whether that applies to literary prizes I don’t know. Anyway sounds like a book I’d enjoy, I’ll look out for it.

    • I dunno, Bill, state parochialism seems an old-fashioned attitude to me. We live in a globalised world where you and I on opposite sides of the continent are chatting away about the books we read, and the books we read are set here, there and everywhere, and are written by authors from all over the country and all over the world. There are plus and minus factors to both urban and rural life but it’s the quality of the writing that counts, not the postcode.
      BTW when I had my little book published, I never set eyes on my editor. She was in Sydney and I was in Melbourne and anyway, I was at work all day. So apart from two phone calls in my lunchtime, everything else was done by mail – snail mail, that is, because nobody had heard of email in those days except people in universities. And I typed it up on an Atari computer on those continuous rolls of paper with the little holes along the edges!

  5. Don’t see this here in America yet…

    • Hmm, published in 2014, you’d think if they were going to, they would have released it there by now.

      • I couldn’t even find it on Amazon used.

  6. Those comments about ‘fairness’ probably originate from the same ultra-liberal attitude that says children shouldn’t fail in exams or tests and every participant in a school sports day race should be a winner. It makes me despair….

    • It is getting a bit daft, isn’t it?
      But, in your neck of the woods, do you think that Welsh authors, for example, don’t get a ‘fair’ share of the pie in Britain?

      • Honestly there is so little mention made of Welsh authors especially when compared to Ireland and Scotland that I’d have to say yes….. We don’t have any big names like those in our Celtic cousin lands

        • The only ‘big’ name I know of is Peter Ho Davies, he is Welsh, isn’t he? Or was that just the name of the book he wrote?…

          • He has Welsh and Chinese parents so yes you can say he is Welsh though he has lived half his life in USA

            • Well, pinning down nationality these days is what makes ‘nationalisiing’ authors so difficult, and perhaps meaningless, though I do track author origin here.

              • I don’t think ‘meaningless’ is right. Authors work within both national and international traditions, and it is interesting and informative to track their influences.

                • Yes… but…
                  It can become reductive. Should I classify Peter Ho Davies as Chinese or Welsh or American? Should I make new categories such as Welsh/Chinese/US?
                  Or Caroline Brothers? Born in Tassie, brought up in Victoria, now working in France and the UK? I classified her as Tasmanian, but she might well not like that, for the same reason that I consider myself Australian not English, though I was born there.
                  And then you get people who consider themselves e.g. Serbian although they were born here in Oz and have never been to Serbia and don’t even speak Serbian though they have Serbian parents.
                  It’s all deliciously messy!

                • Messy but necessary I think – not to classify people, that’s entirely their business – but to understand writing, to understand what influences are being carried forward (as you are doing with Joyce, I would never have thought about the influence of his extended residence in France without your splendid analysis).

              • I ran into difficulties with some authors for my reading the world project.


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