Monthly Archives: October 2019

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24 – 30 September 2019

nicholasIRevolutionsPodcast continues on, and Mike Duncan’s project of following through different revolutions across the globe and over time is really bearing fruit as he is able to draw connections between one revolution and the other. In Episode 10.13 Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality he looks at Czar Nicholas I and his repressive response to revolutionary fervour both in the 1820s (when the whole of Europe was nervous) and in 1848 when revolution emerged in many countries. His response of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality certainly has resonances in Russian history today. Then in Episode 10.14 The Tsar Liberator, the Crimean War exposes the rot at the core of Russian society, and moves on to the new Czar Alexander who finally bites the bullet and deals with the Emancipation of the Serfs. I found lots of parallels between the Emancipation of the Serfs in Russia and the Emancipation of Slaves in the British Empire- the need to ‘buy off’ the property owners and the burdens placed on the ‘liberated’ people.

Duolingo The podcast Autostop en Afghanistán (Hitchhiking in Afghanistan) has been hanging around on my phone for a while. It’s about an Argentinian travel writer who decides to hitchhike through Afghanistan, as a counter-narrative to the rhetoric of the war on terror. Did you know that one of the Spanish terms for ‘hitchhike’ is ‘viajar a dedo’ which literally means ‘travel by finger’? Mixed English and Spanish, with a transcript available – and there’s always Google Translate.

Soul Search.  Simon Schama is one of my favourite narrative historians, and his voice is immediately recognizable in this podcast Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews, recorded in coversation with Paul Holdengraber (never heard of him!) at the Sydney Writers Festival. His second book of a planned trilogy of the story of the Jews, Belonging,  has been released recently.

Background Briefing. Another podcast that’s been on the phone, the podcast Welfare to Worse caused a bit of a fuss when it was released in August of this year. It’s about the Parents Next progam, and the unhealthy relationship between private providers, who are paid for keeping people ‘on the books’ and Centrelink, who are happy to shift onto those providers the onus for deciding whether people (particularly single mothers) need to meet interview, work and training requirements to keep their government payments. Having responsibility for eight children, and homeless is no guarantee that a private company won’t deem you suitable for ‘a program’. Meanwhile, the government keeps parroting “the best form of welfare is a job”.

Earshot. We’re aware of deep fakes as a political danger, but there’s another form of fakery where an image of a  woman’s head (and its nearly always a woman) is photoshopped onto pornographic material, to make it seem as if she is a porn star. This happened to Noelle Martin in My Fake Naked Body: one woman’s story of image-based abuse. She doesn’t know who is creating these images, and as she has found, it is almost impossible to remove them.

‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley

Wheatley_Mothers_Daughter

2018, 352 p.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the ‘parental memoir’ books, even though I seem to keep reading them.  You know the ones I mean, where a child (often already an established writer) writes the biography of one of their parents, interweaving it with their own memoir and ‘journey’ in trying to understand their parent/s. I’ve read my share of them, historian Jim Davidson writing about his father; Biff Ward writing about her historian father and his wife; Catherine de Saint Phalle writing about her Parisian parents Poum and Alexandre; Marie Munkara writing from the point of view of a member of the Stolen Generations re-discovering her family; Anne Summers writing about her mother and a painting, and Magda Szubanski writing about her family and coming out.

That’s a lot of books for a genre that I’ve said I don’t like. I am uncomfortable with the stripping-bare of a parent who cannot defend their actions, and I dislike the sense of long-held grievance that often permeates a child’s judgement of their parent, no mater how long ago these childhood events occurred.

So why, then, did I read this ‘parental memoir’? I think it’s probably because I admire Nadia Wheatley as a biographer through her excellent biography of Charmian Clift The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift and I was interested to see how a professional biographer/historian deals with the problem of writing a hybrid biography/memoir. [It was this methodological curiosity that led me to read Davidson and Summers, and will probably lead me to Jill Roe and Brenda Niall one day.] More immediately, it was as a response to reading excellent reviews by Jonathan Shaw and Sue at Whispering Gums.

The title of Wheatley’s book Her Mother’s Daughter is an act of claiming back her relationship with her mother. She was told by family that because she was only nine when her mother died, she couldn’t possibly remember her. Besides, she was told, her mother would have hated her Leftist policies. It was in reconstructing her mother’s life as an adult, from what people told her about her mother, and drawing on her own memories written at the time of her mother’s death in a valiant attempt to stop them dissipating (surely the act of a future writer and biographer!) that she realized that her mother would not have rejected her because of her politics and that she was, indeed, more of her mother’s daughter than her wider family recognized.  The choice of title is also an act of distancing herself from her father, to whom she was often likened, and with whom she had a fearful, strained relationship. His behaviour, as her research proved, was even darker than she realized as a child.

The book is written in four parts. The first section ‘Neen’ tells of the early life of Wheatley’s mother Nina Whatley, born in 1906 in northern NSW, whose own mother died while Nina was young. Her life seemed destined to end in nursing her much-loved elderly father and her less-loved stepmother, but World War II was her escape, when she enrolled as a nurse and worked with the 6th A.G.H. in Greece and Palestine. After the war she worked in refugee camps with Displaced Persons with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, taking up a position of responsibility that saw her nicknamed “Miss UNRRA”.

It was in these camps that she met the English doctor, Dr (John) Norman Wheatley, as described in Part II ‘Nina and John’. Dr Wheatley was married (although separated) at the time, and unknown to Nina he had a darker side that manifested itself through his alter ego ‘Mr Black’, a legal identity that he used for gambling, dodgy enterprises, affairs.  Already here as a reader you sense the perils for Nina in finally marrying Dr Wheatley. Their affair, while it was clandestine and without responsibilities, filled their weekends with liaisons, parties and travel. When Neen unexpectedly fell pregnant, he did not welcome the child, and Neen returned home to Australia to have her child.

Part III ‘Nina, John and Nadia’ is the longest section of the book, and it conveys well the anxiety evoked in this little girl by her father’s capricious, heedless and manipulative behaviour. They shift from one house to another as her father’s enterprises turn sour. Her sardonic father plays mind-games with both mother and daughter, with his menacing repetitions “do you understand?” when telling or showing Nadia aberrant  anecdotes and images. When Neen complains of chest pain, he ignores her, dismissing the pain as psychosomatic, a diagnosis too easily conveyed and shared amongst the male-dominated psychiatric fraternity. It was a dismissal that probably robbed Neen of years of health.

In the final Part IV, after Neen’s death, Nadia goes into the care of a school friend’s family; a paid arrangement she later learns, and one where she is vulnerable. The relationship with her father, already brittle, petered out.

Looking over this summary, there’s not a lot of joy here. Disappointments and betrayals, when they occur, seem inevitable. Yet, the book does not have the howl of grievance that too many parental memoirs have, perhaps because Wheatley’s intent is to recover her mother in order to identify with her, instead of to judge. The judgement is directed towards her father instead.

There is a narrative distance between Wheatley the author and Wheatley the character, and I think it is this detachment and – is ‘professionalism’ the word?- that makes this book a work of biographical reconstruction as much as memoir.  Most of it is written in the third person, but occasionally Nadia Wheatley the adult biographer breaks into the narrative, commenting on information that she has uncovered, responding with scepticism, regret or shame (as when she realizes that Neen’s inheritance of the family home had caused such resentment in the family). Wheatley has brought her biographer’s eye to her own family, contextualizing it within the mores and expectations of the time, filling in background information about the refugee schemes after WWII and psychiatric medicine during the 1950s, particularly in relation to women. She is explicit about her sources – her mother’s letters (often quoted verbatim), interviews and conversations with family members,  discussions with people who knew Neen – as a way of testing her own reality and memory against those of other people. Although the structure of the book is mainly chronological, it skips back and forth, shifting between third and first person. It is a deft book, written with confidence. Its emotional tone is dispassionate, and you, as a reader, do the emotional work of being enraged at people’s self-centredness, fearful of what seems inevitable, and hollowed by grief and unfairness. That Wheatley has brought you to this place is a testament to her skill as a writer.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 9/10

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

 

Article: Homelessness and Medical Research in Wartime London

There’s an excellent article called ‘Homelessness and Medical Research in Wartime London‘ by David Saunders on the History Workshop website. He’s a PhD student at the Centre of the History of  the Emotions  (a newish historical ‘turn’ that I find fascinating) at Queen Mary University in London.

During the war, pacifist and conscientious objector Bernard Nicholls established ‘Arch 176’, an air-raid shelter for rough sleepers, alcoholics and ‘misfits’ who were not made welcome, and did not want to go to, other conventional air-raid shelters.  The rough sleepers, who were often infested with lice, came to the attention of Patrick Alfred Buxton, Director of the Department of Entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  His glee at finding such good ‘subjects’ is rather ambiguous, and steeped in ambivalent attitudes towards the homeless and their bodies.

It’s a fascinating article, and the British Pathé video embedded in the post is intriguing, repellent and condescending all at the same time.