Monthly Archives: December 2011

‘The Bean Patch’ by Shirley Painter

2002, 310 p

Spoiler alert. 

The author of this book was 83 years old when this book was published.  It was the product of a writing course undertaken at Holmesglen TAFE in her later years, and its narrative voice is just a little stilted.  But she is conscious that she is crafting a narrative, as well as relating it and so she makes the decision to withhold and complicate information so that the reader experiences the same partial and confused state that she did for so many years:

Because memories are often disjointed, I had two choices in dealing with them.

The first was to tidy them all up into a neat chronological order, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  But a lifetime of reading wonderful books has made me a highly critical reader, and I feared that choice might make for a very flat narrative.

The other choice was to present the reader with the same gaps, the same clues, and the same dilemmas as I had, so that the effect would be the same: What’s going on? Who in this dangerous and contradictory world can be trusted? Who are the goodies in white hats and who are the baddies in black hats?

Tough, reader! I have chosen for you the hard option   (p. vii)

This stylistic choice works well, and it is the promise that it will all come clear that draws the reader through the narrative.  There seems to be such a disconnect between what seems like an ordinary-enough life with husband, children, career, house, brothers and sisters, juxtaposed with a nightmare existence of extreme brutality.  This disconnect becomes even stronger in part 2 where, tangled in amongst the narrator’s story of breakdowns and therapy, details of the abuse are released in jerks and flashes- as indeed, such searing and painful memories must be.

But the reader is left with the final question of credibility, and here I find myself in uncomfortable territory.  I had let suggestions of the paranormal go through in Part I, but with the litany of abuse and crime in Parts II and the Epilogue  of the book, drawn out through extensive therapy, and encompassing recovered memories at and before birth, I found myself stepping back and asking “Do I really believe all this?” Although I feel almost disloyal to the narrator in distancing myself from these recovered memories,  I just cannot credit the bloodshed and crime without external corroboration.

I’m obviously not alone in my hesitation as this Sydney Morning Herald review shows.  The Bean Patch was awarded the Dobbie award in 2003 for a first book by an Australian woman writer.  The book is marketed and publicized as ‘memoir’.  Deborah Adelaide, one of the judges for the award is quoted in the review as saying that the truth or otherwise of parts of the memoir is immaterial:

Because we know it is based on her life, and the thrust of the story is true, to me the details don’t really matter

Ah, but it’s more than just details- it’s the whole premise of the book.  All memoirs are constructed narratives, and the reader takes on the author’s part in this construction as part of the memoir genre, aware that these choices are an inherent part of what is being offered.  There is always the question of fidelity and soundness of the architecture by which the author has chosen to structure the narrative, but if the whole intent of the endeavour is suspect???  I’m not sure.

Update 27 August 2014

The Age this morning published a beautifully crafted obituary for Shirley Painter (3-11-1918 – 29-07-2104) written with the assistance of family members.  It notes that:

Shirley was dux of both her primary school and MacRobertson Girls’ High School and earned an honours arts degree from Melbourne University.  She married and raised three children.

She taught Latin and English with diligence and care at St Catherine’s Secondary School for Many years. .. She was supported financially to go on to university by a bursary created by her teachers who recognized her extraordinary ability.  As a teacher she gave her tireless support and encouragement to young women seeking to find that spark in knowledge and thought that might enliven them.  She felt angry, in recent years, that free education had become a thing of the past….

Shirley was a lover of art, film and literature and a member of book clubs, film groups, bridge clubs, ACSA (Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse) and Probus…

Shirley is survived by her three daughter, four grandchildren and the legacy of hope and love she embodied.


At the NGV: ‘The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-1937’

Some months ago we went to the NGV to see the Vienna Art and Design exhibition.  As you walked around that exhibition, which took a largely chronological approach, the 20th century works in the final rooms became increasingly fractured, subversive and unsettling, and the political chill of the approaching Nazism was almost palpable.

However, entering this current exhibition, part of the Art Gallery of NSW’s travelling exhibition program,  what had seemed to be subversive in the Vienna exhibition now appeared defiant and brave.  As a child, one of my favourite stories was The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, where a shard from an evil, broken mirror enters the eye and makes everything appear ugly.  Shards have warped the vision of the world here- a perverted, edgy, dissonant world- but it’s also a world clearly responding to the ugliness outside of  war, defeat, inflation, radicalism and increasing totalitarianism.

The shadows of World War I are long, and they manifest themselves through confronting depictions of maimed soldiers, pushed to the margins of society.  Were disfigured soldiers found in English art of the same period?- I’m not aware that they were.  I’m sure that the wounded were just as present but their meaning was different for the side that ‘won’ the war.

There is also the underlying menace of sexual violence, exemplified by Davringhausen’s painting of Der Lustmorder (The Sex Murderer) where a sickly, boyish prostitute lies on a bed oblivious to the murderer lying underneath (see here)  and there are film clips of abducted women in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and debased women in Metropolis.  This is an ugly world.

The last room of the exhibition has archival footage showing Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibition, where works such as these were collected and shown, captioned with ridicule, before being destroyed or sold off onto the international market.  One of the final paintings in the exhibition is The Mad Square, from which the exhibition takes its name, by Felix Nussbaum, depicting artists protesting against their exclusion from the Prussian Academy of Arts, their artworks tucked under their arms.  It is sobering to remember that Nussbaum and his entire family perished in the concentration camps.

This is an unsettling exhibition.  After a while, the blockbuster exhibitions tend to merge into a bit of an blur  (did we see that at The Impressionists? or Vienna? or Dutch Masters?) but I think that this exhibition stands alone. Well worth seeing.

There’s an excellent companion website here at the Art Gallery of NSW.

‘Shadowboxing’ by Tony Birch

2006, 178 p.

Shadowboxing is a collection of ten linked, largely autobiographical short stories set in Fitzroy during the 1960s.  As such, it ticks all my boxes: Melbourne-based, baby-boomer, cumulative stories.  They stand alone quite well, while building up into a longer-term, more nuanced work, and indeed apparently several had been published previously and were reworked for this collection.

The stories are written in the first person by the fictional Michael Byrne, looking back as a young father on his own childhood.  He was brought up in one of the sidestreets in Fitzroy where the houses were demolished as part of a slum-clearance program in the 1960s.  As such, it is a vanished landscape, and many of the attitudes of the people living there have vanished too.  Children had their own world, largely divorced from that of adults; people looked the other way from domestic violence in their own families and the families of their neighbours; there was an expectation that boys needed a good slap around the ears from their peers and older men to be a ‘real man’; mothers were alternately put onto a pedestal and abused.

The relationship that lies at the heart of these stories is that of Michael and his abusive, wounded, father.  Indeed, many of these stories are observations on masculinity and fatherhood and Birch resists the temptation to give easy, feel-good answers.  Redemption and forgiveness are here, but they are both fragile and deeply ambivalent.

The Melbourne depicted here, while in many ways more closely aligned with working-class slum suburbs across the world, is clearly recognizable to Melburnians.  I’m surprised that ‘The Return’ hasn’t been picked up in an anthology of  Australian Christmas stories because, while it describes a December Melbourne well known to Melbourne baby-boomers, it also captures the tenderness that can exist between an older brother and his little sister.

These are terrific stories, honing in on small details and events and yet able to take big strides across a family’s history-  indeed, across the history of a suburb and a generation- as well.

Update: You might be interested in the Radio National Hindsight program about the slum clearances in Fitzroy that Andrew mentions in his comment below.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: it was the December read for the Yahoo Groups Australian Literature group

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

The dilemmas of reading a sequel

At the moment I’m reading River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, the second in what will be the Ibis trilogy.  I very much enjoyed the first book Sea of Poppies, written in 2008 which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

So, some eighteen months later, here I am with the second installment. The sad reality is that I really can’t remember all that much about the first, except that I enjoyed it.  Even my own blog post doesn’t enlighten me particularly.  I’m aware that he’s providing small snippets of back story for those who have not read the first book, but they’re not evocative enough to trigger a rush of memories.  At the moment, all they’re doing is frustrating me- should I remember more about this character???

Reading a trilogy as it is being produced, rather than coming to it later as a finished product, means that there is often a long waiting time between volumes- three years in this case.  Authors generally do back track a bit, but there’s a limit to how much they’re able to do this without retelling the first story over again.  I assume that they write so that a new reader could read it without having read the first book.  However, while the author has probably been living with his characters – and maybe even his/her vision for the work as a whole , for years- readers (or at least, I)  don’t have this same level of intimacy and have moved on to other books and other stories.

So what to do? Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can easily find a plot summary of the earlier book but somehow that feels like cheating.  I feel as if the book should be able to stand on its own two feet, but I’m willing to admit that perhaps the problem in this case lies more with the reader than the author.

Dammit- I’m going to do it.  Lord Wiki, here I come.


An Australian Christmas c.1963

Christmas seemed so much more fun when you were a kid.  Will our children and grandchildren look back at their Christmases with such fondness? I hope so.

My Mum was the youngest of seven and no doubt as the spoilt youngest child, managed to avoid doing Christmas dinner until I was about thirteen years old. Until then, every Christmas was the same with lunch and dinner over at Auntie Flo’s and it is these Christmases that I think back on.

Father Christmas would come as he could always be relied to do, leaving presents in a pillow case at the end of the bed. He was an orderly Santa- along with larger presents there would always be a rectangular box of assorted lollies that included Fruit Pastilles (both multicoloured and blackberry), a Choo-Choo bar and a Kit Kat.  There would be a glass jar jar of puce-coloured candied peanuts: the jar itself bore a very strong resemblance to a  jar that might once have held Vegemite or Kraft Creamed Cheese spread, and I’m almost sure that it did.  Among other presents, there was always a book for me, sourced from a large box of remaindered children’s books that my parents bought at auction somewhere.  As a result, the book itself was pretty hit-or-miss, although one year it was Charles Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare , another year a collection of Greek myths.   One particularly memorable year there was a wooden paddle-board that obviously didn’t fit in the pillow case which was maneuvered into my room by Santa with much un-Santa-like giggling and muffled laughter.  On another earlier Christmas, Santa brought my doll Debbie in a pink dress in a proper doll box.  There was always, always an orange at the bottom of the pillow case.

Then over to my Auntie Flo and Uncle Ted’s for Christmas lunch. They lived in Waiora Rd Heidelberg Heights in a house with huge gardens, overlooking the Yarra Valley right across to the Dandenongs.  I always loved going there. Although I was a little scared of my uncle’s very dry sense of humour and bristling moustache, I loved my Auntie Flo, my favourite aunt and my godmother.   Girl cousins were fairly rare in my family- four girls to eleven boys.  Auntie Flo didn’t have a daughter, and I always felt very special with her. My cousins Wayne and Paul held all of the attraction of older male cousins: they were handsome, funny and big and very affectionate to their little girl cousin.   The Christmas I can remember most clearly was a very hot day, so the canvas awnings were all pulled down, bathing the inside of the house in a green, almost underwater light.  The house  smelt of Christmas pudding that would have been bubbling away for hours: I now make the pudding for my own family to the same recipe, amused every year at how much alcohol is in this pudding that was eagerly eaten by a family of teetotallers (3 tablespoons of spirits; 200 ml beer).  After lunch, more presents- always something special from Auntie Flo, and once even a doll’s house WITH STEPS made by my cousin Wayne in woodwork, all decked out in curtain and carpet scraps from their own decorating and my initials JL in gold paint over the front door.

I'm sitting on the extreme left hand side at the back. My brother Colin is sitting 5 from the left with Auntie Flo in the middle, 9 from the left. I THINK that Cousin Paul is wearing sunglasses 11 along, with his brother Cousin Wayne turning towards him. Mum is seond from the right hand side. Uncle Ted is sitting on the ground at front left, and my brother Rohan is sitting on Dad's lap front centre.

After lunch, the other cousins would come over- all older than us- and loud and funny and boisterous.  Auntie Flo and Uncle Ted had a fully tiled inground pool, which was rare in those days, complete with a changing room up the back, and footbaths set into the concrete to wash the grass from your feet before going in.  Once the obligatory and scrupulously kept hour for our “dinner to go down” elapsed (does anyone do that these days?), it was into the pool. They had inner tube tyre rings in the pool, and there would be a rough game of pool basketball, races up and down the pool and  pool-wrestling perched on top of my cousins’ shoulders.  Once our fingers were corrugated and our lips blue with the cold from being in for so long, we’d play shuttlecock on another terrace of the lawn, with the shadows from the trees lengthening around us.

Yet more food- cold meat brought by my butcher Uncle from Geelong (and maybe the butcher uncle from Reservoir?), salads, my mum’s famous pavlova and my Auntie Flo’s shortbread.  I once announced that I prefered Auntie Flo’s shortbread to my mother’s: I was not popular.  Another family of cousins had joined us by this stage, and then there would be the third round of presents, although often smaller ones by this stage.

By now, there would be much rubbing of little eyes and we’d head off home. We travelled out of our way to see the Boulevard lights in East Ivanhoe- strings of multicoloured globe lights and decorated gardens.  There would be one or two illuminated houses, then a few more, then the main display, concentrated in the middle of this long, curving street.  Crowds would cluster around these main houses, and the traffic would slow to a crawl.  Little did I realize that some 15  years later I would marry the little boy who then lived in the house on the bend with the most spectacular lights, and that 20 years later the week-long display of “the lights” would be an integral part of my own children’s Christmas.

But gradually the gaps between the displays would get wider and wider, until there would be just one or two outlying houses and the car would finally reach Burke Rd.  It was then- and only then- that I would know that Christmas was over for that year.

Happy Christmas.

Count me in too!

The Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge sets out to actively promote the reading and reviewing of Australian women’s writing.  It shouldn’t be necessary, but this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist without a single female author and the imbalance of women writers (18/48) in the National Year of Reading’s Our Story  suggests that it is.

The idea is that you  sign up for reading and reviewing books by Australian women writers during 2012.  You can read in one or multiple genres, and you select the number of reviews you’d like to commit to.   There’s genres listed there that I’m not particularly enamoured of (romance, crime, SF) so I’ll limit myself to fiction and nonfiction and aspire to be a Franklin-fantastic Dabbler (i.e. read 10 books and review four).

Gender bias in reading is so insidious.  I would have thought that I already leaned towards female writers in my fiction reading, but when I count through my Australian literature reviews for 2011, I’ve reviewed nine male writers against eight female.  I didn’t include Australian non-fiction largely because I knew that it would make the statistic look even worse!  Given that I try to read the Miles Franklin shortlist each year, the male authors ticked up during the middle of the year and it was only a bout of female writing at the beginning of the year that brought some semblance of balance to my figures.

So here goes in 2012

‘The Great Melody’ by Conor Cruise O’Brien

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke

1992,  618 p

I’m not in the habit of reading 600 page tomes about eighteenth-century history in bed before sleep, and I must admit that it took me about six weeks to get through this book.  The eighteenth-century is a foreign country to me in a way that the nineteenth-century isn’t, and I have a towering pile of other books that I should be reading instead- so why was I reading this?

One reason was the subtitle “A Thematic Biography”.  I find it hard to clearly say what my own writing is- I can say what it isn’t  (not a straight biography; not a judicial biography) but somewhat harder to say what it is.  I wasn’t quite sure what a “thematic biography” is, or how it differs from any other biography.

The second reason was that I keep coming across quotations from Burke, or people who quote him.  Edmund Burke (1729?-1797) was a statesman, orator, writer and member of the House of Commons. He was known as a “Rockingham Whig” at a time when there were not so much political parties as constellations of politicians who would cluster around a particular individual- perhaps similar to the “Petro Georgiou Liberals”- not a party in its own right, but a political flavour exemplified by one person. I know that he came to be associated with conservatism and yet I’ve heard him described as a classic liberal as well.  On consulting my Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, I find him well represented (more than George Bernard Shaw and Macaulay; nowhere near Milton, Pope and Shakespeare!) although it seems that he didn’t say that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” even though it is often attributed to him.  What he did say was

When bad men combine, the good must associate;else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle. (Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents).

  I’m aware of ‘Burke’s Law’ that could be used to remove colonial officials and -importantly for my work- judges from their colonial posts.  I knew that Burke was a great orator, and that he had been bitterly critical of the French Revolution right from the start….and that’s about it.

O’Brien identifies this book as a thematic biography because it is not so much about Burke as a man – certainly his intimate family life, his marriage, his friendships are almost completely absent- as about the four main political issues on which he became known as spokesman.  O’Brien picks up on two stanzas of a W. B. Yeats poem ‘The Seven Sages’

American colonies, Ireland, France and India

Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it

and argues that ‘it’ is ‘ abuse of power’. Burke saw, and deplored, abuse of power exemplified through Britain’s declaration of war on the American colonies, the Catholic question in Ireland, the widespread admiration of the early days at least of the French Revolution, and in the failure in Parliament of his attempt to impeach Warren Hastings in India.  It is a thematic biography in that the chapters circle between Ireland, America, India and France in a roughly chronological fashion, darting back in several places to revisit the idea of the ‘great melody’. The book assumes familiarity with these issues, and the minutiae of British Parliamentary Politics  and I struggled with the Indian section in particular.  I do now, however, know what Barry Jones was getting at with the Governor General of Bengal question on Pick-a-Box

O’Brien suggests that, despite identifying himself as a member of the Anglican communion of the Church of Ireland, Burke actually followed his mother’s Catholicism, and although claiming a Quaker school as the site of  his first education, he may have instead attending a Catholic hedge-school.  Burke’s sublimated and unacknowledged Catholicism, he argues, was the lens through which he decided his stance of the issues of American, French and Indian political events, even though he never clearly identified it as such.

The second theme that runs through this book is O’Brien’s own dispute with historians, particularly those influenced by Louis Namier who have questioned Burke’s significance and highlighted the inconsistencies in his approach.  He certainly doesn’t hold back against these “pullulating insects of trivialising calumny” (p. 306) and he does so far too often.  At times he draws a very fine line.  He criticizes, for example, Lucy Sutherland and others of the Namier school for conflating  “documentary gaps” and “silence”-

But the two are not the same; not by any means.  A documentary gap often reflects a period of particularly intense communication. The people concerned are not in correspondence, because they are in daily conversation…What an eerie place, …is eighteenth century London, once it has undergone Namierisation! This is a world in which no one ever talks to anyone else.  All communication is in writing.  The spaces between the bouts of penmanship are filled with silence. Anything that doesn’t get written down doesn’t happen. (p.333)

Yet O’Brien himself makes much of Burke’s silences, especially over Ireland, both as a revealing political stance and as a sign of Burke’s inner psychological tension.  I’m a bit uncomfortable about extrapolating from the utterances and silences of the public record in Burke’s own writings and in his Parliamentary speeches-  ‘performances’ for a specific political and strategic purpose- and psychological explanations of the inner man.  However, in trying to capture the inner man O’Brien is constrained by his material, given that Burke himself destroyed all personal papers, and this work is rooted deeply in the public arena.

The other part of the subheading is “commented anthology”, and much of the book quotes directly and at length from Burke’s own words.  There was a great deal of this, and while bristling with lacerating observations and wit in places, there was also a lot of high-flown rhetoric that flew right past me propped up in bed with my eyelids drooping.  Alas, I found nothing about ‘Burke’s Law’ but I do think that I have a more nuanced perception of Burke and his influence both on parliamentarians at the time and later.