Monthly Archives: July 2018

‘Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation 1920-1990’ by Janet McCalman

Journeyings

1993, 301p. & notes

This book opens with the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle Street St. Kilda to Cotham Rd Kew on the first day of school, 1934. The tram wends its way “along the spine of Melbourne’s middle-class heartland”, with an ebb and flow of private school students who peel off as they pass the major private schools in Melbourne. Being 1934, these are the children of WWI parents and unless they have scholarships, their parents are paying for their private school education during the Depression.

The No. 69 tram in February 1934 is the opening chapter and linchpin of Janet McCalman’s book,  which explores both the antecedents and consequences of that daily commute.  Starting in the years 1850-1919, her second chapter titled ‘Inheritances’ examines the social and economic origins of what was to become the Melbourne middle class of the 1930s, starting with the ‘Seekers and Saints’ who emigrated between 1850-1870 and embedded themselves as ‘The Greedy and the Good’ between 1879-1890. Chapter 3, ‘The Lessons of Innocence 1920-1939’ explores the inter-war years in which these young school children catch their tram in 1934, oblivious to the second ‘war to end all wars’ that faced them.

McCalman then follows through with this generation, examining their war-time experience in Chapter 4 ‘Coming of Age 1939-1945’ and their post-war family and work lives in ‘The Trials of Experience 1946-1966.’ Her chapter ‘Mid-Life Crisis 1967-1975’ captures the mid-career mindset of her middle-class informants in the midst of the world-wide disruption of 1968 and the political ferment of the ascension and dismissal of the Labor Party in Australia. Her final chapter ‘The Age of Wisdom 1976-1990’ takes her right up to the ‘Journeyings’ survey conducted in 1990 amongst the former students (pre 1950) of four private schools  that were passed by the No 69 tram.

I must declare my own colours here. Even though in 1934 my father lived one block down from Glenferrie Rd, along which the No 69 tram rattled (i.e.the very years that McCalman uses in her opening image), I am proudly the product of a government school, as were my parents. I strongly oppose the social and educational distortions brought about by John Howard’s funding of private schools that no government seems to have the courage to dismantle. So I read this book with a jaundiced eye and certainly no sense of identification.

However , McCalman complicates my easy prejudices through her research. It is largely based on a 1990 survey that she conducted with Mark Peel that yielded 633 responses from pre-1950 school leavers from Scotch and Trinity, (both boys’ schools), Methodist Ladies College and Genazzano convent. There were 1235 surveys distributed, yielding a hefty 42% response rate. McCalman’s methodology combines prosopography,  survey responses, oral history interviews with 80 respondents, the judicious use of fiction and memoir, her own literature review, and statistics.

Although solidly middle-class, the financial and social backgrounds were more varied than I expected for this 1934 cohort, based on statistics drawn from Scotch senior students in 1934 and MLC students born in 1919 and 1920. Going to a private school did not guarantee a high education level:  43% of the Trinity 1919-20 boys cohort left without the Intermediate Certificate (i.e. Yr 10), while 65% of the MLC cohort left without their Intermediate.  In a rather anecdotal experiment, McCalman asked a group of retired senior teachers (who were themselves at secondary school in the 1930s and 1940s) to compare papers set for the external Intermediate, Leaving and Leaving Honours papers for 1935 and the examinations set for the  Higher School Certificate (superseded in 1992). Their consensus was that in 1935 the emphasis was on clean and accurate work, which penalized misspellings, grammatical flaws and arithmetical slips. French and German was much more difficult in the 1930s but “in most of the other humanities, the intellectual demands of the 1930s papers were lower than would be acceptable by the 1960s.” (p. 123).

As McCalman traces through this 1930s cohort, she contextualizes them within Australia’s history. Because these four schools were denominational, there is an emphasis on spirituality. I was well aware of the Split of 1955 and the influence of the Movement within the Catholic church, but completely unaware of progressive Catholic activism (which was featured recently in History Workshop). Long before History of the Emotions became a historical ‘turn’, she focuses on hearts, souls, masculinity and femininity, minds and manners.

I like her discussion of fiction and history in her preface:

…because this is a group biography, a collection of stories of actual lives, it needs to unfold in the way real lives do- which is that none of us knows what lies ahead. Perhaps one of the most important functions of fiction is to permit us to escape that existential plight – it is a rehearsal for life; in writing history, however, we need to feel life’s dreadful unpredictability, its untidiness, its ordinariness, its splendours. Art is under our control; history, like life, is not. And yet history is but our reconstructions, is but an artefact of the mind, conceived of differently by all of us, and differently by all of us at different times in our lives… We are incorrigibly historical beings; our inner histories of ourselves- private history- constitute our ever-evolving sense of identity- we are our own stories. But in constructing histories – whether private or public-  we are torn between what we would like the story to be and what the evidence insists that it really is. The novelist enjoys a licence; the historian a responsibility (p.viii)

Before writing Journeyings, McCalman had received acclaim for Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 which used a similar methodology in the working-class (although now gentrified) inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  I have read Struggletown, but did not record my response to it at the time. The two books work well as a pair. Journeyings also complements Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which is cited often.

By the final chapter (1976-1990) her informants were mature retirees, with a remarkably low divorce rate and generally (but not exclusively) politically conservative.  Perhaps it was my government-school-streak coming out here, but I found myself bridling at the smug moral superiority that came through many of their responses, the noblesse oblige and the disavowal of ‘old school tie’ networks when there was clear statistical evidence of its significance in ‘elite’ circles.  What was McCalman going to do with this? Did she feel the same way as I do?

I think she did. Citing Sir Robert Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People’ speech and Judith Brett’s analysis of it, McCalman writes:

Children who are educated apart behind high walls can find it difficult in later life to become at one with those on the other side. Children who are told endlessly by their parents and teachers that they are fortunate, privileged, special, inheritors and examples of excellence, will find it difficult to be good democrats.  Even if they are imbued with a sense of service and care ‘for those less fortunate than themselves’, they can still find it difficult to feel simply as fellow Australians.  (p.301)

This is an excellent book. It’s beautifully written, it is nuanced and yet broad. The No. 69 trope works so well.

And look at this: the Public Education Campaign has just released a video that answers back to that last chapter, too.

Sourced from: my very own bookshelves, where it has sat patiently for decades.

My rating: 9/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have recorded this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

Website: Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

There has been a recent updating of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities’ website Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

Take the time to read the Introduction to the website. Here the researchers explain that their criteria of a ‘massacre’ arises” from the indiscriminate killing of six or more undefended people”.  Six people, they explain, from a hearth group of twenty leaves those remaining vulnerable to attack, with a diminished ability to hunt, reproduce or carry out ceremonial obligations.

It is still a work in progress, with information from Western Australia and after 1930 yet to be added.

Movie: The Bookshop

I think that all keen readers have a secret fantasy to own a bookshop, don’t they? (Until they think about the economics of the book industry, the presence of e-books and the competition of supermarkets, that is.)  So, like the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a feel-good movie for booklovers.  Bill Nighy plays his usual gruff but loveable older man (who becomes more attractive the older he and I both become) and Emily Mortimer plays a sweet, wounded thing who doesn’t deserve such bastardry. The foreshadowing is clunky and so the ending is thoroughly predictable.  But it’s a pleasant little thing, that makes you feel like popping into a bookshop to buy a book on the way home.

My rating: 3 stars.

‘The Museum of Words’ by Georgia Blain

blain_museumofwords

2017, 176 p.

Packing up an elderly parent’s house is hard. You are sorting, packing, throwing all those familiar markers of a life, acknowledging that they are worth nothing and yet knowing that they were treasured. You feel sad and guilty.

In her book ‘The Museum of Words’, Georgia Blain tells of packing up her mother’s house for sale. Her mother, author and journalist Anne Deveson, was still alive, but in care and oblivious to the practical financial arrangements that were being made around her.  The personal stuff had been largely cleared away, and the  house was being prepared for the open inspection, that odd state where a house has to be curated to look lived in , but not too lived in. In Anne’s study, there was a corkboard left on the wall, stripped bare when they were repainting. Georgia hastily found a pile of photos in a cupboard and began to decorate the board.  Dogs, grandchildren, holiday photos, children’s photos, Georgia pinned them up. “I felt as if I was creating a museum of happiness” she told her daughter and husband.(p.48)

Blain has called this last book ‘The Museum of Words’, and in reading it you can’t help but think that this is Blain’s own act of pinning up her life. Dying with brain cancer, with a glioblastoma the size of a golf ball, she writes of the experience of her illness, threaded by perverse coincidence with the illnesses of her mentor, friend and human rights activist Rosie Scott, who was dying with exactly the same condition, and her mother who was dying with Alzheimers.  She writes of herself as daughter to Anne and in turn, as mother to her daughter Odette. Men do not play a large part in the story. This book is in many ways a love letter to all three of these women, to the act of writing, and in her final paragraph, an assertion of gratitude for life itself.

The book is interspersed with photographs, which act as a way of telling when the words don’t come.  There are spaces on the page, which I didn’t recognize as quickly as I might have in an e-book instead of a printed edition

In the foreword, written by her husband Andrew after her death, and in Blain’s book itself, there are several references to the increasing difficulty with writing that Blain experienced.  You can sense that the flow is disrupted and that the sentences are perhaps less complex than they might otherwise have been. But most of all, I was left with my eyes brimming at the thought of her actually finishing the writing of this book and her decision as an author writing her own life to round it off and to write the final sentence before turning to the task of editing.  Too young, too soon, too much left unwritten.

Sourced from : YPRL e-book

My rating: too hard to rate.  In terms of emotional punch, though, 10/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have registered this review with the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Robber Bride’ by Margaret Atwood

robberbride

1993, 576 p.

Set in Toronto, this book was published in 1993. Three female friends, Tony (Antoinette), Charis and Roz are having lunch together when another woman enters the restaurant: Zenia, a mutual ‘friend’ who was supposed to have died several years earlier. Each of these women has her own history with Zenia, a charismatic woman who variously lied, cajoled, blackmailed and bullied her friends.  The title comes from a Grimm Brothers fairytale ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ where a young woman was threatened by her betrothed and his gang of men.  In an inversion of the fairytale, Zenia steals the husbands and partners of her friends.

After a too-long opening section which places the three women at the restaurant, the book then turns to each of the friends in turn. Tony is a military historian, a rare woman in a male-heavy academic field, who sees the world through her historical consciousness of memory, chance, inevitability and choice. Charis (formerly Karen) is a floaty-hippy type woman with a gruelling family background. Roz is a successful business woman whose own family background is shadowy.  Zenia finds her way into each woman’s vulnerability and uses it against them. While doing so, she engineers the break-up of their relationships with their men.

The real skill of this novel is Atwood’s full-blood rendering of each of these women in turn. In effect, it could be three books in one. They are all equally well-developed as characters, and their relationship with Zenia is plausible. The same cannot be said of Zenia, who remains enigmatic and depicted, in a rather over-wrought style, as the personification of evil. That’s the only truth about her: all the rest is lies and deception.

I was satisfied with neither the beginning nor ending of this book.  For the first fifty pages I kept thinking “Oh, just get on with it” and the ending was too quick and not entirely believable.  But the middle part – and that is where the crux of the book lies- is really well written.

It’s hard not to see this book in the context of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Cat’s Eye (1988), both of which also deal with women’s cruelty to other women, although the cruelty here is at an individual, personal level rather than social or institutional.  It raises good questions about how feminine aggression is manifested, and how other women respond to it. It’s interesting to consider how the story would differ if a man preyed on the wives of his male friends, and how they would respond to his perfidy.

Sourced from CAE bookgroup

My rating: 8/10

‘Basil Street Blues’ by Michael Holroyd

holroyd

1999, 306 p

I generally like reading  historians’ and biographers’ autobiographies.  Not that they are generally more intrinsically interesting than other peoples’ (in fact they’re usually not) but I like watching how, as writers, they turn their skills onto their own lives. I must confess that I’d never heard of Michael Holroyd, and haven’t read any of his biographies.  And I’ll also confess that had this not been a book group selection, I probably would have given up on it after the first fifty pages.

In fact, I was surprised that a professional and published biographer would allow the first chapters of his book to wallow around in genealogy, like an amateur family historian.  He made much of a short story written by Virginia Woolf that mentioned his ancestral family, but unless you had read the short story (which, only with the benefits of Google, I had) it really didn’t add much to his narrative.  For me, it was only once he himself walked into the story, rather than recounting earlier generations’ stories, that it became interesting. He is a good observer, but gives little of himself away.  I got to the end of the book and felt as if he had been deliberately deflecting attention away from himself.

What he did capture brilliantly, however, was the decline of a formerly upper-middle (if not upper class) family, complete with all the eccentricity and  emotional aridity of that type of upper-middle British reserve.

However I have since somewhat revised my lukewarm opinion of the book as biography once I realized that it is actually part of a trilogy (somehow the idea of a three-book autobiography seems rather pretentious). I had been rather bemused by his frequent quotations from his own novel, but now I learn that the novel had been unpublished, on account of his father’s opposition to publication ( so his quotation was a form of publication by stealth, perhaps?) It would seem that the other volumes are more forthcoming on an emotional level, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to follow up on them, or his other published biographies.

Source: CAE

Read because:  CAE bookgroup selections

My rating: 7

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Rediscovered: the Aboriginal names for ten Melbourne suburbs — Home – The Conversation

Melbourne in 1846: a view from Collingwood. T. E. Prout. State Library of VictoriaTen previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek). These names were in a cache of…

via Rediscovered: the Aboriginal names for ten Melbourne suburbs — Home – The Conversation

A fascinating article about Woiwurrung names for some Melbourne suburbs and locations, as recorded by William Howitt, and the difficulties in interpreting the transcriptions of early linguists, surveyors, settlers and anthropologists.