Category Archives: Uncategorized

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 30 Nov- 6 December 2018

Rear Vision It’s the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in North Ireland, but I was more attracted to these podcasts, broadcast earlier this year, in relation to Brexit and the fears of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland again. It’s a two-part series, with Part I looking at The Troubles and Part II looking at the agreement. It’s really good to revisit the history of the Troubles brought right up to date. I didn’t realize how fragile the ‘peace’ is.

Another Rear Vision episode that I’ve had saved for a while is Red Marauder: A History of Drought in Australia. An interesting idea: that drought only really entered settler consciousness after the Selection Acts of the 1860s and 1870s that made it possible for small-scale farming, rather than earlier when squatters could just move their flocks and herds if one area became dry. An interesting review of drought policy over the last 30 years, too, and the way that really good policy was unstitched to return us to ad-hoc drought relief again.

Russia, if you’re listening. This episode is called “Why are news networks calling Paul Manafort an idiot?” but it also goes on to talk about Russia and the naval standoff with Ukraine. And interesting to go back to the Felix Sater episode, now that he’s popping up in the news again.

Revolutionspodcast. Episode 9.13 The Plan of Ayala. Francisco Madero decides to rile up his old friends, including Emiliano Zapata who issues the Plan of Ayala, a blue-print for third-world agrarian revolutions everywhere.

Duolingo Podcasts. These really are good. La voz de la calle is about a man in Buenos Aries who had fallen from a job, his own home and family into homelessness in the Argentinian economic crisis of 1999. My Spanish teachers had mentioned the Argentinian pronunciation of words with double-L, and it’s certainly apparent here.




‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris 1932’ by Francine Prose


2014, 436p.

It’s just as well that one of the rules I set for myself when reading is to give a book at least 100 pages before I give up on it. I didn’t know anything about this book and for the first fifty or so pages I was just confused.

There are multiple narrators here, speaking through different genres. Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer, writes long letters home to his parents that do not quite conceal his incessant asking for money. Lionel Maine is an American novelist of the big, baggy, gossipy type who has written a memoir of his time in Paris pre-WWII called ‘Make Yourself New’. Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi, who becomes Gabor’s wife, writes an unpublished memoir of the events, with the instruction that the memoir be burnt at her death. Wealthy art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, who has married into an auto company, writes her own jauntily named memoir ‘A Baroness By Night’. The sections titled ‘Yvonne’ are written in the third person by an unnamed omniscient narrator. The heft of the book appears in the fictional biography of athlete and motor racer ‘The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars’ by Natalie Dunois.

Told from these varying voices and agendas, these characters are drawn to the Chameleon club, a Parisian nightclub which attracts gays, lesbians, cross-dressers and artists. As Hitler’s politics begin to filter beyond Germany’s borders, the club increasingly falls under scrutiny, and adapts to fit the political milieu.  The main interest of the book is a regular cross-dressing customer of the club, Lou Villars.  A former athlete and motor racer, she is spurned by her girlfriend Arlette and becomes drawn into National Socialism, becoming a notorious Nazi informant and interrogator.

I only gradually realized that this book is  based in fact, albeit with fictional names and imaged events. The photograph around which much of the action revolves was taken by Brassai entitled ‘Fat Claude and her girlfriend at Le Monocle’ (see here) and Lou Villars is a barely disguised Violette Morris, (see also here) who gave the Germans information about the Maginot Line and members of the French Resistance.

I was conscious that my approach to the book changed dramatically once I realized that it was based on fact. I resisted the temptation to start googling the characters, and instead let the fictional book take me where it wanted me to go. There is a ‘Cabaret’-style artifice to the book, which became increasingly dark as the narrative went on. By having multiple narrators, the author is not bound to ‘explaining’ her Lou Villars character, or her seduction into National Socialism, although the multiple narrators give her scope to speculate.  I’m glad that I didn’t give up at 100 pages in, but I do wonder if my response to the book would have been different had I realized what the author was doing, earlier on.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I had heard of Francine Prose

My rating: 8

‘The True Colour of the Sea’ by Robert Drewe


2018, 209 p.

It would come as no surprise that this collection of short stories should coalesce around the theme of the sea. Several of Robert Drewe’s earlier works reference water: The Bodysurfers collection of short stories, The Drowner (which, admittedly was more about the arid outback than water) and his own memoir The Shark Net.  But it’s not just the Australian sea that provides the background for many of these stories: instead we travel to a Pacific Island and to Cuba, as well as more recognizable beach-side settings.

I always find it hard to review a collection of short stories as a precis often gives the whole story away: by its very nature a ‘short’ story doesn’t have a lot of flesh to cut away. I tend to flip through, and if I can remember the scenario, then I feel that the story has worked for me.

On that basis, I enjoyed ‘ Another Word for Cannibals’ where an earnest, progressive, European couple returns to a Pacific island to complete the genealogical circle of their great-great-great grandfather’s missionary endeavour. ‘Varadero’, set in a down-at-heel Cuban hotel really appealed to me, as it captured Cuban tourism so well. ‘Lavender Bay Noir’ is slightly creepy in a domestic sunlit, sea-kissed setting. ‘Spotting Killer Whales’ involves an adult family gathering together in a restaurant overlooking the sea after their father has died. The eponymous ‘The True Colour of the Sea’ has a historical setting, where a colonial artist is left an a rock in the Arafura Sea.

These eleven stories were just the right length as far as I’m concerned. They were long enough to get your teeth into, but were easily read as a story-before-bedtime read. Drewe is such an accomplished writer, confident and clear-eyed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I saw it there on the library shelf

My rating: 8.5/10

Movie: The Accused (2018) -Acusada- Cine Latino Film Festival 2018

An Argentinian film about a young girl, Dolores, who finally, after two and a half years, faces the court after the murder of her best friend. This friend had posted a sex tape of Dolores, leading to a falling-out between the two girls, and when the friend is found stabbed on the couch after a drunken party, Dolores is accused of the murder. Now she faces the court, her parents having mortgaged the house to employ the best lawyer they can.  The young actress reminded me of Demi Moore in Ghost, and she is very good in manipulating your feelings about her. Is she innocent, exhausted, manipulative or a good liar?

It’s subtitled in English, which is just as well because I could barely follow a word.

My rating: 3.5

Movie: Roma (Cine Latino Film Festival 2018)

I saw this as part of the 2018 Latin American film festival. It’s directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who also directed Gravity and Children of Men. It’s filmed in black and white, and it looks at a year in the life of a middle-class family in the Roma suburb of Mexico City. It reminded me a lot of that other black and white film Of Time and the City, (which in that case was about Liverpool), in that the director is almost writing a love letter to the city of his memory. Lots of observations about class, being a woman, betrayal – and in beautifully clear Spanish! (subtitles in English). It’s very good

My rating: 4.5 stars

‘Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world’ by Laura Spinney


2017, 295 & notes

It is like the final insult. After four years of death, injury, mud and sand in WWI, it was the ‘Spanish flu’ that killed soldiers  just as the war was turning. It engulfed the whole globe -not just those countries involved in the war-  with most of the deaths occurring in the thirteen weeks between mid-September and mid-December 1918.

Flu epidemics have been with us for thousands of years. Because writing only emerged 4500 years ago, we cannot know when the first one was. We know that there was a  flu epidemic in Uruk in Iraq around that time; there is speculation that flu devastated the armies in Sicily in 212 BC; the first recognized flu pandemic is thought to have begun in Asia in 1580; there was one in 1830 and another ‘Russian’ flu in 1889.

The ‘Spanish’ flu of 1918-19 didn’t start in Spain. Indeed, according to Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider, a hundred years later we’re still not sure where it did start. Maybe in the poultry farms of Kansas; maybe in the army barracks at Etapes in northern France where birds flocked in the Somme estuaries; or maybe in Shansi province in China, where ducks were herded through the paddyfields to eat insects. What is common to these three locations is birds. Recent research  involved disinterring an obese woman from the permafrost to sequence the flu virus still present around her organs when she died in 1918, and sure enough, the “Spanish” flu was a form of avian flu which had crossed over to humans.

The ‘Spanish’ flu arrived in Spain in May 1918. It had been in America for two months and in France for at least a couple of weeks. But because any mention of flu was censored in nations at war, it was only in neutral Spain that it was reported in the local newspapers. Although “Spanish” was the name that stuck, most countries named it after another country- generally a country they didn’t like: in Senegal they called it Brazilian flu; in Brazil they called it the German flu, the Poles called it the Bolshevik disease; in Iran it was the British flu.

Whatever it was, it affected an estimated 500 million people, 1/3 of the global population in 1918. Between 50,000 and 100,000 million people died.  It came in three waves: the first in March-April 1918; the second and most deadly wave in August 1918 when it spread through most of Europe, Iran, India and China; a third wave in early 1919 which affected Australia which had largely escaped the other waves through effective quarantine; and perhaps a fourth wave in the winter of 1919-20.  In Australia, more than 12,000 people died.

Children and old people have always been vulnerable during an influenza epidemic. What was unusual about the ‘Spanish’ flu was that if you  map out the distribution mortality rates, it shows a W-shape, with people between  20-40 particularly susceptible. Spinney suggests that flu might have been particularly virulent among otherwise healthy people because their immune system went into overdrive. Perhaps some older people, who would normally have been susceptible, had gained some immunity from the 1889 ‘Russian’ flu.

Modern medicine was powerless. Aspirin was prescribed in huge doses, and indeed there has been a claim (which Spinney largely discounts) that very high doses of aspirin , which causes the lungs to fill with fluid, may have actually contributed to the deaths of a sizeable proportion of the flu’s victims. (p.122). However, this argument cannot explain why so many people died in India and other countries where aspirin was not available. Another common treatment was high doses of quinine which added vertigo and vomiting to the symptoms, and may have contributed to the visually “washed out” appearance of the world that many recovering victims reported.  At a time when there was no firm distinction between commercial and folk medicine, it is no wonder that people resorted to traditional medicine and practices to ward off the disease, like ‘black weddings’, an ancient Jewish ritual which involved choosing a groom and bride from the most unfortunate in society (beggars, disabled) and conducting a wedding in a graveyard to fend off the disease.

Spinney’s book has an introduction, eight parts and an afterword. Part I, ‘The Unwalled City’ places influenza within a historical context, both across the centuries and the immediate WWI medical and social environment. Part II ‘Anatomy of a Pandemic’ describes the spread of the Spanish flu across the world. Part III ‘Manhu or What Is It?’ deals with the incomprehension and impotence of medicine and governments against the pandemic when it first emerged.  Part IV ‘The Survival Instinct’, which I found the most interesting, looked at the medical and social responses across the globe. Part V ‘Post Mortem’ looks at the search for the first ‘Spanish’ flu victim, and the toting up of the final figures. Part VI ‘Science redeemed’ details medical and scientific progress in understanding the pandemic, while Part VII ‘The Post-Flu World’ looks at the fall-out medically, socially, culturally and militarily after the last wave.  Part VIII ‘Roscoe’s Legacy’ discussed disease control in the future. The Afterword ‘On Memory’ looks at how the pandemic has been remembered, or more pertinently, forgotten.

Spinney’s book joins a surge of interest in the 1918-19 epidemic now that it is coming up to its centenary. Unlike many books that concentrate on its effects in one city or country, hers is a truly global approach to the pandemic.  As a science writer, she focuses on the disease, its manifestations and the scientific response, but she also interweaves this with a consciousness of how the experience of suffering and recovering from the flu leached out into music and literature in the succeeding decade.

As for her claims for it changing the world?  I’m not quite convinced, given how easily it has been forgotten. She argues that it ended the war because the German soldiers were so sickly; she suggests that it led to the introduction of universal health care (I’m not so sure- the NHS, Medicare/Medibank etc were introduced post WWII), and posits that the British negligence in treating Indians with influenza was an eventual catalyst to Independence (another event that seems to me to be too chronologically distant from the pandemic to be convincing).

Nonetheless, I found this book a fascinating read. It is well written, well-researched and rather chilling.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I’m aware that the centenary is upon us.

Rating: 8.5



Movie: Vita and Virginia

This was a very wordy film, as you might expect given that it was set amongst writers and artists in the Bloomsbury circle. Elizabeth Debicki was excellent, playing an ungainly and  mentally fragile Virginia Woolf. There was rather too much of Vita and Virginia staring face-on to the camera in close-up, talking, and felt myself getting rather bored by it all. I wanted to like it more than I did.

I saw this as part of the British Film Festival.