‘Sweet Caress’ by William Boyd

2015, 464 p.


I must confess that the first thing I did after finishing this book was to jump onto Google to see if there ever was a female photographer called Amory Clay. That’s how convincing this book was, with its mixture of real characters and events. I couldn’t tell whether I had just read a fictionalized biography or whether the whole thing was Boyd’s creation- and it was the latter.

The book is two narratives. One is Amory’s journal from 1977 when she is living in a small cottage on the Scottish coastline, within sight of the Isle of Mull. She is widowed, her daughters have left home, she has retired from her career as photographer, and she is getting old. (Not that old- “only 70”, says she for whom 70 is not too far away!) The journal entries are not long, and are more a springboard to her memories, the other narrative, which flow more or less chronologically.

Amory was born on 7 March 1908, her father a writer, and the eldest of three children. Her sister Peggy was marked out early as a musical genius, her brother Alexander (Xan) was a strange, fey lad who collected guinea pigs but later had a career quite unheralded by his childhood. Her father went to World War I and returned mentally unstable. She was sent to boarding school, which she resented, as neither of her siblings were sent away, and she only later realized that there was a financial reason for her exile. On a vacation at home, her father tried to drive them both into a lake, an act that precipitated his committal to an asylum for many years and which, naturally enough, made Amory distrustful of her father and hurt by his heedlessness. If one wanted to play amateur psychiatrist, one could argue that this betrayal by her father shaped her rather distant relationships with men, who were either unavailable, in the case of the wealthy but married Cleve Finzi, or ambivalent in the case of Charbonneau. The pattern was broken when she married Sholto Farr, becoming Lady Farr, but this ended up in a betrayal of both her and her two daughters, of a different kind.

From her adolescence, encouraged by her uncle, she embarked on a career as a photographer which took her to Berlin, New York and Vietnam, ending finally in her cottage on the Scottish coast. The book is both a professional and personal biography. It is liberally interspersed (like a Sebald book) with black and white photographs, mostly taken by Amory. It was probably these photographs more than anything else that made me question whether this was a real autobiography or not. Quite frankly, they are very poor photographs, in no way reflective of a professional or artistic photographer. They are just like the Box Brownie photographs your Uncle Les might have taken in the 1950s.

The narrative of Amory’s life is told against a backdrop of real events and people, not in a Forrest Gump way, but as incidental background, off at an angle. This helps to add to the verisimilitude of the narrative by not straining the reader’s credulity by putting her into the centre of the action but forming a context for the places and situations in which she found herself. It only broke down for me in the last part of the book where it seemed that the author was grasping for a plot development that would encapsulate the 1970s and chose cult-behaviour in America. I don’t know if it was because the book was running out of steam, but this final phase of Amory’s life, where she tries to ‘rescue’ her daughter from the clutches of cult leader Tayborne Gaines, seemed rather melodramatic and superfluous.

I read this as a bookgroup read (in fact, I chose it on the basis of Restless which I very much enjoyed when I selected it as an earlier bookgroup read). Some of us felt rather uncomfortable that a male writer was writing from a female perspective, particularly in sex scenes. This didn’t worry me at all – I don’t like where you end up when you prohibit people from writing from anything other than their direct experience- and I thought that he wrote sex from a female perspective particularly well.

So did I feel cheated when I found that Amory Clay was a figment of William Boyd’s imagination? No, not at all. He did it well enough to make me wonder, and he created a credible female character against a backdrop of world events.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 September 2021

Background Briefing (ABC) When I went to the ABC website to get the link for Unmasking Monsters, there he was – Dr Bob Montgomery, just as I remember him. Handsome, a bit of a larrikin and supremely confident: he is certainly a fallen man now, imprisoned for four years for historical sex abuse charges. He was my 1st Year psychology lecturer, I attended his ‘sex’ classes (which I must admit taught me more about sex than any other source of information), and I remember discussing the Milgram experiment, although I can’t recall if I actually participated. I’m not completely surprised by this podcast, although I didn’t realize that he was so brazen.

The History of Rome Podcast In Episode 34 No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy Sulla comes back into Rome, and the nobles who had previously backed Marius began changing sides. That didn’t stop Sulla from putting 1500 of them onto a death list, ending up with about 9000 deaths. He had himself made Dictator, not just for a 6 month stint, but for life. There goes another Roman Republic principle. He was a conservative, and wanted to put an end to the populism that the Gracchus brothers had ushered in. He put all sorts of obstacles of age, career path, enforced breaks in the provinces etc. to make sure that there was no quick route to the Consulship, and then he retired. But all his changes were overruled anyway. Episode 35 Crassus and Pompey introduces two of the men who will later form a triumvirate with Julius Caesar. Crassus was really rich and Pompey was a golden general who just had good fortune fall in his lap. He was very ambitious, and determined to circumvent all Sulla’s plans to stop ambitious men. Episode 36 I am Spartacus introduces Spartacus. Confession here- I have never seen the Spartacus movie. In fact, I wasn’t really sure who he was. He was a slave gladiator at the gladiator school at Capua, and in 73BC broke out with 70 other slaves, was joined with others to make 7000 and ended up with perhaps 70,000 other slaves (although these numbers are pretty dodgy). He and his troops headed south, wanting to go to Sicily, but he was betrayed by pirates. They were defeated by Crassus, who saw this as a route to the Consulship. A small group escaped, and they were overcome by Pompey, who took all the credit. In Episode 37 Go East Young Man Pompey cleaned up all the pirates in the Mediterranean and polished off Mithridates for good. While he was in the neighbourhood, he marched on Jerusalem, where two Jewish families were fighting each other, made sure that his favoured family won, and then went home. The Roman Empire now stretched from Gibraltar to Jerusalem. Episode 38 The Catiline Conspiracy reinforces that by the 1st Century BC, the example of Marius and Sulla had reinforced that power came from the sword. Cataline came from an aristocratic family that hadn’t done anything for 300 years, combining entitlement and ambition. In 73 BC he was accused of adultery with a vestal virgin but was acquitted, probably because of dodgy dealings. In 63 BC he conspired to overthrow the Roman government but was stopped by Rome’s greatest politician and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. He ended up in exile and was killed. Having seen with Sulla the potential power of a returning general, Cicero wanted to clean up domestic politics in Rome before Pompey got back.

History Hit- The Ancients. Enough of all this Roman fighting! How about some sex instead? This episode Sex in Ancient Rome features L.J. Trafford, the author of the upcoming book Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome. Of course, the written sources that have come down to us are all written by men, and if their reporting on war and slaughter is anything to go by, not very reliable. However, penis sculptures and drawings seem to be everywhere throughout the empire, and sex was often the source of humour. There were strict rules about who could sleep with whom, especially under Augustus who yearned for a simpler, more honourable Roman past. She deals with adultery, contraception, prostitution etc. but mainly emphasizes how hard it is for us to enter into their pre-Christian mentality about sex.

And speaking of Spartacus, Spartacus Life or Legend has an Australian historian Dr Fiona Radford who studied the Kirk Douglas movie (which I haven’t seen) and the historic sources for her Ph.D. She’s very enthusiastic about the movie, which was produced during the Cold War competing with Ben Hur and another Spartacus movie being produced at the time. She points out that Spartacus has been picked up by multiple political movements since the enlightenment- the French Revolution, the Risorgimento in Italy in the 19th century, and the Spartacus League with Rosa Luxemburg Post WWI.

Blindspot: The Road to 9/11 Being the 20th anniversary, 9/11 is everywhere. Episode 1 The Bullet starts in an unusual place: in a Midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom where the radical, anti-Muslim Jewish rabbi Meir Kahane is assassinated by El-Sayyid Nosair who had become radicalized at a Brooklyn mosque.

New York Times: The Daily Journalist Dan Barry reads his article “What Does it Mean to ‘Never Forget’?” This essay explores the nature of memory during trauma. Interesting that graduate students who interviewed people in the days immediately following 9/11 found that when they re-interviewed their informants a year later, 40% had changed their memories of where they were and how they learned about the Twin Towers.

History Extra As a Good Unitarian Girl, I’m always delighted to hear podcasts about 19th century Unitarians. In this podcast Wedgwood: The Radical Potter Tristram Hunt, author of The Radical Potter discusses the business and politics of Josiah Wedgwood. I bet you never thought ‘Josiah Wedgwood’ and ‘Steve Jobs’ could go in the same sentence! Another book to add to the burgeoning To Be Read list.

‘The Republic of False Truths’ by Alaa Al Aswany

2021, 464 p.

At the start of this year there were quite a few ‘Ten Years On’ -type programs looking back at the Arab Spring that swept across different Middle Eastern countries, reaching its high point with the fall of Muburak in Egypt in 2011. To be honest, I’m no longer clear in my own mind about what happened when and where and why. That’s where fiction, or a well-chosen journalistic non-fiction piece can come in, by humanizing and locating, at a small scale, those huge crowds that seem indistinguishable from each other on the nightly news.

Alaa Al Aswany makes no secret of his politics in this fictionalized account of the January 2011 uprising. He was there himself, and he was one of the organizers of the Enough! group that is mentioned in this book. He presents a group of alternating characters who represent different groups in Egyptian society who participated in different degrees to the uprising or its suppression. There is the devout General Alwany whose morning ritual is prayer, sex with his wife, then off to the office for some torture of political prisoners. His defiant daughter Danya is drawn into the protests and witnesses her friend Khaled shot by the military at point-blank range. Ashraf Wiffa is a dope-smoking failed actor who pursues an affair with his maid, only to find himself falling in love with her and increasingly involved with the protestors, to the disgust of his estranged wife Magda. The love affair of Asmaa, a teacher at a corrupt school, and Mazen, the son of a political prisoner and union organizer at a cement factory, is carried out mainly through letters. Nourhan is a television presenter who becomes the mouthpiece of the military forces, accruing more and more power as she uses her contacts to force a divorce from her former lover Essam, the manager at the aforementioned cement factory.

The narrative cycles between these different characters and different segments of Egyptian society: army, media, business, university. I often find that with a revolving cast of characters like this, I get confused between who is who and what they are up to. However, Al Aswany stayed with them long enough, particularly at the start of the book, to embed them in the reader’s consciousness as individual characters. However, as the book went on, the episodes became shorter. I use the word ‘episodes’ deliberately, because this is what they felt like: episodes in an afternoon soap-opera, with a cliff-hanger at the end before launching off into the next character. For me, this soap-opera feeling detracted from the novel and made it feel ‘junkier’ than it otherwise would have. I can’t help feeling that the characters were stereotyped (the army general, the maid, the idealistic young female student), with an almost Philip Roth-like emphasis on male sex.

I haven’t read any other books about the Arab Spring, and indeed this book is still banned in Egypt – a fact that speaks to its authenticity, I would say. However, there is a sameness about books about revolutions – I’m thinking of several South American books I have read, books set in the French Revolution, Nino Haratischvili The Eighth Life (for Brika) – as idealism gets swallowed up into betrayal, the torture becomes more vindictive and untrammeled, and the army and police embed themselves more deeply. This inexorable cycle is why books like this are important: to remind us that within the bigger historical forces, there are people who love, who wrestle with their consciences, who make decisions and live and die with the consequences.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 September 2021

The History of Rome Podcast Well, I had hoped that I had got past all the war and fighting, but not so it seems. Episode 28 Taking Stock gave me hope of a more social approach. He points out that what had held Roman society together had been the unity of the elites, and economic conditions for the everyday Roman being benign enough that there would be no unrest from below. But with the increased wealth flowing into Rome from elites stationed in the colonies, and the influx of slaves brought in to Rome by these same elites, many landowners lost their land and flowed into the cities as a discontented landless populace. Episode 29 Tiberius Gracchus introduces the populist Tiberius, Tribune of the Plebs in 133BC. Banking on the support of this large landless segment, he proposed agrarian reform which was strongly opposed by the Senate. To get the legislation passed, he sacked the other Tribune Marcus Octavius and brought Roman commerce and society to a standstill. Even though the Romans had instituted single-term Tribuneships, Tiberius stood for a second term but he got killed in a riot instead. Ten years later Tiberius’ younger brother became Tribune too Episode 30 Gaius Gracchus and HE managed to get a second term. Gaius went even further than his brother in social reforms, including food distribution to the poor and popular army reforms. The Senate turned on him too, and he committed suicide with the aid of his faithful slave in a murder-suicide pact. Episodes 31a and 31b introduce Gaius Marius who became Consul SEVEN times (so much for one-term positions!). He was known as a ‘new man’ because his family was not part of the ruling elite (although he married into it). He came up through the army and by now external wars were brewing again. He reformed the Roman Legion’s fighting strategy – a brave move given how successful it had been. He got his soldiers to carry all their equipment to toughen them up before battle, leading to them being disparaged as “Marius’ mules” (until they won). Episode 32 The Social War sees the former Italian allies rising up because they wanted (and were denied) Roman citizenship. The Samnites, who had been discontented ever since the Third Samnite War, and the Marsi led a revolt over 4 years, but the Romans ‘bought off’ the support of the other Italian allies by giving Roman citizenship to the peoples and cities who remained loyal or surrendered to Rome. By 87 BC Roman victory meant that all of the Italian boot (although not the islands) was Romanized. In Episode 33 Marius and Sulla we see the Romans turning on themselves with Sulla marching on Rome not once but twice. Sulla had served under Marius, and brought the Social War to an end. He then headed off to fight Mithridates in the Hellenic States, and then fought in Anatolia. In the meantime, Marius was serving his 7th stint as Consul, and Cinna was enjoying his 4th, and they ganged up together to exile Sulla. Once he finished fighting, Sulla headed towards Rome for the second time.

God Forbid (ABC) The episode Examining Fringe Beliefs features two journalists who podcast about sects and conspiracy theories, and a Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. One thing that I took from this podcast was that we can look at the way that fringe groups treat those who do not follow their beliefs. I think of shunning, calling people ‘sheeple’, proselytising, damning to hell. How do I, as a Unitarian, respond to beliefs that I see as ‘fringe’? Quite a challenge.

Rear Vision (ABC) The episode Afghanistan- the land of failed invasion was first aired in November 2006, but it holds up well fifteen years later. It describes the various occupations by the British, Soviets and Americans over the past 200 years (in fact, there were five invasions) and highlights the importance of Pakistan in the analysis of the Soviet invasion.

The History Listen (ABC) I was so discouraged and angry after listening to Seachange: 20 years on from the Tampa Affair. Twenty #@** years. Listening to Ruddock et al fudging on facts when it didn’t suit their narrative, listening to Beazley’s discouragement when he realized the electoral implications, and the thought that the “never by boat” mantra is still affecting people’s lives today.

‘The Most I Could Be’ by Dale Kent

2021, 456 p

The name ‘Dale Kent’ seemed familiar. At first I thought that she might be an expatriate feminist that I had heard of sometime, but on learning more about this book I realized with a little jolt of recognition that I had been one of her undergraduate students at La Trobe University.

It was back in 1976 and I did two half-units of Renaissance History- one on Florence and the Italian Renaissance, the other on Medieval Italian Communes. To be honest, I have little memory of the content, but I do remember seminars in the rather-pretentiously named West Peribolos building, with the west summer sun slanting through the edges of the holland blinds drawn against the narrow full-length windows at afternoon seminars. I remember Dale Kent who struck me at the time as quite beautiful, vivacious, theatrical and rather awe-inducing, and I regretted that I did not have her as my tutor, having instead an M. Billington of whom I have no memory at all (I had to consult an essay I had kept from the subject, to find out her name). So I was attracted to this book because, not only is La Trobe “my” university but I expected that, as a historian, she would structure a good memoir. After all, Inga Clendinnen who was a colleague of Kent’s at La Trobe at the time, wrote Tiger’s Eye, one of the best memoirs I have ever read (see my review here) and I hoped that this might be similar.

For me, a memoir is a creative re-construction of a life structured and shaped around a motif. Despite the phrase ‘the most I could be’ which was repeated both as boast and self-exculpation in several places, this is pretty much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end sort of autobiography. At the end of the book she says “As a historian, I have kept the record” (p. 406) and this is the way that it read: as an act of recording rather than creating. I admit to being disappointed.

I found myself wondering who might be the intended audience for this book, beyond other historians (many of whom may be checking the index, because in all but one case she uses the full names of her colleagues). The history field in Melbourne is not large, and there were many familiar names. Her area of expertise was patronage during the Renaissance, with a particular focus on the Medici family. Certainly she led what now seems like a charmed academic life: scholarships to undertake her PhD at Oxford University, positions at Berkeley and Princeton, sufficient tenure at admittedly lower tier universities that nonetheless provided a salary and sabbatical and other leave to travel to conduct her research in Italy; and a string of prestigious just-in-time fellowships and projects that sustained a career of over 20 years in America.

All this was a long way from her childhood in Moonee Ponds, East St. Kilda and then Caulfield, as the daughter of Christian Scientist parents. Her father was an engineer, while her mother had left school early. Her working-class grandparents, Nell and Horrie came from Footscray. She was overweight (something that is hard to believe because she is absolutely beautiful in the photographs included in the book), she wet the bed as a child and had few friends at school. A whole new world opened up for her when she enrolled at Melbourne University, and she left Christian Science behind. She met her husband, Bill, who shared her academic interest in Renaissance Italy, and they built their careers together. As a young mother herself, at the age of thirty, she decided to ‘divorce’ her parents because they were too intrusive, and eventually left her husband Bill too, and embarked on her peripatetic international academic career. Her relationship with her only daughter was the price, and one that I hope has not been inflated by the publication of this book. Ironically, her comment about why she ‘divorced’ her parents – “they didn’t love me enough to make the slightest adjustment of their expectations to my needs, so that we could continue to be part of each other’s lives” (p.156)- could conceivably be said by her own daughter about her.

This is a long autobiography at over 400 pages, and it is very detailed, especially when it came to describing the clothes she wore and the food she ate (something that I usually view as the kiss of death for an autobiography/memoir). There were some small factual details that I found myself eying rather skeptically. A Unitarian Church in Collins Street ?(Uniting Church, yes, but not Unitarian). Flamingos in the lake at La Trobe University? (geese, ibis yes, herons maybe, but not flamingos). Small details, I know, but I wonder how many others there were that passed me by.

She is laceratingly honest about herself, her sexual neediness, her alcoholism. I was drawn to keep reading the book, but it was almost as if I was reading with my fingers over my eyes, apprehensive over what she was going to do or reveal next. Too much sex, too many unavailable or unsuitable men, heedlessness to boundaries, a sense of grievance, a quixotic and unrealistic search for a ‘soulmate’, a bewildering lack of insight – why would she want to publish this, thus inviting her readers to sit in judgment on her? There have been quite enough other people doing that : her colleagues, her ex-husband, her daughter, friends who eventually tired of having her sobbing on the telephone to them. She is speaking and telling her story, but it is not hard to see her through others’ eyes. The mismatch between the professional and the personal is stark.

I was interested in her early life, and the effect of her family’s Christian Science religion on her social and intellectual development. She gives an insight into the life of the young academic, particularly when she and Bill were writing their doctoral theses, and she describes the hierarchies and power games within university faculties. She captures well the arid suburban life for bright women in the 1950s and 1960s, and the testosterone-fueled arrogance and combativeness of the scions of Ivy-League and Sandstone Universities. What fails to come through at all is the love that she clearly must have for her interest in Renaissance Florence after all these decades: not in the visual sense (which any tourist could have), but as an historiographical challenge. She has published widely in her field, contributing books, chapters and reviews over many years. Her work sustained and saved her, as she herself admits, but you get little indication of it at an intellectual or emotional level. I’m a little tired of reading of historians emoting about their adventures in the archives, but there is little evidence of a passion of the mind here at all. The body – yes; and appetites for food, drink, new places, and the next project – but no curiosity, or obsession or joy. I wish that I had seen some of that.

My rating: 7

Read because: I realized my connection with her, and because I like reading historians’ biographies.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Con subtítulos en español: Camila (1984)

This film (available through YouTube) is based on the true story of Camila O’Gorman, the daughter of an upper-class family in Buenos Aires who was executed at the age of 23 for an affair with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Ladislao Gutiérrez. They were both executed under the orders of the tyranical governor Juan Manuel de Rosas, and with the encouragement of her own father. The film is a bit dated and the auto-generated subtitles are appalling, but the Spanish wasn’t too fast and I could follow it. In fact, I even had a little tear in my eye when it finished!

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 August 2021

History this Week I’m not really clear about the connection between the book “Goodbye Christopher Robin” by Anne Thwaites and the movie of the same name that was written by someone else, but this episode The True Winnie-the-Pooh features Anne Thwaites, who sounds rather elderly. The ‘true’ Winnie was a Canadian bear, purchased from a railway station in Winnipeg by the military veterinarian as the mascot for his troop of Canadian soldiers during WWI. Of course, ‘Winnie’ couldn’t accompany them to the Somme, so he ended up in a London zoo, loved by the children who came to see him. There he was seen by Christopher Robin Milne, who named his own bear after her. When his father A. A. Milne drew on the bedtime stories he told his son to write a children’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh was born.

The History of Rome So much fighting, extending over decades and generations. Episode 24 The Second Macedonia War sees Rome deciding to straight away launch into leveraging their big-boy status into a war with Philip V of Macedon. They were then dragged further east into the Syrian War in Episode 25: The Syrian War when who should they encounter again but Hannibal! He had gone into exile from Carthage, and he was engaged by Antiochus III the Great. There is a story that Hannibal and Scipio met at a banquet and Scipio asked Hannibal who he thought was the greatest general. Hannibal enumerated Alexander the Great (Scipio agreed) and then Phyruss (who fought against the Romans) and then himself. Scipio was not impressed. Hannibal himself is said to have committed suicide when he realized that Roman assassins were on his trail- or else he did of a wounded finger- take your pick. In Episode 26 The Third Macedonian War the sons of Phillip V and Antiochus the Great pick up their fathers’ mantles and start up the Third Macedonian War. Just like their fathers, they were soundly beaten, leaving Rome the unchallenged power in the Mediterranean. Episode 27 Mopping Up sees Rome going back to absolutely crush Macedon, and even more importantly Carthage. Back in the Roman Senate, Cato was going on and on about the dangers of Carthage, so Rome invaded it again and it is said (so may not be true) that they sowed their fields with salt, to make sure that nothing grew there. Either way, Carthage was completely destroyed and there was no other power left to threaten Rome. Now that there was no external enemy to fight, they could only fight among themselves.

Rear Vision (ABC) With the Taliban back in the news, Who are the Taliban? takes us back to the emergence of the Taliban from the rubble of the Soviet-Afghan War. It’s quite a condemnation that their straight-dealing, black-and-white, anti-corruption view of the world has led to people acquiescing to the thought that they couldn’t be worse than the existing Western-backed Afghan government. What a f**k-up.

Revisionist History Enough of all this war! How about Malcolm Gladwell deconstructing the Little Mermaid instead? In Little Mermaid Part I: the Golden Contract law professor Laura Beth Neilson points out that in the Disney version, the written contract is portrayed as all powerful (there was no contract in the original story). Worse still, it is an unconscionable contract where a legal child contracts away body parts into slavery. Little Mermaid Part 2: The Fairytale Twist looks at the uses of fairytales, and children’s responses to them, drawing on Bruno Bettelheim and Angus Fletcher. Finally in Little Mermaid Part 3: Honestly Ever After they re-write the ending of The Little Mermaid, avoiding Hans Christian Anderson’s sad ending but giving back Ariel her voice and her agency. And they got Jodie Foster and Glen Close to do the voices!

Democracy Sausage (Mark Kenny). This episode Britain’s ‘Freedom Day’ from 20 July 2021 interviews Europe Correspondent Bevan Shields and Atalanta’s Elizabeth Ames from England on Britain’s “Freedom Day”. Probably too early to know even now, a month later, what the effect will be. However, they both seemed to be fairly optimistic and rather nonplussed by excessive caution in Australia.

‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

2021, 336 p.

One of the big existential questions that we all grapple with at some stage is ‘Why am I here?’ An associated, and equally fascinating question is ‘What if I wasn’t?’ Light Perpetual takes this question, starting off with the real-life death of 168 people who died in the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in November 1944 in a V-2 attack on a Saturday lunchtime, with the shop crowded with shoppers. Fifteen of those 168 were aged under 11. Spufford fictionalizes five of these children: sisters Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. A different book might have gone backwards, tracing who the children were and how they came to be there, but Spufford takes a different approach. Instead, he drops the bomb in the first pages, then jumps forward as if the five children were not killed. In fact, they were not even in the store. Instead, they lived lives untouched by that November 1944 attack.

The book is told in chunks of time, dated from when the bomb fell (but not on them). So we have five years on in 1949; twenty years on in 1964 (Beatles time); thirty-five years to 1979 (Thatcher time); fifty years to 1994 (Cool Brittania); sixty five years on in 2009 (post-GFC). Each of these chunks features the five children separately. Rather neat, really: five times five. It’s like a ‘Seven-up’ series on the page, with less regular check-ins and a smaller number of subjects. As such, it deals mental illness, promiscuity, wealth-acquisition, marriages, divorces, Right and Left wing politics, success, education, physical illness and decline…. all the sorts of things raised during the Seven-Up series. Nothing happens as such, although each life (for good or ill) is lived either as a series of transformations, or by putting one foot in front of the other. Decisions are made or not made, options open up or shrivel away.

I must confess that it took me more than half the book to get the characters established securely in my mind. I had to go back to the previous section to find the character there to refresh my memory before launching into the next time frame, and in this regard a table of contents at the start would have been really useful to locate the time shifts in the book.

The treatment of time and chance reminded me a lot of Kate Atkinson’s work, a writer I really enjoy. My library, which persists in labelling books by genre, has designated it as Science Fiction but it’s a far more human book than that.

It is the writing, particularly at the start and the finish of the book that lifts it above the rather quotidian, eventually inconsequential events of human life that it describes. The scene where the bomb drops is like a freeze-frame, minutely examined- really excellent, challenging writing. The middle sections, like their subject matter, are more human and less complex. The final section of the book, as our subjects face their own mortality, becomes more abstract again in its reflection on permanence and change, although this time it is infused with familiarity and even affection.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: It has been long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘Second Place’ to…

The first Saturday of each month -and its attendant Six Degrees of Separation- seems to come round so quickly! The instructions for this meme can be found on Kate’s Books are My Favourite and Best blog, but essentially Kate chooses the starting title, and then you link six books that you associate with that title. As usual, I haven’t read the starting book Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and I know nothing about it. So going purely on the title, my reviews are of books with a number in the title.

I recently re-read Helen Garner’s The First Stone which has been reissued to mark its 25th Anniversary. Garner’s defence of the Master of Ormond College is uncomfortable today and in that regard, the book has dated badly. But the questions of proportionality, agency/victimhood, generational change, the law, class and feminism are just as pertinent – if not more pertinent- today.

I absolutely love Robyn Annear’s podcast, drawn from articles found in the NLA’s wonderful Trove newspaper database. (You can find it at Nothing on TV) But she has a recent book out as well, called Nothing New: A History of Second Hand. It takes a historical look at second-hand clothing, going right up through opportunity shops and the current Third World clothing trade.

I read Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee before I started my blog. This was the first of his “big” points, and he picked up on many of the ideas he raised here in his later Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. He shows his humour here more than in his other books, and he certainly is a man of broad learning and experience.

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers is only a small book at 155 pages. It is set in the Russian Civil War with four soldiers – Benia, Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra- who are turned out from their regiment to fend for themselves until the weather improves and the fighting commences again. They establish a camp near a lake. Here they live day-by-day, a quiet self-contained peaceful existence in the midst of war, with the prospect of returning to battle hanging over them.

Gail Jones’ Five Bells is set on one summer Saturday, around Circular Quay as four people converge there from somewhere else, and the narrative swings from one character to another, in a sequence, not unlike the chiming of bells. It is very carefully written with almost every phrase and image carefully burnished.

I can’t find one for ‘six’ so I’ll jump ahead to Susan Johnson’s Life in Seven Mistakes. There are two intertwined narratives in the book. The first, written in the present tense, is told from the perspective of Elizabeth, a middle-aged ceramicist on the verge of her first international exhibition. The other narrative strand takes Elizabeth’s parents as they meet in the 1950s, begin courting, marry, have children, become increasingly affluent. Both narrative threads were strong and well-made, and I didn’t find myself regretting when I turned the page to find that the narrative was about to switch again. The dialogue was particularly good, and the author obviously has a sharp, observant eye. The ending had an emotional authenticity, at least for this middle-aged reader.

So there you have it- six books that some how added up to the number ‘seven’. I never was good with figures.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 August 2021

History of Rome Mike Duncan, the narrator of this series wanted to take advantage of the week before Christmas to talk about the co-option of Saturnalia by the newly converted Constantine in Episode 18 The History of Rome Christmas. Hah! He probably thought that he would be finished before the next Christmas – instead it took him three and a half more years! Christmas over, he launched into the Punic Wars. In Episode 19 Prelude to the First Punic War he explains that if we were consistent, we would be calling them ‘The Carthagenian Wars’ because they were waged against Carthage (near present-day Tunis in Africa) and the term ‘Punic’ refers to the Phoenician origins of the Carthagenians. He explains that Carthage only kept a mercenary army, unlike Rome, where serving in the Army was the highest form of service. Also, Carthage was an oligarchy based solely on wealth – if you became rich, you had access to power and privilege; if you lost your money you were not. The wars mainly took place in Sicily. Episode 20a First Punic War explains that, flushed with success, the Romans were not averse to expanding their territory further. However, they were inveigled into being involved in Sicily by the Mamertines, a group of Italian mercenaries who asked for their help. This first Punic War was a stuff-up on both sides because of poor decisions by both Carthagenian and Roman generals. In Episode 20b First Punic War, the Romans took advantage of a shipwrecked Carthagenian ship, pulled it apart to see how it worked, and then promptly built their first naval fleet (up until now they had been a terrestrial, but not naval force). They decided to invade Carthage in 256BC. The Romans were the more powerful force, so the Carthagenians sued for peace, but The Roman commander, Gaius Atilius Regulus demanded such harsh terms that the Carthagenians decided to fight on. They enlisted the help of the Spartan commander Xanthippus, who led the Carthagenians in battle and the Romans retreated, then their ships sank in a storm on the way home. Episode 21 Interbellum looks at the time between the 1st and the 2nd Punic Wars. Carthage made the mistake of not paying the mercenaries who fought for them, and got caught up with fighting their own soldiers. Rome, meanwhile, not content with having the whole of the ‘boot’ of Italy, decided to go after the Gauls for something to do.

Then follows a succession of episodes about the Second Punic War. Episode 22 Prelude to the Second Punic War makes the point that this was the closest the Romans came to destruction until 500 years later. It was also the end of the ideal of Roman frugality, virtue and nobility, replaced by excessive debauchery. The episode introduces 25 year old Hannibal, who took over after his father died. Episode 23a The War with Hannibal starts off for Rome from Spain on his 17 year war, marching on a 15-day crossing through the Alps with 50,000 men and his elephants. He had a crushing victory over the Romans at Lake Trasimine, and realized that you didn’t have to out-fight the Romans, you just had to out-think them. Episode 23b The War with Hannibal, Hannibal reaches the high point of his career with the Battle of Cannae but he doesn’t actually march on Rome- things might have been very different if he had. In Episode 23c The War with Hannibal the Romans didn’t lose heart, but the Senate and the elites did seize more control. So many young men had died in battle, that there was a turnover in leadership, based on merit rather than blood. The Romans even bought slaves from their wealthy citizens and enrolled them in the army. The fighting turned to Sicily. Hannibal negotiated with the nobles of Syracruse on (Roman controlled) Sicily to come over to the Carthage side. Archimedes of Syracruse contributed inventions to assist the Carthaginians, but the Romans were victorious, and Archimedes was killed in the looting that followed. In Episode 23d the tables had been turned, with the appointment of the 25 year old Publius Cornelius Scipio (later known as Scipio Africanus), who Mike Duncan describes as a mixture of Jim Morrison, Alexander the Great and Jesus. He detours into the First Macedonian War, but then returns to Spain. Scipio , taking a leaf out of Hannibal’s book, outsmarted the Carthaginians, by creeping up behind them, and swapping the composition of his fighting lines. The tide has turned. Episode 23e The War with Hannibal sees Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal trying to join forces with Hannibal to create a super-Carthaginian army to invade Rome, but Hasdrubal was defeated at Battle of the Metaurus. Meanwhile, Scipio invaded Carthage itself and finally defeated Hannibal (who had been recalled from Italy) at the Battle of Zama. The Romans imposed very harsh punitive damages on Carthage. Scipio had brought about the idea of the ‘great man’ which would drive Roman politics in the future.

In Our Time (BBC) I guess that podcasts about classical history don’t date! This podcast from 2012 Hannibal features three historians from the Classics departments of various British universities. After Mike Duncan’s relentless emphasis on individual battles, it was good to get this sweeping view of Hannibal’s life. Apparently the elephants weren’t the big African ones, but smaller forest elephants. And he came to a rather sad end- he fled into voluntary exile, and after being handed over to the Romans he poisoned himself to avoid the Romans getting him in the end.

Heather Cox Richardson I’ve been so caught up in Rome that I didn’t finish listening to her series of indigenous history. So I return to 18 June where she backtracks a bit to give the context for the creation of the Indian Schools. She starts off by noting that often bad things start from good intentions, and then goes on to talk about the way that originally ‘care’ of the Native American people was contested between the Dept of the Interior and the Dept of War. Indian Agents were set up to distribute food as part of the treaty arrangements, but it was a pretty corrupt system. When Ulysses S. Grant came in, he decided to put ‘care’ into the hands of the church instead, as a way of solving the tussle between the two bureaucracies. The intention was to deliver ‘care and Christianity’. Meanwhile the Comanche and Apaches were conducting their war against the settlers, and so Civil War veteran Richard Henry Pratt gets the job of guarding the prisoners in Fort Marion and he starts giving them some good old military discipline and Christianity. This is going to lead to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Actually, she goes off in lots of tangents in this one- I found it a bit hard to follow because I don’t know my Native American Tribes and geography very well.

Rear Vision (ABC). This episode was only four days old when I listened to it, and it was already out of date. Who are the Taliban? was recorded before the fall of Kabul, when a shared Taliban/Afghan govt was still a possibility, with the alternative of civil war. It gives the history of the Taliban, particularly its links with Pakistan and Pashtun nationalism. I’ve gotta say though- surely with the sound manipulation technology we have today, telephone interviews could be cleaned up so that they don’t sound as if they are coming from another planet- even when the female interviewee has that infuriating vocal fry.

History Hit While I’m in the mood for Afghanistan, I listened to Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast where he interviewed William Dalrymple in Afghanistan: History Repeating Itself. Dalrymple (who wrote The Anarchy about the East India Company – see my review here) talks about the first Anglo-Afghan War which ended in 1842 with the crushing defeat of the British forces. The British had been inveigled into placing a puppet ruler in Kabul by the East Indian Company claiming that Russia was going to invade (fake news) and when the Afghans attacked, only one man escaped. Dalrymple also talks about his own personal encounters with Hamid Karzai (who, believe it or not, is a direct descendent of the puppet leader in 1842 and for whom Dalrymple has quite a bit of admiration) and Ashraf Ghani (who Dalrymple thinks became too Westernized).

Offtrack. I hate mice. I remember about 20 years ago I went with a friend and her husband and all our kids up to a farmhouse for Easter. We didn’t mention to the kids that the place was over-run with mice: scuttling round the rooms, in their beds under the doonas- horrific. In Going home to a mice plague, reporter Rowdie Walden goes home for the last time to the family farm in regional NSW. His family- his mother in particular- just can’t stand the mice anymore, and they’re moving into town.