Monthly Archives: September 2016

Neil Gaiman’s How The Marquis Got His Coat Back

Neil Gaiman, How The Marquis Got His Coat Back (Hodder Headline 2015)

1472235320.jpgI don’t really understand how this book came into being. Its 58 half-sized pages contain just one short story, hardly a book at all.

My copy, a gift from a friend who knows I’m a Neil Gaiman fan, has a Children’s Bookshop sticker on the inside cover, which suggests the book was published with reluctant teenaged (‘young adult’) readers in mind: a book this size isn’t too daunting, but at the same time the content isn’t babyish.

Another possibility is that someone thought that this story issued as a stand-alone would act as a promo for the 2014 anthology in which it first appeared – Rogues, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois. If so, it seems not to have worked too well, as I saw that door-stopper on the Gleebooks bargain counter this week.

It would work well in the first scenario, though. It’s an elegant, intricate amusement set in a fantasy version of London and involving a mobster Elephant, sibling rivalry, mind-controlling shepherds, an excellent coat, an unexplained resurrection, a totally improbable rescue, the Mushroom, a beautiful young woman with magical powers, and more. My favourite bit:

‘Beg for mercy,’ said the Elephant.
That one was easy. ‘Mercy!’ said the Marquis. ‘I beg! I plead! Show me mercy – the finest of all gifts. It befits you, mighty Elephant, as lord of your own demesne, to be merciful to one who is not even fit to wipe the dust from your excellent toes …’
‘Did you know,’ said the Elephant, ‘that everything you say sounds sarcastic?’
‘I didn’t. I apologise. I meant every single word of it.’
‘Scream,’ said the Elephant.
The Marquis de Carabas screamed very loudly and very long. It is hard to scream when your throat has been recently cut, but he screamed as hard and piteously as he could.
‘You even scream sarcastically,’ said the Elephant.

Neil Gaiman always writes as if he can’t get over his luck at earning a living by making stuff up.

Tom Griffiths’ Art of Time Travel

Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft (Black Inc 2016)

For transforming young minds there is probably nothing more powerful than history in the hands of a charismatic teacher.

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That’s a quote from Don Watson in the current Quarterly Essay, Enemy Within. It could have been an epigraph for The Art of Time Travel, which tells the stories of fourteen charismatic teachers, practitioners of the craft of history in Australia. Most of them are or were university lecturers; all of them, individually and collectively, have transformed minds both young and old.

From Tom Griffiths’ very readable, richly anecdotal and often personal accounts of these careers, there emerges a fascinating story of how the mainstream understanding of Australia has expanded, deepened and, yes, transformed over the last three quarters of a century. Australian history, which used to be seen as a short, derivative footnote to the history of England, or occasionally as a collection of beautiful lies that happen to be true (as in Mark Twain’s famous quote), is now something quite different. No one could have imagined 75 years ago, for instance, that the Sydney Morning Herald would be reporting on a local Council being called on to defend its refusal to acknowledge that the Council meets on Darug land. Griffiths offers this summary of the changes:

Australians discovered that the New World was actually the Old, and that the true ‘nomads’ were the colonisers. The nation continent was reimagined as a jigsaw of bioregional countries, which had for so long been its state. The biological cringe about ‘monotonous gums’, ‘songless birds’ and ‘fossil animals’ was replaced by a deep historical narrative about the continent’s southern organic genesis. Australian history became as much about ecological, social and technological discontinuities as about the political stability and continuity for which the European settlers first celebrated it. British colonisation was seen as both an invasion and an awesome social experiment; there was dancing with strangers and there was war. Historians ventured to the other side of the frontier and peered back at the ‘white men’s eyes’, and Aboriginal people were compelled – and some chose – to cross the beach in the other direction. In remote parts of Australia, the Indigenous inhabitants became the custodians of white history as well as black, because they stayed on country while the whites moved away. In the coastal cities Aboriginal people were found to have always been part of Australia’s modern urban history. Indigenous scholars studied the nation’s unending frontier and the intense colonial revolution into which they had been thrown.

Most literate Australians will be aware of these changes. This book gives something of the nuts and bolts of how they came about, through the changing concerns of historians, the new resources (such as carbon dating) available to them, and a shake-up of historians’ methods to include sources other than official written records, and to approach their task as an art as well as a science. Among the historians discussed, some are little known outside the academic world and some are household names. Some of the most interesting developments have spread gently,as if by stealth or osmosis, from scholarly specialty to common knowledge; others have been fanned into spectacular controversy.

If you were to draw up a list of 14 key Australian historians of the 20th century, it would be a different list from Griffiths’, as he acknowledges in his Prologue (he mentions that Manning Clark rates only a couple of lines; that’s also true of Russel Ward). But the strong likelihood is that all of your chosen ones are mentioned either briefly or extensively in someone else’s chapter. Some of the individuals through whose lives and work Griffiths tells his story aren’t even professional historians. They include a novelist, a poet, and an archaeologist. But – he argues convincingly – they all practice the craft of history.

I won’t attempt to summarise the riches the book offers, but if you’ll bear with me, here’s a list of the writers discussed, with a taster from some chapters:

Eleanor Dark‘s 1941 novel The Timeless Land was fiction, yes, but also the product of intensive original research:

Dark was decades ahead of Australia’s historians in realising that the big story about British colonisation at Port Jackson was that of the encounter between settlers and Aborigines.

Keith Hancock, after a lifetime working in Imperial and Commonwealth history, returned to a study of his own country and produced a pioneering work of environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972):

The rise of environmental politics in the late 1960s brought ecology and history closer together, directly stimulating historical scholarship and giving the new environmental history an occasionally apocalyptic and moralistic tone. Hancock placed Discovering Monaro in this new political and scientific context through his engagement with the insights of ecologists and also his twin invocation of the local and the global, a dialectic that bypassed nationalism, the central concern of Hancock’s earlier work.

John Mulvaney published The Prehistory of Australia in 1969. Among archaeologists in mid twentieth-century Australia, he was known as ‘the scientist’ as, among other ground-shaking deeds, he brought carbon-dating technology to bear on assumptions that Aboriginal people had been in Australia for a comparatively short time.

Geoffrey Blainey, a ‘genuine contrarian’, is deeply suspicious of intellectual fashion, and has repeatedly found himself caught up in controversy whether as a precursor to Hansonism in 1984 remarks about Asian immigration or in endorsing climate ‘sceptic’ Ian Plimer. His best known book is The Tyranny of Distance (1966), but The Great Seesaw: A New View of the Western World, 1750–2000 (1988) may be his central book.

Judith Wright, one of Australia’s great poets, wrote two works that earned her a place in this company. The Generations of Men (1959 – at last, a book I’ve actually read!) is what Griffiths calls ‘a semi-fictional novel’ about her grandparents, who were settlers in south Queensland. The Cry for the Dead (1981) revisits the same place a couple of decades earlier to tell a story of the frontier:

In The Cry for the Dead, the story of the land is inextricable from the story of its original people and equally revealing of what the invaders were doing, or not doing. It was a double ignorance and silence Wright was dealing with: ‘If the English settlers were contemptuously ignorant of the realities of Aboriginal life, they were equally ignorant of the country itself.’

Greg Dening‘s most famous book was Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (1992). He shines out from these pages as a writer, but even more as an inspiring and much loved teacher:

Greg’s advocacy of the creative imagination was shaped by his engagement with two different worlds … On one side was the academy. His foundation lecture, ‘History as a Social System’, was his challenge to that institutional inheritance, and all his teaching was radical and dangerous in the way it undermined the academic poses of neutrality and dispassion and made explicit the socialisation of disciplinary knowledge. The other world he addressed with the phrase ‘the creative imagination’ was that of public literary culture … He urged his students to be ‘open to those other ethnographers of our living experience’ – our poets, novelists, comics, cartoonists, film-makers and photographers.

Henry Reynolds‘ world-changing book is The Other Side of the Frontier (1981). His books aren’t big on the literary elements encouraged by Greg Dening, but are ’empiricist, rational, highly structured, heavily evidenced, reinforcing and repetitive, professionally conservative, accessible to the courts’. That is to say, they’re not much fun, but they bring Australia’s frontier violence to light in ways that are defy attempts to dismiss them as pure ideology. In the chapter on Reynolds, Griffiths discusses Keith Windschuttle’s much-publicised attack on academic Australian historians as a body. Paradoxically, Windschuttle’s accusations of fabrication led to an upsurge of careful research into the frontier, which demonstrated that violence was even more widespread than had been thought before his attack. Griffith’s discussion is nuanced and respectful, but gives no quarter.

The chapter on Reynolds also includes a discussion of Noel Pearson’s complex take on the history of colonisation as ‘a third-generation legatee of mission protection’.

Eric Rolls, perhaps better known as a poet than as a historian, is another of the non-academics on the list. His A Million Wild Acres (1981), the history of a forest in northern New South Wales, is singled out for high praise:

In my mid-twenties and freshly home from my first trip overseas, I … wrote a brief letter to Eric Rolls, telling him that A Million Wild Acres was one of a handful of books about Australia that I would like to put in the hands of any visitor to elp them understand my country. Now I would make greater claims for it. I think it is the best environmental history yet written of Australia, and I would hope it could be read not just by visitors but by all Australians.

Stephen Murray-Smith was the founding editor of Overland. His chapter here focuses on a book written a couple of years before his death, Sitting on Penguins: People and Politics in Australian Antarctica (1988), and places it as a significant intervention in Antarctic politics. The Antarctic experience is also a spur to some elegant reflections – by Griffiths as well as by Murray-Smith – on the importance of history:

Murray-Smith argued forcefully that history is not a luxury in Antarctica, declaring; ‘We shall lack the essential tool to our understanding of Australian Antarctica until those with the interest and capacity to write its history are found. And not just one history. Preferably several, or at least a history that will provoke a debate.’ History down south, he was saying, as in any society, is a practical and spiritual necessity. But especially so in a place without families or normal generations, where no one lives their whole life, and where the coordinates of space and time are warped by extremes. And on a continent claimed by various nations but shared by the world, history carries a special international obligation. It is the fundamental fabric of a common humanity.

Donna Merwick‘s best known book, Death of a Notary (1999), isn’t about Australia at all: the notary of the book’s title lived and died in present-day New York State in the mid-seventeenth century. Her role in this book’s overarching narrative is to illustrate developments in the philosophy of history, in her writing and in her teaching at Melbourne University. It is through her that Griffiths talks about the ‘linguistic turn’, the arrival of postmodernism:

From the 19705, postmodernist intellectual fashions swept through Western universities, especially amongst literature and anthropology departments, and challenged the reliability of historical knowledge. All ‘facts’, it was suggested, were intellectual constructions; an independent empirical reality would thus be inaccessible. Fact and fiction blurred playfully, dangerously. The discipline of history, with its moral and civic responsibility to insist on that distinction, was challenged to the core … Some historians were angry and defensive; some were concerned about the consequences of extreme relativism and what they saw as an attack on the Enlightenment project of rationality; some were capsized. Donna welcomed the tempest because, as a champion of the literary and artistic dimensions of the writing of history, she saw opportunities in the new wind and harnessed them. Remaining steadfastly at the helm, she tacked tenaciously to new, secure lands she could not otherwise have reached.

Merwick did not regard postmodernism as an optional intellectual fashion, but a historical condition.

Graeme Davison gives Griffiths an opportunity to reflect on the current widespread enthusiasm for family history. Far from dismissing it, as some historians do, Davison brought his professional skill to bear on his own family in Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age (2015):

[The] book was a search for identity, as all family history fundamentally is, but it was also a reflective exploration of family history as a method – and what better case study could there be than one’s own family? But it is more than that. If a historian wants to examine the mystery of the relationship between generations, and he wants to do it in a personal and contextual way, then he has no choice about where he must go.

Inga Clendinnen died when I was reading this book. I hope she knew how much she was loved by many people she’d never met. Her Dancing with Strangers (2003) radically challenged the prevailing version of the early settlement in Port Jackson. Griffiths’ discussion of her technique of interrogating documents, both in that book and in Aztecs and Reading the Holocaust, is fascinating. But the spine of her chapter is his exploration of the different functions of history and historical fiction. He revisits the public tension between Clendinnen and novelist Kate Grenville over the latter’s The Secret River, and opens it out for what it can teach us:

Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened, and how we know what we think happened. So the ‘non’ in our ‘non-fiction’ signifies an edge that can sharpen our prose and heighten our sense of danger and wonder. It also acknowledges that there are things we don’t and can’t know. Silence, uncertainty and inconclusiveness become central to the narrative.

Grace Karskens rates a substantial mention in Inga Clendinnen’s chapter, because her ‘wonderful’ book The Colony (2009) aimed ‘to continue Clendinnen’s and Grenville’s project of re-examining and rethinking early colonial race relations’. She also has a chapter of her own, as an exemplar of a public historian – that is, a historian who works outside the academy, as a consultant, for example, on archaeological digs or local council history projects.

I sense that some of the power of Grace’s prose and analysis derives from her vocational commitment to pubic history, from her dedicated engagement with history as a human characteristic, from her intellectual curiosity in history as not just a product of the academy but as also the vernacular of our cultural and social systems. Her inquiries have arisen from a public hunger for history, from council commissions, from heritage processes and battles, from environmental threats and assessments, from the stimulus of real places and sensuous things, and from a desire to make sense of how the past is in the present.

Mike Smith ‘is an archaeologist who has revolutionised our understanding of the human history of Central Australia. His main work, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, is possibly as dry as its title suggests, but he engages deeply with the people who have lived in those deserts for many generations, and in his exploration of ‘deep time’ makes some profound discoveries.

When Europeans and North Americans look for cultural beginnings, they tend to assume that humans and their civilisations are products of the Holocene (the period since the last ice age) and that we are all children of this recent spring of creativity in the history of the world … In greater Australia at the last glacial maximum, we did not have an ice age so much as a dust age. And the history of Aboriginal people takes us back, if not into the ice then certainly into the dust, through periods of temperature change of 5ºC and more, such as those we might also face in coming generations. An Australian history of the world includes the experience of people surviving cold droughts in the Central Australian deserts from 30,000 years ago, and the sustaining of human civilisation in the face of massive sea-level rises and temperature changes.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I hope you can tell that I found this book endlessly stimulating, and have come away from it with a reading list as long as my arm.

Don Watson’s Enemy Within

Don Watson,  Enemy Within: American politics in the time of Trump (Quarterly Essay 63, September 2016)

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This Quarterly Essay is closer in form to the classic essays of Addison and Lamb than to the engaged argument of most issues. It doesn’t so much push a thesis as offer a series of ruminations and perspectives.

Don Watson is a lugubrious bemoaner of abuses of the English language, so visiting a US election campaign must have been a melancholy experience for him. One of the joys of this essay is the attention it pays to language – my favourite moment being this comment on Bernie Sanders’ repeated use of the word ‘incomprehensible’:

An election processes reality into platitudes. Even the images become platitudes. It grinds all the tendons and marrow and flesh of history, and all the cultural overlays of Los Angeles, and the ukuleles and ‘You bets’ of Janesville, into something universally digestible. Hearing a word like ‘incomprehensible’ in the middle of it is like finding a bone in a fish finger.

More substantially, Watson is also a historian. Rather than give us a blow-by-blow account of Donald Trump’s tweets and other provocations or Hillary Clinton’s emails, he turns to the past for perspective. He likes Hillary Clinton best when she delivers a history lesson rather than a stump speech at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund meeting. He sees Bernie Sanders’ popularity as a resurgence of ‘a much assailed and greatly debilitated, but unbroken American tradition of democratic socialism’, which he presents to us by way of a sketch of the history of Wisconsin, where Fighting Bob La Follette ‘took on the elites for forty years’ and the current mayor, Paul Soglin, continues in his footsteps. He discusses Trump in the context of twentieth century fascism,  concluding somewhat reassuringly:

[Were] he to win the presidency in ways resembling Hitler’s or Mussolini’s, it’s inconceivable that Trump’s next steps would resemble theirs. His brutish and ingenious destruction of the country club Republicans, and the capitulation of most of the remainder, are shameful and concerning, but even if this means the end of the Republican Party, that is not the same as the end of UIS democracy. The Germans of 1933 had had a decade of democracy. The Americans have had a a lot more than that.

Then, less reassuringly, he asks:

And if Trump doesn’t win, will he walk away? Will his followers? He is telling them if he loses it means the vote was rigged. He doesn’t need to be an actual fascist for the day after election day to be a worrying prospect.

What oft was thought but is here so well expressed.

I’m glad to report that most of the essay is about the US rather than specifically about Trump. Not that Watson is reluctant to repeat witty take-downs of either main candidate, but the ‘time’ of the title was also the moment of Muhammad Ali’s death, of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, of Bernie Sanders’ speaking – about all of which he writes beautifully.


Roughly two thirds of this QE is devoted to correspondence on the previous issue, in which James Brown put a case for greater public engagement and debate in Australia’s approach to the possibility of war. Two elder historians lament young Brown’s apparent historical ignorance, other correspondents take exception to aspects of his argument. But there’s a general consensus that more thought and discussion is needed. Brown acknowledges some criticisms as ‘bracing, but useful’, and utterly rejects others. It couldn’t be more different from the way argument is too often conducted in the social media.

Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa

Michelle Cahill, Letter to Pessoa and other short fictions (Giramondo Press 2016)

lp.jpgThere’s a device that writers known for their children’s books sometimes use when they write for adults. They put some serious swearing or almost-explicit sex on the very first page as a coded warning: ‘This is not suitable as a gift for little children.’ Have a look at the first page of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Margo Flanagan’s Tender Morsels.

Letter to Pessoa has a similar device, right there in the title: If you have to ask who Pessoa is, it warns subliminally, this book may not be for you. It’s no idle warning: of the 24 short prose pieces in this book, about half are framed as letters to other writers or otherwise assume that certain writers are part of the reader’s mental landscape (either that, or the the reader is happy to do some research): [Fernando] Pessoa, [Jacques] Derrida, Jean Genet, Tadeusz Rózewicz, Virginia Woolf, [Vladimir] Nabokov – I could go on. For the uninitiated, the reading experience is a lot like listening in on one side of a phone conversation as Michelle Cahill and her narrators engage – playfully, critically or earnestly – with those writers and their creations.

Such intertextuality not only limits a book’s potential audience. It runs other risks as well. When I read ‘Aubade for Larkin’, for example, I looked up Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’, and was bowled over by it. In ‘Borges and I’ and ‘Letter to John Coetzee’ I found it hard to focus, because my mind kept drifting off to the remembered pleasures of Borges’ stories and the challenges of Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. I was grateful to Michelle Cahill for sending me (back) to those other works, but found it hard to pull my mind back to the writing in my hands.

The less intertextual stories are much stronger. They feature a huge range of narrators and central characters – from a cat (in ‘Biscuit’) to an Argentinian poet with AIDS (in ‘Duende’). Those in the best stories, including the cat, are travellers or members of diasporas (or both), mainly sharing the author’s South Asian and African heritage. These stories involve rich  cross-cultural encounters.

‘The Sadhu’ captures brilliantly a complex interplay of spiritual power and seedy sexuality, exoticism and nostalgia, naiveté and wariness, as a young woman from Dee Why meets the holy man of the title in Nepal. In ‘Fever’, a young woman of ‘part-Nepalese, part-Australian background’ visits an older Nepalese man, her uncle, a Cambridge scholar who now trains rebels in arms and explosives, and the story refuses to give us relief from her discomfort as she feels the gap between her world and his. The protagonist of ‘A Wall of Water’ recalls moments from her childhood in northern India, but the present tense of the story is in jacaranda season in Sydney 2010, and the Christmas Island boat disaster is on the television. Again, the discomfort:

Cocooned in the safety of her peaceful apartment Sarita is numb with grief for those drowned and those who survived: Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds. She knows what happens to missing people, how they become little more than a monthly statistic, how the past is a territory. So much has been excised. There are walls of water and walls created by bureaucratic bias. Ruminating on the foreseeable enquiries and broadsides Sarita slumps down with a vodka and soda.

I don’t know that that deserves the first part of Hilary Mantel’s praise quoted on the back cover – ‘Line by line, Cahill’s writing is musical, assured’ – but it does exemplify the second part:’her seriousness is evident, her ambition impressive.’

AWW2016Letter to Pessoa is the eleventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is a generous gift from Giramondo.

Lee Whitmore’s Ada Louise

Lee Whitmore, Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016)

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The host of a Radio National books program regularly disparages family histories. ‘We’re just not interested,’ he says. But he’s wrong. Not because all or even most family histories are gems, but because Sturgeon’s revelation –’Ninety percent of everything is crap’ – is as valid here as it is for comics or science fiction. It’s just wrong to disparage a whole genre on the basis of even a large number of poor examples.

Ada Louise isn’t just a family history, it’s also a comic, so it also belongs to a medium often targeted by literary snobbishness. Come to think of it, it’s in a third outsider category as well: it’s self-published. At least, I can’t find any reference to Susan Lane Studio on the internet. The copy I read belongs to a friend, and is number 65 of a limited edition of 100 copies.

The good news is that Ada Louise is definitely in the non-crap ten percent of all three categories.

When Lee Whitmore was about eight years old her maternal grandmother came to live with her family. The grandmother – Ada Louise – was very old and frail and not at all interested in the children. ‘Very occasionally there was a glint of amusement in her eyes,’ an introduction tells us, ‘but mostly she just looked wistful, even sad.’ In what Whitmore’s website describes as a ‘loose series of episodic moments strung together on a time line’ the book sets out to answer the questions that puzzled the young girl: ‘What was it that had made my grandmother this way? What had happened in her life?’

We first see Ada Louise as a tiny figure in a two-page drawing of ‘British settlement Invercargill’, New Zealand in 1885. A speech bubble in the bottom right corner of the townscape reads, ‘Hurry home, Ada,’ and on the next spread the fourteen year old Ada runs with her violin case through a windy yard towards her front door. In the following pages she is absorbed into the cheerful chaos of her many-sistered life, and in the course of the book’s nearly 600 page s her story emerges in a discontinuous way that creates a sense that these are family stories, legends almost, rendered into a coherent whole.

We follow Ada’s fortunes and those of her sisters as they mature, marry, become variously rich and poor and have children of their own. These affectionately realised characters deal with scandal, frustrated ambition, betrayal, heartbreak and almost Shakespearean restoration. There’s also some Micawberish comedy.

The book’s seven chapters follow Ada and her family from New Zealand to Melbourne (when she is 30, in 1901), to Sydney six years later. The cities and suburbs of the action are lovingly created: a church in Darlinghurst, a Prahran mansion, inner-city Sydney streetscapes, Flinders Street Station,Waverley Cemetery; trams, trains, early cars, and the ocean in its many moods.There are cucumber sandwiches, family singsongs around the piano

The comics medium is beautifully suited to this project. From the family tree at the beginning to the hand-lettered postscript, Whitmore is intimately present, not just in her words, but in the movements of her hand recorded in the richly crosshatched charcoal drawings. You can see examples on her website. Here’s the spread introducing Chapter 2:

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AWW2016

Ada Louise is the tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.