Monthly Archives: August 2022

‘His Name is George Floyd’ by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa

2022, 380 p

I must admit that I have not watched the video of the full 9 minutes and 29 seconds that it took George Floyd to die under Derek Chauvin’s knee as he was being arrested. I wonder how many people have: after all, nine minutes and 29 seconds doesn’t fit well into a half-hour news broadcast. But in that time a giant of a man, pinned down by a little, cocky man oblivious to the entreaties of George himself and the remonstrations of a small crowd of onlookers, exemplified what the Uluru Statement here in Australia identified as “the torment of our powerlessness”. Since his death on Memorial Day 25 May 2020, George Floyd’s image has been painted on walls, printed onto t-shirts, and the demand to ‘Say His Name’ echoed around the world, spawning protests across the world sparked by, but not restricted to, his death. This book, subtitled ‘One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice’ looks at George Floyd as a person, but also the whole web of history, economics and politics that brought that knee down on his neck.

The book is based on more than 400 interviews with the people who were close to George Floyd. It is interwoven with explanations that knot together the specifics of Floyd’s life and wider historical movements. What this book lays out is the way that structural racism, built gradually by historical events both large and small, government policies and their intended and unintended consequences, and spoken and unspoken assumptions have constructed a web that held George Floyd under, just as surely as that knee did.

Although some of the interviewees, who knew him as Perry rather than George, imbue him with a posthumous sanctity that might not have been commented on while he was alive (a not uncommon phenomenon), there is no attempt here to hide the fact that George Floyd was struggling with poverty and addiction. A big man, he was very much aware that people were frightened of him. He had been a football and basketball player at school and college, in an educational sporting environment that prizes sporting prowess over educational achievement in a lottery of sporting contracts with little preparation for anything else. A string of eight minor crimes led to him accepting a plea bargain for a crime which he probably did not commit, and he spent four years in prison. He left Houston Texas and his extended family to go to Minneapolis, where he tried to start again but was drawn back into addiction.

But there’s a political and social background to all this. Turning back to Reconstruction after the Civil War, there was a deliberate policy of ‘take down’ as black families worked hard and some became successful, only to lose their properties through tax defaults and bureaucratic hurdles imposed on people who, when enslaved, were not permitted to learn how to read. Housing policies and red-lining saw neighbourhoods rise and fall economically; the state of Texas refused outright to desegregate their schools leading to a two-track education system; the plea-bargain system balances the possibilities of long and short sentences in a form of judicial gambling; employment possibilities narrowed once a prison sentence was served; State policies over health and welfare support acted as push factor (away from Texas) and pull factor (towards Minnesota) factors; the opioid epidemic linked the medical system and the street scene; the over-policing of his neighbourhood meant that a disputed $20.00 note ended up in death.

The authors are journalists, and certainly this book flows well. The backgrounding chapters give clear, historical information showing the almost inevitable conjunction of George’s death and the wider forces that had shaped his life. Although there are no footnotes as such, the page-number references at the back of the book give their sources, most with a web reference attached.

The book does not end optimistically. The Rev. Al Sharpton warned George’s brother Philonise that for every action there is a reaction, and this has proven to be true. The conservative uproar about Critical Race Theory and the ‘White Lives Matter’ rhetoric is a pushback and an attempt to silence. But I don’t think that you could finish reading this book without having a better grasp of the sequence of small events that constitutes structural racism, and its almost inevitable aftermath.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 August 2022

Source: Condenados por la Inquisición, de Eugenio Lucas (siglo XIX, Museo del Prado). Wikimedia

History This Week Convert or Leave goes back to July 31, 1492 when the Alhambra decree came into effect, requiring all Spanish Jews to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. The process actually started 100 years earlier when a program of ‘conversion’ began, whereby Jews were singled out for specific tax treatment unless they converted to Christianity. In a way, it was a victim of its own success, as huge numbers did convert, but they often continued to follow family practices that, while Jewish in origin, were not recognized as such- as far as they were concerned, it wasn’t religious: it was just the way they did things in their family. People were suspicious over whether they really had converted, and the tax base shrank because there were fewer Jews. The Inquisition had been around for a long time, but in the 1470s Ferdinand and Isabella put it under the control of the crown – literally, the ‘Spanish’ inquisition, rather than the papal one. In 1491 Torquemada went to Ferdinand and Isabella and suggested expulsion of the remaining Jews to solve the problem. The Alhambra decree was framed as a way of protecting the conversos (i.e. converted Jews) from the bad influence of continuing Jews- huh! The program finished off by talking about immigration and the way that fear is engendered whenever you have a large group of people who continue to congregate together, and doubts are cast on the authenticity of their new status.

Adelaide Writers Festival. The Ivanhoe Reading Circle read Gideon Haigh’s The Brilliant Boy this month. I read it only a few months ago, and I didn’t have time to re-read it. So I listened to Gideon Haigh instead, talking at the Adelaide Writers Festival. I was a bit disappointed, though, that so much time was spent chatting about cricket and Shane Warne. Still, a good way of reminding myself about the book without re-reading it.

Afternoon Light (Menzies Research Centre) I can hardly believe that I went to this website for this second podcast by Gideon Haigh The Brilliant Boy: Remembering the Achievements of Dr H. V. Evatt. True to its name, the Menzies Research Centre is a Liberal/Conservative centre, whose self-proclaimed mission is to “uphold and promote Sir Robert’s legacy and vision for Australia as a country of freedom, opportunity, enterprise, and individual dignity.” Menzies and Evatt were contemporaries in many ways: both of fairly humble origins, both scholarship boys, both lawyers, both politicians. But for many years, Evatt was Menzies’ punching-bag in Parliament, never becoming Prime Minister (as he expected he would do) let alone PM for a total of 19 years as Menzies did. Here Gideon Haigh is interviewed by Georgina Downer in an intelligent but rather gloating interview.

History of Rome Episode 168 The Rise of Aetius This is all getting terribly confusing, but let’s just take stock. In 425 the six-year old Valentinian III became the Western Emperor, a position he shared with the Eastern Emperor, his cousin Theodosius II. This looked united, but it wasn’t really- instead it was a series of different rival power centres. The Eastern empire based in Constantinople seemed more stable, but it still had the Sassanids to the East and the Huns to the north. The Western Empire was a mess, with the Franks in North East Gaul, the Goths in South West Gaul, the Vandals in Hispania, and Bonifatius acting like an independent warlord in North Africa. Valentinian and Theodosius were emperors, but the real power lay in the hands of two women, Valentinian’s mother Placidia in the west, and Theodosius’ sister Pulcheria in the east. Meanwhile, Aetius controlled tens of thousands of troops, and his loyalty was suspect. Aetius was a Roman general, who had an an ‘interesting’ start to his military career. Born in 391, between 405 and 408 he was kept as hostage at the court of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, then after that was sent to the court of Uldin, king of the Huns. He seemed to swap sides a bit, and seemed to be rather devious in seeding false rumours to Valentinian’s mother and regent Galla Placidia, at the expense of another Roman general Bonifatius, who was based in North Africa, and a rival power with access to Galla Placidia’s ear. Bonifatius was busy dealing with the Vandals in North Africa (they used to say that he invited them in, but there’s doubt about that now) and the Vandals laid siege to Hippo, during which St Augustine, who was living there, died. Then Aetius and Bonfatius ended up fighting each other: Aetius was beaten and ran away to the Huns where he plotted his revenge with Rua, the King of the Huns. Bonifacius died of his injuries, and Aetius returned to Ravenna with his Hun army and took over all of Bonifacius’ lands, and married his widow (!). So now he was the most powerful soldier in the Western Empire – and one of the most important men in Roman history, at the last phase of its history.

Episode 169 Huns and Vandals and Goths, Oh My. For a number of years now the Huns had been a destabilizing force, but they pretty much stayed where they were. However, in the mid 420s under the new leadership of Attila and his brother Bleda, the Huns began issuing threats to invade Constantinople unless they received go-away money. It wasn’t just the Romans who were subject to this extortion: they threatened the Sassanids as well. In 431 Theodosius II sent his troops to North Africa to pacify the Vandals (which was really Valentinian’s problem) and then used them to kill the Burgundians. While they were off fighting, Theodosian issued the Theodosian Code, which codified all the laws since 331 AD (i.e. since Christian times), and this was to later form the basis of the Justinian Code. Meanwhile, the Goth king Theodoric wanted a Mediterranean port, and so he embarked on war again. In 439 the Vandals invaded Africa again and took over Carthage. Genseric (a Vandal) was accepted by the North Africans because the Romans had pretty much neglected North Africa anyway. The Vandals formed a navy and conquered the Mediterranean, and meanwhile the Huns were arising again.

Episode 179 Attila Cometh. Up until now, most of the pressure had been on the Western Empire, but now the Eastern Empire faced the rise of Attila the Hun. Theodosius had sent most of his troops off to Africa, and the Sassanids (briefly) and Huns took advantage of their absence. In 441 the Huns invaded as a way of extorting more money from the empire. Led by Attila and Bleda, their troops were good at besieging cities, and walls were now barrier. But the brothers fought, and Bleda ended up dead (at Attila’s hand??) and so, counting on Hun disunity, the Romans refused to pay the go-away money. In 447 Attila decided to march on Constantinople, where the Theodosian Walls had been damaged by an earthquake. The walls were rebuilt in an amazing two months, and they held and Constaninople avoided being invaded- but all the other Roman troops were just blown away. Meanwhile, Aetius was forced to recognize the Vandals in North Africa. Genseric continued to provide food for the empire (which was the main reason that the Romans wanted North Africa) but did not pay taxes. There were rebel bands everywhere, and Aetius did well to hold it all together as much as he did.

The Documentary (BBC) My Granny the Slave. British journalist Claire Hynes travelled to Antigua to learn more about an Antiguan foremother, who is thought to be one of the first women to flee a slave plantation in the Caribbean island of Antigua. Claire grew up learning a 200 year-old story passed down through generations about her enslaved ancestor known as Missy Williams. As a young woman Missy risked her life to escape the physical and sexual brutality of plantation life, hiding out in a cave. Although she had been told that her family “The Williams” were important, she found that only the white Williams’ were documented, and that there were virtually no records of enslaved Africans. She learned more about the hard life on a sugar plantation, and the use of violence to prevent escape. She reflects at the end on the importance of the search for identity not for the people who have always lived in Barbados, but more for those who emigrated to Britain and have lost all connection

Tides of History and Al Franken Podcast With all this History of Rome listening, I’m finding myself increasingly interested in Alaric the Goth, and especially a recent biography written by Douglas Boin. I’ve found that the ‘New Books Network’ podcasts have been a good way of getting the flavour of a book without actually having to read it, so I thought I might be able to do the same with Boin’s Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome. Not so- and it made me realize how carefully the New Books Network podcasts trace out the argument of the book for someone who hasn’t read it while at the same time engaging with the debate. I listened to Tides of History, which had a good discussion about the problems of writing with a thin and one-side historiography but assumed too much familiarity with the book. But even worse was the interview on The Al Franken podcast, where the host spent far too long making partisan links to today’s politics (the connections are there, to be sure, but let’s take the history on its own terms) and really didn’t seem to know much. Really, I don’t know how Boin could be bothered.

The Daily (NYT) It was possible to take some comfort from the recent rejection in Kansas of a referendum that would have added a constitutional prohibition to seeking abortion in Kansas. In How to Interpret the Kansas Referendum on Abortion, the presenters point out that Kansas, where abortions can still be carried out, is surrounded by states where it will now be illegal. Some of their interviewees opposed abortion personally, but did not feel that they could impose that on others. If only more people felt that way.

‘Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country’ by Gillian Slovo

1997,282 p.

Gillian Slovo, the daughter of white anti-Apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First, was standing with her siblings at just one of the many public events surrounding her father’s funeral. Nelson Mandela came in.

[Mandela] told us how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter she had flinched away from him, and burst out “You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.”

He let that last sentence hover before speaking again. This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps his only regret: that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment…

They knew it somewhere, all their generation: as the state poured out its wrath, they had watched their children suffer. And yet, and yet- what else could they have done?

p.214

What else could they have done? This is the question that lies at the heart of Gillian Slovo’s memoir Every Secret Thing. The answer she would give, I think, is “more”. More time, more contact, more honesty, more love. As the child of two committed, White anti-Apartheid activists, Slovo and her sisters shared their parents with a broader political project, as suggested by the title. Their family and their country were indivisible, even though they spent many years living elsewhere. They had grown up with secrets, with whispered conversations between heads almost touching, with a succession of fleeting and shadowy contacts and the knowledge that, as far as their parents were concerned, they always took second place to the larger struggle. Their father Joe Slovo and mother Ruth First were the glamour couple of the anti-Apartheid movement, born themselves to Communist parents, and active members of the South African Communist Party. They resisted apartheid right from the late 1940s, with Joe an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, acting as a defence lawyer in political trials. Both were under surveillance, and both spent years in exile in UK, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia. Ruth was detained under consecutive 90-day detention periods while the government played cat-and-mouse with activists, while Joe spent decades out of South Africa. She was assassinated in 1982 in Zambia through a letter-bomb. Her father lived until 1995, by which time the ANC had been elected through democratic elections and he had become the Minister for Housing in Nelson Mandela’s government- an almost unimaginable change of events from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s.

Throughout all this, their daughters were observers: told little, kept safe but also kept at arms-length emotionally. In the weeks before his death from cancer, Gillian asked her father about his life, but he furiously exploded “You can write what you want to, but I won’t tell you.” After he died, Gillian returned to South Africa, to try to uncover the secrets that her parents had held from her and the last third of the book revolves around this search. She wants to know the circumstances and the perpetrators of her mother’s murder, and this brings her face-to-face with more secrets – the power apparatus that lent force to the apartheid regime but which has also managed to shapeshift and insinuate itself into the present security structures. She uncovers secrets about her parents as well, secrets which make her question her parents’ marriage and their fidelity and which serve further to underscore the children’s marginality to their parents’ lives.

Her parents were public figures, excoriated by the apartheid regime, but embraced as part of the struggle by the ANC – indeed, Joe Slovo is buried in a formerly-black only Avalon cemetery in Soweto. Their daughters did not know where they fitted in. They were white, had black servants, spent much of their life in England, and yet they stood, almost as ornaments, at the huge funeral celebrations held when their father died. But Gillian also knew that she and her family were not part of that white silence that pervaded the fifty years of apartheid – as she wryly remarked, it has been impossible now to find anyone who owns up to supporting it- and she bridled at the comment of a White driver that he “didn’t hold grudges”, as if he were the victim. Yet, Gillian feels that she has been a victim in that the larger struggle made her inconsequential to the people to whom she most wanted to matter.

As it turns out, I have read two memoirs written by daughters about their parents, one after the other. This memoir, and Swimming Home are similar in that daughters are holding their parents (especially their mothers) to account, and both share a broadly chronological narrative with multiple digressions and time shifts. What I really admire in this memoir is Slovo’s honesty in her motives and her expressions of disappointment in both parents and her frankness in stating that her parents’ commitment came at her expense. But how to measure the contribution of people passionate about huge events and conditions that affect millions, against the demands of three daughters? I don’t know, and at the end, I don’t think that Slovo does either. She will never find out ‘every secret thing’ – an impossible goal- but she concludes that

I, a child of secrets, had done something that I had needed to do. I had laid to rest some of the ghosts that had stalked my life, and in doing so, I’d found a kind of peace.

p. 281

Perhaps, a “kind of peace” is the best that any of us can hope for.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 July 2022

History of Rome Episode 165 Reviving the Roman Name Ataulf continued with Alaric’s desire for his Goths to cement their place in the Empire, and didn’t really want to invade Ravenna. Neither did Constantius really want to push the issue either, so there was a bit of a stalemate. In a bit of inter-Goth warfare, Sarus and Ataulf fought, and Sarus was killed, and then Ataulf argued with Jovinus (who had become a puppet emperor supported by Gundahar and the Burgundians- sounds like a musical group- after the death of Constantine III). The Goths and the German tribes did not join together: instead the Goths and the Romans got together. The Goths hoped to be creating a new dynasty within the Empire. But Constantius and Honorious joined forces against the Goths, hoping to starve them into submission. The Goths went to Hispania and Ataulf was murdered in his bath, without leaving a clearcut replacement. Sigeric, Sarus’ brother quickly seized power but he was assassinated too. Wallia took over, at a time when morale among the Goth ranks was very low, and he accepted vassal status within the Empire. Britain was looking out for itself, and Rome never went back. Politically and militarily, Brittania was lost to the Empire for ever.

Theodosian Walls in Constantinople (Istanbul)www.turkisharcheonews.net

In Episode 166 As Long As She’s Nice to Look At There was a fear that the Empire would lose Hispania again to the Alani and the Vandals, so the Goths were offered Aquitaine in exchange for fighting the Alani and other rebels. This gave the Goths a stable source of food. Wallia died and was replaced by Theodoric. Valentinian III was born to Constantius III and his now-wife Galla Placidia. What a life she had- daughter of Theodosius I, captured by Alaric, married off to Ataulf, then forced by her brother Honorius into a marriage with Constantius III. Valentinian III was thus the heir presumptive to the Western empire, which strengthened Constantius’ position, and he was quickly elevated to Augustus. But this was opposed by the eastern Emperor Theodosius II. That’s right! there was an Eastern Empire too- we’d forgotten about them. Over in the east, the truce with the Sassanids meant that Constantinople was safe. Theodosius II was still young, and largely under the influence of the powerful Prefect Athemius (who built the Theodosian Walls). His sister Pulcheria assumed the role of Augusta and along with her sisters, immediately took a vow of virginity. Once he turned 20, Theodosius demanded that if he was to marry at all, she had to be beautiful. Aelia Eudocia obviously fitted the bill, because he married her. Meanwhile, over in the Western Empire, Honorius and Constantius were furious at Theodosius’ rejection of Constantius’ III dynastic plans and they were preparing for war, when Constantius III died.

Episode 167 Exploiting the Opportunity takes us back to the Eastern Empire where where war was briefly reignited with the Sassanids over religion. Pulcheria was anti-Pagan, while the King of the Sassanids was anti-Christian. But just in time, Honorius died, which put Valentinian III in the box seat, even though he hadn’t received any of the usual titles- very poor succession planning. The nobles placed Joannes as emperor instead, but this was opposed by the North Africans, who chose Flavius Aetius instead, who led a large force of Huns. God, this is confusing.

Democracy Sausage. I usually listen to both The Party Room (ABC) and Mark Kenny’s podcast Democracy Sausage, but I don’t very often record them here in this blog because the content is pretty ephemeral. But this episode Back in the Bubble has historian Frank Bongiorno (the newly minted president of the AHA and one of my favourite ‘young’ historians) and he’s always worth listening to.

Revisionist History For some time, Canada has had a system where additional to (and this is important) Canada’s refugee intake, they have allowed private sponsorship of refugees. (Australia has a program too, but it is not additional to our refugee intake and has been fairly heavily criticized). In this episode, I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me, Malcolm Gladwell looks close to home, where he asks his family about their involvement in bringing three Vietnamese refugees to Canada in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Most of the support group were involved in local churches, and churches remain an important component of the Canadian private sponsorship scheme. Apart from this, the program considers ‘kindness’, and its opposite in the meanness and active hostility of the US (and I would argue, Australian) refugee systems.

The Real Story (BBC). Bolsonaro v Lula: The race to lead Brazil Elections are coming up for Brazil, and there’s a good chance that it will be between Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro has fashioned himself on Trump, and is already positioning himself to claim electoral fraud. Bolsonaro had a lot of support from evangelical Christians (70%) but he can’t count on this for the next election. It sounds as if he has dismantled many of the civic bodies in Brazilian society. Meanwhile, Lula couldn’t stand last election because he was convicted of fraud- a judgement that was later overturned. I know who I’m barracking for.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ to…

First Saturday of the month (again), so it’s Six Degrees of Separation where Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest chooses a starting book title, then you link to six other books that are associated in your mind somehow. As usual, I haven’t read the starting book, which is Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness which apparently won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it.

But I did read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. I read it in 2000, before I started this blog, but I must have enjoyed it because I gave it a 9/10. It was about a documentary maker engaged to present a series of documentaries about the health-giving benefits of American beef. As she gradually becomes aware of the chemicals and antibiotics used in the beef industry, her documentaries become increasingly subversive.

If the thought of all these chemicals in your steak and the cruelty of the livestock industry turns you off, you could eat vegetables instead- peas anyone? The Pea Pickers by Eve Langley, written in 1942, has two sisters dressing up as men to join itinerant farm-workers down in Gippsland.

Don Watson takes us down to Gippsland, too, in his book Caledonia Australis (1984). It is the history of the clash between Scots Highlanders who emigrated to Port Phillip, and the Kurnai people of Gippsland. Even though there were similarities between the two groups (clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world), the Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, just as they had been dispossessed themselves back in Scotland (review here)

Shuggie Bain grew up in Scotland too, but it was the grey Glasgow of post-Thatcher Britain. His unhappiness sprang not just from the economic gloom that engulfed Scotland, but also his love and powerlessness towards his alcohol-addicted mother (review here).

There was alcohol- lots of it- and deprivation in Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Boy, which also started in Glasgow. Like Shuggie, he escaped, but ended up in Elizabeth in South Australia and went on to be one of Australia’s biggest rock stars in Cold Chisel, and even more so as a solo performer (especially during lockdown with his home-made videos in his fantastic house, with all the family singing along).

One of Cold Chisel’s famous songs (and one of my favourites) is Flame Trees, which evokes Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, her memoir of growing up in British East Africa before the outbreak of WWI. I must re-read it one of these days, now that I have visited Kenya.

So, maybe I didn’t read The Book of Form and Emptiness, but I’ve been to North America, Gippsland, Glasgow and Kenya and I’ve travelled around in the 1840s, 1910s, 1940s, 1960s and 1980s. Not bad.

‘Lives of Houses’ by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee (eds.)

2020, 262 p. plus notes

I must confess that I was initially attracted to this book by its striking cover, but when I dipped into the preface by Hermione Lee, I thought that I would enjoy it.

The writing of lives often involves writing about houses. Bringing a house to life through observation, familiarity, memory or excavation can be a vital part of narrating the life of an individual, a family, or a group: life-work as house work. A house can embody a person’s childhood, the story of a marriage, an inherited way of life, or a national history. The constructing of a house can be the fulcrum of dreams, ambitions, illusions and pretensions. How a house is lived in can tell you everything you need to know about people, whether it’s the choice of a wall paper, the mess in the kitchen, the silence or shouting over meals, doors left open or closed, a fire burning in the hearth. the loss of a house can be a turning point that shapes the rest of a life.

p.xiii

If I had read a little further into the preface, I would have seen that the collection of essays in this book emerged from a 2017 conference titled ‘The Lives of Houses’ held at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford. My ambivalence about the book probably springs from the conference-paper genre from which it emerges. This conference brought together scholars from different disciplines and professions, with an emphasis on British, Irish, American and European houses. As with all conferences, the speakers (particularly the ‘big names’) would have been known to each other, their areas of interest already known, and their contributions would have been rather standardized in length. And ‘big names’ there are: Hermione Lee, Margaret Macmillan, David Cannadine, Jenny Uglow, Julian Barnes. Although there were papers that broke the mould, the overwhelming impression that I took away from the book was of 19th century British writers and a peculiarly British form of being ‘the writer’ in a mixture of eccentricity and domesticity.

The first two essays suggested a less biographically-oriented approach. Alexandra Harris’ chapter ‘Moving House’ pointed out that ‘moving day’ was a common annual or biannual spectacle across Europe and America from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. Leases ran from one quarter-day to the next, and so expired in tandem, so Whitsun (25 May) in Scotland or Lady Day (6 April) in England was ‘moving day’, with another round at Michaelmas and Martinmas (11 November). Susan Walker’s chapter ‘Built on Memory’ examined the House of Venus in Morocco, a Roman house constructed in the late 1st century CE in what was at that time the edge of empire, extended and changed over the centuries, and finally abandoned in the early 5th Century CE until its excavation in the last years and aftermath of WWII. But with the exception of Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan’s reminiscences of her childhood home in Ontario, the majority of essays are about British writers, composers and politicians: Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Coleridge, Tennyson, Lear, Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, Samuel Johnson, H. G. Wells and politicians Churchill and Disraeli.

This wasn’t quite what I expected, and so I enjoyed shaking off all this writerly clutter with the chapters that were not about houses. Alexander Masters’ chapter ‘The Fear of Houses’ was an examination of homelessness, and interviews with homeless people about houses (as distinct from homes) and house-less-ness. Elleke Boehmer’s chapter ‘When There is No House to Visit: a Migrant Writers’ sites’ traced the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera as he moved around Oxford in 1976, moving later to London where he slept rough on park benches and squats, hanging out with other African writers at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. ‘A Place One Can Go Mad In’, by Kate Kennedy, followed the WWI survivor Igor Gurney as he was committed to Barnwood House in Gloucester, and later the City of London Mental Hospital near Dartford, where he died in 1937.

In her chapter Hermione Lee writes about the ‘pilgrimage’ that devotees, descendants, friends or biographers, make to a writer’s house .

Why do millions of people visit Shakespeare’s “birthplace”? To see if something will rub off on them? To try to get the key to the vanished genius? It is a strong but muddled impulse, a mixture of awe, longing, desire for inwardness, and intrusive curiosity. Expectations are always high for such pilgrimages, and disappointment can be correspondingly sharp. The famous writer’s house you long to see may have vanished, but the urge to go to the site still remains.

p.33

When I thought about it, most of my ‘pilgrimages’ have been to houses overseas, rather than in Australia. We visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (a rather tenuous connection with Austen); we stood outside a house in Stratford on Avon; and William Morris’ house in Bexleyheath, London. I visited Pablo Neruda’s house in Santiago, I went into a bar where Hemingway wrote in Havana, and Lorca’s house in Granada. We visited Karen Blixen’s house in Nairobi. I had to think harder about Australian/NZ houses: Henry Handel Richardson in Chiltern, Adam Lindsay Gordon’s cottage in Ballarat and Janet Frame in Oamaru. Are there more? I can’t think of any.

For me, visiting a writer’s house is an act of homage, I suppose, and perhaps a bit of pretension that I know who these authors were. Highlighting the connection between biography, writing and ‘the house’, and its afterlife as a tourist attraction, and extrapolating it beyond the rather cosy coterie of 19th/early 20th century writers and their biographers in this book, has prompted me to think about my own response to The Writers House and what draws me to visit- something I hadn’t thought about before.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.