My very own little socially distanced Spanish Film Festival #1

I live in Melbourne, and we have been locked down over two separate periods. The first lockdown from about 24 March lasted until 12 May. The second, much more onerous one started on 9 July and is still in force in October. These are the things I miss most:

  • Seeing my children and grandchildren (although for the last fortnight we’ve been able to see them outside as long as there are only 5 of us, and within 5 km of home).
  • Being able to catch up with friends at a cafe with good coffee in a real cup and food on a china plate (Why, oh why, didn’t I do more of this in the interregnum between the two lockdowns?)
  • Going to the cinema (they opened briefly on a reduced scale, then shut again).

Numbers 1 and 2 I will jump at, as soon I have the chance, but I don’t know when I’ll feel confident to return to the cinema again. The idea of sitting in the dark, someone either side of me, and people coughing and sniffing as they inevitably do, really creeps me out.

I always look forward to the Spanish Film Festival and the Latin American Film Festival, which screen at the nearby Westgarth Palace Cinema. Neither festival occurred this year, but I’ve been enjoying the Instituto Cervantes Festival Pelikula 2020 which is being screened online for free! The films are only available in Australia, Phillipines and Thailand for free, and they only screen for 24 hours. They are subtitled in English – unfortunately, not in Spanish because I like the challenge of reading Spanish subtitles. The festival runs between 3 and 11 October so there are still a couple of days and films left.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

  1. The Reconquest. Actually, I don’t think that this was part of the Pelikula festival, but it was time limited. Who knows how I got to know of it. It’s about two 30-somethings who keep the promise that they made as fifteen-year olds to meet up in 15 years time. Beautifully filmed but so very s-l-o-w. I’m sure that I aged 15 years watching it.

2. La Filla de Algú. Eli is a lawyer working in the family law firm. On the morning when she and her father are about to act in an important case, her father disappears. Despite being 7 months pregnant, she goes off looking for him. She is secretive and evasive – I wouldn’t want her as my lawyer. The ending was very abrupt and indeterminate.

3. Jaulas .(i.e. ‘Cages’) I really enjoyed this film. Set in an Andalusian shanty-town, a young girl, her mother and her disabled uncle escape their violent father/husband. The family keeps caged birds, and like the birds, they are all trapped. The ending was a little ambiguous (what is it with all these ambiguous endings?) but I’m going with a positive plot resolution rather than a more chilling one.

I’ve booked for another four films, so that will keep me busy. If you’re interested in joining in, here is the link:

https://www.pelikula.es/en/seccion-oficial.html

They are all subtitled in English.

‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ by Shokoofeh Azar

2017, 268 p. Translated by ‘Adrien Kijek’

I knew that this book had been shortlisted for both the Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing, and also for the Booker International. It has been translated into English by a translator whose pseudonym appears only in the bibliographic details at the front of the book. Having only recently become sensitized to the nuances of translation by learning another language myself, at first I felt a frisson of annoyance that the translator was so invisible. However, I learn from a review of the Europa edition of the book, where the translator is designated ‘anonymous’, this was at their request and for reasons of safety. The fear and repression felt by the translator pervades the book too, where the political and personal grind remorselessly against each other. The magical realism with which the book is imbued is a relief, both in terms of self-protection for the characters and for us as readers.

Roza, the mother of three children Sohrab, Beeta and Bahar climbed the tallest tree in the grove, a greengage plum tree, and it was there that she received enlightenment at exactly 2.35 p.m. on August 18, 1988, the very moment that her son Sohrab was hanged under the instructions of the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. The family had fled Tehran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but the unrest followed them to the small village of Razan as well. Not that her daughter Bahar physically followed them to the remote village: she had been killed during 1979 and as our narrator, is now a ghost, still present to her family, but dead.

The book combines historical detail – the mandate of wearing headcoverings, the appearance of men bristling with guns in the back of utilities, the disappearances and hangings – alongside a world of dragonflies, riotous growth of plants, jinns and mermaids. It’s a rather discombobulating book to read, with frequent time shifts and a permeable edge between the traditional and historical, and between the spirit and political worlds. The men with guns may have come, with their fundamentalist theology, but the traditional Persian beliefs in the spirit world underlie outward compliance and inward resistance. So too does the traditional way of story-telling, with a long story-within-a story that wreathes without a full-stop for ten pages.

This is also a family story, as each member responds in their own different way to the challenge of living through traumatic times. Roza, after her three-day stay in the greengage tree, leaves her diminished family; Beeta turns into a mermaid; her father Hushang immerses himself in his books before returning to his family home in Tehran, where the family has sequestered itself. His brother Khosro turns to mysticism, as a way of inuring himself from changes that he does not support. And Bahar moves among them restlessly, with love and impotent compassion, waiting for them to join her.

This is not an easy book to read, especially if you dislike magic realism. For myself, I see it playing a dual role in this book: as a way of laying claim to a way of viewing the world, but also as a form of resistance. Given that this book was trumped in the Booker International by the bleak and shrivelling The Discomfort of Evening, there is much more to hold on to in this book, which would have been a more worthy winner, in my view.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: Shortlisting on Stella and Booker International prizes

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics’ by Katharine Murphy QE 79

2020, 98 p

Journalism has long been described as the first draft of history and that’s certainly the case with Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. The arrangements for the Quarterly Essays are usually locked in a year ahead of time, and Katharine Murphy thought at first that she would be writing a profile of Australia’s unexpected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. But in this Year of Madness, events overtook her and instead of writing an essay based solely on his personality, she interweaves it with a chronology of the unfolding of the COVID pandemic and the politics it has engendered.

No matter where she stopped this essay, things would have continued to change. As it is, her essay starts with her interview with Scott Morrison during “some of the last hours in which Morrison hoped the second wave in Victoria could be avoided”. Events have moved on since then, and so too the civility that marked the for-public-consumption ‘unity’ of Morrison’s National Cabinet of Prime Minister and Premiers, which has sidelined Parliament, the Opposition and the usual cabinet processes. The gloves are off now. Since she wrote this essay, Victoria’s second wave has quite rightly come in for criticism, but Morrison is now cheerleader for opening borders and patting the head of Liberal-run NSW, suggesting that deep down Morrison really is Prime Minister for New South Wales. She doesn’t mention the COVID Commission Advisory Board, headed by none other than resources businessman Nev Power, and its championing of a gas-led recovery.

If her aim was to paint a portrait of Scott Morrison, even she would admit that she has not been particularly successful. The emphasis on the pandemic has pushed any further consideration of Morrison’s character offstage. I have learned nothing about his education, his life before politics, or his position in the party. His route to the Prime Ministership is left unexamined. Apart from his Pentecostal faith, which is off-limits for reporters, the Morrison she portrays is a pragmatic and transactional shape shifter. He learned from his much-criticized inertia with the bushfires, where he couldn’t actually do anything. He’s certainly into doing now, but curiously absent when things go wrong.

So much has changed for us in the last nine months that it’s hard to keep track of the trajectory, and her tracing through of the early response to news of Wuhan is valuable as history. But her essay ends, as the title suggests, in an uncertain way. Pragmatism, in the absence of anything else, is amorphous.

Murphy doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Morrison is more ideological than she suggests, and I think that we will see it in the budget that awaits us. But for that, and for any real sense of how this pandemic has changed us, we will just have to wait.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my Quarterly Essay subscription.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘The Turn of the Screw’ to….

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. The rules of the meme are here. In October the starting book is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw which I confess to not having read. But I gather that it’s about a governess – and I have read about governesses, so off I go!

The first governess I thought of was Caroline Newcomb, who shifted across from Hobart to Port Phillip in 1836 to act as governess for the (in)famous John Batman’s family in the very early days of Melbourne’s settlement. She ended up in Geelong, where she met Annie Drysdale, and together the two women formed a partnership to run sheep on the the 10,000 acre Boronggoop property on the Barwon River as women squatters – certainly a novelty at that time. Their lives are described in Miss D. and Miss N. where Bev Roberts edits and annotates Anne Drysdale’s diaries.

Sometimes I’m a bit of a purist with my historical fiction, but I love it when a novelist does the research then subverts it completely. This is the case with Peter Mews’ Bright Planet, which takes its name from a real ship that often appeared in the Port Phillip Shipping News columns. It’s set in a Melbourne known as Bareheep in the early 1840s, complete with a mixture of historic and fictional characters, and like Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass , it’s a real hoot.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries uses astrological principles as an organizing structure for her sprawling (and too long, in my opinion) book about the New Zealand gold rush in Hokitika. It’s a bit like a great big Victorian door-stopper of a book with myriad characters. I thought that it was technically clever, but just too long-winded.

Think New Zealand, and think Janet Frame. Owls Do Cry was her first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography, and it is often considered to be New Zealand’s first modernist novel. It’s a startlingly original book, dealing with mental illness and it still packs a punch after more than 60 years.

Speaking of owls, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a quiet, meditative book about a young priest who, unknown to him, has only a few years left to live. He is sent to minister to a small Indian village, where Christianity, commercialism and the outside world are encroaching on the traditional myths and practices that the villagers share with him. It’s a beautifully written book, but a bit ponderous.

Not at all ponderous is Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing. It is a series of tales set around an Aboriginal mission in far northern Australia with the Mission mob, the Catholic clergy, trying to convert the Bush mob who lived just outside the Mission. The Bush mob move back and forth between the arbitrary strictures and efforts of the clergy and their own more grounded life outside. They are clear-eyed about the hypocrisy and smallness of these white priests and nuns, but they are also painfully aware of the degree of control that the mission has over their lives. It is imbued with a quick, cutting, deft wit that overlays anger and sorrow.

And so that brings me to the end of my chain. It seems that with the exception of one book, I’ve stayed mainly in the Southern Hemisphere this time!

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 September

Heather Cox Richardson . In her History and Politics Chat of 15 September, she picks up on the claim that mass hysterectomies were being performed on women in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement_ hospitals without informed consent. She is not absolutely convinced, given that it is just part of a much longer complaint about the COVID response in ICE facilities, and it did not come through established whistleblower channels. Nonetheless, she does go on to talk about the eugenics movement in America, and the use of forced sterilization among indigenous and disabled settings. After answering some other questions, she also talks about why she is so concerned about ICE agents and other forces controlled by the Dept. of Homeland Security

Then on 24 September, with RBG’s death, the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, and Trump’s ambivalence about accepting the result of the election, she tries to soothe things down a bit. She warns not to accept whatever result is announced on Election Night, because it will not be the final result. She also advises that we think about how we, individually, will act on principle and non-violently after the election. She then talks about the Supreme Court and the threats to American democracy.

And in the Thursday History of the Republican Party on 27th August Part 13, she picks up again on Ronald Reagan, who racked up debt, prompted the Great Divergence in wealth between the rich and poor, and drew on the cowboy, individualistic motif as imagery, especially with the Iran/Contra affair- whoever thought THAT was a good idea? (She explains it well). George H. W. Bush, who was really more of a traditional New Deal type of Republican was forced to court the Movement Conservatives to be elected, even promising ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’ (a cowboy trope again).

The Real Story (BBC) What everyone wants to know: When Will We Get a COVID-19 Vaccine? An epidemiologist, the chief executive of the Wellcome Trust and the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, the Senior Vice President responsible for Research & Development at Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, California, and a familiar voice, Chris Smith, Consultant virologist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge and presenter of ‘The Naked Scientists’ podcast

The History Hour (BBC) Prohibition in India. How Indian women in the 1990s campaigned to stop the sale of alcohol in the state of Andhra Pradesh to protect women from domestic violence and safeguard family finances. The history of America’s healthcare system, how the UN was eventually persuaded to apologise for the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti and the horror of being caught up in one of the most notorious hi-jackings of the 1970s, plus the birth of Reddit, one the world’s most successful websites.

Start the Week (BBC) ‘The Radical Agenda’ has Rachel Holmes, the author of a recent biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, Owen Jones who has recently published a book about the Corbyn election and why it went so wrong, and Conservative columnist Danny Finkelstein (although he says that he argues for ‘moderation’, not ‘conservatism).

America if you’re listening (ABC) One of the things we have to grudgingly admit is that Trump hasn’t launched America into a war yet, even though North Korea and Iran have both looked pretty dicey. How close did Trump get to nuclear war looks at the influence of John Bolton whose recent book might have provided comfort for anti-Trumpers, but Bolton himself always was a war-mongering official.

Science Friction (ABC) has a three part series Click-Sick about medical misinformation on the internet. Part 1 Why Sharing isn’t always Caring looks at the family friction that can arise when some members of the family trawl dodgy medical pages. A bit ho-hum.

In Our Time (BBC) Oh good, new episodes! I don’t really know much classical history at all, so I was interested in this podcast about Pericles. He was seen as a bit of a class traitor at the time, as he came from one of the best families, but really promoted democracy. He was elected fifteen times, gave a famous speech at our version of Anzac Day, and ended up dying of the plague, which broke out under his watch.

‘Dancing in my dreams: confronting the spectre of polio’ by Kerry Highley

dancing-in-my-dreams

2016, 177 p. plus notes

I admit that it might seem rather perverse to read about polio epidemics during our own coronavirus pandemic. But with the government’s attempt to highlight COVID infections amongst younger people as well as in older populations to highlight the seriousness of the situation, my mind has been turning recently to the polio epidemics of the past, and particularly the significance of age during a pandemic.

My father was the second child of the family, with a much older half-brother born to a previous marriage (as was too often the case, my grandfather’s first wife died in childbirth). Effectively brought up as a much-doted only child, my eight-year old father was sent to the family property up in Healesville to stay with his grandparents when the polio epidemic of 1937 struck, far from the contagion of the city. 

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My father with his father (left), grandfather and mother at Healesville

Through Highley’s book Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio, I now know that the government tried to discourage parents from doing exactly this, no doubt fearful of spreading polio even further. The streets in 1937 were deserted, she writes, and the picture theatres empty. Schools were closed, and states rushed to close their borders, something that the Federal Minister for Health, Billy Hughes, declared was unconstitutional. (Federal politicians obviously don’t like to be reminded that state borders still exist.) I still shake my head in disbelief that I have seen the same thing in 2020.

But, in fact 1937 was not the most virulent polio epidemic that Australia has seen.  That distinction belongs to the early 1950s, when polio affected 32.30 in every 100,000 of population and affected states across Australia (compared with 14.10 in 1936-40, which mainly affected Victoria.) Nor was it necessarily infantile paralysis, as it was more formally known. The improvements in sanitation in the early twentieth century meant that very young infants, who seemed to be less severely affected, were less likely to catch it. Instead, older children from about 6 and up, teenagers and young adults contracted it. In European, industrialized countries, it changed from an endemic disease to an epidemic one, and one that affected middle class children and young adults, and not just ‘the poor’.

Epidemics prior to 1951 affected particular states, rather than the country as a whole. In 1904 it was Queensland and NSW; in 1908 Victoria; and then in New South Wales in 1931-2. During 1916 New York was afflicted with an epidemic that evoked many of the public health responses we have seen recently: six (!!) weeks quarantine of patients and contacts; food delivered to the front door, funerals held in private, schools closed, public meetings banned.  The public perception that there was a correlation between polio and dirt was challenged when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. That myth may have been crushed, but the perception that to be “crippled” (to use the terminology of the day) was a matter of shame continued for decades.

During (and after) the 1937 epidemic, there were two competing treatment regimes and much of Highley’s book describes the personalities, history and politics that affected the dominance of one regime over the other.  These clashes took place within a particular historical context.  The 1908 Medical Act established the dominance of the medical profession over the chemists, dentists, midwives, herbalists and homeopaths who had operated in the medical sphere previously.  Nurses, although trying to emphasize their professionalism through groups like the Australian Training Nurses Association,  were very much under the control of doctors and the British Medical Association in Australia organization was very powerful. Interestingly, due to the influence of Christian Scientists and chiropractors in the United States, this strict delineation was not a feature of the American medical scene. In Victoria, the ‘fever hospital’ (later Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital) opened in 1904, and in 1937 all polio cases were sent there.

The official response was headed by Dr. (later Dame) Jean Macnamara, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in the stellar year of 1922 (along with pediatrician Dr. Kate Campbell, hematologist Dr Lucy Bryce and medical scientist Dr (late Sir) Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet). She was appointed resident of the Children’s Hospital the following year, then became clinical assistant to the Children’s out-patients physician and entered private practice specializing in poliomyelitis in 1925. When a polio outbreak occurred that year, she began testing the use of immune serum in her patients and continued to do so even when other international results called its efficacy into question. (Another resonance today- serum is being tested for COVID as well.) Her method involved the splinting of children into a Thomas Splint – a flat, almost crucifix type structure-  for months if not years until the damaged nerves had recovered. Her preference for splinting also extended to treatment for knock-knees and postural problems. In Highley’s somewhat critical depiction, she took a rather utilitarian view of illness, with an emphasis on the economic costs of the ‘cripple’ who would need an invalid pension in the future.

The competing treatment was pioneered by Sister Elizabeth Kenny,  a nurse – not a doctor- from Townsville. Instead of waiting for the inflammation to subside, the Kenny treatment involved hot flannels for the pain (something that Macnamara’s treatment did not prioritize) and early massage and manipulation of the muscles. As Highley points out, Kenny was in many ways her own worst enemy. She was evasive about her own background, which did not include general nursing training, and it  was her experience during WWI that qualified her to call herself ‘Sister’. She was adamant in distancing herself from what might be construed as ‘quack’ medicine, which meant that she did not ally herself with the increasingly-accepted discipline of physiotherapy, which probably would have been to her advantage. Not part of the medical establishment Kenny herself was pugnacious and often alienated people who could have assisted her. Her methods were more accepted in America, where the medical establishment did not have the same stranglehold, and in New Zealand. Although some of her methods were integrated into Australian treatment, the Kenny-dedicated clinics dwindled, and ‘Kenny-like’ treatments diluted the significance of early intervention.

So much was not known about polio at the time: how it was transmitted, its effect on the body, the prognosis for an individual. Just as today, there was a frantic race to find a vaccine against polio, and the tragic mis-steps in this process bring a note of caution to our current world-wide race to find a COVID vaccine.

But the focus of this book is very much on the individual, and his or her  experience of polio. She traces through the diagnosis and early crisis of the disease, the responses of child and adult patients to this rupture in their lives, the differing experiences under the Macnamara and Kenny treatment regime, the long period of rehabilitation and family and societal responses in the years and decades afterwards. The text has liberal quotations of oral testimony, drawn from a variety of sources, and you never forget that you are reading about people. It is engagingly written, with equal attention to personality, politics and science.

And no, it wasn’t depressing reading during a pandemic.  It was oddly reassuring to read that communities had been frightened by a disease that was unknown, and that the current measures of quarantine, isolation and, yes, border closures are not some 21st century draconian infringement on our liberties or a conspiracy dreamed up on the edges of the internet. It was interesting to see two women competing within the medical sphere, and the power dynamics at play. There were mis-steps and misapprehensions, but knowledge of polio as a disease gradually expanded. The book captures attitudes towards illness and disability that are best left in the past.  The story of the polio vaccine and its tragic failures prompted by haste carry a warning (I’m speaking to you, Trump), but eventually confirm the importance of vaccination and rigorous testing. I’m glad that I read this book.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: read online through State Library of Victoria.

I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

I hear with my little ear: 9th-16th September

Heather Cox Richardson Her History and Politics Chat of 8th September asked: why are the Republicans so good at breaking things down and explaining them simply and the Democrats so poor? She partially agreed. She then explored the question of “Is democracy good? Why is democracy good?”, coming to much the same conclusion as Churchill “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”. She also looked at campaign funding (which she has covered previously) and noted that Trump started his 2020 campaign almost as soon as he was sworn in. This means that for the past four years, he has been able to hold rallies with selected audience, and more importantly, have his legal bills paid.

Her History of the Republican Party of 20th August looked at Ronald Reagan, and the rise of ‘western’ tropes (e.g. RR dressing up as a cowboy, prairie dresses, even Star Wars as a modern version). The Movement Conservatives were still active. Reagan was all over the shop in terms of tax cuts and spending.

The Real Story. Each night, I am stunned by the number of new cases in India. The commentators in India’s COVID-19 Challenge all came from fairly entrenched positions e.g. the BJP commentator had nothing but praise for Modi’s government; one of the women brought everything back to Modi’s decision to lay the foundation stone for a new temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque, destroyed by Hindu mobs in 1992. Still, all rather sobering.

America, Are You Listening? In this episode, The surprising story of how Donald Trump took on the NRA, Matt Bevan looks at Trump’s relationship with the NRA. Surprisingly (especially for a Republican President), Trump initially stood up to the NRA and for a moment it seemed that the stars were aligning to end the madness of America’s ‘sacred’ relationship with guns: an unconventional President, a willing House, public revulsion at mass shootings, and the NRA in internal disarray. But somehow, and for some reason, all that seems to have gone away.

Dan Snow’s History Hit Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages looks at the practice of making a pilgrimage within England – a rather flexible activity it seems, as you could pay someone to do it for you, just thinking about it counted as actually doing it and Saints Days could be shifted around to take advantage of better weather. The podcast features Dr. Sheila Sweetinberg.

And while we’re talking about religious things, Stealing from the Saracens: Islam and European Architecture looks at the Muslim (and particularly Syrian) architecture brought back by merchants, pilgrims and crusaders to the Holy City, and it was incorporated into what we see as the quintessentially European ‘gothic’. The interviewee, Diana Darke, comments on the expungement of Syrian influence in the mosque at Cordoba, something that I noticed too. Although I think that it is too strong, and that the Christian additions are mere excrescences.

Outlook (BBC) In Sewing to Protest in a Chilean Prison Camp, London-based Jimena Pardo visited a display of handcrafts created by Chilean prisoners in Pinochet’s prison camps. It gave her the courage to ask her mother, Cristina about her own prison experience- something that she had never spoken about before. This is Cristina’s story, when as a medical student and mother of a young baby, she and her husband were swept up in a raid and imprisoned. (There’s a really good video about the imprisonments and the exhibition here, in English)

Rough Translation (NPR) American Surrogate 30 months later picks up on a program from 2017 where an American woman agrees to act as a surrogate for a Chinese couple. The American woman, who hoped to have a friendship with the couple when they returned to China with their baby, was stunned when the Chinese woman said that she would not tell their child of the surrogacy arrangement. This catches up with them 3 years after the birth, which had been more difficult than they anticipated because of eclampsia .

‘City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest’ by Sophie Cunningham

2019, 224 p.

As might be guessed from the full title City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest this book of essays ties together a number of disparate topics: trees, the natural world, human heedlessness, loving and dying. Each of the essays, many of which have been published elsewhere previously, is prefaced by a pencil sketch of a particular tree- the Coast Live Oak in America, the Giant Sequoia, the Ginkgo, Eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig, Coolibah etc. Then follows a short piece of writing about the tree, sometimes interwoven with personal reflection or historical anecdote. A more substantial essay then ensues, not necessarily closely related to the shorter preface.

So why trees? Sophie Cunningham has been photographing trees on her Instagram account for some time. The act of walking past a tree, stopping to photograph it, and to in effect ‘curate’ it as part of a collection means that she looks at trees closely. The trees are rooted in different countries- most particularly North America and Australia- reflecting Cunningham’s own journeyings between these two countries. So too the essays which combine personal reflection, and non-fictional writing. As one might expect from an author who has lived in America for a few years, there is a strong American focus, while at the same time, having written the Melbourne volume of New South Books series on Australian capital cities, the book is replete with stories of Melbourne and its history.

So there has been a concerted attempt to create a unity out of these disparate elements through the ‘sketch/small essay/big essay’ structure of the book. The essays themselves are very discursive, like jumping from one branch to another in a huge tree. This seemed particularly true of the earlier essays, particularly ‘The Fall’ and ‘Staying with the Trouble’, which ricocheted from one idea to the other. I don’t know whether I became more accustomed to her writing, or whether this digressive writing was reined in by the later stories. Call me a stickler for a narrative thread, but I preferred the more disciplined ones.

Given the effort that had gone into crafting an identity for this set of essays as a entity, I was startled and disconcerted by the inclusion of a chapter from a previous book Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy. I was reading this as an e-book, and perhaps if it had been a print version I might have been alert to the ‘additional advertising’ nature of this final chapter. As it was, the sense of ’rounding off’ that came in her final chapter, Mountain Ash, was ruptured. A poor choice, I thought, on someone’s part.

I always find it difficult to review short stories and books of essays. Despite the care in creating an overarching structure for these essays, I did find them particularly – and at time, too – discursive within themselves. The ache for the environment comes through strongly, but in many ways I preferred the more intimate human stories.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’ by Shashi Tharoor

tharoor_inglorious_empire

2017, 261 p. plus notes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time dabbling around in 19th century Colonial Office papers, albeit only between 1825 and 1848. The correspondence files to and from the colonies in the British Public Records Office are bound in huge volumes, arranged alphabetically by colony for each year, in fading brown (previously black) copperplate writing, with fascinating little side notes scribbled in the margins from various Colonial Office officials at different levels of the hierarchy. But you won’t find the Indian correspondence in these volumes: instead, it was dealt with and bound completely separate from the other Colonial Office mail. Within the Colonial Office bureaucracy, there was an ‘Indian’ track and an ‘Other Empire’ track, and never the twain did meet. It struck me as strange at the time, but I can understand it a little better after reading Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire. Although there was a template to all British-colony interaction, in India the expropriation and British-centredness of policy outstripped that of other colonies, and no doubt it suited the Colonial Office for that particular corporate approach and memory to remain corralled away from other colonial exploits.

This book had its genesis in a 2015 debate at the Oxford Union on the proposition that ‘Britain Owes Reparations to her Former Colonies’. Tharoor, speaking on the affirmative side, argued that – yes, reparations were owed- but given the impossibility of calculating them and the passage of time, they should be set at one pound per year for each year of British colonization. His arguments during the debate, he thought, needed little repetition, but when his contribution to the debate went viral, he realized that indeed, many people were not aware of the deliberately rapacious colonial policy that underpinned Britain’s treatment of India.

“Ah, but we gave India its railways, its facility with English, its bureaucracy, its parliamentary and legal system, tea and cricket!” those nostalgic for Britain’s Greatness – including historians Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James – protest. One by one, Tharoor unpicks these claims, although conceding the tea and cricket.

In Chapter 1 ‘The Looting of India’ he points out the financial rape of India’s economy through exorbitant taxation, manipulation of currency and the forced payment of pensions for Europeans who spent time in India before returning ‘home’ (a practice that settler colonies also had to comply with, although some Colonial Office appointees did remain in their adopted colonial home). The British government protected its own industries – the fabric industry, the steel and ship building industries – by insisting on the importation of  British manufacture by its colonies and using excises to decimate the Indian export industries. It wasn’t, he claims, that India “missed the bus” of industrialization: instead, it was thrown right under it.

Chapter 2 explores the question “Did the British give India political unity?” He argues that there had already been several empires that had united the landmass of India, and veering somewhat into speculation, that there was no reason why it could not have happened again without British interference. He points out that, unlike in the settler colonies, there was never any intention to give India self-government. The entire focus of the famed Indian Civil Service was British-focused, providing no route for Indian-born employees to progress, and forming a pool of eligible, bored British bachelors who were snared by the ‘fishing fleets’ of Englishwomen looking for European husbands with whom they would return to England after fulfilling their requisite period of luxurious exile.

Ch. 3 turns to ‘Democracy, the Press and Parliamentary System and the Rule of Law’ – those features that Niall Ferguson describes as Britain’s “gifts” to their colonies. Certainly, India adopted (blindly, Tharoor asserts) the British parliamentary system and form of democracy.  Certainly, there was a lively press in India, but it was subjected to far more scrutiny than the Anglo-Indian press which often promoted violence and prejudice. Certainly, India adopted the British ‘rule of law’ but this law took no heed of the existing traditional legal system (just as happened with indigenous law in Australia) and it was overwhelming used against Indians. He points out that India still has laws on its books, especially in regard to sexuality, that have since been repealed or abolished in Britain.

Chapter 4 ‘Divide Et Impera’ argues that it was the British was conceptualized and reified the idea that religion and caste divided India. Tharoor concedes that religion and caste certainly existed before the British arrived, but they were not the monoliths that Britain claimed and there was more interaction between them than Britain conceded. There had been intra-religious violence among religious and caste groups, but he suggests that this violence occurred at times of political crisis. During the grudgingly-conceded Independence and the disastrous Partition, Britain favoured Jinnah and the Muslim League, and Congress allowed itself to be imprisoned and sidelined.

Ch. 5 returns to ‘The Myth of the Enlightened Despot’. He points out that the Spanish Flu affected 1/3 of the population – 125 million cases- and caused 12.5 million deaths (out of the estimated 50 million world wide). During the Raj, there were famines in 1770,  1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. There have been no famines since Independence. British history remembers Peterloo (18 deaths 400-700 injuries) and the Boston Commons ‘massacres’ (5 deaths, 6 injuries) but these pale into insignificance against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre  where British troops fired on a crowd of Indian men, women and children in a confined space, killing at least 376 people and wounded 1137.

Ch 6 ‘The Remaining Case for Empire’ looks that those other Good Things that Britain is said to have gifted India: the railways (they were exorbitantly built for freight, but not people), language (yes, but the literacy rate was only 16% and it was certainly not intended to be a route to equality), tea – yes and cricket -yes.

In Chapter 7 ‘The (Im)balance Sheet’ Tharoor turns particularly to Niall Ferguson and to a lesser extent Lawrence James and other apologists for the British Empire, refuting their arguments and pointing out the moral consequences of colonial policies. He continues this into Ch 8 ‘The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism’ which deals with imperial amnesia (or even more chillingly, its resurrection as part of Brexit yearnings). Although not calling for financial reparations, he does look to Kohinoor Diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels collection.  He points out that colonialism, not just in India, has a long afterlife with arbitrary national divisions drawn on maps as in the Sykes-Picot carve up of the Middle East, spurious racial claims as with the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and the militarization of Pakistan.

Certainly, taken together this is a damning record. There was much that I had glimpsed from my studies of settler colonies, but had not really understood when drawn to its extremes in India. This is of course, a polemical book, following a single argument as fits its genesis in a debate, but it is well written, measured and draws on a lot of recent research. However, his excursions into speculative history unnerved me, and I wonder whether the current COVID tsunami in India, the increasing inflexibility and belligerence of  Narendra Modi’s BJP, and the prickliness on the Kashmir border support or challenge his argument.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 September 2020

99% Invisible. When I went to Spain quite recently, I was told and read that the Spanish Civil War was still a topic best avoided. This episode, Valley of the Fallen, talks about the memorial constructed by Franco, using prisoner labour, which he envisaged as a huge monument to honor the achievements of “our crusade,” and the “heroic sacrifices of our victory.”  It was only when Spain’s allies in the Cold War became uneasy about the size and divisiveness of the memorial that Franco announced that it would be for all the fallen. But once again, being Franco, ordered that bodies be exhumed from mass graves  and taken to The Valley of the Fallen for reburial. Many of these bodies were of his enemies, and they were disinterred and thrown together in a way that they could not be identified. When he was buried there, it became a site of pilgrimage for fascists. I had heard that he had been exhumed last year and shifted elsewhere. I hadn’t heard that many of the families of his victims are trying to get the other bodies exhumed and identified. Post-Franco Spain had agreed to forget about the crimes in a ‘Pacto del Olvido’ – a pact of forgetting- that silenced any memory of the past. But some things cannot, and should not, be forgotten.  The website has a transcript with videos (in fact, it’s probably better than the podcast).

Heather Cox Richardson. Her History and Politics Chat of 18th August started off by looking at De Joy and his removal of the sorting boxes. She then moved briefly to Trump’s convention trick of ‘pardoning’ Susan B. Anthony. The major part of her chat this week is about the republican-lead Senate report into Russian interference in the last election- something that made my eyes goggle, and which seemed to disappear completely afterwards (as no doubt the Republicans intended by releasing it during the Democratic convention). I think she must be tired because this was a bit disjointed, although I think that she was also being very careful about what she said.

Her chat of 25 August was interrupted by a storm! In the fifteen minutes that she recorded,  she responded to a question over whether it was unusual that the Republican National Convention had not released a policy platform but just recycled the 2016 one. Yes, it was unusual she said. She noted that there are three groups within the Republican party: Trump supporters, anti-Trumpers and a group with four letter names who oppose government action of any sort- Rand, Cruz and I can’t remember the others (and neither can she).  And then BANG! The power went off.

The following 1 September she talked about Social Security and Unemployment Insurance and whether Trump really would get rid of the payroll tax through which these programs are funded (as distinct from deferring it, which he has already done). Yes, he would,  because that would be consistent with the ideological position that many in the Republican party, if not Trump himself, endorse.  She was then asked why Donna Hylton, author, criminal justice activist and convicted for 25 years for second-degree murder and kidnapping, appeared at the Democratic Convention. Her answer- because she had done her time, and this is what rehabilitation looks like.

Her History of the Republican Party of 13 August is the one I have been waiting for: when the Republican party switched from the big-government, New Deal party to the individualistic, evangelical party that it is today.  This Southern Strategy took place between 1964 and the 1980s. She intended getting to Reagan, but instead ending up spending the whole session on Nixon. An interesting take on Watergate: Nixon had actively undermined LBJ’s peace talks in Vietnam, and Nixon was terrified that the Pentagon Papers would reveal this (they didn’t – they didn’t go up that far). And that was why he needed the ‘plumbers’ to find the dirt on Daniel Ellsberg and the Democrats in the Watergate building.

The Real Story (BBC) This program frightened the bejesus out of me. Why is QAnon going global looks at the the QAnon conspiracy theory that Mr Trump is leading a top-secret campaign to dismantle a global network of Satan worshipping cannibal paedophiles led by billionaires, celebrities and Democrats. It’s spreading in US, Europe and Latin America, right from President Trump through to evangelical churches. Really scary.

The Navalny ‘poisoning’ puts inverted commas around the word ‘poisoning ‘ as there is debate amongst these commentators about whether he was poisoned, and whether Putin was behind it. Yevgenia Albats (Russian investigative journalist), Sir Tony Brenton (former British Ambassador to Russia), Mary Dejevsky (former Times correspondent to Moscow), Vladimir Milov (opposition politian, Navalny adviser) and Sergei Markov (former member of the Duma from President Putin’s United Russia party) barely agree on a single proposition in this podcast.

America if You’re Listening (ABC) Russia If You’re Listening is back with a new name! This time Matt Bevan looks at the four year presidency of Donald Trump, starting off with What a hurricane taught Trump about being President. Trump handled hurricanes in Florida and Texas well but once it came to Puerto Rico….What did he learn? That when things are going badly, lie.