Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal’ by Charif Majdalani

2021, 173 p

Translated by Ruth Diver

Thanks to social media and CCT cameras, some visions are seared in our minds. Two boys in a shopping centre leading a little two year old away. A young woman tottering on high heels along the shop fronts in an inner-city suburb, unaware that on turning the corner she will be killed. A plane smacking into a building and that slow collapse of a skyscaper that even now you can’t quite believe. And the smudge of smoke from a port-side fire that explodes into a huge, thumping jolt that pulses out so violently that, even just watching it, you feel a punch in your chest. That last one was the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on the dock at Beirut on 4 August 2020. As you open this small volume, you know that this is where the book is going to end up but its author, academic Charif Majdalani does not.

The English language version starts with a very useful preface ‘Lebanon: the lessons of complexity’ which provides a potted history of Lebanon over 9 pages. The nation of Lebanon, as distinct from the mountainous regions in the eastern Mediterranean, was created in the territorial carve-up that followed WWI. France secured the mandate over Lebanon, to the relief of the Christians who preferred France to Britain, and its borders were drawn to encompass as many Christians as possible, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. In obtaining independence in 1945, the Christian and Muslim communities defined themselves as a negative: not Western but not Arab either. Between 1945 and 1975 it was a democracy and liberal economy based on ‘confessionalism’, whereby all government posts were allocated approximately equally between religious communities. Fear of militarization of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon led to civil war from 1975 to 1990. The period following the war, known as the second Lebanese republic, is divided into two eras. The first, from 1990 to 2005 was dominated by Syria and its ruling class. The war chiefs-turned-political leaders seized control of the government and public sector and developed a system of governance based entirely on clientelistic mafia principles. In 2005 the Sunni Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated by the Syrians with the help of Hezbollah. The Syrians were forced to withdraw, but former allies stayed in power and formed new alliances, perpetuating the same clientelism and corruption as under the occupation. This led to the collapse of the economy in 2020- and that leads us to this book.

The diary entries start on 1 July 2020, with the author running from one bank to the other. Both he and his wife are employed, they have two children, and he has plans to buy a block of land -a hobby farm almost- out in the countryside, where he grew up. Their friends are professionals, and they continue to have dinner parties with long after-dinner conversations. They visit the nearby suburb of Gemmayze, in the old district, which has been gentrified with artists, hotels and restaurants. But it’s all falling apart.

Gemmayze in March 2019. You can select for English subtitles

Things break down all the time – the washing machine, the air conditioning units, the drinking water dispenser – echoing the dysfunction outside the walls of his home. Inflation makes a mockery of income and expenditure, there are power blackouts. He notes the return of the mosquito coil, and its distinctive smell, because the insect repellents plugged into power points are useless when there is no electricity. Businesses close, familiar shopkeepers and bank employees are laid off, never to return.

It feels like a bereavement, a muffled, almost muted bereavement, repetitive, exhausting.


His diary entries are interspersed with short explanatory chapters, which expand on the information given in the preface about corruption, protest, the piles of rubbish. The presence of COVID and the refugee influx are mere background details. Still the book inches closer to the explosion that we know is going to happen. When it comes, as Chapter 51, it has just five words

This afternoon, the rag-and-bone trader

p. 125

He cannot pick up his writing again until 10 August, and when he re-reads those words, it seems like a different time. It’s then that he goes back and fills in the details: his initial thought that the blast was an earthquake, the chaos in the hospitals, the blood. He can only write in lists, without a full stop:

Reina is in intensive care, criticially injured, Jad has a few superficial wounds, but no longer a house, Omar is injured, Karim had left the office before the explosion happened, and so had his employees, which is just as well because she went into the party headquarters’ kitchen at the moment of the explosion….


And the stories, just snippets:

And also this: he was lifted up and thrown against the TV, the couch flew up into the air and fell on top of her, I walked through the streets like a sleepwalker before I realized that everyone around me was injured, she was sitting on the stairs covered in blood, but I had no idea what to do to help her…

p. 138

And the figures:

In five seconds: two hundred dead, one hundred and fifty missing, six thousand injured, nine thousand buildings damaged, two hundred thousand homes destroyed, as well as hundreds of historic or heritage buildings and four hospitals, ten thousand retail stores, workshops, stalls, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, pubs, all reduced to rubble, scores of art galleries and studios belonging to painters, sculptors, stylists, designers, architects all swept away. In five seconds.


The cause? A ship stopped over in Beirut in September 2013 with its 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate bound for Mozambique. On being found unseaworthy, the owner refused to pay port fees, repairs or the crew’s wages; the cargo was offloaded and stored in Hangar number 12. Right from the start, people know it is there; it is ‘memoed’ up and down the hierarchies of the bureaucracy and no-one does anything. But, he suggests, the cargo was not forgotten as the amount that exploded was less than appeared on the manifest. It was being used, probably from the first day, and probably for military purposes. He points the finger at Hezbollah, which controlled the port.

Which would explain the silence of the port authorities, who would have turned a blind eye out of fear, collusion or corruption.


The blast has affected everyone. His wife Nayla, a psychologist, tells him that she had woken up in the middle of the night, with a heavy weight on her chest, wondering if something had changed that she could no longer remember. In the morning she was relieved to hear that there was nothing more, nothing new. The government falls, but nothing changes.

I was listening to a radio program about Beirut last week, and the commentator mentioned that after the civil war, the corruption, the protests, power shortages, inflation, COVID, – the blast in August was just the last straw and that people had just given up. This book tries to end on an optimistic note, but it rings rather hollow.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘A Trip to the Dominions: The Scientific Event that Changed Australia’ Ed: Lynette Russell

2021,150 p.

The international conference events industry has really been stripped bare by the COVID pandemic. I say ‘industry’ deliberately, because international conferences have very much become commercial events, leveraged and promoted by cities for tourism and reputational benefits far beyond any papers that might emerge from the conference itself. But this is perhaps not such a recent phenomenon as we might have thought.

This small collection of essays, edited by Lynette Russell looks at the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held in Australia in 1914. The ‘advance party’ for the conference arrived in Perth on 28 July 1914, the day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Talk about timing! Right up to the official opening of the conference on 14 August, there was a question mark over whether the conference would go ahead, but it was decided that it would, as long as it didn’t interfere with the war preparations of the Commonwealth.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831. It had always included the human sciences alongside geology, chemistry and the hard sciences, often included under headings of ‘Geology and Geography’ and ‘Biology’. By 1884, spurred by interest in archaeology and with links to humanitarian groups active on behalf of indigenous peoples in Australia and North America, a separate ‘Section H- Anthropology’ had been formed. When the BAAS organized its conference in Australia, it was concerned that it would have too much of an Australian focus, so it was decided to limit the number of Australian-themed topics to just 1/3 of all offerings – except for the Anthropology section. For anthropologists, the opportunity to travel to Australia and actually see ‘natives’, as distinct from reading about them from their armchair, or reading the untutored scribblings of local informants, was a real drawcard. Many took the opportunity – as you would – to extend their trip to the Antipodes for a bit longer to do some field research and catch up with old contacts.

The fairly new Australian Commonwealth Government made a hefty contribution to having this prestigious conference held in Australia. Over 155 scientists were fully funded by the Australian government, and they travelled on three ships especially contracted for this purpose (two of them were commandeered for war purposes after war was declared, making the return trip rather difficult). Another 200 scientists received subsidies and supported travel to the tune of 15,000 pounds (several million dollars in today’s terms). The conference participants visited Western Australia (where it started), South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. It had a prominent public focus. Five thousand people in total attended sessions, with two thousand of these in Melbourne alone. Melbourne, as the then-capital, played a particularly significant role with a number of scientific organizations, and many interested citizens, mostly -although not all- drawn from the wealthier suburbs, attended the lectures out of genuine interest.

I have gleaned most of this information from Lynette Russell’s opening chapter, ” A ‘Young and Vigorous Outpost of Empire'” where she emphasizes the unfortunate coincidence of timing with World War I and the significance of the conference for the newly federated nation. As an ‘anthropological historian’ she was the recipient of a fellowship undertaken with Oxford University, where the archives of the BAAS are housed at the Bodleian Libraries, with 200 linear metres of shelved material. A small seminar was held at the Royal Anthropological Institution, where these papers were workshopped.

As several of the papers in this volume emphasize, anthropologists at the time were operating under the stance of ‘salvage ethnography’ – the idea that ‘real Aborigines’ were about to die out, and that cultural change as a result of colonialism was invariably equated with cultural loss, culminating in an impoverished, corrupted and inauthentic culture. In Chapter 2 Ian J. McNiven explores the idea of ‘salvage ethnography’ more fully, where he describes the visit of Alfred Haddon and his daughter Kathleen to the Torres Strait immediately after attending the BAAS conference in Australia. Alfred was a Reader in Ethnology at Cambridge, a position he took up in 1909, and Kathleen, aged 26, was a Demonstrator in Zoology at the same university. Kathleen was a keen photographer. It was a six-week Papuan expedition, where Alfred returned to meet Maino, whom he had described as an ‘old friend’, who had been senior cultural consultant during previous expeditions in 1888 and 1898. When Maino was not able to explain the use of old shrines, Haddon attributed it to the ‘vanishing past’ trope that he had warned his professional and academic colleagues against. Although his approach to anthropology was seen to be rigid and outdated, ironically it was the observations and writings of anthropologists working in the ‘salvage ethnography’ tradition that formed the foundations of land and sea native title determinations in recent decades. The chapter closes with a lengthy extract from Haddon’s paper ‘The Decorative Art of Papua’.

The title of Chapter 3 “A Diary in the Loose Sense of the Term” is a play on the title of ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski’s diary called A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, published in 1967 by his second wife. In fact, Austrian-born Malinowski was one of the participants in this conference and was detained when war was declared, but he was released with the assistance of a fellow anthropologist and allowed to carry out the research in the Trobriand Islands that established his career. But the diary in this chapter was written by Henry Balfour, the first curator of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. And he had none of the self-reflection or emotional angst of Malinowski’s diary. Instead, it was always intended to be a souvenir, filled with inserts, drawings and cuttings – a bit like a scrapbook. In fact, it’s not very interesting at all. There is a page of ‘cartoonlets’ from the Western Mail commenting on the war, but it was only kept because there were portraits of some prominent BAAS delegates on the back. His encounters with the Noongar people of Western Australia involved them hauling their car out of a ditch when it got bogged; in Lake Alexandrina (South Australia) he enjoyed a show of boomerang-throwing, lunch at the hotel, and a corrobborrie [sic]. He went for a trip with local Melbourne collectors, including Alfred Stephen Kenyon (who lived in my own suburb of Heidelberg), and his diary occasionally mentioned objects that he collected or bought, although it’s not clear whether they were private purchases, or acquisitions for the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Jane Lydon contributed Chapter 4 “Taming the Territory: William Baldwin Spencer and Elsie Masson”. Baldwin Spencer is best known today as a building at Melbourne University, but he was actually the foundation chair of biology. He was one of the main architects for the conference itself, but in the years preceding the conference he had been appointed Special Commissioner and Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. During his year of service in 1912 he travelled throughout the Territory and submitted a report in 1913 which emphasized the ‘child like’ and primitive nature of the indigenous people there. A couple of years later, Elsie Masson (who went on to marry Bronislaw Malinowski) published An Untamed Territory, an account of a year spent as an au pair companion and nanny with the inaugural Northern Territory Administrator John Gilruth and his family in Darwin. The Masson and Spencer families were friends and neighbours on campus. She visited many of the places that Spencer had visited before her. Her book shared many of the racial views expressed by Spencer and his circle, but she gave it “a distinctively romantic, humorous, stereotypical inflection to her circle’s views, facilitating their reception by a popular audience” (p. 101) Her book concludes with the trial of nine Aboriginal men for the murder of a white trepanger, Jim Campbell. Although she satirizes the cultural misunderstandings during the trial, she also expressed sympathy for the Indigenous prisoners and the unfairness of the ‘justice’ system in which they found themselves enmeshed. She took photographs of the accused men’s wives and children, and the trepanning enterprise in which the murder took place.

The final chapter ‘The Notes and Queries, Gestures toward a Settler History’ is written by Leigh Boucher. In her introduction, Lynette Russell warned that “At first blush Boucher’s essay may not seem to obviously sit in its collection…” (p. 23). She’s right. However, ‘Notes and Queries’ was a questionnaire published in 1841 which was distributed to colonial informants to fill in and return to the BAAS in London. There were 89 questions dealing with

physical characteristics, language, individual and family life, buildings and monuments, works of art, government and laws, geography and statistics, social relations and religion (Queries Respecting the Human Race Address to Travellers and Others, 1841)

p. 125

The Queries were distributed to the British Museum, the Royal Geographical Society, Scientific Bodies, missionaries and travellers, and were reprinted in colonial newspapers across the empire. However, it seems that not many completed questionnaires found their way back to the learned gentlemen in London, because travellers and commentators preferred to write their own volumes about their travels and observations. Other colonial observers, like Daniel Bunce, used the thinking in Notes and Queries to inform their own investigations.

So why is a discussion of an 1841 questionnaire included in this collection of essays? Well, the questionnaire was periodically reviewed until 1951, and indeed practising anthropologists in the 1970s could still remember the questionnaire being used in classrooms to introduce them to taxonomies of anthropological thought. Each of those anthropologists in Section H at the BAAS conference in 1914 would have been steeped in the thinking of Notes and Queries.

Nonetheless, the tenuous connection between this essay and the others in the volume has prompted me to think about the construction of a book of papers on a theme like this. I really don’t know where I would have put this essay. Chronologically, it occurs well before the conference, but putting it at the start would deflect the reader’s attention from the conference itself which is, after all, the theme of the book. Yet putting it at the end leaves it dangling, not so much as an afterthought as an aside.

I’m a little sorry, too, that Russell herself didn’t come back with an afterword to pick up on the subtitle of the book: ‘The Scientific Event that Changed Australia’. She does address this in her introductory chapter, pointing out that a chair of anthropology was established at the University of Sydney. An Advisory Council of Science and Industry was established in 1916, and Kangaroo Island was proclaimed a government reserve to protect the fast disappearing native fauna. However, these observations about the changes that occurred in Australia as a result of the conference probably would have made more sense after reading the papers, rather than before.

Nonetheless, I found this an interesting little volume, although it is probably aimed at a niche audience. I had not heard of this conference before, and it casts a light on the scholarly mindset that underpinned the early writing about indigenous society, very much from a London-based perspective.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Because Lynette Russell is the editor, and because she has really taken the running in publicizing this book, I am including it on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘This Much is True’ by Miriam Margolyes

2021, 448 p.

As our most recent lockdown dragged on, each day I looked more like Miriam Margolyes. When I caught sight of my bird’s nest hair, or ample bosom in a mirror, I would think “Oh Jesus, I’m Miriam…” Now, I enjoy watching Miriam Margolyes, but I don’t necessarily want to look like her. But physical similarity and a fondness aside, I really wish that I had not read this book.

“I’m quite sure you picked up this book hoping I’d make you laugh” she says in her opening pages, but I must say that I was largely disappointed in this regard. A wry smile occasionally, but no laughter. The book sounds like her, and you can almost hear her well-enunciated, fruity tones pontificating from on high, but on the page the words are just flat and self-conscious.

It’s pretty much a straight celebrity biography, starting off with childhood, moving through the phases of a career, riddled through with name-dropping. As she explains, it was written during lockdown, and it does have the feel of revisiting the past. I know that as one gets older, more and more of the people of your past drop away, but this had the feel of a long tribute to this dear friend, and that dear friend, and the other dear friend too. I found it more interesting once she reached her present day, where she explained her current politics, her attitude towards her Jewishness and Zionism, and her response to aging and bodily changes.

She was the only child of doting Jewish parents, who made sacrifices for her and encouraged her. Her mother, in particular, born in the lower middle class, was acutely conscious of class, pushing her daughter to meet the ‘best people’. She started her career on radio, doing voiceovers for advertisements and acting in that rather British institution, the radio play. I must admit that I was unaware of just how many stage, radio film and television programs she has acted in – just check out her Wikipedia entry.

There’s lots of saccharine praise, but she also dishes the dirt as well. She is scathing of the male members of the Footlights Club in Cambridge, especially those who went on to form Monty Python. When she doesn’t like someone, she says so. In the interests of telling all that she knows, she famously ‘outed’ her therapist over her role in Jacqueline du Pre’s death.

When I was contemplating reading this book, I checked out GoodReads. Many of the comments expressed thin-lipped disapproval of her obsession with ‘sucking-off’ men, even though she has openly acknowledged her lesbianism. Her relationship with her partner Heather is written with sensitivity and respect, and one of her lasting regrets is that she ‘came out’ to her mother. This revelation, she fears,led to her mother’s sudden death. I had vowed that I wouldn’t be so censorious and judgmental about the ‘sucking-off’ but there’s just too much for me. A wicked glee in being ‘naughty’ has its use-by date, and eighty years of age is well past it. It just felt a bit pathetic, and left with me with disturbing visual images of her. Especially when I looked in the mirror at myself. Thank heavens the lockdown is over, I have had my hair cut, and I look like me again.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: I actually bought it, full price, as an e-book.

‘China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering’ by David Brophy

2021, 230 p. plus notes

I don’t know what to think about China. I read Peter Hartcher and I see all those meticulously drilled soldiers parading in Tienanmen Square, and I feel very, very apprehensive. Then I read Hugh White or listen to Bob Carr or Paul Keating (albeit with increasing scepticism) and I think that we’re over-reacting. It seems that commentators on China have backed themselves into a particular position, and you almost know what they’re going to say before they start. And yet these commentators do not always come from the traditional left/right field. Clive Hamilton, for example, who is such a strong advocate for the environment and sustainability, is one of the most trenchant critics of China.

So who is David Brophy, and why should I listen to him over anyone else? He is a historian of modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, and he wrote his PhD on Uyghur nationalism, and wrote Uyghur Nation. Increasingly he has found himself called upon to comment on current events in China, and was himself involved in demonstrations in support of Hong Kong at the University of Sydney in August 2019. Although I would by no means instantly give credibility to a historian over any other commentator, a historian is probably a little more likely to take a view longer than the last election, and has no party policy to conform with.

In China Panic, Brophy starts by identifing the different players in the China Commentary field. He points out that security agencies have led the way in Australia proclaiming itself ‘the canary in the coal mine’ regarding China’s rise. ASIO has taken on an increasingly public role, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also talked up the risks. He notes that ASPI receives sponsorship from arms companies, and has received grants from Canberra and the US State Department. (p. 13). Then there are the parliamentary self-styled bipartisan Wolverines- Andrew Hastie, Eric Abetz, Kimberley Kitching (ALP), Raff Ciccone (ALP), James Patterson among others. Commentators more often found on the ‘left’ like Richard Denniss and Clive Hamilton,urge Australia to take a stronger role. Brophy points out that Fairfax Media and the ABC, in particular through ‘Four Corners’, have been major conduits for security warnings in relation to China.

But then there is Hugh White, who argues that as America’s pre-eminence wanes, Australia should accommodate China’s rise. The former secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson warns that ‘national-security cowboys’ are endangering Australia’s interests. Angus Houston, chief of the ADF 2005-2011 maintains that China is a partner, not an enemy. (p. 15). The Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS continues to champion continued trade growth. Twiggy Forrest and the Minerals Council represent business that is keen to maintain trade links.

The book has eight chapters, which are topped-and-tailed with an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are: 1. China and the World 2. The US-China Rivalry Today 3. Influencing the Region 4. Interfering with Democracy 5. Cold-War Campus 6. Human Rights and Xinjian 7.The Battle for Hong Kong 8. Sovereignty, Values and Racism.

As you can see, this is a very current list. One of the dangers of writing a book so close to current situations is that events that have occurred subsequent to publication can change the trajectory of the argument. For example, the AUKUS agreement sees Australia very much throwing its hat into America’s ring, with all of the implications for our own sovereignty, all the while proclaiming that “it’s not about any one country!!” (as if).

So where does Brophy locate himself? As a historian of Uyghur nationalism he is, as you might expect, critical of Chinese policies in Xinjiang. As one of the convenors of the ‘Let’s Talk about Hong Kong’ Chinese-language forum at the University of Sydney, he is committed to providing a platform for debate and exchange amongst Chinese citizens in Australia themselves. However, he points out that Australia and America (in particular) hold China to international standards that they themselves hypocritically sidestep when it suits their purposes. In matters of undue political influence or academic freedom in Australia, he notes that curbs and oversight of these matters for all countries, not just China, would be of benefit to Australia’s democracy. He argues that the move to the Right in contemporary responses to China in Australia’s politics will only provoke a similarly nationalistic response from China. He suggests that instead, we need to live up to our profession of universal values (p. 20) and to strengthen our own democracy.

He concludes:

We need something very different. Not a politics that shies away from necessary criticism of China: that has no future in Australia. But we do need to remove today’s national-security lens and replace it with a more genuinely critical one. On that basis, Australia’s new consciousness of China as a global actor can still point to important truths about China itself, the global system of which it is a part and the deficiencies of Australian democracy…. We need an alternative that combines a vision of a better China with a vision of a better Australia.


I usually give a book a ‘rating’ but I feel at a loss here. I read the book precisely because I don’t know what to think, and I have no way of evaluating his material or mounting counter-arguments. But he says that the question is too important to leave to specialists. Instead,

…to get out of the rut into which Australia’s China debate has settled, we need to recentre it on the interests that ordinary people in Australia and across Asia share in both combating oppression and resisting warmongering.

p. 21

One of the more reassuring programs on China that I have seen recently was on Foreign Correspondent (yes, it’s on the ABC). Called China’s Future, it focussed on three young people who had rejected the expectations of their society, and the hopes of their parents, to choose a different future. One was a transgender young person involved in ‘Voguing’, a dance culture that started in New York in the 1980s queer scene. Another was a woman who had given up her career to return to organic farming in her home village, much to the disappointment of her mother. The third had been an editor with a renowned publishing house, but threw it in to become a shopkeeper with a small corner shop in the hutongs. While I wonder how they will fare in Xi Jinping’s increasingly interventionist society, there was something very human and relatable in their parents’ bewilderment at their children’s choices, set against their determination not to lose their relationship by rejecting them. Love, a future, safety, peace – things that ‘ordinary people’ crave. Perhaps this isn’t a bad place to start.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China’ by Simon Winchester

2009, 336 p.

I must confess that I had never heard of ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, a 24-volume (and counting) series described by its publisher, Cambridge University Press, as “one of the most remarkable works of scholarship in the twentieth century”. Nor had I heard of Joseph Needham, its original author. When I saw the title of this book Bomb, Book and Compass, I immediately thought of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and expected that I would be reading a history of Chinese invention and technology. Joseph Needham, I assumed, would be a missionary/explorer type, perhaps from the 1840s after the Opium Wars, when China was opened up to British trade. But I was wrong on many counts. This is a biography of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge biochemist, who arrived in China in 1943 (100 years after I expected!) and began the research that led to this huge multi-volume work on China which is still continuing, even after his death.

Born in 1900, Joseph Needham was already established as a biochemist and academic at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge when three Chinese postgraduate students arrived at the university in 1936. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, became his lover and through his fascination with the Chinese language and writing, he was chosen to be a director of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in Chongquing. This organisation, with its aim to provide practical academic support to Chinese universities during the Sino-Japanese War, gave him the opportunity to travel around central China to remote areas, collecting books and materials and exposing him to the history of invention and technological development in China which had been largely ignored by the Western World. On returning to Cambridge, he embarked on writing a book which expanded into a ten-year seven volume project, that ended up occupying him for the next six decades.

Tall, handsome, driven and charismatic, Needham also enjoyed nudism, morris-dancing and a radical form of Anglicanism at Thaxted parish church. That was not all that was radical about him. His wife, Dorothy, a fellow bio-chemist and his mistress Lu Gwei-Djen lived just a few doors from each other in a congenial relationship. Winchester seems rather sceptical that this relationship was warmly embraced by all three protagonists, but I suspect that this is his own morality at work here, and not necessarily that of Joseph, Dorothy and Lu Gwei-Djen. The arrangement seemed to be open knowledge.

Not only was Needham imbued with a very healthy ego (flattered no doubt by the women with whom he flirted throughout his life) but he also was observant and curious. He plunged headlong into learning Chinese, devising his own rigorous and methodical way of learning a difficult language. On watching a Chinese gardener grafting a plum tree on his first day in China, he recalled that an American missionary had confidently claimed that botany was wholly unknown to the Chinese. This, he realized was one of hundreds of techniques that the Western world discounted:

Needham felt he needed to write his new book largely to overcome ignorance like this and to purge the western world of prejudices against the Chinese that were based on such a wholesale lack of knowledge and understanding. Should a book ever be published, then observations like this, and the scores of others he now knew he would make…would be sure to be included….Everything he was about to see- how a Chinese farmer plowed, how a Chinese bridge was built, how iron was smelted in China, what pills a Chinese doctor handed out, which kinds of kites were to be found in a Chinese playground, what a Chinese siege cannon looked like, how a dam, a haystack, or a harness was built in China- was useful to him….The Chinese, he kept discovering again and again, had the longest imaginable history of invention, creation and the generation of new ideas.

p. 66-67

Certainly China gave Needham the experiences and practical examples to develop his project, but this was not a one-way street. He perused markets and purchased books and documents, and sent home a steady stream of documentation -some rare, some freely available- in diplomatic bags. Once he had returned home, he was the recipient of other material, sent to him from a supporter in China. He was aware that some of this material was sold out of desperation, and there is an element of safe-keeping, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. But part of me wonders whether this is not another form of Western culture-stripping, and whether any of it has been the subject of repatriation demands.

So what was his plan for all this material? The original proposal, reprinted in Bomb, Book and Compass, was for a book addressed to

all educated people whether themselves scientists or not, who are interested in the history of science, scientific thought and technology, in relation to the general history of civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe

p. 171

He identified his question early:

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM. What exactly did the Chinese contribute in the various historical periods to the development of Science, Scientific Thought and Technology? Why did their science always remain empirical and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia? It is suggested that, apart from numerous theoretical and psychological factors which demand attention, the concrete factors which moulded asiatic civilisation differently from that of Europe are: a) geographical b) hydrological c) social d) economic

p. 171

I think that it’s important to remember that Needham was a biochemist, not a historian. The way that he went about answering his question, I believe, reflects this. He decided initially to make a historical list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea that had been first conceived and made in China. It took him five years. They were, as Winchester notes, “all about detail. They were assembled with a painstaking concern for even the smallest facts of Chinese life.”

The larger question, since dubbed “The Needham Question” was not answered in his own work. As Winchester notes:

Joseph Needham never fully worked out the answers. Perhaps it was because he was too close to the topic, seeing many trees but not enough forest. And though he makes an attempt at offering some answers in his final volume, he never seems fully convinced of his own arguments and never fully explains his reasons. It has been left to others to take up the challenge in his place.

p. 260

The initial volumes received acclaim even though there were many who, resentful of his discipline-hopping, willed them to fail. His work was seen by many as an eccentric folly, but this view was tempered once they became the jewel in the Cambridge University Press catalogue.

In many ways, the initial volumes salvaged his reputation, which had plummetted in the early 1950s. His interest and language skills may have snagged him the position with the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in the first place, but he was now widely acknowledged as a China Expert. In 1952 he led an International Commission delegated by the World Peace Council to investigate the alleged use of chemical warfare by the US during the Korean War. A committed Socialist throughout his life, and a supporter of the Communist Party, he confirmed the Chinese claim that they had been the targets of American bacteriological weapons. The response of the Establishment was swift. He was declared persona non grata in the United States, his academic position became more tenuous, and the senior members of his college at Cambridge froze him out. He was excoriated in the press, denounced in Parliament and shunned by many.

His reputation was rehabilitated largely on the strength of Science and Civilisation in China, and he continued to champion left-wing causes. Even though he was dismayed by the drabness and conformity in Mao’s China when he visited in 1952, he does not seem to have gone through the same crisis of the soul that many left-wing supporters of the Russian Communist Party suffered when news of Stalin’s activities reached the West.

Simon Winchester is a master story-teller, and it comes through in this book. It is as if Winchester has walked around Joseph Needham, describing him from different perspectives: as an academic, as a sexual being, as a political activist, as a researcher. The maps are right where you need them, and they show you just want you want to know. The text is interspersed with photographs of Joseph Needham, which help you to fix him in your mind’s eye. However, I was a little alarmed at Winchester’s blithe acceptance that the Chinese ‘discovered’ Australia, mentioned in passing and without reference to Gavin Menzies, whom I am assuming Winchester is citing. Without footnotes – beyond his quirky asides at the bottom of some pages – the reader needs to put her trust in Winchester alone, something which never sits well with me.

However, both Needham and Winchester were prescient in asking about China’s historical role, and Winchester’s contribution to a better knowledge of it- especially since China is now so prominent in Australians’ sense of security. I found this book fascinating, exposing me to a person and his research that were completely unknown to me. A prolific popular historian/journalist Winchester, is obviously drawn to men who devote their lives to a passion – e.g. James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary in The Surgeon of Crowthorne and William Smith in The Map that Changed the World. Joseph Needham was one such man, and I’m glad that Winchester introduced him to me.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups. I read this with my face-to-face bookgroup.

‘Kristen Lavransdatter’ by Sigrid Undset – a look back

1920, 1921, 1922 1047 pages

I read Kristen Lavransdatter about twenty years ago, and I have never forgotten it. My enthusiasm for it built up over the three volumes in the trilogy, and I ended up viewing it as one of my favourite books of all time (FBOAT). I even ended up with two copies of the trilogy at one stage, because my face-to-face group decided that as a Christmas Kris Kringle we would each buy a second-hand copy of a book that we had loved during the year to put in the Kringle. My recipient returned it to me unread, because she said that it was just too long to be bothered reading. Ah- her loss!I can’t find the second copy now, so perhaps I have inflicted it on someone else.

To be honest, I don’t think I know anyone else who has read it – perhaps this posting will bring them forward?- and so I was very excited when I saw that the hosts of Lit Century, a podcast that chooses one emblematic book for each year of the 20th century, had chosen it for 1922. Their podcast on the book, hosted by Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols, extended over two sessions. In the first, On Desire (and its Absence), they talk about Kristen Lavransdatter and whether it fits within the ‘romantic novel’ genre, given that it deals with 14th century Norway, with its medieval mentality. In the second episode On Catholicism and Doomscrolling they are joined by Timothy Paulson, whose great-grandfather won a Nobel Prize for Literature (as did Sigrid Undset, largely on the strength of Kristen Lavransdatter.) He is of Norwegian heritage, and first read the book as a Lutheran 13-year old. He spoke about the sense of betrayal that Lutheran readers felt when Kristen converted to Catholicism. They also discussed whether it was a feminist book back in the 1920s when it was released, given the emphasis on the whole life of a female character, and decided that it wasn’t.

So what I did I write about it back in 2001? I wasn’t blogging then, and my reviews tended to focus on the plot of the book, largely as a reminder to myself.

In relation to Part 1 ‘The Garland’, I wrote:

Set in medieval Norway Kristen is betrothed to Simon, but falls in love with Erland. Her father opposes the marriage because Erland has been living with a married woman by whom he had had two children. Kristen eventually marries him, pregnant and scared of her father finding out, and wracked with guilt over the murder/suicide of Erland’s paramour Eline.The story finishes at her wedding, where her father realizes that she is no virgin, but then he learns that his own wife, Ragnfrid, had not been faithful either. Sort of like Heidi meets Anna Karenina.

What an odd coupling- what on earth did I mean? Anyway, by January 2002 I was back for more with Part II ‘The Mistress of Husaby’. I wrote:

Second in the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy. Kristen has not forgiven herself, or Erland, for betraying her father’s trust, and despite fifteen years of marriage and the birth of seven sons. Their marriage is tortured- she can see Erland’s shortcoming and lack of discipline. She holds grudges for literally years, and is quite a shrew. Both her parents die and her younger sister marries Kristen’s former fiance Simon. Erland is arrested for treason for plotting against the King, but Simon intercedes for him and gains a pardon for him at the cost of forfeiture of Erland’s goods.

In July 2002 I finished the final book in the trilogy ‘The Cross’. This time I wrote:

A long break between Volumes 2 and 3, and I found it hard at first to pick the story up again. Kristen is still a hard woman, ready to throw at the slightest provocation the criticism that Erland is not the man her father was; that he had cheated on her, and that he had lost their lands as part of his punishment for treason. Erland and Simon argue when Simon declares his lifelong love for Kristen, and the two families are estranged. Simon dies, with Kristen nursing him. Erland and Kristen also separate, with Erland going to a farmhouse in the mountains. As part of her promise to the dying Simon, Kristen goes to the mountain and reconciles with her husband and falls pregnant again. But neither will budge- Erland will not come down and she will not leave her children to go to him. When the child dies, she is devastated. She takes one of her sons to be confirmed and is confronted by the gossip that Ulv Haldersson (a long time servant) is said to be the father, and when set upon by the villagers who resent her return, Erland comes to the rescue. But he is injured in a fight for her honour and dies.

Kristen is left with fewer sons as they die, travel abroad and marry. When she feels usurped by her daughter-in-law, she decides to become a nun in Trondheim. She catches the Black Death and dies.

What I really liked about this trilogy is the unity of the medieval world view- family, Church and King. The language is archaic, and constantly maintained throughout the whole trilogy. Her characters are all flawed, and yet good- as in life- and act with an authentic mixture of wisdom and stupidity.

I admit that it all sounds a bit melodramatic, when you see it all laid out. Now that I’m older than when I read it the first time, I appreciate even more taking a woman’s life from childhood right through to old age. These are all complex characters, often governed by unworthy motives. I’m pleased to learn from the podcasts that Undset’s treatment of the historical background has held up well, informed by extensive research into Norse medieval culture and literature. I might even read it again if there is another lockdown (perish the thought!)

‘Only Happiness Here’ by Gabrielle Carey

2020, 248 p.

I gave myself a stern talking-to before I started reading this book. After all, the subtitle is ‘In search of Elizabeth von Arnim’. I have often grumbled here about biography-as-search books, especially once the biographer starts talking about their own clothes and lunches. “You know you’re going to be reading a biography-as-search book here, when it’s in the title” I told myself. “So NO grumbling about researcher-emoting, food or clothes”.

I didn’t need to be so hard on myself. This book does none of these things. Yes, the author is very much present but it’s more a biography-as-memoir if I need to think of a hyphenated term for it. She engages at an intellectual and emotional level with the writings and life of Elizabeth von Arnim (the two were very closely associated), relating them to her own life. You learn about Elizabeth von Arnim, but you learn about Gabrielle Carey as well.

Gabrielle Carey. Gabrielle Carey? Where did I know that name from? I was part-way through when I remembered that Gabrielle Carey was one of the co-authors of Puberty Blues, the 1979 coming-of-age novel co-written with Kathy Lette (in fact, she mentions this). She has since written about her parents and the writers Randolph Stow and Ivan Southall.

Carey’s fascination started with Elizabeth von Arnim’s own writings:

My quest to learn more about Elizabeth von Arnim was born of an intense admiration of her writing, especially her light touch when satirising the men who were continually trying to thwart her irrepressible spirit. I was also fascinated by her ability to love, laugh and mother five children, while also managing to write a comic novel, on average, every year. somehow she could do all that and still find time to enjoy picnics and read poetry in the sun. The truth was that I wanted to be her: talented, accomplished, funny and also, fairly regularly, rapturously happy


What attracted her was that von Arnim wrote about being happy – hence the title, which was the motto inscribed over the door of Elizabeth’s Swiss Chalet. At a time in her own life when she was not happy, Carey decided to re-read every one of von Arnim’s twenty-one books again:

The first time round I had read them for enjoyment and entertainment- because they made me laugh. This time I would read them with a question: what did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?


So, the book is a search for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles for Happiness, which she nicely presents as a single page certificate at the end of the book. She finds nine: freedom, privacy, detachment, nature and gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and creativity. Each of these is discussed in turn throughout the book, appearing as a subheading in a book without chapters. This is not just a one-way distillation of wisdom from on high. Carey brings her own life to the search, particularly with the concept of ‘privacy’ which recent events prior to embarking on the book had brought to the front of her own consciousness.

Carey is not the first to write about von Arnim, and nor has she been the last, because Joyce Morgan’s The Countess from Kirrabilli (see my review here) has appeared even more recently. I had read Morgan’s book prior to this one, which probably took over some of the biographical heavy lifting for me. I’m not sure what it would have been like to read this book first, and then the Morgan biography.

Out of the two biographies, Carey gives a better feel for von Arnim’s writing, I think. Both writers quote from from von Arnim’s letters, but it was Carey’s book that propelled me to purchase an e-book of her collected works- and I’m loving it. Carey’s tone mirrors that of von Arnim’s: there’s a chuckle in her voice and an intimacy with the reader. I didn’t really get the sense from Morgan’s biography that von Arnim’s books were comedies, albeit dealing with some rather grim topics. Morgan has more about her relationships with her several daughters, while Carey focuses on her relationship with her estranged daughter Felicitas, making more overt the connection between the real life Elizabeth/Felicitas relationship, and the book Christine, written by von Arnim but published under a pseudonym.

It’s odd that I often, without meaning to, find myself reading books that address similar themes. I was reminded while reading this book, of Dale Kent’s The Most I Could Be (my review here). Both books share a clear-eyed assertion of sexual autonomy and an almost defiant ownership of decisions that others have criticized. And as for Carey’s wish to be Elizabeth von Arnim? Well, in her closing words, as she returns to her home in COVID lockdown after her research, she takes her lunch (hah! there’s food!) outside into the garden:

…as the world turned in turmoil, I lay in the dappled sunlight pretending I was Elizabeth von Arnim. And even though I was far from Elizabeth’s enchanted places- the Swiss Alps, the bay of Portofino, the south of France- I discovered that my own ordinary, unsophisticated suburban garden could also be a genuine place of enchantment


A garden, sunlight, leisure, freedom, privacy. Five out of von Arnim’s nine principles. That sounds pretty much like happiness to me.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘The New World of Martín Cortés’ by Anna Lanyon

2003, 260 p.

In January of this year I re-read Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest (see my review here) and by the end of it I had resolved that I would read her follow-up book, The New World of Martín Cortés. Martín Cortés was the ‘natural’ son of Hernán Cortés and Malinche, thus making him one among the early mestizo children born in the New World. But he was not to stay in the New World for long, as his father took him back as a six-year-old to the Old World, Spain. This was part of the Conquistador’s attempt to seek forgiveness for, technically, being a rebel against the Crown when he embarked for Mexico against the orders of the Governor of Cuba. He also lobbied for recognition of his achievements and landholdings in the New World. Martín obtained a position in the court of Charles V and later, as a page to Phillip II. As part of embedding his respectability, his father arranged for him to be an initiate into the Order of Santiago. Both he and his father fought for the Spanish Crown in Algiers. Thus, this child of the New World, was integrated into the Old World, while his mother Malinche remarried and died within two years of her son leaving for Spain.

Just as she did with Malinche’s Conquest, Anna Lanyon presents this story as a search within the archives, and visits to significant locations, both in Spain and in Mexico. Perhaps my resistance to this way of narrating history is abating, or perhaps she spends less time in this book on journeying than in the earlier book: in any event, there is more about the archival search within the documents and less about travel.

The major complication Lanyon faced was that Hernán had three sons, and he named two of them “Martín”, a family name. He brought his first son Martín (Malinche’s son) back to Spain with him, but then had another two sons when he remarried in Spain, naming the first of those Martín as well. Hernán was appointed the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca for his ‘discoveries’ in Mexico, and this title was handed to his second, legitimate Martín, whom Lanyon helpfully distinguishes from Malinche´s son by designating him ´the marqués´. Although Hernán went to considerable effort to have Malinche´s son and other three other natural children declared legitimate, the title and the wealth went only to the marqués.

It´s a pity that the wealth and title didn´t go to the older Martín. After Hernán died, all three sons returned to Mexico, to take up their father´s landholdings. Although the marqués was enjoined by his father´s will to provide for the older but illegitimate Don Martín, he did not do so. Moreover, the marqués became involved in the local South American politics, where the children and grandchildren of the original conquistadors were in dispute with the Spanish crown. By royal order, their right to enslave the indigenous people had been curtailed, and they could only inherit New World land to the second generation, after which it would revert to the Crown. When the marqués arrived, he was hailed by the conquistador sons as the leader of a resistance to these royal decrees that would undercut their patrimony. There were rumours of a rebellion, with the marqués at its head. When he went down, he took his brothers, half-brothers and friends with him, although luck continued to smile on him.

Lanyon knew the broad contours of Martín’s life before she started her research but even she felt sickened and saddened by the latter part of his life. Coming with no knowledge at all about Martín Cortéz, I felt that way too. Courage isn’t just found on battlefields: it is found just as much, if not more, in the dank cells of torture, where men are truly alone.

Both this book and Lanyon’s earlier Maliche’s Conquest have beautiful covers and black and white illustrations distributed throughout the text. I was intrigued by the handwriting embossed on the front cover, and which was watermarked on the opening page of each chapter. Lanyon did not have much direct documentary material to work with, and that which she did have was always complicated by the issue of exactly which Martín Cortéz she was reading about (don Martín or the marqués) but she did find his signature on one document- a tangible mark of his presence all those centuries ago. This is the handwriting that appears on the front cover and underlies the text.

The paucity of sources has forced Lanyon into a great deal of speculation and inference. She clearly marks this in the text through using modifiers like ‘perhaps’ and by framing statements as questions. She is aware of the danger of making such assumptions, such as when discussing Martín’s mestizo status in a community and time when ‘race’ was not necessarily the defining feature. For example, Martín may have been one of the first mestizo children to be taken back to metropolitan Spain, but it was a Spain with heavy Jewish and Muslim influences, and Martín may have looked no different from many other young boys there at the time. We are wrong to infer that he, or anyone else, might freight the issue of race with the significance it has now.

As with Malinche’s Conquest, I enjoyed this book that combined research, reflection and history-as-search. It’s a fairly easy read, and Lanyon is a gracious companion. And as with Malinche’s Conquest, she has settled on an ambiguous title. Martín Cortés may have been a child of the New World, but his upbringing and fate were moulded by the expectations and politics of the Old World, even in a New World setting.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Anna Lanyon studied at La Trobe University.

‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’ by Barbara Tuchman

1978, Penguin edition, 597 p.

When it became clear that Melbourne’s sixth lockdown was not going to be the ‘short sharp’ affair that was promised, I decided that if I was going to live in the most locked-down city in the world, then I should use the time to do something that I had intended doing for some time: take Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror off the bookshelf and read it.

Barbara Tuchman was an American narrative historian who was born in 1912 and died in 1989. Two of her books won Pulitzer Prizes: The Guns of August in 1963 dealing with the leadup to WWI, and Stillwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 in 1972 (never heard of it!). I have not read either of these books, but I did read The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War 1890-1914, which I very much enjoyed. She was not an academic historian, and relished the freedom of being able to write ‘popular’ history.

Her books tend to be long at over 500 pages and this book at 597 very closely-set pages is no exception. Although I read it in hard copy, my Kobo e-reader rather discouragingly told me that it would take 23-25 hours to read, and I can testify that it did. So why did I read it, and why now? Partially because I knew that, because the rest of life is on hold, such an opportunity to spend day after day reading a book will not come again (hopefully). But secondly, because in a time of pandemic, with increasing alarm about China, the rise of right-wing extremism, climate change, the underground rumble of the terrorism threat, the debacle of the Afghanistan pull-out and the tragedy for Afghanistan women who are left, and Trump lurking – why not read about another time when the world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket too?

The 14th Century certainly qualifies as a ‘calamitous’ century. The Black Plague cut a swathe through the world population, peaking in Europe between 1347 to 1351, but it returned in 1360–63, 1374 and 1400. The Papal Schism between 1378 and 1417 saw two competing Popes, one based in Avignon and the other in Rome, each claiming to be the ‘true’ Pope. The Hundred Years War between 1337–1453 saw generation after generation of English and French dynasties leaching the wealth from their countries to embark on a bloody game of chivalry and honour, and where royal women were seen as bargaining chips and allegiances were swapped pragmatically. There were popular uprisings in both Britain and France: The Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 and peasant uprisings in Rouen and Paris. Returning soldiers formed gangs of thugs, robbing and raping their way around the countryside. Meanwhile, the Ottomans were at the Danube at Nicopolis, prompting another Crusade, paid for by taxes and imposts.

The map at the start of the book shows Europe in the 14th century and although the silhouette looks the same (of course), there are no hard borders, just regions. England at the time had holdings in France and the Holy Roman Empire dominated the present countries of Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. A century is a long and rather arbitrary measurement; indeed, historians often talk of the ‘long’ 18th century etc. to avoid the tyranny of the year OO cut-off. As a way of giving focus to such a large canvass, Tuchman decided to focus her attention on the life-span of one man: Enguerrand VII de Coucy(1340 – 1395), the last of his line. His ancestral home Coucy Castle, built in the 13th century, was located in Picardy in France. At the time it was a dominating feature in the landscape with an almost impregnable donjon (although WWI took care of that). There are no images of Enguerrand, and all that we know of him comes through the chronicles of the day, particularly through Jean Froissant the medieval author and court historian. Contradictions, exaggerations, slippery dating, and flattery/disparagement warp the histories that have come to us, and accords with her wry ‘Tuchman’s Law’ : “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable to five-to-tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply“. (p. xx)

None the less, Coucy was right in the centre of things. He first fought against the English at the age of 15 and he was one of 40 nobles taken hostage by the English in exchange for the release of the future King John II of France. He was in England for six years as a guest of the Royal Court (no fetid dungeon for him) and ended up marrying King Edward III’s daughter, Isabella of England. This gave him a prominent position as a negotiator and mediator between the French Crown and his father-in-law.

After his wife’s death he married Isabelle, the daughter of the Duke of Lorraine and threw his loyalties completely behind the French throne. In the schism between the popes, he took France’s side and was involved in campaigns in Italy against the Roman Popes’ allies. He was involved in putting down the Flemish uprising, and when the idea of a crusade against the Ottomans at Nicopolis was raised to try to heal disunity caused by the papal schism, he took a leading role. It was his last battle. Taken prisoner by the Ottomans, he died of bubonic plague in Turkey while waiting for a ransom to be paid.

By having one person as her focus, Tuchman solved the problem of narrowing her field, although her choice of subject was constrained. She could not choose a king or queen because they are, by their nature, exceptional; commoners and women were not documented; and clerics or saints were outside the limits of her comprehension. This limited her to a male member of the nobility. Nonetheless, by choosing one particular person as the vehicle of her narrative:

Apart from human interest, this has the advantage of enforced obedience to reality. I am required to follow the circumstances and the sequence of an actual medieval life, lead where they will, and they lead, I think, to a truer version of the period than if I had imposed by own plan.


However, even without this narrowing spotlight, this is still a vast canvas, stretching across regions and alliances. I couldn’t keep up with the detail – there is just too much – and I decided to just go with broad impressions and enjoy the story as it was right on that page, without trying too hard to connect it with other events. It is very much chronologically driven, with one thing happening after the next, and if there was a broader argument, I couldn’t detect it.

Despite the title ‘A Distant Mirror’, it is difficult to find our own reflections here, beyond the physical, corporeal connection of being embodied humans. As she points out:

Difficulty of empathy, of genuinely entering into the mental and emotional values of the Middle Ages, is the final obstacle. The main barrier is, I believe, the Christian religion as it then was: the matrix and law of medieval life, omnipresent, indeed compulsory. Its insistent principle that the life of the spirit and of the afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth, is one that the modern world does not share, no matter how devout some present-day Christians may be. The rupture of this principle and its replacement by belief in the worth of the individual and of an active life not necessarily focused on God is, in fact, what created the modern world and ended the Middle Ages.


However, this was not lived out in practice. As she warns us

There never was a time when more attention was given to money and possessions than in the 14th century, and its concern with the flesh was the same as at any other time. Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible. The gap between medieval Christianity’s ruling principle and everyday life is the great pitfall of the Middle Ages.

p. xxi

This is writ large in the huge, obscene disparities in wealth between the nobles, with their castles and tournaments and feasts and display, and the peasantry. The principle of chivalry as the dominant political idea of the ruling class is just as inscrutable to us today. Both mentalities confirm that as 20th and 21st century readers, we are not medieval and that this mirror, perhaps, will always remain opaque to us.

Because she focuses on the life of one very well-connected noble, her emphasis is mainly at the elite level, which is mostly what the sources gave her to work with. ‘The people’ get rather less attention, and the parts of the book that I enjoyed most were where she digressed to give small details as illustration. For example, the habit of displaying people in effigy on their sarcophagus as a 33 year old, no matter how old they were when they died (because Jesus was said to die at 33) gave way to showing them old, thin and decrepit as the Cult of Death advanced over the century. I found the chapter on the Black Death particularly interesting, as it was so indiscriminate in its toll. But overall, the book deals more with statecraft and rivalry, more than social conditions.

Did I feel any better about our current world by the time that I finished? Not really. But, believe me, if a time machine lands on my front lawn, I’m not choosing the 14th Century to visit.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: My own bookshelves where it has sat for years. Purchased 2nd hand

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

2021, 293 p


For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.


At least the movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ had a wedding or two. This book has four funerals, held against the backdrop of South African political change, as members of the Swart family die -first mother Rachel, then her husband Manie, then daughter Astrid, son Anton- leaving just the youngest daughter, Amor. It is left to Amor to make good a deathbed promise that her father Manie made to her mother Rachel, thirty years earlier. Rachel had begged her husband to promise that he would give the old Lombard house – just three rooms- to Salome, the domestic servant who has nursed Rachel through a long illness that has stripped her of all dignity. But time has gone on and somehow the house never gets transferred to Salome who continues to work in the house, always present, mostly invisible.

The book is divided into four parts, each named for the protagonist who will die – Ma, Pa, Astrid, Anton – although I admit that I didn’t realize that until after I finished. What I was aware of was the corrosive effects of apartheid that did not disappear with its dismantling, in spite of the hope of the Mandela years and twisted by the disillusionment with the politicians who followed him. Corrosive at a macro-scale, but corrosive individually too, as superiority and resentment is turned inwards.

Religion has much to answer for here. The thin-lipped disapproval of Rachel’s late-life conversion back to Judaism by the family steeped in Dutch Reformed Church tradition gives way to the self-serving fanaticism of an evangelical church as Pa (Manie) carves off part of his land to donate to his new church. Astrid, living in a gated community becomes Catholic, a religion which allows confession without contrition, while Anton’s wife enjoys the indulgence of Eastern mystic religion as a hobby. When the promise to give Salome her house is finally fulfilled, it is not through any religious impulse, but because Amor is aware that it has been unjustly withheld by her family, through inattention and obliviousness to this invisible woman who had been so loyal to them for so many decades.

The narrative voice in this book is striking. You’re never really quite sure who is speaking: it is someone familiar with the family and their weaknesses, wry, somewhat judgmental. The narrative swoops from one character to the next, as if it is a camera on a boom, an all-seeing eye. It means that your focus can switch from scene to scene without any warning which is jarring at first. At times the narrator ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by turning around to address you, the reader. It’s a strange, but effective technique.

Deaths occur suddenly in this book, and they are almost skated over. The death itself is not as important as its implications for the people who are left. Meanwhile, the unfulfilled promise hangs over the family, almost like a curse. It is denied for too long, and then when it is finally conceded, it is almost a poisoned chalice. Salome’s son, most certainly, does not show the gratitude that other members of the Swart family might have expected. The land and the now-derelict house are now subject to a land claim under land redistribution, and Salome may well lose again.

I was rather surprised when this book made the shortlist for the Booker Prize, I must confess. In many ways, it’s a multi-generational family story, although it is strengthened by being placed against the political background. It’s real strength, for me, is the narrative voice. I wonder if its presence as a non-American book in a shortlist dominated by American writers (just as many predicted) might weigh in its favour.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It is shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.