Actually, the movie theatres have been open for a couple of weeks, but I felt apprehensive about sitting in a theatre in the dark with other people who were all BREATHING. I made up my mind on Saturday that I would go to see this on Monday, only to learn on Sunday that it was no longer compulsory to wear a mask in a theatre. What to do?
Well, I went to Palace Westgarth and I was one of about ten people in a theatre that would probably seat 100. Certainly a movie like Brazen Hussies, about the Australian women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s, attracts an audience of 60+ year old women and so there we all were, without being told to do so, sitting there with our masks on. I obviously wasn’t the only one who thought “too soon” when the order to wear a mask inside was lifted.
Having just read Michelle Arrow’s The Seventies, this felt like the documentary version of her book. It covers very much the same territory, making the same arguments. It was rather bracing seeing fresh faced, earnest young women in the 1960s being interviewed as craggier, wiser, – and let’s face it – old women in this recently filmed documentary. I have not previously thought of Marcia Langdon as “mellowed” but she was certainly a firebrand in the 1960s. Elizabeth Reid was measured and graceful both then and now. Many of the names and even the faces were familiar to me from their later lives (Sara Dowse, Biff Ward, Pat O’Shane, Eva Cox) but I didn’t have a mental ‘face’ to place on their names back in the 1960s. And..oh…the patronizing, arrogant smugness of young men interviewed at the time, and the the media commentary. It was reassuring to see footage of a recent protest and to realize that, in spite of the ever-present threat of roll-backs, the fight still continues.
The History Listen (ABC). So- a proposal for a coal mine on the coast, to be constructed by a foreign-owned company, and the community and environmentalists outraged. Does this sound familiar? No- it’s not Adani, but instead the Clutha mine that was proposed on the Illawarra escarpment in 1970. The plan was that the coal would be mined, put on conveyor belts down the escarpment to ships waiting at newly-constructed docks on the waterfront. This program Clutha 1970- the biggest battle over coal you’ve never heard of tells how local activists gained the support of politicians on both sides, unionists, lifesavers and the community to stop this going ahead.
Rear Vision (ABC) It looks as if we’re getting to the sticky end of the Brexit arrangements. EU and Brexit – the view from the continent gives a good summary of the Brexit saga. In a way, it has all been pushed off stage with COVID, migration and far-right Eastern European politics. What a self-imposed mess.
I didn’t end up travelling to South America this year, and I can’t see much possibility of doing so next year either. Mass tourism – how everyone became a traveller discusses the history of mass tourism from the Great Tour of the 18th century, the post WWI British holiday camp (what a dreary prospect), post WW2 American driving holidays and the mass tourism that has ruined Venice, Barcelona etc. They end up with a prediction that in a few years, tourism will be 50% more expensive than it was pre-COVID and suggest that perhaps that’s a good thing. Hmmm.
Nothing on TV Well, the smell of the dead rat in the wall of Robyn Annear’s house has cleared, and she comes to us with another of her delightful episodes about Australian history, drawn from newspaper columns via Trove. In The Hatpin Menace, she explores the international public furore over the hatpins that women used to tether their ‘Merry Widow’ Hats (which could measure 2 ft or 60 cms across). These hats had very wide brings- Robyn likens it to wearing a stockpot on your head! – but women used Gibson Girl hairstyles and false hairpieces to bouff out their hair so that the hat fitted. The hatpins, required to hold the hat onto the whole confection were about 30 cm. long. Men fulminated about the perils of the hatpin on public transport; sometimes hatpins were used as weapons; other times women held their hatpins as a form of reassurance (like the way women hold their car keys on a dark night, I suppose). It’s a funny episode and I’m pleased to say that Melbourne was the last Australian city to pass laws against them.
The Documentary (BBC) The episode The Mapuche: fighting for their right to heal investigates the fight by the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile, for recognition of their traditional healing and control of their own health service. I hadn’t realized that there was so many parallels with Australia: Chile is the only South American country that doesn’t recognize their indigenous people in their constitution (although that may change when Chile creates a new constitution in the coming years) and their language and practices were banned under Pinochet. Their land was appropriated and given to timber plantation companies and large agricultural firms, and there is currently a lot of unrest over land rights etc.
This is the first book in a quartet of stories written in real-time. Written in 2016, and set in England after the Brexit vote, it moves back and forwards in time as Elizabeth, a 32-year-old junior lecturer in Art History at a London University, visits her elderly neighbour (very elderly- 101!) Daniel Gluck as he lies dying in hospital. She had always been close to Daniel, who recognized her intelligence and sensitivity, even though her mother disapproved of the relationship because she assumed that he was gay. It was Daniel who introduced her to the works of the real-life 1960s British Pop artist Pauline Boty, who died in 1966 at the age of 28, with her works unrecognized for many years. The story alternates between Daniel’s prolonged dreams as he drifts towards death, and Elizabeth’s memories of her childhood with this kind neighbour who opened up the world for her.
The book reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in its quotidian Englishness. As with Woolf, Smith reveals her strong narrative muscles in what seems a simple story in which little happens. The pettiness of bureaucracy and the barely-disguised boorishness of the Brexit vote, the threadbare nature of casualized work, exist alongside a reflection on how hard it is to really live, and how hard it is to die, too.
I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series too. I love the idea that they are written in real-time as events are happening, with the author just as oblivious to their meaning and significance as her characters are. And boy, can she write! It’s confident, masterly writing, in a short book with little actual plot, that makes me realize how much of what I read is neither confident nor masterly.
How could the start of the month come round so quickly? The December Six Degrees of Separation meme (see Books are My Favourite and Best for an explanation) starts off with Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret. I was a little too old for Judy Blume’s Young Adult books, which started off in the mid 1970s, and the whole Judy Blume phenomenon passed me by. But it did start me thinking about the book that I loved most as an adolescent, and how that book has been reflected in my later adult reading.
The book that I loved most in early secondary school was Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s a story of a young girl and her older sister living in a racketty old Big House, with their author father suffering from writer’s block. In my own family, we never bought books, and so I reborrowed this book from the school library again and again. Now that I actually do buy books, I have not one but two copies on my bookshelves, but I’m a little apprehensive about re-reading it in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. It was the start of my love of Big House books, which is the ‘degree of separation’ that joins all my books.
I read L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between when I was in H.S.C. (i.e. Year 12). I just loved the summer 1900 setting of this book where a young boy, sent for the summer to a friend’s Big House, becomes an intermediary in an illicit love affair between his friend’s sister and a nearby tenant farmer. There’s a similar feeling of a young adolescent out of his depth emotionally, entangled in other people’s affairs and the feeling of impending doom.
These same themes came up in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which was made into a lush film starring Keira Knightley. Again, we have a young girl in another Big House, and another illicit love affair. The same feelings of summer, emotional immaturity and guilt come through in this book, too. This book, though, has three separate time periods, although the implications of an innocent but erroneous childhood action reverberate through a lifetime.
There are a number of similar books that I have read since writing this blog. Graham Swift’s Mothering Sundayis only small, at 132 pages, and dealing with just one day – Mothering Sunday – when the hired help in post WWI Big Houses are allowed to go home to visit their families. But housemaid Jane is orphaned, and so spends the day with her lover, Paul, the son of a neighbouring Big House family. It’s a perfectly formed, tightly told little story.
Big Houses, tied as they are to the arcane inheritance arrangements of the aristocracy tend to elicit manipulative relationships and long-held grudges on the part of the disinherited. Clare Clark’s We That are Leftis set in a postWWI Big House, once again with the outsider child brought into the midst of messy upper class family arrangements. We learn in the opening pages that the outsider child ends up owning the Big House and the narrative thread of the novel is just how he achieved it.
For me, Big House novels are inevitably set in England, although there are probably plenty of Big Houses in other countries too (all of a sudden Gone With the Wind or The Leopard spring to mind). What about Australian Big House novels? The houses may not be so big, and certainly not of similar antiquity, but Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is set in a Big Enough House, where two adult children return to their mother’s affluent house, intent on putting her into a nursing home so that their inheritance is not gobbled up by her in-home-care nursing arrangements. I really don’t know if I even understood this book, which is often the way with me with Patrick White.
And so, I find myself laughing at the idea of starting off with Judy Blume and ending up with Patrick White. Could any two authors possibly be more different from each other?
99% Invisible Remember when we could fly? Remember the safety card in the pocket of the seat in front? My daughter-in-law must not listen to In the Unlikely Event, which looks at the design of the Safety Card on airlines. The first safety cards were completely prose, without diagrams, lest the passengers should be deterred from flying. The reality is that most people do not read the card, and that in any crash, many passengers are frozen with fear into immobility. Many design considerations go into the Safety Car (pictures only; highlighting colours that are significant; making them specific that that particular aircraft; depicting effort required e.g. opening the emergency door). So, if I ever get to fly again, I’ll look at it with new eyes.
Rough Translation (NPR) There’s a language warning at the start of Radical Rudeness and yes, it sure is offensive. Really offensive. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan poet, sacked from her university job, took on the President Yoweri Museveni with very offensive poetry, and ended up in jail. She has since served her sentence, but is a damaged, dangerous woman. Very confronting.
West Midlands History. I did quite a bit of local research on the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic here in my local suburb in Melbourne, and it was interesting to hear the experience in UK with Spanish Flu Comes To Birmingham. In UK, the first wave occurred in 1918 while the war was still under way, with food shortages and all medical resources directed towards the war.
My Marvellous Melbourne. I really do enjoy these podcasts produced by Andy May at Uni of Melbourne with members of the Melbourne History Workshop. Episode 3 of My Marvellous Melbourne looks at the history of bells in the Melbourne soundscape, an oral history recorded in the 1980s where an old Preston resident Evan Luly remembers back to post WWI. He and his daughter Lexie were keen photographers. Their photos between 1950 and 1970 have been digitized and are available as the Luly collection at https://omeka.cloud.unimelb.edu.au/melbourne-history/collections/show/3 The program finishes with the case of Ivy Cogden who was found not guilty of murder when she attacked her 19 year old daughter with an axe in Oakleigh in 1950. The jury found that she killed her daughter while she was sleepwalking, and committed her to Mont Park where she died in 1952.
The Last Archive. Episode 2: Detection of Deception will take you on a wild ride. It starts off with the inventor of the lie detector William Moulton Marston, who hoped to have his invention accepted by a court of law in 1920 in the case of James Frye, a young African-American man accused of murder. But this is not just a podcast about a courtcase. It turns the lens back onto William Moulton Marston, with lots of surprises!
I will confess that I spent the first half of this book being angry at it (a rather futile endeavour, I must admit). The ‘hook’ of the book is its pyramidal structure where each separate story builds chronologically onto the next one, with a link between each story until it reaches an apex, then goes back down again, revisiting each story in descending order. It was used to brilliant effect by David Mitchell in his Cloud Atlas in 2004, a book which I absolutely loved. Mitchell was able to draw you to his characters emotionally, so that you felt reluctant to let them go when the next story commenced. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case in Catherine McKinnon’s book, which followed a similar structure, even to the point of having a dystopian story as the apex story. As a shorter and ‘thinner’ book (both in page numbers and in imaginative complexity), there was not time to develop the same engagement, and the choice of characters felt a little didactic rather than creative. So, for much of the book, I felt cross that it was such a poor, derivative shadow of an idea.
Where McKinnon’s book differs from Mitchell’s is that the stories are all set in the same geographical location: around Lake Illawarra (south of Sydney Cove and Botany Bay, near Wollongong). As the title and subtitle (‘the land is a book, waiting to be read’) suggest, the land is the unifying feature, although birds and a stone axe are also literary talismans that appear in each story. The stories in her triangle are:
Will Martin – 1796 based the real-life William Martin who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his second Tom Thumb journey of exploration
Hawker 1822- based on a real-life court case where a convict, Seth Hawker, was tried and acquitted of murdering an Aboriginal woman on a farm at Exmouth in the Illawarra district
Lola 1900 – when farming came to the Illawarra
Bel 1998 – when the suburbs have reached the lake, and indigenous art has become commercialized. Children, not quite understanding what they are witnessing, are exploring their neighbourhood and are befriended by a young indigenous woman in an abuse relationship
Nada 2033-2717. Nada is the ‘hinge’ story, where an apocalyptic climate event has wiped out the Illawarra area. A survivor, Nada, has had her DNA and brain data stored, and 684 years later technology has given her a new body and is trying to piece together her memories.
and then, back the other way again……
I said that I begrudged the book for the first half. For me, the breakthrough came with the Nada story. Clambering back down through the stories that had been set up in the first half of the book, at first I found it a little difficult to remember the scenario that had been set up and had to flip back to the matching story in the first half. However, if the apex Nada story was about the reconstruction of an unfiltered memory, in each of the ‘climb down’ stories there was an obfuscation of the truth, an agreement to twist the narrative just slightly. As well as this reflection on history, there was the underlying thread of the land, against which her characters battled, and then tamed, only to be defeated by it again. The land is beautifully described, in its untamed and strange menace, and its persistence amongst suburbia. Indigenous people are always there, right from the voyage of the Tom Thumb II, and the telling of their stories becomes caught up in false narratives, false testimonies and false merchandise.
And so, I ended the book with an appreciation of its themes, rather than the characters as such. I still regret the similarity with Cloud Atlas, and there was an earnestness about the selection of her characters as representations of a historical phase, rather than complete in themselves. Nonetheless its intent in telling the story of the Illawarra, a land like a book, with its omissions and evasions, was well realized.