Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘River of Smoke’ by Amitav Ghosh

2011, 517 p.

River of Smoke is the second book in what will be The Ibis Trilogy, a work examining the British-fostered Opium trade in India and China. On the back cover of my version of the book, it quotes a review from the Sunday Times about  the first book of the trilogy Sea of Poppies:

A glorious babel of a novel…marvellously inventive…utterly involving…The next volume cannot come too soon.

That may be so, but for me this next volume came too late for me to remember Sea of Poppies,  even though I very much enjoyed it at the time.  I’m not going to get caught out like this again: fully completed trilogies only for me in the future.

The basic conceit of the Ibis Trilogy is a storm in 1838 that catches up three ships: the ‘Ibis’, carrying indentured labourers and convicts to Mauritius; the ‘Anahita’ carrying a cargo of opium to Canton, and the ‘Redruth’ on an expedition to collect rare plants from China to take back to England.  Sea of Poppies dealt with the ‘Ibis’; this book takes up the ‘Anahita’ and ‘Redruth’.

The structure of River of Smoke  reminded me of the advice about paragraph-writing my second-form teacher imparted to me: “an opening sentence that links to the previous paragraph; then- new information; then- a final sentence that sums up where you have been and leads onto the next paragraph”.  River of Smoke opened by plunging back into the world of the earlier book.  Names flashed up at me- did I remember them? Should I remember them?  Am I going to understand this book if I can’t remember them? The reader is immersed again in language rich in foreign patois, for which no definition is given- there’s no glossary in this book.  I found it an anxiety-provoking way to start and I wonder how someone who had not read the earlier book would cope.  However,  with the second chapter the book quickly moves onto new material that is only tangentially related to the earlier book, and this middle part is the heart of this story.  It is only in the closing pages of the book that it returns again to the opening scenes, and hints at unfinished business that will no doubt be addressed in the final volume.

It was confronting for me to remember that this book, set in the late 1830s and early 1840s is exactly the same period that I am studying.   Although newspapers provided news from across the Empire, the Colonial Office of that era organized its correspondence strictly by colony (New South Wales; Van Diemen’s Land; Canada) and thus you tend to develop tunnel vision, seeing only ‘your’ colony.  The more prestigious Indian civil service and ‘the rest’ (i.e. settler colonies, Africa, West Indies) seemed to operate on two separate tracks, and although it sometimes occurred, it was not common for civil servants to cross from one to the other during the course of their career.  Notwithstanding the ultimately ruthless treatment of indigenous people across the empire( which was at least cloaked in humanitarian and philosophical rhetoric), it comes as somewhat of a shock to see the blatant opportunism, cynicism and manipulation of the imperial economy as it operated the opium trade under the mantle of Free Trade.  Free Trade was the mantra of the day, and although some readers may think the frequent references to it in this book are overdone, I’ve seen the way that it was used as a fundamental operating principle and philosophy in the primary sources I’ve used too.  Just as our own globalized political and economic debate is framed today in the language of ‘the market’ and ‘free enterprise’, so too Free Trade was the mainstream political orthodoxy of the day, and the lens through which all social and economy policy was viewed.

One of the two narrative threads of this book centres on Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader from Bombay, who needs his large consignment of opium to sell well to entrench his position amongst his in-laws.  He is a complex character.  He has been living a double life, dividing his time  between his traditional marriage in Bombay and his lover and son in Canton.  He is painfully aware of his marginal, and ultimately dispensible status between the British agents of the opium trade and the Co-Hong merchants who deal with them.  In the opening salvoes of what will culminate in the Opium Wars, a new provincial governor  is determined to put a stop to the opium trade, and Bahram is compromised between loyalty to his business contacts and acquiescence in and support for the British-dominated system that he knows exploits and degrades all those who participate in it.

The second narrative thread picks up a second manifestation of British imperialism: the trade in flora, fauna and botantical knowledge as the red areas on the map increased and further inroads were made into their interiors.  I’ve seen this in my own research too, where to cement and further the relationship with their patrons back home, minor colonial civil servants would package up specimens to send across the world.  In this book, it is played out through a one-sided correspondence from Robert Chinnery, a rather dubious and self-important artist to Paulette, the daughter of a French botanist who, barred from China because of her gender, sends him as an emissary to search for a rare plant, known only from a painting.   These letters are voiced in the bombastic, jolly-hockey-sticks language of the colonial milieu, overlaid by a campness that crossed the border into parody.  I’m not sure that this narrative thread advanced the novel particularly, and I felt somewhat stymied when the book left Bahram’s story to return to these letters. However, it was interesting watching the two storylines converge geographically and chronologically, so that the same events were reported from two different perspectives.

This book is exhaustively researched and it has a huge array of characters, many of whom shifted names and loyalties as they traversed the lines of colonial life. To be honest, I found it hard to keep up with them, and yearned for a list of characters along with a glossary of terms, and even a chronology of real-life events?  Am I too reliant on such crutches? Maybe, but their absence sells short the huge amount of work and ambitious scope of this trilogy.

This book has made it onto the shortlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize of 2011. There’s good reviews among a group of bloggers who are tackling the longlist for this prize here and here.

My rating: 8/10

Read because: I enjoyed the first book in the trilogy and because it was a contender for the Man Asian Literary Prize and was more readily available than some of the others.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Funny way to choose a book…

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012.  This involves reading and blogging ten books written by Australian women writers over the year.  There are three Australian history books that I want to read that are general enough to qualify (the books can be fiction or non-fiction) and I’m pretty sure that I’ll read seven others quite easily during the year.

It’s holiday time, so I thought I’d make a start.  There are a few new ones I want to read: Anna Funder, Geraldine Brooks, Rosalie Ham, Charlotte Wood have all had books published last year that interest me.  But, oh dear- they’re all out on loan with multiple holds against them. So up to the library I went, happy to browse the shelves to find something.

I don’t think that I’ve ever gone looking for a book restricted by a particular type of author before- i.e. Australian and a woman.  The library has taken to putting little ‘Australian’ stickers on the spines of books so designated, so that made it a bit easier.  It also meant that once I’d found an eligible author, I was more reliant on the descriptions on the back cover than I usually would be.

I must say, though, that I was not well served.  I’m aware that probably the ‘good’ books would be on loan over Christmas, but everything I picked up seemed so domestic and mundane.  Relationships, relationships, relationships…was there nothing else? Many of them sounded like chick-lit even if they weren’t.  What would denote chicklit to me? probably the design on the cover, and the self-absorption of the main character (particularly the female main characters) and the emphasis on male/female relationships.  If I had limited myself to a different formula (e.g. male Australian; female British), would I have felt equally jaded in reading the book descriptions? I don’t know.  I strongly suspect that the description is the publisher and publicist’s decision, rather than the author’s. I wonder how much say the author has.

In the end, I went for Mardi McConnochie’s The Voyagers: a Love Story firstly because I have read her Coldwater which I really enjoyed, but more importantly because it had a setting that interested me.  The other two books that I chose are largely silent about their setting (Kate Legge’s The Unexpected Elements of Love and Sofie Laguna’s One Foot Wrong).  The description of Legge’s book leaves me underwhelmed, and I only found the description of Laguna’s book just now on the inside opening page- when I was standing by the library shelf, I went by Christos Tsiolkas’ blurb.

So if I don’t go by the demographic profile of the author, how do I choose a book? Largely by reviews in blogs, newspapers and magazines, I guess, and looking for subsequent books after I’ve enjoyed an author previously.  If so, this makes the gender disparity in reviewing even more problematic.

Obviously some people read by genre- hence the identifying labels ‘Australian’ ‘Fantasy’, ‘Crime’ etc. on the spines.  I asked Mr Judge, who is trying to reduce his groaning bookshelves by borrowing from the library too, even though he has a horrendous record of accruing enormous overdue fines.  He said that he goes by back-cover descriptions, but he seemed to be attracted by titles too.

And you?

‘Along the Archival Grain’ by Ann Laura Stoler

Ann Laura Stoler Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2009, 278 p & notes.

It was only when I googled the title of this book that I realized that I’d been thinking of it under the wrong name: it was not, as I thought “against” the archival grain, but “along” the archival grain.  It’s an important difference, as the author points out.  While previous historians concentrated on compiling records from the archives in an accessible form- and this is particularly true of 19th century Australian historians like Frederick Watson and the Historical Records of Australia- now we are exhorted to read against the archive and to resist its hard-won accessibility.  But Stoler writes:

Some would argue that the grand narratives of colonialism have been amply and excessively told.  On this argument, students of colonialism often turn quickly and confidently to read “against the grain” of colonial conventions.  One fundamental premise of this book is a commitment to a less assured and perhaps more humble stance- to explore the grain with care and read along it first. (p. 50) …Reading along the archival grain draws our sensibilities to the archive’s granular rather than seamless texture, to the rough surface that mottles its hue and shapes its form.  Working along the grain is not to follow  a frictionless course but to enter a field of force and will to power, to attend to both the sound and sense therein and their rival and reciprocal energies.  It calls on us to understand how unintelligibilities are sustained and why empires remain so uneasily invested in them. (p. 53)

When I first returned to postgrad study in history after an absence of some thirty years, I was perplexed by other students’ references to “the archive”.  Where was “THE archive”, I wondered?  Was it some huge Borgesian labyrinth that had somehow escaped my notice, like Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter?  I’ve since realized that “the archive” is not so much a place, as a mental construct of the primary material that we draw on as historians.  Approaching “the archive-as-subject” worthy of scrutiny in its own right, rather than “the archive-as-source” that needs to be mined and extracted, reflects the “archival turn” captured  by Derrida’s book Archive Fever.  The link with Derrida and cultural theory might suggest to you that, in many ways, the writing in this book is rather dense and self-conscious, and it certainly is.  But it is also very careful, poetic writing.  The author weighs her words carefully, reveling in alliteration and paradox, and I found that I had to slow down and subvocalize while I was reading  to let the pleasure of the language wash over me.

The title hints at the theoretical emphasis of the book, but it makes no mention at all of the Dutch East Indies context in which it is applied.  I think that’s probably intentional.  Stoler has been writing about the Dutch Indies for decades- the earliest of her works that she cites was written in 1985- but this is a book borne of long years of immersion in a historical context and it moves far beyond that region.  It is a tribute to the accessibility of the book that I could read and enjoy it with minimal knowledge of the Dutch Indies, and come away feeling that I had learned a great deal (although I really would have appreciated a good map!)

The book itself is divided into three parts.  She starts with a two-chapter reflection on the archive itself and methodological and epistemological responses to it.  Part I which follows is headed “Colonial Archives and Their Affective States” where she examines three small, or even non-existent events in Dutch colonial historiography.  The first was a protest meeting held in 1848 against an edict that the upper echelons of the civil service would be restricted to young men who had been educated in the Netherlands; the second was a series of blueprints of state fantasies for solving the ‘problem’ of the Inlandesche Kindern, a shifting category that included Indies-born Europeans, and mixed bloods; and the third examined two commissions that were held into poverty amongst poor Europeans in the Dutch Indies.  Part II entitled “Watermarks in Colonial History” focusses on Frans Carl Valck, a lowly ranked assistent-resident whose unwelcome report on the murder of a plantation-owner’s family led to his hasty removal to another colony and eventual dismissal and subsequent complete disappearance from the official record. In this section she juxtaposes and interrogates two different archives- the official and the family- against each other.

Interestingly, she suggests in the prologue that

some readers may want to turn directly to these last two chapters that trace the biographies of empire, and may find it more compelling to read them first. (p. 51)

Ah- there’s a problem: when the author herself is not secure in the structure that she has,like all authors, eventually have to settle for.  Which to go for? Compelling reading or the structure that won out? I stayed with the chapters as laid down, but I wonder if it would have been a different book if I had read the last chapters first.  As it was, each chapter was quite self-contained, but it’s an interesting question.

I very much enjoyed this book.  It is a dense read, and at times I found the references to Derrida, Foucault, Rorty etc. rather overwhelming.  Check out the Amazon look-inside feature first, and you’ll quickly sense whether it’s a book that will appeal to you or appall you.  But it came at the right time for me, and it has stretched my thinking about my own work and even spurred me to WRITE a paragraph or two!

Six degrees of separation between Judge Willis and….Oscar Wilde

Can I link Judge Willis and Oscar Wilde in fewer than six steps?  Easy.

1. Oscar Wilde’s very good lifelong friend was Robbie Ross.

2. Robbie Ross’ full name was Robert Baldwin Ross. He was named for his maternal grandfather, Robert Baldwin.

3. Robert Baldwin was a lawyer and parliamentarian in Upper Canada and aan ally and friend of….

4.  Judge Willis, Puisne Judge of the King’s Bench, Upper Canada!

Frocking up for the theatre

For a little treat the other night (well…a rather expensive treat actually) it was off to see the MTC production of The Importance of Being Earnest.  To get ourselves in the mood we watched Wilde starring Stephen Fry the night before, and sitting in the Sumner Theatre on Tuesday night, I was very much aware that we were laughing away at the same lines, probably delivered in much the same way to the audience at its opening night on St Valentine’s Day 1895.  It was a very traditional performance- no postmodern trickery or contemporary insertions here- and I felt rather overawed to be three rows away from one of the world’s greatest actors, Geoffrey Rush, right here in our shared home town.

What a striking, imperious and handsome Lady Bracknell he makes! (even though I don’t particularly think of Geoffrey Rush as handsome.)  He clearly relished rolling around in  the language, and being so close, we could see every raised eyebrow and every moue.  The rest of the cast was very good too, although if I had to name any criticism it would be at the slightly over-rehearsed delivery of Algernon’s lines. I recall Fry’s character in Wilde issuing the injunction that the lines should be delivered as sparkling, off-the-cuff repartee, rather than something that had been memorized and enunciated, and I think that the same observation could be made here too.

Two odd things about our night at the theatre though.  One was the sight of a very pushy woman, approaching everybody in the front row, asking them if instead of enduring their front row seat, they would be willing to swap with her seat at the back (“See, where the man is waving?”). When someone asked her if there was a particular reason, she said that she liked to be able to see their faces close up- well, don’t we all?  What amazed me was that someone actually did swap with her.

The second odd thing was an email we received a couple of days prior to the performance.  We have just endured a couple of hot days, and the email cautioned that the stage was heavily airconditioned for the comfort of the actors on stage in heavy costumes, and that as we were sitting in the front rows, we might want to bring a jacket or shawl.  It was good advice- it did get chilly after a while.

Patrons might have appreciated advice about their big night out at at Melbourne’s first theatre during the 1840s too.  The Pavilion, later renamed the Theatre Royal, was located on the east side of Bourke Street, between Elizabeth and Collins Street.  Garryowen describes it as:

one of the queerest fabrics imaginable.  Whenever the wind was high it would rock like an old collier at sea, and it was difficult  to account for it not heeling over in a gale.  The public entrance from Bourke Street was up half-a-dozen creaking steps; and the further ascent to the “dress circle” and a circular row of small pens known as upper boxes or gallery, was by a ladder-like staircase of a very unstable description. Internally it was lighted by tin sconces, nailed at intervals to the boarding filled with guttering candles, flickering with a dim and sickly glare. A swing lamp and wax tapers were afterwards substituted, and the immunity of the place from fire is a marvel.  It was never thoroughly water-proof, and, after it was opened for public purposes, in wet weather the audience would be treated to a shower bath. Umbrellas were not then the common personal accompaniment they are now in Melbourne, but such playgoers as could sport a convenience of the kind took it to the theatre, where it was often found to be as necessary within as without. The expanded gingham would of course, very seriously incommode the comfort and view of the adjacent sittings, but that was a consideration so trifling as to be scarcely thought about.  (Garryowen ‘Chronicles of Early Melbourne’ p. 452)

I know that we often complain about people with their mobile phones in the theatre, but there are worse things:

… the Pavilion would at times be turned into a smoking saloon, and even when some of the more mannerly persons in the pit would take off their hats and place them on the floor, the bell-topper, cabbage-tree, or pull-over, whichever it was, would be utilized as a spittoon for shots expectorated with sure aim from the dress circle.  If any of the unhatted individuals happened to present a bald pate, the spot was regarded as a justifiable target for hitting at short range, and terrible would be the indignation with which an unoffending spectator, somewhat sparse in hair, would find himself patted on the bald crown-piece with something analogous to a molluscous substance “shelled” at him from one of the side boxes.  In hot weather or cold the moist application was an unpleasant sensation, and naturally resented. The person so “potted” would pull out his handkerchief, wipe his head, jump up, and “rush the batter” whence he would be probably repelled with a black eye or enlarged nose. (Garryowen, p. 456)

So, are we ready and all frocked up for our night at the theatre? Let’s see …  umbrella, hat, handkerchief….I’ll settle for the shawl or jacket thank you.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield and all the other Wakefields.

One of the joys of research- and yes, it IS still a joy- is that sometimes you are led into a direction that you didn’t anticipate.  I’m not talking about the siren-songs of distraction that keep your head turning from side to side, but a genuine surprise that makes you stop to re-evaluate what you’ve already found from a different perspective. The other day  I was speaking with a friend who is a librarian, who enjoys the act of finding and building order into material, and he said that he could not tolerate the anxiety that the next resource he turned over might upend the whole thing. I don’t see it that way (yet?): I am still open to surprise and fluidity.

As a result, regular readers might have detected that I am wandering recently into the swamps of colonial constitutional history- not a destination I would have expected or relished-  and it is here that I have stopped for a little while with Edward Gibbon Wakefield (EGW from hereon) with two books that I’ve just read.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (to the extent that he is known at all)  is most often associated in Australia for his connection with the settlement of  South Australia in 1836 under his theory of ‘systematic colonization’.  Put very briefly, this involved encouraging immigration to the colonies across all strata of British society, but ensuring that labourers remain available as a mobile labour force by selling land at a “sufficient price” that too high for them to purchase until they had been in the colony for a number of years. I was aware that there were Wakefieldian settlements in New Zealand, in Christchurch in particular, and so I was rather bemused by all the Wakefieldian graves in Wellington.

Wakefield family graves, Bolton St cemetery Wellington

Memorial plaque to Col. William Wakefield, Bolton St cemetery.

The works that I have read on New Zealand, namely Paul Moon’s Hobson  and Peter Adams’ Fatal Necessity portray the Wakefieldians as insistent self-interested lobbyists, who needed to be watched carefully. I was also aware that Wakefield had been imprisoned for kidnapping an heiress- indeed, it was during this period of incarceration that he wrote his Letter from Sydney (penned from his cell in Newgate!) which spelled out his systematic colonization theories.

Paul Bloomfield: Edward Gibbon Wakefield: Builder of the British Commonwealth, London, Longmans, 1961, 378 p.

The first of the two books I have read recently is Paul Bloomfield’s Edward Gibbon Wakefield: Builder of the British Commonwealth. This book, written in 1961, has been described in a paper by Ged Martin as “the high-water mark of uncritical admiration of Wakefield and his work ” as the title might suggest. He starts his book with the abduction, told in racy and engaging prose- and why not, because it’s a good story.  It was, however, an episode that cruelled Wakefield’s career from that point on, as the scandal attached to it ensured that he could never put his name to any official policy that drew on his principles, and  he had to content himself with background lobbying and influence instead.  There are relatively few footnotes, although there is a bibliography and useful index, and there are frequent references to novels and literary characters, as if Wakefield himself sprang from fictional origins.  This is something that I find myself having to resist in my own work.  The 19th century novel is so pervasive and its representation in film and television provides such a ready visual backdrop that it’s easy to switch to a fictional shorthand.  As such, Bloomfield depicts the abduction as a youthful aberration that denied Wakefield the acclaim he deserved.  The emphasis is mainly on Wakefield’s lobbying in England amongst Parliamentarians, although it does follow him to Canada and New Zealand as well.

He made an interesting observation (especially in light of my recent posting and resultant comments about Christmas with the cousins)

One day someone will publish a study of the difference made in English sentiment by the change from a fifteen million population composed of large families to a fifty million population in which most parents have no more than two children.  We have only to look into the lives of the prolific Quaker cousinhoods, including the Wakefields, to see what an advantage their special community-sense was to them, what a source of strength it was to them to live in a clime of mutual aid. (p. 205)

The second book that I’ve read recently on Wakefield does just this.

Philip Temple, A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2002 (paperback edition 2003), 541 p.

A Sort of Conscience is more nuanced than the Bloomfield account, and it spreads its analysis further into the Wakefield family as a whole- the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, many (but not all) of whom ended up embroiled in one way or another with Wakefieldian enterprises.  Although fundamentally positive towards Wakefield, Temple acknowledges the flaws of personality amongst many of the Wakefield siblings and while not dismissing the abduction completely, argues that even more disquiet amongst influential people was prompted by  Wakefield’s involvement in a dubious legal case about his first wife’s lucrative will, some ten years prior to the abduction escapade.  Like Bloomfield, Temple shows that Wakefield was forced to operate in the background when his policies were implemented, but this seems fortuitous as he was overbearing, interfering and careless of details.

Temple draws heavily on family correspondence, which seems to be voluminous, especially once the family spread across the globe.  Many of the letters were addressed to Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s sister, Catherine, who married a minister and stayed behind in England- in fact, Temple quips at one stage that his book could easily have been called “Dear Catherine”.   You can detect in the family a bifurcation between the family members who moved from the Quaker to Evangelical affiliations, and those who became caught up in the entrepreneurialism and politicking of EGW as he sought to have his theory of systematic colonization embedded into colonial policy.  However, you’d have to say that the politicking won out, as more and more siblings and nephews travelled overseas to New Zealand in particular, where Wakefieldianism was implemented in its purest form.  EGW himself ended his days there, although in Wellington rather than Christchurch (the settlement which most closely approximated his theory. )

Wakefieldianism is often presented as a monolithic and inflexible policy, although frustratingly vague in important details like the price that should be charged for land to make sure that settlers remained labourers for a few years instead of moving straight on to being self-employed farmers.  I was interested, then, to see that Wakefield himself was more pragmatic and open to change than I expected once he actually moved to the colonies settled under variations of his theories.

This book is, like Bloomfield’s, ultimately sympathetic to Wakefield, although with more serious qualifications, as the ambivalence of the title suggests.  By following him more closely to the colonies, and by broadening the scope to the Wakefield family as a whole,  Temple captures well its mobility and the emotional tenor of lobbying and patronage in early 19th Britain and its colonies.  The book has been very well received, winning the Ernest Scott Prize in 2003, the Ian Wards prize for historical writing, and the Biography category of the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.