Monthly Archives: September 2016

Vale Inga Clendinnen: Re-reading’Tiger’s Eye’

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I began writing this review of Tigers Eye the other night, after re-reading it for my bookgroup. I was working on it last night, and I wondered how Inga Clendinnen was faring, knowing that she had been in poor health (but still mentally feisty) for some time.  Little did I know then that she had died that very day.  Inga Clendinnen is the historian who influenced me more than any other. I have read much of her work, all before I started writing this blog (Ambivalent Conquests;  Aztecs: an Interpretation; Reading the Holocaust;  True Stories (Boyer lectures); The History Question; Agamemnon’s Kiss and Dancing with Strangers.)  But her presence is here in my blog, in the only book of hers that I have reviewed since (In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath‘) and, more importantly, as the lodestar that has guided my perception of other histories written by other historians. I met her only once in recent years (and was so overcome that I was barely coherent!) but my respect for her is unbounded and my debt to her incalculable.  Vale, Inga Clendinnen.

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tigerseye

2001, 289 p.

 

So this is what I have been doing all this time- by courtesy of a physiological malfunction, taking a journey out, beyond and around myself, and into interior territories previously closed to me.  At the end of it, battered, possibly wiser, certainly wearier and, oddly, happier, I have returned to where I began: to history, with a deepened sense of what peculiar creatures we are, you and I, making our marks on paper, puzzling over the past and the present doings of our species, pursuing our peculiar passion for talking with strangers. (p. 289)

I first read Inga Clendinnen’s book Tiger’s Eye  in 2003 and it changed my life. I had been ill for about three years, able to only work part time, and after reading this beautifully written reflection on illness, memory and writing, I decided that I wanted to return to uni and my first academic love- history. I think that I could confidently say that you wouldn’t be reading this review on this blog if I had not read this book (oh dear, it all sounds a bit too Pauline Hansonish.) Before re-reading it for my bookgroup this month, I would have said that Tiger’s Eye was ‘about’  Clendinnen’s response to her illness.  Returning to it, I find it a much different book to that which I remembered, combining experiments in fiction, memoir and an exploration of the nature of memory.

So who is Inga Clendinnen? After commencing her academic career at the University of Melbourne, Inga Clendinnen was a history lecturer at ‘my’ university, La Trobe, between 1969 and 1989.  I had forgotten completely, until reminded by a friend, that she was the lecturer on the Mexican Revolution in Revolutions IA, the first history subject I did as an undergraduate in 1974. Along with Greg Dening, Donna Merwick and Rhys Isaac she became known as part of a group of historians dubbed the ‘Melbourne school’ by anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  Common to this group of historians is the practice of thick description, reflexivity, a deep reading of events and individuals’ responses, and a celebration of the act of writing. It is the type of history I admire and enjoy most. Clendinnen’s specialization was Mesoamerican studies, most particularly Aztec culture, but she is probably best known  in Australia for her works Reading the Holocaust and most recently Dancing with Strangers.

“Illness made me a writer” she says at the end of this book (p. 288). I think that she’s underselling her own earlier writing, but certainly Tiger’s Eye is an exploration of writing outside the history genre, while still drawing on the historian’s skills.  Ill in hospital, feeling trapped, helpless and under surveillance, she remembered a childhood story about a wizard who looked through the eyes of various animals- wolves, jaguars, ants- to see the world from their perspective.  On hearing the rumble of a tiger from the nearby Melbourne Zoo, she adopted the tiger’s eye as her motif:

… I too was in a cage, with feeding times and washing times and bars at the sides of my cot, and people coming to stare and prod, but the kaleidoscope of the horror of helplessness ceased to turn because I withdrew my consent from it.  Thereafter, whenever I felt the threat of the violation of self, I would invoke the vision of the tiger and the freedom that vision gave me, to be at once the superb gaze, and the object of the gaze: an incident in a tiger landscape. (p. 21)

She directs her gaze towards herself as patient, telling the story of the progression of her illness, observing her fellow patients and recounting the steps towards the liver transplant that halted her decline. She spends a considerable time ( perhaps a little too much time?)  recounting the hallucinations that electrified her befuddled post-surgical consciousness.  Once their vividness had abated, she realized that the hallucinations wove together memory and sensation from her own childhood and experience.  Much of the book is devoted to unpicking these experiences, testing the robustness of memory as a factual as distinct from emotional construct, and knitting her experiences up again into fictional experiments.

More of the book than I remembered is turned over to exploring – or as she puts it- ‘reading’ her parents.  Here I find myself conflicted.  I’ve commented on several occasions recently in this blog about my discomfort with children ploughing their parents’ lives, wanting to uncover the ‘real’ man or woman inhabiting the carapace of the parent figure. Clendinnen certainly does this, particularly with her mother, and her judgment is harsh. She directly links her curiosity over her mother, in particular, with her later career as historian:

… I can see that my pursuit of her has been a lifetime activity; that my early fascination with her impenetrability, and my pleasure in that impenetrability, has a great deal to do with my long happy life as a historian spent in pursuit of other more distant,less impervious impenetrabilities. … Now, when I am not many years younger than she was when she died, I am still sifting my handfuls of sand, still trying to make them stand and hold a shape I could call ‘my mother’. And still, for all my gatherings and pattings, she continues to fall apart like a sand lady.  If she is on the beach at all she is a mirage, an eye-baffling dazzle fleeing before me, receding faster than I can run. (p. 237, 238)

I was also surprised to find, on re-reading this book, how seriously she grappled with the issue of fiction-writing versus history writing.  This was, of course, the juxtaposition that roared into life in her argument with Kate Grenville over the writing of The Secret River, and which Clendinnen explored in more detail in her Quarterly Essay The History Question. But it’s here in this book too, five years earlier, as Clendinnen experiments with the two genres, finally admitting an element of defeat:

After years of doing it I think I am beginning to understand the work of writing history- the how of it, the why of it- but I still don’t understand the work of writing fiction.  There is a Spanish saying of which I am unreasonably fond: ‘No hay reglas,.’ ‘There are no rules here.’  That is the way fiction seems to me.  If there are rules, I don’t know them.

Engagement with professional history imposes rules.  One of those rules is that we must represent our chosen people as justly and completely as we are able.  We must try to understand them, and for that we need a supple imagination, but that is imagination’s only role.  With history I am bound like Gulliver by a thousand gossamers: epistemologically to the deceitful, accidental record, morally to the dead men and women I have chosen to re-present, and to the living men and women I want to read my words and to trust them. (p.244)

Finally, in re-reading Tiger’s Eye I was stopped again and again by the sheer beauty and power of her writing.  Here’s her description of visiting her aunt’s outhouse at night:

I liked the outhouse best on moonlit nights, because then the moonlight would come slicing through the slim black gumleaves like hard silver rain. (p.59)

Here, in one of her fictional pieces, is a mother putting on lipstick to visit her sister:

…she would draw her stumpy lipstick straight across her stretched lips and rub them hard together, so that when they showed again they were red with little spikes of deeper red running out along the wrinkles…(p96)

And in the same story, an unnerving description of an aunt’s ‘little game’ that mixes sensuality, intimacy and transgression.  The mother and her daughter visited Aunt Lall, who was bed-bound:

…sooner or later my mother would say she would die without a cup of tea and she would whisk out…and while she was out of the room Auntie Lall and I would do our secret thing.  She’d give me a little nod and a wink, and I’d climb up onto the bed, carefully, so I wouldn’t joggle her legs, and she’d take my hands into her warm soft ones and lace her fingers tightly with mine so our palms pressed together and I’d feel the hard bands of her rings…Then she’d slide the rings off, the ones that could still come off, and spin them on my fingers, and give the tip of each of my fingers a little kiss.  They were marvellous rings, heavy ones, old, all of them gold, with rubies and diamonds studded all round them. She’d stack them on my thumbs, raise her pencilled eyebrows and laugh silently, and I’d trace the pencilled line along the line of bone to the puckered skin and the harsh orange-red hair at her temple, and she would lift my limp hair away from my forehead as if it were precious.  As if it were beautiful.

We would do all these things silently, listening to my mother banging about in the kitchen.  Then the kettle would scream and the boiling water would crash into the teapot and I’d slide back into my chair just as my mother came in and banged down the tray so that the milk flew out of the jug and the teaspoons trembled… Carnal knowledge.  Whenever I come across that phrase now I think of Auntie Lall, because carnal knowledge was what she taught me: that there is a special love which sleeps in the flesh, and that special fingertips can waken it. (p. 104)

And so, on re-reading Tiger’s Eye, I find it a different book to what I remembered.  I’m perhaps more critical of the ‘Reading Mr Robinson’ section which takes up a large part of the book, now that I, too, have read Mr Robinson.  I can see the emergent shape of the Kate Grenville dispute, and I am surprised that so much of this book is fictional writing. But most of all, I celebrate Clendinnen’s artistry as a writer, thinker and historian: one of the best ones I know.

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I have included this book towards my tally on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016

 

 

 

Movie: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Much as I love Ab Fab, it’s best viewed in small doses. I think I enjoyed this trailer as much as I did the whole movie, to be honest. I am absolutely clueless about fashion and popular culture, so much of this went right over my head. But of course, it’s lovely seeing everyone again- Mother (who would have to be the most beautiful 90 year old around); Bubble; Marshall and Bo; Saffy and Lola. I found myself grinning away like an idiot just from the joy of seeing familiar faces again.  At least Eddie and Patsy (who’s pretty damned good for 70, too) can grow into their old age disgracefully and embarrassingly, which is of course the whole shtick.

But while half-an-hour of Ab Fab is perfect, a whole movie is too long. Really, I think you’d be better off sitting down with an Ab Fab box set and just enjoying it in its original and absolutely fabulous format.

Don Watson ‘QE63 Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’

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2016,  63p.

It might seem strange to Americans that  Australia’s premier long-essay journal devotes a whole issue to Donald Trump (and I can’t see the interest being reciprocated in reverse) but as in other countries across the world, many Australians – and particularly those of Quarterly Essay persuasion- are horrified at the idea of President Trump.  So, too, is Don Watson, as he makes clear in this essay.

Don Watson wrote American Journeys eight years ago (see my review here) and he repeats, on a smaller scale, the methodology he used in that earlier book.  However, instead of criss-crossing America to explore its political and cultural paradoxes, Watson limits himself in this essay to the state of  Wisconsin.  However, his findings are similar on a smaller scale: that within the one state there can exist multiple Americas, and that American politics reflect this splintered reality.

Within the state of Wisconsin, there is Milwaukee, hollowed out by the collapse of American industrialisation. White Americans now number 37% of the population (half of what it was in the 1950s); Latinos a four-fold increase to 17% and African Americans making up 40%. Milwaukee votes Democrat, but the white-flight suburbs surrounding it are a staunch Republican voting block, fired up by prosperity evangelism. They are the support base  of  the current governor Scott Walker, who believes that God has chosen him to cut taxes and stop killing babies.

Then, in the same state, there is Madison – and how many books have I footnoted ‘University of Wisconsin- Madison’?- a university-dominated town with art galleries, museums, and the Capitol building.  Madison was the seat of Robert La Follette who took on the elites, the railroad trusts, the lumber bosses, the corporations and stood for an expanded democracy, guarantees of civil liberties, the right to form unions and against “any discrimination between races, classes and creeds”. (p. 28) It is this strain of American politics that responded to Bernie Sanders for whom, I suspect, Don Watson would vote  if he had the chance.

There are now, Watson claims, two red parties and two blue parties, and “the whole country has come to resemble a battleground, albeit one, like the Somme for long periods, in stalemate.” (p 3) The underlying truth is that “the United States is a concatenation of sulky tribes, provincial, ignorant and seething with ambition, frustration and resentment”. (p 4)

While not discounting the possibility of a Trump victory completely, Watson abhors the thought.

Clinton just has to win. If she loses, not only does the world get Donald Trump (and the US Supreme Court his appointments): the Democrats will have to live forever with their decision to make their nominee the most qualified presidential candidate in history, but also the person most disliked by the American public and possibly the only one that Trump could beat. (p. 66)

Clinton is, Watson says “a fully fledged, and some would say dangerous, foreign policy hawk with no demonstrated ability to think beyond the doctrine of exceptionalism to which she subscribes as a matter of faith” (p.62) But she has also, through Sanders’ presence, been pushed towards the progressive side with promises to invest in cities to lift people out of poverty, invest in infrastructure, create jobs, revive manufacturing and raise the minimum wage, with immigration reform, an end to student debt and paid family leave. (p 64).  And this, perhaps, is cause for cautious optimism.

Reawakening the old grassroots reformer deep inside could not only heap manifold blessings of the nation and consolidate a liberal Democratic ascendancy; it is surely alsO the best antidote to the dark forces now feeding on the country’s malaise. (p. 67)

This Quarterly Essay probably does not add much that is new to the commentary that Paul McGeogh has been providing in the Fairfax papers, or Guy Rundle in Crikey. It is good, however, to read an extended-length reflection on the American elections, even if it feeds into our despair over a decision that will affect us all, and upon which we can have no influence whatever.

 

 

Movie: ‘Neruda’

We caught this film last week at the Latin American Film Festival.  I actually knew who Pablo Neruda was, because we read several of his most famous poems in my Spanish conversation class at the local library.  He was a Chilean poet, who became famous through a collection of poems called Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair that he wrote in 1924at the age of nineteen. He went on to have a prominent political and diplomatic career.  He was a senator for the Chilean Communist Party, but when Communism was outlawed in Chile in 1948, he escaped to Argentina. His death has become increasingly controversial over recent years, with the Pinochet government assertion that Neruda died of cancer, being increasingly questioned.

This film is the imagined story of Neruda’s escape to Valparaiso and across the mountains to Argentina, pursued to a Javert-type policeman (think Les Miserables) who, although unfamiliar with him as a poet, sees the chase in very personal terms.

And no- I couldn’t follow the Spanish very well.

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 25-31 August 1841

THE SAD TALE OF OF VEZELLA RAINBOW

It was not particularly common for the Port Phillip Herald to comment on the parlous circumstances facing impoverished individuals, but during much of June 1841 it conducted an appeal in its columns for donations to the widow of Trooper Rainbow, of the Mounted Police, who drowned when crossing the Goulburn River on 26 April 1841.  As the Sydney Herald reported, Trooper Rainbow had been with the Mounted Police for seven years, and was regarded as an active, steady man.

REAL DISTRESS. We beg to draw the attention of our humane readers to the case of the widow of Trooper Rainbow of the Mounted Police, who was lately unfotunately drowned when crossing the River Goulburn on duty. What makes this case one of peculiar sympathy is that while the bereaved woman has no claim whatever on the service, she has a babe in arms and expects shortly to again become a mother! Need we say more to call upon the liberality of the public to step forward at once to her relief? Subscriptions will be thankfully received at the Herald office.  (PPH 25/5/41 p. 2]

And so they were. For a month an article appeared in the Port Phillip Herald, listing the names of people who had donated to the appeal and the amount that they had donated.  I really can’t emphasize the rarity of a public subscription for a woman being reported like this.   Subscription lists for church buildings,  letters of support for Port Phillip personalities who were being attacked by Judge Willis, or benefits for clapped-out theatre performers- yes; but not a woman.

By 2nd July, the last advertisement appeared. It read

Rainbow1

Rainbow2

It’s a highly respectable donation list that raised £51. [A (male) overseer at that time might earn £100 per annum; single female servants were having to accept about £25 p.a. with board.]  Lieutenant Russell, was the most generous, with a donation of five pounds. It is likely that this Lieutenant Russell was the Lieutenant Russell who was commander of the Mounted Police, and other donations were given Trooper Rainbow’s fellow soldiers. Superintendent La Trobe was the next most generous with a donation of two guineas  (2 pounds and 2 shillings), and it is surprising to see Judge Willis’ donation of one pound because he rarely made public donations like this to individuals.

His donation is even more incongruous, because on 27th August, the Port Phillip Herald reported that Vezella Rainbow had been arrested for shoplifting.

The trial before Judge Willis was reported in the next edition (31 August). It was a jury trial, conducted on Friday August 26 before twelve good men of the town (women did not serve on juries). Trials moved pretty swiftly back then, and it was common to have three or four hearings within the one day. Juries made up their minds very quickly, often not even leaving the courtroom at all.   The prisoner was not called to the witness box and did not give evidence on their own behalf. Instead, it was up to the crown to prove the case through witnesses, and the question of ‘character’ often entered into consideration. In this case, the prosecution called three witnesses: Mr Codd the shop assistant, Mr Whitehead the shop-owner, and Constable Stapleton, who arrested her.

Vezella Rainbow, widow of the late Corporal Rainbow, was placed at the bar, charged with stealing a shawl, value two pounds, and five yards of Saxony cloth, value 18s.

Clement Codd, being sworn, deposed- I am shopman to Mr Robert Whitehead, Elizabeth-street; I saw the prisoner in his shop on Monday last; she purchased to ribband [sic] waistbands and paid for them four shillings, giving two half-crowns and being returned one shilling; did not ask to see any other goods; I was serving other customers at the time shewing them some shawls and Saxony dresses; the dress and shawl produced I identify to be the property of Mr Whitehead (here the witness received a caution from His Honor as to how he would swear to the identity of articles), I know them by private marks; I took them from the prisoner at the bar; she had them concealed under her shawl; they had been lying on the counter. I do not think Mrs Rainbow could have only taken them up to look at, without intending to take them away; they were concealed in such a way that when I took the dress from prisoner she denied having anything else in her possession; I had given her the change, she was putting it in a handkerchief and was about to leave the shop, when I perceived the articles with her.  After taking the things from her, I left them on the counter and went for a constable; I left Mr Whitehead in the shop; I marked the things and gave them to the constable who took the woman away; there are other Saxony dresses in the shop but none of the same description.

Cross examined by Mr Barry; there was another woman in the shop when the prisoner entered; subsequently a man came in; the woman who came in looked at some saxony dresses and then came out; brought back the man with her to buy her one, which he did.  The prisoner had a bundle under her arm; can’t say what it was; thinks it was a bundle rolled up in a yellow handkerchief: I marked the things after bringing back the constable; the prisoner was in conversation with the other persons in the shop: can’t say what they said: it was about articles of dress.  I particularly observed when the prisoner came into the shop that she had something under her arm; before I took the articles in question from Mrs Rainbow, she had not attempted to leave the shop: the articles she purchased still remained on the counter, when I perceived the dress with her: when I took the things she did not say any thing, but when going to the watchhouse, said the other woman had given them to her.

Robert Whitehead, being sworn, deposed, I keep a shop in Elizabeth-street; I know the prisoner at the bar; saw her in my shop on Monday evening last; I identify this shawl as being my property by the shop mark on it; I positively swear to the shawl.  I do not know any other shop that makes use of the same marks as I do; I saw Codd take the things from under prisoner’s shawl; just as a came into the shop; there was a man and a woman in the shop at the time the prisoner and another woman was conversing together; there was a man between them: I desired Codd to go for a constable, he brought one back with him. (The Judge here addressed the witness, stating, that although he did not mean or wish to impune his evidence, still there were many things he had stated required explanation.  His Honor compared different portions of the evidence and pointed out various discrepancies) another shopman was present, part of the time.

The witness was here cross examined by Mr Barry, but nothing particular was elicited.

Constable Stapleton, deposed to the facts of having taken the prisoner in charge, she being delivered up to him by Mr Whitehead, he also stated that the prisoner on being conveyed to the watchhouse said, that it was owing to bad company she got into the scrape.

Redmond Barry (yes, that same duelling Redmond Barry) acted as her defence counsel.

For the defence, Mr Barry addressed the jury as follows: I have no doubt Gentlemen, that after the evidence you have heard, you will proceed to discharge the defendant, for in my humble opinion there is no evidence to prove that the prisoner at the bar feloniously took the articles with intent to carry them away, which the law requires to constitute the crime, with which she is charged.  My client stands in a situation of peculiar delicacy; it is most distressing to witness it; and bear in mind gentlemen, the great disgrace she has already undergone by being arraigned at a bar of justice, on a charge of such a description.  Discrepancies of the most serious nature occur in the evidence to which I must request your particular attention, as they occur in the testimony of all the witnesses.  Gentlemen, the prisoner at the bar is the widow of the late corporal Rainbow, who was drowned in the Broken River, in the discharge of his public duty.  I can call innumerable witnesses as to the very good character of the unfortunate defendant, and you may well remember the great commiseration that was exhibited by the public towards Mrs Rainbow, on the death of her husband.  Indeed, gentlemen, I feel deeply affected by being obliged to come before you to plead in such a case as this; for the miserable prisoner at the bar is in such a state that she must soon give birth to an infant, who if you find the prisoner guilty, must first receive the pure air of heaven, the gift of the Almighty, in the murky dungeons of a loathsome prison, redolent of vice, obscenity and filth. I hope therefore you will immediately proceed to acquit my client, as I am sure you are already persuaded of the innocence of the prisoner, and as the entire of the evidence is so contradictory and unsatisfactory.  I shall leave the case in your hands, satisfied that it will meet with that consideration it so imperatively calls for.

It’s interesting to watch Judge Willis in action here.  He was very active during the case itself, pointing out the discrepancies in Mr Whitehead’s testimony and, according to a separate article in the same issue of the  Port Phillip Herald (31 August) Willis called up Codd immediately after the case and “proceeded to reprimand him in the strongest terms for gross prevarication in his testimony”. Willis read Codd’s  testimony at the Police Office and the Court back to him, pointing out the inconsistencies, and warned Codd that “he might be thankful for the clemency shewn him in not being committed to gaol for his gross prevarication”.   Notwithstanding these inconsistencies, and the  pound that Willis himself had donated for the unfortunate Mrs Rainbow a few weeks earlier, he then summed up very strongly against the prisoner:

The Judge summed up the case in an able manner, concluding by desiring the jury to divest their minds of any influence that the affecting address of Mr Barry might have on them, for notwithstanding the distressing circumstances of the case, as good and honest subjects they were bound to give their verdict, and assist as far as it lay in their power to have the law  carried into effect, justly and uprightly.  The jury after a few moments consideration found the prisoner guilty with a strong recommendation to “mercy”.

His Honor, in an affecting manner passed sentence on the prisoner, sentencing her to “six months imprisonment in her Majesty’s gaol of Melbourne”.  [PPH 31/8/41]

In his book Crime in the Port Phillip District (p. 198), Paul Mullaly reports that Vezella Rainbow (the spelling of her first name varies) was Freed by Servitude (i.e. an ex-convict) which may account for his hardline approach.  It was reported that “other Police had to take care of her children”.  On 15 April 1842, the Colonial Secretary wrote to La Trobe approving remission of sentences of 16 listed individuals including Vizle Rainbowe [sic] (VPRS Series 19 Unit29), so it does not appear that her sentence was reduced much, if at all.

HOW’S THE WEATHER?

Just as we’re experiencing here in 2016, the spring weather wass changeable. The warmest day for the month was 27th (69 degrees or 20.5C), followed by a strong gale the very next day.  The coolest temperature was 37F or 2.7C.