‘Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens’ by James Boyce

2020, 195p.

“That’s strange…” I thought. The James Boyce the Historian that I am familiar with is a Tasmanian historian, who has written two excellent histories of Van Diemens Land and the 1835 settlement of Victoria, as well as books about the gambling industry in Tasmania and the concept of original sin. But writing about the Fens in England? What’s he doing over there?

Before reading the book, I decided to read the Acknowledgments first because I needed to know why he had jumped from Tasmanian to British history. Forewords, Postscripts and Acknowledgments are an interesting addition to the text. I often don’t read the foreword, even though the writer (or their publisher) has consciously placed it before the text, because I frequently find that it’s more interesting and useful to read it after I have read the book. I’m often perplexed as to why a foreword or introduction or a foreshadowing of the arguments is at the front, when it would be more meaningful at the end of the book. However, even though I have often criticized the insertion of the historian as an actor into his/her text, I do like to know where the historian is coming from. It seems to me that this is the information that is best placed in an introduction, rather than at the end of the text.

And so, flipping to the back of the book, I find that Boyce explains that

A more direct source for this book was my research on the Australian frontier…When I began to read histories of the Fens, I was struck by some largely unacknowledged similarities with the colonial frontier. Here too was a multi-faceted defence of country, a transformation of the land, the introduction of foreign settlers and a confrontation between two worlds. While researching Australian history, I began to wonder, did the fact that the Fens was part of England justify such a radically different approach to writing its past?

p.198

So this is the approach that he takes: that even though the Fens are physically located in England, they were colonized just as lands across the globe had been. The Fens, he explains, are not a precise location, given that the creeks and waterways that constitute them have always been an ever-changing phenomenon. His maps at the start of the book show locations in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. (I must confess that these names mean little to me, as other than a trip to Cambridge, I have never been there). More interestingly, he adopts his own name for the people who live there by creating the term “Fennish”. He points out that even though they may not have seen themselves as a discrete people, their sense of unity was strengthened once the process of dispossession began.

Resisting imperialism helped create a shared identity for diverse groups of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians as it did for the people of the Fens.

p. xviii

He also identifies them a ‘indigenous’ people: a term we generally associate with over-the-seas colonialism. They were people intimately knowledgeable about the liminal relationship between water and land.

All cultures undergo times of upheaval as well as long periods of evolution. What characterises an indigenous culture is neither its uniformity nor immutability, but that it remains rooted in country as it experiences continuity and change.

p. xix

So he traces the unique, watery, changeable geography of the marshes of the Fens from 4000 years ago. The Romans were experienced drainers, and they constructed canals and dams which became integrated into a local creation myth about a race of giants. After the Roman withdrawal, the Fens were portrayed by the Church as an inhospitable and unpopulated land. It was this reputation for unhealthiness and a combination of direct resistance, accommodation, adaptation and deal-making that meant that the Fennish survived Roman, Saxon and Viking conquests. (p. 15) Most of the Fens remained common land after the Norman conquest, although many new religious houses were established, extending their presence through priories, hermitages and shrines. This monastic expansion provided economic opportunities through an abundance of fish, waterfowl shellfish, eels and most importantly, grass. There was a high proportion of small farmers, and the size and abundance of the commons ensured that the Fennish could make a communal living.

‘The Commons’ were fundamental to Fennish life, but they were always under threat, first from monasteries, then from the social and religious flux associated with the Reformation. Under the Stuarts there were grand plans for draining the marshes, particularly drawing on Dutch expertise. Oliver Cromwell at first championed the rights of the Fennish, only to himself become a champion of enclosure and drainage once he became Protector. The passing of the Enclosure Bill in 1767 led to the clearing out of ‘squatters’ backed by the power of the state, as with the Highland Clearances in Scotland, facilitated by the legal ‘fix’ described in E.P, Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters.

What seemed to spell the end for the Fens was not political power alone, but also technological change. The Industrial Revolution spawned new technologies, but the relative isolation of the Fens ensured that Fennish culture survived through ongoing resistance, deployment of the courts, and fightback. Drainage and enclosure of the Fens took hundreds of years because of the success of this resistance. It was World War II and its food shortages and the devastating floods in 1947 and 1953 that accelerated government-funded projects to drain the fens. Big, capital-intensive engineering schemes were prompted by heavily subsidized farm prices after Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. Indeed, “The landscape was as comprehensively transformed between 1950 and 2000 as at any corresponding period in history” (p.180)

That might seem to be the end of the story, except that the land has had its own silent, inexorable regeneration. Climate change and subsidence means that the land is again being inundated, and restoration projects are under way.

In his postscript Boyce points out that just because the Fennish were English did not shield them from a process of colonization on British soil, as distinct from American or Australian soil.

The Fennish story is an integral part of the troubled history of the imperial age. As elsewhere in the empire, an indigenous people fought the land grab through every means available to them, including force, until the subversive power of the modern state and the technological power of the Industrial Revolution achieved what seemed to be a final victory

p.190

It is this bi-focal approach to colonization, seeing it as a process wielded in Britain and well as by Britain that is the real strength of this book, prompted by Boyce’s deep engagement with Indigenous history here in Australia. I must confess as an Australian reader, I found myself wishing that I knew more British history and geography. In his acknowledgments Boyce refers to Graham Swift’s Waterland, and for me, this fictional book helped me to fill in the imaginative gaps. Boyce is an incisive and economical writer, carefully attuned to landscape and ecology, continuity and change. His book is only small, but it makes an argument about colonization and resistance with its feet planted in two different, widely separated continents.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 26-31 March 2021

The History Listen (ABC). How could they have a program on The Lost Boys of Daylesford, and only mention my friend Kim Torney and her book Babes in the Bush in passing? I kept expecting her voice to come bursting out of my earbuds but, no. This episode The Lost Boys of Daylesford focuses on three little boys- and they were little with the eldest just six- who disappeared around Daylesford in 1867. Certainly the local tourism industry there is making that sure they are no longer forgotten.

Fifteen Minute History. The episodes of Fifteen Minute History often go a bit longer, as happened with The History of the US-Mexico Border Region where C.J. Alvarez discusses his book Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide (2019). Even though most of us are aware of ‘The Wall’, he examines three other large construction projects in the borderlands, which are less well known. The first involves remote army patrol roads, built in 1910s in the midst of the Mexican Revolution (deployment of troops peaked in 1917- eight times as many as are there today); the second is the project to straighten the Rio Grande in the Rio Grande Rectification Project; the third is Amistad Dam completed in 1969 built as a joint project by Mexica and America. He doesn’t speak of THE border, but the border region. ‘The Wall’ was started in the 1990s and ramped up in 2006, but it accompanied by an equally large project to built infrastructure to support the movement of goods under the Free Trade agreement. He points out that in terms of projects to prevent border crossings, the projects to prevent animals from crossing were always more locally oriented (to work out where the animals were getting through) compared to projects to prevent people from crossing which were often national projects and ignorant of local geography.

Rear Vision (ABC) During the COVID lockdown, my suburb lost its local paper. It has not returned. Talk about “don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”. Sure, it was full of advertising and soft news, but at least it was local, and at least it was ours. It has really hobbled our ability at the local Historical Society to document current events, so that we can locate them again in the future. How the death of local news is destroying democracy looks at the effect of the loss of a local paper, not only socially but politically. It worries me that local council is no longer reported on, and that ‘news’ is now just ‘publicity.’

Latin American History After just escaping Tenochitlan with the remnants of his troops, Cortez lay low for a while, working out how to retake the city. In Episode 44 The Conquest of Mexico Part 8 he could let smallpox do its work in Tenochitlan, while besieging the city for three months to weaken the Aztecs further. He then could return to Tenochitlan and take the city, which the Spaniards maintained until the War of Independence in the 19th century. Although certainly Tenochitlan was the jewel of the Aztec empire, he only actually controlled a sliver of territory at this stage.

Kerning Cultures This is a Middle Eastern podcast from UAE- in English of course! The episode Flagged and Stamped looks at two markers of national identity: the flag and postage stamps. First it tells the story of the Iraqi flag- did you know that the ‘God is Great’ lettering on the flag during Saddam Hussein’s time was written in his own handwriting? Sure enough, the Americans weren’t too happy with that, so the font was changed and eventually the three stars that signified the aspiration that Egypt, Syria and Iraq would form a united block were removed too. The second part of the podcast looks at stamps in the UAE (formerly known as the trucial states because of a truce with UK). An American stamp entrepreneur (who knew there was such a thing) called Finbar Kenny contracted with the northern trucial states to issue thematic stamps for collectors. They were virtually worthless because there were so many of them- they are called ‘Dunes’. Once the emirates became independent, Kenny moved his business on to the Cook Islands instead.

Con subtítulos en español: Función de Noche (Night Function) 1981

This one really stretched me.It felt a bit like a stage play, with a long-separated couple raking over the ashes of their failed marriage. There was a lot of dialogue, and I frequently had to stop to look up words. But it was brilliantly acted, especially the female lead Lola Herrera – in fact, I don’t know if it even was acted, because the actors played themselves. It felt like a constructed documentary. Perhaps I should have watched it with the English subtitles instead.

‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donaghue

2020, 291p.

One of the closest historical parallels to our current COVID pandemic is the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic of 1918-20. The publication date of this book, commenced prior to COVID, was brought forward, no doubt to respond to this renewed interest in how a society deals with a world-wide rapidly-spreading illness, especially in Western industrialized settings. The book is set in Dublin during November 1918, just prior to the announcement of the armistice, when the flu was raging. It is set in a small quarantine ward for expectant mothers in a large hospital that is being over-run with influenza cases, at a time when many women would still have given birth at home had they not been suffering from influenza at the time.

I must confess that I guiltily enjoy the odd episode of “Call the Midwife”, and the prospect of a book about a midwife working during the influenza pandemic appealed to me. I studied the ‘Spanish’ flu in some detail a couple of years back, albeit at a very local level here in my own suburb, and I was interested in a fictional account. However, this book combines many themes – possibility too many themes – including Irish involvement in the British war, Sinn Fein, the Catholic Church mothers and babies homes, lesbian love, as well as childbirth practices and the influenza pandemic. Clearly Donoghue has done her homework on all these topics, and the research lays heavily over the story. It is overly didactic in places, and as a reader you tend to feel “told” much of the time.

SPOILER ALERT

The book is set over only three days in the small ward for expectant mothers in a hospital completely stretched by the influenza pandemic. Sister Julia Powell, who is just about to turn thirty, lives with her brother who has returned from the warfront, struck mute with shell shock. She is the day nurse in this small ward, turning her patients over to the care each night of Sister Luke, a harsh and rigid nun from the nearby convent. With their resources stretched by influenza cases, she welcomes a new volunteer to the ward, a young girl called Bridie Sweeney who comes from the same convent as Sister Luke. In these three days, both birth and death hover around this small ward, as Julia and her untrained assistant deal with a string of obstetric emergencies, with the fleeting attendance of Dr Katherine Lynn, a real-life doctor, who had been arrested for her Sinn Fein activities.

Even though I was frustrated by the ongoing presence of the author’s research that encrusted the story, I also found that I was completely engrossed in the book. Birth-stories have their own narrative shape – perhaps it’s the Call the Midwife effect – and the small anteroom seemed like a self-contained if somewhat claustrophobic little world, set against larger historical forces. The ending seemed a little melodramatic, and given the depth of information conveyed about influenza, the frightening rapidity of onset was underplayed, given that it is a major plot development. Nonetheless, it kept me reading late into the night.

My rating: Difficult to say – I was engrossed with it, but frustrated by the clumsiness in inserting the research into the narrative. Let’s go with 8/10?

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-25 March 2021

The Forum (BBC). People really must have put up with a lot of pain before modern dentistry. I’m such a wimp in my old age that just the thought of having a feeling without a needle now makes me feel quite faint (even though most of my early fillings were done without anesthetic because my mother, who was paying the bill, didn’t believe in needles “now that drills are so fast”). Adventures with dentures: The story of dentistry is fascinating. Makes you glad to be alive in the 21st century

Rear Vision (ABC) Now that the COVID supplement is coming to a close, the government has given a risible $4.00 a day increase to the Jobseeker allowance. (The name has changed from Newstart – which was always a false promise- to Jobseeker – just to remind the recipients that they’re looking for a job) The struggle for work – why are the unemployed expected to live below the poverty line looks at the history of unemployment benefits.

Saturday Extra (ABC) I haven’t yet read Judith Brett’s essay in the Monthly (because I am so behind in reading The Monthly) but she talks about her essay here and perhaps I won’t have to. In Our Universities, the Humanities, Our Society she had this old humanities-loving-baby-boomer nodding her head in agreement. Then there was a fascinating piece on Wikipedia turns 20. Apparently one of the biggest threats to Wikipedia now is that people just look at the Google ‘snippet’ and don’t both going to the article. So, there’s a belated New Years Resolution- go to the article.

Heather Cox Richardson. I’m not sure if her series on Reconstruction finishes here or not. On February 26 she starts off with a good summary of the ground that she has covered over the past few weeks (and I was thinking that if you were joining the series here, this would be a good place to start – but if it’s the end, then don’t bother!) She talks about how the South became solidly Democrat (until Barry Goldwater) and in effect a one-party state. The Republicans in the north were pretty dodgy, adding states to keep power, even though there almost certainly wasn’t the population to sustain it. She finishes with the Wilmington coup of 1898 which was, until recently, America’s only coup.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Shuggie Bain’ to….

This month I have actually read Shuggie Bain the book that starts off this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Look at the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website but essentially, Kate chooses a starting book, then you link other titles that spring to mind.

I know that Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize, but I found it reminding me a lot of Angela’s Ashes. I read Angela’s Ashes long before I started blogging and it was certainly a best-seller when it was published in 1996. It wasn’t eligible for the Booker Prize at the time because the author was American, and I don’t know if it would have won it if it were. However, it’s one of the few books that I have read twice, drawn in when flicking through the pages one day.

A similar book is Kevin Kearn’s Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History. In my review, I likened it to ‘Angela’s Ashes: The Documentary’ because many of the same themes emerge. There are some introductory chapters that explain the rise of the tenement and a chapter that encapsulates many of the themes that are repeated in the oral histories that follow. The book was a bit repetitive, but it was interesting social history.

Another social history/memoir is Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An intimate history, written by a woman who grew up in the Birmingham housing estate at Chelmsley Wood in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though It is mainly a historical approach, interwoven with her own experience, with closing chapters that bring us up to the present day.

A more frightening aspect of living in an apartment tower is found in Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas. Set in present-day Venezuela, a young journalist who has returned to Caracas after her mother dies, finds her apartment taken over by a female-led gang. It is poignant and frightening to see a formerly-wealthy country spiralling into collapse and lawlessness.

At least the people in The Death of Vishnu by Mani Suri could leave their apartment building in Mumbai. But in doing so, they had to encounter their aging, alcoholic houseboy who lay dying on the steps. We move from apartment to apartment as the residents bicker over what to do with the dying Vishnu.

Now, could you get further away from a Mumbai apartment building than a grand old English house? (Well, actually, possibly the grand old English house was purchased with money made in India, as William Dalrymples The Anarchy shows us). But it’s not the building, but the idea of an old servant, Stevens, that makes me mentally link these two books. The book won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

I started with one Booker Prize winner, and finished with another. I’ve gone from Scotland to Ireland to England, to Caracas, to Mumbai, and back again to England. What an exhausting trip!

Con subtítulos en español: El crimen de Cuenca (1979)

Based on a true story, this film is set in 1910 when two men are accused of the murder of another man in their village. There is no body and no evidence and at first the case lapses, with the man declared only “missing”. Two years later, a new judge arrives in town and despite their “vehement denials”, the two men are arrested and tortured. This was pretty violent – especially when I had to keep looking to read the subtitles to see what they were screaming. Anyway, eventually the missing man turned up after the two men had narrowly escaped execution to serve many years in jail. It was a good film but (shudder) too violent for me. It is a very famous film, and was originally banned for two year, even though it was a democratic government at that time. Once it was released it achieved great success.

‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart

2020, 430 p.

******SPOILER ALERT******

When Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize, I had heard of neither the book, nor the author. Having just completed The Shadow King, which was also shortlisted, I thought that the winner must have been an outstanding candidate to top Maaza Mengiste’s book. Now having finished the ultimate winner, I feel a little disappointed. It’s not that Shuggie Bain is not a good book: it is. It’s well written and will stick in your mind for some time after reading it. But it’s a little too much Angela’s Ashes for me (again- well-written and memorable but not Booker Prize material, not that it was eligible at the time), and I wonder if Stuart will be able to move beyond books steeped in his own experience. Time will tell, I suppose.

The book is a thinly disguised autobiography. Shuggie Bain is the youngest of three children, always fastidious and conscious of appearance. The woman whose appearance meant most to him was his mother, Agnes, whose attention to her dress, hair and makeup masked increasingly futile attempts to disguise her alcoholism. As the youngest and rather effeminate child, there was an intimacy between Shuggie and his mother as they slept and bathed together, and chose outfits together. Increasingly Shuggie became familiar (in a non-sexual way) with her body as he undressed her and put her to bed in yet another drunken stupor.

The book is set in a Glasgow ravaged by Thatcher’s economic policies. It is circular in its narrative, starting and finishing in a bedsit on the South Side (of Glasgow) in 1992, then backtracking to Sighthill 1981 where Shuggie is living in his maternal grandmother’s house with his parents Big Shug and Agnes. In 1982 Big Shug moves his wife, daughter Catherine and two sons Leek and Shuggie to Pithead, a former mining village that has been closed under Thatcher’s economic rationalism. He then promptly leaves the family. By 1989 Shuggie and his mother move to the East End, his older siblings having escaped the continuous degradation and betrayal caused by their mother’s drinking. By 1992, in the final section of the book, Agnes is no longer Shuggie’s burden.

And burden she is. She drinks through the Monday and Tuesday social security money as soon as she receives it. She breaks into the various meters attached to the utilities in a user-pays society to scrounge change. She goes out with men- too many men- and uses her body to get the money to drink. There is too much vomit and too many sprawled bodies. That one bright year when she finally breaks free of her addiction is even more tragic for how it ends. She is in no place or state to respond to her children’s needs. Near the end, when she has spent all the money and without a single bite of food in the house, she deflects Shuggie’s complaints of hunger by scoffing that at least he gets a free lunch at school. Not so. Shuggie is being bullied, and his lunch passes are extorted from him.

For Shuggie has his own needs and his own problems. Identified by everyone- his own family, neighbours, other students – as ‘not right’, he is struggling with his own sexuality. He would have stood out as a figure of fun. As a five-year-old, just moved into the Pithead house, he interrupts his mother as she is meeting the neighbours- a toxic scrabble of vicious women who congregate around the fence gossiping and bitching- to express his dissatisfaction with their new house.

The front door opened again, and Shuggie came out on to the top step. Without addressing the women he turned to his mother and put his hands on his hips; he trust a foot forward and said as clear as Agnes had ever heard him speak, “We need to talk. I really do not think I can live here. It smells like cabbages and batteries. It’s simply unpossible.” (p.101)

p.101

Despite his older brother Leek’s attempts to get him to walk in a more masculine way by ‘not being so swishy’ and making ‘room for your cock’ (p.152), Shuggie is a target and he suffers.

‘Social services’ is remarkably absent in this book. This is no surveillance state: instead it is a state of neglect. Would Shuggie have been better off, removed from his mother? No, I don’t think so. She is the centre of his world – too much- but his sense of obligation and persistence in keeping on hoping, keeping her sober, catching her beauty, lies at the core of his existence. Other people just drop away- his own siblings, his grandparents, his own father, her partner – none of them can withstand the selfishness and energy-draining repetition of Agnes’ drunkenness. An illness, yes, but one for which it is hard to have sympathy.

Why do I feel short-changed with this book as a Booker Prize winner? It is a long book at 430 pages, and it feels every bit of it without actually moving far (which is of course, a function of the stuck-ness of Agnes and her family). It tells a narrative well, its use of dialogue is good, the emotional tenor of Shuggie’s bond with his mother is nuanced, and Stuart imagines himself sensitively into Agnes’ befuddled mind. It is all of these things, but for me it didn’t have the literary heft that I would want a Booker Prize winner to have. It is, at heart, a misery memoir, self-contained within its own world. A worthy short-list contender, but for me not ‘winner’ material.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Con subtítulos en español: Las Cosas del Querer (1989)

(The Things of Love)

Instituto Cervantes has been featuring a number of films that star Angela Molina. This year she has been awarded the Goya Prize of Honour by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was born in 1955 and made her film debut in 1975. She is still making films, now as an “older woman”.

But she played a younger role in this 1989 film, set in Franco’s Spain. What a dour, bleak society that was- especially for women. She plays a singer, Pepita, who performs with the very handsome Mario. She is in a violent, unhappy relationship with their pianist Juan. Mario yearns for a relationship with Juan (I have no idea why), but Juan is not interested. Mario embarks on a string of casual relationships with other men, which eventually ends in tears.

There was a lot of singing in the movie, but the music didn’t particularly appeal to me. For some reason, it reminded me a bit of Cabaret. It had English and Spanish subtitles on Vimeo.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 March 2021

Rear Vision (ABC) Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days have been referenced several times by Joe Biden. Unlike Biden, Roosevelt had sizeable majorities in both houses, and although he didn’t get everything he wanted, there was more willingness to cross party lines to pass legislation. His initial bill to stop the run on the banks was passed quickly and set him up for further success, much as a successful vaccination program would do for Biden. Although Roosevelt didn’t really know what he was going to do, he knew that he had to do something and he surrounded himself with experts.

The Last Archive. Yesterday I was sitting at the railway station with my 5 year old granddaughter, and she asked if the lady making the announcements was actually in the railway station. Of course, she wasn’t as she is an automatic recording, scheduled fifteen and then one minute before the train arrived. I thought of the disembodied women when listening to Jill Lepore’s The Invisible Lady episode. It’s a wide-ranging podcast, starting with the gimmicky ‘Invisible Lady’ who was put on display in New York in 1804, moving to Emily Dickenson (“I’m nobody, Who are You?….”), the Warren and Bradeis Right to Privacy doctrine, H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man book and subsequent movie, and ending up with Siri and Alexa and other disembodied female voices.

History Extra. This episode 1962:London’s Big Freeze was really good, and it has spurred me to buy (yes, buy!) the book. Between Boxing Day 1962 and the first week of March 1963 – three months!!!!– England was plunged into freezing temperatures. The author Juliet Nicolson looks at this period in her book Frostquake. Written prior to this current lockdown, it tells of a different sort of lockdown with any similarities – transport paralysis, public events cancelled, schools closed etc. It also examines other events of the time: the Beatles, Profumo, the Cuban Missile Crisis etc.

Heather Cox Richardson took a week off from her ‘Reconstruction’ series of podcasts because Trump’s second impeachment was being debated, but she returned on February 19 to discuss the way that women, after the war, found themselves sidelined after the 14th Amendment the the Minor v Happersett decision. So they reframed their identities as “mothers of the nation”, and used the education they had gained from the colleges that had opened since the war to present evidence of the working/living conditions of women.