Monthly Archives: August 2019

‘Constellations: Reflections from Life’ by Sinéad Gleeson

Gleeson_constellations

2019, 242 p.

It’s strange that the book that annoyed me most this year, Lee Kofman’s Imperfect, and one of the best books I’ve read this year, Constellations deal with very similar subject matter. Like Lee Kofman, Sinéad Gleeson had a childhood marked by illness, and then six months to the day after her wedding, she was diagnosed with leukemia. With a major operation to fuse her severely arthritic hipjoints, she (like Kofman) would have her share of scars, and she, too, has considered other women whose bodies have betrayed them. But where I felt that Kofman’s book was self-indulgent, bitter and almost voyeruistic  in its observations on her own and other peoples’ flaws, Gleeson’s book is deeply human and ultimately optimistic. Reflecting on the metal implants, stitches and  surgical interventions on her own body, she writes

I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skill, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, of tracing connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles. (p. 17)

And so, with this title, each self-contained chapter is marked out by a star map of the constellations that reference, often obliquely, the content. While certainly some of the chapters deal with her illnesses, she ranges further into a consideration of motherhood, friendship and Alzheimers. This collection of stories looks forward as well as back, with a concern not about the ‘body surface’ as Kofman would call it, but an honest and deeply compassionate appreciation of – and she does appreciate, value, honour – the person inside.

She uses interesting constructs to structure her narratives. In ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’ – the length of all the blood vessels in the human body- different sections of her writing are titled by blood group:  A+, A-, B+, O etc.  In this story she reflects on her own diagnosis of leukemia, blood donation, periods, Blood of Christ, DNA. In ‘Where Does It Hurt?’ she uses the adjectives in the McGill pain index to verbalise pain (Hot/Burning/Scalding vs. Wretched/Blinding) as the headings for small reflections on pain, some in verse, some in prose. ‘Panopticon: Hospital Visions’ is actually written in hospital, a series of very short paragraphs, observing the ward around her.

It’s not all illness. In ‘On the Atomic Nature of Trimesters’ and ‘The Moons of Motherhood’, she writes about pregnancy, birth and early motherhood. She observes other people and their relationships to their bodies- Frida Khalo, Lucy Grearly and Jo Spence in a chapter similar and yet so different to Kofman’s work. There’s a chapter about the Irish referendum campaign to amend the constitutional ban on abortion (which I heard about in a podcast) and she gives us one of the most insightful and respectful stories about Alzheimers that I have ever read in ‘Second Mother’.

These are beautiful stories, detached and yet deeply human, written in crystalline prose. With Kofman’s Imperfect, I could feel myself taking a step back from the author, not wanting to associate with her. My response could not have been more different with this book. Here is a  breathing, loving, compassionate human – ‘body surface’ and deeper – and one that I wanted to stand closer beside, to hear more.

My rating: 9.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Up in the Land of Increasing Sunshine again

Melbourne has had a dearth of sunshine lately, but there’s plenty in Queensland, so I have popped up there for a few days.  You can read about my brief, and much more local, adventures at my travel blog Land of Increasing Sunshine (https://landofincreasingsunshine.wordpress.com/)

Movie: Never Look Away

This film is loosely based on the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter, although he personally distances himself from it. Born into a German family, Kurt’s father is a reluctant member of the Nazi Party, and his family suffers from the policies of Hitler’s Germany during Hitler’s time, and suffers again afterwards.  It’s a very long movie (3 hours) and I must confess that I was aware that it was a long movie and found myself checking my watch. The baddies are very bad – in fact, despicable- and it is beautifully filmed with moments of real tension. It is German with English subtitles.

My rating: 3 and a half out of five.

‘I built no schools in Kenya’ by Kirsten Drysdale

Drysdale_BuiltNoSchools

2019, 339 p.

This book leapt out at me from the library shelves as I was walking past – Kenya!! I’ve been there! I didn’t built any schools either: instead I just enjoyed the company of my son and daughter-in-law who were living there at the time, for probably a two month period over four separate visits. And Kirsten Drysdale- I know her! She was on ‘Hungry Beast’ and ‘The Checkout’ on the ABC, and recently on Crikey’s INQ team.  So even though it’s not my usual fare, I snapped it up and found myself devouring it.

In 2010 Kirsten Drysdale had just finished working on the first series of ‘Hungry Beast’ and it was not certain whether there would be a second series. A friend contacted her and invited her over to work with her as a carer for a rich old man in Nairobi. Drysdale’s parents had come from Zimbabwe, and Africa had always been a mysterious part of family lore; the job sounded easy; all expenses and accommodation were provided, and there would be free time to go off on safaris or do some freelance reporting.  So she accepted.

When she got there, all was not as it seemed. Stepping out of the driveway of a fenced, low slung stone house with a large well-cared-for garden, she found herself in a colonial time-warp, as if the Mau Mau were still at the gate and the Brits had never left. [I can identify with this completely. When I was in Nairobi in 2014 we went to Lake Naivasha and visited a conservancy where they filmed Out of Africa. The woman there, beautifully coiffed, white blouse and khaki shorts, seemed to exemplify the old British elite with her clipped English accent and obvious nostalgia for the old Keen-ya and disdain for the new. You can my blog post about her here.]

The old man, Walt, his wife Marguerite and adult daughter from an earlier marriage were locked in a claustrophobic, paranoid battle with each other. The daughter, Fiona, lived in England but micro-managed her father’s care through daily Skype calls and more nefarious surveillance. She was convinced that her stepmother Marguerite was not looking after her father properly, and so charged the ‘carers’ with spying on Marguerite and reporting her shortcomings to Fiona back in England. Walt himself was an old bigotted Kenyan resident, who according to Fiona, would not accept a black carer. Hence, Fiona employed three white women (including Kirsten and another Or-stray-yen) who Walt, in his befuddlement, would think were house guests or perhaps granddaughters. None of these people are particularly likeable, especially Fiona, and it is no wonder that the family dynamics were well known amongst the expats in Nairobi. Walt’s life is very much manipulated by his family and carers, at Fiona’s behest. His condition is worsening, and he exhibits and evokes all of the frustrations associated with dementia.

Alongside this description of life within Walt’s family is Drysdale’s own response to Nairobi itself. I kept feeling little leaps of recognition as she mentioned places and sights that I had also seen. Crime and terrorism are both present, but she also revels in the busy-ness of Nairobi and the dignity and generosity of the Kenyan community that we rarely notice or acknowledge here in Australia.

This is not high literature, and it is not meant to be. I found myself laughing out loud in places, and the whole thing  rang completely true to me – even the dynamics of a family struggling with dementia, which is its own form of madness.  She has an acute eye for the absurd, but also is a keen and thoughtful observer of what is going on around her. Of course, part of my delight in this book was that I was familiar with what she was writing about – a bit like reading a book set in your home town- but I really enjoyed it.

My (admittedly biased) rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

 

Movie: Litigante

Well that’s weird- a Spanish trailer with French subtitles that tells you absolutely nothing about the film. Despite the title – in English, the Litigant- this is not a courtroom drama. The main character, Silvia, is a lawyer, but that’s only one part of her life as a single (by choice) mother. Her own mother, Leticia, used to be a lawyer too and even though she is dying – too slowly- of lung cancer, the two women argue incessantly.  Silvia is compromised by the shady dealings of the government bureaucracy for whom she works as a lawyer, and she is embarking on an unexpected love affair.  She is stressed, stretched and so tired. It’s a real slice of life, and thoroughly convincing.  I saw it as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival in Spanish, with English subtitles.

My rating: 4 stars

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 August 2019

famine_memorial

Famine memorial, Dublin Source Wikimedia

In Our Time (BBC) I downloaded The Great Irish Famine months ago, and finally got round to listening to it today. My knowledge of the famine was largely shaped by Form Five British History back in 1972, and there have been advances in the historiography since then. Being BBC and all that, it was all very British (and not one word of Earl Grey’s Famine Orphan scheme to Australia that Trevor McClaughlin  has researched so extensively in his blog) but I couldn’t help thinking about ‘the caravan’ that has Trump so exercised. A very interesting episode- well worth a listen.

Today in Focus is the Guardian’s podcast service. While cleaning up all the saved podcasts that clog up my phone, I found this episode ‘Heroin and Me‘ where the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer John Crace, talks about his heroin addiction when he was in his 20s. He’s the writer who coined the term ‘The Maybot’ to talk about Therese May (who doesn’t seem quite so bot-y now). This is John Crace, not the author Jim Crace, although as you’ll hear, confusion between John/Jim worked in his favour. It’s a very honest

Background Briefing (ABC) I seem to be listening to/reading quite a bit about public housing estates briefly. The Birdman of Surry Hills sounds quite a character, but he has certainly kept the NSW public housing authorities on their toes, taking them to the equivalent of VCAT over repairs to public housing.

Revolutionspodcast.com Mike Duncan is continuing with his backgrounding to the Russian Revolution by looking at Marxism and Bakunism (i.e anarchism). However, because there was an upcoming unavoidable break in his podcast schedule, he decided to add an additional episode before launching into the Russian Revolution on his return (not that this matters to me, as I’m always behind anyway). So, as a bit of an ‘extra’ in Episode 10.7 he returns to the Paris Commune of 1871, which he dealt with in Series 8 in May-June 2018.  Marx, Engels, Bakunin and the International were all around to see the short-lived Commune. In Episode 10.8 The Red and the Black, he discusses the difference between Marxism (Red) and Anarchism (Black). It’s a good summary, but you really need to have listened to the earlier episodes.

Spanish Obsessed. I’m feeling a bit as if I’m cheating on Spanishland School, which is my main online Spanish learning investment, but I’ve also found these podcasts too. They are all in Spanish, at about Intermediate level (which is me, I guess). This one Intermediate 27 The Earthquake is about Rob’s trip to Mexico, where he experienced an earthquake not once but twice in the same trip.

‘The Dismissal Dossier’ by Jenny Hocking

Hocking_Dismissal

Updated edition 2016, 75 pages & notes

Is it only Labor supporters ‘of a certain age’ who remember where they were in 1975 when they heard that the Whitlam government had been dismissed? I was in my second year at La Trobe University, and being November 11, it was in the midst of exams. I remember sitting on the brick steps at the Agora, wondering if the student troops would rally and whether there would be a march on Parliament House. But there was nothing- at least not immediately. I think that people were just stunned.

And, after reading Jenny Hocking’s small book The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, I’d have to add that not only were people just stunned, they were lied to as well. It has taken over forty years for the truth to trickle out, through vendettas, scribbled notes in archives, interviews, and  re-evaluations. The story isn’t over yet: Jenny Hocking, who wrote the celebrated two-part biography of Gough Whitlam, is still pursuing ‘The Palace Letters’ between the Queen and her secretaries and Australia’s then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, which have been designated ‘personal and private’ by Buckingham Palace, and thus out of the reach of Australians.

So- what weren’t we meant to know and now we do, largely through Hocking’s persistence?  We now know that the Palace did know ahead of time that Kerr was planning to sack Whitlam. Through Reg ‘Toe-Cutter’ Withers’ spilling of the beans after himself being dismissed, we know that Fraser was aware of it too.  We now know that  Sir  Anthony Mason  had been involved even before Sir Garfield Barwick (the Chief Justice) was, and that Barwick and Kerr agreed to obscure his involvement at the time and afterwards.  We also know that Kerr, fearful that Whitlam would sack him first, had shored up his position with the Queen’s secretary and Prince Charles in advance.  We now know that Kerr was anxious that a Royal Commission not be held into the Loans Affair because it would have come out that he had signed off on the minutes of the Executive Council meeting that approved the plan.

There’s a lot, too, that we have either forgotten or not realized the significance of.  The Senate had not refused Supply, but the Liberal/Country party refused to vote on it. Whitlam’s poll numbers were improving, while Fraser’s were plummeting over the stalemate in the Senate. Whitlam had already spoken with Kerr about holding the half-Senate election days earlier and had the agreed papers in his pocket, which would have brought the stalemate to a head. The House of Representatives still sat on the afternoon after the Dismissal, and passed a motion of no-confidence in Fraser as Prime Minister by a margin on 10 votes – the ultimate breakpoint in our parliamentary democracy, which should have seen Fraser stepping down immediately.  There were in effect two dismissals on 11 November: first the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, then later that afternoon, the dismissal of the House of Representatives, which Kerr prorogued to avoid having to do anything with that embarrassing vote of no confidence.

These things have been revealed over the last forty years, but because they have been drip-fed, you tend not to see the whole picture. After Reg Withers revealed that Fraser had been in on it before the Dismissal, Fraser admitted that he had lied. How did I not know that? I remember Sir Anthony Mason’s dismissive “I owe history nothing” but I’d forgotten his role. I remember news of a dinner with Prince Charles, but didn’t make the connection. That’s why this book is so important. It’s only short, but it draws the threads together. It re-kindles the rage.

I was fortunate to hear Jenny Hocking speak last week (and a recording of her presentation can be found here). She reminded us that Gough’s exhortation was to “Maintain your rage and your enthusiasm“. Reading this book reminds me why we should maintain the pressure for a republic, and why Hocking’s own persistence and assiduity has been so important.  After the Federal Court dismissed her attempt to have the Palace Letters revealed, just this afternoon she was granted Leave to Appeal to the High Court of Australia. Those letters will and must be revealed one day: I just hope that she and  I live long enough to see them.

My rating: 5/5 because it’s it’s such an important book. Read it.

Sourced from: SLV e-book. (Did you know that you can download e-books from the State Library if you have a card?)

 

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.