In a brave attempt to ward off dementia, I have taken to doing the daily quiz in The Age each day. I’m rather disconcerted that I seem to hover around the 13-16 point score and that too many times I find that I do know the answer but just can’t quite recall it.
This morning, however, I was quite confident that I knew the answer to the question “The letters JKL appear on which number of a modern telephone?” I do recall that as a child, our telephone number was JL7117, later changing to 45 7117. (That was before they added a nine after the 5 to make it 4597117; then later again 94597117!) My maiden name was ‘Lumley’, and I felt rather proud of the fact that my phone number had my initials at the start of it. But hold on- that’s two numbers (4 and 5) and yet the question suggested that both these letters appeared on one number. And sure enough, looking at the phone on the wall of my kitchen this morning- there they were under 5.
Had they changed it perhaps? Or was I not only not remembering, but remembering incorrectly?? But no- thanks to Lord Wiki, I was right! Until the 1960s, the first one or two digits of each telephone number were alphabetical, and each letter represented a distinct number. Thus
“The play’s the thing!” announced young Hamlet, and the play’s the thing in this book as well. But it’s not Denmark, instead it’s Boston, but as with Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, the theatre acts both as a focal point of the work, and as a teller of truths to writer, audience and actors alike.
The play at the heart of this novel is written by Billy, a young ambitious female playwright. It is opening night, and she has invited Leslie, the older sister of her former partner Gus to the performance, and she and her husband bring with them Sam, a twice-married divorcee as a bit of diffident matchmaking.
Billy’s partner Gus had died in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre on September 11, and so Leslie was discomfited by Billy’s new play that focussed on a man whose wife was on a train- not a plane- that was bombed. The marriage was unhappy, on the verge of breakdown, but their family and friends did not know this. When news came of the bombing, he was caught between numbness, elation, relief….many emotions, but none of them clearcut. Although Billy declared that the play was not autobiographical, Leslie found herself wondering about her brother’s partner, and whether she too, felt ambivalent. Billy’s relationship with the now-deceased Gus was, indeed, tenuous and there was far more autobiography in her play than she realized.
The story is told in alternating chapters that move between Leslie, Billy, Sam, and Rafe, the lead actor. Sam and Rafe have had their sadnesses and ambivences about their own wives too: Sam’s first wife died of cancer and his second marriage fractured quickly, and Rafe’s wife has motor neurone disease. So, as you can see, it is a play-within-a-play that sets off the emotional tripwires in all its characters.
I like Sue Miller, and I was rather surprised (and pleased) to see that, over about twenty years, I have read nearly all of her books although I’ve only reviewed one here on this blog. I feel almost as if I have grown up with her, as her books have moved from young mothers with new lovers, share houses, neighbours, and now aging baby-boomers. I’m not aware enough of American geography to be able to locate them exactly, but they’re east-coast, suburban, middle-class, educated settings and there is often snow, lighted windows, and deciduous trees. I’m sure that all her characters would vote Democrat. She often has ‘pairs’ in her novels: contrasting characters and situations that are played off against each other. They’re the sort of book that could easily be graced with a ‘Women’s Weekly Great Read’ sticker, with all that denotes and yet there’s a bit of an edge to them as well that makes them more than this.
But I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much. I found myself becoming annoyed at the frequent backgrounding and reminiscences. Admittedly, perhaps as her baby-boomer characters age, there’s more back story to draw on, but I felt that it was overdrawn here. She has always had a very good eye for detail, but there’s a narrow line between building up texture and burdening with minutiae. I’m not sure that perhaps it wasn’t crossed in this book. So with regret, I have to admit that this particular Sue Miller didn’t quite do it for me.
My rating: 7.5/10
Read because: I do like reading Sue Miller’s books
Well, that was some week in Parliament! Like many others, I watched the video of the proceedings in Parliament, transfixed. I gasped when Abbott used the phrase “dying of shame”. I inwardly cheered when my Prime Minister said those things that nearly all women think in their heads and do not say about small slights that mount into a sense of “What would you know, girlie?” I wonder what a historian twenty, fifty, a hundred years down the track will make of it? Of course, we as people living in the present, don’t know if it’s just yet another tumble in the hurly-burly of politics or whether something just shifted fundamentally.
I greatly admire a group of Australian historians loosely grouped under the term ‘the Melbourne School’, exemplified by Greg Dening, Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac and Donna Merwick, and I think that you can detect their influence in more recent histories published by, for example, Robert Kenny, Alan Atkinson and Tom Griffiths. One of their techniques is to take a ‘performance’- particularly a ritualized performance- and to examine it almost frame by frame, teasing out the layers of meaning that are implicit in the words and actions.
Greg Dening described it like this:
The ritual occasion is marked off from everyday actions by special languages, formal postures, careful etiquette. There is always a ‘priest’ at ritual moments, someone who knows the established ways of doing things, someone who plans and marshalls the actions. Or there is a book of rubrics, a permanent record of the order of things. Of course in social actions of a symbolic kind it is always, in the phrase made famous about the ‘thick description’ of them, ‘wink upon wink upon wink’. The actions are a text in which the abstract realities are mythically read, certainly, but the participants are also observing many levels of meaning. [Greg Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language p 199]
Parliament is our nation’s ritual performance writ large, and although there is little sign of careful etiquette, there are rules, and there is a permanent record through Hansard. It is not lost on me that the debate on Tuesday was about the very person (the ‘priest’ if you like) who as Speaker “knows the established ways of doing things, someone who plans and marshalls the actions.” [An aside: quite apart from his personal failings and offensive language that would make it absolutely untenable for him to have continued in the role, Slipper was able to control Parliament far better than his predecessor and successor seem to do. Under his speakership, Parliament no longer sounded like a rowdy Grade 9 class on a wet Friday afternoon.]
I was interested to see The New Yorker’s take on it. Our own media here has prided itself on the suggestion that Barack Obama could learn a few lessons from it, but I was more interested to see how the New Yorker contextualized it for a readership that I’m sure knows nothing about present Australian politics. I think they did a pretty good job, with my own commentary in italics and brackets:
they picked up on Slipper’s rather Dickensian name [ how easy it is to slip into farce-mode; how the sense of theatricality is heightened]
they noted Slipper’s reference to shellfish for female genitalia in a message to a staffer and that he is being sued for sexual harassment [eliding the fact that it is a male staffer who is suing him and that these comments emerged merely as background and had nothing to do with the sexual harassment case]
Slipper had been in Abbott’s party but had left in the wake of an earlier scandal [what was the scandal again? That’s right- over use of travel entitlements. All seems a long time ago now], in effect becoming part of Gillard’s razor-thin majority coalition [not strictly true- no mention of the fact that she made him Speaker and the voting implications of that appointment]
Abbott’s motion for him to be fired immediately rather than through parliamentary procedure [I’mindulging in a bit of what-if here- I don’t really think that he could have continued in the role anyway. Nor should he]
The article lists other motives that Abbot might have had beyond the vile and derogatory texts- a personal friend who had become an embarrassment; chipping away at Gillard’s majority
It then lists a number of examples of Abbott’s behaviour e.g. Abbott’s newspaper comment “what if men are by physiology and temperament more adapted…”; Abbott’s “make an honest woman” comment; allusion by a colleague to Gillard as “barren”; Abbott’s description of abortion as the “easy way out”; Abbott’s comment “housewives doing the ironing”; Abbott’s failure to denounce “a man’s bitch” and “ditch the witch” and being photographed with them.
The article noted Margie Abbott’s contribution
The article noted Alan Jones’ comment about her father dying of shame and Abbott echoing the same phrase.
It identifies the carbon tax
The article noted Anne Summers’ speech available in full here [Worth reading] which identified ‘Ju-liar’ and YouTube clips
There are ‘winks on winks on winks’ at work here. I’m thinking of the treatment that Kate Ellis received on Q & A on the previous night. Gillard’s speech the next day was not a direct response to it, but it was the sort of speech that women often wish they had made when they find themselves in Ellis’ situation.
There’s an interesting and very detailed analysis of the episode here that points out that Kate Ellis was interrupted 36 times during the course of the program. An example:
TONY JONES: Kate Ellis?
KATE ELLIS: Well, can I just say first up what I’m not going to take is a lecture from Piers Akerman on women issues and how women feel about issues in this country and I am really glad we’re actually able to speak on this. Going back to the actual question, I mean I think there is a couple of different issues here. What Australian women have been concerned about is not that Tony Abbott does not love his wife. Of course he does. It is not that Tony Abbott doesn’t love his daughters. It is not even whether Tony Abbott likes Downton Abbey or not. Like that was all very nice…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s a disgraceful campaign, Kate.
KATE ELLIS: That was all nice but it’s completely…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s an orchestrated campaign.
KATE ELLIS: …irrelevant to the concerns of Australian women…
LINDSAY TANNER: Don’t you like Downton Abbey either?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I love Downton Abbey.
KATE ELLIS: …and that is, if you’re going to…
LINDSAY TANNER: It’s a very good show.
KATE ELLIS: …if you’re going to…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I like the Dowager Duchess too. I think she’s hysterical.
LINDSAY TANNER: Maggie Smith is sensational. Sensational.
Another wink? The sotto voce comments that Abbott habitually makes across the despatch box in Parliament. Abbott checking his watch at the end of her speech. Winks, yes. Fleeting,” hold-on-what-was-that?” type actions; a shared indulgent here-we-go-again attitude held by those in a position of power smirking at the powerless. Small, inconsequential in themselves that you feel foolish in naming, and yet these small winks accumulate into a collective blindness.
As for our putative historian a hundred years down the track: Hansard won’t capture this performance. The video will capture it better. The media, mainstream and social, will capture the audience response. Time will be the arbiter.
I’m still not sure what I saw last Tuesday. When I read Michelle Grattan’s [enough said?] report on it in the Age’s the next day, I wondered if I’d even seen it at all. I don’t know if it changes anything. All I know, is that I said “Good on you” and feel perhaps a little stronger in speaking up at these winks on winks on winks as well.
After I finished reading this book, I got to thinking about the marvel of reading: that somehow those printed words on the page become an internal experience of seeing, hearing, even smelling that somehow the reader generates for herself in her own head, and yet can be shared with others who have read the same book. It was only when I arrived at bookgroup last night, fresh from finishing reading it the night before, that I realized that my fellow book-groupers felt very much the same way. Perhaps there’s something special about this book.
Water Under the Bridge is a very consciously plotted book. It begins and ends with fireworks and a party- at the opening to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 and at the end to celebrate the Sydney Opera House some forty years later. In the opening party scene, he introduces all the main characters: the wealthy, socialite Mazzini family, Neil Atkins the restless and dissatisfied actor, the rather pathetic middle-class Flagg sisters, Maggie McGhee the journalist and Archie Ewers, an insufferable little bully. At first this deluge of characters seems overwhelming, but they soon distinguish themselves one from another as he traces through their trajectories in the four parts of the novel. The author was well-known as a screen writer and playwright, and you sense how well this book would translate onto the screen (where, indeed, it did end up as a miniseries). His characters do veer a little too close to caricatures but he gives them enough depth to rescue them from this fate. Somehow, in a book with many characters, it’s hard to label any of them as “minor”. He has a keen ear for language, and is highly attuned to class distinctions in our so-called classless Australian society.
Looking at the book 35 years after it was written, it is a good social history- perspicaciously so. His descriptions of the opening up of experience for women and gay men during World War II Australia fit in very much with the current historiography, and his marshalling of small details from his own memories and experience is impressive. It evoked many other books for me- George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby– and it didn’t suffer by comparison with these literary heavy-weights.
I’ve only read one other Locke Elliott- Careful He Might Hear You, and I don’t know why I waited so long to read another one. One day I’d like to read his biography too- Sumner Locke Elliot Writing Life. The introduction to the thesis on which the biography is based is available here and this review of the biography gives a hint of the man: gay, expatriate, brought up by his aunts- all themes that he mined heavily in his fiction. I waited twenty years between reading my first and second Sumner Locke Elliott. I won’t wait that long to read my third.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: CAE bookgroups
Read because: it was the October book for my bookgroup.