Movie: Vice

There isn’t a moment in this movie when you don’t believe that you’re looking at Dick Cheney.  Where’s Batman in this jowly, stolid man? The really frightening thing is that the philosophy of Presidential and Vice Presidential power that Cheney leveraged hasn’t been changed. And look at who are in the White House now – I am just as apprehensive about Pence as I am about Trump-  operating from the same principles….

My rating: 4/5

‘One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria’ by Aeneas Macdonald

1937,  179 p.

I warned you. Yet another commissioned history of the Presbyterian Church, this time to celebrate 100 years since the Rev. James Clow held the first Presbyterian service in Geelong in late 1837. He was in Melbourne to check out the opportunities to set himself up as a landowner: indeed, he bought up big during the November 1837 land sale, purchasing four half-acre blocks on the south-west corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets.  His wife and family arrived on Christmas Day 1837 from Hobart. He started his work as a Presbyterian minister informally, encouraging Presbyterians to set up congregations and preaching on Sunday afternoons.

This centenary history covers much the same material as the other histories of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria that I have read. Macdonald is a more lively writer, however, and more attuned to other social and economic events outside the Church.  As it was written post-WWI, he incorporates an assessment of the churches’ cheerleading role during the war, which he admits has changed in the twenty years since then.

He spends two chapters on the Charles Strong controversy in 1883, regretting that

It was the misfortune of Dr Strong and of our Victorian Church that they ever came together, and especially that they came together when they did…In a later generation the story might have told itself in different words and worked itself to a different conclusion (p. 135)

Even writing fifty years later about Charles Strong, Minister of one of the largest and most popular churches in Melbourne, who split from the Presbyterian Church and started his own Australian Church, Macdonald admits that the written record is not sufficient:

The relevant minutes and documents of church courts, the columns of contemporary newspapers and the reminiscences of the few survivors have given us the groundwork of our narrative. On these, too, have been founded such comments as have been made. But had we been able not only to evoke the sequence of events as each arrived, as we have tried to do, but also to show each against the full colour of the background, we might have felt constrained to tell our story differently. That background has now faded completely from the canvas, but then it played what was sometimes a major part in leading men on that side and on this to act as they did and to determine as they did. With it before us what perplexes us now might perplex us no longer; what seems to demand our sympathy might be seen to deserve it not at all. (p. 137)

Ah, welcome to the historian’s world, Rev Macdonald, instead of the world of the chronicler!

In talking about the Church’s shift to social, as distinct from purely theological activity, he talks about Selina Sutherland, the child welfare reformer, who fell out with the Presbyterian Church over its attempt to restrict its welfare to Presbyterian children only. The former Sutherland Childrens Home in Diamond Creek is quite close to where I live, and it had never occurred to me to wonder what it was named after.

He also tells about the Rev P. J. Murdoch, the clerk of the Presbytery of Melbourne South, who was jailed in 1909 for contempt of court  for refusing to hand over a document to Mr Justice Hodges in the Victorian courts. It evoked all the questions of State Vs. Presbyterian court rights which had prompted the Great Disruption in Scotland,  and flowed through Presbyterian churches all over the world. Obviously the question hadn’t been completely resolved in 1909, and indeed there are shades of it still in the churches’ responses to the  Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this very year. In a rather chilling final sentence in this chapter that foreshadows the fight again Hitler, he writes from his 1937 perspective:

…the division between the things of Caesar and the things of God has not yet been clearly and finally made. It is conceivable that we might yet have to fight again along that frontier even as the Confessional Churches are having to do in Germany to-day. (p.169)

So- now I’ve read all the ‘official histories’ that I can find about the early Presbyterian Church in Melbourne. Next stop- Malcolm Wood’s history which the blurb tells me is written from a “secular, critical perspective”. I must say that I welcome that. I think I’ve had enough commemorative histories by true believers.

‘The Presbyterian Church of Victoria: Growth in Fifty Years 1859-1909’ by D. Macrae Stewart

PresJubilee

1909, 129 p.

This book was written to celebrate the golden anniversary of the creation of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1859, combining the Synod of Victoria, the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria and the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church of Victoria. There was one section of the United Presbyterians who didn’t join until after 1870, but in terms of golden jubilees, 1859 was the date. (Mind you, the earlier book I read about Presbyterianism in Victoria dated the coming together of different strands of Presbyterianism to 1867 instead.)

Written as a celebration publication, the text is laid out quite beautifully, with red margins and decorated inhabited initials to mark the start of each chapter. Stewart has used a planting metaphor to organize his chapters, which are titled ‘Seed’ ‘Stem’ ‘Branching’ ‘Pruning and Grafting’ etc.

As this book goes up to 1909, it covers the Charles Strong controversy of the 1880s, which of course had not occurred with Sutherland published his earlier history of the Presbyterian Church in 1877. Charles Strong, who had been the pastor of Scot’s Church in Melbourne (probably the premier Presbyterian church in Melbourne)became the first minister of  the Australian Church in 1885 after being charged with  promulgating unsound and heretical doctrine and resigning his position from Scots Church.  I think that if I’d been alive at the time, I would have been attracted to the Australian Church.

the australian church.

The Australian Church at the eastern end of Flinders Street (near Spring Street). It seated 1200 and opened in 1887 but the Church shifted to more economical premises in 1922. The Australian Church was finally dissolved in 1957. From the Australasian Sketcher. SLV http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/258170

The book has several plates showing prominent churchmen, mainly of the past but with some contemporary men (in 1909) as well. So many beards!  There are few mentions of women, but there is a section on the Presbyterian Mission Womens Union, famous for its cookbook. I only now realize that I always called it the PMWU rather than PWMU.

The book is curiously silent about the 1890s depression. Perhaps in 1909 it was too soon to discuss such things.

 

‘The History of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’ by Rev. Robert Sutherland

1877, 516p.

“Why on earth is she reading this?” you may ask. It’s the first of a few books that I’ll be reading over the next month about the Presbyterian Church and Scots immigration to Victoria, in preparation for an exhibition that Heidelberg Historical Society will be putting on later in 2019.

This book was published in 1877. At the time, it would have been very current as it covers the time “from the foundation of the colony down to the abolition of State Aid in 1875”.  It is steeped in the Presbyterian attitudes of the time in relation to Sunday observance and temperance, and many of the ministers of whom Sutherland writes in a historical sense were still alive (and no doubt, readers of his book) when it was published.  He is careful to note the illustrious sons – always sons- of early ministers of the church who became wealthy contributors to the Presbyterian church and/or members of the Legislative Council of state Parliament. Being an MLC was obviously the ultimate form of success.

In Chapter 1, several women are named. The first is Mrs Turnbull, who was a friend of Rev James Forbes, the first Presbyterian minister appointed to Port Phillip. Mrs Turnbull was

a lady of vigorous understanding, of religious character, and thoroughly acquainted with business. She fully returned to the minister as much information as she received from him, and they were both mutually edified (p. 14)

Then there was Mrs Cumming, whose husband was a fellow-countryman of Rev Forbes:

After speaking a few words with Mr Cumming, the conversation was afterwards principally engrossed by Mrs Cumming, who was a lady fully equal in mental powers to Mrs Turnbull, and of as much firmness. (p. 14)

Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcombe of Geelong get a mention too. “That’s a good start!” I thought.  Unfortunately, after Chapter 1 there are no other women at all in this book, which seems quite amazing, given the emphasis on family in 19th century Christianity.

The attitudes towards aboriginal people are of their time. Given recent research on indigenous land practices described by Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu, this description of Rev. Clow’s journey to Port Phillip in 1837 is rather discordant:

Moving slowly along the windings of the Yarra Yarra, he saw its broad meadows covered with sterility under the gaze of savagedom, but soon to be clothed with fertility by the hand of civilization (p.10)

In speaking of missions to indigenous people, Sutherland subscribes to a view that Australian aborigines had descended (in both senses) from races with a highly developed civilization. Although now debased, it was felt that on the basis of their complexity of language and marriage practices, there must have been a more sophisticated earlier culture. He supposed that

It is most likely that the aboriginal settlers of Australia were of the poorer classes, who had drifted to the land, in consequence of having lost their way at sea. (p. 424)

Much of the book deals with the Australian replication of the Great Disruption that occurred within the Church of Scotland in 1843.  Just as in Scotland, the Victorian Presbyterian church split: one group adhering to the Established Church of Scotland, another to the Free Church of Scotland and a third distinguishing itself from the other two by eschewing any government financial aid. There are pages and pages of letters and resolutions going one way and then the other.  It seemed as if the schism was about to be resolved in 1855 but no – it all blew up again until 1867 when finally union was achieved (well, nearly completely).  In 1870 when State Aid to churches was discontinued, there was another gathering-in of Presbyterians.  I’ve heard talk of “stiff-necked Presbyterians” and it’s certainly an apt description of these disputes.

There’s much talk of church buildings, particularly in rural areas. In the late 1860s and early 1870s covered by the book, many suburban churches were rebuilt, replacing the earlier wooden buildings that had first been constructed. I was interested to read of St Enoch’s in Collins Street, directly across the road from the current Scots Church. During the schism St Enoch’s was part of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland bloc, whereas Scots’ Church was aligned the Established Church of Scotland group.

St. Enochs United Presbyterian Church 96 Collins Street East Melbourne

St Enoch’s 1864. State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/403500

St. Enoch’s was built in 1851 and renovated and enlarged in 1864. Once the different branches of the Presbyterian Church re-united in 1867 there was little need for two large Presbyterian Churches directly across the road from each other, so it was turned into an Assembly Hall instead. It was demolished in 1911 and replaced by The Auditorium, while a new Assembly Hall was built on the Scots Church side of Collins Street.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Valley at the Centre of the World’ by Malachy Tallack

tallach

2018, 352p.

I can’t remember quite why I borrowed this book when I saw it on the ‘New Books’ shelf at the library. Perhaps I’d heard good reviews of it or maybe it was its setting in Shetland that attracted me. I enjoy Shetlands on the ABC and I heard a cracking interview with the author of Vera and Shetlands, Anne Cleeves. What ever drew me to it, it’s a beautiful book that I almost didn’t want to end. It surprises me that the author is a young man. The book felt as if it were written by an older person (think, perhaps Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead or perhaps Elizabeth Strout’s work) in terms of its treatment of the relationships between people, infused with a sensitivity to place and space.

The Valley at the centre of the world is exactly that – a single valley with just five houses clinging to The Road that runs above and parallel to ‘The Burn’, the waterway that runs to the sea. The use of ‘The’ is intentional: there is only one. In its harsh but beautiful isolation, there is a timelessness about The Valley, although people are coming and going. Older man David has lived there all his life, as did his father and grandfather before him. Although he does not consciously think of it this way, he owns the valley.  His wife Mary, came there thirty years ago and their daughters Kate and Emma have both shifted away.  Sandy, a newcomer, was their daughter Emma’s partner and came back with her to the Valley but the relationship has broken up. He stayed on when Emma left, and with a respectful relationship to his inlaws (do you have inlaws if you’re not married?) and now landlords, he takes over the cottage and croft left vacant when Maggie, a very old inhabitant dies. There is Terry, a morose alcoholic single father, and Jo and Ryan, who have shifted into the Red House from the city, with Ryan a go-getter spiv taking advantage of the cheap rent. Finally, there is Alice, a crime writer (who reminded me not a little of Anne Cleeves herself) who has moved to the valley after the death of her husband. She has decided, somewhat presumptuously I think, to write about the Valley and is particularly drawn to Maggie as a character, hoping to find some secret or depth about this woman who had spent her whole life in the Valley.

The book revolves around the lives of this small group of people, who each have their griefs and flaws. It is a slow book, just as life itself in The Valley is slow. Soap opera? Perhaps, but it’s soap opera written with insight and generosity.

What is striking is the use of dialect in the conversation. There’s a glossary at the front, but it’s more the sentence construction and small words that slows you down as a reader. I don’t subvocalise or even mentally vocalise when I read, so this was a strangely auditory reading experience for me.

I really loved this book, and didn’t want it to finish.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

Movie: The Favourite

What a hoot! The historical bio-pic is given an eccentric and irreverent treatment in The Favourite.  Set in the court of Queen Anne (i.e. 1702-1714) , it tells of the power struggle and changing dynamics between three female protagonists: Sarah Churchill the Duchess of Marlborough, Abigail Masham and Queen Anne herself. To be honest, I knew nothing about Queen Anne (except the furniture) and in this film she is ’embodied’  in the same way that the many depictions have ’embodied’ Henry VIII. It is often filmed through a warping fish-eye perspective, and the music is scratchy and discordant.  The humour, language and costumes are deliberately anachronistic. Olivia Colman is absolutely brilliant, with her face conveying myriad emotions, often within the one shot. I’m not absolutely convinced about the lesbianism – female friendships are notoriously hard to read, especially at a distance of 350 years – and I’m not sure about all these murder attempts. But, it seems that the basic facts of the story are accurate but fooled around with, very prettily and archly, for a 21st century audience.

My rating: 4/5

Looking forward: 2019

These are not resolutions- they’re challenges!

  1. To read twenty books in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019
  2. To read sixty books overall in my Goodreads challenge.
  3. To finally finish reading Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal in Spanish (it’s taken about six months so far)