Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2022

The Untidy Pilgrim, by Eugene Walter

Hmm, I’m not entirely sure that the book I chose for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club was actually first published in 1954.  My mother’s hardback edition of The Untidy Pilgrim by Eugene Walter, wasn’t published in 1954, it was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in London in 1955.  It looks like a first edition, because there’s no acknowledgement of previous publication, but both Wikipedia and Goodreads tell me that it was first published by a different UK publisher, Methuen, in 1954.  (E&S merged with Methuen later on, but that wasn’t until the 1970s.) To confuse matters further, there’s a Kirkus review of it dated 1953.  Maybe that was an Advance Readers Copy?

Whatever, I am totally intrigued that my mother carted this book all around the world with us on our travels.  Many of my father’s books travelled with us, but apart from her beautiful illustrated set of Jane Austen’s novels (which are now on my shelves), The Untidy Pilgrim is the only one that stayed the distance.  It’s dedicated to Totty and to Kate, which was my mother’s nickname.  Coincidence? There are no details about the author’s personal life on his Wikipedia page. I’ll never know!

Anyway…

Eugene Walter (Wikipedia)

The most interesting thing about reading The Untidy Pilgrim, is that my discovery of its author was more interesting than reading the book.  Wikipedia tells me that Eugene Walter (1921-1998) was an American screenwriter, poet, short-story author, actor, puppeteer, gourmet chef, cryptographer, translator, editor, costume designer and well-known raconteur.  After a dreadful childhood spent partly on the streets, he seems to have become a free spirit, gadding about and living a “pixilated wonderland of a life”. 

Born in Mobile Alabama, he was fending for himself in his late teens when WW2 broke out and he became an army cryptographer in the Aleutian Islands (off the coast of Alaska or Russia depending on exactly where he was).  He then pitched up in Greenwich Village in New York City and pioneered spontaneous performance art at the Museum of Modern Art.  He got himself to Europe on a cargo ship and lived in Paris during the 1950s, where he helped launch the Paris Review, which published his short story ‘Troubadour’ in the first issue. He interviewed people like Isak Dinesen and Gore Vidal, and went on to edit a multilingual literary journal called Botteghe Oscure in Rome.  And after that, he acted in the films of Federico Fellini and translated Italian films into English. His dinner parties were legendary, with guests who included T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Judy Garland, Anaïs Nin, Gore Vidal and Richard Wright (whose biography by Hazel Rowley in on my TBR). That’s an astonishing CV for a street kid.  How did he get an education, I wonder?

Anyway, Walter returned to Mobile in 1979, and that’s where The Untidy Pilgrim is set.  It’s a coming-of-age novel, deliberately comic, so they say, and it won the Lippincott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1954.  Kirkus found that it had a vernal, rollicking charm that will seduce even the moral-minded and the University of Alabama saw fit to reissue it (with a terrible cover) in 2001, but it didn’t do much for me.

According to the description at Goodreads, Walter’s lightweight style may have been what charmed the judges because of its contrast with the southern literary tradition. That tradition was my first serious introduction to American literature at university: it was established by William Faulkner, (Light in August, The Sound and the Fury) Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, and Summer Crossing) and Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Clock without Hands and The Member of the Wedding).  Yes, it’s generally cheerless, but exploring significant themes in memorable novels often is.  Wikipedia describes the tradition like this:

Traditional historiography of Southern United States literature emphasized a unifying history of the region; the significance of family in the South’s culture, a sense of community and the role of the individual, justice, the dominance of Christianity and the positive and negative impacts of religion, racial tensions, social class and the usage of local dialects.

Walter may have been loosely satirising John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  His unnamed ‘pilgrim’ goes south to study law and work in a bank.  He talks about the commencement of a lot of voyaging for me, and I don’t mean only in Geography. He exoticises Mobile as a foreign place with banana trees and palm trees there in a profusion and lushness they never attain in Persepolis.  But when he meets temptation, unlike Bunyan’s protagonist Christian, he cheerfully succumbs.

At first he stays with his cousins the Morelands, but it’s clear that he’s not destined to stay there for long.

Mrs Moreland — Cousin Annie — is a sweet dopey woman who always looks as if she expects the plaster to fall, she looks up to the ceiling every third word; while Mr Moreland — Cousin Charlie — is a deep one, says about two words a week, makes money hand over fist in real estate.  They have these two children roughly my age: Son (I hate that boy!) and this talking-machine daughter Lola.

I had not seen any of this crew since we children were eleven-ish and twelve-ish: so much can happen in the years just after, but those are the sort of knobbly-kneed, cowlick, first-cigarette years when you’ve ceased to exist as a child, but nobody yet notices you as grown up.  My memories of spats with these cousins didn’t lead me into any hi-jinks of enthusiasm for this visit, but I was moderately pleased to see that Lola was sort of good-looking, and was happy that Son was away.

Pop had gotten me a job too — it’s an easy thing to do when every tenth person in the county is your cousin, and most of them in solid politics, or the lumber or real estate business: all of them pious on Sunday, at ease on Saturday, and out for blood the other five days of the week. (p.11)

Well, once he’s found a more congenial resting place with the eccentric Miss Nonie Fifield, he abandons any pretence of a Puritan work ethic, beds Miss Fifey’s grandniece Philine, flits off to a brief sojourn in New York without explanation to his host, gets into a fist fight with Son a.ka. Perrin and breaks his nose, and proposes marriage to Ada five minutes after her aged husband has died.

Walter’s style is to deflate pomposity and to celebrate quirkiness, but I found most of it inane.  I should have read Alberto Moravia’s Contempt also published in 1954 instead.

Image credit: By http://www.nomadmusicstudio.com/EugeneWalterHomepage.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12571338

Author: Eugene Walter
Title: The Untidy Pilgrim
Publisher: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955
ISBN: None
Source: from my mother’s bookshelves.

Having come to the end of Nathan Hobby’s superb new biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), I’ve come to the conclusion that I would have liked her very much — but I’m not sure that she would have liked me! Despite all the circumstances against her, she was brave in contesting the prevailing political climate, tenacious in pursuing her craft as an author and generous to a fault. But she fell out with longstanding friends who didn’t share her political views and I probably would have been one of those.

But I would still have bought KSP’s books.  Indeed, I still am.  Reading the bio prompted me to buy two more, so that in addition to those I’ve already reviewed, now I’ve added her last novel Subtle Flame (1967) and her second short story collection Potch and Colour (1944) to my existing Prichard TBR i.e. Working Bullocks (1926), and Intimate Strangers (1939).

The biography hasn’t convinced me that I should track down Windlestraws (1916) or Moon of Desire (1941).  Windlestraws, KSP’s first novel, was published in the wake of The Pioneers (1915) after it won a major prize but if the publishers were hoping to cash in on her success, they were disappointed because it was soon forgotten.  Moon of Desire was a potboiler, written when Prichard was short of money and hoping for a Hollywood option.  Though the biography recognises some ‘Prichardian’ elements in it and it had some favourable reviews, she herself thought it was tedious.  This is notable because she was not generally hard on her own work.  From 1940 onwards she was more likely to ascribe her setbacks to politics.  She had confidence in her own writing despite the criticism that came her way.

I mention my purchases here because, for an ordinary reader, the test of any literary biography is: is it good to read even if you’re not familiar with the author who’s the subject of the bio? And, while it’s always a pleasure to see a biographer’s coverage of books we know, does the bio work just as well when discussing the ones we haven’t read?  Does it inspire us to want to read more of the author’s work?

Nathan Hobby’s masterful biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard does all of that and more.  It’s in the same league of exceptional literary biographies as Jill Roe’s bio of Miles Franklin (2008) David Marr’s of Patrick White (1991), Hazel Rowley’s of Christina Stead (1993, revised 2007),  Karen Lamb’s of Thea Astley (2015) and Brenda Niall’s of The Boyds (2002). The Red Witch is a fine addition to the cultural capital of the nation, and Melbourne University Press has recognised that by publishing it in its prestige imprint, Miegunyah Press. As it says on their website:

The Miegunyah Press* is a special imprint of Melbourne University Publishing that publishes prestigious books of the highest printing and design quality at affordable prices. Miegunyah Press books are absorbingly original, visually grand and eminently collectable.

The Red Witch is a chronological biography, which begins by contesting some of KSP’s childhood memories fictionalised in The Wild Oats of Han (1928) and in her autobiography Child of the Hurricane (1964).  It was interesting to read later in the bio that both KSP and her son Ric Throssell lamented the time she spent on that autobiography… she felt compelled to write it in response to a PhD thesis about her work by Cyril Cook.  She’d been supportive (and flattered) by Cook’s project, dissuading him from his initial Freudian analysis of her oeuvre, and she was not expecting it to be as critical as it was.  Child of the Hurricane took ten years of her declining years and although readers liked it, it had only lukewarm reviews.  It probably wouldn’t have been published at all if not for Beatrice Davis at Angus & Robertson, who was strongly supportive of KSP’s writing and arranged reprints of her books when she knew that KSP was short of money.

Despite her status as a prominent Australian writer, KSP was always short of money. She didn’t come from wealth, and after her father’s suicide money was tight.  Her marriage to the WW1 VC hero Hugh Throssell was cut short by his suicide in 1933, and though he was the love of her life, his well-intentioned recklessness with money left her in debt.  She was reluctant to accept any pension that ascribed his suicide to the stress of wanting to provide for her, but she was dependant on a War Widow’s pension for most of her life.  And when she did have money from her writing, she gave away quite large sums.

I had a sharp intake of breath when I read that ASIO Cold War busybodies would have liked to intervene to prevent her receiving a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship to write her masterpiece The Goldfields Trilogy.  Fortunately they didn’t know about the fellowship till it was too late because it funded the research trips which give her work such authenticity… but it makes me wonder, which other progressive writers had their work nobbled by ASIO? (There’s little doubt that ASIO nobbled the diplomatic career of KSP’s son Ric Throssell.)

As we’d expect it to, this prodigiously researched biography interrogates not only KSP’s life, working methods, political opinions, and flaws, it also analyses her work in the light of contemporary literary concerns.  It explores her representation of Indigenous Australians, drawing attention not only to her pioneering works about the Stolen Generations, frontier violence and dispossession, but also acknowledging appropriation issues and misrepresentation of the reality of Aboriginal lives at that time.  The bio analyses the tension between KSP the novelist and KSP the Soviet propagandist, recognising KSP’s intransigent loyalty to Stalin which persisted long after his denunciation by Khrushchev.

But most importantly, this biography cements KSP’s place in Australian literature, and should lead to a revival of interest in her work.

Highly recommended.


Don’t forget: I will be hosting the online launch of The Red Witch, details below.  It’s free, you don’t need to book in, and you don’t need to download anything.  Just click the link below when the meeting starts.

Online launch – The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

Please join Nathan Hobby to celebrate the publication of
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (Miegunyah Press).
If possible, wear something red!
You may wish to drink a glass of dry sherry (Katharine’s favourite drink) or whatever else takes your fancy.

The book will be launched by Karen Throssell, poet, memoirist and granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
Host: Lisa Hill, ambassador for Australian literature and ANZ Litlovers blogger
Speaker: Dr Nathan Hollier, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing
Finishing with questions and discussion.


Author: Nathan Hobby
Title: The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Publisher: Miegunyah Press (an imprint of Melbourne University Press) 2022
Cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman
ISBN: 9780522877380, hbk, 480 pages including Afterword, Notes, List of works by KSP, Bibliography, Acknowledgements and an Index, plus B&W Photos insert
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from MUP.

*The Miegunyah Fund was established by bequests under the wills of philanthropists Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade, and its name comes from the house in which they lived.  (Some readers may remember that I have previously reviewed Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection, edited by Alisa Bunbury.)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2022

The Signal Line, by Brendan Colley

Imagine, if you will, a vintage steam train barrelling down the disused railway lines of modern day cities, occasionally collecting confused passengers and depositing them at some bizarre destination, not necessarily on the same continent.  And imagine too, that all the observers of this phenomenon suspend all scepticism, when you’d otherwise expect them to snort in disbelief or rationalise reports of the event as drugs, drunkenness or mental disturbance.  A ghost train at large in Tasmania is the premise of debut author Brendan Colley’s The Signal Line,  which won the Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the 2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.  It’s a book that requires the reader to suspend all disbelief too, and to enter into the weirdness…

It works because everything else is so real.  Brothers Geo and Wes are locked in a dispute about whether to sell the house they’ve inherited. Geo needs the money to finance his emerging career as a violist.  Wes, a detective, wants to wallow in the squalor of the house where his father died but grief also claims him because his marriage is over, and he’s not willing to let go of either the house or his wife and child.

The novel begins with Geo’s arrival in Tasmania, where he gets roped in to translate for a bunch of Italians who got on a train in Orvieto and arrived in Hobart. Hobart hasn’t had passenger trains since the 1970s,  so the officials who have to deal with them naturally think that they are deluded and they are taken not to immigration detention but to a hospital. But these Italians seem perfectly sane, and their story makes sense, except that none of it is possible.

Much like his toxic relationship with his father, Geo’s relationship with his brother has always been hostile. Much of the resentment comes from sibling rivalry about talent and hard work.  Geo, with the love and encouragement of his mother, is following his dream to play in an orchestra, an ambition which may perhaps be beyond his talent.  Wes works hard at his job, which involves family-unfriendly long hours and a negative view of the world.

The hostility arcs up the minute these two meet at the airport, and things only get worse from then on.  But Geo is an otherwise easy-going fellow and easily strikes up relationships with four people that cross his path.  Sten is a Swedish man who, for personal reasons revealed at the end of the book, has been pursuing this ghost train for 40 years, and Labuschagne is an expert in the paranormal and being able to predict the train’s next arrival time and site.  Camille and Paco are a couple of backpackers who are fascinated by the entire situation and offer to help to paint the house ready for sale in exchange for free accommodation.  Geo also has two women in his life, Alessia who’s another musician in Italy, and Audrey whose heart he broke when he fled Tasmania with no explanation.

The train, BTW, is not a benign presence.  It kills when someone gets in its way, and the police have to find a way of explaining a death that looks like a hit-and-run.  But what makes this book unsettling is not the ghost train, it’s the characterisation of Wes. The man is a bully, he likes to play power games such as withholding the keys to his father’s liquor cabinet, and he knows exactly what to do to hurt someone without risking arrest.  His wife wants to end the marriage, but she is afraid to, and is waiting for ‘the right moment’. Of course he has his own issues, they always do, but he’s still a malevolent character.

Wes’s voice rose in the kitchen.  We all turned to look.  Even Sten, who subsisted on a diet of power naps, opened his eyes.

‘I’ll bring it over —’ Wes pressed.  ‘No, I can come now.  It’s not —’.  He slammed his fist against the wall.  ‘It’s not … fine, okay, tomorrow night. I can have dinner with you and Hayden.  Why not …? Whatever.  I’m going to Sheffield.  I’ll drop it off on the way out.’ He screwed up his face.  ‘With Geo and Sten.  Fine … okay.  Goodbye.’

He replaced the receiver, and we glanced away.  He came into the sitting room and dropped into the recliner. (p.159)

That’s an economical way of depicting a very troubling character, and the way the listeners all look away.

Music is a strong motif throughout the novel.  It becomes a demanding taskmaster, a solace and a peacemaker.  A tattoo artist even uses it to mitigate pain…

You can read an excerpt from earlier an draft of this novel in the Griffith Review.  It’s written in the third person, whereas the novel is a first person narrative, which gives it greater immediacy.

The Signal Line is published by Transit Lounge and is due for release on May 1st.

Author: Brendan Colley
Title: The Signal Line
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
Cover design by Josh Durham/Design by Committee
ISBN: 9781925760941, pbk., 304 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (2017), the Prix Landerneau des lecteurs (2017), and the Prix littéraire Le Monde (2017), The Art of Losing (L’art de perdre) by Alice Zeniter was recommended to me by Stu at Winston’s Dad where he speculated that this novel was the French version of Windrush fiction. The novel is a meditation on loss for three generations of a family of French-Algerian heritage — a family that has heritage in both countries but belongs in neither.

Bookended by Naïma’s reluctant quest to interrogate her family’s roots, The Art of Losing is the story of her grandfather Ali who became a refugee in France in the tumult of Algerian independence, and her father Hamid who remembers nothing of Algeria and who has reinvented himself in France.  Naïma, who never knew her grandfather, has grown up knowing nothing of their family or its history, primarily because of her father’s shame.  Hamid learned early on never to mention the year of his arrival as a child in France because that year identifies him as one of the despised Harkis.  Wikipedia explains the reason for that intergenerational shame:

Harki […] (a group of volunteers, especially soldiers) is the generic term for native Muslim French who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962. The word sometimes applies to all French Muslims who supported French Algeria during the war. The motives for enlisting in the Harkis were mixed. They are regarded as traitors in Algeria and thousands were killed after the war in reprisals despite the Évian Accords ceasefire and amnesty stipulations.

The Art of Losing is partly about being on the ‘wrong side’.  A contemporary analogy might be the plight of Afghanis: those who were on the ‘wrong side’ when the Mujahidin ‘liberated’ Afghanistan from the Soviets, or on the ‘wrong side’ when the Taliban took over, or on the ‘wrong side’ when the Americans ‘liberated’ the country from the Taliban, or on the ‘wrong side’ when America and its allies abandoned Afghanistan and the Taliban took over again.  Being on the ‘wrong side’ can be a legacy of colonialism, as it is in this novel, but it happens in all kinds of conflicts including the current civil wars in Yemen and Ethiopia. Whatever happens, there will be people on the ‘wrong side’ amongst the refugees.  Like the characters in The Art of Losing they will have chosen the losing side.

Ali was doing well in his village under the French.  His ambitions were limited, but as a wealthy owner of an olive grove he had a secure income, a home that surpassed his expectations, and power and status in the village.  When the independence movement emerged in the 1950s, his brother supported the FLN (National Liberation Front) but Ali sided with the French.  Branded a traitor in 1962, he took refuge in France, and was considered ‘lucky’ by some because he is able to take his family with him.

France permitted immigration of the people of Algerian heritage along with the ‘pied-noirs’ i.e. people of French heritage born in Algeria, but the welcome and resettlement options offered to these different populations varied. For two years Ali and his family were segregated in the Rivesaltes Refugee Camp under deplorable conditions, and were sent after that to a forest work camp, where the housing was marginally better but schooling for the children was haphazard.  It is not until they were resettled in a tiny apartment in Normandy that the eldest boy Hamid received a proper education.  He was a bright boy and grew up to become estranged from his family.  In Paris after his baccalaureate he reinvented himself as French, married a French woman and refused to engage at all with his Algerian heritage.  In the present day his daughter Naïma takes no interest in it either, until her work in an art gallery requires her to visit an ageing Algerian artist called Lalla.  Filled with justifiable fear that hatreds are still smouldering in the village, she defers getting a visa…

The novel, however, is about much more that the plot outline.  Zeniter doesn’t just illustrate the racism and discrimination in France, it also shows the barbarity of the conflict in Algeria; the racism of Algerians against the Blacks; the sexism of a patriarchal society; the conflicts within the refugee camps and the way that Algerians in France preyed upon each other.  There’s a very moving scene when Yema — struggling to make a home in the cramped Normandy apartment where with smiles, brochures, promises and loans they are pressured to buy insurance, a car, a vacuum cleaner, and encyclopaedias and where the cherished objects to be used every day have become curios — is conned by a saleswoman who exploits her nostalgia.

During the day, while Ali is at work and Hamid is at school, a different type of rep calls, usually women who know that the husbands are not home.  Most are Algerian women, ‘city types’, which, to Yema, means that they don’t wear the veil, that they wear make-up or even smoke cigarettes.  In their sample cases, they carry striped fabrics and silver jewellery of the sort she had back in the village. Yema talks to them about all the things she left behind.  The women shake their heads sympathetically, and suggest that, maybe, if she were to buy a few beautiful things it might help her to ‘heal’.  At first, she politely refuses: she does not want to spend Ali’s money without his knowledge.  But one day, one of the women comes back and says:

‘I know that you’re not vain.  But when I got these, I immediately thought of you.  ‘These are very special jewels.  They come from Mecca.’

And so Yema goes into the bedroom and takes a few bills from the little nightstand.  After all, if they come from Mecca, they can’t be tacky.  She gives the woman half her husband’s salary for a cheap copper bracelet covered with a thin sheet of silver leaf that quickly flakes off, which leaves black and green marks on her wrists.  (p.199)

Hamid’s absence on this day is crucial to the con artist.  The boy shoulders responsibilities well beyond his years.  His mother never learns English; his father can only just get by.  So it is Hamid who reads the official letters, most just for his parents but also for others in the community.  There’s a poignant scene where Ali is summoned to the school because the teacher is indignant about him signing Hamid’s reports.

‘Yes,’ Ali says, nodding proudly.  ‘He does it all by himself.’
‘But he’s not supposed to!’ The teacher snaps.  ‘You’re supposed to sign them.’
Ali resolutely shakes his head: of course he is not supposed to.  He cannot write.  He is not about to sign his son’s neat, clean copybooks with an X.  His son is much more talented at tracing the beautiful, alien characters of French.
‘He signs them.  It’s fine.’  (p.219)

But when Hamid deliberately mistranslates for his father he is ashamed. There’s a note home about a school event he is embarrassed to have his parents attend, so he lies about its content to Ali.

It was too easy to lie to him.  Two phrases collide inside his head, moving at high speed:
He could be taken in by anybody.
He doesn’t know anything.
He considers running after him, telling him that he lied.  But what difference would it make?  Ali would not be able to check the contents of a letter by himself.  He is entirely dependent on his son.  Does his know this, Hamid wonders, is he conscious of this?  In his head, sympathy vies with disgust and contempt, and he realises, more forcibly than at any point in his life, that he is growing up too quickly. (p.208).

His father’s status as a big man in the village is gone, and Hamid does not share his parents’ pain when agrarian reforms mean that they have to sign away the title to their property back in the village.  In Paris as a young adult Hamid never tells anyone about his family or where they come from, not even his girlfriend, not for a long time.  (Mind you, there’s a droll segment contrasting the awkwardness of finally meeting first his parents, and then hers.)

Naïma, trying to draw the threads of her family’s story together, muses on the concept of ‘history’.

History is written by the victors, Naïma thinks as she drifts off to sleep.  This is an established fact, it is what makes it possible for history to exist in only one version.  But when the vanquished refuse to admit defeat, when, despite their defeat, they continue writing their own version of history right up to the last second, when the victors, for their part, write their history retrospectively to show the inevitability of their victory, then the contradictory versions on either side of the Mediterranean seem less like history than justifications or rationalisations sprinkled with dates and dressed up as history.  (p.394)

There is so, so much more to this brilliant novel, and I have barely scratched the surface.  If you want to know more, visit this review at Qantara, this one at The Observer or Stu’s at Winston’s Dad.

BTW I’ve read other books translated from the French by Frank Wynne: The Great Swindle, and All Human Wisdom both by Pierre Lemaitre, and also Public Enemies, by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, co- translated with Miriam Rachel Frendo

Author: Alice Zeniter
Title: The Art of Losing (L’art de perdre)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Publisher: Picador, (Pan Macmillan) 2021, first published 2017
Cover image: Raymond Depardon, Magnum Photos
ISBN: 9781509884124, pbk., 469 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 

TBH, I didn’t plan to read this book.  I knew the story of Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s incarceration in an Iranian prison from media reports at the time, and when I saw her memoir The Uncaged Sky on display at Ulysses Bookstore, I just thought, after all this woman has been through, at least I can buy her book. Perhaps strong book sales might be interpreted as some kind of empathetic gesture.  But the next day, when I opened up the book just to browse it, I started reading.

And kept reading.  Many tasks lay neglected yesterday!

My interest started as curiosity about how Moore-Gilbert managed to stay sane through it all.  Decades ago I read Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling, (1991), his account of his four years as a hostage in Beirut, and what has stayed with me after all these years is the horror of the situation these men found themselves in; how Keenan’s friendship with fellow hostage John McCarthy sustained him; and the remarkable lack of bitterness afterwards.  I still remember how I found myself wondering about whether I had the inner resources to cope in such a situation, deprived of everything that I hold dear.

Moore-Gilbert’s answer to this is that survival depends on taking control of what can be controlled.  Her initial shock, disbelief and horror at being detained in solitary confinement for espionage in Evin Prison gave way to fighting back when she realised that the relentless interrogations and false hopes of release were never going to end. Her cooperation was having no effect.  Instead of trying to conceal her emotions, she detached from her ‘old self’ and expressed her anger and frustrations; she challenged her interrogators over their lies; and she went on hunger strikes to get improvements in her atrocious living conditions and to be allowed access to consular assistance.  In a patriarchal society and one where the Revolutionary Guard holds immense power and status, she refused to respect the men who were using her as a pawn in ‘hostage diplomacy‘.

Moore-Gilbert’s case challenges the official Australian government policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ in situations like this.  She argues that the media coverage and campaign to free her was effective, but since there is silence about what our diplomats did behind the scenes, it’s hard to know what works best in an invidious situation.  After all, there is probably no ‘best way’ to deal with regimes that have no respect for human rights and sanction the abuse of power by men who are fundamentally unreasonable.  Each case is unique.

It’s also hard to judge whether efforts to secure Moore-Gilbert’s release were compromised by her behaviour. By her own account, she was often rude, disrespectful, hostile and intransigent, making no attempt to conceal her disdain for her captors. But while some of her provocations brought much-needed improvements in the conditions of her captivity, sometimes these provocations made things worse. On more than one occasion, she was punished harshly and her captors retaliated with cruel restrictions, such as denying her phone access to her parents and worse.

Qazi Zadeh went crazy.  Every possible privilege I had gained in 2A was taken away.  My pen and paper were confiscated, I was denied the right to a shopping list and the prison guards were banned from speaking to me.  In Iran saving face is everything, and my behaviour had been affront to his pride from every possible angle. (p.290)

After several days enduring this punishment, I started to regret my drastic actions in humiliating Qadi Zadeh.  He was most certainly a dangerous enemy to have, and my rejection of him had been reckless.  Surely there were other, more sophisticated ways to communicate to him that I wanted to end things?  I had let my anger run away with me, and in doing so had dramatically shot myself in the foot.  Solitary confinement in 2A without a pen or paper and without the limited human interactions afforded to me by befriending the prison guards was unbearable, and I had no idea how much longer I would have to suffer until my circumstances yet again shifted. (p.291)

The honesty of this admission illustrates graphically that sustaining any kind of rational strategy in a situation like this, is at times beyond the capacity even of a strong woman like Moore-Gilbert. Apart from one beating, she seems not to have been physically assaulted, which she attributes to the prohibition on men touching women, but the psychological effects of prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture.  Towards the end of her imprisonment she dared them to transfer her to the notorious Qarchak prison, and that’s where they abruptly sent her. On her arbitrary return to 2A they then denied her anti-depressants and sleeping pills so that she suffered withdrawal symptoms.  But it wasn’t just that her living conditions were sometimes made worse by her insistence on doing things on her own terms, it seems possible also that it caused delays in the prisoner-swap deal being brokered. But who can know what is the best thing to do? There is no template for dealing with people who take pleasure in tormenting their victims with false promises…

The epilogue acknowledges the struggle to adjust after her release.

I spent my first few months of freedom buffeted by an array of conflicting emotions.  At times I was ecstatic, and delighted in performing even the most mundane tasks of everyday life as I reclaimed a sense of independence and autonomy. At the same time, I felt an immense guilt that while I was now free to wake up when I liked, to speak, read and write without self-censoring and to jog uninhibited through my local nature reserve, so many of my dear friends continued to live each day on repeat in Evin and Qarchak prisons.  I was confused by the two years and three months of current affairs, pop culture and technological advancement which was missing from my memories.  And I was forced to grapple with the radical way that my imprisonment had turned the fundamentals of my life upside-down.  My marriage, my career, my relationships with loved ones — nothing was left unaffected.  Yet, at the same time, the world seemed to go on much as it always had.  It sometimes felt to me as though Iran existed in a parallel universe, or that my experiences there had been little more than an especially lengthy and vivid nightmare.  (p.399)

I don’t know whether writing this book could be a cathartic experience for its author.  One can only hope that she gets all the support she needs both now and when the glare of publicity dies down.

Author: Kylie Moore-Gilbert
Title: The Uncaged Sky, My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison
Publisher: Ultimo Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781761150401, pbk., 406 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Hampton $34.99

Please note: I have not referred to Indigenous leaders by name
because of cultural sensitivities about naming people who have died.
The author has permission to name them, but I do not.


On this day, in 1984, the Governor of South Australia gave his Assent to the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984.  This historic legislation enabled the return of Maralinga Lands to their traditional owners, in fulfilment of a promise made decades before to the Anangu People.  Theirs was a unique dispossession.  They were moved off their lands so that the 1953-63 British Atomic Tests could take place.  As Hiskey says in his Preface:

Dispossession occurred elsewhere but it was never for a purpose such as this; to enable the lands to be used for the testing of the atom bomb. (p.3)

Garry Hiskey acted as the solicitor engaged to represent the Yalata Community in negotiations for the return of the land.  Maralinga, The Struggle for Return of the Lands is his account of the complex process by which success was finally achieved. It is, as the blurb says, a story of intrigue, divided loyalties and political controversy. But as John Mansfield AM, QC, says in his Foreword, there are other important reasons to read it:

  • It’s a lesson against prejudice.  It is a story of an Aboriginal community and its treatment by a largely white community in the living memory of many of us, and for the information of later generations.
  • It offers insights into how we can learn about the culture of Aboriginal Australians because Hiskey shares his journey of learning about the true nature of Aboriginal relationships with their country. 
  • It’s an intriguing insight into the processes of decision-making by government. 

All this is true, but it is a complex story, about a complex situation. Though there are amusing anecdotes (especially in the early chapters), and Hiskey’s journey of learning is illuminating, the degree of detail about the legislative issues makes reading some of it rather demanding for an ordinary reader. Although he acknowledges the occasional matters where he has to rely on memory, Hiskey is careful to support what he says by extensive reference to his own records, minutes of meetings and other documentation such as relevant sections of legislation.  The politics involved is complicated too.  What follows is my (probably imperfect) understanding of the issues that made this legislation so difficult to achieve.

Chapter 1 begins with an overview of Indigenous Land Rights, noting that the return of the Maralinga Lands took place before Mabo recognised Native Title in 1992.  Prior to 1992 Australian land laws denied Indigenous prior occupation and connection to the land, but South Australia had pioneered granting limited ‘land rights’ in 1966. Former ‘native reserves’ were transferred to the Aboriginal Lands Trust, which granted long-term leases to various communities, retaining ministerial discretionary powers for some matters (e.g. granting mining licences).

However, Pitjantjatjara lands were not transferred to the Trust or leased back, but instead were granted statutory incorporation decades later under what became known as the APY Act 1981.

These differences between title through either leases or incorporation became important because of mining exploration and development in South Australia (which has vast mineral resources). Mining had the potential to benefit traditional owners through royalties, but also brought the risk of damage to or interference with sacred sites.  When the Anangu people were negotiating for the long-delayed return of their land, the government proposal was to use the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 (ALTA) rather than make a new Act using the APY Act as a model.  The APY Act enabled Pitjantjatjara control of their lands, whereas lands leased through the Aboriginal Lands Trust offered only the right to consultation, not agreement, and there was no mechanism for the resolution of disputes.  More importantly, the discretionary powers of the Minister for Mining and Energy were considerable.  Although it took time for Hiskey to consolidate a preferred option that was acceptable to the Anangu people at Yalata, he recognised early on that a lease under the ALTA made them vulnerable to decisions that did not take account of their cultural beliefs and traditions.

Hiskey quotes the legal advice of barrister Ron Castan, whose opinion stated that if the Yalata community accepted the government’s proposal, they would be placing themselves at the mercy of successive Ministers of the Crown in relation to mining. 

“I believe that there is no other case in Australia, in which an Aboriginal body having responsibility to Aboriginal land has agreed to the lifting of legislative restrictions on mining upon the basis that the only protection then available will be obligation on the Minister to ‘consult’ after which the Minister may do as he pleases.” (p.104)

Imagine the difficulties in this case.  Hiskey’s priority was that the community at Yalata should understand, despite language difficulties and the chasm between European and Indigenous conceptions of land, what their options were.  Consultation with them involved disputes about who had authority: the Elders, or a younger generation.  It involved speaking with those who had limited or no English, and using ‘stick drawings’ to represent how different options enabled the mining industry to come onto their land.  It involved disputes with anthropological experts and Aboriginal advisers; it involved departmental officials with conflicts of interest, and it involved trying to steer the legislation through the SA Upper House when the government did not have the numbers.

Still, when the community met with the Minister in order to resolve the issue, the Elder who was the first spokesman made it quite simple really:

He is expressing the view strongly that this is their land and they want to look after their own land.  This has been their land for a long time and it wasn’t White fellows’ land and so they’re looking to be able to look after their own land that belonged to them, to their families, and he was reiterating that point, that they should be able to look after their own land because of their long association and their families going right back with this land. (p.154, translated by Bill Edwards).

As Hiskey says, whatever European law had to say about it, the Yalata community regarded themselves as owners of the land, and they had the obligation to look after that land.  And when it came to mining, they wanted it to take place peacefully.

We want to be quite clear as to what’s going on if mining comes in.  We want to be able to go to the people; we want to ask them how long are you here for or what places are you working in.  We want to be quite clear about these points.  Whether we can tell people to go from places or just what our authority is.  (p.154, as translated).

Remember the Australian Democrats? In the lengthy Upper House debate about Indigenous rights to deny access to their lands, this is what Ian Gilfillan had to say in support of the Indigenous right to say ‘no’ to exploration or mining licences:

“Instead of being so obsessed with what Australian will obtain from ripping stuff out of the ground, we should pause for a while to measure the value of the traditional lifestyle of the Aboriginal communities that have lived for so long in the areas of South Australia which have until now been of absolutely no interest to most of us except as a venue for firing rockets or letting off atomic bombs… Because of the rapid advance of mining technology, this area now has a lure, as underneath its surface there is so-called untold wealth.  However, we take the risk of allowing to pass before our eyes one of the rarest, most precious things in the world today— a culture which has survived for so long, which does not destroy resources, and which has developed its own sustainable law.” (p.210)

Well, the legislation passed in the end, and as you can see from the image on the front cover of the book, the title was handed over on 17th December 1984. That’s not the end of the Maralinga story: as Hiskey says, servicemen and defence personnel have a story to tell too.

Map Far North of South Australia (Wikiwand)

Maps credits (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International):

Author: Garry Hiskey
Title: Maralinga, The Struggle for Return of the Lands
Cover design by Liz Ncholson
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781743057254, pbk., 271 pages including colour photo inserts, maps, appendices, acknowledgements and an index
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

 

 

With the election finally announced, it’s time to catch up on my reading of the Australian Foreign Affairs journal to which I subscribe.  Issue 12 from 2021, Feeling the Heat is still highly relevant and I found it instructive to invest a couple of hours in retracing Australia’s intransigence on climate action while monitoring the progress of my homemade lime ice-cream.  My Sunbeam Gelateria signals that the ice-cream is ready by reversing the action of its churning paddle, so the cook needs to act promptly in order to avoid damage to the machine. There’s an accidental metaphor there, and I’ll let you join the dots…

Entirely by coincidence, I’ve also been listening to former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans speaking with Kerrie O’Brien at the Adelaide Festival about his new book Good International Citizenship: The case for decency. Evans said that being a good international citizen involves what he called optional ‘add-ons’ that don’t have a direct benefit to a country: its foreign aid; its advocacy on human rights; its reaction to conflict, atrocities, and refugees; and its contribution to addressing global problems such as climate change, pandemics and nuclear war.  He argues that being a good international citizen is in a country’s national interest not just as a moral imperative but also for three pragmatic reasons:

  • A country’s reputation influences whether people trust it: whether they think it’s a good place to do business or to visit for tourism or study; and whether it would be good to work with in international forums, or to support for international positions;
  • Being a good global citizen generates reciprocity, which influences whether other countries will support you on other things that don’t necessarily benefit them e.g. with your piracy problem, trafficking, refugee flows from their shores, or natural disasters; and
  • Decency in international relations garners the cooperation of other countries when it’s essential to get anything done, the obvious example being climate change.

Which brings me back to the AFF journal…

Feeling the Heat makes it clear that Australia’s reputation has been badly damaged by its obdurate refusal to cooperate with global efforts to tackle climate change.  It also makes it clear that addressing the problem is not, contrary to Evan’s view, one of the ‘optional add-ons’ because there are direct economic benefits for Australia, as outlined in Ross Garnaut’s book, Superpower. In the essay ‘Double Game’ by Richard Denniss and Allan Behm, the authors suggest that since Australia has no plans to transition away from fossil fuels… 

…prioritising its support for the resources sector over its relationships with its Pacific neighbours, jeopardising its efforts to contain China’s influence in the Pacific (p.51)

it is putting itself at risk of economic consequences imposed by countries doing more.  Clearly there are also geopolitical consequences from its churlish dismissal of Pacific nations’ concerns about rising sea levels.

While there is widespread public and business support for more ambitious goals, the policy of small steps to 2030 is squarely aimed at holding Coalition seats in regional Australia.  (I will never understand how the people who suffer most from extreme weather events caused by climate change keep voting for policies that will make it worse.)

Although it was published before COP26 in Glasgow, the first essay ‘The Outlier: Morrison’s world-defying climate stance’ by Marian Wilkinson, is uncomfortably brutal about the reality: Australia is an international embarrassment.  Its 2020 policies designed for the Trump era were gazumped by China’s ambitious target of net-zero emissions before 2060, which reset the international climate negotiations.  There is a race for clean energy superiority between the US and China, and Australia needs to catch up. (If not for moral reasons, as Gareth Evans might say, but because it’s in our interests.)

Where the Australian government has just cut the rising price of petrol to negate any price signal on carbon emissions, the global car industry is undergoing rapid transformation.

… Soon after Biden’s inauguration, America’s auto giant, General Motors, stunned the industry by announcing it would phase out petrol- and diesel powered cars and trucks by 2035.  GM was not just competing with Elon Musk’s Tesla — by now, three Chinese electric vehicle companies had already been listed on the US stock exchange, while domestic Chinese carmakers were also gearing up for mass electric vehicle production.

The United Kingdom was also committed to stop selling new diesel and petrol cars from 2030 as part of its own technology roadmap, rolled out in November 2020.

More surprising is the shift by European automakers, particularly in Germany, which had long resisted the move away from diesel cars.  (p.18)

Meanwhile in Australia, there are no incentives to buy electric vehicles, putting them beyond the reach of most people.  But that’s not the only impact.

The huge disruption to global industries such as cars and steel explains why the European Union is moving quickly to impose carbon tariffs on its trading competitors.  Europe has a carbon price, thanks to its emissions trading scheme, which covers 40 percent of its greenhouse emissions.  Its member states don’t want local businesses and labour unions up in arms over competition from imported goods made with cheap fossil fuels in China and India.

When the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in March to impose the carbon tariffs, it sparked an angry reaction in Canberra.  Australia’s trade minister, Dan Tehan, slammed it as ‘protectionist’.  But the MEPs insisted a carbon price on key imports from less climate-ambitious countries was critical because ‘global climate effort will not benefit if EU production is just moved to non-EU countries that have less ambitious emissions rules.’ (p.19)

‘The Outlier’ is a very sobering essay, more so in the wake of Australia’s dismal performance at COP26.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include these essays:

  • Wesley Morgan warns that Australia’s climate policy is undermining our Pacific relationships and proposes a path for rebuilding trust.  I found this essay to be the most compelling of them all.
  • Richard Denniss and Allan Behm expose Australia’s efforts to obstruct international climate action and to support fossil fuel exports.
  • Amanda McKenzie uncovers how Australia’s climate policy impedes its diplomacy and how to address this malaise.
  • Anthony Bergin and Jeffrey Wall outline a solution to Australia’s dwindling business ties in the Pacific.

Just to show what progressive voters are up against — at Goodreads where I entered this journal in my reading record, I saw, amongst a swag of 5-star ratings, this comment: A very one-sided, myopic edition of a normally very well-balanced journal.  

*sigh*

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Feeling the Heat, Australia under Climate Pressure
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 12, July 2021
ISBN: 9781760642112
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

Winged Seeds, the third volume of Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields Trilogy, is a fitting finale to The Roaring Nineties (1946, see my review), and Golden Miles (1948, see my review). Contrary to my expectations after reading a rather discouraging introduction by Drusilla Modjeska in my 1984 Virago edition, Winged Seeds turned out to be my favourite.  I think it still reads very well today.

To recap:  This trilogy traces the development of the mining industry in WA, from the discovery of alluvial gold, the gold rushes and small scale mining to the capitalist era of international mining companies and how that impacted working conditions for the miners.  In the course of these novels, Prichard’s characters experience World Wars 1 & 2, with the Depression in between, and also the impact of the Russian Revolution and the political fallout of communism in Australia.  The trilogy is a remarkable social history, this third volume written almost contemporaneously with the events it portrays.

Winged Seeds continues the story of Sally Gough and her family in Kalgoorlie WA.  When the novel opens in about 1936, it is with the arrival of two jaunty young women, Pat and Pam Gaggin, fresh from England.  Widely thought to be the daughters of the reviled Paddy Cavan who’d caused so much grief to Sally Gough and her family, they are actually only his stepdaughters, maintaining a façade of respect for him until they come into their majority and have their own money.  They break through the antipathy of the Gough family through Sally’s grandson Bill.  They have a letter of introduction for him, from a comrade who’s joined the International Brigades in Spain, fighting alongside Pam’s fiancé Shawn Desmond. Though they like to have a good time, these girls are not the flibbertigibbets they appear to be.

When we’re twenty-one we’ll have control of our own money and we can do as we please.  If daddy had the faintest suspicion we’ve learned to think for ourselves, he’d cut off our allowance.’
‘I see’.  Bill was still dubious.
‘We can’t be of much use at present,’ Pat went on.  ‘But we want to do all we can to help Spain.’
‘Crikey!’ Bill began to laugh.  ‘It’s the best joke I’ve heard for a long time. Who’d’ve thought it? Paddy Cavan’s daughters —’
‘We’re no more his daughters than you’re his son, Bill,’ Pam reminded him.  ‘He married our mother, and then yours.’
‘Eh?’ Bill looked startled. “Gee, that’s right,’ he admitted after a moment’s thought. ‘But I don’t call him daddy.’
‘You didn’t have to,’ Pam replied.
‘You weren’t a pair of kids he took over with all of their mother’s belongings,’ Pat said gloomily. (p.68)

KSP’s subtle comment on how marriage enables the appropriation of everything a woman has, should not go unnoticed.

Bill Gough is a very serious young man, committed to the communist cause with one essential difference.  He recognises the united democracies of the world as the only way to counter the growth of fascism.  But then as now complacency was a problem, and KSP shows him delivering a stirring speech to an almost empty hall.  (If she were writing it today, she’d depict the missing audience at home watching Netflix.)

Where in Golden Miles KSP had portrayed enduring love in the union of two like-minded souls in Sally’s pro-communist son Tom and the activist Eily, in Winged Seeds she depicts the cynicism of her conservative son Dick marrying into wealth with dull Myrtle Langridge.  The problem of a love interest for Bill, however, emerges early on. At a dance where he finds he just can’t let himself go, he muses on the indifference of the people there.

During his first excursions into Kalgoorlie society, he remembered, he had been as eager as any other young man to drain such a night of its delirious excitement.  He had gone out to a friend’s car for a spot between dances, smoodged with a girl in a dark corner, and gone home in the early hours of the morning, lit up and longing for his next adventure in the fascinating world of music, bright lights and lovely girls which happened like a miracle on the goldfields, only at the big balls.  But, now, as he watched the swirl of the dancers, at the back of his mind lay a consciousness of the economic and political problems with which he had become involved.  He could not rid himself of a sense of the injustice and chicanery which was at the bottom of them.  All this gaiety seemed spurious, a festive screen for the deprivations working people were enduring on the goldfields and everywhere else.  He should not be here, Bill told himself.  He had no right to forget even for an instant the bitterness of the class struggle: the struggle of the Spanish people: the menace of fascism and war looming on the not very distant horizon.

What did these well-to-do men and women care about all that?  The men with powerful mining interests, mine managers, bank officials, wealthy shopkeepers, publicans and their wives and daughters.  Nothing disturbed them except any interference with their prospects of an easy, comfortable existence. (p.79)

By the time KSP was writing this novel about Bill’s dilemma, she knew only too well the personal cost of maintaining an unpopular political position…

More poignantly, one can’t help but wonder about the emotional cost of writing the chapter about the purgatory of Tom’s slow dying.  He’s a miner, he has the lung disease that caused the excruciating death of so many.  There is nothing that can be done, and Sally recognises that it will be a mercy when it’s over.  But any suggestion that he’s a burden on his devoted wife and family makes her angry.

Only a few days before, a miner in the last stages of tuberculosis had taken a plug of dynamite, gone out into the bush and blown off his head.  It was to escape the torture of these last hours, everybody understood; and to save his wife and children the burden and expense of his illness.  Other men had hanged themselves, or cut an artery to expedite the sentence of death hanging over them.

It was hard on the women whose men took this desperate course.  They felt ‘father’ had put a shame on them, although they knew well enough that he had been worrying chiefly about them.  The cost of special foods and medicines was rarely covered by relief funds, and his long illness inevitably wore down the health and patience of a wife and children. (p.100)

But this was not ever an option  for Tom and Eily, who had never fallen out of love with each other.  No treatment could have made a difference, and the only comfort they had, for years, was that they could be together at the end.  Knowing that KSP’s father and husband had both committed suicide makes her portrayal of Sally’s thoughts all the more poignant.

Tom would never have wounded his family by taking the short cut, Sally thought.  That was something Eily could not have got over. (p.100)

SPOILER ALERT

Where Golden Miles was notable for its lack of coyness about Sally Gough’s sexual needs, KSP goes beyond that in Winged Seeds with a granddaughter’s premarital pregnancy.  Her family reacts with a grace and maturity not always seen today. The girl, young as she is, is a moral barometer for behaviour that contrasts with her shallow, selfish lover; Sally is a model of concern for the girl rather than the usual anxiety about what the neighbours might think. Daphne confides in Sally because her mother Eily is newly bereaved and emotionally distraught. She doesn’t want to distress her mother, and she doesn’t want to ‘take advantage’ of an offer from the long-time suitor who she’d dumped for her foolish infatuation.  So she and Sally hatch a plan to conceal the pregnancy and for the baby to be born elsewhere.  But Daphne’s plan to adopt out the baby falters once the baby is in her arms, and things are resolved by the young mother’s return to her family where her mother welcomes the addition to the family.  In due course the gossip dies down, the baby becomes just part of the extended family and Daphne eventually marries the young man who had always loved her.

What is interesting about Winged Seeds is the way the book held my attention throughout, even though, of course, we know most of what is going to happen: Australia joins the war, sends its troops overseas and then finds itself with no defence against the Japanese and so looks to the USA for support.  So often historical novels flounder because they are straitjacketed by the historical timeline, but KSP masters this with the subsidiary plot for her characters.  Her novel captures the doubts and confusion about the war too.  People were dubious after the disastrous folly of WW1, and they were outraged by Menzies’ heavy-handed conservative rule and his preoccupation with rooting out communists instead of focusing on the war.

#Digression: Like (a-hem) another Australian Prime Minister in more recent times, Menzies chose to be out of the country in a time of crisis, spending four months overseas in 1941. It was a good thing he’d been booted out and the Chifley government was in charge by the time Pearl Harbour brought the war into the Pacific.  KSP may have been a communist herself, but her characters give due credit to the Chifley government for the management of the war.

That doesn’t mean that Sally’s family survives unscathed.  But in the final pages, when Dinny and Sally go to bury her old Indigenous friend Kalgoorla, we learn the significance of the title. Named as the ‘kalgoorluh’ silky pear by KSP, the namesake of the town of Kalgoorlie is an indigenous fruit, now known as garlgulla. For Sally in her old age, struggling with grief and despair, it is a symbol of hope:

Kalgoorluh silky pear

Lances of golden light were flashing through the bush now, striking the heavy, drooping, dark-green pods among the dead-looking thorn bushes.  One after another the wild pears clicked and split, shedding a shower of gossamery thistledown  Sally picked up a handful and found each fragile, glistening orb of fluff loaded with a brown seed.

‘Seeds with wings,’ she murmured.  ‘Winged seeds… they’ll find a corner where they can grow, even in this hard ground.’ (p.383)

Winged Seeds was not KSP’s last novel.  That was Subtle Flame (1967) published two years before her death in 1969.  I’ve got that one on order.

A reminder: I will be hosting the online launch of The Red Witch, Nathan Hobby’s bio of Katharine Susannah Prichard, details below.  It’s free, you don’t need to book in, and you don’t need to download anything.  Just click the link below when the meeting starts.


Online launch – The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

Please join Nathan Hobby to celebrate the publication of
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (Miegunyah Press).
If possible, wear something red!
You may wish to drink a glass of dry sherry (Katharine’s favourite drink) or whatever else takes your fancy.

The book will be launched by Karen Throssell, poet, memoirist and granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
Host: Lisa Hill, ambassador for Australian literature and ANZ Litlovers blogger
Speaker: Dr Nathan Hollier, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing
Finishing with questions and discussion.


Image credit: kalgoorluh silky pear, Reddit, https://imgur.com/gallery/Twddq2B

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969)
Title: Winged Seeds (Goldfields Trilogy #2)
Artwork: ‘Miner’ by Sidney Nolan, 1972
Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska
Publisher: Virago modern Classics, 1984, first published 1950
ISBN: 0860684210, pbk., 388 pages
Source: Personal library

Here I am in Paris in 2005, at the Musee D’Orsay, unwittingly breaking the law…

Let me explain.  Apart from a wedding dress, I haven’t owned or worn a skirt since the late 1980s, and believe it or not, the [French] law against women wearing trousers, never enforceable since its introduction in 1800, was finally rescinded in February 2013, after 213 years. So until that date, every day of every time I visited France, four times from 2001 to 2013, I was breaking the law.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.

I learned about this absurd law from reading Anne Sebba’s comprehensive survey of Parisian life during the Occupation, Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris, Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s.  In the chapter called ‘Paris Divided’ I learned that the Vichy regime had adopted German notions about the role of women, because they believed that moral collapse was at the heart of the French defeat. 

The chapter begins with the 1941 counsel of Léontine Zanta, an intellectual who in 1914 was the first French woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy.  Here she is, reminding her students that it was their patriotic duty to marry, make babies and feel fulfilled in the home.

Let our young female intellectuals understand this and loyally examine their conscience.  I believe that many of them, if they are sincere and loyal… will admit that… if they didn’t marry since they had not found a husband to their taste or because they were horrified by household work, which means that the poor things, in their blindness or their obliviousness, did not see that this was merely selfishness, culpable individualism, and that it was this sickness that was killing France.  Today we need to accept this challenge and look life squarely in the face with the pure eyes and direct gaze of our Maid of Lorraine: it is up to you, as it was up to her more than five centuries ago, to save France. (p.73)

Joan of Arc miniature graded.jpgThe irony of invoking Joan of Arc as a domestic goddess seems to have escaped Zanta, but was probably not lost on her students.

Not surprisingly, the Vichy belief that women were inferior beings who should stay at home made intelligent young women extremely angry, and ripe for recruitment by well-organised communist leaders such as Danielle Casanova, a charismatic dentist who lived in the Left Bank. When the Communist Party was banned, Danielle went into hiding as her husband, Laurent, was a prisoner of war in Germany and they had no children.  She spent her spare time campaigning to help orphans from the Spanish Civil War as well as impoverished French workers.  She and her friends Maï Politzer and Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier were involved in running a pacifist, anti-fascist youth organisation called the Union des Jeunes Filles de France (UJFF), which aimed through sporting and cultural activities to help get working-class girls out of their cycle of deprivation.  At the outbreak of war they had more than 20,000 members, and many of these volunteered in autumn 1940 to distribute flyers or copies of banned news-sheets such as L’Humanité either by hiding them in prams, giving them to friendly concierges or dropping them into shopping baskets as women queued for dwindling food supplies. (p.75)

*chuckle* And I’m pretty sure that many of these valiant young volunteers would have been wearing trousers!  I say this because I am an avid fan of the French TV series, Un village français which ran for seven seasons from 2009 and was widely praised for its historical accuracy and authenticity.   The series features the people of Villeneuve, a fictional town in the Jura district in German-occupied France, starting with the first day of the occupation in the village and concluding with the trials and vilification of the collaborators after the war.  Postal worker Suzanne Richard wears trousers, and so does Marie Germain, a tenant farmer who ends up leading the local Resistance.

Culottes (divided skirts) were popularised BTW as an elegant way to ride a bicycle in a Paris without cars.  (Except German ones, of course).

Another snippet I learned from the book that’s relevant to the TV series, concerns ‘System B’.  At various times, the School principal Jules Bériot needs to be evasive with his rather naïve wife Lucienne Borderie.  The source of a cake for her birthday is, for example, a case of ‘System B’, which I now know is a joke that refers to ‘System D’:

Already in February 1941, just six months after the setting-up of the food-rationing system — or le Systeme D, as it was known from se débrouiller meaning ‘to get by or manage’, since it largely referred to the way various people got round rationing — women, now responsible as heads of family, became desperate at the hours spent queuing for so little and seeing their families suffering from hunger,  Many became ingenious in numerous ways, such as roasting barley and chicory as ersatz coffee, or keeping guinea-pigs in their apartments to be killed and eaten, or discovering country cousins with vegetables.  Making counterfeit food tickets was widespread but illegal, and anyone caught doing so was fined or called in for questioning. (p.75)

This book is probably on the reference shelf of all those authors churning out yet another piece of commercial fiction about WW2 in Paris.  But its real value for me, apart from these interesting bits of trivia, is the way in which it shows the variety of responses to the Occupation.  There are quiet heroines, like the librarian Rose Antonia Valland who documented every bit of artwork stolen from museums and art galleries, with the Germans never once suspecting the dowdy, bespectacled academic. There were courageous spies, like Jeanne de Clarens; there was Colette who lent her prestige as a notable author to collaborationist and pro-Nazi publications by continuing to contribute to them throughout the Occupation; and there were others who had no idea that they had family members in the Resistance.

The next chapters cover the despicable betrayal of the Jews, and then there’s the section about the Liberation: the jubilation; the return of women from the Nazi camps, the continuing food shortages and strikes, the posthumous awards for the brave young women of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the revival of the fashion industry.  And of course the judgements that were made and the notorious punishments dished out to women for dégradation nationale for committing what was called collaboration horizontale.

A fascinating book.

Author: Anne Sebba
Title: Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris, Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, (Hachette) 2016
ISBN: 9781474601733, pbk., 387 pages not including the Notes, Bibliography, Cast, Acknowledgements, List of illustrations, or Index which brings it up to 457 pages.
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2022

Only Birds Above, by Portland Jones

Only Birds Above is the second novel from WA author Portland Jones who describes herself on her website as a writer who trains horses or a horse trainer who writes.  Like her first novel, Only Birds Above is about war and its inescapable aftermath, but whereas Seeing the Elephant explored the ramifications of the Vietnam War (see my review), Only Birds Above follows the effects of both World Wars on one family.

The novel begins on 15th August 1945, in Millendon, WA, when neighbour Mrs Prichard bursts in to pass on the news that the war is over.  These days Millendon is a suburb of Perth, but in 1945 it was a country town, small enough for Ruth, after Pearl Harbour, to be asked about her brother Tom in Sumatra whenever she went to the general store or the post office.  After the fall of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, they stopped asking.

Even when it seemed to her that every week the name of a boy she’d known at school would appear in the lists of those lost, there seemed to be a special kind of pity left for her family. She could almost hear them as she passed: First the mother and now the son, it’s no wonder the father’s like he is. (p.6)

Arthur is ‘like he is’ because he’s a veteran of the Great War.  He was with the 10th Light Horse, an infantry regiment which rode horses into battle. He was a blacksmith, enlisted to look after the thousands of horses shipped over to the Middle East where they were trained to tolerate battle conditions and the hostile desert environment.  Arthur survives, but he comes home as a man damaged not only by the slaughter but by his ambivalent feelings about the courage of the Australian troops who also engaged in shameful behaviour.  An introspective man who knows the value of scarce water supplies, he is troubled by the way the troops help themselves to the locals’ water wells; he is uneasy about looting, including the theft of an ancient Roman mosaic; and although he doesn’t participate in the Surafend Massacre it haunts him ever thereafter.  He is also haunted by the horses, loyal, faithful and brave companions through thick and thin, that were not repatriated to Australia afterwards. (It is widely believed that they were all shot, but that, according to this article at the State Library of Queensland, is a myth. What is beyond dispute is that only one was ever returned to Australia.)

Bitter and haunted by these memories, Arthur can’t restore his relationship with his wife Helen.  His daughter Ruth, born while he was on active service, ends up caring for Tom, the boy born into this dysfunctional family after Arthur’s return.  It’s a sad household, one surrounded by other families in the district where damaged men struggle on, side by side with families in mourning for the loss of their men. They are poor and shabby, and Arthur — taciturn and moody and bereft of hope — is not much of a farmer.

And as we all know, within a generation, there was the Depression, and then another world war.  Tom takes up work in Sumatra before there is any apprehension of a Pacific war, and when the calamity strikes, he is taken as a POW and put to work as slave labour by the Japanese on the Pekanbaru Death Railway. Not as well known as the Burma-Thailand Death Railway the Pekanbaru Death Railway was equally devastating in its effects on starving men who fell prey to illness, extreme cruelty and a shocking mortality rate.

As Jones foreshadowed in Meet an Aussie Author back in 2017, this novel is very loosely based on her great-grandfather’s time as a POW in Indonesia.  However, as you might guess from the cover design, the narrative focusses more on Arthur’s back story in WW1 than it does on Tom in WW2, but the narrative tension derives from the reader wanting to learn the younger man’s fate.  The novel ends on 30th August 1945, but you will have to read it yourself to find out if he survives.

You can read an interview with the author at Amanda Curtin’s website.

Author: Portland Jones
Title: Only Birds Above
Cover design by Nada Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781760990268, pbk., 220 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2022

2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists

Oh! Did I miss the longlist announcement for the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards? If I did, I can’t find it anywhere and I apologise to the authors listed on it.

Anyway, here’s the shortlist:

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

Dark as Last Night, by Tony Birch

The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis, see my review

The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

The Dogs by John Hughes, see my review

Pushing Back by John Kinsella

The Performance by Claire Thomas, see my review

Highly Commended

Love Objects by Emily Maguire, see my review

The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Believe in Me by Lucy Neave, see my review

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

The New Animal by Ella Baxter

Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

Low Expectations by Stuart Everly Wilson

Night Blue by Angela O’Keeffe, see my review

The Archaeology of a Dream City by Monica Raszewski

Highly Commended

The Magpie Wing by Max Easton

Love & Virtue by Diana Reid

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non Fiction

Leaping into Waterfalls by Bernadette Brennan, on my TBR

Black and Blue by Veronica Gorrie

The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar

The Winter Road by Kate Holden

The School by Brendan James Murray

Rogue Forces by Mark Willacy

Indigenous Writers Award

After Story by Larissa Behrendt, see my review

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller

Bila Yarrudhangglangdhuray, River of Dreams by Anita Heiss, see my review

True Tracks by Terri Janke

The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough

God, the Devil and Me by Alf Taylor

Click here to see all the other award categories.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2022

Mothertongues, by Ceridwen Dovey & Eliza Bell

Reading Mothertongues is so much fun, it takes a while to realise how political it is.

In a meditation that riffs on the kind of writing that women might do, the authors cite Rachel Cusk (paraphrasing Virgina Woolf): ‘the woman writer might have to break everything’.

Woolf’s call to action means rejecting the old art forms that we have inherited as women, the ones we still try to fold ourselves into, at great cost.  Rejecting the old idea that holds such sway over us: that only one name must be on a book of literary fiction or it is not worthy.  That a book must clearly delineate whether it is fiction or memoir, novel or stories, poetry or criticism.  That a single, coherent voice is what is most valued when it comes to literary merit. (p.241)

Well, it’s true that there’s not much collaborative writing about, but I’ve reviewed books written collaboratively, and Sue at Whispering Gums has more. And since the rise of ‘creative non-fiction’ the boundaries both between fiction and memoir but also hybrid texts of prose and poetry have blurred.  But let’s not argue: Mothertongues goes on to refer to Maria Tumarkin, (Update 5/4/22, see here) who suggests that…

…embracing innovation and experimentation, ‘hybridity of form’ and the unexpected, could save the Motherhood Memoir genre from collapsing under the excessive use of an irritating tone she describes as ‘smug-yet-astonished’ (she is, here, agreeing with Anne Enright).  Tumarkin still believes in the Motherhood Memoir.  She wants it to exist and persists.  She just wants it to be a whole lot weirder and more difficult to categorise.  So do we.  We also want to be able to write an experimental book of bio-autofiction about motherhood and not have it immediately tagged as memoir.  Who knows which shelf it will end up on in bookstores… but the not-knowing is part of the point. (p.241-2)

Well, dear readers, I can assure you that Mothertongues is not a Motherhood Memoir, because I wouldn’t have read it if it were, see my review policy. (The ones I’ve come across haven’t been smug or astonished, they’ve been whingy, mundane, boring and probably hurtful to the children if they read it.) Mothertongues is as much about the madness of modern life and it’s often very funny.

At Bunnings, looking for a metal connector thingy for the washing machine tube to attach to the pipe, I notice they are described as ‘male’ or ‘female’, and named after specific body parts.

Brass compression female lugged
Brass compression elbow female
Brass compression elbow male
Brass compression union female
Brass threaded black nut
Mini cistern cock white
Hex nipple reducing galvanised

There’s a whole erotic subculture thriving at the back of the musty laundry cupboard.  My washing machine has a more active sex life than I do. (pp.149-150)

The book is a collage of absurdism: Beckettian scripts; poetry and song; fragments of prose; lists; conversations (my favourite being the convo between AI assistants Siri and Alexa seeking advice from each other about motherhood); text messages and emails.  There are letters too, from a protagonist called Odysseia, whose mission it is to return home after years of mothering.  The first one ResignationLetter.docx is a bit over a page in length, and it’s addressed to the principal.  Odysseia explains how her teaching philosophy and personal character would be better suited to a school with more open-minded and humanist leadership. One that doesn’t interrogate her about her absences in spite of medical  certificates documenting my daughter’s legitimate illnesses.  One that recognises her strengths and professionalism.  The second letter is saved as SensibleResignationLetter.docx and is four lines long, giving notice and sending best wishes to the students.

O, how often do we do this, write a truthful explanation with elements of a rant about our grievances, and then delete it all, because what’s the point?

Whether wrestling with motherhood or not, we all need a friend like Meryl.

I have a friend, Meryl, who’s invented this imaginary character—a tough, capable, no-b/s-taking woman making her home in the badlands of the American West.  Whenever Meryl is wondering if she’s enough of a mother, she thinks about Frontier Meryl, who is rendering animal fat out back of her wooden hut while her kids play with the hatchet.  Frontier Meryl is down in the stream pounding all the clothes clean with a rock.  And she asks herself, Would Frontier Meryl worry about this? The screen time or the sugar or whatever the thing is she’s worrying about as a modern mother.  Would Frontier Meryl bother? The answer is always no.

Frontier Meryl deals daily with matters of life and death.  She mothers at the extremes, not in the comfortable middles.  Frontier Meryl is a safety check, a pressure valve, to make sure she doesn’t overdo it and inadvertently ruin everything.  Frontier Meryl says to her in those moments: Hey, honey.  Let’s not get carried away with this middle-class pretension. You’ve got it good—relax. (p.180)

The madness of modern life includes googling the sellers of a property one might buy.  (Buyers do this?  Who knew?!)  The sellers’ Instagram feeds reveal their work, their hobbies, their furniture, their bathroom accessories, their cookbooks and their intimidating baking, plus their inspirational quotes.  This is the catalyst for our authors to share Inventories of an Early Twenty-First Century Bedside Drawer. (Later on, there’s an equally droll inventory of their bags too.)

These reminds me of the David Attenborough segments, where he observes a New Mother and New Father in the wild.

In her shelter, during daytime, the New Mother can seem almost content, certainly self-sufficient.  She makes many cups of tea but never gets round to drinking them.  She is on her feet for hours.  Changing nappies, trying to settle the baby.  She is on her knees for hours too, on the playmat, doing shadow play against the walls, singing songs.  The New Mother has been told the baby will never learn to roll, crawl or walk if it doesn’t first master tummy time.  The baby hates being on its tummy more than anything in the world.

[I’m so glad I didn’t know this when the Offspring was an infant.]

But see what happens as soon as it gets dark.  That’s what behavioural scientists call the Arsenic Hour.  Whether because the New Mother wants to drink arsenic herself or give it to the baby remains uncertain.  Her agitation increases; so does the baby’s.  She is pacing, back and forth, trying to soothe the baby but also her own mind.  Observe how often she checks her phone. She is waiting for her mate to return home so that she can hand over the baby to another adult for the first time in almost twelve hours…  (pp.95-6)

You can almost see Attenborough there, with his binoculars, whispering to the camera, eh?

There are so many funny, clever and poignant elements in this book, I’ll share just one more:

There’s a guessing game my son and partner play in the car.  It’s about superheroes.  I’ve had to learn about this mythology.  What are my powers?

Making a baby from scratch with my body and then feeding it with a magical potion I keep on tap.
Loving all these people.
Laundry laundry laundry laundry laundry laundry.
Making myself disappear.

If you do Mother’s Day, buy Mothertongues for someone you love.  (The Offspring and I have a deal, that he can buy me a present any time he likes, except on Mother’s Day, but I used to do it for my mother, and we did it for my MIL too.)  Whatever, Mothertongues is an illuminating book for those of us who did our mothering decades ago when it seemed so much easier than it is now, and I’m sure today’s young mothers will enjoy it too.


Update, the next day:

Oops, I forgot to add the link to Ceridwen’s website, where there is a video of the songs.

Authors: Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell
Title: Mothertongues
Cover design by Alex Ross
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, 2022
ISBN: 9781761043550, pbk., 308 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Gosh, I thought when I opened this book to 6 pages of enthusiastic praise from advance readers… what can I possibly say about The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, that hasn’t been said by these eminent Australians?

Who are they? Not your average blurbers!

They’re all public intellectuals, who like Schultz herself, are engaged in what we might call the Australia Project:  a plethora of Professors including Glyn Davis, Tom Griffith,  Jenny Hocking, Ann Curthoys, Frank Bongiorno and Clare Wright; journalists Kerry O’Brien and Tony Koch; authors and editors of important books like Peter Mares, Yassmin Abdel-Magid, and Melissa Lucashenko.  That’s just half of them, the ones that I’ve read.

Well, I’m not going to try to cover the same territory in a different way, except to say that this is a very timely book.  We are about to have an election, which gives us a chance to reset directions in important ways.  I should also say that if you have already decided that you have had enough of the present government and its commitment to its ideological predecessors you will probably enjoy this book and its wide-ranging survey of Australia and its issues.  If you are undecided, you will probably find it interesting if not always even-handed, and if you are planning to vote for more of the same, well, no book will help you.

The blurb gives an indication of the issues we need to think about, when we cast a vote:

Former publisher of Griffith Review Professor Julianne Schultz challenges our notions of what it means to be Australian and asks timely and urgent questions about our national identity.

Maybe, because Australia has been so rich for so long, complacency and entitlement, rather than innovation and aspiration, have become the norm. Maybe, because the habit of not looking back has become so ingrained, we are incapable of imagining what we might become, as we have little idea of how we got here. Maybe, because we have for so long accommodated bullies, we retreated to smaller dreams in manageable spaces. Maybe, because so few of our political leaders have had courageous imaginations, they are in fact led by others. Maybe, because we are ashamed of our racialist past, we forgot how to hold onto the good bits. Maybe, Australia being home to the world’s oldest continuous culture is just too difficult for its white settlers to comprehend. Australia needs to address these issues if it is to become more than a half-formed idea.

What is the ‘idea of Australia’? What defines the soul of our nation? Are we an egalitarian, generous, outward-looking country? Or is Australia a nation that has retreated into silence and denial about the past and become selfish, greedy, and insular?

A lifetime of watching the country as a journalist, editor, academic and writer has given Julianne Schultz a unique platform from which to ask and answer these big and urgent questions. The global pandemic gave her a time to study the X-ray of our country and the opportunity for perspective and analysis.

Schultz came to realise that the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking. She became convinced we need to acknowledge and better understand our past to make sense of our present and build a positive and inclusive future. She suggests what Australia could be: smart, compassionate, engaged, fair and informed.

Braiding her personal experience with often untold stories from our poorly understood history, Schultz finds a resourceful and creative people who have often been badly served by timid and self-interested leaders: a people eager to meaningfully recognise First Australians and address the flaw at the heart of the nation. A people who are not afraid of change and put culture ahead of politics. She tells us revealing stories that we rarely hear from our media or leaders. This important, searing and compelling book explains us to ourselves and suggests ways Australia can realise her true potential. Urgent, inspiring, and optimistic, The Idea of Australia presents the vision we need to fully appreciate our country’s great strengths and crucial challenges.

In lieu of a proper review, I’ll quote the clarion call at the end of the book, with one from the beginning to give it context.  In the first chapter, titled ‘Terra Nullius of the Mind’, Schultz quotes from David Marr’s book My Country:

My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries… Wanting to understand my country came, right from the start, with wanting it to change.  I had a naïve notion that change would come simply by setting out the facts with clarity and goodwill.  I had a lot to learn… Why I wonder, is a secular, educated, prosperous and decent country so prey to fear and capable of such cruelty?  Why are we ruled from the edges? (P4)

Schultz explores these contradictions in 400+ passionate pages of philosophy, political history and memoir, and she comes to the conclusion that boldness is needed.

Be bold, be bold, be bold.  Reform is hard.  But worth it.  Adopting this ambition and applying the values of respect and truthfulness, imagination, fairness and egalitarianism would be a start.  Platitudes are not enough.  A fully formed nation—grounded in a civic, not ethnic, way of belonging—without fear is still possible.  The soul of the nation has a rich inner life.  It holds the dreams and stories of those who have always been here and those who have come in waves ever since.

My search for the soul of the nation tells me that despite the noise from the fringes, and Canberra’s selective hearing, many, maybe even most, Australians are willing to be bold.  (p.416)

My Google search for responses to The Idea of Australia brought up only two paywalled reviews and a host of festival events and author talks. But I did find Melissa Lucashenko’s review: ‘A decent and fair Australia? The solution may lie in the old fashioned notion of community’  at The Guardian so take a look at that if you want a proper review.

You can read an extract here, and you can also listen to the author talking about the book with Phillip Adams at Late Night Live.

Author: Julianne Schultz
Title: The Idea of Australia, a Search for the Soul of the Nation
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760879303, pbk, 460 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 

 

I’ve been listening to sessions from Adelaide Writers Week and amongst a feast of other discussions, the one with Jane Caro and Debra Oswald chaired by Collette Snowden, was particularly interesting.  This was partly because their current novels The Mother and The Family Doctor (see Kim’s review at Reading Matters) deal with the problem I had with Robert Lukins’ Loveland i.e. the female protagonists violently take matters into their own hands when confronted by coercive control.  (I’ve written a postscript on my review of Loveland because this is not the place for it here.)

However, Jane Caro also articulated her view that social novels deal with issues of importance in ways that non-fiction can’t.  She talked about the Victorian social novel, which ‘takes you out of yourself’ and into the lives of others.  Apart from scholars and researchers, she said, readers don’t read Victorian non-fiction about the social problems of the day.  But we do still read Dickens.

Bethan Carney in a book review at Oxford Bibliographies defines the Victorian social novel…

“Social-problem novels” (also known as “industrial,” “social,” or “condition-of-England” novels) are a group of mid-19th-century fictions concerned with the condition of the working classes in the new industrial age. “The condition of England” was a phrase used by Thomas Carlyle in his essay Chartism (1839) about the “condition and disposition” of working people; it combined sympathy for deprivation with fear of the “madness” of Chartism. Largely written by middle-class writers, the novels highlight poverty, dirt, disease, and industrial abuses such as sweated labour, child workers, and factory accidents; however, they also exhibit anxiety about working-class irreligion and a fear of (potentially violent) collective action, such as Chartism and trade unionism.

Carney gives examples such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854–1855); Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) and Oliver Twist (1838); and George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).  She also mentions Disraeli’s political trilogy Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847) but I think these probably aren’t much read today, whereas the others are not only still widely read, they have also been made into TV series and films.

Caro suggests that the social novel takes us ‘out of judgement’ and ‘into our hearts’.  We may not approve of how protagonists deal with the dilemmas they confront, but fiction help us to understand their fears, their struggles and what it’s like to live lives like that. This is why I like social novels.

Which brings me to Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel Other Houses...


Paddy O’Reilly is the author of three unforgettable social novels: The Factory (2005); The Fine Colour of Rust (2012); and The Wonders (2014).  Her new novel Other Houses features a couple living payday to payday as they try to transition from a life of poverty and addiction.  Like Eliot Perlman’s Three Dollars (1998) which—when we had no idea how bad it would get—depicted the vulnerability of people in the globalised economy, Paddy O’Reilly’s novel shows how precarious life is for the working poor in the 21st century. Other Houses is the story of Lily and Janks, and Lily’s obnoxious daughter Jewelee, an entitled teenager who is the catalyst for their loss of control over their situation.

When Lily meets Janks, she’s a cashier at a supermarket and he’s an addict.  With a combination of wavering determination and luck, Janks gets a scarce place in rehab. When he’s clean the couple make a fresh start.  They move away from temptation from his ‘mates’, and he gets a dull job in a factory while she does cleaning because the flexible hours mean she can be home for Jewel.  They live from payday to payday, just scraping by but determined that Jewel will have a different sort of life.  They don’t want her to be one of the working poor.  They want her to have a career, and savings instead of debt.

Other Houses is a gritty novel about serious issues, but it’s often playful. O’Reilly has fun depicting the kinds of houses that Lily and her friend Shannon clean, showing the financial and social gulf between those who are cleaners and those who can afford them.

Number 63 is a two-storey terrace, renovated, with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a formal lounge, large living area combined with kitchen and dining, and a laundry and sun porch leading to the garden.

We hate this house because of chrome.  Chrome and leather furniture, chrome handrails on the stairs, chrome kitchen stools, chrome and glass coffee table, side table, nest of occasional tables.  Two small children whose splayed sticky handprints can be found even on the underside of the chrome frames of the chairs.  Some tiny handprints are identifiably oatmeal, some butter, some we suspect are dried poo.  The metal isn’t properly finished and every fortnight I half-expect to find blood from a sliced finger.  Shannon calls it the House of Hands.  The lady of the House of Hands leaves us two mugs, two teabags and four Aldi shortbread biscuits on her toddler-handprinted kitchen counter like a present for Santa.  It seems she is saying relax, I don’t think of you as my employees, but every few months she sends an email to Hector, our boss, querying the amount of time we take to clean her property.  (p.26)

They also clean the Horror House, the House of Doom, Lady Accountant, the Webber (with spiders), the Special Occasion House and the Portaloo.

The family is on the margins and the rent is a struggle, but now they live in gentrified Northcote. So when Jewelee, who is surely the nastiest teenager ever depicted in fiction, has a school trip to Greece, it triggers a desperate quest for the money to pay for it. Unknown to Lily, Janks borrows the money from #NoSpoilers questionable sources.  And when he can’t pay it back, this gives them a lever to pressure him into doing the sort of job that is a betrayal of their modest ambitions.  He can’t even tell Lily about it.

Narrated alternately by Lily and Janks, the novel focuses mostly on how this invidious choice impacts on Lily.  When bikies are sent round to monster her—and then Jewelee—the house of cards begins to fall.  Lily doesn’t know where Janks is, or how much money he owes or who he owes it to.  But the rent is due, and she doesn’t have Janks’ meagre wages to help pay it, and she loses some work because of an unreasonable client, and no bank will lend it to her.

Trying to edge up into a normal life takes resources that a couple like this just doesn’t have.  The only resource they really have is their love for one another, and no matter what it looks like, Lily knows that Janks hasn’t abandoned her. She needs money to rescue him from his plight and liberate him from wherever he might be. So in desperation, Lily makes a questionable choice as well.

Meanwhile, Janks is on the road to catastrophe…

Highly recommended.

Author: Paddy O’Reilly
Title: Other Lives
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2022
Jacket design by Sandy Cull
ISBN: 9781922626950, hbk., 244 pages
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press

This month’s #6Degrees starts with what Kate who hosts this meme said is a hot favourite to make the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. It didn’t, which just goes to show (as we know from the Melbourne Cup) that hot favourites don’t always do what’s expected.

However, one of my favourite authors did make the longlist: Kiwi Catherine Chidgey is there, with her wonderful novel Remote Sympathy.  (See my review and my post about the remote launch of the book for those of us who don’t live in New Zealand.)  What I loved about the book is the way it explores moral choices, and how the competing pressures of life make ‘doing the right thing’ very complex and challenging.

I have read almost everything Chidgey has written but was most impressed by The Beat of the Pendulum.  TBH, I was not expecting to like it… novels about the detritus of ordinary life don’t usually interest me much.  But Chidgey makes it a marvel and I could not put it down.  As you can see in my review, this ‘found novel’ is a remarkable experiment in fiction, drawing on – or purporting to be – the language that was all around the author.  In twelve chapters named for the months of the year, a life is laid bare through language that is both impersonal (TV, radio, social media, email, SatNav) and intensely personal – her conversations with friends and family, apparently recorded on her iPhone. 

As I said in my post announcing the winners of the 2018 Ockhams, I was disappointed that The Beat of the Pendulum didn’t win it… but at that time I had not read the winner The New Animals by Pip Adam.  This is what the Ockham judges said about it:

The New Animals is a strange, confrontational, revelatory novel that holds a mirror up to contemporary New Zealand culture. Adam handles a large ensemble of unrooted characters with skill. She gets beneath the skin of her characters in ways that make the reader blink, double-take, and ultimately reassess their sense of the capabilities of fiction. A transition late in the novel is both wholly unexpected and utterly satisfying. It’s stylistically raw and reveals a good deal in a modest way. The New Animals is so vivid in imagery and imagination that the judges haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In this category in 2018 it’s the book with the most blood on the page. It will give you an electric shock. It will bring readers back from the dead.

Well, when I got hold of a copy of The New Animals, I was impressed too. (As you can see in my review.) And I was even more impressed by her follow-up novel Nothing to See, which also impressed Ivor Indyk at Giramondo who published an Australian edition (LHS).  (NZ titles are ridiculously difficult to get hold of here, so this was excellent news.)  I think Adam is one of the most intelligent, sophisticated observers of what’s going on in the world, but she brings it into focus with what’s going on in the underclass, the unseen and the underpaid.

An Australian debut author who’s also a keen observer of the craziness of modern life is Helen Meany, co-winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella prize last year with Every Day is Gertie Day.  This is how I summarised it in my review:

An obscure art work which gains currency because of the gruesome death of the portrait’s subject, gives rise to a strange fad.  The artist, Hettie P. Clark,  portrayed Gertie Thrift with pointy elf ears in a series of five paintings, and in homage to the woman who died alone and undetected for many months afterwards, her devotees themselves have plastic surgery to emulate Gertie’s ears.  It becomes A Thing, like Botox lips. Nina, who works in the Thrift House Museum run by State Heritage, is a Public Education and Engagement Officer.  She gets the job because of her unique skillset: museum, food and retail experience i.e. when she’s not guiding tours around the museum, or trying in vain to steer visitors to the Hettie P. Clarke Overlooked Artists Gallery, she’s making coffee in the coffee or flogging merchandise in the gift shop.  Like the rest of the staff, she has not succumbed to the fad for pointy ears, but the pressure is soon on.

Every Day is Gertie Day is a book that is both amusing (because of the way it satirises Trumpism) and horrifying (because of the way it satirises Trumpism). Horrifying in a different way is Sean Rabin’s thoughtful new book The Good Captain which explores what happens when desperation about inaction on climate change and environmental vandalism crosses over into eco-terrorism.  You can see my thoughts about the book here.

And without meaning to, I’ve ended up back with the starter book, in the sea!

So there we are, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Next month’s starter book is Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.  And that means that I really ought to get round to reading it…

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2022

The Ozone Café, by Helen Hagemann

In Australia until recently, corruption was most often perceived as a problem in other countries, especially developing nations where it is not uncommon to have to supplement the official price in order to get things done.  But in 2021 Australia’s worst-ever score on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) at Transparency International highlighted the need for the Integrity Commission that was promised in the last federal election and never delivered.  It is galling to read that :

While Australia’s score has been sliding down for a decade, countries in our region, such as Papua New Guinea, have been trending up. New Zealand again comes in at equal first. (Australia’s Worst-ever Corruption Score Points to Urgent Need for National Integrity Commission, Transparency International Australia, 25th January 2022)

If interested, you can watch this short video to see how the score is calculated, but in a nutshell, it uses surveys to uncover the incidence of bribery, the diversion of public funds, and the adequate prosecution of corruption cases, and also to identify access to adequate legal frameworks, access to information, and legal protection for whistle-blowers, journalists and investigators. It does not cover tax fraud, money laundering, financial secrecy or illicit flows of money, so the score may not reflect the real incidence of corruption. In other words, it could be even worse.

My guess is that the CPI would not uncover the kind of corruption explored in Helen Hagemann’s novel, The Ozone Café which depicts local government corruption and its effect on a small business.  As I know from my own long ago experience as a director of small suburban company, small bribes to smooth the way for inspections of essential local government requirements may be common knowledge amongst those targeted, but the prey are not willing to unite against it or report it. The other businesses around us all paid up and moved on. They were all busy people, with a business to run, and an annual $20 wasn’t worth making a fuss if it meant that their landscaping and waste disposal practices wouldn’t be inspected for compliance. (Because we refused to pay the bribes, ours were indeed inspected, monthly and sometimes more often, and needless to say, ours did conform to council requirements to green the forecourt of the business!)

In Hagemann’s novel, the corruption involves a café on the beachfront in fictional Satara Bay.  The novel is structured chronologically, with three owners all of whom fall foul of local government corruption without really knowing that it was happening.

Preceded by his brother Renato during the postwar period, Vincenzo Polamo comes to Australia with ambition.  He finds the perfect beachfront position for his café and thinks he’s driven a hard bargain with the real estate agent to get it at a reasonable price. He and his brother create a beautiful building reminiscent of a ship, and to reward some kids for their help and advice, Vincenzo uses their shell collection in a mural for the courtyard.  (This turns out to be significant later in the novel.) Vincenzo soon finds that the holidaymakers and the locals would rather have hamburgers or fish and chips than the Italian cuisine he’d anticipated, but with the help of the children, Winifred, Casey and Nicolas, he resolves all that and the ‘Ozone Café’ is a success—except in the one thing that mattered to him.  His wife Maria back in Calabria refuses to join him…

A torrential storm sabotages Joe Pendlebury’s efforts with the café. Like Vincenzo, he finds that he needs family help with the amount of work involved, but his wife isn’t really on board, and when the café needs a major clean up and repairs, she’s out shopping and getting her nails done.  But #NoSpoilers worse is to come for Joe and not just because the Shire is interested in the structural integrity of the building.  And this ‘interest’ is for reasons that the reader is starting to unpack, and the characters’ suspicions are starting to mount.

Con and Dion Lasardis take over, but they’re soon embroiled in a major dispute with the Shire Office. The Ozone Café is in a prime beachfront position, and it’s in the way of development.  A court case ensues, and Vincenzo returns to safeguard the mural which has become sacred to the children for emotional reasons.  What Hagemann makes clear is how successive owners were out of their depth, and how the trust that they should have been able to rely on, was exploited.

I like fiction which explores important social issues.  Corruption—at any level—is pernicious.  It is unfair, and it weakens public faith in democracy.  Transparency doesn’t just improve accountability and political integrity, it conforms to a fundamental Australian value, the notion of a ‘fair go’.  Property in Australia is worth a great deal of money, and we’re always hearing stories about inappropriate development somehow circumventing protections for neighbours and/or the environment.  Local councils in my state can be brought before the Ombudsman, and the subsequent reports are tabled in the state parliament, but as this report shows, a rigorous paper trail is what’s needed.

“What my investigation found was poor or absent records of decision-making, poor strategic decision-making and a lack of transparency and recording of meetings with developers and council.”

Helen Hagemann shines a light on the consequences when corruption goes undetected and when citizens fail to act on their suspicions.

You can find out more about the author at her website where you can also buy The Ozone Café (and her previous novel The Last Asbestos Café).

Author: Helen Hagemann
Title: The Ozone Café
Publisher: Adelaide Books, New York, 2021
ISBN: 9781956635300
Review copy courtesy of the author.

Exciting news!

If you scroll down at the bottom of this press release, you will see that the host for this online launch of Nathan Hobby’s long-awaited The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard is Yours Truly.  It’s a real honour and I am thrilled to bits because the book is going to be launched by Karen Throssell, poet, memoirist and granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard, along with Dr Nathan Hollier, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing as speaker.

In an interview at The Guardian at the time of his appointment as CEO, Dr Hollier said that he hoped to…

…“publish books that will address the important issues of our society, and will last the test of time as important contributions to our public life”.

“I very much hope to publish for a broad audience and fulfil the traditional brief of a university press to publish books of scholarly grounding that reach people beyond the university,” he said.

That ambition tells us that Nathan’s is an important book, eh?

If you live in Perth, of course, you can attend the in-person launch on the evening of Monday 9 May, but most of us who have been waiting (im)patiently for this bio of one of my favourite authors live elsewhere.

For us, there is an online launch through Google Meet on the official publication day, Tuesday 17 May. To join in, click on the link below – it’s a video call like Zoom.  (You don’t need to install anything.)

I would love to (literally) see some of my readers at this launch so please put the date in your diary now, and share this invitation with others who are interested the story of an Australian literary giant.

This is the Press Release for The Red Witch, courtesy of Holly Hendry-Saunders at MUP.

Novelist, journalist and activist Katharine Susannah Prichard won fame for vivid novels that broke new ground depicting distinctly Australian ways of life and work—from Gippsland pioneers and West Australian prospectors to Pilbara station hands and outback opal miners. Her prize-winning debut The Pioneers made her a celebrity but she turned away from jaunty romances to write a trio of inter-war classics, Working Bullocks, Coonardoo and Haxby’s Circus. Heralded in her time as the ‘hope of the Australian novel’, her good friend Miles Franklin called Prichard ‘Australia’s most distinguished tragedian’.

This biography of a literary giant traces Prichard’s journey from the genteel poverty of her Melbourne childhood to her impulsive marriage to Victoria Cross winner Hugo Throssell, and finally on to her long widowhood as a ‘red witch’, marked out from society by her loyalty to the Soviet Union and her unconventional ways.

Through meticulous archival research and historical detective work, Nathan Hobby reveals many unknown
aspects of Prichard’s life, including the likely identity of the mysterious lover who influenced her deeply in her
twenties, her withdrawal from politics during her remarkable five-year literary peak and an intimate friendship
with poet Hugh McCrae. Lively and detailed, The Red Witch is a gripping narrative alert to the drama and tragedy of Prichard’s remarkable life.

Nathan Hobby is a Perth author, librarian and honorary research fellow at the University of Western Australia. His novel The Fur (Fremantle Press 2004) won the TAG Hungerford Award. He blogs at nathanhobby.com which is how I came to discover KSP and her remarkable novels.  (Five so far, and I hope to have read the last in her Goldfields Trilogy by the time of the launch.)


Online launch – The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

Please join Nathan Hobby to celebrate the publication of
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (Miegunyah Press).
If possible, wear something red!
You may wish to drink a glass of dry sherry (Katharine’s favourite drink) or whatever else takes your fancy.

The book will be launched by Karen Throssell, poet, memoirist and granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
Host: Lisa Hill, ambassador for Australian literature and ANZ Litlovers blogger
Speaker: Dr Nathan Hollier, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing
Finishing with questions and discussion.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 29, 2022

Scapegallows, by Carol Birch

Scapegallows is run-of-the-mill historical fiction, competently written but at 448 pages, it’s far too long for itself.  It had been on the TBR for too long, and I needed to make space on the AB shelf after chancing on Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga, on the book swap table at U3A. (I’ve read and liked Atxaga before.)

Birch probably made her way onto Australia booksellers’ shelves when Turn Again Home was longlisted for the 2003 Booker, and Jamrach’s Menagerie was longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Booker.  Scapegallows may have made it here because Colonial Australia features in its plot. It’s the fictionalised story of the real-life Margaret Catchpole, a horse thief.  She was sentenced to hang twice but reprieved and was transported to Australia in 1801, for escaping from gaol.  In Australia she became a respected midwife and her letters home are a valuable historical source as eyewitness accounts of early years in the colony. The Australian aspects of her story might have an ‘exotic’ appeal to British readers, but most of the novel is Catchpole’s long-winded back story in England.

The Australian sections are problematic.  The content seems to have been drawn from Catchpole’s letters home, and not from any familiarity with Australian history.  Any competent Australian historical novelist would have a more nuanced view of Indigenous dispossession than to drop in an ‘orphaned’ Aboriginal boy as a character, his backstory economically disposed of in one paragraph:

‘Tell you, Bill,’ says I, ‘we’re in for a storm, you mark my words.’
‘Not till tonight, Auntie.’
Thinks he knows.  Mrs Palmer says it’s in his blood to sense the weather and she put it in his head that he do, but he is not always right, no.  He never came up with the dreaming like the wild ones, not him.  He was a baby when his poor mamma came in alone from somewhere further out, fourteen years old and all bashed up, to try and be a settler and get her certificate.  She died and they put him in the Native Institute, where I got him.  He’s Bible-raised, a good boy, so they told me, and they were right.’ (p.4)

I have no idea what is meant by ‘get her certificate’.  This first chapter is dated 1817.  There was a ‘Certificate of Exemption’ which gave Aboriginal people certain rights if they met certain criteria, but that wasn’t legislated until decades later: 1897 in Queensland and in the 20th century in the other states which introduced it. (It appears not to have been introduced in Victoria or Tasmania.) The Native Institute was a precursor to policies of child removal for the purposes of ‘education’, i.e. the Stolen Generations, and anyone who knows anything about Australia’s Black History knows that children in these institutions were routinely told that their parents were dead, when they were not. A scrappy summary like this shows what a minefield Australian colonial history can be for the unwary author of historical fiction.

Depicting some transportee’s fears of cannibalism is disrespectful and completely unnecessary and any competent Australian editor would probably have insisted on its removal.  It’s one thing to depict characters being afraid that their ship will fall over the edge because an author can make a reasonable assumption that her readers will recognise it as ignorant fears.  But an international readership can not be assumed to know about a contested aspect of pre-contact Australian history. Including these fears as historically authentic without repudiating them either in the narrative or in an Afterword is naïve at best.

Anyway…

Reasonably faithful to the historical record as listed at her Wikipedia entry  the novel depicts Catchpole in love with a career criminal and pads out the bare bones of the story with anecdotes about her adventurous nature and her occasional misgivings. (Which are not about the morality of his crimes, but more about the risk of him being caught).  Though sympathetic to the smuggling  trade, her family was respectable, and Catchpole had a good employment record as a servant, and had learned to read and write.  Her crime was not from the widespread but untrue ‘family history’ narrative about convict ancestors who stole ‘just a hanky’ or ‘bread to feed the starving children.’ (See my post where historian Janet McCalman disposes of this false narrative in Vandemonians.) Birch romanticises the theft of the horse as a means of raising bail for her lover Will Laud, but horse theft was a very serious crime and judges had no discretion but to sentence the perpetrator to death.  Since the novel is written from Catchpole’s PoV, there is a lot about her regrets about her stupidity and her remorse for betraying a generous employer, and she also has proto-feminist ideas about the life she could have had if she were a man.

It might seem that I’m not much impressed with Carol Birch as an author, but I haven’t read the prize-winning novels.  The opening segment in this one, where Catchpole is clinging to a roof in the Hawkesbury River floods, is exceptionally well-written, and if the ensuing narrative set in England had been pruned by half, I’d have felt more forgiving about the flaws in Scapegallows.  

Author: Carol Birch
Title: Scapegallows
Publisher: Little, Brown UK, 2008
ISBN: 9781844083916, pbk., 448 pages
Source: Personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 27, 2022

Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Continuing my quest to read meaningful books that are outside the swamp of grim MiseryLit, I collected Gravel Heart from the library.  Gurnah’s Nobel citation is “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures” but he’s also ruthlessly honest about the post-colonial debacle in Africa, linking it not just to colonialism, but also to the vagaries of human nature.  I like his interrogation of what it means to belong, and who takes responsibility for the loneliness of the migrant experience, and I like his sly humour too.

In Gravel Heart, Salim escapes from difficult domestic circumstances to London, his exodus funded by Uncle Amir who has made good in the uncertain post-colonial terrain of Tanzania.  Salim is a bookish boy, but submits to Uncle Amir’s assumption of control over his life, and so begins Business Studies in London, only to fail his exams because his heart is in literature, not in numbers.  Amir, by then a senior diplomat, washes his hands of ‘ungrateful’ Salim, and so begins Salim’s long, lonely, guilt-ridden and impecunious struggle to qualify in the subject that he loves.  He lives in grimy overcrowded share houses; he sleeps with a girl who in a moment of intimacy says she’d marry him if he weren’t black; and he writes home to his mother Saida in desultory letters that obscure his poverty, his thoughts and his feelings.  She writes back in letters that obscure her health problems. Gurnah’s technique for showing this mutual duplicity is to include the draft letters that Salim writes but doesn’t send, followed by the ones that he does post, coupled with her evasive replies.

The catalyst for the rupture with Amir was his impulsive admission to Salim that his generosity was in repayment for something owed to Salim’s mother.  At home in Tanzania, Salim had never been able to find out why his parents lived separately, why his father Masud was a broken man, and why his mother still sent meals to him every day.  Somewhere in the background, there had been another man—of powerful but enigmatic status, and there was a half-sister called Marina who was only a toddler at the time of Salim’s departure.  But the silence that cloaks this entire situation is impenetrable — until, still unsettled about how to live his life, he returns to Tanzania after his mother dies.

His father is by then, an old man.  And in a slow, generous reconciliation, over many nights and in the consoling darkness, he tells his son the story of corruption and betrayal that destroyed their family.

Both sides of the family had fallen foul of post-colonial politics.  Saida’s father was taken away and killed for having been an anti-colonial activist on the wrong side, and Masud’s father, an Islamic scholar, went to the Gulf after he lost his teaching position in a government school when religious tolerance changed.  Once established, he sent for his family, but Masud refused to go:

…my disobedience when the summons came for the family to travel to the Gulf was unheard-of audacity.  I flatly refused to leave.  It would have been harder for me to do that to my father’s face, but he was not there, I could say to my mother that I was not going and nothing was going to make me change my mind.  This was my country, I told her, and I was not going anywhere like a homeless vagrant, to beg for mercy from people whose language I did not even understand.  What was out there that was so desirable I should give up everything I knew?  I would stay here and wait for life to return.

My mother and my sisters waited for me for a whole year while I finished school, hoping for me to come to my senses and to stop being so stubborn.  They passed on stories of the good life in the Gulf that were current then: how respectful and pious people were, how easy it was to get a job, a house, a car, how brightly lit the hotels, how full the shops, how ingenious the gadgets, how good the schools, how generous the state.  They believed these stories themselves, and either through inexperience or desire did not suspect them for fantasies of migrant labourers.  They passed them on to me, pressed them upon me, because they wanted me to changed my mind and leave with them, but I would not, even though those were terrible and violent times. (p.184, underlining mine.)

You can see how cunningly Gurnah undercuts the narrative that attracted people to the Gulf then i.e. alluding to troubles to come. This is the narrative that brings the hopeful from Africa to Europe,  risking their lives to do it.

[Digression: There are many stories of migrants betrayed by these fantasies but not all of them show that other migrants are often complicit. I know of some: Set in the US there is Katharine Weber’s Triangle about migrant workers killed in a fire at a shirtwaist factory owned by other migrants; Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss about Biju, too ashamed to go home while exploitation by other expat Indians means he can never get ahead; and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle depicting the same exploitation in the Chicago meat industry.  And set in the UK, Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners are both about the Windrush generation. In Petit Pays (Small Country), Gaby’s mother in Rwanda dreams of a French Paradise; in The Burning Elephant Sunil Seth’s disdain for his own people in Sri Lanka leads him to seek migration to Australia, a place he has idealised; and in The Historian’s Daughter a father sycophantic to the British colonial regime in India, exacerbates his daughter’s sense of abandonment by uprooting her to Australia, a place so far away that no search for her vanished mother and aunty is possible.]

However…

Masud’s determination to stay where he belongs is partly pride—he does not want to participate in the humiliation of begging more privileged countries for entry—but also because he is in love, though the social mores of the time have so far prevented any meaningful contact.

I was then nearly eighteen, in my last year at school, resisting my mother’s pleas for me to leave and join my father in Dubai.  I had my home, I did not want to wander the world like a beggar without a country. […] And in a way I knew to be absurd, I did not want to leave because of Saida.  This was a secret I kept to myself and mocked myself for, but I could not deny its reality.  (p.190)

This attachment to the place where one belongs is reiterated for a third time later on in the novel:

I did not want to live like a stranger, like a vagrant in someone else’s country. I did not want to live among people whose language I did not speak and whose wealth would allow them to despise and patronise me.  I wanted to stay here where I knew who I was and what was required of me. (p.214)

Yet there is no idealisation of ‘home’.  Corruption in the post-colonial era is endemic.  Masud’s father has to conceal his travel plans, and his mother gives Masud her dowry jewellery for safe keeping  because it was illegal to take anything but the skin on your back and a few rags when travelling out of the country, just in case you were spiriting away the nation’s wealth.  

You can imagine [Masud tells his son all these years later] the immigration officers performed that part of their duties with great thoroughness. (p.192)

Masud goes to work for the Water Authority, because he has a contact who helps him dodge the (compulsory) national volunteer service schemes to promote an ethos of discipline and service. Getting his name removed from a list was arranged in one brief conversation on the phone. Even so, he has to be careful.

Our office was probably like many other government offices at that time, staffed by recent school-leavers without much knowledge and with not much to do, who were respectful and fearful of authority.  Everyone was fearful of authority because in recent times we had seen how stern it could be, especially with those it suspected of being reluctant in their submission to it. Authority relished its fearsome reputation and thrived on it.  It went about its ugly business as if no one could see what was happening, or remember who was doing it and why. (p.195)

Masud’s narrative explains how this culture of brutally corrupt authority and privilege for powerful men came to impact on Amir.  By the time Masud and Saida had married, Amir was a cocky young man, ambitious and reckless, and heedless of the risks he brought to their home.  It turns out that he owes much more than his diplomatic position to Saida…

I mentioned Gurnah’s sly humour:

The water distribution system was old, most of it built by Sultan Barghash in the 1880s in the twilight world of Omani rule as the British were impatiently shuffling in the shadows of our small corner of the world, waiting to take charge.  Barghash had been exiled to Bombay by the British for attempting to displace his elder brother Majid, something the Omani princes felt compelled to do whenever opportunity presented itself.  Their own father was reputed to have have killed his cousin with his own hand, at the age of fifteen, to become the sultan: a sharpened jambiya in the chest during a royal banquet and then a chase through the countryside until the cousin dropped dead from his wounds, the accursed Wahhabi usurper.

The British had no business interfering in this internecine mayhem — they had not yet taken our little territory in hand for its own good — but they did so anyway because they wanted the world to run as they liked it, even if it was only a caprice on its part.  Exile this one, replace that one, hang the malcontents, even bombard the whole town… why not? It was necessary in order to establish who was superior and had the power, and who should do precisely as he was told. Historians can always be found later to offer weighty policy explanations that prompted one petty meddling or another, to describe avarice and destruction in reasonable words. (p.196)

Salim has to decide whether to stay ‘home’ with his father, or to return to Britain.  ‘Baba’ is surprised to learn that he has friends there, because he had thought that Salim was ‘surrounded by angry English men and superior madams.’

‘That as well, but not all the time,’ I said.  ‘It’s not as simple as the lies they told us about themselves or the lies we chose to believe.  Anyway, it’s not all angry English men and superior madams, there are hungry ones and foolish ones and righteous ones too.’

That’s what I like about Gurnah.  He’s not interested in the simplicity of grievance.  He has the generosity to move beyond that and (to paraphrase what Salim tells his father), he wants to explore what comes out of what has befallen his characters.

Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Title: Gravel Heart
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2017
ISBN: 9781408881330, pbk., 261 pages
Source: Bayside Library

A good while ago, in discussions at Whispering Gums about Australian literary couples (2011) and writing duos, (2016) there were both well- and lesser-known names but now there are more to add.

I should have nominated Allan and Wendy Scarfe who separately and together over many decades produced an impressive body of work which you can see here. But because it was Wendy’s novels that I discovered first, it was not until 2020 that I read A Mouthful of Petals which they wrote together. Until then, I had tended to think of Wendy as an author in her own right.  (Indeed, she has a Wikipedia page, and he doesn’t, an omission which should be rectified.) But as Wendy says on the About page on their website:

We have jointly written and published biographies, oral history and school texts. Individually we have published poetry, novels and short stories.

A remarkable collaboration!

Another remarkable collaboration is the subject of the literary bio I have just read.  Taking a breather from the plethora of grim books that are stalking us these days, at night I am reading Gravel Heart by Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah and I have dropped everything during the day to read Dymphna Stella Rees’s lively and engaging biography of her parents: A Paper Inheritance: the passionate literary lives of Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees

This is the blurb:

When Dymphna Stella Rees – named after family friends Dymphna Cusack and Stella Miles Franklin – finds bundles of love letters buried in her parents’ archive, she is intrigued by the discovery.

Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees were a power couple of the Australian literary scene in the mid-twentieth century. They took their shared dream of being writers from Perth to London and launched themselves in Fleet Street, interviewing some of the century’s literary greats, including James Joyce, AA Milne, and George Bernard Shaw.

After settling in Sydney in the 1930s, they embraced the city’s vibrant arts scene and established prolific careers. Leslie became an award-winning children’s book author and the ABC’s national drama editor, while Coralie was one of the country’s first female broadcasters. They influenced the development of an authentically Australian arts culture and included among their friends Mary Gilmore, Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, Mary Durack and Vance and Nettie Palmer. Their partnership and legacy are fully examined here for the first time.

Drawn from personal notebooks, letters and original transcripts, A Paper Inheritance is the engrossing story of what drove this literary couple to prominence and is a celebration of their love and their passion for words.

I hadn’t heard of either of them, I thought, until discovering that Leslie Rees was the author of 27 children’s books, including the Digit Dick series, some of which I had read to The Offspring when he was a little boy. The first of these was Digit Dick on the Great Barrier Reef (1942), and his last children’s book was The Seagull Who Liked Cricket (1997).  These children’s books were inspired by the Rees children, to whom Leslie told stories when he returned home from research for his travel writing.

But they were not just inspiration!

We were involved in the steps to publication too. Our opinion would be sought on the roughs of illustrations and we were always lined up to read the proofs.  If we picked up a mistake, the going rate was sixpence.  Megan always scored more handsomely on this task as she was definitely the superior speller.  However, I had other discernments.  I once found an egregious error — the gender of a subsidiary character changed halfway through the story.  For uncovering this blunder, I received 2/-, unthinkable riches when one considers that most of my indulgences at the time — rainbow balls or a threepenny ice cream — only cost a fraction of that figure.  (p.191)

While much of the Rees collaboration meant that each was a springboard for ideas for the other, this couple collaborated on a series of travel books:

  • Spinifex Walkabout: Hitch-hiking in remote North Australia (1953)
  • Westward from Cocos: Indian Ocean travels (1956)
  • Coasts of Cape York: travels around Australia’s pearl-tipped peninsula (1960)
  • People of the Big Sky Country (1970)

To write these travel books, Leslie and Coralie travelled widely, leaving their two daughters behind, either together or sometimes separately, with family or friends. (Mostly friends, since family was in Perth, and they had made their base in Sydney.)  Dymphna Stella Rees is a sympathetic biographer, but she interrogates this issue of long term absences and its impact on their childhood.  The girls did miss their parents, and they missed each other when they were separated.  But Dymphna is adamant that they would have hated boarding school more, and that they never doubted that they were loved.  She also acknowledges that her mother’s ambitions, already compromised by having to be the homemaker, should not have been sacrificed to a motherhood that she was not really suited for.  She loved her children dearly, but she was a career woman.  That is an unremarkable choice today, but it was more difficult to negotiate in her own time.

The first part of the book entranced me.  Having met through university studies and resolved to become engaged, this couple of very different social backgrounds were separated when Leslie won a scholarship to study in London.  The love letters that form their daughter’s ‘paper inheritance’ are beautiful to read.  Desperately lonely and homesick, Leslie wrote to Coralie every day of the voyage, even though he didn’t post the letters until he reached London weeks later.  Coralie, back in Perth, however, was determined not to be ‘the girl left behind, waiting faithfully’ and she applied for, and got, the same scholarship.

The difference in their temperaments can be seen not just in the style of the extracts of their letters but also in the fact that he saved up for months because the scholarship didn’t include living expenses, while she launched herself on her journey with next to nothing in the bank.  And while he assuaged his loneliness en route by working industriously on work for potential publication and sale, she had a wonderful time enjoying the luxury that she knew was the last she could enjoy once she’d married the impecunious Leslie.  But they were a united front in London, sharing the privations and working furiously to establish themselves in their chosen careers.  The story of how they achieved this, and then chose to abandon it to come home to Australia, is fascinating reading.

It certainly wasn’t easy when they first came home.  Prior to establishing herself as a broadcaster, Coralie was a secretary to a very temperamental Eileen Joyce, while Leslie submitted work everywhere in an attempt to get a regular income.  With her London body of work comprising interviews with a ‘who’s who’ of British authors and thespians, Coralie got her break as a broadcaster in the very early days of the ABC, bringing news of the literary and theatrical world to an Australia isolated from cultural developments overseas.

Leslie’s break came when he was appointed the first federal ABC drama editor in 1936.  With a solid background in drama from his studies in London, where he saw a wealth of drama productions and actors in their heyday, he was determined to use the ‘wireless’ to deal with the cultural desert in Australia at that time.  As a young man developing his own skills as a playwright in Perth, he had been able only to read plays because there were such very limited opportunities to see performances.  By writing, selecting, adapting, and commissioning radio plays, Rees was the genius behind the scenes who brought world theatre even to the backblocks of Australia and was instrumental in nurturing a distinct Australian presence at the ABC.  This not only facilitated the careers of other Australian playwrights, it also provided them with an income stream.

There is much more to this partnership than outlined here, so do yourself a favour and get a copy of the book!

Highly recommended.

Author: Dymphna Stella Rees
Title: A Paper Inheritance: the passionate literary lives of Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2021
ISBN: 9780702263200, pbk., 296 pages
Review copy courtesy of UQP

 

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Categories