Monthly Archives: January 2011

‘Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography’ by Jill Roe

569 p. plus notes, 2008

(4.5 /5)

Miles Franklin, to the extent that she is known at all today, is  probably most famous for the film of her book My Brilliant Career and for the Miles Franklin literary award that bears her name.  Jill Roe has been working on Miles Franklin for many years and this long biography- all 700 odd pages of it including notes-  will probably be the definitive biography for many years.

The first thing to notice is the title: Stella Miles Franklin.  The writer we know as Miles Franklin was called by her first name, Stella, by her family and friends.  Although in the body of the text Roe calls her “Miles”, the title clearly marks out that this is not a literary biography alone but an examination of her life in its many facets: as daughter and sister, as labour activist,  office worker and friend- as well as writer.

The second thing to notice is how little of the book – the first hundred odd pages only- deals with the writing and publication of ‘My Brilliant Career’, for which she is probably best known today.  Once I turned to Part II of the book, I wondered how on earth Roe was going to sustain this biography for the succeeding 450 pages.   She did it largely by following Miles’ career across the span of her life:  in America as a women’s labour organizer between 1906- 1915,   then following Miles to England where she worked in a stultifying job as admin support for a Housing reform authority, nursed in the Balkans during World War I, moved back and forth between Australia and UK before finally returning to Australia in 1933 to live out her final years before her death in 1954.   I think that Roe is firmly making the point here that the whole of a life matters: as a ‘woman of certain age’ herself Roe is not content to shove Franklin’s  later years into a perfunctory final chapter before dispatching her unceremoniously.

Franklin’s bequest of money for the literary prize that bears her name comes almost as a surprise at the end of the biography.  Miles lived alone and frugally in the family home and it surprised many that her 8922 pound estate had been squirreled away for a literary prize awarded to “the Novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian Life in any of its phases“.   Australian commentators, writers and readers have often chafed under what now seems a rather jingoistic, dated and parochial restriction, but having read this biography I am now more aware of and sympathetic to what Franklin probably hoped to encourage: a publishing industry more independent of British and American publishing houses and  an appreciation of a literature that rings true to Australian experience and consciousness.  As Roe points out,  there are no national eligibility criteria so that, conceivably, the prize could be awarded to a non-Australian writer for a work that was published outside Australia.  This, too, reflects Franklins’ priorities- that Australia and Australian life that should be rendered realistically (she was no fan of modernism or Americanization) , and that Australian writers and Australian themes take their place amongst world literature as a whole.

The bequest was not Miles Franklin’s only gift to her country.  Her other gift was a huge archive of her correspondence which eventually numbered at least 10,000 items from 1000 or more correspondents , diaries and manuscripts, collected over a lifetime.  It is here that we see her rich intellectual life in the admittedly small Australian literary culture and  her involvement with politics both in Australia and overseas.  Her association with communist writers like Jean Devanny and Katharine Susannah Prichard brought her to the attention of ASIO during the Cold War, but she was also associated through friendship, but not politics, with the uncomfortably right-wing views of P.R. Stephensen and his Australia First movement.  Miles herself was neither communist nor fascist, being more aligned with  traditional post WWI British Liberalism.  Franklin herself expressed fears of Asian immigration and over-breeding in a political stance that makes me shift uneasily today.  As Roe explains, she was a first-wave feminist, steeped in ideas of moral purity, and as part of the ‘Australian girl’ trope of the first decades of the 19th century, claimed the suffrage and Australia’s relative progressiveness as part of her own identity as an Australian working in American women’s and radical organizations in the US. Through her correspondence and hospitality she fed, and fed on, camaraderie with fellow writers and their circle- Nettie Palmer, Dymphna Cusack and Florence James,  David Miller, Katharine Susannah Prichard etc- but she was wary and defensive amongst academics and academia.

Miles Franklin’s own identity, her “essential self” as she put it, centred around being a writer and indeed, writing was work that she carried out throughout her life.  I was unaware just how much there was, often dusted off and recycled, in the hopes of publication under yet another guise or as often unsuccessful entries for a string of literary prizes.   This approach to her work partially explains her insistence on nom-de-plumes, most notably Brent of Bin Bin, but also more risible pseudonyms (like ‘William Blake’, or ‘Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau’)  which came to be viewed more as a form of eccentricity than, as she intended, literary commercial savvy.  Much of this work remains unpublished- often for good reason as Roe suggests- although much of it attracts me as an historian:  she went ‘undercover’ as a domestic servant in the early 1900s and wrote about her experiences, and her novels set during WWII sound interesting from a social history point of view.  But much of her work sounds (admittedly only from Roe’s summaries of the unpublished manuscripts) overly melodramatic, self-referential and repetitive and perhaps best left in the archive.

Roe approaches this work more as historian than literary biographer, focussing on the act of writing and what it meant to Miles and her milieu, rather than the texts themselves.  She has mined the huge Franklin archive exhaustively (an archive now supplemented even further by later purchases) and she represents it in its entirety, perhaps to the detriment of her biography overall.  To Roe’s credit, she provided enough background information about Miles’ friends and contacts for the book to veer away from mere name-dropping, but it is a narrow line.  It is a huge, detailed biography but I found myself enjoying most the parts where Roe stepped back with her historian’s hat on to explain, for example, the demographic phenomenon of the single female in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the nuances of first-wave feminism and its approach to men and marriage.   I can’t imagine that other scholars will be able to top the detail of this biography, but their interpretations may differ.

Further reading:

The State Library of New South Wales presented an exhibition on Miles Franklin Miles Franklin: A Brilliant Career? and the exhibition catalogue, including photographs, has been archived here.

See also ANZLitLover’s review of the book, and a review by Nicole Moore in The Australian

‘High Tea’ at Bundoora Homestead Art Centre

‘High Tea’, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre 3 December 2010- 6th February 2011

What a hoot! We went today to see “High Tea” before it closes on 6th February at the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre.  The publicity on the web page describes the exhibition thusly:

A social ritual, the ceremony of high tea is comprised of a series of gestures governing things such as; the way tea should be stirred, the direction of a teapot spout, and the proper way to eat a scone!

High Tea explores the social, political and cultural role of high tea in contemporary culture. What has compelled and sustained this seemingly rigid practice throughout the centuries, how has it evolved and developed as a tradition that is still cherished today?

The artists present unique interpretations of this practice through various mediums and methods – glass, paper, textiles and smell! Each installation sets out to provide a contemporary appreciation of high tea.

We weren’t really quite sure what the exhibition would be, but we saw that there would be a dance installation at 1.00 pm and unsure of even what that was, we tottered along. It took a little while to realize that the performance (is that the right thing to call it?) was actually underway as we wandered around the space, partaking as the sign suggested of a scone, jam and cream in return for a gold coin donation, and then wondering if perhaps we’d misread the sign and were EATING the exhibition! How embarrassment that would be! There’s buttons to press, peepholes to squint through, a wall of cupcake papers that seemed to take on a beauty of their own and an installation of recorded admonitions (“say thank you”) that made you squirm with the memories of being squashed between grown-ups and being on your best behaviour.

Across in the main gallery itself are several displays- photographs, knitted cakes,  doodled doileys and paper cakes.  My favourite exhibit was a room redolent of the smells of high tea- one long sniff of different smells that you might encounter at a high tea in 1910 compared with its counterpart in 2010.  I’m a very smell-y person (as in ‘highly olefactorily attuned’ if there’s any such expression) with smell an integral part of how I experience the world and deeply embedded in my memories.  Smell is always part of how I perceive any work of art – the smell of the paint, the cleaning products used in the gallery, the still air-  and I absolutely relished having it consciously prodded and teased in this exhibit.

Have you heard of the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre? It’s a beautiful Queen Anne-style homestead in Bundoora which at the time was prime horse-racing stud territory.  Suburbia has crept up around it, but it would have once commanded a wonderful position- you can see the city,  the Dandenongs and the Macedon Ranges from the nearby Mt Cooper lookout.  Its most famous equine resident was Wallace, the offspring of the  legendary 1890 Melbourne Cup winner, Carbine.  In his three year old season in 1895 Wallace himself won the Caulfield Guineas, the Derby, was beaten in the Melbourne Cup but on the following Saturday dead-heated to win the C. B. Fisher Plate.  He won the 1896 Sydney Cup,  but illness forced him to retire.  He then stood at stud for 22 years (!!), siring progeny that competed in 949 races, winning nearly a quarter of a million dollars in prize money.  For those with a paranormal bent, there’s a story that on a dark night the sound of hooves can be heard around Wallace’s grave in the adjacent Bundoora Park.

It’s a beautiful house- glorious stained glass and a spectacular staircase with pyrographic panels.  It was used as a convalescence farm after World War I, later renamed the Mental Repatriation Hospital, then the Bundoora Repatriation Hospital.

But wait, there’s more! Those of you who have followed this blog  will know that one of my little interests is to find six degrees of separation between Judge Willis (the REAL Resident Judge of Port Phillip) and – well, anything you might like to name.  This one is easy- the original owner of Bundoora Park was John Matthew Vincent Smith, the only son of John Matthew Smith.  And who was he, you ask?  John Matthew Smith arrived in Port Phillip in 1839 and took up employment as a law clerk with Horatio Nelson Carrington.  There was certainly no love lost between Willis and Carrington, who was one of the ‘Twelve Apostles’ financial ring,  and Willis’ disdain extended to John Matthew Smith as well, whom Willis described as

too insignificant for an attachment; his law is as absurd and insignificant as himself.  (Finn ‘Garryowen’ p 69)

So, if the “High Tea” exhibition  or Bundoora Homestead itself, Wallace’s grave and even if the ghost horse don’t tempt you to venture out to Bundoora, the sure knowledge that you’re only two degrees of separation from John Walpole Willis will surely do the trick.

The Day That Came To Be Known As Australia Day, 1788

The Founding of Australia (1937) by Algernon Talmage

Just to keep all this flag-waving in perspective, here is Governor Phillip’s own account of what we now know as Australia Day.  From his telling, the presence of the French ships was of more significance than the flag-raising ceremony, especially during this time of uneasiness in British-French relations.  It all seems rather understated, really.

From The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay by Arthur Phillip

25 January 1788

On the 25th of January therefore, seven days after the arrival of the Supply, Governor Phillip quitted Botany Bay in the same ship, and sailed to Port Jackson. The rest of the fleet, under convoy of the Sirius, was ordered to follow, as soon as the abatement of the wind, which then blew a strong gale, should facilitate its working out of the Bay. The Supply was scarcely out of sight when the French ships again appeared off the mouth of the harbour, and a boat was immediately sent to them, with offers of every kind of information and assistance their situation could require. It was now learnt that these were, as the Governor had supposed, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, on a voyage of discovery, under the conduct of Monsieur La Perouse.

26 January 1788

On the 26th, the transports and store ships, attended by the Sirius,finally evacuated Botany Bay; and in a very short time they were all assembled in Sydney Cove, the place now destined for their port, and for the reception of the new settlement. The French ships had come to anchor in Botany Bay just before the departure of the Sirius; and during the intercourse which then took place, M. la Perouse had expressed a strong desire of having some letters conveyed to Europe. Governor Phillip was no sooner informed of this, than he dispatched an officer to him with full information of the time when it was probable our ships would sail, and with assurances that his letters should be punctually transmitted. By this officer the following intelligence was brought back concerning the voyage of the Astrolabe and Boussole.

… (omitted- long description of the French ships)…

The debarkation was now made at Sydney Cove, and the work of clearing the ground for the encampment, as well as for the storehouses and other buildings, was begun without loss of time. But the labour which attended this necessary operation was greater than can easily be imagined by those who were not spectators of it. The coast, as well as the neighbouring country in general, is covered with wood; and though in this spot the trees stood more apart, and were less incumbered with underwood than in many other places, yet their magnitude was such as to render not only the felling, but the removal of them afterwards, a task of no small difficulty. By the habitual indolence of the convicts, and the want of proper overseers to keep them to their duty, their labour was rendered less efficient than it might have been.

26 January 1788

In the evening of the 26th the colours were displayed on shore, and the Governor, with several of his principal officers and others, assembled round the flag-staff, drank the king’s health, and success to the settlement, with all that display of form which on such occasions is esteemed propitious, because it enlivens the spirits, and fills the imagination with pleasing presages. From this time to the end of the first week in February all was  hurry and exertion. They who gave orders and they who received them were equally occupied; nor is it easy to conceive a busier scene than this part of the coast exhibited during the continuance of these first efforts towards establishment.

‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan

285 p. 2010


Ian McEwan is one of those prolific writers who is able to produce a string of books with each quite unlike the one that preceded it.   Thriller, historical fiction, small polished novella… he can turn his hand to them all, but I must admit that I wasn’t expecting comedy from him.   ‘Solar’ is one long satire centred on  the pompous and repellent Michael Beard, an overweight, lazy, adulterous  physicist who has done virtually nothing after early research  coupled his name with Einstein in the barely-explained, Nobel-Prize winning theoretical construct of the  Beard-Einstein Conflation.   The book romps along as he pushes his way to the front with not a shred of moral compunction- indeed his actions regarding a young postgraduate student are appalling on first reading and even more reprehensible if you really think about it.   He is so truly repulsive that you really relish his downfall.

It’s a 21st century morality play, but rather heavy-handed and buffoonish.  McEwan pricks at many forms of pretension in this book beyond Michael Beard himself:  the carpet-baggery of climate change politics,  the confected outrage over plagiarism and academic purity, and academic fakery.  His Michael Beard swots up on literature in order to woo his first wife, and I suspect that McEwan himself has swotted up on physics here and is  laughing up his sleeve at his less-scientifically-inclined readers who wouldn’t know whether the plot is risible or not.  The book ends with a rather destabilizing extract from Michael Beard’s citation by the Nobel Prize committee which just seems to hang there at the end of the book- and you know damned well that McEwan has just put it there deliberately.

The book is in three parts- 2000, 2004 and 2009 but there are no chapters at all within these three sections.   McEwan relies on his own control of the narrative to sweep between backgrounding, foreshadowing and present-time dialogue, and he does it with the confidence of a master story-teller.  Like Michael Beard himself, it’s all rather too much, and you just strap yourself in and go along for the ride.  Just don’t take any of it too seriously.

Being there- almost

Last weekend (i.e. 16th January) we went to see the National Theatre Live production of Hamlet at the Cinema Nova in Carlton.

I’ve seen opera advertised in the same format, but I must admit that I was rather puzzled by the designation ‘live’.  It was scheduled to start at 1.00 p.m. in Theatres 1 and 3, but Theatre 3 was opened up 15 minutes prior to Theatre 1- and surely it wasn’t live at 2.00 a.m. in London?! I’ve since deduced from the posters advertising 9 December 2010 that we must have been one of the four countries watching it on delayed broadcast- five weeks later!

What an odd experience! Our cinema audience in Melbourne Australia filed in, popcorn and choctops in hand, only to see an audience on the other side of the world likewise filing in and taking their seats.  The cameras were visible at the front of the stage. The image shifted back and forth between the view of the whole stage you might have from your seat were you actually there,  to close-ups just as you might see in a film.  How strange: not just for the actors who would need to display the nuance of facial expression picked up by the camera but also the large gesture of the stage; but  for the audience here in Melbourne  too, aware (well, assuming) that this was running live with all the edginess and potential for mishaps this denotes but viewed from even closer than the very, very best seat in the house.   It had the urgency of ‘quick- we need to see it this weekend because it’s only on this Saturday and Sunday!’ and yet you knew, deep down, that you’d only paid $25.00 for your ticket and that you really weren’t all  glammed up for a night at the the-eatre at lunchtime on a Sunday afternoon.

How seductive all this televising is.  I generally watch my football on television at home and on the rare occasions that I might go to the MCG, I find myself watching the vision on the large screen rather than the small dots running around the field far below us.  I pull myself up, thinking  “You’re actually HERE- watch the game, not the screen!” but ah- you can see so much more on the screen.

Then there was the Grand Final rematch last year between my beloved St Kilda and the dastardly Collingwood.  I mentioned the draw very briefly  in this blog, but not the rematch the following week which saw my lovely boys humiliated. [Curse all those Collingwood supporters floating around with their ‘Magpies Premiers 2010’ stickers on their cars- my fingers itch for my car key to just casually…etch…its..way… along…their…duco.  Ooops- did I say that? I may just have to disable the comments function.]

Anyway, with their coffers swelled by an unanticipated rematch, the AFL opened up the newly-completed soccer ground at AAMI Park across the road from the MCG for the overflow crowd to watch on the big screens for free.  So there we were, in a half-empty stadium with a big screen, watching a game that was taking place across the road in a packed MCG, so close that you could almost but not quite hear it .   It was a warm Spring day and we wanted to sit under shade so we sat at one end of the rectangle, with the screens at the other end.  We were there, but we weren’t. There was another much closer screen facing the other way behind us which we could see if we turned around.  But- oh, the pain, the pain- directly in front of us were Collingwood supporters sitting on the ground, facing us, watching the screen behind us.  Not only did we have to watch the crushing of our boys, but we also had to witness the delight of the Collingwood fans in front of us- a truly gruesome ordeal.

You can just see the large screen at the far end of the ground. Mr Judge has turned round and is watching the screen behind us, looking rather downcast. (Click to make bigger image)

The screen immediately behind us if we turned round.

Needless to say, it was such a blood bath that we left early, along with many other St Kilda supporters.

Check out the body language!

And come to think of it, we left early from Hamlet last weekend.  Not because it was a bloodbath – we left before that- and not because we weren’t enjoying it- Rory Kinnear was terrific and made you feel as if you were watching it for the very first time.  No, we left because I didn’t realize that the production went for 210 minutes and a 10 minute interval- we had a dinner to cook!  Would we have walked out on a real, fair-dinkum performance?- I don’t think so.   We were there, almost- but not really.

169th Anniversary

If you go into Melbourne on Thursday 20th January at 12.00  and head up to the corner of Bowen and Franklin Streets, you’ll see the 169th anniversary of the hanging of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.  These commemorations have been conducted for several years now- in fact, the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle spoke at the 2009 commemoration.

I’ve heard it said that once a blog starts to cannibalise itself, then the end is nigh- I hope this is not the case.  But just this once I’ll refer you back to an earlier post that I wrote on this anniversary two years ago and a post on images of Tunnerminnerwait in  the Robert Dowling exhibition at the Geelong Gallery and later National Gallery of Australia last year.

The smile in this image – so unusual amongst depictions of Aboriginal people at the time- is explored by Leonie Stevens in her article ‘The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait’ published in the Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 81, Number 1, June 2010.  If you belong to a library that has access to Informit, then it’s well worth following up.

Abstract: There have been numerous historical constructions of Tunnerminnerwait, alias Cape Grim Jack, who was publicly executed along with his friend, Maulboyheener in Melbourne in January 1842.  This paper revisits the documentary record and historicizing of the two young Tasmanians, and asks, were they victims of colonial indifference, freedom fighters, or simply wild Tasmanians enacting the final stages of the Black Wars?

The commemorations on 20th January that have been held over several years now certainly claims them as freedom fighters, but I’m not particularly comfortable with that characterization.  I concur with Stevens that they were defiant, independent actors, and her article highlights the difficulty in ascribing any one motive to their actions when dealing with  such a partial and complex historical record.  For me the connotation of politicized, communal action denoted by 20th century term ‘freedom fighter’ does not ring true for a small group of Aboriginal people cast adrift from their country and tribal structure and utter strangers to the land they found themselves in.

I’m puzzled, too, by the recommendation to mercy by the jury: a recommendation that  that was not supported by Judge Willis and disregarded by the colonial authorities.  The Van Diemens Land Blacks encapsulated the two huge and very sharp anxieties of the frontier- blacks AND bushrangers rolled into one- yet there was obviously some disquiet about the death penalty among the jurors at least.  Nonetheless,   large crowds witnessed the execution outside the jail but here too, we can only guess at what motivated them to come out in such numbers:   curiosity? sense of occasion? 19th century popular culture? crowd behaviour?-  close to the spot where the commemoration on 20th January will take place.


And here it was:

Corner Bowen and Franklin Streets, Melbourne

What's a demo without good old Joe Toscano?

Up Franklin Street on the way to the Vic Market

‘Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History’ by Kevin C. Kearns

1994, 220 p.

If I had to think up a pithy title for this book, I think I’d call it “Angela’s Ashes: The Documentary”. It’s all here: the feckless father, the bedraggled and burdened mother, the dead babies, the supercilious priests and nuns, the sheep’s head stew and the overflowing toilet.  And the power of this book is that it’s here again, and again, and again, and again.  In his lengthy introductory chapters, the author comments that the sainted-mother-who-held-the-family-together is a stereotype, and yet when you encounter her so often, it is insensitive to dismiss her as just a sentimental trope.

In his introduction, the author asserts that

Simply put, there exists no first-hand authentic chronicle of Dublin tenement life as experienced by one-third of the city’s population during the first half of this century…to reconstruct historical reality we must seek to record the personal “missing portions of the picture of life” within a social community. In the case of Dublin’s tenement enclaves what is conspicuously missing from the historical scene is credible verbal testimony about daily life patterns by those who were looking out from behind the grim brick walls….By contrast, the avowed purpose of this book is to create an authentic and wholly original chronicle of Dublin tenement community life based on the oral histories of the last surviving dwellers. P.3

I find the claim that this is the first such account surprising- perhaps I have been too influenced by the recent genre of memoirs that he criticizes for their “blinding nostalgia”, although I think that they tend to be more afflicted by the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” syndrome.

And why Dublin, I wondered?  Surely there were tenements in many 19th century urban centres that lingered right up until the second half of the 20th century?  His opening chapter ‘History and Evolution of the Tenement Slum Problem’ explains that the tenement process was particularly accelerated in Dublin after the 1801 Act of Union emptied Dublin of the Anglo-Irish gentry who had built their spacious Georgian houses terraces and squares close to be close to the centre of Irish government and the Irish Parliament.

They were two-to five-storey brick structures splendidly ornamented with ornate plasterwork ceilings, marble fireplaces, mahogany woodwork, and elegant doorways and fanlights.  They represented a glorious period of architectural achievement and social life in Dublin but when the aristocracy departed they left behind their grand homes to be managed by agents. Property values plummeted dramatically.  Resplendent Georgian abodes purchased for £8000 in 1791 sold for £2,500 a mere decade later and by 1849 could be bought for a paltry £500. (p. 7)

The acid-laden smoke, mists and rain corroded the exteriors, while the cheap internal conversions into partitioned room for perhaps a dozen families drastically altered and compromised the internal framework and fittings.  The Dublin Corporation, many of whom were themselves tenement landlords, failed to force negligent landlords to make improvements, forwarding the rationale that if they condemned and closed dilapidated tenements, it would lead to large-scale homelessness (p. 10)

The second chapter ‘Social Life in the Tenement Communities’ is a good summary of the recurrent themes that emerged from the oral histories: so good, in fact, that the oral testimony itself began to seem rather repetitive and redundant.  Still, it is the oral narrative that is important here and the way that the respondents framed their story.  In this regard, Kearns was largely silent about methodology, except to thank particular individuals in a short Acknowledgments page.  The book is probably aimed at a more general readership, but I would have appreciated an appendix giving more information about how participants were recruited, when the interviews were conducted, and the prompt questions used, if any.

The oral testimonies are repetitive but repetition itself underscores the commonality of shared experiences. Kearns has managed to triangulate his themes by recruiting a range of voices- shopkeepers, chemists, charity workers, school teachers- as well as the tenement dwellers themselves.  Again, an appendix summarizing the status and situation of the informants would be helpful, as this information is enclosed in a brief italicized paragraph preceding each narrative and not easily searchable.  There are good photographs which I discovered just at the point when I thought I might jump onto Google image to find some- again, there is no list of illustrations to alert you that they have been provided.

In his chapters preceding the oral testimony, Kearns summarizes the evidence and teases out the main themes but does not interrogate them particularly stringently.  I would have liked to have seen a more critical discussion of the role of the church and religion, and an exploration of the apparent paradox of professions of happiness alongside such poverty.  In an Australian context, David Potts broached such topics in his book The Myth of the Great Depression, sparking quite a controversy in so doing, but also providing a meatier book than this one.  Suffice to say that I read the summary chapters with interest, read several testimonies until I realized that they were all saying much the same thing, picked my way through the rest on the basis of the italicized biographical paragraph at the start of each one, then read the four longer narratives with which the book closes.  I’m not really sure what qualities qualified these closing narratives for special treatment beyond their length.  The book cried out for a conclusion of some kind as it just seemed to trail away at the end.

So- my assessment? Interesting initial chapters; good for dipping into; evocative photographs; let down by lack of appendixes and tables; and valuable for providing the testimonies themselves, albeit rather uncritically.

If you’re interested in some photos:

I swear (not)

Yesterday The Age had a four letter word on the front page of the newspaper.  Not the f- word, but the other one. It’s  perhaps not quite as offensive, but it’s nonetheless  a word that I consider to be a swear-word.

It was in an article about the Labor  government’s ferocious prosecution of whistleblowers and leakers.  A former senior federal police source told The Age that if the government wanted to investigate the leaking of Government material, the Australian Federal Police would do so:

If the government wants us to do it, they’re our masters, so we do it.  And that’s not just a particular government- both Labor and Liberal and everyone in between gets the shits when their policies are undermined or their big announcements appear on the front page of the newspapers 24 hours before they announce it.

Using the s- word on the front page is no great crime, although I did raise an eyebrow.  But I found myself using the s- word and the f-word as well when viewing the footage of the cars being washed away in Toowoomba.  You’ve probably seen it by now.

What strikes me, though,  is that the young people taking the video are not swearing at all- not a single “Oh my God” or 4-letter word in the whole video.  The commentary under the YouTube version perhaps gives an explanation-  the photographer suggests that donations be directed to a  Church of Christ appeal, and asks for prayer.  I wonder if these wholesome young people are working in an office associated with the church?  I can only assume that the video was shot from the back windows of the office, hence their only vague concern about their own cars ‘out the front’.    While their commentary is rather awe-struck and banal, it’s better than a string of expletives and OMGs.

I never keep my New Years Resolutions.  Each year I say that I will exercise more, lose weight, and work harder on my thesis instead of blogging (hmmm…..). But perhaps this year I will really try to swear less.  It’s very unattractive; I don’t like listening to it from other people and I’d like to really work on it.

‘Into the Woods’ by Anna Krien

298 p.  2010

I did intend starting this blog with a reflection on the “Note about the Printing of this Book”  that appears at the end of this book- you know, the page where somebody (the author?) waxes lyrical about the paper and coos about the  font used and how boutique it all is.  But then I looked at the YouTube footage of the attack by Tasmanian forestry workers on the protesters that prompted this book, and somehow my opening observation seemed rather twee.

The footage is below.  The language is crude and ugly, but I suggest that you do not turn off  the sound because the rage, and the terror it induces, are also muted if it plays silently.

You wonder where this would have ended had the protesters actually “got out of the f***ing car” and taken them on.  Likewise you wonder what publicity if any this would have garnered had there not been the video evidence and the platform of YouTube to distribute it.

And yet, the raw and ugly emotion of the video and the slight preciousness of the anxiety over the type of paper selected for the book are both manifestations of the complexity of the Tasmanian forests debate.   Few (none?) of us can avoid using forestry products; this very book discussing the issue is printed on it and sold in shops choked full with the stuff.  There are generations of forestry workers and there are timber communities.  Beautiful objects are made of wood. There are those mountains of woodchips sent offshore as fodder to enrich other economies, but then there are the environmental hazards of the pulp processing facilities that perhaps we don’t want here after all.

Anna Krein makes no secret of the fact that her first sympathies lie with the protesters.  It is the video footage above that propelled her across the straits to write the essay from which this book arose, and although repulsed by the dreadlocks and dumpster-diving,  it was amongst the protesters and their share houses that was ‘home’ during her time there.   But she ranges across a number of players as well- the loggers,  the timber workers, the politicians, representatives from Forestry Tasmania, but not the timber company Gunns itself which did not participate.   However, these were excursions to ‘the other side’, and she makes no secret of this.

This book is not the  ‘he said’/’she said’ pretence of even-handedness by which objectivity is claimed by providing equal time to all sides.  At some point, the journalist/writer/historian  has move beyond being a mouthpiece for conflicting interests by confronting the “here I stand” moment and actually crafting an argument that she owns.  Krien perhaps sidesteps this slightly by shifting her gaze onto the relationship between Gunns and the Tasmanian government- a relationship that is tangled by the small size of the Tasmanian population and the myriad and constantly shifting connections between government, Forestry Tasmania the government-owned enterprise, and Gunns itself.  It’s a grubby and disheartening story, and one that makes me bristle with distrust.  It makes me wary of the recent ‘Statement of Principles to Lead to an Agreement’ of October 2010 which seems to have been conducted in secrecy- the hallmark of the Gunns/Government/Forestry Tasmania triumvirate- yet to have garnered the support of groups across the spectrum.  I have seen little analysis or detail of the agreement, but it is being lauded as a blue-print (green print?) for Victorian forests as well, and again conducted privately, out of sight.

The blurb from Chloe Hooper on the front cover is apposite, because Hooper and Krien are similar types of writers who move into a situation, confess (and perhaps even emphasize?) their novice status and write themselves and their emotions into their narrative.  They both are careful observers of both people and environment, and both write evocatively, clearly and conversationally.  The book confirmed and gave more factual validation to my own pre-existing sympathies- I’m not sure how I would have felt had it refuted them.  I do feel as if I am better informed, but I’m not sure if my smug “Huh- I thought so!” response takes me far.

‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters

2006, 503 p.

What a good book!  And what an encouraging way to start my reading for 2011 with a book that I gobbled up eagerly and closed with regret at the end.

I’ve read two other works by Sarah Waters: Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. While I very much enjoyed them, I wondered if Waters was becoming bogged down in lesbian faux-Victoriana.  When I read that she had broken with 19th century London to move into Blitz Britannia,  I was rather relieved but again a little frustrated that it was yet another narrative with lesbian main characters. But  I know that I should not feel that way, especially when I’m in the hands of a such a sensitive and nuanced author. Many authors that I enjoy have made a particular type of story their own- Dickens with his mosaic carnival of characters; De Lillo with his America; Anne Tyler with her domestic family narratives, and I don’t at all begrudge them another book in a similar vein.  And in my own life experience over the last few months, I’ve come increasingly to sense that what really matters is love and relationships, irrespective of time, politics, country, milieu and the genders of those involved. Every life is a love story of one sort or another- and the variety is endless; or else it is a tragedy.

Waters’ narrative revolves around four main characters: Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. Her master stroke is to tell the narrative backwards, starting in 1947, then 1944 and finally 1941. It’s a risky technique, though. As a reader there is none of the backgrounding that you come to expect and you are forced to draw your own hypotheses about the characters and how they came to be in the situations in which you originally encounter them.  At 171 pages the opening 1947 section is relatively long to sustain such uncertainty, and there is a drabness about the post-war England it portrays and the flatness of her characters’ lives.

The 1944 section is the real heart of the book, both in terms of length and in character development, and many of the questions and suppositions raised in the first section are spelled or dispelled here.  Her attention to historical detail is assured and deft, and it’s at this point that a book either wins me over or turns me off.  As I’ve often commented, I squirm when an author overloads the narrative with the cargo of historical colour and movement uncovered by too much research: on the other hand, I rebel when anachronistic sensibilities are ascribed to the characters in historical fiction.  Here Waters excels: there was only one point at which the historical detail became suffocating (it was one product-placement of Max Factor too many, I’m afraid), and by writing from a lesbian sensibility she risked, but avoided, the danger of violating the integrity of a historical fiction narrative by framing it with a 21st century mindset.  There is a timelessness about desire, fulfillment, betrayal and loss, in both mixed and same-sex relationships. It was always there, even if it was not written about at the time.

The 1941 section is short, barely 50 pages, and it provides the context that was withheld in the first section.  Somehow, by this point, it no longer matters and you find yourself nodding, as if you already understand.

I found this an absolutely satisfying book.  I’m drawn to stories about the Blitz, and although I do not know enough to judge objectively,  I had a sense that she had captured an emotional fidelity to the time.  Is it too soon, I wonder, to mark this as one of my top reads for 2011?