Monthly Archives: December 2014

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London

goldenage

2014, 156 p.

I don’t know how Joan London managed it, but by only page 32 into this book, my eyes were brimming with tears.   It was a feeling that stayed with me  right until I turned the last page – a deep sadness that not once threatened to tip into sentimentality.

The (real life) Golden Age was a former hotel in suburban Perth during the 1950s.  At a time before the Salk vaccine put an end to the fear of polio, rehabilitation hospitals were established for children affected by polio.  The door stayed open all night and parents were welcomed but many  –  fearful, distressed and bound to work and their other children- came only at set times, or barely at all.  They were frightened by the illness and the future for their hurt, sick, too-aware children.

Thirteen year old Frank is almost too old for this children’s home but too young for adult hospitals. He is the only child of Jewish Holocaust survivors, cultivated educated Middle European migrants who have already lost so much, finding their way in a new country.  He falls in love with the frail, thin, Elsa who tumbles from her harried family into the quiet world of the Golden Age.

The horrific scenario of young bodies stilled, weakened and contorted by polio is lulled into a quiet, soothing, muffled presence.  This is a serene book, told in very short chapters like snapshots.  They are laid out before us, intersecting each other:  gentle, soothing middle-aged Sister Penny who takes lovers when she can;  Albert Sutton who runs away; the older boy Sullivan, an accomplished athlete and poet who dies in an iron lung; and Frank’s own parents, his father a successful Budapest businessman now driving soft drink trucks and  his mother the angry, coiled-tight concert pianist who plays a twilight concert in the yard of the Golden Age with the factory lights blazing next door.  The thread that connects them is Frank and Elsa, shyly negotiating new feelings.

This book reminded me of two other books: Atonement by Ian McEwan and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley.  Both those books are suffused with summer heat and bathed in regret and nostalgia.  So too is The Golden Age.  It is a beautifully crafted book, quiet, confident and sad.  It’s very good.

awwbadge_2014I really must tally up my books for the Australian Women Writers challenge.

‘Death or Liberty: Rebels and radicals transported to Australia 1788-1868’ by Tony Moore

deathorliberty

2010, 398 p.

Many books, history books included, have a page of acknowledgments.  Along with the usual thanks to colleagues and family, appreciation is often expressed to librarians and archivists who have offered assistance along the way.

In this book, the author Tony Moore makes another acknowledgment.  It is to the commissioning editor of Murdoch Books,  Diana Hill, who selected him to fulfil the brief for this book.  Commissioned books, of course, are nothing new: institutions and individuals have often  paid a writer to document and argue their significance to a wider audience.  But this commission is slightly different in that it was for a narrative concept- transported rebels to Australia- left to the historian chosen to flesh out. When  Tony Moore spoke at the Australian Peace Coalition seminar I attended recently, he noted that the ABC has since commissioned a documentary series based on the book. Certainly the book and the topic is ripe for a television series.  It has, in effect, five self-contained episodes, studded with articulate, interesting people, and ripping yarns of defiance, escape, coincidence and courage.

As Moore notes in his introduction:

This is the story of how the British Government banished to the ends of the Earth political enemies viewed by authorities with the same alarm as today’s ‘terrorists’: Jacobins, democrats and republicans; machine breakers, food rioters, trade unionists and Chartists; Irish, Scots, Canadian and even American rebels.  While criminals in the eyes of the law, many of these prisoners were heroes and martyrs to their own communities, and are still revered in their homelands as freedom fighters and patriots, progressive thinkers, democrats and reformers.  Yet in Australia, the land of their exile, memory of these rebels and their causes has dimmed  (p. 8)

He notes that when he was growing up, Australian history seemed bland and uninteresting, especially compared with European, American, African and Asian history with blood, revolutions, wars etc. He later came to learn that Australia had its own robust history of dissent and resistance to authority, and the blood and war was there all along.

We elide the nuances when we uncritically celebrate the convict trope of the “poor downtrodden peasant transported for stealing just a ribbon!”  and we are largely unaware of the political prisoners transported to Australia: 3600 of them out of a total of 162,000 sent between 1787 and 1868 when transportation finally ceased in Western Australia.  Of these political prisoners, 2500 were from Ireland, 1200 from England Scotland and Wales and 151 from North America.  It is these political prisoners that Moore deals with in this book. Continue reading