Monthly Archives: April 2011

How I work with my material- Access

Big disclaimer upfront: my knowledge of Access is minuscule.  I bumble around and am fully aware that there are probably a million things that I could do with it, but can’t be bothered learning.   They speak of “just-in-time” learning- well, as far as Access is concerned, I have “just enough” knowledge for it to do what I need.

The British Empire, bless its cotton socks, was very good at one thing (at least) and that is information control.  Let’s imagine a letter written in Port Phillip about some little brouhaha that Willis might be involved in.  It would  go to Superintendant La Trobe as inward correspondence; he would make some comments on it in a covering letter and send it to Gipps in Sydney as outward correspondence; it would arrive there as Gipps’ inward correspondence and then he would make further comments in another covering letter and send it all to the Colonial Office as a Governor’s outward despatch.  It would arrive in London some 5-8 months later, be minuted by various public servants as it moved from desk to desk in the Colonial Office, making its way to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, then the reply would move back in the following direction.  All of this would be numbered, and entered in inward- and outward- correspondence letter books.

Beautiful though this system might be, it does mean that a single letter might appear multiple times in LaTrobe’s, Gipps’ or the Secretary of State’s archives, and may appear yet again in collections of correspondence bundled up for a special report.  Likewise for my Canadian material,  I’m working from a single archive divided up into separate files in my computer, and thus of no use to anyone else but me in finding where it is in my own records.  But each document also has its own numbering used in other archives and microfilms- and this is the information that is important for footnotes.  What I needed was a way of identifying an item and noting all the different numberings it might have in the major archives that I am working in.

So I have developed a very basic database that shows the date of the correspondence, the names of sender and recipients, enough identifying information for me to know what it’s about, where it is in my own computer files and then the number it has in the major collections used by researchers generally that I would record in a footnote.

I stop at three locations- there are no doubt more, but this is probably enough.  The majority of entries relate to correspondence, but I also put newspaper articles in as well.   When I view it as a table, it runs chronologically.

I feel a little sheepish admitting to such a paltry database.  It is an idiosyncratic little thing, of minimal use to anyone else, but invaluable for me- and that’s probably the most important thing. No doubt others would say “But why don’t you use ——- instead?” and they’d probably be right.  I think, though, at some stage you need to stop shopping around for the perfect program, and just sit down and start putting some data into it and using the damned thing.  When I reach its limitations and become frustrated, then I’ll either learn the extra functions I need within the program, or  look for something else.  In the meantime, this works okay for me and I’m just getting on with it.

‘The Sitters’ by Alex Miller

1995, 131 p.

The Sitters is only a small book- 131 pages- and as with other Alex Miller books, its simplicity is deceptive.  Its narrator is an elderly, somewhat self-deprecating and yet emotionally frozen painter who has not been able to return to his painting after achieving success with an earlier portrait The Tan Family.  I felt as if I had met this character before in other of Miller’s works the voice is similar to that in Lovesong and Miller has written about painting before in Prochownic’s Dream.

The narrator paints only portraits of other people, never his own family,  but

… a portrait’s always a portrait of the artist.  Except that nothing’s ever as simple as aphorisms.  Whenever we’re tempted to try them on, we discover that their general truths never quite fit our particular realities.  All the untidy bits are left hanging out, the important bits, the inexplicable stuff that nothing resolves, and we discover again that those explanations don’t help because they don’t belong to our present reality but belong to something in the language, to that other dimension.  The cover- up.  (p.71)

Language and silence are brought up against each other again and again in this small work.  Early on, the narrator comments

There are things that are impossible to express with words.  Language employed to express emotion is a perversion.  The records of commerce is the only honest use of written language.  The rest is a cover-up.  It’s not words that shape our intuitions.  It’s not in what we say but in what we leave unsaid that we reveal the shape of our deepest motives. In the places between the words.  In the tacit and the implicit. In the silence beyond words.  That’s where we hid our truth.  Behind the endless buzzing of language.  The sovereignty of silence is its ambiguity.  Silence is a power greater than speech. (p.16)

Spoiler alert:

Presence is brought up against absence as well.  The painter meets, fleetingly an expatriate academic, Jessica Keal,  who has returned to Canberra on a fellowship, and he is instantly attracted to her.  After a commission to paint a series of sketches of women, including her, he asks if he can paint her portrait- not just one, but many studies of her, over an extended period of time.  Yet when he does paint his first portrait of her, he finds that he leaves her out of the painting: the room, the bed, the furnishings are there, but she is absent.  He does not need his subject to be present, and when she is, he doesn’t necessarily paint her.  He had earlier in his career painted a close, recently deceased friend as a corpse, just died, and years later he will paint Jessica again, rubbing her chest in heart-pain. Some years earlier he had painted the back view of his agent.  His agent perceived this painting as a joke, which on one level it was, but it also revealed something about our narrator as painter.In a portrait-sitting, he is painting from life, but the life is not necessarily present in that moment.

He has never painted his family: indeed, he lives in a vacuum with his memories of his family intentionally suppressed, and his relationship with his son detached and observational.  He lets us know early in the book that he has distorted and embellished his memories of his father as some type of artistic mentor and influence.  He has extended his memory of a single pre-WWII day painting outdoors with his father into a golden-tinged lifetime of paternal artistic inspiration, and this benign memory has been overshadowed by the words and actions of the bitter, damaged man who returned from World War II.  His sister, from whom he had become estranged through inattention rather than intention, had written to him that she’d come to see one of his art shows but left without speaking to him, not wishing to intrude.  She had since died, and it was in painting The Tan Family, the painting that brought him the greatest praise, that he painted his grief for her, even though he didn’t recognize that.

The book is titled The Sitters (plural) and although ostensibly it is a slight story about an elderly painter and a younger female sitter, the ghosts of his childhood are sitting, too.  There are multiple sitters, not just one, and he is painting them present from their absence.

The book makes much of silence, but there’s much in it about language.  The sentences are short and pared-back, and although his narrator professes to eschew words, there is a joy in them as well.  The description of his sister as “ungainly, angular, gangly, ugly” betrays a joy in the sound and shape of words.  It is a reflection on the act of representation and capturing the essence, whether it be through words or through art.

This is a carefully crafted little book with nothing superfluous.  There are no chapters and the reader has to work a bit in following its leaps back and forward.   It sustains a sexual tension well, but is tinged with regret and vulnerability as well.  It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 1996 (a year with a majority of female authors, by the way); pipped by Christopher Koch’s 450 page Highways to a War.  You’d be hard-pressed to find two more dissimilar books.


Read because:  David recommended it.

‘Bereft’ by Chris Womersley

2010,  264 p.

There are eras in Australian history which, in my imagination are flooded with light- the gold rushes is one; the time around Federation is another- when Australia seemed open to opportunities, hungry for change and with the future opening up before it.  Then there are other low, muted,  hold-your-breath times, and I think that immediately after World I would have been such a time.  So much death and absence, felt so keenly at the intimate and everyday level and yet played out so far away: men returning broken, damaged and strangers to themselves, and the incomplete, unresolved grief about those men who failed to return.  Then, overlaying all this is another winnowing as the Spanish flu sweeps the country, as if Death has been brought home from across the sea.

Bereft is set in this time.   Quinn Walker returns from the front to his childhood town, Flint, in western New South Wales.  There is no homecoming celebration: instead he skulks in the bush, too frightened to appear in public.  Ten years earlier he had fled when his sister was found raped and stabbed, and he was accused of the crime that his father and uncle swore to avenge.  Watching his house from a distance, he realizes that his mother is very ill, probably with influenza, and that his father, frightened of catching it too, spends little time at the home, sitting on the verandah outside his dying wife’s window.  And so he is emboldened to approach the house when his father is not there, and his mother, not sure whether he is a hallucination or not, speaks with him.  She has lost everyone- her husband to bitterness and the quest for revenge, her daughter to the slaying, her eldest son to Queensland.  Quinn had just disappeared, confirming the rumours of his guilt and then was reported dead from the front- but now her younger son returns.  There is the word ‘orphan’  for a child who has lost its parents, she says, but no word for a parent who has lost her children. Or, thinks Quinn, for a brother who has lost his sister.  They are all just bereft.

He is being watched while he hides out in the bush.  Sadie Fox, a dishevelled, fey little orphan knows many dark things, and Quinn does not know quite what to make of her- changeling? spirit? urchin? hallucination?  In the face of so much bloodshed and pain, the line between life and death seems tenuous.  It is a time when clairvoyants feed on unresolved grief, and when many people are open to spiritualism.  Quinn’s own experience of the mud and the gas of the Front leaches into his present, and his own long absence from his home town means that his own identity is a vacuum.

Although Womersley has worked very hard in embedding the narrative within a particular time, I can see why this book has been described as ‘rural gothic’,  along with other Australian novels that span right up to the 1970s and 80s- think Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones,  Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well and Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender.   I do wonder, though, if the easy interchangeability of this book with others set some 70 years later suggests that (a) country life and country people do not change at all, and/or  (b) that he hasn’t quite captured early twentieth century relationships and interactions very clearly.  Did people speak, move and interact in a qualitatively different way in 1919 compared with 1969?  I’m not sure.

I can see continuities, too, with his first book The Low Road, in that they are both stories of escape and hiding.  In both of them there is a sense of pursuit.

Bereft is one of the three books that have made the cut as the short-list for the Miles Franklin prize. All up, Bereft is  a book that weaves many strands- historical fiction, a type of crime fiction, the supernatural, and small-town claustrophobia- and it does it well.  So far for me, though, That Deadman Dance is the front-runner- although my record in picking the Miles Franklin winner is, so far, abysmal! I was right but disgruntled in 2009 and wrong and outraged in 2010.

7.5/10  (I think I prefer scoring out of 10)

Those Mild Colonial Boys of the Law

Two young men, both working in the law, in two British settler colonies in different hemispheres, both diarists.

Mary Larratt Smith Young Mr Smith in Upper Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1980, 184 p. & notes.

J.M. Bennett (ed) Callaghan’s Diary: The 1840s Sydney Diary of Thomas Callaghan B. A. of the King’s Inns, Dublin, Barrister-at-Law, Sydney, Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History,2005. Available here.

Young Mr Smith in Upper Canada- what a terrific title!  It has echoes of “Mr Smith goes to Washington” and I was hoping that it might be an impassioned expose of Upper Canadian life, albeit a decade or two after the time I’m interested in, but no such luck.

Instead “Young Mr Smith” was Larratt William Violett Smith, who went to Upper Canada in 1833 with his family as a twelve year old boy and pretty much stayed there.  His diaries, transcribed and annotated here by his grand-daughter, cover the years 1839 (when he was aged eighteen) up to 1858 and aged thirty eight.  The author and granddaughter, Mary Larratt Smith, who shares half his name- has (or rather had- surely she’s not still alive?) one clear memory of her grandfather when she was taken to see him in the summer of 1905 when her grandfather was 85 and she was not quite three.  He lived in a large, early Victorian house called Summer Hill in what is now the Summerhill area of Toronto, with its own eponymous subway station.  It took her about ten years to transcribe his journals and a small collection of letters which now rest in the Canadian History Department of the Metropolitan Toronto Library.  The author/editor has embedded the journal entries and letters into her own explanatory narrative, and her occasional references to ‘my grandfather’ remind you that she has an emotional stake in this work.  I did find it annoying that the journal entries were not typographically marked out from her own surrounding material.  There was an italicized date at the start of the extract, but then she would sometimes slip between Larratt Smith’s words and her own with no clear visual marker of the difference.  The letters, at least, were presented in a smaller font, and much more clearly distinguished.

In 1833, “Young Mr Smith’s” father, Captain Larratt Hillary Smith from Devonshire, took advantage of the land grants offered to veteran law officers, and took up a large tract of land at Oro in Simcoe County.  He undertook the 38 day journey with his wife and four children, arriving in York where they stayed long enough to enroll Larratt and his younger brother George as boarders at Upper Canada College, before shifting the rest of the family to take up their primitive farm some distance away.  The farm land was stony and unproductive, the family was unhappy, and after four years the family moved closer to Twickenham Farm, closer to Toronto, leaving the Oro property behind.

Larratt and his brother continued at Upper Canada college. After serving as a  17-year old Lieutenant in the Home District militia during the 1837 Rebellion, Larratt then went to England. His Uncle George, with no sons of his own, had proposed training his nephew in the wine business with a view to eventually making him his heir.   But Larratt didn’t like it, returned to Canada, and his brother George went in his stead- probably not a good move as brother George ended up a very wealthy man.  Larratt decided to go into the law instead, and so he was articled to William Henry Draper, the solicitor general, and lived in Toronto as a young man-around-town.

And here we find him, attending the various balls in Toronto, hooning around climbing greasy poles and chasing pigs at the ‘Olympic Games” celebrated in Toronto in June 1843, stealing cats, shooting, singing, acting.  There are many similarities with small colonial life in Australia- assemblies, debating club, church etc. He lived in what sounded like a 19th-century share house with other young lads his own age, and had to shift lodgings several times.  Although he lived and worked as an independent young man in Toronto, his connections with his family at Twickenham Farm were strong. His father would often come into town and Larratt would often visit them and stay several days with them on holidays.

The journal entries are fairly short (although no doubt they would have appeared longer written in long hand)  with rather a preoccupation with the weather- although from what I read of Upper Canadian winters, who wouldn’t be obsessed with it.  [I’m slightly- very slightly- regretful (for about two seconds)  that we won’t be visiting there during the depths of winter as I just can’t imagine what such cold weather would be like.] He is interested in several girls, but eventually his attentions focus on Eliza Thom whom he marries on 23rd December 1845 on a day that was 18 degrees below zero at 7.a.m., and “a very fine day”.  There are not many intensely personal entries in his diary, and when they do occur, it is at a time of great distress: the loss of their first baby at four weeks from whooping cough, and six years later the death of Eliza herself.  The cause is not specified, but she died from what started as a cold a week earlier.  His two children are sent to live with their maternal grandmother, his own family having returned to England some years earlier.

In the second half of the book, Smith’s grand-daughter editor is able to supplement the fairly terse entries with a number of personal letters, and here Larratt Smith comes over as much more affable.  It’s in the letters, though, that you glimpse the Victorian attitudes towards marriage, sociability and money coming through in a letter to his father, when he is considering the idea of looking around for a second wife, three years after Eliza’s death:

I must have a house of my own before long.  I miss my boys dreadfully.  At the same time I have made up my mind (unless a pretty face makes a fool of me) that my better half that is to be ‘must bring some grist to the Mill.’  Now don’t imagine that I crave Fortune’s arrivistes, for I detest the species, & I could not marry the richest woman in the world if I could not win her affect, but I feel that the chain once broken is not the same, & that, bringing as much love as one can, there may be other qualifications not wholly to be disregarded.

Larratt Smith did remarry, a girl called Mary Elizabeth Smith, 18 years his junior and they went on to have eleven children together.  Larratt Smith paddled around in the shallows of political and legal life.  He was certainly known to many of the figures that I’ve been reading about- the Robinsons, the Jarvises, the Baldwins and the Boultons- although in many cases they were the sons of the men who were there when Judge Willis was in Upper Canada.

Although his parents had returned to England from their sojourn in Upper Canada, the family connections remained strong.  His father came over for a surprise visit- Larratt Smith had not received the letter telling him of his imminent arrival- and his sister came over to join him.  Larratt himself traveled home for a while, and there was much talk, at least, of visiting.


BUT This was not the case for a second Mild Colonial Boy of the Law, Thomas Callaghan   who arrived in Sydney in 1840. You can see a picture of him here.

His father had died when he was young, and although his mother managed to give her children a good education, she had had to flee to France to escape her creditors.  Thomas found himself at the age of 22 to be a briefless barrister in Dublin with bleak prospects.  In order to distance himself from his mother’s disgrace, and in hopes of “eventually securing my own fortune and acquiring wealth” young Thomas left Ireland  for Sydney.  He arrived without family and friends and established himself amongst the expatriate Irish legal community in Sydney.   His Catholicism brought him into contact with Roger Therry and John Herbert Plunkett in particular as prominent Catholic lawyers, but he also made contacts amongst the Supreme Court judges as well. Chief Justice Dowling turned up on his doorstep one morning, and, in what seems to be forming into a pattern, Judge Stephen as well:

I lay down on the bed, when a knock came to the door and Judge Stephen stood before it.  I was quite in undress, however he came in and stayed with me for some time. He is a man of quick and intelligent mind, but of a delicate and nervous frame.  He is a gentleman and rather unaffected, though having a very good opinion of himself. (10/3/1844).

In rather more decorous circumstances, he also came into contact with William A’Beckett and Richard Windeyer who assisted him in his career. He struggled to find his feet at first, and kept body and soul together by court reporting, which he did not enjoy.

How long am I to continue this work? To sit all day in a nasty court, side beside the greatest vagabonds under Heaven! Polluted by this contact and sickened by their breath, while I am performing an office of comparatively low and laborious drudgery.  This have I done for nearly six weeks and I know not how long I may have to continue it.  (24/6/41)

His contacts pulled on their strings of influence, but he had to wait several years until eventually being appointed a Commissioner in the Court of Claims, and then acting Crown Prosecutor.  Once promoted to Crown Prosecutor, his diaries trail away.

Callaghan’s journals, which apparently were penned in execrable handwriting, have been recently released with a introduction by J. M. Bennett.  Bennett provides a sound introduction, but then leaves us in Callaghan’s very capable hands.

This book is a terrific resource, not just as a window onto Sydney itself, but more particularly onto the legal community at the time. Callaghan himself has been likened to Samuel Pepys, and although this volume is only 196 pages compared with Pepys’ weighty tomes, I can see the likeness. Like Pepys, he is full of gossip and observation about the people he meets, inconsistent in his friendships, sociable and waspish at times. He is at times downcast about his decision to come to Sydney

I am beginning to think that I have been sadly mistaken in my plans for happiness here.  I have come to a barren soil, to a dreary land, to a wide country: I thought I was coming to a fine colony where wealth abounded, and where I should in a short time realize a fortune that would fit me for enjoying every comfort.  But now I find that I am in a poor, petty, profligate place where I may live perhaps by my own labour, but where I can scarecely hope ever to realize an ample fortune without resorting to all the vicissitudes of gambling in land an in similar speculations.  Here everything is extravagantly dear and every item is extravagantly expensive so that little can be saved of what is hardly earned.  The country in itself has no charms for me and its present people have few traits after my heart.   I am alone here and I doubt very much whether I could ever think of now staying or settling here. (27/11/41)

But he did: he married in 1848, had two sons and a daughter and developed a lucrative private practice and ended up a judge of the Quarter Sessions. He died prematurely at the age of 48 after being kicked in the head by a horse that he had just bought.  But let’s not end so gloomily.  He was a generous, if fitful, journal-writer, berating himself as many do for his inconstancy in writing:

September 2, 1843.  My last entry of June the 20th! This is improving in regularity with a vengeance!

How I work with my material- NVivo

What’s NVivo? you may ask.  It’s a qualitative data analysis software program that I use to keep control of the data that I’m gathering as part of my research.  You can read more about NVivo here. 

I first came across NVivo in its earlier incarnation as NUD*IST, which was a much more playful and memorable name.  I am still using NVivo 7 because my clapped-out old laptop here wouldn’t download NVivo 8, and now I see that there is an NVivo 9.  Fortunately I use mine under my university’s site licence (I think that it’s very expensive) and for now the older versions are still available.

NVivo (or NUD*IST in its earlier life) was developed originally by Lyn Richards, a sociologist at La Trobe University, and it reflects many of the time-honoured ways that academics work with data anyway-  identifying major themes and points (which often found their way onto index cards); highlighting themes in a particular document with different coloured pens, cutting up documents to group all the themes together etc.  NVivo does much the same thing, digitally.  And because every project is different, and because people work differently, no two NVivo outcomes would be the same.

First you need to put a document into NVivo.   This isn’t a problem for me as I type up notes on the computer as I go.  Here’s a shot of all the documents or ‘sources’ that I have about Judge Willis in Melbourne.  Some of them are full transcribed documents, others are my notes.  If I have the document in hard copy or saved as a PDF elsewhere, I might save it as a ‘proxy document’ with a very stripped down content skeleton, with the expectation that I can go back and look at the full document easily.

When you have a document you identify the themes in it.  You call these themes ‘nodes’, and it’s just like tagging, or using a different coloured highlighter pen for each theme.  You develop the themes as you go along.

So, in the picture about, I might be reading Paul de Serville’s ‘Port Phillip Gentlemen’, and I might notice that a paragraph is about ‘authority’ or ‘class’ or ‘gentlemanly expectations’.  I would highlight the paragraph and select the node on the left hand side, or create a new node if it was something that I hadn’t come across before.

This means that you develop a long list of nodes that you’ve identified across all your documents.  You can group related concepts into ‘tree nodes’ or just leave them alphabetical as shown below.  Because you have developed the nodes yourself, you get to know what is there and move around it quite quickly.  When you’re working with a particular document it  also collects the nodes that you’re working on as you go along into a drop-down menu, and as they tend to recur, it means that you’re working with a smaller set. But here is my master list as of today of the Port Phillip nodes I’d developed. If I worked on a new document tomorrow and identified new nodes, they would be added to the list.

So if you want to find, for example, all the documents that you had tagged as being ‘beliefs about convicts’, then you can bring them all up onto the one page.

If you click on the underlined hyperlink, it takes you to the source document where you coded it in NVivo.  It’s better not to code great slabs of material; just enough for you to get the gist and then go back to the source document for the surrounding material.  The real advantage of this is that it means that you don’t forget about material that you read years earlier, especially once it mounts up.  It also brings together the primary and secondary material again when the tendency is to develop the tunnel vision of “now I’m working on letters”, forgetting about the insights you’d discovered in secondary sources. You can write ‘memos’, which are your own reflections on a particular point, which can also be coded and thrown into the pot as well.

You can also go back to a particular document (or ‘source’) and at a glance see the themes that you’d identified in it. For example, here’s my screen for Paul de Serville’s ‘Port Phillip Gentlemen’. At p.128 I’d found information about ‘the nature of Port Phillip society’, ‘party split’ ‘Kerr’ and ‘Fawkner’ and coded that paragraph accordingly.

It is intended that you develop the nodes as you go along which means that at some stage they become big, baggy unwieldy monsters.  At this stage you need to think- do I need to split this concept into smaller nodes? Or alternatively, you find that you’ve made several nodes that are really talking about the same thing-  are they really separate concepts? would I lose some particular quality of the concept if I combined two similar nodes?

It does also mean that sometimes documents you read earlier in your research have concepts that were not apparent to you at the time, but that’s true of research generally.  At least with a digitized program like this, you’re likely to come across the documents again under a different code and can go back and add extra codes as you go.  It’s intended that it keeps growing and changing.  For me, it’s certainly more dynamic than having notes filed in hard copy in folders where you forget you’d ever even seen the document at all.  It also means that my own fleeting reflections in ‘memos’ are brought back to life again.

As I said, I’m using an old version and I note that NVivo 9 has fixed up one of the real bug-bears – being able to see the codes while you’re actually coding- which for some reason you could no longer do, even though very early versions of the program did have this feature.  It would be worth getting NVivo 9 for this feature alone- in fact, it may even prompt me into splashing out for a new computer.  It also claims that you can use PDFs but I’m not sure- earlier versions claimed this too but it only worked for OCR’d or text-based PDFs – not image based PDFs which it inevitably seemed mine were.  I usually just save the PDF on the computer and make a proxy document (i.e. a dot point summary)- it’s too time consuming mucking around with it.

The drawbacks?  The major one is the fear that the whole system is going to crash and that you’ll lose everything.  Also, there is the limitation that you can only get out of it what you put into it-  it takes discipline and routine.  I type up my notes, save them,  print it off  (yes, I do keep hard copy- 2 sheets to a page), put it into Endnote, put it into NVivo, code it,  tick on the top of the hard copy that it has been endnoted and N-Vivo’d and then file it  in a ring folder alphabetically by author. The folders on my bookshelves are multiplying alarmingly.   It also has to be an ongoing process-  I have to be prepared to go back and fix up the deficiencies in the coding when I happen upon a document that I’d read early on, and sometimes this is a bit distracting. But this is the price of keeping it current.  I do have parallel systems: I also tag in Endnote and, to a lesser extent Zotero, which I use for  internet-based material and somewhat less methodically.

And the advantages?  Particularly with my family history of Alzheimer’s, I’m frightened of losing track of all this!  I think that any researcher has this fear, Alzheimers or not.  I’m relatively confident that I can put my hands on the main documents fairly easily.  When I’m working at a conceptual level, it’s easy to grab together all the examples of a phenomenon e.g. ‘loyalty’, and tease it out further because it’s all in one place.  Because primary and secondary sources are intermingled, then I  can find concrete examples relatively easily.  I’m very well aware that I only use it in a rudimentary fashion and that I could probably do other things with it, but I haven’t got time to learn them, and it works just fine for me.

Of course, it doesn’t always work, as this sad experience shows.  I still haven’t found the damned document that I was looking for, and I still don’t know whether it ever existed or whether I read into the document something that really wasn’t there.  In the end, I wrote around it and found other evidence that was good enough-  but I still live in hope that one day I’ll stumble across it again.

‘Rocks in the Belly’ by Jon Bauer

2010,  296 p

I’m not going to give this book a star rating (something I’ve only started doing recently anyway).  I really don’t know what I’d give it.  I very nearly didn’t finish reading it, and that is unusual for me: I usually hang on to the bitter end once I’ve started a book.  But I found this book very disturbing and unrelievedly painful and I did not enjoy the experience of reading it at all.  Is that powerful writing? Probably.  Did I want it to go on for even one page longer? Definitely not.

The story is written in two strands.  One is in the voice of eight-year old boy, an only child, whose family fosters other children as well.  They have been recently joined by Robert, an older boy.  The second voice is that of the same boy, now twenty-eight, returned from Canada because his mother is dying of brain cancer.  Significantly, we don’t ever learn what the narrator’s name is, and although the voice of the child and the man are distinctive, the pain, injury and jealousy throbs through both narrative strands equally.  A damaged and damaging child: a damaged and damaging man.

In the acknowledgments at the back of the book Bauer mentions that the book had an earlier incarnation as a short story.   Maybe a book so lacerating  should remain in a small format- a 190 page novella perhaps.  I did not want to keep reading, and I just wanted the pain, all round,  to stop. I tired of the scatological references to wee, the poo and doodles by the young boy and I shuffled uncomfortably at the violence and warped thinking of the man.  I didn’t want to be with any of these people.

I see that it has been long-listed for the Miles Franklin.  I’m not sure.  In fact, I was quite positive that it was set in England- to me it had all the hallmarks of the archetypal ‘gritty BBC mini-series’- and I was surprised flipping through the book later to find that there is no real indication of where it is set.  Its oppressiveness, the hedged garden, the upstairs bedrooms, all signalled England to me.  I don’t think that the Miles Franklin is the right award for this book.

I am sure, as Lisa at ANZLitlovers point out, that this book would spark a lively discussion in book groups.  However, thinking of my bookgroup ladies, I suspect that if I, not usually so disturbed by a book, found it difficult to continue then they even more would baulk at such unmitigated pain.

Opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne 12 April

I see that the The Honorable Marilyn Warren AC, Chief Justice of Victoria  is to speak at the RHSV on the 28th April about the opening of the Supreme Court in Melbourne 170 years ago this month.  Look at the header on this blog- this is Liardet’s rendering of the occasion, many years later.  Here’s the uncropped picture:

By all accounts, the first Supreme Court occupied a rather unprepossessing temporary building that was blazing hot in summer and cold in winter.  Here’s what Garryowen (Edmund Finn) had to say about it:

At the south-west corner of King and Bourke Streets there was, in early days, erected a plain-looking, store-like, brick-walled, shingle-covered building, and therein the small business of the Crown Lands Department (controlled by Commissioners) was disposed of.  The entrance at one end faced Bourke Street, and nothing could be less pretentious, less comfortable, or uglier.  In the beginning of 1841, when it was known that a branch of the Supreme Court was to be established in the district, the ruling powers were at their wits’ end as to how, and where, an apartment could be procured for the temporary accommodation of the Resident Judge and his judicial following.  After a good deal of casting about, it was finally resolved to convert this place into a legal “make-shift” and the Crown Lands Commissioners, with their troopers and bailiffs, were hurried off to a wattle-and-daub shed, a rearward appurtenance of the Superintendent’s establishment on Batman’s Hill.  So the barn underwent a partial process of fitting up; and the single-roomed cottage referred to in a previous chapter as a Clerk of Works’ Office behind, was transformed into “Chambers”.  p. 179 This “rookery” then became the Supreme Court, and here it was that the willful and wayward Judge Willis “ruled the roost”. (p. 179)

It certainly had none of the grandeur and visual power of the later, purpose-designed courthouse erected where the Old City Court building now stands in Russell Street.  Instead, it was rather gently derided by the Port Phillip inhabitants:

THE COURT HOUSE:- Some steps should be taken to render this place tenantable.  In winter, parties compelled to attend undergo the operation of freezing, which is materially aided by the chilling draught of air which circulates freely in the building, obtaining ingress and egress through the roof, windows and door.  In the summer, the N.W. Sirocco will scorch the auditory, while the gentlemen of the press will require neither pounce (1) nor blotting paper to absorb the moisture of their hieroglyphics.  Lath and plaster might go a great way to remove this cause of complaint; while the expense would be trifling, the convenience would be great, and prevent many of “the ills which flesh is heir to”. During the present cold weather a machine has been erected on the platform of the Bench, out of sight, bearing a strong resemblance to the tin establishment of an itinerant vendor of roasted potatoes; but whatever heat emanates therefrom must be appropriated to the peculiar cherishment of His Honor’s legs- “Reform it altogether.” Port Phillip Herald, 22 June 1841

You’re hard pressed to find any hint of that first, small Supreme Court building now.

South -west corner King and Bourke Streets, Melbourne, site of the first Supreme Court

Here’s the Port Phillip Gazette report of the occasion of the opening of the court:


The first sitting of this tribunal took place   at the temporary Court House in King street on Monday the 12th instant. As might have been expected on such a momentous occasion, there was a large attendance of the inhabitants drawn together by the importance and the novelty of the scene. After the reading of the Act for the   prevention of ” vice and immorality” the proclamation of the authority of the Court, and the commission of His Honor Judge Willis, and  after he had submitted to the ceremony of  being sworn in, in a full and clear voice the learned judge delivered himself of the following   opening address, which for the legal acumen displayed in its production, and the good feeling manifested in its tone and delivery cannot be too highly spoken of.-

And then he launched into his opening address which you can read through Trove (Sydney Herald, 26th April 1841). Knowing as we do that Judge Willis was to dismissed just over two years later on pretty much the grounds he identifies here,  the speech is steeped in irony for us as readers.  No doubt people at the time heard it differently.

All very stirring, uplifting stuff.  But even at this earliest stage of Willis’ time in Melbourne, the Port Phillip Herald raised a sceptical eyebrow and reserved its judgment about the speeches  for the time being:

The Port Phillip Bar.- Upon the induction of the bar on Monday last, the supply of wig and gown was most promising-white neck- cloths were at a premium-and there was that cheerful diversity of nose and whisker surrounding the table, for which the English bar is so eminently celebrated. Touching the Demosthenian or Ciceronian orations delivered on the   occasion, we say nothing, but pause until time shall have mellowed down those fiery exhibitions usually accompanying maiden efforts.


[1] Pounce, apparently, was a powder used to prevent ink from spreading and blot up excess ink.

‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini

2003, 324 p.


I think that I must be the only person in the planet not to have read this book or seen the movie- and maybe that’s why I hadn’t.  It topped the bestseller lists in many places in the world, and it seems to be a book that people have taken to their hearts.

And why not?  I’m not going to summarize the plot- it’s been done exhaustively here. For the first two-thirds of the book, it was so authentic that I was beguiled into treating it as autobiography–and yes, yes I know that first person narrator does not necessarily mean autobiography, but it was imbued with an authenticity that swept me along and made me forget that.   And then, all of a sudden, at the point when the narrator receives a cut on his lip that mirrored the repaired cleft lip of his companion Hassan, the bones on the plot started to jut out.  With the literary equivalent of ‘jumping the shark‘, it seemed to me that all the coincidences warped into absurdity and the attempts at parallels collapsed into contrived and heavy-handed plot manipulation.  To his credit, the author resisted the temptation of an unequivocal happily-ever-after.

I can see why so many people have embraced the book, though.  It is story-telling, pure and simple.  I’m satisfied in a narrative sense when things ‘click’ as the chronology of the book catches up with something foreshadowed, and when events vibrate in a careful balance. There’s something emotionally filling about the goodies being recognized even if they’re not vindicated; the baddies being punished; redemption and the fulfillment of destiny.     The book is a fable, well told.  I’m only sorry that by overplaying the plotting, it became all too obvious that there was a plotter behind it- a literary Wizard of Oz, so to speak.

This book joins a group of best-sellers about Islamic countries that have been embraced by a Western mainstream audience, primed and curious perhaps by the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (and isn’t that a term to make us squirm now) and the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Because of the audience they attract, such books have much weight placed upon them.  And so I am uncomfortable with the piling of stereotype upon stereotype onto the Taliban villain here- Nazism, child abuse, hypocrisy, corruption.  Let fanaticism be evil enough.

One last thing, though.  As a person with a cleft lip herself, I was gratified to find that the depiction of Hassan’s cleft was probably the most accepting and matter-of-fact that I have read (despite the fact that it was called a ‘harelip’ throughout). I sometimes wonder if I’ve been targeted through internet data trawling, but I have seen more pictures  of older children with unrepaired clefts on the internet through Smile Train advertisements than any first-world inhabitant would ever see in real life.   By the time I reached the end of the book I had inured myself against the tear-jerking moments that seemed just a little too  obviously crafted, but I will admit that I cried like a baby when Hassan looked into the mirror after his surgery and gently touched the stitches on his swollen lip. I’ve been there myself, and as a mother, and I know what a big, wonderful thing that is.   I don’t know why, as author,  Hosseini gave him the cleft – being a Hazara in Afghanistan, undersized, in a menial position in a rich household, bullied, degraded and betrayed as he is,  would surely be enough.  But the cleft was there, it just was, and that’s probably the way it should be.

So- a mixed response.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #9

Not a historian this time but one of my favourite fiction writers, and not so much uplifting as interesting.  It’s the late Carol Shields from a short story I read last night called Collision. She’s talking about biography, not as a genre or literary construct, but as the live experience that we all accumulate around ourselves just through the act of being and living:

The only law of biography is that everything, every particle, must be saved.  The earth is alight with it, awash with it, scoured by it, made clumsy and burnished by its steady accretion… That’s the worst of it: there’s nothing selective about biography’s raw data, no sorting machine, no briny episodes underlined in yellow pencil or provided with bristling asterisks- it’s all here, the sweepings and the leavings, the most trivial personal events encoded with history.  Biography- it sniffs it out, snorts it up… (p. 315)

…Written biography, that’s another matter, quite another matter! Memoirs, journals, diaries. Works of the biog-imagination are as biodegradable as orange peels.  Out they go. Pssst- they blast themselves to vapor, cleaner and blonder than the steam from a spotless kettle.  Nothing sticks but the impulse to get it down. (p.316)

From ‘Collision’, Carol Shields The Collected Stories

‘Life in Seven Mistakes: A Novel’ by Susan Johnson

2008,  344 p.

(4.5 out of 5)

One of the two epigraphs that grace the opening pages of this book quotes Shakespeare’s As you Like It

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances’

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His act being seven ages.

I’m not sure that it was a particularly apposite quote, and it complicated rather than illuminated the title of this book, which for the life of me I can’t quite make fit with the story itself.    Doesn’t matter really: I enjoyed it anyway.

There are two intertwined narratives in the book.  The first, written in the present tense, is told from the perspective of Elizabeth, a middle-aged ceramicist on the verge of her first international exhibition. She has travelled up to Surfers Paradise with her third husband Neil and her children to spend Christmas, and to celebrate her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary four days later. Her  brother and his wife and  children have done the same.     Ah- families- you’ve gotta love them, don’t you- with all that jealousy and love and rawness and spite mixed in together.  There they are, in their parents’ large air-conditioned penthouse at the top of a Gold Coast hi-rise: Bob the patriarch a boorish, loud bully; Nancy his tense, controlling,  hyper-critical wife; Robbo the younger brother who just rolls with the punches and his rather intrusive and opinionated wife, and a brood of disengaged, self-absorbed grandchildren.  Then there’s  Elizabeth, our entree into this family,  who despite her own status as mother, artist and adult woman feels as if she turns into a little girl again around her parents.  Her brother Robbo is spot on about her:

You’re pathetic.  Still bleating about what Mummy and Daddy did to you when you’re almost old enough to retire.  Next year you’ll qualify for one of those over-fifty retirement places.  Are you still going to be blaming your parents when you’re seventy? Life’s too short, Liz (p. 108)

Then there’s the missing youngest brother, Nick who is in jail after a long history of drug use with all the betrayal, defiance and hurt that this brings.  He’s barely spoken of, only briefly encountered in the book,  and yet a presence nonetheless.

How did this family get to be like this?  The other narrative strand takes the young Bobby and Nancy as they meet in the 1950s, begin courting, marry, have children, become increasingly affluent as Bob (who drops the ‘Bobby’) moves up the corporate ladder  into private schools, prestige cars, Surfers Paradise penthouses etc.  But all of this comes at a price- expectations of gratitude and performance- and Bob becomes angrier at the world and the sense of entitlement that he himself has fostered for himself and his family; Nancy tries to make herself and her children smaller targets;  and the three children in their own ways negotiate this spreading emotional mine-field.

Both narrative threads were strong and well-made, and I didn’t find myself regretting when I turned the page to find that the narrative was about to switch again.  The dialogue was particularly good, and the author obviously has a sharp, observant eye.   The ending had an emotional authenticity, at least for this middle-aged reader at the time I am in my own life, although other readers may judge it a cop-out.  The book had the groundedness and edge of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, and felt a little like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections down under.  This is perhaps a little flippant: all three of these books have a truth at their core about loyalties, judgment and the emotional mess of just living.  All three are more than the “human comedies” that their blurb writers have pigeon-holed them as.

Oh, but that title- it’s turning me into a numerologist.  There’s seven main characters- is that it?  Or is it, on p. 106 when Elizabeth lists all the things that people tell her not to be take too seriously: love, art, university, jobs, children, her parents, life itself–  there’s seven of them too.  I wish I hadn’t been so hung up on looking for a reference to the title while reading, and I wish I could let it go now too, but Elizabeth-like, I can’t.  Perhaps that’s the mark of a good book- that it turns YOU into its protagonist??!! ( now that’s  a dangerous thought….)

Some other blog reviews:

Kimbofo at Reading Matters

Lisa at ANZLitLovers

Reeling and Writhing

And other reviews:

The Sydney Morning Herald review by Louise Swinn

The transcript of Jo Case’s review on RN’s Book Show

Felicity Plunkett’s review in The Age

The Australian review by Jennifer Levasseur