‘Oil Under Troubled Water’ by Bernard Collaery

collaery_oil

466 p. 2020

This blog post is actually an amalgam of two blog posts. The first one explained why I didn’t finish reading this book. This second post is written after I gritted my teeth and did finish it after all.

I’ve become more interested in international politics over the last twenty years. This interest was spurred by my outrage at the oleaginous Alexander Downer’s airy dismissal of concerns about Australia’s behaviour over East Timorese oil resources, waving off the whole question as a merely a matter for foreign aid, rather than principled policy. I decided then that I needed to know more about the world around me.

I still feel that way, particularly about East Timor and West Papua. I watched a Readings ZOOM session where former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks launched this book and decided that I should read it. Bracks describes it in a blurb on the front cover as “Essential, if difficult, reading for all Australians”. I assumed that it was difficult from a moral/political point of view (which it is), but for me it is difficult because of the way it is written. It is very detailed : nearly 400 pages of very dense foreign policy with different departments and diplomats and acronyms. It’s a lawyer writing, not a historian, and fact after fact is rammed through, lest nothing be left out. This is a real insider’s book, for someone who already knows the lie of the land and the big picture. That reader is not me.

Bernard Collaery is a former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory and worked for many years as legal counsel to the government of East Timor. He makes no secret of his admiration for and allegiance to Xanana Gusmao, the first President and fourth Prime Minister of the newly-independent East Timor. The black and white photographs sprinkled through the book, often including the author, show that he is not just a commentator but a participant in the events. In May 2018 he was charged by the Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act of 2001, introduced in the wake of September 11. He, and Witness K, a former senior ASIS agent, have been effectively gagged over a claim that ASIS had bugged the offices of the East Timorese team during negotiations over Timor Sea oil.

This, then, is a history of Australia’s dealings with East Timor and Indonesia over the oil resources- and more importantly, the helium reserves- in the Timor Sea. It moves chronologically, but it is a lawyer’s argument rather than a historian’s. However, as a historian, I learned much: about the way that England’s treaty with Portugal affected how England wanted to hide behind Australia in taking action in Timor during WW2; the strategic importance of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic for British defence and hence its concerns about getting Portugal offside over Timor; about the Whitlam and later Fraser government assumptions that Indonesia would take over East Timor, in preference to independence. In Collaery’s telling, Australia’s foreign policy reached its high point with H.V. Evatt, and from then on has been underhand and coercive, and largely and inexplicably beholden to the petroleum industry (although, as he points out, Alexander Downer’s almost immediate employment by Woodside Petroleum is telling).

Australia does not come well out of this. The Australian government was quick to act when the new nation of Timor Leste was just finding its feet; it has played hard ball with questionable geological and cartographic ‘facts’ , and yet ineptly managed to lose the benefits of the ‘inert’ helium commodity not only for Timor Leste but for Australia itself.

I did manage to finish this book, but I found it very hard to read. Inexplicably, there is no map until page 362 and in a book that bristles with acronyms, there is no glossary.  It is meticulous, with every fact noted, but it groans under the weight of so much detail. My gut feeling all those years ago was that Australia was acting like a bully, and this book only confirmed it further.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-30 June

Heather Cox Richardson.  I really am enjoying her ‘chats’ (which are an hour long- she has a lot to say!) In her History of the Republican Party Part II  she talks about the relationship between Lincoln’s view of equality and the economics of the Civil War. In order to provide what the people wanted (as distinct from what the oligarchs deemed to give them), income tax was introduced to provide a source of income when many of the eastern seaboard ports were confederate controlled. In a way, this was a bit of a repetition of her history of income tax in last week’s History and Politics Chat.

In the History and Politics Chat of June 23rd she talks about the history of policing. She points out that in the north, policing had its roots in maintaining public order while in the south it was based on slave patrols.  Police forces became corrupted by their ownership by the city municipal bodies; eventually they broke through to become professionalized, then went to the other extreme by taking on ‘scientific techniques’ which saw a lot of people jailed incorrectly.  Then she went on to talk about newspapers. At first newspapers, in their four pages, provided ‘what an educated man needed to know’;  but from the 1840s onwards became increasingly partisan. The Fairness Doctrine of the 1920s, which insisted on the presentation of both sides of an argument, was repealed under Reagan in the 1980s, leading us to our current phenomenon of Fox ‘news’ (which is entertainment, not news). She finishes with a question about women in the political sphere, pointing out that under 2nd wave feminism in the 1970s there were women in politics and as journalists. Her most recent book How the South won the Civil War ends with the hope that women, by voting differently to men, will rescue America from Trump.

The Music Show. Does the world really need a three volume opus on the Beatles? Mark Lewisohn’s ‘The Beatles: All These Years – Volume 1 – Tune In’ is a 1000 page book, with two others yet to go. I think that this program The Beatles- the early years was recorded a few years back, but it’s well worth a listen. Lewisohn is a historian as well as a fan, and so he has written a fascinating social history of 1950s Liverpool, which includes a consideration of the 1944 Education Act (which made a grammar school education available to bright children) and the abolition of national service (which freed the Beatles to go to Germany as 18 year olds) as influences on the Beatles. They play some really unusual tracks during the program too.

 

 

‘The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

Mantel_mirror_light

2020 875 p.

What does one say at the end of this almost 900 page conclusion to a trilogy? Just as I felt at the end of reading War and Peace, how could it be fair to turn to another fiction book straight away?

I purchased this book when I realized that the coronavirus lockdown was going to extend for weeks, if not months. I had intended reading it straight away, having already read (and loved) Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but for the first weeks of the lockdown I felt too unsettled. Now that the doors are being opened again, and life is starting to resemble pre-coronavirus reality again, I realized that I might not have such an encumbered expanse of time to throw myself into such a long book and so I opened it up….

I must confess that I did find it hard to get back into, in spite of its compelling opening pages. That distinctive present-tense narrative viewpoint from a perch on Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder takes you immediately back to the earlier books but it still took me some time to get used to the “He, Cromwell,…” construction again. By 100 pages in, though, I was hooked again and found myself sitting up in bed at 1.30 to finish the last pages. How did Mantel manage to do this? After all, we all know how the story ends, and her fidelity to the history precludes any post-modern trickery at the end. You just know, through the consistency across all three books, that this is a carefully researched book and yet, with the exception of the occasional recitation of lists of food, Mantel does not labour its accuracy or parade her research.

While Bring Up the Bodies dealt with only a nine-month period, this book spans May 1536 to July 1540, starting Anne Boleyn’s beheading and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour and ending with Thomas Cromwell’s imprisonment in the Tower, facing execution. There were quite a few flashbacks, especially to Wolf Hall, in this book. I’m not sure whether that was to reinforce the unity between the three books, and to draw the narrative arc more strongly, or whether perhaps it reflected the tendency we (well, I, anyway) have with age to look to past events and now-absent people as a way of connecting where I am right now with the experience of getting here.

You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbor’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for…

Within the constraints of the historic record, I loved the way that she laid out the narrative points so carefully. The trilogy starts and ends with the kicking he received from his father: this particular book starts and ends with a beheading. Very skillfully, she foreshadows the wives that are to come, after Thomas’ death.

Even though it could not have been her intention (given that she started on this project 15 years ago) I found myself drawing parallels with current day events. The acolytes of the  mercurial, prickly clown in the White House would need every one of Cromwell’s skills of soothing, distracting and evading- and, as we have seen, many of them have been sacked when they failed. Dominic Cummings in UK could be perceived as Boris’ Cromwell: seen as too powerful by an elite disgruntled at his power who want him removed.

In Mantel’s unreservedly sympathetic rendering of Cromwell, the few places where he actually voiced his ambition to take over as vice-regent came as a shock to me. More dismaying was the clear maneuvering of the noble families against him, the betrayal of one of his closest associates and the manipulation of events that you had read about previously to be used against him. I felt sick with dread at the thought of torture, and the interplay between him and his inquisitors is deft.

I listened to a podcast where actors read excerpts from all three books. It made me regret that I always read silently without subvocalizing, and therefore missed out on hearing the beauty of Mantel’s language. I’m not a great audiobook fan, but if you had the long stretch of hours required to devote to it, this would be a beautiful book to have read aloud to you.

So, is it going to win the Booker Prize again? I really don’t know how you could go past the beautifully crafted language, the distinctive “He, Cromwell” voice,  and the depth of research. Many writers have written of Henry and his six wives, but by shifting her gaze to the side, Mantel has brought us a new Henry and fleshed out and made human that square, dour figure at his side.

My rating: a big fat 10

Sourced from: Eltham Bookshop.

Six Degrees of Separation: from What I Loved to….

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. To find out more about this meme, check out Books are My Favourite and Best where all will be explained.

what-i-lovedSo, the starting book is Siri Husdvedt’s What I Loved. I could have sworn that I have read this book, but I have no record of it at all, and when I read the synopsis it doesn’t sound familiar either. But I gather that it starts off with an art historian and a painting, so that leads me to….

 

sittersAlex Miller’s The Sitters which is about an aging portrait painter and his young portrait subject, a visiting academic. It’s only a small book, and like much of Miller’s work, it has layers under its apparent simplicity. Talking about sitting for a portrait leads me to…..

 

thelongingCandace Bruce’s The Longing, which has a dual narrative: one set in the mid 19th century where a young indigenous woman working as a domestic servant in one of those large Western Districts homesteads, observes her mistress’ infatuation with a visiting portrait painter, and a second narrative where 150 years later an art historian visits the same homestead to make a significance assessment of a portrait kept by the family in their now-decayed mansion.  That Western Districts of Victoria setting takes me to….

kiddle_menofyesterdayMargaret Kiddle’s Men of Yesterday: A social history of the Western District 1834-1890. This book, written in 1961, is written by a daughter of the Western District herself, celebrating the white settlement of western Victoria. Its reverence for ‘settlement’  and ancestral pride, without considering the theft of indigenous lands, does not sit well today but it is beautifully written by a young historian who died before it was published. Another historian who discovered Margaret Kiddle’s work was Maggie Mackellar, who used it in writing her own work on Western Districts squatter Niel Black. I haven’t read that work, but I did read Maggie Mackellar’s memoir which led me to….

Whenitrains

When it Rains, Maggie’s memoir of packing up after a family tragedy to return to her grandparent’s property in outback New South Wales. She steps into small town life, while continuing to write through her grief, which she expresses as a series of short chapters, acting as a voyeur in her own life, circling around the pain. The isolation of pain and grief leads me to….

bereftChris Womersley’s Bereft, set during the influenza epidemic of 1919, when Quinn Walker returns from the Western Front of WWI to his childhood home. There is no grand home-coming for him because he had fled his hometown ten  years earlier, when he was accused of a rape, and had been reported dead on the front.. Realizing that his mother is very sick with influenza, he approaches the house when his father is absent, and speakers with his mother, who thinks she is hallucinating. The setting of the book during Australia’s influenza epidemic leads me to….

Spinney_paleriderLaura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world  is  a global account of the influenza pandemic that reached Australia in 1919. It is well researched and fascinating. She focuses on the disease, its manifestations and the scientific response, but she also interweaves this with a consciousness of how the experience of suffering and recovering from the flu leached out into music and literature in the succeeding decade.

How odd. I seem to have spent quite a bit of time in Australian literature this time, with only my book-end books set internationally.

 

 

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 June

Heather Cox Richardson continues on with her Facebook chats, although now they are on her You Tube Channel as well. On her History Channel, she is now talking about the History of the Republican Party, which she knows well because she wrote To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party in 2014, after a number of earlier books dealing with the Republican Party. In Part I she focuses on Abraham Lincoln. What a fascinating life! I guess that Americans just grow up with all this, but I knew nothing about his early life.

In her History and Politics Chat on June 16th dealt (at rather excessive length, I thought) on the history of taxation and whether Republicans or Democrats are responsible for increasing taxes. She points out that during Eisenhower (Republican), top bracket taxation was 95%! She then went on with a really interesting response to why all those Confederate statues were erected between the 1890s-1920s (an expression of white supremacy, she argues) and how to view any statue. She finishes off with the question of voter suppression and whether anything can be done to stop if (yes, she says, if Americans have the will to do so).

Talking Politics: History of Ideas is a program produced in conjunction with the London Review of Books, so it’s rather earnest and demanding. David Runciman (who I discovered on Start the Week last week) starts off the series with Thomas Hobbes 1651 book Leviathan, the book that Runciman feels began the modern state, written in the midst of the English Civil War. I’d heard of his description of life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’, but I didn’t realize that he was talking about life before men agreed to have one person (the sovereign, the government) to have complete authority so that they wouldn’t fight amongst themselves. Demanding, but interesting.

Nothing on TV. This is such a fun series. Robyn Annear (of Bearbrass fame) has used the quirky stories that can be found in the National Library of Australia’s TROVE newspaper collection as the basis for this fantastic podcast. It’s very fitting that she starts and finishes her podcast with the ‘pop’ of a wine cork, because Episode 4 Champagne and Anarchy is about the first Governor General of Australia, Lord Hopetoun and his curious friendship with anarchist ‘Chummy’ Fleming. Bound back ‘home’ for London, Lord Hopetoun decided to provide 100 pounds and 300 bottles of champagne for the unemployed of Melbourne to celebrate the crowning of Edward VII in June 1902. He handed the arrangements over to Chummy Fleming, who distributed the largesse over two days from his small bootmaker’s shop in Argyle Place Carlton. Really good- listen to it!

History Workshop. This episode Populism, the Left and progressive resistance dates from May 28, 2019 and I thought that it might have been overtaken by events and no longer worth listening to. Not true – D.D. Guttenplan is a journalist and historian, and in this podcast, he talks about the long, often subterranean thread of progressive politics. In this podcast, he mentions the presence at demonstrations of many grey-headed people who are there for every protest (something I have noticed too, as one of the grey-headed people. I was so pleased to see young people at the Black Lives Matter protests when we grey-heads were too frightened of COVID to attend). He talks about populism as a feeling of loss, and something that can be harnessed by the left as well as the right, and something can be beneficial as well as dangerous.

 

 

‘Friends and Rivals’ by Brenda Niall

Niall_friends_rivals

2020, 288 p.

In her most recent book Friends and Rivals, Brenda Niall has gone almost full circle. One of her early books was Seven Little Billabongs: The World of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce, published in 1979 and here she is, some forty years later with another group biography, this time linking “four great Australian writers”: Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer. This book is more a quartet of essays rather than one integrated study. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to speak of two twinned biographies, as she was able to pinpoint a documented link between Turner and Baynton,  and likewise between Richardson and Palmer in a literary quest of degrees-of-separation.

I have come across three of these writers over my lifetime. We did not have a lot of books in our house, but my mother did give me three books from her childhood. One of them was the 1935 Children’s Treasure House, a book of 768 pages on very thin paper, full of English stories and full-length fairy stories, with beautiful Art Deco black-and-white illustrations and colour plates.  In Australia, the rights were reserved by the Australian Women’s Weekly and it cost 5/- plus 1/- postage to buy a copy. I still have the one my mother owned.

The other books she gave me were her copies of  Family at Misrule and Flower O’ the Pine– long since gone (unfortunately, because they were first editions I see, although of no great value).  These were both written by Ethel Turner, and I loved them. I borrowed Seven Little Australians from the library as well, and I can remember being heartbroken when Judy died.  I was never a Billabong girl- only ever Ethel Turner.

In contrast, I only encountered Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies three years ago (my review here) and the stories are still etched in my mind, so different were they from the Bulletin/Lawson/Paterson nationalist bush stories of the turn of the twentieth century.  Elizabeth Webby’s introduction to the 1999 edition  really piqued my interest in this shape-shifting woman, whose final presentation of self was more fictional than her work was.

I read The Getting of Wisdom as a teenager, but was deterred from ever embarking on The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by a friend at the time who was made to read it at school (interestingly, she went to PLC – perhaps the school had forgiven HHR by then). She warned me that it was the most boring book ever written and to be avoided like the plague. I took her at her word, and did not read it until the summer of 2008, down at the beach. I just loved it, and it’s right up there on my list of favourite Australian novels.

Nettie Palmer I have only ever encountered as part of the two-for-one partnership of “Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer”, public intellectuals and champions of Australian literature. But I have encountered her often, through my interest in her uncle Henry Bourne Higgins, whose biography she was commissioned to write, and I’ve wanted to know more about her. In fact, it was Niall’s study of her that led me to read this book.

The book starts with an introduction ‘Women’s Work’, which I found a little lacklustre. The introduction didn’t explain why she chose these four women in particular (rather than others), because, as she points out, they did not make up a group, as such.

The lives of Turner and Baynton, Richardson and Palmer criss-crossed one another from the 1890s through the Federation period to the late 1920s. Their writing careers differ widely, as does the quality of their work. The writer of children’s books, the short story writer and the novelist, all were doing something new, as was Nettie Palmer, literary journalist and public intellectual. Their achievements, against the odds, were substantial and surprising. They didn’t make up a group; there were no groups for them to join. How did they do it?Each life story illuminates the others. (p. 10)

However, there were themes that arose her analysis of all four women. One such theme was that of reinvention. Ethel Turner was evasive about her childhood and parentage. There has never been documentary evidence of the man who was named as her father on her birth certificate, and she took the name of her stepfather, Henry Turner, a 39 year old widower with four sons and two daughters. Her mother had falsified both her own age, and the ages of her children. When Turner died her mother remarried quickly to Charles Cope, a bachelor ten years younger than her mother, and he was to take an unhealthy interest in his step-daughters. Niall observed that “Turner was strangely tolerant; it is as if she was blinkered to the sexual desire that he so plainly felt for her” (p. 35)

Barbara Baynton was even more evasive about her own history, giving her own family a completely fictional account of a Captain Robert Kilpatrick, who seduced Penelope Ewart away from her husband, and finally married her just before Barbara’s birth, thus rescuing her from illegitimacy.  No trace of this Captain Kilpatrick has been found. Instead, her father was a bush carpenter, and Barbara and her six siblings were all illegitimate, although her parents married later. She became a governess to the Frater family, close to Scone in NSW, and married her employer’s eldest son – shades here of My Brilliant Career. Her husband, however was a “shiftless, neglectful and unfaithful husband” (p.86) and she initiated divorce proceedings against her husband. She found security with her second marriage, to the elderly, wealthy Dr Thomas Baynton. Educated by her husband into the appreciation of furniture and porcelain, she took her place within Sydney social circles. When he died  in 1904, just after the publication of Bush Studies, he left her a substantial estate which she had a free hand in administering. She moved to London, and after WWI married Baron Headley, an eccentric peer but this was an unhappy marriage. When they divorced, she retained her title, and still had her money, and returned to Australia.

Henry Handel Richardson did not try to hide her background- indeed, she mined it heavily for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, but she did manipulate her name. Ethel Richardson adopted the name ‘Henry Handel Richardson’ with the publication of her first novel, Maurice Guest as a sort of game – would anyone detect it as a woman’s work? Although married to the scholar J. G. Robertson, no one was allowed to call her Mrs Robertson, going by ‘HHR’ and ‘Henry’ amongst family and friends.

Nettie Palmer was probably the most straight-forward of them all, with an open and uncomplicated liberal Melbourne upbringing. She happily took her husband’s name, and was happy to be known in tandem with him.

When it came to publication, the three writers turned their eyes to British publishing houses, as was common at that time. Ethel Turner was probably the most put-upon amongst the three, with her publishers demanding a Christmas book each year, setting her up in competition with Mary Grant Bruce, and changing the endings and pruning the plots so as not to alienate a Sunday School prize market.

Baynton was already in England when she started looking to publish the short stories she had written back in Sydney, but even with her husband’s position in society, she could not find a publisher. Then, in keeping with her already fantastical life, she had the fairy-tale luck to be rescued from the slush pile at Duckworth’s publishing company through Edward Garnett (husband of the famous translator Constant Garnett), who had also discovered Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy and D. H. Lawrence.  However, after this start, she struggled with her novel Human Toll, which received a few respectful reviews among mainly lukewarm ones.

Henry Handel Richardson began her first novel Maurice Guest while living in Strasbourg, and The Getting of Wisdom was also written and published overseas. Her husband took charge of most of the business side of publication, and was willing to pay for the publication of the third part of the Richard Mahony trilogy himself, when Heinemann rejected it. That volume,  ended up Ultima Thume being received with acclaim.

Most of Nettie’s work in reviewing books appeared in Australian newspapers and her survey of Australian writing in Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923  was published in Melbourne. She did, however, have a London publisher for her first book of poems The South Wind, followed by a second book of poetry in Shadowy Paths also published in London.

Another theme that comes through the essays is that of patronage and support. Both Barbara Baynton and Henry Handel Richardson had husbands whose interest and connections (and in Baynton’s case, money) supported their writing. Niall suggests that J.G. Robertson sacrificed his academic career for HHR’s writing success, and the incorporation of a young woman Olga Roncoronis into their household further left space for HHR’s own writing – (Niall leaves open the question of a sexual attraction between the two women). With Nettie Palmer, the tables were turned, with her assiduous promotion of her husband Vance’s work within literacy circles – a devotion which Niall feels to have detracted from her own career as critic.

A biography, if it is to be more than a chronology of facts and actions, is an argument or judgment, based on a reading of documents, conversations and actions. These are not necessarily accepted on their face value: sometimes they are ‘read against’ or set up in opposition to one another.  Especially when dealing with writers, there are not only the writer’s own works, and sometimes an autobiography written with varying degrees of deprecation or self-regard, but often there is also a body of correspondence with other writers, who in turn write to other writers. The retention of such correspondence is sometimes a matter of chance, at other times the target of ruthless culling or assiduous gate-keeping either by the author herself or her literary executors. For good or ill, these remaining letters are mined by biographers, giving them a life and significance far beyond the original intent.

The crafting of a biography as an argument is particularly apparent in a multi-essay volume like this one, where the same author deals with multiple and interlinked characters. Niall’s reading of Henry Handel Richardson is censorious, while she clearly admires Nettie Palmer and feels that she has not been sufficiently recognized as part of the Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer partnership. In dealing with Ethel Turner, she also examines the British-dominated publication culture of the day, and with Barbara Baynton she finds a paradox, interlaced with reinvention.  New material is always being uncovered, additional links discovered, and historical ‘turns’ invite historians and biographers to stand in a different place to re-evaluate their subjects. That is why there are no definitive biographies.

I admire Brenda Niall as a biographer. She is deft and efficient, and attuned to the nuances of relationships.  She paints a broad canvas for her subjects, but also hones in on details that give definition to her subjects, helping you understand why this particular person was distinctive.  That said, I was somewhat startled by the abrupt ending of this volume. In fact,  I felt a little short-changed by both the introduction and the absence of a conclusion. While I know that her focus is on her four subjects, I found myself wishing that Brenda Niall herself had come back on stage to draw out further the contrasts and commonalities in these four lives.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

aww2020

I have included this as part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2020

‘El Alquimista’ por Paulo Coelho

el_alquimista

1988, 177 p.

Yes, it’s The Alchemist, but it’s in Spanish, translated from the Portuguese by Montserrat Mila. I read this as part of my Spanishland course, so it’s at Intermediate level. For such a small book, it took quite a while to read.

The book is an allegorical tale about a young  Andalusian shepherd called Santiago (but often referred to as ‘the boy’) who sells his sheep after dreaming twice of finding treasure at the Pyramids. It’s a quest tale as he gets robbed repeatedly, meets people who further him on his journey, and finally ends up crossing the desert with the Alchemist, who gives him wise advice. Does he find his treasure?- well, you’ll have to read it yourself, in whatever language.

I must confess that the book was too new-agey and self-affirmational for me. It’s in the same genre as Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and those “wish for it and you’ll get it” type books.

But even in a language with which I am not particularly fluent, I could recognize that this was beautifully written, especially in its descriptions of the desert and in its telling of  falling in love with Fatima, the love of his life. Like most allegorical tales, it is simply told but it is not a children’s book at all.

‘Murder in Mississippi’ by John Safran

safran_murder_mississippi

2013,  368 p.

I’m not really sure how this book ended up on my bookshelves, because I’m not a great fan of John Safran and nor do I particularly like True Crime as a genre. I think that I received it as part of a subscription to Crikey, which has always given John Safran a fair bit of support.

So who is John Safran, you might ask? He’s a Melbourne-based satirist, radio personality and documentary maker who has made religion and race his stalking ground. He often pranks the people that he interviews, and it was indeed one of these very stunts that set him off in the year-long pursuit of this story of murder in Mississippi, very far from Melbourne.

As part of his ABC documentary series Race Relations he cultivated a friendship with white supremacist, Richard Barrett, and found himself surprised that he actually liked him more than he thought he would. After surreptitiously obtaining Barrett’s DNA, he was invited by Barrett to say a few words at the Spirit of America rally that Barrett had organized. Microphone in hand – and completely unknown to Barrett- he announced that the DNA test results showed that Barrett had Afro-American heritage. As Safran left the meeting, exulting at his victory and with barely a twinge of conscience, he did not divulge to the startled audience or Barrett that any detailed American DNA test would show a trace of Afro-American heritage. We never got to see this episode. When Barrett threatened legal action, they pulled the show.

However, Safran’s  nose for a good story twitched when he learned that Richard Barrett had been murdered by a young Afro-American teenager. And,so he took himself off to Mississippi to chase the story.

In the early statements given by the murderer, 22 year old Vincent McGee, he did not deny the murder or the attempted arson of Barrett’s house to cover his traces. He did, however, claim that Barrett had tried to hit on him, and that in a flash of rage he had stabbed him after Barrett had gone after him. However, when the case finally came to trial, he changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to 65 years jail. Why?

And this is what Safran is trying to find out. The trifecta of sex, race and power is a heady one, and Safran is not sure whether Barratt, McGee or both are exploiting it. He is drawn into McGee’s world, and it’s not clear just who is exploiting whom. Court files disappear; there are small deceptions that may mask larger ones; and the edges of the crime become murkier. Safran’s fantasy of being the journalistic avenger who is going to prove McGee’s innocence  soon disappears.

Reading this book was very much like listening to a podcast over about six episodes. That’s probably about how long it took me to read the book, and I’m not sure that there was any great advantage in reading it over listening to it: in fact, I think that it would be better as a podcast. There’s a lot of dialogue, and Safran’s narrative is very voice-over-ish. I didn’t really get a clear visual sense of the characters he features until I found the pictures in the middle of the book, and I often found myself trying to flip back to work out who was who (something that an index might have made easier).

I started this book just as the furore over George Floyd was spilling out into the streets across the world, including Australia. I had expected that I would be reading a book about injustice, but the book is not as clearcut as I expected it to be. It was well-received  and was awarded the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime in 2014. However, I think that I prefer my true-crime as a podcast.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my own bookshelves.

Essay: ‘Nine lives’ by Brenda Niall

https://insidestory.org.au/nine-lives/

How fitting that I should be reading Brenda Niall’s Friends and Rivals when this essay should pop up on Inside Story.

She talks about her most recent book, but also the other biographies she has written, all in the latter part of her career with the English Department at Monash University, then in retirement. She is fond of the group biography, which she used so well with The Boyds: A Family Biography and now in her most recent book about four Australian women writers between the 1890s and 1920s: Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer.  I admire Brenda Niall a great deal as a biographer.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 June 2020

Heather Cox Richardson has her own YouTube channel now.  She’s continuing with the Facebook chats (and in her History and Politics chat she explains why) and then posting them onto You Tube. Her History and Politics Chat of 26 May 2020 looks at the influence of the ‘Spanish’ flu on the November 1918 election (she doesn’t think it had that much influence); the question of whether Ford was right to pardon Nixon (she says no because it was a precedent for presidents being above the law- although she does note that Ford also pardoned ‘draft-dodgers’ who had fled to Canada, so it was supposed to be a ‘pardons for everyone’ gesture; and she finished off talking about propaganda.

The History and Politics Chat of 9 June 2020answered three questions 1. What happened to the Baby Boomers? Why didn’t they have more effect on society? (Her answer: after Goldwater’s defeat, the Movement Conservatives moved into more bread-and-butter local elected positions – school boards, text book boards etc- and exerted their influence on day-to-day life). 2. The creation of Washington D.C. (not very interesting for an Australian listener) 3. Why does Mitch McConnell have so much power in the Senate? (Because the Senate Republicans keep supporting him). And she finished off describing what a ‘doglicker’ was.

Her History Chat of 28 May is a break between her most recent book How the South Won the Civil War and her previous book about the history of the Republican Party. In this episode she looks at a letter purported to have been written by Jourdan Anderson to his former slave owner Col. P. H. Anderson on August 7, 1865. This was after Lincoln had been assassinated but before Congress reconvened. She reads the letter, then deconstructs it as a historian does. It’s a good example of historic method.

The Documentary (BBC) has been running its Lockdown series, but this is the last one. This seems strange given that the trajectory of the pandemic is still unknown. With the Lockdown series, they invite ordinary people to upload a recording via their phones, talking about how the lockdown has affected their day-to-day life. This episode Lockdown Tales from Panama and Brazil actually has input from more countries than these two, including Rwanda, Australia and America. In the American one, the caller is going to resist any further restrictions as an infringement on his constitutional rights. I wanted to kick him.

Another episode In my present isolation takes a very old-fashioned approach of asking six writers on different continents to physically write a chain letter, adding their own perspectives to what has been written previously. As you might expect, it’s beautifully expressed and it makes you regret even more that the art of letter writing has been replaced by emails and Twitter.

Start the Week (BBC) had an interesting discussion on a program called Our Coercive Politics, featuring David Runciman, presenter of a 12 part podcast series Talking Politics: History of Ideas and Ute Frevert, the author of The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History (which sounds really interesting). The discussion  ranges across the power of the state during the covid pandemic; Hobbes, Gandhi and Fanon; the power of humiliation; and George Floyd.

Outlook (BBC World) If you’re a millionaire who has climbed the highest peak on all the continents, done Antarctica etc. etc. what’s left to do? Go in a one-man submersible to the deepest part of the five oceans. That’s why Victor did in Voyage to the bitter deep. And what did they find there? The Titanic, and plastic.

Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue usually has some good segments. This old one How do we view James Cook 250 years later features historians John Gascoigne (writer of many works about navigation and the Enlightenment), Mark McKenna (recent Quarterly Essay: Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future) and Alison Page, artist, creative, Councillor at the National Maritime Museum and Chair of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence. They mentioned a book very much championed by the right (i.e. foreword by John Howard; praised by Keith Windschuttle; featured at the Sydney Institute) called Lying for the Admiralty by Margaret Cameron-Ash. In it, she argues that Cook didn’t miss Sydney Cove at all, but instead was following secret Admiralty orders to keep quiet about important discoveries for fear that the French would settle there  instead. I haven’t heard of this book, or any academic response to it.

Rear Vision Here I was, thinking that it was a new program-1929 Revisited– but instead it was first broadcast on 27 April 2008, after the GFC. Still, listening to the gyrations of the stock market on the news each night, inexplicably rising in the midst of Covid-19, it’s sobering to see that in the months leading up to October-November 1929, the share market was bobbing around then too.