Monthly Archives: February 2012

‘Dickens’ Women’ with Miriam Margolyes

Having recently read Colonial Voices, I was very much aware of what an anachronistic performance Miriam Margolyes’ ‘Dickens’ Women’ is.  Generations past may have been the audience for a series of readings and impersonations, but it seems a particularly quaint genre now: a “nice night’s entertainment” as Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone might have said.

But to describe this performance as merely “readings and impersonations” is to undersell it, because it is more like a theatrical essay, with a clear argument that is supported by the anecdotes and examples that she weaves into the work.  She argues that Dickens wove his own biography into the female characters he created, colouring them with his own anger, sense of betrayal, and often misogyny.  She moves back and forwards from argument and explication, to readings and then to performance of both male and female characters, sometimes in soliloquy, sometimes in dialogue.

The performance opens with Sairey Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, and I must admit that it took me a couple of minutes to recognize and recollect her.  Would I know who she was playing each time? I wondered, aware that even though I have read quite a few Dickens, I haven’t read them all and I often forget which character appeared where.  But I need not have feared: she wove into the narrative a clear identification of who each character was, often with a bit of contextualizing information.  It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read Dombey and Son, or The Uncommercial Traveller or The Old Curiosity Shop.

Margolyes has been performing this show since 1989 and it is a very tight, confident performance.  In creating her 23 characters, she uses everything – her body, her beautiful clear voice, timing, lighting, gesture and stance- and at times, she almost seemed to change physically before your eyes.  I found myself scarcely daring to breathe watching her embody Miss Havisham, afraid that the spell would break.  It didn’t.

A very nice night’s entertainment indeed.

‘Colonial Voices’ by Joy Damousi

Joy Damousi, Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia 1840-1940, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 295 p.& bibliography

Historians have always privileged the written over the spoken, and the visual over the aural.  It’s no wonder: few of us consciously document the sounds around us, and it is only occasionally that we become aware of their passing. Think, for example, of the flash of recognition that you probably experienced the first time you heard that current mobile phone ring tone that replicates the echoing, mechanical bell of an old fashioned, black, dial-up telephone.  I think of the little ‘tune’ that modems used to play when you were connecting to the Internet: it was a sound unheard twenty years ago, and probably will no longer be heard twenty years hence.  Then there are familiar childhood sounds that time and development have erased: the ‘chuck-chuck’ of a rainbow sprinkler on the front lawn, the sound of the milkman’s horse.

Joy Damousi’s book Colonial Voices focusses on the Australian voice in particular.  As I trawl though my 1840s Port Phillip documents,  I’ve found myself wondering about the actual, physical voices that would have accompanied the words that I am reading.  How, for example, did speakers get themselves heard at these rowdy meetings in support of, or against, Judge Willis?  In a new community supplemented  constantly with waves of new immigrants especially from Britain, and the stream of colonists from New South Wales and Tasmania (some of whom were native born), did people lose their accents within a generation as seems to occur today- or is that only with NESB people?  Did the Australian-born child of a Scots family sound different to the Australian-born child of an English family?

Colonial voices were not superimposed into a silence: Aboriginal voices were raised, and then largely suppressed.  The first chapter of this broadly chronological book investigates the role of missionaries and educators in teaching English to Aboriginal children in an attempt at first to make them  English, become English, and also as a way of drawing a dichotomy between savagery and civilization.  The second chapter examines the emergence of public speech in Australia during the 1840s in the male-dominated political and public arena- and here of course, I read closely, aware that the controversy over Judge Willis was carried out in this milieu.

Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 examined the phenomenon of elocution, which was promulgated through books, classes, speech nights, eisteddfods and  paid performances.  At this point of the book, I felt as if I was stuck in a bit of whirlpool.  Many of the examples quoted seemed rather repetitious, and although she distinguished between expectations exhorted from overseas and those that emerged from within Australia itself, their content seemed pretty much the same.  While at pains to emphasize the celebrated status of various practitioners, their names mean nothing today and although this section of the book covered about 60 years, there did not seem to be much difference from one decade to another.

The narrative picked up, however, from Chapter 7 onwards. Vita Goldstein and Alfred Deakin were used as two examplars of public political speech, at a time when political speech was a way of agitating for political change, and when the relationship changed between speaker and audience from one of recipient to participant.  During WWI, in Chapter 8, there was a move towards a less formalized form of public speech, and elocution was now seen more as a distancing mechanism.  Mourning and commemoration ceremonies, soldiers’ slang, and school-based patriotism encouraged a distinctive Australian eloquence.  She picks up on the debate about the “Australian sound” in Chapter 9 that was carried out in literacy circles and etiquette manuals.

This debate was heightened by the introduction of radio, discussed in Chapter 10, both as a form of connection to the wider British Empire, but also as a way of creating and promulgating an Australian Sound.  The introduction of sound to film and the dominance of American film in particular, is discussed in Chapter 11, leading us up to the 1940 cut-off for the book.

This book took me into byways and places that I did not expect. I liked the emphasis on gender that ran throughout the book, especially in the chapters on political speech.  However, I was puzzled by the relatively slight treatment given to the bush nationalism evoked by Lawson and Banjo Patterson which, even today, are the backbone of a particular form of oral performance.  I think of the School Readers,  produced between 1927-30 and still in use even within my own educational history during the 1960s,  and how poetry in those books formed the basis of  oral performance in schools.  I was also disconcerted by the prevalence of small proof-reading errors, especially in a book published by Cambridge University Press.  I counted six which seemed to cross some sort of threshold for me, making me hyper-critical of editorial foibles.  It was all rather paradoxical (or was it some form of reflexivity?) , given that much of the book was devoted to concepts of ‘correctness’.

However, a marker of whether a book is working on you, might be the way that you notice things with new eyes, or in this case, ears.  I was sitting reading the book, conscious that a workman was talking loudly on his mobile phone in the driveway of the street across the road.  Likewise, I could hear a construction worker on a block in the next street on his phone.  I could not catch every word, but had I concentrated I could have followed the one-sided conversation.  I set Mr Judge, who is fond of such puzzles, to work out how many people would be able to hear a speaker in a crowd without amplification.  He estimated that to speak to a crowd of 20,000 people, you would have to be able to project your voice to a distance of 60 metres.  Take it from me, the chippies and builders of Melbourne can do this with bells on.

My Prime Minister and Sexism

Thank you, Anne Summers, for your article “The gender agenda: Gillard and the politics of sexism” in today’s Age.  I have written, and then discarded several posts on this blog on this very topic, unsure whether I wanted to insert a current political event into what is, on reflection, a rather rag-tag blog.  But Anne Summers, among other things,  is a historian (author of Damned Whores and Gods Police)  and her article encapsulated many of the things that I have sensed about the treatment of Julia Gillard.  And, as I am working through in my own thesis about Judge Willis, “personality” is the most slippery and yet visceral factor in leadership, and when it lies at the heart of a dismissal, it is one of the hardest things to prove.  It is nowhere and it is everywhere.

I have not agreed with everything that Julia Gillard has done (her treatment of Wilkie is a case in point) but I am immensely proud of her as Australia’s first female  Prime Minister.  She is graceful under pressure, she has managed to negotiate with the cross-benchers, and as she has said over and over the last few days, she got things done.  The carbon tax, the mining profits tax, the tapering off of subsidies to private health insurance- these are big policies, passed in the teeth of trenchant criticism by vested interests with very, very deep pockets.  Kevin Rudd did not deliver these: she did.

I was one of the ALP voters who started rolling her eyes and slumping once Rudd began to speak as Prime Minister.  If you look back at my response to his speech at the Bushfire Memorial Service back in 1999 here and again here,  I was troubled by his tin ear and nationalistic grandstanding even then.  Everything was talked up, but nothing happened once the going got tough.

I was delighted that my yet-t0-be-conceived granddaughters will know that a woman can be a Prime Minister.  And yes, I even sent Ms Gillard a birthday card on her 50th birthday, telling her that.

The invective that has been directed towards her by Sydney shock-jocks in particular is appalling, and the criticisms of her “legitimacy” and “authority” (even though Rudd had so little support in the 2010 “coup” that he did not even demand a vote) have an undercurrent that she wasn’t a “proper” Prime Minister.  I liked the quotation from Mary Crooks:

‘Every time someone makes an attack on her authority to lead (as distinct from her policies), they are sending a subliminal message to every woman and girl that they are not welcome to sit at the table of real political power.

As David Marr pointed out on Friday, this is the missing piece of the puzzle over the decision to oust Rudd from the leadership in 2010. It was part of the decency, yes decency, of his colleagues that they did not elaborate on the contribution of his personality to the whole situation then.

I laughed at the irony this morning of Rudd praising “Albo’s” decision to plump for him, channelling every cricket and football captain you’ve ever seen interviewed after a match.  But clearly Rudd is no team player, no matter how many “o”s  he attaches to his colleagues’ names.

We do not have a presidential system: we vote for a local member who is a party member, and it those party members who choose their leader.  Rudd seems to have forgotten his constitutional history.  I’m surprised and disappointed that John Faulkner seems to have done so as well.

And as for Michelle Grattan in The Age?   For the past few weeks, I’ve decided that she falls into the same category as Peter Costello or Chris Berg from the IPA. Her columns are no longer commentary, or analysis: you know what she’s going to write even before she types the first word.

I did not contact my local member Jenny Macklin.  Even if she were a Rudd supporter (which she is not), I would not do so.  Our democracy does not work that way and I think that it is all the better that it does not.  I shall exercise my constitution-given judgment at the ballot box.

‘Good Evening Mrs Craven’ by Mollie Panter-Downes

203 p. 1999

I admit it: I was attracted to this book by its cover ( a topic discussed in Sue’s Whispering Gums blog recently). I picked it up, noted that it was a collection of short stories written during WW2, and conscious that I should really be doing some ‘proper’ reading, put it back on the shelf.  “Damn it! There’s plenty of time for the thesis!” I thought the next day and promptly borrowed it.  There’s not really plenty of time, but I’m glad that I did borrow it after all.

Mollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker. Between 1939 and 1945 she wrote a fortnightly “Letter from London” – 153 of them at 1500 words a week, as well as 18 long articles and twenty-one short stories. She also wrote five novels, all of which she disowned except her final novel One Fine Day, which was republished in 1985.

This is a collection of the wartime short stories published in the New Yorker, and they reflect her journalistic bent: who, what, when and where; with an optional why and how.  To meet the constraints of the magazine short-story, they are of a fairly uniform short length (about 9 or 10 pages), and I often found myself wishing that they were longer.

Think O.Henry meets Midsomer Murders.  Nearly all of these stories are set among the rural upper middle class, and mostly from womens’ perspectives.  Her characters are not evacuees, but the rural host families whose houses and larders are stretched by slum families, stiffly uncomfortable in strange settings, or by fey elderly and wealthy spinsters, who drift from one distant relative to another.  Many of the women are alone. Some are in adulterous relationships, where the pain of separation is just as acute but publicly unacknowledged.  They are the women of the Ladies Sewing Circle; they are often hungry in a most lady-like fashion;  some cling tightly to the past while others are liberated by the social changes that war has brought.

And so we have one story about the painfully slow last days, hours, minutes counting down before deployment; or another story about a mistress distraught that her lover may be killed and that no-one would know about her in order to convey the news.  They are slices of life, quickly and deftly sketched, sharp and affecting.  In a word: I loved them.  Because the milieu remained the same, it was easy to finish one story and turn to the next, and one or two characters appeared in more than one story.  They are arranged chronologically, as the war moves through different phases, and the collection is bookended by her Letter from London that marked the beginning and the end of the war.

Perhaps I’m turning into a short-story reader after all.  I gobbled these up so avidly that I’ve borrowed a collection of her Letters from London as well. After all, there’s plenty of time for the thesis…isn’t there?

My rating: 10/10 (yes!)

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because:  there’s plenty of time for the thesis (not).

Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0 and Unitarianism?

I see that Alain de Botton is in Australia at the moment publicizing his new book (which I have on order at the library).  Some people ask me why I  am a Unitarian, and how and why you would want a “church without God”.  For me, Unitarianism- and even more so the Unitarian Churches that I attended in Canada- meets many of the needs that Alain de Botton speaks about in this video.

Alain de Botton

(There’s a transcript that you can download on the site)

‘Otherland’ by Maria Tumarkin

2010, 301 p & notes

“What IS this book?” I wondered half-way through. Travelogue; a reflection on literature and historical methodology;  a history of nations and a history of family; a reflection on the mother/daughter relationship- how would all that be summed up in the one-word descriptor that you often find on the back cover of a book?

“Memoir” .  It seems a little incongruous to me that anyone born in 1974 could write a memoir yet, but if a memoir is a literary construct through which the writer represents a lived experience, then yes, this is a memoir- but I’d qualify it by adding “and much more”.

The author is a Melbourne-based historian, who emigrated from the Ukraine with her parents and sister in 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall,  at the age of fifteen.  She had returned to Russia  previously, but had not made it to the Ukraine.  On this trip she takes her twelve- year old daughter, Billie, largely because she feels that it is the last chance she will have to do so:

Right now is my last chance to go back with her and still be the centrifugal force of our journey, exercising the course-setting and veto powers.  It is, in other words, my last chance to have Billie follow me around, however begrudgingly, as her mother’s tail.  In a year, maybe a few months, the tail will drop off, or the tail will be wagging the dog, and such a trip, if even possible, will be a different proposition altogether. (p. 28)

It is the journey that ties this memoir together, but it is a layered journey. Mother and daughter are travelling, but Tumarkin is making her own journey back to the relationships that were ruptured when she and her family left so abruptly, and she is making a journey into her own parents’ and grandparents’ experiences as well.  But it is not her story alone: she interweaves the journey with the stories and observations of writers, historians, poets and political dissidents.  In this way, it is an intellectualized endeavour- indeed, I had not heard of many of the writers she cited- but it is also highly personalized.

It is much more than the story of a mother and daughter, and yet this is important too. We read excerpts from Billie’s diary- am I the only one who felt slightly grubbied and complicit in this?  The mother/daughter relationship generally is often fraught, and here I found myself judging the author rather harshly for her own intrusion into her daughter’s perceptions of her experience, where she so much wanted her daughter to see and feel certain things. Ah, but in terms of judgement and criticism Tumarkin was often there before me, aware of her own shortcomings.  There is a stringent honesty in her writing, as when she describes her daughter opening up the piano to play in the apartment of an elderly woman herself the cultured, brilliant daughter of a revered dissident:

In this apartment at the very heart of Moscow, metres away from the Mossovet and Statira Theatres and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall,  Billie sits down at the old piano.  She plays what she usually plays- Tori Amos and Coldplay.  How alien they sound inside these walls.  Not in Adorno’s ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ kind of way, no.  And not in a vulgar popular-culture way.  It is just that here these songs, which evoke places and times that make no sense in the world of this apartment, sound thin, flat and inconsequential in the extreme, like a mobile ringtone underneath a cathedral dome. Momentarily I feel ashamed. Ashamed for both of us. (p. 76)

There are several mothers and daughters here.  It is also a history of a Jewish family, who were part of a much bigger history, and here I found myself hampered by my lack of late twentieth-century history: who came first again? Gorbachev? Yeltsin?  I craved a factual chronology, to juxtapose against this very personalized history.

This is a very carefully constructed memoir.  It opens with a cliff-hanger that is not resolved until after half-way through the book.  The writing is reflective and scholarly in places, and confessional and all too human in other places.  Like all journey narratives, it moves forward and there is a homecoming, in more than one sense.  It is quite a journey.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I read it as my third book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #13: Geraldine Brooks

From her Boyer lecture (available for download here)

Writing may aspire to art, but it begins as craft.  Words are stones, and the book is a wall. You choose each stone with consideration, you place it with effort.  Sometimes, you find just the right stone- the right shape and heft- for that difficult niche, and the effect is beautiful and satisfying. Your wall has gone up straight and true.

Other days, you pick up one stone and then another, and none of them is right. You try it, it will not fit.  Frustrated, you jam it in anyhow.  The effect is unsightly, the balance precarious.  You come back the next day and you cannot bear to look at it.  You bring in the backhoe and knock it over.  The important thing is the effort.  There can be no day without lifting stones.

And after enough days, if you have sweated enough, scraped enough skin off your hands, been patient and diligent with your craft, unsparing in use of the backhoe, you will, in the end, have a wall. And it may even be a beautiful wall that will last for a hundred years.

(Reported in The Age, 10 December 2011)