I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 October 2021

Travels Through Time 1549: The City at the Hub of the World. So which city do you reckon? London? Instanbul? Venice? Paris? Amsterdam? Nup- it’s little old Antwerp, which today is part of Belgium but in 1549 was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Even though it was ruled from Spain by Charles V, the city was fairly independent (for the time) and it’s not surprising that it was a haven for Protestants and Jews. An important trading hub with access to the North Sea and the river system throughout Europe, it became a market for everything, particularly art, which it turned into a commercial ‘product’. Historian Michael Pye, who has recently published Antwerp: The Glory Years has chosen 1549 as his year, with Charles V coming for a ceremonial visit; the King of Sweden sending Jacob Binck to Antwerp to check on the progress of a tomb he had commissioned and Italian merchant and conman Simone Turchi’s luck beginning to run out.

The History of Rome Podcast Episode 56: The King is Dead: Long Live the King. When he died, Augustus is said to have said that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Not only did he do that. He established a bureaucracy, and set Tiberius up well to take over from him when he died. Near the end of his life, he visited his grandson Agrippa Postumus to check him out, adopted him so as to carry on the bloodline, but didn’t intend him to actually become Emperor because he was brutal and unsuitable. In the end Agrippa Postumus died anyway (was it Livia again? or Tiberius? or on the orders of Augustus himself?) just after Augustus himself died on August 17, 14 A.D. Although Mike Duncan is not completely won over by Augustus, he claims that he was one of the most important men in Western Civilisation. Episode 57: Germanicaus goes back to look at Germanicaus, Tiberius’ nephew and adopted son. He was married to Agrippina (Augustus’ granddaughter) and had several children, the youngest of whom, Gaius, he dressed up as a legion soldier, leading to his name ‘little boots’ (i.e. Caligula). Tiberius was becoming increasingly jealous of him, particularly when, after being sent to the Rhine, Germanicaus avenged to some extent the rout at Teutoberg. So what do you do with a rival? Have him die in suspicious circumstances of course, having clashed with Piso, the governor of Syria. Episode 58: Partner of My Labours sees Praetorian Prefect Lucius Sejanus take increasing power after Tiberius’ son Drusus dies. Drusus was Tiberius’ son and after Germanicaus died, he seemed to be Tiberius’ heir. But then he died too, apparently of natural causes, although some suspect Sejanus, to whom Tiberius had turned over the practical running of the empire. Mike Duncan backtracks a little here, to explain the praetorian guard, and how they came to have so much power. Sejanus seduced Drusus’ wife Livilla, and it is said that she introduced the poison that killed Drusus. Perhaps. But in the end, Tiberius turned against him, brought him to the Senate, and had him tried and executed and thrown down the Gemonian Stairs. Episode 59 To the Tiber with Tiberius sees Tiberius becoming even more tyrannical and paranoid, using treason trials to expunge all of Sejanus’ supporters. Mike Duncan mentions at the start of this episode just how bloody the politics of this time had become. When Tiberius finally died, people rejoiced, saying that surely things couldn’t get worse. Wrong. Caligula (‘Little Boots’) was really Gaius, Germanicus’ third son. Tiberius had adopted him, but his mother Agrippina and his older brothers were exiled, killed, or starved to death. When Tiberius died, Caligula was only 24 and he hadn’t been trained for the position at all. For the first few months, he seemed that he was going to be alright as an emperor, but then he got sick and when he recovered, the madness started.

History Extra Publicizing his new book The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and People, Clive Aslet talks about the history of the country house up to the current day. Although the episode is called From Roman villas to Downton Abbey, there weren’t many Roman villas in it, because he started his story in medieval times. At first, the value was not in the house, but in the land that surrounded it, and very wealthy landowners would progress from house to house, taking everything with them. Many houses were ruined during the English Civil War, and rebuilt later. I thought he would have made more of the Georgian/Victorian era and the renovations that reflected new wealth, and he acknowledged but also excused the influx of money through slavery. The low point for the country house came in the 1970s, after two world wars (the first of which removed many potential heirs from their heritage), the decline in agricultural wealth, and the oil shock that made heating the houses impossible. However, with Downton Abbey there has been a resurgence, as people have moved back into country houses as their principal residence, especially in COVID times. I wish that the quality was better in this podcast- the interviewer sounds like he’s on another planet. Here are his three favorite country houses. The big image is Chatsworth, which I have seen in nearly every Jane Austin film, Burton Agnes in Yorkshire which dates from the 1600s and Broughton Castle which I’ve seen in movies too.

Because of Anita During the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanagh, many people remembered the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. This four-part series revisits the testimony- which so many of us (myself included) think of being the trial of Anita Hill, instead of Clarence Thomas. In Episode 1, The Testimony, I was disturbed to hear Joe Biden overseeing the pile-on of questions, many of which were really offensive. There were other women prepared to testify, but the senators just ran down the clock and their testimony was just attached as written statements.

Rear Vision (ABC) Who/What is this Tigray Liberation Front that I keep hearing about? Rear Vision’s recent episode on Ethiopia refers back to an earlier podcast from August 2018 Peace: Ethiopia and Eritrea when the new elected Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reached out to his counterpart in Eritrea and began a peace process that people hoped would bring the 20 year civil war to a close. This newer episode Hopes dashed- Ethiopia ripped by ethnic violence from July 2021 returns to the same commentators three years later to see how it all worked out. Not well. Abiy Ahmed used the COVID crisis to postpone elections indefinitely, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had been instrumental in overthrowing the military junta in 1991 but sidelined when Abiy Ahmed took power, announced that it was holding its own elections in the Tigray region. The Ethiopian government, with its army, said that this was illegal and hostilities broke out in November 2020 when the rebel TPLF attached an army base. And so it goes….

I´ve been watching all those streams of Haitian refugees streaming towards the US-Mexico border. I read about a man who had been forcibly returned to Haiti after spending about four years in Chile before embarking for the US. “Why would anyone want to live here?” he asked, and he’s right. I listened to Mike Duncan’s series about the Haitian Revolution, but knew nothing of Haitian history from the early 19th century to the present day. Haiti- the background to an assassination highlights just how duplicitous the US has been in interfering in Haiti’s politics.

Some Unitarian listening. Those of you who know me know that I attend a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship here in Melbourne. But I enjoy listening in to services from other UU groups as well. This week I listened to an address by Jennie Dyster from Adelaide Unitarian Church called Now I’m a Believer which provides some of the context behind biblical verses used as exemplars of ‘love’ – Corinthians 13 and the Book of Ruth. She then goes on to pay tribute to Bishop John Shelby Spong, who died recently, who stressed the importance of ‘context’ when using inspirational quotes and readings.

Blindspot: The Road to 9/11 In Episode 3: The Bomb, the World Trade Centre suffers its first, bungled bombing in the basement (I’d forgotten all about it- in fact, did I even know?) NYPD Detective Louis Napoli and FBI Special Agent John Anticev manage to get their mole Emad Salem to infiltrate the Blind Sheik’s terror cell again, and now he becomes the personal assistant of Omar Abdel-Rahman (a.k.a. the Blind Sheikh) himself. This series is based on the TV series of the same name.

‘The New World of Martín Cortés’ by Anna Lanyon

2003, 260 p.

In January of this year I re-read Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest (see my review here) and by the end of it I had resolved that I would read her follow-up book, The New World of Martín Cortés. Martín Cortés was the ‘natural’ son of Hernán Cortés and Malinche, thus making him one among the early mestizo children born in the New World. But he was not to stay in the New World for long, as his father took him back as a six-year-old to the Old World, Spain. This was part of the Conquistador’s attempt to seek forgiveness for, technically, being a rebel against the Crown when he embarked for Mexico against the orders of the Governor of Cuba. He also lobbied for recognition of his achievements and landholdings in the New World. Martín obtained a position in the court of Charles V and later, as a page to Phillip II. As part of embedding his respectability, his father arranged for him to be an initiate into the Order of Santiago. Both he and his father fought for the Spanish Crown in Algiers. Thus, this child of the New World, was integrated into the Old World, while his mother Malinche remarried and died within two years of her son leaving for Spain.

Just as she did with Malinche’s Conquest, Anna Lanyon presents this story as a search within the archives, and visits to significant locations, both in Spain and in Mexico. Perhaps my resistance to this way of narrating history is abating, or perhaps she spends less time in this book on journeying than in the earlier book: in any event, there is more about the archival search within the documents and less about travel.

The major complication Lanyon faced was that Hernán had three sons, and he named two of them “Martín”, a family name. He brought his first son Martín (Malinche’s son) back to Spain with him, but then had another two sons when he remarried in Spain, naming the first of those Martín as well. Hernán was appointed the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca for his ‘discoveries’ in Mexico, and this title was handed to his second, legitimate Martín, whom Lanyon helpfully distinguishes from Malinche´s son by designating him ´the marqués´. Although Hernán went to considerable effort to have Malinche´s son and other three other natural children declared legitimate, the title and the wealth went only to the marqués.

It´s a pity that the wealth and title didn´t go to the older Martín. After Hernán died, all three sons returned to Mexico, to take up their father´s landholdings. Although the marqués was enjoined by his father´s will to provide for the older but illegitimate Don Martín, he did not do so. Moreover, the marqués became involved in the local South American politics, where the children and grandchildren of the original conquistadors were in dispute with the Spanish crown. By royal order, their right to enslave the indigenous people had been curtailed, and they could only inherit New World land to the second generation, after which it would revert to the Crown. When the marqués arrived, he was hailed by the conquistador sons as the leader of a resistance to these royal decrees that would undercut their patrimony. There were rumours of a rebellion, with the marqués at its head. When he went down, he took his brothers, half-brothers and friends with him, although luck continued to smile on him.

Lanyon knew the broad contours of Martín’s life before she started her research but even she felt sickened and saddened by the latter part of his life. Coming with no knowledge at all about Martín Cortéz, I felt that way too. Courage isn’t just found on battlefields: it is found just as much, if not more, in the dank cells of torture, where men are truly alone.

Both this book and Lanyon’s earlier Maliche’s Conquest have beautiful covers and black and white illustrations distributed throughout the text. I was intrigued by the handwriting embossed on the front cover, and which was watermarked on the opening page of each chapter. Lanyon did not have much direct documentary material to work with, and that which she did have was always complicated by the issue of exactly which Martín Cortéz she was reading about (don Martín or the marqués) but she did find his signature on one document- a tangible mark of his presence all those centuries ago. This is the handwriting that appears on the front cover and underlies the text.

The paucity of sources has forced Lanyon into a great deal of speculation and inference. She clearly marks this in the text through using modifiers like ‘perhaps’ and by framing statements as questions. She is aware of the danger of making such assumptions, such as when discussing Martín’s mestizo status in a community and time when ‘race’ was not necessarily the defining feature. For example, Martín may have been one of the first mestizo children to be taken back to metropolitan Spain, but it was a Spain with heavy Jewish and Muslim influences, and Martín may have looked no different from many other young boys there at the time. We are wrong to infer that he, or anyone else, might freight the issue of race with the significance it has now.

As with Malinche’s Conquest, I enjoyed this book that combined research, reflection and history-as-search. It’s a fairly easy read, and Lanyon is a gracious companion. And as with Malinche’s Conquest, she has settled on an ambiguous title. Martín Cortés may have been a child of the New World, but his upbringing and fate were moulded by the expectations and politics of the Old World, even in a New World setting.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Anna Lanyon studied at La Trobe University.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 October 2021

John of Gaunt. Wikimedia

Travels Through Time I recently read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and I’m on a little bit of a medieval kick as a response. Helen Carr has recently released a book on John of Gaunt called The Red Prince and she features in a couple of podcasts as part of her publicity campaign. I listened to this podcast after the History Extra one, but because this podcast is longer and more detailed, you’d be better off listening to this first. John of Gaunt suffered ‘3rd living son of a King’ syndrome, being the son of Edward III, uncle of Richard II, Father of Henry IV and progenitor of the Tudor dynasty. Carr chooses 1381, a year when the Peasant Army blew up his home the Savoy Palace, and when his nephew Richard II rejected his assistance.

History Extra Podcast also had a session with her in John of Gaunt: prince without a throne. It is a bit shorter, and I felt that it didn’t go back and start from the beginning as well as the Travels Through Time podcast did.

The History of Rome. I’m about a quarter of the way through! Maybe I will finish it in 2021! Episode 50 The Donations of Alexandria sees Mark Antony having another crack at Parthia, but he had to withdraw. After that he went back to Egypt, and Cleopatra (even though he was still married to Octavia, Octavian’s sister). He started putting his own children in positions of power. Meanwhile Octavian was off fighting in the Balkans, something that redeemed his pretty shonky reputation as a general. His friends and advisors were Maecenas and Agrippa, and together they plotted war against Mark Antony. The 10-year old Second Triumvirate was dissolved, and after Octavian got hold of Mark Antony’s will that was stored with the Vestal Virgins and learned of Mark Antony’s plans to put his family into power, war was declared. Episode 51 Actium starts off with Mike Duncan reflecting on how people during the 1century BC kept being forced to take sides in a series of civil wars. Mark Antony and Cleopatra escaped battle at Actium in 31BC but by now Octavian was determined to annex Egypt completely. The suicide pact between Mark Antony and Cleopatra veers into Romeo and Juliet territory, although she ended up outliving him. Octavian insisted on having Alexander the Great’s mausoleum opened. Even though most people were humbled by how much the 33 year old Alexander achieved, in the case of Octavian (who was also 33) he used the example of Alexander to promote his sense of destiny. In Episode 52 Caesar Augustus, the victorious Octavian was determined to completely expunge Mark Antony’s name. He embarked on a marketing campaign, with Virgil writing The Aeneid and the construction of two temples, one to Apollo and the Pantheon. When he threatened to retire, the Senate begged him to remain, and the Senate bestowed upon Octavian the title Caesar Augustus during the constitutional settlement of 27 BC. Four years later Augustus and the Senate altered their power sharing agreement. He changed his name to Augustus (meaning ‘revered one’) but even he realized that ‘Princept’ (i.e. first citizen) might be a better title. In Episode 53 Reigning Supreme, we see Augustus with 90% of the power he needed. First he turned his mind to foreign affairs by neutering (although not actually defeating) Parthia, then he turned to internal matters. He tried to reduce the size of the Senate from 1000 to 300 by increasing the wealth requirement (not completely successful in this) , he had the Praetorian guard under his control, and he instituted pro-family, anti-adultery measures. As the wealthiest man in Rome, he personally bankrolled roads and communication improvements. Episode 54 All in the Family sees Augustus looking to his grandsons through Julia and Agrippa to continue the line. But they were too young so he appointed his stepsons, Livia’s sons Tiberius and Drusus to high office long before they were technically eligible. He had a plan that the Elbe and Danube Rivers form the boundary of the Empire, and he sent them off to fight there. His friend Agrippa died, and he forced Tiberius to divorce his wife in order to marry the widowed Julia- neither Tiberius nor Julia wanted this marriage- and so Tiberius went into self-imposed exile, and Julia embarked on a series of adulterous affairs. His friend Maecenas died too, then his stepson Drusus died from a horse-fall. Episode 55: Teutoburg Nightmares. Augustus was having a rough time personally: his daughter Julia was exiled as a punishment for her promiscuity, and both his grandsons Lucius and Gaius died, leaving Tiberius the last one standing. He was getting a bit tired of exile, so he came back. Mike Duncan just teases with the question of whether Tiberius’ mother Livia really did kill off all the opposition to smooth the way for her son- he says that there is no real evidence beyond the fact that she did promote her sons (which any mother would do). Meanwhile, there was an uprising in Germania and a severe loss for the legions in the Teutoburg Forest, which Germans in the 19th century used as a historical high point. This marked the end of expansion on the Rhine- Augustus was happy to let the German tribes squabble amongst themselves.

C-Span Podcasts in History Edward Ball has written two books springing from his own family history. The first, Slaves in the Family seems to have disappeared completely, even though it won the National Book Award in 1998. His most recent book Life of a Klansman was published in 2020, and it looks at another branch of his family where, as with his estimate of 50% of white Americans alive today, he has a white supremacist ancestor. There are 2 podcasts in this long (1 hr 50 min) episode Edward Ball: Slaves in the Family and Life of a Klansman. The first one, dealing with Slaves in the Family seems to be a Zoom-based symposium with students who have used his book as a text, and the second one, which has much better sound quality, looks at his most recent book.

Conversations (ABC) Jimmy Barnes: A Broken Homecoming One of the joys of lockdown has been watching Jimmy Barnes perform in his kitchen/lounge/bedroom with his wife Jane. I just loved his Working Class Boy (which I was sure that I had read, but could only find my response to the documentary here). This interview traverses some of the same material from Jimmy’s early childhood, but then extends later into the time dealt with in his later books (which I must read). Gees- he could talk the leg off a chair, this bloke!

‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’ by Barbara Tuchman

1978, Penguin edition, 597 p.

When it became clear that Melbourne’s sixth lockdown was not going to be the ‘short sharp’ affair that was promised, I decided that if I was going to live in the most locked-down city in the world, then I should use the time to do something that I had intended doing for some time: take Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror off the bookshelf and read it.

Barbara Tuchman was an American narrative historian who was born in 1912 and died in 1989. Two of her books won Pulitzer Prizes: The Guns of August in 1963 dealing with the leadup to WWI, and Stillwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 in 1972 (never heard of it!). I have not read either of these books, but I did read The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War 1890-1914, which I very much enjoyed. She was not an academic historian, and relished the freedom of being able to write ‘popular’ history.

Her books tend to be long at over 500 pages and this book at 597 very closely-set pages is no exception. Although I read it in hard copy, my Kobo e-reader rather discouragingly told me that it would take 23-25 hours to read, and I can testify that it did. So why did I read it, and why now? Partially because I knew that, because the rest of life is on hold, such an opportunity to spend day after day reading a book will not come again (hopefully). But secondly, because in a time of pandemic, with increasing alarm about China, the rise of right-wing extremism, climate change, the underground rumble of the terrorism threat, the debacle of the Afghanistan pull-out and the tragedy for Afghanistan women who are left, and Trump lurking – why not read about another time when the world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket too?

The 14th Century certainly qualifies as a ‘calamitous’ century. The Black Plague cut a swathe through the world population, peaking in Europe between 1347 to 1351, but it returned in 1360–63, 1374 and 1400. The Papal Schism between 1378 and 1417 saw two competing Popes, one based in Avignon and the other in Rome, each claiming to be the ‘true’ Pope. The Hundred Years War between 1337–1453 saw generation after generation of English and French dynasties leaching the wealth from their countries to embark on a bloody game of chivalry and honour, and where royal women were seen as bargaining chips and allegiances were swapped pragmatically. There were popular uprisings in both Britain and France: The Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 and peasant uprisings in Rouen and Paris. Returning soldiers formed gangs of thugs, robbing and raping their way around the countryside. Meanwhile, the Ottomans were at the Danube at Nicopolis, prompting another Crusade, paid for by taxes and imposts.

The map at the start of the book shows Europe in the 14th century and although the silhouette looks the same (of course), there are no hard borders, just regions. England at the time had holdings in France and the Holy Roman Empire dominated the present countries of Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. A century is a long and rather arbitrary measurement; indeed, historians often talk of the ‘long’ 18th century etc. to avoid the tyranny of the year OO cut-off. As a way of giving focus to such a large canvass, Tuchman decided to focus her attention on the life-span of one man: Enguerrand VII de Coucy(1340 – 1395), the last of his line. His ancestral home Coucy Castle, built in the 13th century, was located in Picardy in France. At the time it was a dominating feature in the landscape with an almost impregnable donjon (although WWI took care of that). There are no images of Enguerrand, and all that we know of him comes through the chronicles of the day, particularly through Jean Froissant the medieval author and court historian. Contradictions, exaggerations, slippery dating, and flattery/disparagement warp the histories that have come to us, and accords with her wry ‘Tuchman’s Law’ : “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable to five-to-tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply“. (p. xx)

None the less, Coucy was right in the centre of things. He first fought against the English at the age of 15 and he was one of 40 nobles taken hostage by the English in exchange for the release of the future King John II of France. He was in England for six years as a guest of the Royal Court (no fetid dungeon for him) and ended up marrying King Edward III’s daughter, Isabella of England. This gave him a prominent position as a negotiator and mediator between the French Crown and his father-in-law.

After his wife’s death he married Isabelle, the daughter of the Duke of Lorraine and threw his loyalties completely behind the French throne. In the schism between the popes, he took France’s side and was involved in campaigns in Italy against the Roman Popes’ allies. He was involved in putting down the Flemish uprising, and when the idea of a crusade against the Ottomans at Nicopolis was raised to try to heal disunity caused by the papal schism, he took a leading role. It was his last battle. Taken prisoner by the Ottomans, he died of bubonic plague in Turkey while waiting for a ransom to be paid.

By having one person as her focus, Tuchman solved the problem of narrowing her field, although her choice of subject was constrained. She could not choose a king or queen because they are, by their nature, exceptional; commoners and women were not documented; and clerics or saints were outside the limits of her comprehension. This limited her to a male member of the nobility. Nonetheless, by choosing one particular person as the vehicle of her narrative:

Apart from human interest, this has the advantage of enforced obedience to reality. I am required to follow the circumstances and the sequence of an actual medieval life, lead where they will, and they lead, I think, to a truer version of the period than if I had imposed by own plan.


However, even without this narrowing spotlight, this is still a vast canvas, stretching across regions and alliances. I couldn’t keep up with the detail – there is just too much – and I decided to just go with broad impressions and enjoy the story as it was right on that page, without trying too hard to connect it with other events. It is very much chronologically driven, with one thing happening after the next, and if there was a broader argument, I couldn’t detect it.

Despite the title ‘A Distant Mirror’, it is difficult to find our own reflections here, beyond the physical, corporeal connection of being embodied humans. As she points out:

Difficulty of empathy, of genuinely entering into the mental and emotional values of the Middle Ages, is the final obstacle. The main barrier is, I believe, the Christian religion as it then was: the matrix and law of medieval life, omnipresent, indeed compulsory. Its insistent principle that the life of the spirit and of the afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth, is one that the modern world does not share, no matter how devout some present-day Christians may be. The rupture of this principle and its replacement by belief in the worth of the individual and of an active life not necessarily focused on God is, in fact, what created the modern world and ended the Middle Ages.


However, this was not lived out in practice. As she warns us

There never was a time when more attention was given to money and possessions than in the 14th century, and its concern with the flesh was the same as at any other time. Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible. The gap between medieval Christianity’s ruling principle and everyday life is the great pitfall of the Middle Ages.

p. xxi

This is writ large in the huge, obscene disparities in wealth between the nobles, with their castles and tournaments and feasts and display, and the peasantry. The principle of chivalry as the dominant political idea of the ruling class is just as inscrutable to us today. Both mentalities confirm that as 20th and 21st century readers, we are not medieval and that this mirror, perhaps, will always remain opaque to us.

Because she focuses on the life of one very well-connected noble, her emphasis is mainly at the elite level, which is mostly what the sources gave her to work with. ‘The people’ get rather less attention, and the parts of the book that I enjoyed most were where she digressed to give small details as illustration. For example, the habit of displaying people in effigy on their sarcophagus as a 33 year old, no matter how old they were when they died (because Jesus was said to die at 33) gave way to showing them old, thin and decrepit as the Cult of Death advanced over the century. I found the chapter on the Black Death particularly interesting, as it was so indiscriminate in its toll. But overall, the book deals more with statecraft and rivalry, more than social conditions.

Did I feel any better about our current world by the time that I finished? Not really. But, believe me, if a time machine lands on my front lawn, I’m not choosing the 14th Century to visit.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: My own bookshelves where it has sat for years. Purchased 2nd hand

With subtitles in English: Antonio Machado. Los días azules

I just loved this documentary. I had never heard of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, which probably speaks volumes about my ignorance of Spanish literature. He was part of the generation of ’98 and was forced into exile in Franco’s Spain. The documentary is beautifully filmed, and it features a range of ‘talking heads’ including academics, writers and biographers. He ended up being buried in France, and there has been talk of exhuming his body to return it to France, but it has become a place of pilgrimage for many whose parents and grandparents were Civil War refugees and whose burial places are unknown. It was part of the Instituto Cervantes Pelikula festival.

With subtitles in English: Oscuro y Lucientes

Continuing on with Instituto Cervantes’ Pelikula Film Festival, I watched this documentary about Goya’s head. You might have thought that it was safely ensconced with the rest of his body, but no. When they exhumed 30 years after his burial in 1828 in France in order to repatriate his remains to Spain, the body was there, but not the head! This documentary traces some various theories for what happened to it, but it has never been resolved. Nor found, either for that matter. Here’s a short review of the documentary in English.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

2021, 293 p


For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.


At least the movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ had a wedding or two. This book has four funerals, held against the backdrop of South African political change, as members of the Swart family die -first mother Rachel, then her husband Manie, then daughter Astrid, son Anton- leaving just the youngest daughter, Amor. It is left to Amor to make good a deathbed promise that her father Manie made to her mother Rachel, thirty years earlier. Rachel had begged her husband to promise that he would give the old Lombard house – just three rooms- to Salome, the domestic servant who has nursed Rachel through a long illness that has stripped her of all dignity. But time has gone on and somehow the house never gets transferred to Salome who continues to work in the house, always present, mostly invisible.

The book is divided into four parts, each named for the protagonist who will die – Ma, Pa, Astrid, Anton – although I admit that I didn’t realize that until after I finished. What I was aware of was the corrosive effects of apartheid that did not disappear with its dismantling, in spite of the hope of the Mandela years and twisted by the disillusionment with the politicians who followed him. Corrosive at a macro-scale, but corrosive individually too, as superiority and resentment is turned inwards.

Religion has much to answer for here. The thin-lipped disapproval of Rachel’s late-life conversion back to Judaism by the family steeped in Dutch Reformed Church tradition gives way to the self-serving fanaticism of an evangelical church as Pa (Manie) carves off part of his land to donate to his new church. Astrid, living in a gated community becomes Catholic, a religion which allows confession without contrition, while Anton’s wife enjoys the indulgence of Eastern mystic religion as a hobby. When the promise to give Salome her house is finally fulfilled, it is not through any religious impulse, but because Amor is aware that it has been unjustly withheld by her family, through inattention and obliviousness to this invisible woman who had been so loyal to them for so many decades.

The narrative voice in this book is striking. You’re never really quite sure who is speaking: it is someone familiar with the family and their weaknesses, wry, somewhat judgmental. The narrative swoops from one character to the next, as if it is a camera on a boom, an all-seeing eye. It means that your focus can switch from scene to scene without any warning which is jarring at first. At times the narrator ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by turning around to address you, the reader. It’s a strange, but effective technique.

Deaths occur suddenly in this book, and they are almost skated over. The death itself is not as important as its implications for the people who are left. Meanwhile, the unfulfilled promise hangs over the family, almost like a curse. It is denied for too long, and then when it is finally conceded, it is almost a poisoned chalice. Salome’s son, most certainly, does not show the gratitude that other members of the Swart family might have expected. The land and the now-derelict house are now subject to a land claim under land redistribution, and Salome may well lose again.

I was rather surprised when this book made the shortlist for the Booker Prize, I must confess. In many ways, it’s a multi-generational family story, although it is strengthened by being placed against the political background. It’s real strength, for me, is the narrative voice. I wonder if its presence as a non-American book in a shortlist dominated by American writers (just as many predicted) might weigh in its favour.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It is shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-30 September 2021

History of Rome Podcast. We left Julius Caesar with his one legion, banned from returning to Rome until he stood down his men. In Episode 43 Insert Well Known Idiom Here, Caesar feared that if the Senate found him guilty of bribery, then his political life would be over. (Everyone bribed everyone else, but they were more subtle about it). So he crossed the Rubicon (a small river) to invade Italy. But the Senate and Pompey had already decamped for Capua so it was a bit of a fizzer. In Episode 44 Caesar Triumphant he pursued Pompey and the Senate over to Brundisium and then to Greece, leaving Mark Antony in charge of Rome (big mistake). Pompey escaped to Egypt, but the Egyptians, hoping to curry favour with Caesar, killed Pompey when he got into the small boat to convey him to land. Caesar was furious (Pompey was, after all, part of the First Triumvirate) so Caesar supported Cleopatra, who had been tricked out of her claim to the Ptolemy throne. They became lovers, and when Caesar sailed back to Rome he left Egypt as a client state (rather than a colony) with Cleopatra in charge. Episode 45 The End of the War sees Caesar taking the overland route back from Egypt back to Rome and along the way pacifying what little resistance he came across. After a brief stay in Italy he sailed for North Africa where he defeated the regrouped Republican army (after a rather inglorious stumble onto the beach- he claimed he was ‘hugging’ Africa. I must remember to do that if I fall.) Having emerged from the Civil War triumphant he returned to Rome and began his ambitious reform programs. Although Cicero acquiesced, Cato killed himself. The conservatives were becoming uneasy at Caesar’s self-aggrandizement. Episode 46 Sec Semper Tyrannis Caesar was trying to get his internal reforms passed but he had to go to Spain to fight the Sons of Pompey who had raised an opposition force. He also planned a Parthian campaign to avenge Crassus’ death in the east, and to circle round and take Germania while he was at it. He had himself declared Dictator for ten consecutive terms, but went one further by having himself declared Dictator for Life. After all these centuries, people were still wary of Kings, and there were rumours that he wanted to become King. His enemies began conspiring and planned (and carried out his assassination on 15 March- the Ides of March). He probably didn’t say ‘et tu Brutus’ and Brutus didn’t say ‘Sec Semper Tyrannis’ either. So there, John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassin- he claimed to have said it as he attacked Lincoln). Episode 47 Octavius- Octavian. The now-dead Caesar had a little surprise for Mark Antony, who fully expected to be named Caesar’s heir in his will. No, instead it was his 19 year old great nephew Gaius Octavius. Caesar adopted him posthumously (can you do that?) and he changed his name to ‘Octavian’ to denote that he was adopted (he would later change it again to Augustus). Both Mark Antony and Octavian vied for the loyalty of the legions. Even though he was no great fan of either man, Cicero spoken out against Mark Antony who was trying to usurp Octavian’s popularity. In Episode 48 The Second Triumvirate, Marc Antony, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC. After using the tried and true method of proscriptions to raise funds through land and wealth confiscations and as a way of purging their enemies, the Triumvirs headed east, where they defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. Then Mark Antony headed off to Parthia, where he was hoping to reinforce his authority by beating them, and then he wouldn’t have to work about this pesky Second Triumvirate any more. Episode 49 Apollo and Dionysus sees Mark Antony and Octavian circling round each other warily. After winning the Battle of Philippi Antony and Octavian divided the empire into two halves. Antony took control of the east where he formed an alliance with Cleopatra (who was in need of powerful patrons now that Caesar was dead), while Octavian commanded the west. They extended the Triumvirate for a further term, but neither trusted the other.

Nothing on TV Enough Rome. I want to hear something Australian, and nothing sounds more Australian than Robyn Annear! In What is Really Real, Robyn has been given some more recent REAL crinkly newspapers instead of having to scroll through on Trove. She starts off talking about the moon landing and ends up talking about girdles- as you do. She then looks at the Advertiser, the forerunner to the Leader newspaper group, from the 1930s. I was excited about this, because the Advertiser (formerly the Evelyn Observer) covered the Shires of Eltham and Whittlesea and the City of Heidelberg- why, it’s my home turf. This episode differs from her other ones, because there is no over-arching theme, but it was good fun and especially being local (to me!)

The History Hour (BBC) My son was in Nairobi in September 2013, and I remember the fear I felt on hearing of the Westgate Mall attack. On my later trips, I didn’t ever visit Westgate, but I visited enough other shopping malls to be able to imagine what this must have been like (hint- they are very much the same as shopping centres in Melbourne). This episode Kenya: Westgate Mall Attack also has a story about a 1990s ‘miracle water’ craze just outside of Mexico City, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Plus the amazing story of how a journalist revealed the secret romance between Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, and, with the launch of the new James Bond movie, a segment on how James Bond has changed since Ian Fleming first created him in 1953! God, he’s older than I am.

Blindspot: The Road to 9/11 Episode 2 The Mole features Emad Salem, an ex-soldier from the Egyptian Army, who had migrated to America. He maintained his hatred for Omar Abdel-Rahman — known as The Blind Sheikh– for orchestrating the assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat. When he is approached by NYPD Detective Louis Napoli and FBI Special Agent John Anticev who ask him to infiltrate the Brooklyn mosque led by the Blind Sheikh, he accepts. But then Napoli and Anticev are forced to pull him from the job, even though the members of the mosque were clearly plotting something. Meanwhile, you find yourself shaking your head at how these terrorists managed to get into America.

With subtitles in English: El Cover

Instituto Cervantes is currently running its Pelikula Film Festival during the first week of October. The movies are spoken in Spanish with only English subtitles available. It is running in Australia, The Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. The tickets are free.

El Cover (2021) is set in Benidorm, on the Spanish coast. Remind me not to go there: full of high rise buildings and British tourists. Dani works in a restaurant as a waiter/short order cook, part of the resident workforce catering for tourists who come for a good time frequenting bars and ‘tribute’ shows. He meets two girls, Adele and Amy who are impersonators (of Adele and Amy Winehouse) and tentatively launches on his own career which has been overshadowed by the influence of his own, now deceased, entertainer parents. There’s a lot of music in this film- it threatened to turn into a musical- and the plot line was a bit thin. Perhaps I’m too old. Though not as old as some of the washed-up Rod Stewart and Lisa Minnelli impersonators.

Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘The Lottery’ to…

First Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. To find out how it works, please check out Booksaremyfavouriteandbest where Kate hosts this meme. Basically, Kate chooses a starting book, then you think of other books that lead off from it. This month, it was not a starting ‘book’ but instead a short story: ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. As usual, I haven’t read it, so I’m riffing off the idea of a lottery.

A rather attractive montage of book covers don’t you think?

Well, life is a bit of a lottery I suppose, full of ‘what ifs’ and sliding door moments. Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual takes the historical fact of fifteen children who died when a Woolworths store was bombed in a V-2 attack in London during November 1944. But instead of killing them off in the opening pages, he fictionalizes five of these children and lets them live- in fact, they weren’t even in the store- then follows them throughout their very ordinary lives. It’s a bit like the Seven-Up series but instead of dealing with real people, it’s all imagination. (My review here).

Well they didn’t really die in that book, but in Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Ursula dies multiple times, each death marked by the appearance of snow before darkness falls. She is strangled by her umbilical cord at birth: or she is not. She catches Spanish influenza: or she does not. She is beaten to death by a brutal husband: or she is not. She is killed in an air-raid attack during the Blitz: or she is not. All a bit of a lottery, really. (My review here)

Elizabeth Marsh, an otherwise completely anonymous but real-life woman, had just the one life but lived it as part of a family that lived in the Caribbean, the Americans, Britain, France, Spain Italy, Brussels, Hamburg, Menorca and Madiera, India, New South Wales, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, written by noted historian Linda Colley, is history in its own right, with much to say about mobility, networks, sea-consciousness and the British navy, trade and the intersection of the domestic and intimate with the commercial. (My review here)

But then we have the photographer Amory Clay in William Boyd’s Sweet Caress who is completely imaginary. I must confess that the first thing I did after finishing this book was to jump onto Google to see if there ever was a female photographer called Amory Clay. That’s how convincing this book was, with its mixture of real characters and events. I couldn’t tell whether I had just read a fictionalized biography or whether the whole thing was Boyd’s creation. (My review here)

So how about someone who is real and imaginary? Step forward, Elizabeth Cook, wife of explorer James Cook in Marele Day’s Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife. The book is organized around a fairly large collection of existing Cook artefacts which, from the the notes at the back of the book, are located in various museums, libraries, churches and parks across the world. Some of them are documentary, but several of them are domestic objects like drinking glasses, teapots, fans. She uses these real-life objects as the tethering posts to which she attaches her fictional narrative, complete with conversation and internal speech. The narrative unfolds chronologically, with each chapter named for the object which appears somewhere in that chapter. (My review, not completely laudatory, here)

And why not finish with a fictionalized history of a real place- my own much-loved Melbourne, known instead by an earlier suggested name Bareheep, complete with walk-on appearances by John Fawkner, John Batman, and Aboriginal Protector Mr Le Soeuf, as well as a slew of fictional characters. In best Voss-meets- Monty-Python tradition, Bright Planet by Peter Mews is an irreverent romp through a young, bawdy town on the edge of the unknown. It’s not true but it’s very carefully researched and, in its way is a critique of colonialism and imperial masculinity. But don’t let that put you off: dammit- it’s just downright good fun. (My review here)

The appeal of lotteries is ‘what if’ and ‘if only’. In my meandering way, I’ve chosen books that play with the idea of chance and circumstance, fact and imagination.