Monthly Archives: December 2009

Miss D’s big New Year Celebrations

You might remember that I’ve snaffled myself a copy of Miss D and Miss N, edited by Bev Roberts.- and yes, you’re still waiting for a blogpost that reviews it.  So, how did Anne Drysdale see in the New Year?  Well, definitely her New Year celebrations on the ship out were the feistiest she wrote about!

January 3rd 1840- New Year celebrations

I feel very thankful that all the rejoicing days are over.  Monday the 30th December was the 6th anniversary of Mr and Mrs Gibson’s marriage.  On that account the Capt ordered a better dinner than usual & the gentlemen had an extra quantity of wine & grog.  The consequence was they all got tipsy.  Mr Baird very drunk.  There was a great deal of fighting.  Mr Clark &  the Dr. revived the subject of their duel, which they still intend shall take place when they get on shore.  The drinking this day was a beginning of what was so soon to follow on New Year’s morning, & such a scene that was!! The ship was running right before the wind at 7 1/2 knots.  Whenever 8 bells rung, intermediate & steerage passengers rushed into the cabin with bottles of spirits & all who were in their beds were roused out, then such a noise & drinking went on.  Passengers of all ranks & sailors fighting & flying about. It was fearful.

The 2nd mate was I believe the only sober man on board, mercifully the wind was aft & [the ship] drove before the wind as there was none to manage it. While it was yet dark one of the steerage passengers discovered a ship close to us.  The 2nd mate got a light put up & we escaped & have great reason to be thankful that all passed over without any serious accident.  Nearly all are cut and bruised more or less & their cloathes in tatters, but it might have been worse.  (p. 50)

Her partying days over,  and it’s God, church and work from here on:

1843 [January] Monday 2nd- strong resolutions

Yesterday wind variable, thunder & a little rain.  All went to church except myself. Made strong resolutions, with the grace of God, of amendment for the future.  This day fine, wind S. Men finished reaping wheat & oats.  Armstrong worked with pegs for hurdles & lounged Betty. Dr & Mrs Thomson & Jane came to dinner.  Capt. P… (p. 154)

Made strong resolutions, eh? Hah! don’t we all?

1844- Monday January 1st

Yesterday all went to the chapel, Mr Smith preached.  In the evening, Dr B gave us a beautiful & most impressive address on the necessity of being regenerated.  All the men & the shearers attended.  This day fine. Shearing lambs began. Robert gone to look for horses…  (p. 179)

1846 January 1st Thursday- An unfortunate day

Storm of thunder & lightning all day with heavy rain.  Ned kept holy day but rode to Corio to know if Mr Cunningham’s cattle had come.  Mr Sproat came to dinner.  Robert came up from the marsh & announced that Di was killed by the lightning.  Colin also died & 18 young turkeys & chickens were drowned in the pen. An unfortunate day… (p207)

No, I don’t know who Di and Colin are either.

1846 Thursday 31st [December]- All things richly to enjoy

Gloomy, hot & a little rain. Again we have come to the close of another year & by the blessing of God, are still surrounded with comforts & have all things richly to enjoy.  We have indeed much cause for gratitude.  May we continue to grow in grace & in love to God & our neighbours.  Ned & Robert jobbed, Moylan went. Henry remains. (p. 215)

And so say all of us.

Oh, alright then…

Everybody else is doing it, so here are my eleven top reads for 2009. Why eleven? Because I had three 10/10s, one 9.5/10 and the rest were 9/10 and it seemed churlish to omit one just to get to ten.  I notice that I haven’t read as much this year as in previous years- 53 compared to over 100 in other years.  I shall attribute this to actually doing some writing on my thesis (as distinct from reading away merrily in the meadows of literature) and an improvement in health in the second half of the year.  Both thoroughly good things.

So here they are, folks with links to the posts if I’ve written them:

1. Nam Le  The Boat 10/10

2. Leo Tolstoy War and Peace 10/10

3. Richard Holmes The Age of Wonder 10/10

4. Grace Karskens The Colony 9.5/10

5. Peter Godwin When a Crocodile Eats the Sun 9/10

6. Richard Flanagan Wanting 9/10

7. Kate Atkinson Case Histories 9/10

8. Louis Nowra Ice 9/10

9. F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby 9/10

10. E. P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters 9/10

11. Wendy Moore Wedlock 9/10

Not a bad little list, if I say so myself.  A few of the classics there- Tolstoy and Fitzgerald; three recent Australian fictions – Le, Flanagan and Nowra; and a historian/biographer or two- Thompson, Holmes, Karskens.

‘Document Z’ by Andrew Croome

2009, 345 p.

‘Document Z’ opens with an image instantly recognizable to Australians-of-a-certain age, even if we were not born at the time.  It’s the image of Evdokia Petrov on the tarmac of Mascot Airport, flanked by a burly man each side of her, clutching her handbag, hand across her chest as if she is heaving, with one shoe lost.  For those of us brought up in the black-and-white certainties of Menzies’ world, it captures the fear of the Communist enemy: that they’ll come and get you and hustle you onto an aeroplane.

But whatever misconceptions we attach to the picture, it is not the full story.  She was not so much frightened of the men, as frightened of the crowd surrounding the plane, and she was a woman torn just as much by conflicting emotions as the physical presence of the people surrounding her.  What a dreadful situation to be in. Her husband and fellow-spy had defected and was no doubt talking to the Australian agents about her;  she was frightened for her family back in Russia, and she was wary of official censure when she returned irrespective of her husband’s actions.

The title ‘Document Z’ plays on Documents H and J that were tendered to the Royal Commission that followed the Petrov defection.  I wonder if it is, as the title rather cheekily suggests, the last word- certainly since Robert Manne’s book The Petrov Affair, the debate seems to be over.

The book is a fictionally reimagined telling of the Petrov defection from the perspectives of the participants- Evdokia, her husband Vladimir,  Michael Bialaguski the doctor go-between and the various agents on both sides.  Croome has obviously done his homework (occasionally a little too obviously) and I marvel at his courage in describing a time long before he was born that is still within living memory today- lots of scope for slips and false notes there.  He captures well the sterility of 1950s Canberra with the claustrophobic and enmeshed atmosphere of the Soviet Embassy enclave.

I’m not sure if it’s a failing of the book, or the nature of the relationship he is describing, but there is a flatness to the relationship between the Petrovs themselves.  They worked alongside each other, and they shared the same career trajectory for better and for worse but there’s an emptiness at the core of their marriage as Croome depicts it.  And again we run up against the dilemma with writing within a historical event, but I feel that Croome has shaken free of those restraints.  I was puzzled that he didn’t use ‘that’ picture on his front cover (cost? copyright?) but it liberates him from having to stick only to the historical sources.  If the relationship is sterile perhaps he meant it to be, or perhaps he could not, for whatever reason,  make it otherwise.

I enjoyed this book, and this is from someone who loathes spy-novels.  I liked the atmosphere- the juxtaposition between the bright light outside and the whispers and fears inside.

The Resident Judge Reckons 30 Dec 2009

Is Santa actually the Grim Reaper in drag?  What is it with Christmas and death?  As you may know, one of my daily activities is to carefully peruse the death notices in the newspaper.  I reassure myself that people who read The Age live to a ripe old age because most of the notices are for elderly people: I do acknowledge, however, that my reasoning may be a bit suspect here.

But did you see how many death notices there are in today’s paper??  A whole page of them!!  There are a few recording deaths before Christmas, but most of them are for deaths in the days immediately following.  Come to think of it, my aunt died on Christmas Day, waiting to be picked up to go to church- rather a positive, engaged way to go really, although very difficult for her family.  But  I don’t think I’ve seen a whole page like this before!  I wonder if there’s a statistical correlation between Christmas and death rates, or whether it’s a function of classified deadlines (no pun intended).

Anne Drysdale’s Christmas 1841

There shall be more about Anne Drysdale anon, as I have bought Bev Robert’s recent book Miss D & Miss N: an extraordinary partnership.  Enough for now to say that, emigrating at 47 from Scotland and taking up land near Geelong in partnership with another woman (Caroline Newcomb) ,  Anne Drysdale is an inspiration to  ladies of a certain age like myself.

So, picking up on my timeworn (well, last year’s) theme of Christmas in Port Phillip, how did Anne Drysdale spend her Christmas in 1841?

On Friday last Dr & Mrs Thomson came down to tea & insisted on our going with them as the next day was Christmas, so we drove up with them, had roast goose & plumb pudding. Mr Tuckfield and Capt Pollock dined, the latter was with us on Thursday night.  As the next day was Sunday we remained & went to church.  On Monday morning Caroline rode down early.  Jane & I walked down after breakfast.  Dr & Mrs Thomson have given Caroline as a Xmas box the present of a mare called Fanny which she had been riding for some time.  It had a filly foal some days since.  She is to return the foal when it is weaned.  Fanny is a handsome black mare, a very pleasant ladies horse to ride & has been tried in harness & is perfectly quiet, so if we ever get a pony chair she will do nicely.  On Monday we expected Mr & Mrs Fisher to dinner to bring down Charlotte.  After dinner Mr F &  she arrived on horseback.  They had all got into a gig with in the intention of coming to dinner but the horse wouldnot go.  Mr F remained to tea & left Charlotte.

… Mr & Mrs Love & 2 children came to tea.  Capt Pollock was here Monday night. This morning before breakfast a party from Corio arrived on their way to the lakes for a pic nic. The 2nd carriage or cart had not come up, so the contents of the 1st 8 in number, breakfasted with us.  They have had a very hot day for their pic nic.

So-  a traditional hot Christmas dinner on a hot Australian day and people popping in on the way to a pic nic.  Sounds familiar really.  But this is the only Christmas day described in any detail in the diary, which becomes more business-like each year with sheep, sheep, sheep.

No sheep for me- Happy Christmas everyone

And I’ve now read Bev Roberts’ book Miss D & Miss N and you can read my review here.

The Rechabites might get me yet

When I was twelve years old and  in grade six at Heidelberg Primary School, a crusty old gentleman from the Independent Order of Rechabites came weekly to instruct us about the evils of alcohol.  There was a statewide exam at the end of it, and I’m rather proud to say that I won the state prize with a score of 91%.  I was awarded a book which I have since lost without regret and a beautiful certificate which I do regret losing because from memory it was a highly ornate document with beautiful copperplate writing.  Prize notwithstanding, I have never been a teetotaller; I  am not one now and I find the whole idea of the Rechabites rather quaint.

But I’ve got to say that I’m finding the emphasis on alcohol over the last few years rather overwhelming.   I know that I’m hypocritical here- looking back I don’t know why we felt we had to drink champagne at our children’s birthday parties and I don’t think I’d do it now.  I am disconcerted that every celebration of a sporting triumph, a career achievement, an opening of some civic building or service etc. needs to be marked with alcohol.  I don’t know why bars and bottleshops  have to stay open all night.  I find the idea of going to work in the morning while the nightclubs are disgorging the last of their patrons quite unnecessary.

I was puzzled to find this advertisement on the label of Spring Valley apple juice.

When a bender begins and when it ends is not an exact science.  However, our not so rigorous testing proves that when the bender has been and gone, it leaves behind a primordial need to consume something of substance, something so angelic and good, it probably grew on a tree- and preferably for that something to be almost like an apple in liquid form.

This is APPLE JUICE, remember…consumed by children, old people, people who are just plain thirsty and not necessarily recovering from a bender. Why does it have to market itself this way to everyone who buys it?

Then in the weekend’s paper there was a rather trite column about “how to decorate a Christmas tree” by Kate Duthie This is the last thing I need to read, given that  I have decorated my Christmas tree three times this year so far after it has fallen down twice this year (or maybe I do need to read that article, particularly the part where it tells you to make sure that the tree is stable before putting anything on it).   But the last paragraph particularly grated:

Whatever you do, make it fun.  Involve your family and friends, pop some champers and make it an event.

An event? Champagne? It’s a CHRISTMAS TREE for Christ’s sake! (I feel I can say that without blasphemy).  Why do you need a drink to put up a Christmas tree?

Bah. Humbug.

‘Wedlock’ by Wendy Moore

2009, 310p + notes

The author of this book is a journalist, not an historian, but she’s certainly done her homework.  It is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the Earl of Strathmore, and her violent marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney.  Stoney was the inspiration for Thackeray’s book The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which was turned into film by Stanley Kubrick.  ( I strongly encourage you to follow these Wikipedia links- it will give you a much better idea of the plot than I could).

But Barry Lyndon the book was fiction: this was true life, even if it reads like fiction today.  There’s everything here: scandal, kidnapping and duping of heiresses, midnight horseback rides through the Pennines, coffee shop pamphlets, court cases etc.  Wendy Moore does this rich material proud, starting her story with a mysterious duel in a public house, and introducing each of the main characters one by one before turning around to deconstruct the duel completely and expose it as a completely faked scenario, intended to lure the wealthy heiress Mary into an ill-advised marriage.  Andrew Robinson Stoney, who changed his name to Bowes in order to access Mary Eleanor’s fortune, was almost unbelievably cruel, vindictive and scheming and a thorough rotter.

Moore is firmly on Mary’s side and portrays her as the victim both  of domestic violence and a legal system that strongly favoured rich men.  But the sources that Moore draws on are deeply problematic and themselves part of an ongoing propanda war, played out in the full glare of publicity.   She relies heavily on Jesse Foot, the author of The lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes Esq and the Countess of Strathmore who was himself deeply implicated in Stoney’s schemes, and seems to have changed his allegiences several times.  Mary’s “confession”, which was also published, was apparently forced from her at the point of a gun but was also published. In fact, the whole scenario brought domestic violence amongst the aristocracy out into the public domain, and it played out through, and itself fed,  the appetite for gossip and innuendo. Mary, however, was no innocent and could play the game of gossip and publicity just as well as her husband could: while not cruel or violent, she was just as cavalier with her emotions and children as her husband was.

The story is carefully and well told.  After its particularly well-constructed beginning, it is a fairly straight chronological account and, to its credit, the story is so well told that you rarely lose track.  A family tree would have been useful, but no doubt it would have ended up looking like a family thicket!  The author wanders off into some interesting little byways- e.g. contraception in the late 1700s; the coffee-shop culture etc., but I do wish that she’d picked up more on the nature of her sources, the 18th century public sphere and the expectations of the aristocracy.   I think that she could have upped the analysis, but then perhaps it would alienated its bodice-ripper audience. As it stands, it’s a rattling good read, with the edginess of knowing that it was based on a real marriage among real people.

‘The Commandant’ by Jessica Anderson

This book has been recently re-released as part of Sydney University Press’ Australian Classics Library.   The original was published in 1975 and there are still copies of the original imprint around: mine has a particularly lurid cover that would deter any casual browser.

The penal colonies at Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land have long attracted novelists- Thomas Keneally has been writing about them for decades and Kate Grenville has been lured by them more recently.  But there were other penal outposts in the Australian colonies as well: Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay in Queensland, Western Australia after 1850 and even Port Phillip, while not a penal colony as such, had convict gangs engaged on public works and the Pentonvillians in the second half of the 1840s.

“The Commandant” is set in Moreton Bay under the command of Patrick Logan.   The setting of the book is fairly accurate:  Logan did exist; his wife was called Lettie; he did come to a sticky and inconclusive end.  But the main character of the book, Frances O’Beirne, is Jessica Anderson’s invention entirely and here Anderson can let her imagination take flight.  This is a penal colony described from the domestic perspective, with the convicts not as “the men out there” but as shadowy but ever-present domestic servants.  Here we can see the blurring of the lines that John Hirst writes so well about in Convict Society and its Enemies with assigned convicts occupying that here-but-not-here space of the English domestic servant whose intimate presence gave them such an ambiguous status.

This is a very ‘interior’ novel in that much of it takes place inside, and much of the text is turned over to dialogue.  It is almost Austenesque in this regard, and I found it a little noisy and claustrophobic.  For me, the novel really opened up once it got outside into the Australian landscape- until this point it could have been set anywhere.

Frances O’Beirne is a recent arrival in the colonies and after a short time in Sydney, she travels up to join her sister Lettie who is married to Capt Logan. While in Sydney she comes into contact with the daughters of Edward Smith Hall, the editor of the Monitor and the (real life) opponent of Governor Darling.  She absorbs the ‘radical’ views circulating in Sydney, and is wary of her brother-in-law Logan, who is about to fight a libel case against the Sydney newspapers over reports of his excessive cruelty.  She is uneasy about the convict presence, and appalled by her brother-in-law’s discipline.

In an interview about the writing of The Commandant in “Making Stories” by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe (generous extracts available here), Anderson talks in an interview about the character of Frances

INT: Did you consciously seek a character to, as you say, ‘identify with’ or did the character come to you?

JA: Well I came to myself.  But I had to have someone who could see and comment on the action. But not just one person, and not just one point of view.  So I had Frances, Louisa and Letty.  Particularly Frances, although the other points of view are both well within my own range.  My daughter said it was quite easy to see who I was. But she saw me as Louisa.

INT: Is Frances really, in fact, a twentieth century character?

JA: There were people like Frances, radicals and reformers , in Sydney. There was nobody like her at Moreton Bay.  But I couldn’t have done it without her.  I needed an opponent for Logan.

Despite Anderson’s protestations, I’m not really sure that Frances isn’t a 20th century character. I don’t think that Anderson caught the religious aspects of a humanitarian anti-transporation stance, complete with its racism, class bias and cast iron certainties. Instead Frances’ opposition to the penal system is a bit too secular and Amnesty International.

Anderson’s real stroke of brilliance is in explaining Logan’s death- which, again, is historic fact. But her explanation which runs against the popular story about how he died is, unfortunately,  plausible and we can see with 20th century eyes what the implications of such an explanation could/did set in train.

I enjoyed this book and I’m glad that it has a second outing.  I think that it stacks up well against Keneally’s convict works like The Playmaker and Bring Larks and Heroes and Grenville’s The Secret River and The Lieutenant (which I haven’t read yet).  It isn’t as imaginatively extravagant as Flanagan’s brilliant Gould’s Book of Fish, but her twist on the narrative and history is inventive and deserves to be better known.

‘Alzheimers: A Love Story’ by Vivienne Ulman

2009, 212 p.

As I wrote in my posting on Hazel Hawke, I’ve been a bit reluctant to embark on a reading binge of books on Alzheimers, even though my mother suffers from the condition.  Perhaps it’s part of the denial that families have at the early stages of the disease- ours is no exception- and not wanting to look too far ahead for fear that it will cast a shadow over what is here right now.  But in recent months Mum’s had a fall, broken her pelvis, been hospitalized and her condition has deteriorated appallingly.  She’s been in transition care for some months and a couple of weeks ago moved into the high level nursing home that will be her home now.  This litany of decline,  for those of you who haven’t been down this road,  must seem like just a string of cliches.  But the fall-broken pelvis-transition care-nursing home downward trajectory obscures the pain of it all.   Like all families, particularly when one partner is still living in the family home, there’s guilt, sorrow, grief, anger, with family members pulling together and yet pulling  each other down as well.   I haven’t really wanted to read about other families doing this up until now, but perhaps because such a big step has been taken now with Mum moving into the nursing home, I’m now more open to read about how other families have coped with all this.

Vivienne Ulman is the daughter of Saul and Lucy Same who started Gloweave shirts, those rather quaint fashion items of the 1970s.  The Melbourne she describes is one that I’m not familiar with in many ways- south of the Yarra, Jewish, and obviously very very wealthy.   But in other ways, there’s much that is recognizable: Graham Kennedy’s advertisements for Glo-Weave (it used to have a hyphen) on IMT; the factories in inner northern Melbourne (far more my stomping ground), and the influence of Melbourne-based ALP politicians.  Her parents both emigrated to Melbourne separately with their families  prior to World War II and worked the business up from scratch.  They had a strong commitment to leftish politics and a lifelong association with the ALP although that surely must have been tested by the “structural adjustment” (what a weasel word!) changes imposed onto the clothing and textile industry.

This book has several strands that, just like the fabric that Glo-Weave created, are woven together into a whole.  There’s the day-to-day current reality of Lucy Same in her nursing home, increasingly difficult and incoherent with her husband Saul pouring into her all the love he can; there’s Vivienne’s upbringing in 1960s and 70s Melbourne in a bustling Jewish family, and there’s the Glo-Weave business history as economic changes, industrialisation, technology and marketing change the directions of the enterprise.   All three strands are interesting and well-told, with just the odd stilted phrase that belies the creative writing course origins of the book.

The structure is interspersed with Vivienne’s letters to her mother (another waft of the creative writing course?); letters of course that her mother will never read now.  But I now know, in a way that I didn’t a year ago, about that longing to be able to talk with the person with Alzheimers in the way that you used to, when you took such conversations for granted.  For myself, I often catch myself looking at the clock at about 8.10 in the morning.  When I was home with young children, Mum used to ring me at that time nearly every morning, not really with anything to say but just keeping contact.  I hadn’t thought about those phone calls in a long time, but now I would give anything to have one of them and to know that my busy, efficient, bustling little mum was on the end of the phone and talking to me.

I’m reading the book with a frisson of anxiety.  Saul spends ALL DAY at the nursing home- we don’t do that- should we?  Are we remiss or is he obsessive?  He pays for a carer to stay with Lucy all day in the nursing home-  is there something going on in nursing homes that we don’t know about that we should do the same thing too (if we could afford it) ?  The nursing homes, even though they are high care, are constantly shifting Lucy on because she’s too difficult-  what if my Mum becomes ‘difficult’ too?- will she be moved out of a place that so far I’m happy with?  My Mum so far is not physically aggressive- will she become that way in the future?

There’s so much guilt and anger here too, and this I can now appreciate. Vivienne herself lives in Tasmania as part of a tree-change lifestyle.  As the only daughter (and why is it that daughters feel that it falls on them?), she feels guilty, spends much time over in Melbourne, but doesn’t move back permanently. [Should she? thinks my inner judge and nitpicker. I’m sure that she wonders the same thing.]   She is angry at the disease, angry at the mother who is so angry at her, angry at her father whose absolute devotion makes Vivienne feel inadequate and yet wary of being drawn into his obsession as well.  All of this I know now.

This is a good book on many levels; or at least, it’s a good book for ME right now.

The naughty Age website

‘The Hungry Beast’ on ABC1 ( I suppose we’ll have to start using those numbers now that there’s ABC1, ABC 2 and ABC 3) had its last episode last week.  I gave up after about five minutes of the first show thinking that I really must be getting very old, but a couple of weeks later I persevered and found it interesting but variable.  A bit of a curate’s egg, so to speak.

But one small segment they had discussed the difference between the online sites for newspapers and the actual newspaper itself. You can see it here.  They argue that otherwise respectable news sites ensure that their page displays words that are likely to be turned up in a search for sex online.  And you know- they’re right! I was looking at today’s Age website – and now let’s face it, the Age is not renowned for its lascivious coverage. But even the dowdy old Age website has two uses of the word “sexy”, one “topless”, and a “bra” on today’s site.

I’d be pretty willing to bet that there’s similar words every single day.