‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

2011,  150p.

Actually, I reviewed this book ages ago and forgot to post my review!

I’ll try hard not to put spoilers in this review, but …..

This is only a small book, although I hesitate to call it a novella as it covers a large amount of territory. (Whispering Gums has reflected on the qualities of a novella here) It was awarded the Booker Prize in 2011, where its brevity certainly sets it apart from the other thick books that have won it recently.

It is written in two parts.  The first part is a reflection written in the first person by Tony Webster, now divorced and retired, reminiscing about his final year of school.  Three, smart-alecky, academically pretentious boys were joined by a newcomer, Adrian Finn, who was smarter than all of them put together.  They left school, Adrian went to Cambridge while Tony went to Bristol, and he found himself a girlfriend, Veronica. The relationship didn’t last.  By now, the friendships had drifted off and other jobs and other relationships took over. Adrian and Veronica took up together and some time later Tony was jolted to learn that Adrian had killed himself.

In Part Two, life has gone on.  Many years later Tony receives a letter informing him that Veronica’s mother had left him some money and a diary. Why the bequest? he wonders. There had only been one brief, quizzical conversation between them one weekend when Tony visited her family.  The diary does not belong to Veronica’s mother, but instead  is Adrian Finn’s.  The transfer of the money goes smoothly, but Veronica resists giving him the diary.  After Tony confronts her, she gives him a fragment of a letter than he had written long ago, that he had forgotten completely.

A large part of this book is devoted to a reflection on time and memory, and the stories we tell ourselves.  Tony here is not so much an unreliable narrator, as an unconfident one.  He alerts us to his uncertainty from the start:

We live in time- it holds us and moulds us- but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.  And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions.  No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly… And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.  Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing- until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return. (p. 3)

Tony read history at Bristol, but at this time of his life he is far more concerned with life-narrative and how it we construct it.  He thinks back to a quote that Finn had offered in their sixth-form history class in response to their teacher’s question “What is history?” (Ah, how Carr-sian!) Finn cited a quote from a  (fictional) author, Patrick Lagrange that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation“. (p. 17)

Tony is wracking his brain to recall writing the letter which has discomfited all the recollections that he has held onto of that time.  The “imperfections of memory” have met “the inadequacies of documentation”, but he finds only uncertainty.

I theorise- that something- something else- happens to the memory over time.  For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions.  I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out.  The events reconfirm the emotions- resentment, a sense of injustice, relief- and vice versa.  There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed.  Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be a contradiction. (p. 120)

The title of the book is The Sense of an Ending, and it’s truly only a ‘sense’ that you are left with.  Tony, too, thinks that he has found an ending to his story, but “there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

I thought that I had reached the end of the book, and had my own certainty that I’d finished with the story.  In planning to write this post, I looked at a few other reviews in newspapers and blogs- only to find that perhaps I hadn’t finished it at all.  Read this review that explains the ending, then keep on going through the comments -ye Gods, 423 of them!- and the real cleverness of the book reveals itself.  It has sent me back to the start again!

[Written much later }I didn’t give it a score at the time of writing, and I have no idea now what I thought of it then. But obviously the ending passed me by completely, which can’t really be a good thing, can it?

‘The High Road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand’ by Laura Tingle (Quarterly Essay 80)

2020, 100 p.

I always enjoy it when I catch Philip Adams’ “mingle with Tingle” segment on Late Night Live. She always has a way of looking at things that brings a different perspective to the day’s news, and she ‘interprets’ more than she ‘reports’. I was a little disappointed in the last Quarterly Essay (Katherine Murphy’s The End of Certainty, which I reviewed here), which seemed to be just a lengthier extension of her every-day reporting in The Guardian. Tingle’s essay, on the other hand breaks new ground by drawing our attention to something almost unremarkable: the similarities and divergences between Australia’s political scene and that of our neighbour, New Zealand.

There are many times, especially since the ascension of Jacinda Ardern, that Australians look ‘across the ditch’ and wish that we could co-opt her too, (as well as the Finn Brothers and the odd New Zealand comedian or two). But I am old enough to remember an older New Zealand that was even more sheltered and Anglo-centric than Australia was. I went on an home-stay exchange visit to New Zealand in the early ’70s when I was about 16 and certainly the house was austere and rather cheerless. I recalled that old, protected New Zealand, when we visited Janet Frame’s hometown Oamaru in New Zealand, which seemed likewise cold and straitened. Even today, Australians are reminded of Australia’s relative advantage by the pricetags on purchases that show the Australian and inevitably-higher New Zealand prices, despite the lower wages in New Zealand.

Tingle identifies 1973, when Britain joined the Common Market as the seminal date when both Australia and New Zealand were forced to ‘grow up’ and reduce their reliance on agricultural exports to the ‘mother country’. From that date, Australia and New Zealand had to forge their own ways, sometimes acting in synchrony; other times striking out in their own.

But there were other important historical events before then. New Zealand was at first conceptualized as part of the colony of New South Wales (indeed, my very own Justice John Walpole Willis was slated to be New Zealand’s first Resident Judge in 1839-40. I wonder how that would have worked out.) The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 has allowed a completely different racial politics to emerge, especially in recent decades. Australia’s decision in 1901 to go with bicameral parliaments in most states and New Zealand’s go-it-alone single chamber, one state parliament, and more recently their almost accidental adoption of mixed-member proportional representation in 1996, has led to a different concentrations of political power.

As Tingle points out, the importance of each other’s economy has often been overlooked. At times, both governments had similar economic policies. I had forgotten ‘Rogernomics’, the extremely harsh free-market reforms introduced by David Lange’s Labour government during the 1980s. Although Australia’s Labour government under Hawke and Keating introduced deregulation and the Accord (something that probably only a Labour government could do in Australia) at much the same time, it was nothing like Rogernomics. And when New Zealanders put in the Nationals in 1990, instead of repudiating Rogernomics as they promised, they turned round and gave the country more of the same.

After losing the safe assurance of a British export market, both countries have been held hostage to their largest economic successes. In Australia’s case, mineral exports have dominated our economy and spawned a single-minded mineral lobby group that dominates Australia’s climate change policy and taxation arrangements. In New Zealand, flourishing under Hobbit-tourism, director Peter Jackson turned out not to be so benign when collective bargaining rights emerged under industrial relations unrest. Different players, but the same dilemma when one industry has a dominant role in a small economy.

But there are a number of other areas where Australia and New Zealand have taken different approaches, forming a type of laboratory experiment where two very similar nations, acting under similar geographical and population constraints, have adopted different policies. The most striking is the different experiences of Maori and Australian Aboriginal politics. I have often been struck by the use of the haka and Maori language by the broader New Zealand community, in a way that would be awkward and contentious in Australia. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed under the same colonial policies emanating from the Colonial Office, even though overlooked and dismissed for many years, was the springbroad for a judicial and political reckoning – something that Mabo and more recently the Uluru Statement could be if it hadn’t been dismissed out of hand.

Then there’s foreign policy, most particularly New Zealand’s firm stance on a nuclear-free Pacific, its deliberate distancing from US adventurism, and more recently in its approach to China which – let’s face it – Australia is stuffing up big time. None of these stances seem to have done New Zealand harm, as Australia always feared by throwing its lot in with the US.

Then there’s the policy continuity that a single-house, single government constitution provides. Although, as in the pre-Common Market days, this can lead to a stultifying dominance of one party, the recent mixed-member proportional representation has made coalitions of political parties the usual way of doing politics. There does not appear to be the huge culture war divide between the parties, who adopt each other’s policies (e.g. Rogernomics) to maintain a centrist government, less beholden to the extremists on both sides. I just can’t see “kindness” ever being adopted in Australian government speech despite a brief and fleeting flirtation during the recent pandemic.

Events have aligned to give Tingle a neat narrative circle. Just as UK bumbles its way out of Brexit, the final act of the economic play which began with the 1973 Common Market decision, we have Boris Johnson floundering in an ever-heightening pandemic, while Ardern calmly and decisively has given New Zealand a COVID-free community.

For me, the best Quarterly Essays are those that bring to the forefront something that is hiding in plain sight. I don’t think that I’ve read a historical or political comparison of Australia and New Zealand written in this way, and having read it, I don’t know why it hasn’t been done before.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Subscription

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

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 December 2020

Dan Snow’s History Hits How Slavery Built Modern Britain examines the way that modern industrialized Britain was reliant on the wealth and products generated in the West Indies, and enabled the planter lobby to ‘buy’ parliamentary protection.

Heather Cox Richardson. After a bit of a break, I’m back to listening to Heather Cox Richardson’s Thursday History podcasts. At the moment she’s going through the history of Reconstruction, which I must admit I know nothing about. December 4 is number one, where she mainly talks about the Civil War (which is I guess where you have to start for Reconstruction).

Rough Translation (NPR). Two Rough Translation programs this week. The first, from ‘It’s Been a Minute’ (another affiliated program) called White Supremacy and its Online Reach is about Jewish female reporter Talia Lavin who adopted a number of different online personas to infiltrate online white supremacist groups. She made an interesting link between white supremacism and anti-semitism. She pointed out that many white supremacists were disenchanted with Donald Trump who surrounded himself with Jewish advisors, to say nothing of his support for Israel.

A second program was The Loneliness of the Climate Change Christian. It seems strange to me that evangelical Christians are often climate change deniers. I would have thought that protecting God’s creation would have fitted in perfectly well with their beliefs – but that’s not the case. Instead, there is a strange emphasis on being given lordship over the earth in Genesis (so it’s OK to stuff it up) and an anti-science streak that means that environmentalism is now akin to blasphemy. The story of former evangelical lobbyist Richard Cizik shows how the evangelical church has changed its stance over recent decades.

‘Hell’s Gate’ by Richard Crompton

2014, 242 p.

I don’t usually read detective stories, but this is the second story I have read by Richard Crompton featuring Detective Mollel, of Maasi origin who works with the Kenyan CID. I read Crompton’s first book, The Honey Guide after visiting Nairobi for the first time and I’m surprised that I didn’t review it on this blog, because I enjoyed it. The Honey Guide was set in Nairobi, in the midst of the violence that broke out in Nairobi after the elections in 2007. Visiting Nairobi in 2014, I found it hard to imagine the bloodshed that occurred just streets from where we were living, and to realize that the locals we met had experienced (and possibly participated?) in the violence.

The author is a British journalist who has lived in Nairobi since 2005, having previously worked at the BBC. He captures Nairobi really well, and he does the same thing again with the Lake Naivasha setting of Hell’s Gate. Again, we had visited Lake Naivasha in 2014 and stayed on the lake edge, and the kids visited the Hell’s Gate National Park for which this book is named. It’s a strenuous walk amongst volcanic outcrops and I bailed out, I confess. So, even if I’m not a great fan of detective novels, it’s the Kenyan setting that draws me in – and lets face it, how many Kenyan detective stories have you read?

As with all good detective stories, there are disappearances, and there is a loner detective. In Mollel’s case, he is Masaai amongst a police force made up of Kikuyus and Luos, working in a police force notorious for its corruption. His wife had died several years earlier in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, leaving him to bring up their son. This book starts with a jolt as Mollel is thrown into jail – not a place anyone (let alone a policeman) would want to be -and then backtracks a week to explain how he got there. The plot is set against the cut-flower industry that dominates Naivasha with its huge plastic tunnels, and the Chinese influence that we noticed through the thermal activity infrastructure just up from the lodge in which we stayed. The Kenya Wildlife Service gets a look-in as well, in this tourist-dominated town that has many different agendas running against each other.

The huge plastic ‘glasshouses’ where flowers are grown for the European flower markets. There are hundreds of these plastic tunnels with associated worker housing all around Lake Naivasha.

I really don’t do detective films, series or books very well because I usually end up wondering whether I ‘got’ it. It always seems that there are so many false leads that when the crime is on the point of being solved, everything happens at once. This happens in Hell’s Gate as well, as your perception of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ gets completely tangled. Do I know who did it and why? I think so, but that’s not why I read it. I read it for the Nairobi setting and the flashes of recognition from several visits.

My rating: I don’t really know quite how to rate it as it’s not a genre I usually read, and that’s not why I read it. 7?

Sourced from: my own bookshelves, given to me by my son an embarrassing number of years ago. I shouldn’t have waited so long.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 December

99% Invisible. Do you remember when you first used the Internet? I don’t. I do remember using Netscape on a little rectangular block Apple computer, but I don’t think that I actually realized that it was the Internet. I can remember using bulletin boards, and I was bemused by all this talk of Internet 2.0. The episode The Lost Cities of Geo looks at Geocities, a site that used the spatial metaphor of a neighbourhood, with streets and blocks and addresses, as a way of conceptualizing the internet for new users. By 1998 it was the third most visited site on the internet but by 2009 Geocities was about to be wiped out. Except that a number of volunteer internet archivists tried to rescue as much as they could.

Background Briefing (ABC) Melbourne has only recently come out of a 112 day lockdown. There were certainly failures especially with the hotel quarantine system where the whole disaster started, and also with contract tracing. But with contract tracing, you are dealing with human beings who, for any number of reasons, may not be completely truthful. How Contract Tracers Confront Lies on the COVID frontline looks at the changes that have been made to the contract tracing system. At least positions weren’t so locked-in and egos so fragile that changes couldn’t be made.

The History Listen (ABC) Silence at the Sugar Mill is a family history story about Granny Ninnes, a small, dark, affectionate, card-loving grandmother whose family origins in Samoa were denied by her children, and remained largely unknown to her later North Queensland family.

In Our Time (BBC). Hah! Poor old Melvyn Bragg, having only women on the panel this week! I had never heard of Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem. After the first crusade, the mainly Frankish (i.e. French) invaders decided to create a kingdom in the European vein, and arranged amongst themselves who the King was to be. Melisende’s father came to the kingship in rather suspicious circumstances, and was determined that his eldest daughter would be Queen after him (only because he had no sons). When Melisende married Fulk from Anjou, she then had to resist his attempts to take over completely, and after her husband Fulk died, she then had to battle her son. I had no idea about any of this. There’s so much I don’t know.

‘The Indomitable Miss Pink’ by Julie Marcus

2002 first edition NSW Press; 2005, 2nd edition Paul Fitzsimons , 305 p.

When Miss Olive Pink was commemorated among 200 Remarkable Territorians in a bicentennial mosaic in Darwin, her tile read ‘Olive Pink – Eccentric’. Her niece, Dame Phyllis Frost, was shocked to see her aunt memorialized in this way and arranged to have it replaced with a new tile reading ‘Olive Pink- Anthropologist’. But as Julie Marcus shows us through this biography, Olive Pink was indeed both an anthropologist and an eccentric, although the latter has tended to overshadow the former in popular memory.

For remembered she is, both in the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens and by people who knew her, both indigenous and European. She is spoken of as a tall, erect woman, dressed in white, with a long skirt and parasol. Neighbours and little children remembered her derelict hut with its idiosyncratic ‘museum’ and a straggly garden where she grew flowers for sale. Pastoralists saw her, and her activities, as a threat to their leases. Arrernte and Warlpiri had their own stories of Olive Pink from the time that she lived amongst them in the 1930s and 1940s, learning their language and customs. Bureaucrats and public officers had their own Olive Pink stories when they were on the receiving end of her remonstrations, delivered in person face-to-face or through long, underlined, parenthesized letters.

Olive Muriel Pink was born in Tasmania in 1884. She never married (although there was a story that ‘her very dear friend’ died at Gallipoli). After training in art both in Hobart and in Sydney, she was employed as a tracer in the drafting department of the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways. In 1926, at the age of 42 she took advantage of her staff discount on the railways to travel to Ooldea, South Australia where she visited Daisy Bates. It changed her life. Like Daisy Bates, she was drawn back to outback Australia (in Olive’s case, in the Northern Territory) and studied and lived with indigenous tribes until 1946. In appearance and clothing the two women were not unalike, and both lived in harsh, austere conditions.

Olive Pink’s attitudes towards her indigenous friends – and I certainly think that she would have perceived them as friends – sit uneasily with us today. Her concern was solely for the “full-bloods”, a typology that we find uncomfortable, and she had little time for “half-bloods”. She used her considerable presence, which both intimidated and wore down her advocates as well as her enemies, to agitate for land rights for “full bloods”. She wanted land set aside, with no missionary involvement, with full ownership of minerals, water and the economic resources that attached to the land. She was critical of both missionaries and anthropologists who, in her view, manipulated and betrayed the tribes that they came into contact with, especially in relation to secret business. She opposed civil rights for ‘full-bloods’, because that would render them accountable under white-man’s law.

She fought with nearly everyone. She would gain the support of a person, only to harangue them with long, discursive, underlined letters until they either gave in or gave up. She battled against the competitive possessiveness of male anthropologists (although she was not beyond competitive possessiveness herself, either) and Theodor Strehlow was her particular adversary. She befriended A.P. Elkin, who despite provocation, remained her advocate with the anthropological community generally. She cajoled and alienated members of both the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, and the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. Her formal training in anthropology was not extensive, and she needed to publish and speak at conferences to maintain her professional credibility. She was not always politic in what she chose to speak about, amongst ‘colleagues’ who barely accepted her.

She was not a rich woman, and for the early years of her career, when she was already a middle-aged woman, she had to move back and forth to Sydney to earn enough money to return to the outback. She needed all of Elkin’s support to obtain Australian National Research Council grants, which she eked out with her own finances and small donations from the Quakers and the Sheetmetal Workers Union, to buy food and supplies to support her research. Meanwhile other male anthropologists, with more secure reputations, research resources and qualifications, were circling. She was granted access to descriptions of secret rituals, which other anthropologists craved, but she refused to divulge her information because she had given her word that she would not. Not all other anthropologists were so honorable.

By 1946 she finally achieved a lease to develop a ‘secular sanctuary’, but it did not last for long. Drought, lack of money, and a bashing by a young Warlpiri man when she refused his demands for food forced her back into Alice Springs. By now destitute and 62 years old, she lived in a corrugated iron hut on Gregory Terrace, selling flowers and fruit from her garden and working as a cleaner in the local courthouse, where she monitored cases when Aboriginal defendants appeared before the court – an assistance that was often unwelcomed by the police and court officials. After losing her job at the court, she set up a museum in one end of her hut, until a quarrel with the fire station next door, a courtcase for assault, and the firing of her hut led her to shift again, this time to a tent. She lived under canvas until she moved to a small plot of land where she established, with the assistance of the Minister for Territories, Sir Paul Hasluck, the garden which bears her name. Hasluck, who was often on the receiving end of her denunciations as well, encouraged her to accept a stipend for curating the garden which just happened to be of the same value as the old age pension that she spurned. She died in 1975.

The book progresses chronologically, and draws heavily on Pink’s voluminous and lengthy correspondence. In both the introduction and the conclusion, Marcus discusses the mythologizing of Olive Pink, but the majority of the book is very grounded in Pink’s sheer hard work and determination.

Marcus has to tread a narrow line with this book, and she does it well. She clearly admires the moral clarity of Olive Pink, even if she distances herself from the racialised language in which it is expressed. She is well aware of Pink’s prickliness, stubborness and emotional stupidity, but there is a swell of respect for her grit and resilience – a much over-used word today, but completely appropriate for Olive Pink.

And that tile in the Darwin park? Well, after reading this book, I think that the tile should have read ‘anthropologist and eccentric.’

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: a friend of a friend. This is the second edition of the book, published by Paul Fitzsimons in Alice Springs,even though the original edition was published by UNSW Press.

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

Moocing-around a bit more

Well, we’ve finally been released out of lockdown, but I still had a Future Learn course that I had enrolled in that I wanted to finish. It’s called History of Slavery in the British Caribbean, and it was presented by both the University of the West Indies and the University of Glasgow (fitting, because there were many Scottish plantation owners). It was very good. I looked at slavery in the British Caribbean – particularly in British Guiana – for my thesis, and I learned a lot from the course. The course was produced in 2020 so it was brought right up to date with the recent Windrush scandal in the UK, Black Lives Matter and COVID. I hadn’t thought about the significance of language: ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’. Well worth doing

And speaking of slavery, I also watched a webinar produced by the History Council of South Australia called Pre- and Early-Colonial South Australia’s Slavery Connections. There were three speakers: Cameron Coventry, Philip Jones (author of Ochre and Rust, which I must read some day) and librarian Beth Robertson who’ wrote the book’ on Oral History and has been undertaking her own family history. It hadn’t occurred to me that the compensation payments for slave-holders (not the slaves, mind you, only their former owners) hit the pockets of British investors at much the same time as South Australia was established. The speakers concentrated on British MP Raikes Currey, who provided much of the funding behind the South Australian Company from his family slaveholdings; George Fife Angas whose family traded in mahogany from British Honduras and who agitated for the release of indigenous enslaved in Honduras but not enslaved Africans; and Edward Stirling, born on a Jamaican slave plantation to a woman of culture, even though it was not spoken of. It will be online at some stage, I believe.

One of the good things about lockdown is that I have ‘attended’ many more webinars, book launches, discussions etc. than I would have normally. I hope that an online ‘presence’ at such events remains a possibility in the future.

Movie: Brazen Hussies

Yes! A movie! The first since March 2020!

Actually, the movie theatres have been open for a couple of weeks, but I felt apprehensive about sitting in a theatre in the dark with other people who were all BREATHING. I made up my mind on Saturday that I would go to see this on Monday, only to learn on Sunday that it was no longer compulsory to wear a mask in a theatre. What to do?

Well, I went to Palace Westgarth and I was one of about ten people in a theatre that would probably seat 100. Certainly a movie like Brazen Hussies, about the Australian women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s, attracts an audience of 60+ year old women and so there we all were, without being told to do so, sitting there with our masks on. I obviously wasn’t the only one who thought “too soon” when the order to wear a mask inside was lifted.

Having just read Michelle Arrow’s The Seventies, this felt like the documentary version of her book. It covers very much the same territory, making the same arguments. It was rather bracing seeing fresh faced, earnest young women in the 1960s being interviewed as craggier, wiser, – and let’s face it – old women in this recently filmed documentary. I have not previously thought of Marcia Langdon as “mellowed” but she was certainly a firebrand in the 1960s. Elizabeth Reid was measured and graceful both then and now. Many of the names and even the faces were familiar to me from their later lives (Sara Dowse, Biff Ward, Pat O’Shane, Eva Cox) but I didn’t have a mental ‘face’ to place on their names back in the 1960s. And..oh…the patronizing, arrogant smugness of young men interviewed at the time, and the the media commentary. It was reassuring to see footage of a recent protest and to realize that, in spite of the ever-present threat of roll-backs, the fight still continues.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 December 2020

The History Listen (ABC). So- a proposal for a coal mine on the coast, to be constructed by a foreign-owned company, and the community and environmentalists outraged. Does this sound familiar? No- it’s not Adani, but instead the Clutha mine that was proposed on the Illawarra escarpment in 1970. The plan was that the coal would be mined, put on conveyor belts down the escarpment to ships waiting at newly-constructed docks on the waterfront. This program Clutha 1970- the biggest battle over coal you’ve never heard of tells how local activists gained the support of politicians on both sides, unionists, lifesavers and the community to stop this going ahead.

Rear Vision (ABC) It looks as if we’re getting to the sticky end of the Brexit arrangements. EU and Brexit – the view from the continent gives a good summary of the Brexit saga. In a way, it has all been pushed off stage with COVID, migration and far-right Eastern European politics. What a self-imposed mess.

I didn’t end up travelling to South America this year, and I can’t see much possibility of doing so next year either. Mass tourism – how everyone became a traveller discusses the history of mass tourism from the Great Tour of the 18th century, the post WWI British holiday camp (what a dreary prospect), post WW2 American driving holidays and the mass tourism that has ruined Venice, Barcelona etc. They end up with a prediction that in a few years, tourism will be 50% more expensive than it was pre-COVID and suggest that perhaps that’s a good thing. Hmmm.

Nothing on TV Well, the smell of the dead rat in the wall of Robyn Annear’s house has cleared, and she comes to us with another of her delightful episodes about Australian history, drawn from newspaper columns via Trove. In The Hatpin Menace, she explores the international public furore over the hatpins that women used to tether their ‘Merry Widow’ Hats (which could measure 2 ft or 60 cms across). These hats had very wide brings- Robyn likens it to wearing a stockpot on your head! – but women used Gibson Girl hairstyles and false hairpieces to bouff out their hair so that the hat fitted. The hatpins, required to hold the hat onto the whole confection were about 30 cm. long. Men fulminated about the perils of the hatpin on public transport; sometimes hatpins were used as weapons; other times women held their hatpins as a form of reassurance (like the way women hold their car keys on a dark night, I suppose). It’s a funny episode and I’m pleased to say that Melbourne was the last Australian city to pass laws against them.

The Documentary (BBC) The episode The Mapuche: fighting for their right to heal investigates the fight by the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile, for recognition of their traditional healing and control of their own health service. I hadn’t realized that there was so many parallels with Australia: Chile is the only South American country that doesn’t recognize their indigenous people in their constitution (although that may change when Chile creates a new constitution in the coming years) and their language and practices were banned under Pinochet. Their land was appropriated and given to timber plantation companies and large agricultural firms, and there is currently a lot of unrest over land rights etc.

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

2016, 272 p.

This is the first book in a quartet of stories written in real-time. Written in 2016, and set in England after the Brexit vote, it moves back and forwards in time as Elizabeth, a 32-year-old junior lecturer in Art History at a London University, visits her elderly neighbour (very elderly- 101!) Daniel Gluck as he lies dying in hospital. She had always been close to Daniel, who recognized her intelligence and sensitivity, even though her mother disapproved of the relationship because she assumed that he was gay. It was Daniel who introduced her to the works of the real-life 1960s British Pop artist Pauline Boty, who died in 1966 at the age of 28, with her works unrecognized for many years. The story alternates between Daniel’s prolonged dreams as he drifts towards death, and Elizabeth’s memories of her childhood with this kind neighbour who opened up the world for her.

The book reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in its quotidian Englishness. As with Woolf, Smith reveals her strong narrative muscles in what seems a simple story in which little happens. The pettiness of bureaucracy and the barely-disguised boorishness of the Brexit vote, the threadbare nature of casualized work, exist alongside a reflection on how hard it is to really live, and how hard it is to die, too.

I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series too. I love the idea that they are written in real-time as events are happening, with the author just as oblivious to their meaning and significance as her characters are. And boy, can she write! It’s confident, masterly writing, in a short book with little actual plot, that makes me realize how much of what I read is neither confident nor masterly.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library