Monthly Archives: May 2011


Entries might be a little light-on here for a while.  We’re over in Canada for the next month, then the UK after that.  If you’d like to follow my travel blog for a while, you’ll find it at

‘Other people’s words’ by Hilary McPhee

2001, 312 p.

Most people writing an autobiography (or even more risibly, having it ghost-written) announce that it is ‘in their own words’.  The title of this book is a little disingenuous.  The book certainly is in the words of the author, Hilary McPhee, but it is the story of her time dealing with other people’s writing as editor and proprietor of McPhee/Gribble books- a small, relatively short-lived, but influential publishing house in Australia.

As you might expect from someone immersed in other people’s words, the book is very well written.  It is divided into two parts.  Part I is largely biographical, pulling on a few family history strings, and contextualizing McPhee’s life as an Australian, swept up in the political and social changes of the Whitlam era and afterwards.  It establishes her as an intelligent, middle-class, educated young woman who seemed to fall into the publishing industry almost inadvertently, although her love for reading was a constant throughout her life.

Part II commences many years later as she settles down in the Melbourne University archives, reopening the files of the defunct McPhee/Gribble company which had been donated to the university.  As she does so, the emotions evoked by memories sweep over her- elation, bitterness, cold disappointment.  The company was started by two Australian women, in a male-dominated industry still hidebound by the copyright and marketing constraints of the colonial publishing market.  And for a golden moment, it worked. They were young, they had children, it was exciting and new and different.  Somehow, in a less performance-driven time, they managed to combine what sounds like a creche with the sensitivities of working with authorly egos and wading into an international industry where Australia was only a minor player.  It ended in tears, of course and quite literally, as most people reading this book would probably know.

In this regard, I find myself wondering whether the first part of the book was even necessary.  Apparently McPhee herself found the arc and voice for Part I only after writing Part II, and while it helped to contextualize the story of the company and its main actors, I would have been quite happy just to have had Part II.

This is a real reader’s book.  McPhee/Gribble developed an enviable list of writers- Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Murray Bail spring immediately to mind- but there are other writers here too that, after reading this book several years ago, I rushed out to read (e.g. Glen Tomasetti’s Thoroughly Decent People). Or at least, I bought their books to add to the to-be-read pile (e.g. Rod Jones’ Julia Paradise, and Gerald Murnane).  She occasionally gives the opening paragraphs of the most famous of the books they published and the words hit you with a rush of familiarity and affection, as if they are old friends from way back that you  weren’t expecting to see.  I haven’t read all the books she mentioned by a long shot, but I’d heard of most of them, and while the book could descend into name-dropping in less skilled hands, I certainly didn’t feel that way.  I found myself scouring my bookshelf, and pouncing on the McPhee/Gribbles I found there – “aha! there’s one”- and perusing the little logos on the spine in a way that I hadn’t before.

The book ends wistfully and rather pessimistically as the book industry becomes more depersonalized and more market-driven. I hadn’t realized the consequences of industry policies before globalisation- I was aware of the difficulties of Australian authors getting published, but less aware that the British dominance of our industry meant that American titles were rarely released here.  And since globalisation, she describes a scenario (that one suspects in drawn from real life, unfortunately) of a young writer’s first book being rushed through into a marketing schedule before it was ready and sinking silently as the next product was pushed through.  I suspect that things have not improved, ten years later.

Look- she has a blog where you can read a chapter of the book, a transcript of a 2006 interview and there’s a 2010 interview on Radio National’s bookshow.

My rating: 8.5/10

Reason read: Face-to-face bookgroup (the ladies who say oooh, except that they don’t anymore.)

‘Collected Stories’ by Carol Shields

2004 (posthumously), 593 p.

For someone who doesn’t like short stories, I seem to be reading quite a few of them lately.  This book is actually an omnibus edition of three short story collections: Various Miracles, The Orange Fish, and Dressing up for the Carnival.

I’ve read several Carol Shields books- The Stone Diaries, Larry’s Party, Unless and her biography of Jane Austen.  Sadly, she died  in 2003.   These short stories draw on the same wellspring as her longer works,  capturing the broad sweep of individual lives through the almost pointillist rendering of small details.

The stories I most enjoyed here were about the act of writing, and biography in particular. ‘Mrs Turner Cutting the Grass’ is about an ordinary woman, living an unexceptional life, oblivious that she was the butt of a satirical poem that cemented the academic reputation of a professor of literature. Another story ‘Edith-Esther’ is about a writer resisting the shaping of her life-story by her biographer.

But there are stories about other things as well- several stories about mortality (made more poignant by the author’s early death from cancer), and a sad story, ‘Fragility’ about grieving parents looking for a new house after their disabled adult son has died.  The stories are not always told by a female narrator, but the narrative voice is similar across them- an educated, mature, self-deprecating, sensitive voice- someone you’d want to spend time with.

I loved these stories.  She has a way of capturing a shard of reality, and she can sweep across years and decades effortlessly.  She’s such a skilled, human writer.

Rating: 8.5/10

Read because: I’ve enjoyed her longer works; she’s Canadian and I’m on a Canadian reading kick at the moment, and I’m sometimes too tired to read anything too heavy at night.

Age in the colonies

Just tootling around the ‘net, as one does, I found a review of a book that sounds fascinating- Aging by the Book: The Emergence of Mid-Life in Victorian Britain by Kay Heath.  The review is  well worth reading, and you’ll find it at the Rorotoko site.

2009, 262 p.

Here’s the blurb for the book from the publisher’s website, which also includes a download of the first chapter:

Aging by the Book offers an innovative look at the ways in which middle age, which for centuries had been considered the prime of life, was transformed during the Victorian era into a period of decline. Single women were nearing middle age at thirty, and mothers in their forties were expected to become sexless; meanwhile, fortyish men anguished over whether their “time for love had gone by.” Looking at well-known novels of the period, as well as advertisements, cartoons, and medical and advice manuals, Kay Heath uncovers how this ideology of decline permeated a changing culture. Aging by the Book unmasks and confronts midlife anxiety by examining its origins, demonstrating that our current negative attitude toward midlife springs from Victorian roots, and arguing that only when we understand the culturally constructed nature of age can we expose its ubiquitous and stealthy influence.

One of the things that struck me when looking at Port Phillip was how young people were.  At one level, this seems reasonable: the trip from the United Kingdom (which is where many immigrants came from) was formidable, although some older people did broach it.   Sydney and Van Diemen’s land, as the older settlements,  had seen the elapse of generations by the time of Port Phillip’s establishment in the 1830s, and many of these second and third generation settlers crossed the strait or came down from Sydney to a ‘new’ settlement that did not have  tainted connotations and which offered a new frontier and opportunities.

In Port Phillip itself, people commented about the youth of the population at the time.  E. M. Curr wrote:

Perhaps the first thing one noticed was the almost total absence of women from the streets, as well as the paucity of old men.  In those days anyone over thirty was spoken of as old So-and-so ( E. M. Curr, Recollections of Squatting in Victoria)

The figures (flawed as they may be) of the 1841 Census for the Port Phillip District bear him out:

Under 2 305 340
2 and under 7 479 425
7 and under 14 395 395
14 and under 21 561 384
21 and under 45 6045 1824
45 and under 60 442 86
Over 60 47 6

Source:  HCCDA Historical Census and Colonial Data Archive

There’s that huge imbalance of men between the ages of 21-45, many of whom arrived by themselves or with their brothers and they so quickly take their place in Port Phillip society.  Redmond Barry was 26 when he arrived; the newspaper editor George Arden was about 21 when he confronted Judge Willis.  Peter Snodgrass, another young man about town who also fell under Willis’ notice was 24.

Paul de Serville in his book Port Phillip Gentlemen  likens polite society prior to the 1842 depression to

…an unreformed public school before the tone had been elevated by a middle-class Arnold.  Visitors and new arrivals were at once struck by the youth of the colonists (p.37)

I haven’t, as yet, noticed the same phenomenon in Upper Canada where, so far at least, it seems that there is more emphasis on family migration.  Something to bear in mind perhaps.

‘Stopping All Stations’ by Rick Anderson

2010, 155 p plus 59 pages fascinating notes!

I have some news for you next time you’re sitting on the Eastern Freeway with a long ribbon of red brake lights ahead of you.  Or perhaps if you’re stopping and starting, stopping and starting behind one of those grey and orange Smart Buses travelling -why! from Altona to Mordialloc- shucks, the journey only takes four hours.  And here’s the news- Melbourne almost had the makings of an inner circle railway that would delivered efficient east-west rail travel – and we ditched it!

I like trains, actually.  I live close to a station and on quiet nights if the wind is blowing the right direction, you can even hear the beep of the train doors closing and the station announcements.  I’ve always enjoyed looking at the inner-city backyards as you speed over Collingwood and Richmond on the limited express between Jolimont and Clifton Hill. They’ve changed over the decades: the outside dunnies have all disappeared and backyard living-room extensions leave just a small courtyard with enough room for an outdoor dining table and that’s it.

Stopping All Stations is a history of Melbourne’s trains, written by a suburban train driver.  He starts with the early private railways of the 1850s, bubbling along with the riches of gold-rush Melbourne.  There’s a string of acronyms here: The Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway (MHBR) , our first, that ran to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) which had been so inconveniently distant from the settlement on the Yarra;  the Melbourne, Mt Alexander and Murray River Railway Company (MMA&MRR) that never really got off the ground;  the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company (G&MR) that only lasted four years before being taken over; the Melbourne and Suburban Railway (M&SR)  that operated between Flinders St and CremorneAfter myriad re-combinations of their acronyms, they, along with later railways to St Kilda and Brighton, and Essendon had all been swallowed up by the  Victorian Railways  by the early 1880s..

The book is subtitled (rather clumsily) “Melbourne’s unfinished transport work/opportunities lost” and this was the most fascinating part for me- the little railways and circuits that emerged and then disappeared.  There was the Outer Circle Railway that in 1892 ran between Fairfield Park and Oakleigh (map here) and an Inner Circle that existed between  1901-1942, on paper at least, that connected Rushall, North Fitzroy, North Carlton and Royal Park.

You can just detect the remnants of these lines at Fairfield, near the paper mills; and along the bike track in North Fitzroy.

Closer to home, there’s the Mont Park rail spur that connected to Macleod station, battling manfully up the hill to what is now a new housing estate. Lost opportunities indeed- LaTrobe University, which opened within a year or two of the Mont Park spur closing, would have provided the patronage that the small line lacked. Our three 1960s universities- Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe, have all been poorly served by train services, and I note that there are plans for a Melbourne University station under yet another grand transport scheme that will probably never see the light of day.

One of the real joys of this book are the little hand-drawn maps that show these now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t lines.  There’s a terrific graphic of the boa-constrictor nature of Victoria Railways as it swallowed up smaller private lines, and the text is sprinkled with the author’s own paintings of trains, signals and stations.  The book is a real labour of love, and Melburnians- even those not enamoured of trains per se- can find plenty to regret when considering the public transport that could have been.

I bet you thought that I couldn’t find a connection between Judge Willis and Melbourne’s train system which, after all, was not even thought of until some ten years after he left.  But in the spirit of Six Degrees of Separation between Judge Willis and the Railways,  the house that Willis leased while in Melbourne (which, incidentally was next door to my childhood home- hence my initial interest in him)was owned by Malcolm Macleod.  Macleod provided land to the railways on condition that the station was named after him- hence Macleod station.

Read because: I wanted to learn more about the Mont Park spur line. And because I really do like trains.

‘Time’s long ruin: a novel’ by Stephen Orr

2010, 422 p

It seems to me that most recently-published Australian fiction books  hover around the 300 page mark, and it’s relatively rare to have a book that extends over the 400 page range.  So, at 422 pages, Time’s Long Ruin  is a lengthy book,  reflecting the title that is drawn from one of the three lengthy epigraphs on the opening pages.  As a book, it felt long too.  Part I, which was 179 pages in length, functioned to set the scene and introduce the main characters.  Part II at 243 pages traced the slow-motion disappearance of the children at the centre of the narrative, then the long unspooling of a fruitless  investigation and the unresolved grief of family and friends- a grief, anxiety and perplexity that still lurks behind parenting and child crimes today.

The plot is loosely based on the Beaumont children who disappeared in 1967 but the author relocated the timing to the early 1960s instead.  Given that the author himself was born in 1967, the rendering of 1960s Adelaide is drawn from research rather than memory, which is quite an achievement in itself.  Much of the book has the elegiac feel of a wistful memoir, with details and sensations piled on heavily- a little too heavily, I think, because it felt at times like a lengthy oral history.  There is an element of slippage in the narrator: at first it is an adult Henry, still living in his family home many years later looking back on his childhood, but then the ‘memoir’ voice morphs into the child’s eye view of  Henry, the nine-year old next door neighbour of the Riley children who disappeared.  This child’s-eye view of suburbia and the tapestry of local shopkeepers, teachers, doctors and neighbours is both perceptive and oblivious at the same time.

Perhaps the fact that the author himself is younger than the events he is describing accounts for a major infelicity that troubled me in the book.  The minute, step-by-step description of the children’s trip to the beach by train suggests that neighbours and incidental witnesses noticed the children heading off to the beach, as if there were something unusual or incongruous about it.  I’m not sure that there was.  A group of three children, especially, would have the run of the neighbourhood, and a train-line was just an extension of that neighbourhood.  I’m sure that the parents of the real-life missing  children blamed themselves and each other afterward, and I think that the blood every parent of a child of the 60s- of which I am one- ran cold at the Beaumont case (and still does). But  at Beaumont-time and even after,  children continued to roam the streets in little groups, returning home only when the street lights came on,  going from one friend’s house to another, catching buses and trains with little parental oversight- I know, because we did.  There was nothing so unusual in the latitude given to the fictional Riley children.

The author is quite clear, even by the subtitle of the book that it is fiction, and by warping the time-frame in the way he has, he gives himself licence to evoke other Adelaide-based mysteries and insecurities as well-  the Somerton Man case of 1949 (which I’d never heard of- I thought that Taman Shud were a band !) and hints of the Snowtown murders of the 1990s by placing one of the main characters there at the time of the children’s disappearanceIn this regard, I felt as if my Adelaide-buttons were being pressed to trigger my knee-jerk reactions to Adelaide mythology-  disappearances, dead bodies, and Don Bradman.  It seems a little too easy to do.

In the lengthy second half, the author of course is faced with the dilemma that having based his plot so closely on the Beaumont children, of course there could be no resolution.  Much of the narrative in Part II involves disclaimers “I couldn’t know, but I imagine that it went like this….”. Combined with the long scene-setting in Part I, this contributes to a nebulousness about the whole endeavour, which is offset to some extent by the meticulous detailing of place and milieu.

The book was long-listed for the 2011 Miles Franklin Prize but did not make the cut into the very short short-list.  I think that this is appropriate on both levels- it does deserve recognition as a careful depiction of Australian life, but I’m not sure that it is the highest expression of this.

Some other reviews of this book include Deborah Orr’s review in Transnational Literature, a review by Liz Ellison at Culture and the Media, David Whish-Wilson and Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Rating: 7/10

Read because: it was long-listed for the 2011 Miles Franklin.

‘Postcards from Surfers’ by Helen Garner

1985,  106 p.

I don’t really know how to review a book of short stories.  I find myself making several assumptions.  I assume that it is a selection from a corpus of work developed over a period of time:  it is common to find that several stories in a collection have appeared in other compilations previously.  I assume that someone–  author? editor?- had a vision for a book of short stories as a self-contained piece of work.  I assume that one story was accepted as ‘right’ but another put aside for now, and  that the ordering of the stories was a conscious and carefully thought out decision.  There’s an arbitrariness about the whole process  that makes it hard to think about a book of short stories as a single object: would it be any less satisfactory if one of the stories had been omitted? would it be a different entity with one of the stories that was rejected  included instead?  For me, even the act of reading a collection of stories differs from my normal reading habit.  I prefer to read them just one at a time, but often they’re so short that I find myself thinking “Well, what now?” Sometimes I cram in another one straight away (which I don’t like doing), or else turn afterwards to another full-length book that I might have on the go at the same time.  When I come to write about them here, I’m not sure how to proceed- do I treat them individually (which might become rather tedious and might place a heavier burden on a few pages of writing than it can support)? Do I just hold onto the one or two that stay with me even without opening the covers again? Or do I embrace it instead as a collection without peering too closely at the component parts?

I’ll go with the memorable stories, without looking at the book again.  The first one, which gives the collection its title fitted in neatly with another book I’d read recently- Life in Seven Mistakes.  It is uncanny how often one book seems to ‘speak’ to another.  This short story is located in Surfers Paradise too, but the narrator is more mature and thus easier to spend time with, and Garner adeptly uses the device of postcards written over a period of time to quickly shape the contours of a larger plot that stretched over a longer expanse of time.  Good, sharp, clever writing.

Her story ‘Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon’ captures a child’s perspective well, and evoked for me those visits to my mother’s friend’s houses, where there were other barely-known children and mutual wariness and showing-off.  In ‘All Those Bloody Young Catholics’ she nails the drawl, condescension and prejudices of the slightly-tipsy narrator of some thirty years ago when sexism and sectarianism were threaded unselfconsciously and largely unchallenged through overheard conversationsIn ‘Did He Pay?’ she describes vividly the washed-up, unattached old rock-star, indulged by friends and committed to no-one.

I’ve always seen Helen Garner as a perceptive observer, who has gone to places that I never dared, several years ahead of me.  There’s an innate authenticity in what she describes, and I can see why so much of her more recent work straddles the conjunction of non-fiction/reportage/fictionAs a Melburnian, I love the very local context of her narratives, although she ventures overseas, particularly to France, in these stories as well.  It’s like looking through someone else’s eyes at the things, people and situations that surround you, and thinking “Yep, she’s got it!”

It’s interesting that this book has had so many lives.  My copy is an early 1986, and there is a 1992 one as well; it was republished in 2008 as one of Penguin’s Modern Classics with the cover above, and most recently it has appeared as one of the orange-and-white retro (and cheap!) Popular Penguin reprints.

Rating: 8/10??

Reason read:  Australian Literature Group (Yahoo Groups)