Tag Archives: non-fiction

John Blay’s Wild Nature

John Bray, Wild Nature (NewSouth 2020)

When I read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, in which sclerophyll forests might as well not exist, I yearned to read a book about the Australian bush. She who is known in this blog as the Emerging Artist had been urging me to read John Blay’s Wild Nature for more than a year. So, though I didn’t expect it to be an Australian extension of Wohlleben’s book, it pretty much leapt from the bookshelf into my waiting arms.

The book is made up of three major strands.

First, there’s the narrative through-line: the author’s account of an intrepid walk through Australia’s south-east forests, often following animal tracks and sometimes, memorably, forcing a way through thick vegetation by throwing his body against it. A woman named Jacqueline accompanies him on much of his journey. We never learn her second name and are left to deduce that she is his partner. The narrative is based closely on journals he kept on his walks.

Second, he gives a history of the ‘Forest Wars’, the bitter conflict between those who wanted to exploit the forests for timber and woodchips, and those who wanted to preserve it – with the Forestry Department, which once played a custodian role, at times coming down heavily – and, though Blay doesn’t ever say so, corruptly – against the ‘greenies’. This strand is the fruit of extensive work by Blay recording oral history from participants in both sides of the wars. Although his sympathies are clearly with the conservationists, he has warm, respectful relationships with people who have the industry’s interests at heart.

Third, he incorporates the fruits of research, including his broad botanical and ecological knowledge, and colonial and pre-settlement history. What Wohlleben calls the hidden life of trees is mentioned briefly, and at one stage Blay follows the path of early nineteenth-century shipwreck survivors, an episode explored in historian Mark McKenna’s From the Edge.

It’s a strange book. Too often, reading it is like going on a long bush walk with an enthusiastic guide who names every tree and bush you pass, except of course the reader can’t see them, so all we get is a list of botanical and geological names. I smiled ruefully when I read Blay’s comment on the shipwreck survivors’ account:

Without the on-ground knowledge of where they were from time to time, it would have made so little sense to those who seldom ventured into the outdoors that the long journey might as well have taken place on the moon.

(Page 263)

The slog is made worse by moments, all too frequent, that seem to have come straight from a journal and escaped the revising eye. This little passage is a good example:

All the tracks are treacherous bogs. Bandicoots have made trails in the wet earth. Across the heath, crimson bottlebrush and fairy fans glow brightest. Grevillea, bracelet honey-myrtle and banksia alike take the form of ground cover. A black snake suns itself on a sandstone pavement. The place is always full of surprises even as the landscape itself is surprising, it also has the potential to astonish.

(Page 111)

This list isn’t so bad – at least bottlebrush and grevillea are reasonably well known. But how did the triple tautology of that final sentence get past the copy editor?

So John Blay isn’t one of the great nature writers. But his enthusiasm for the south-east forest is infectious, and here are thrilling moments, of which two stand out for me.

In the first, he and Jacqueline come upon a grove of waratahs. Here is just part of the encounter:

In photographs the flowers seldom look as beautiful as they do in nature. They look too blue, too muted, grubby. Where is that red inner glow? How could they change like that? Photograph after photograph, they come back imperfect, in shades of dull murk, and each one makes me more determined to capture the flowers in their full crimson magnificence. In this heavily canopied forest the light changes subtly, as does the glow of the flowers. Their flashes can surround you like wildfires on a mountain. Any shards of sunlight cut through too brightly and wash out the subtleties. At times there is a halo miasma around the trees caused by the intensity of insect life attracted to the sweetness of the flowers; some insects are so tiny as to be visible only when the clouds of them are lit. One moth hovers, others strike at eccentric speeds, the native bees, wasps. All love the warmer morning air. As the heat increases, so do the insect numbers, until the dews dry and it gets hotter and just about all retire for a siesta.

(Page 167)

The other moment I want to mention takes the experience of reading the book onto a whole other level. On a spread toward the end there are two full-page maps of the area facing each other. One shows the forests of south-east Australia; the other the area burnt out by the bushfires of the 2019-20. The two areas are virtually the same. It’s like being hit over the head with a club: all of that wilderness we have been slogging through, the passionate object of John Blay’s attention, the bringer of aesthetic joy to Jacqueline, the terrain of the bitterly fought forest wars, all of it, has been ravaged by fire. As he tells us in the text, the heat from the fires has almost certainly damaged the complex underground web of fungus so necessary for the forest’s health. The scale of the disaster is close to unimaginable.

For all its faults, this book helps us to imagine it, helps to make the climate emergency viscerally real

Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees at the book group

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World (2015), English translation Jane Billinghurst (Black Inc 2016)

Before the meeting: This book received a lot of attention in the press when it was published, in a way that me feel I didn’t need to read it. We now all know that trees emit scents that affect the way other nearby trees react to, for example, insect attacks or fungal infections. We know that a complex network of underground funguses helps forest trees to grow and pass nutrients from one to the other. We know that trees that spring up close to the tree their seeds fell from continue to interact with the ‘parent’ tree. In general, we know that careful observation and experimentation is revealing that the received wisdom about trees, like the received wisdom about many other things, needs a major overhaul.

Peter Wohlleben has spent decades managing a forest in the Eifel, a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium. He gives guided tours of the forest, is a committed conservationist and, as the book makes abundantly clear, loves trees with a passion. His passion is catching, and the scientific findings he describes are fascinating. He doesn’t intimidate his readers with scientific jargon or hector us with conservationist polemic. Instead, he is personal, lively, charming, and whimsical.

I found the book unsettling in two ways. First, the whimsy: there are mother trees and orphan trees; trees send and receive messages; trees are impatient or well-disciplined or altruistic. That makes for lively reading, and works well as metaphor. There’s no harm in saying, for example, that a tree tries to grow out of its neighbours’ shade because it wants more light. But surely that’s a figure of speech, it’s not that the tree wants something the way a human infant or even a puppy does. Peter Wohlleben does seem at times to be attributing actual thoughts, desires and emotions to the trees. He says occasionally that we can’t know what trees are feeling – but he comes close to implying that that’s just because we don’t have a common language. That is to say, maybe what I read as whimsy is actually a perfectly serious, I would say mystical, anthropomorphism. I react against that: surely we can respect trees, and forests, without attributing consciousness to them.

My second difficulty is the book’s exclusive attention to the northern hemisphere. As I read about beeches, oaks, birches and poplars, I yearned for information about angophoras, figs and eucalypts, about sclerophyll forests in general.

The Black Inc edition I borrowed from the library seems to be aware of my two misgivings. It signals that the book is relevant to Australian conditions by adding a foreword by Tim Flannery (though he doesn’t add any antipodean information), and that it’s based in solid science by including ‘Notes from a Forest Scientist’ by Dr Suzanne Simard, whose research provides the basis for much of the book.

I did enjoy the book. My discontents, far from leading me to toss it aside, prompted me to read more. I’ve recently read Richard Powers’ wonderful novel, The Overstory, which covers some of the same territory. I expect to blog soon about naturalist John Blay’s Wild Nature, an account of his big walk through the forests of south-east Australia that immerses the reader in the experience of those forests, with excursions into the history of the battle to conserve them and occasionally into some of the science. And I’ve got Suzanne Simard’s seminal work, Finding the Mother Tree, on order from Gleebooks. (It arrived as I was about to hit ‘Publish’.)

After the meeting: A group member has Covid, and there’s currently a surge in hospitalisations and deaths in Australia, so we decided too revert to zoom. It was a small, short meeting.

I’d felt a bit strange about writing almost entirely about my discontents with the book before the meeting, but as it happened, that’s how the meeting went as well. About half the group hadn’t finished the book, in spite of it being quite short. The same two problems were prominent: the anthropomorphising got on people’s wicks (one person was delighted to learn that word – he knew what it meant as soon as he heard it); and the complete absence of Australian/sclerophyll/tropical forests was, at least to one person, very annoying. Other discontents were the lameness of the humour (humour which I hadn’t noticed), and the lack of structure – it just seemed to be one thing after another, with a lot of repetition among the things.

Yet there was something like consensus that the book’s content was interesting and important. A number of people mentioned other books: Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) as a partial remedy for the absence of Australian content; Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (2020) as an example of even more exasperating anthropomorphism. Not everyone shared my love of The Overstory. There were some anecdotes about the death and regrowth of trees from our own experience, and one folktale.

Then we talked about Covid. Of the seven of us, four had had it at least once. The chap with the current positive result wasn’t there, so that makes five out of eight.

Joe Keohane’s the Power of Strangers

Joe Keohane, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World (Viking 2021)

If I hadn’t already embarked on my 500 people project before I read this book, I would have started on it now. It’s a terrific book, of which the fabulous Ayad Akhtar (my blog post on his Homeland Elegies here) says on the back cover:

Rare is the book that delivers on the promise of a big answer to an even bigger question, but Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers does just that. This lively, searching work makes the case that welcoming ‘others’ isn’t just the bedrock of civilisation, it’s the surest path to the best of what life has to offer.

I can’t say it any better.

Joe Keohane is a journalist, used to talking to strangers as part of his job, with the aim of extracting newsworthy information and quotes. This book is about a different kind of talk, the reciprocal kind that is an essential part of being human, but which has been much neglected in recent decades.

Keohane draws on studies in primatology, archaeology, psychology and sociology. He describes the behaviour of ferociously territorial chimps and sweet-natured bonobos. He quotes philosophers, political scientists, novelists and historians. He interviews activists and takes part in classes, reporting on his successes and his embarrassments. He peppers his arguments with witty and moving anecdotes. He comes across as charming, intelligent, generous, and persuasive.

One of the user-friendlty feature of the book is that every now and then Keohane gives a little summary of the Book So Far. Here’s one from about the midpoint:

All right. So what do we know? We know that interdependence made hunter-gatherer groups more sociable among themselves and eventually with other groups. We know that greeting rituals in hospitality were evolved to reconcile the threat strangers pose with the opportunities that present… We know that we’re wired to favour our groups, but also that our definition of our group is flexible. We know that we’re predisposed to like people with whom we have something in common, even if we have no idea who they are and even if it consists of little more than wearing the same baseball cap. We know that cities can bring us together with countless strangers, but they can also create social norms that keep us apart. We know that talking across group boundaries can make us anxious, and we know that the relentless messaging about stranger danger that several generations were clobbered with has warped our sense of threat and possibly harmed our ability to trust.

(Page 166)

I won’t summarise the arguments for how talking to strangers was crucial to human survival in prehistoric times, or how rituals were devised to make it safe. I won’t do more than mention the experiments that show people’s sense of wellbeing increasing noticeably after they talk to a stranger, or even greet them with a wave and a smile. I won’t go into the fascinating findings that in places with high levels of generalised trust people tend not to be friendly to strangers, and vice versa, Australia being a rare, even possibly unique, exception: evidently we’re both trusting and friendly. I’ll skip over the lesser minds problem, that is, the common practical assumption that strangers aren’t fully human; and the self-explanatory phenomenon of absent presence. I’ll refrain from relaying the story of the viene-vienes in Mexico City (you can read about them here).

I will give you a surprisingly long list of projects that set out to encourage and enable people to talk to strangers. Most of them are in the USA – Keohane is a New Yorker – but while the ills they address may have a different flavour in other countries, I doubt if any place is free of them. In the order of appearance:

  1. Trigger Conversations: ‘a London-based “human connection organisation” that hosts social events aimed at facilitating meaningful conversations among strangers’, founded in 2016. Keohane spends a lot of time on what he learned at classes run by its founder, Georgie Nightingall
  2. Chatty Cafés: more than 900 pubs and cafés in the UK ‘set up specially marked tables where strangers can chat’
  3. Crossing Divides, a BBC series, which instituted a ‘chatty bus’ day, ‘during which riders were encouraged to talk to one another’
  4. Talk to Me, founded in 2012, a group that ‘distributed “Talk to Me” buttons to signal a willingness to talk in public, and set up “talk bars” in public spaces’
  5. Conversations New York (CNY) ‘holds regular, free group conversations, largely among strangers’. Forty to eighty people turn up at a college or in a park, are divided into groups and then talk for 90 minutes, ‘working from a list of topical or philosophical questions’
  6. Urban Confessional, which ‘encourages people to make their own crudely drawn cardboard signs [saying something like Free Listening] and stand in heavily trafficked locations offering themselves up as listeners to anyone who wants to talk’. The volunteers work in pairs to make the experience less intimidatingly intense for all parties
  7. The League of Creative Interventionists, a Californian organisation that has a number of projects, including Fear Doctor, in which someone sets up a booth in a public place that looks like Lucy’s psychiatrist booth in the Peanuts strip; and the Neighbourhood Postcard Project, in which the organisation’s founder Hunter Franks collected positive stories from the residents of a neighbourhood with a bad reputation, written on postcards, and then mailed them to people in different neighbourhoods
  8. An Instagram account called Subway Book Review that, among other things, sells tote bags that read, ‘Ask Me About the Book I’m Reading’
  9. Feasts of Strangers, hosted by the Oxford Muse Foundation, ‘dinners in which stranger are paired up and given a “menu” of intense personal questions’. The dinners last for two hours and have taken place in 15 countries
  10. Some fascinating individual projects: a young man named Judah Berger set up a table in Washington Square park in Manhattan with a sign reading, ‘Where Are You Going?’; Thomas Knox, an African-American, took a table and two chairs down to a New York subway platform to try to get people to talk to him – and succeeded amazingly; Danielle Allen, author of Talking to strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (2004), has made a practice of talking to strangers and sees it as ‘gift giving’
  11. Braver Angels (originally called Better Angels) organises huge workshops where everyone wears a lanyard identifying them as either Republican or Democrat, and in a series of carefully structured events learn how to talk to each other – with remarkable success, even in post-Trump USA

This book was recommended to me by Jim Kable, frequent commenter on this blog. I’m hugely grateful for the recommendation.

The Book Group and Lamorna Ash’s Dark, Salt, Clear

Lamorna Ash, Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town (Bloomsbury 2020)

Before the Meeting: Lamorna Ash, a posh young Londoner fresh from university, decided to visit the part of Britain her mother came from, and from which she got her first name. She lived for two stints in the fishing village of Newlyn, just a couple of miles north of Lamorna in Cornwall, all her senses on the alert to see and understand everything about it, its people, and the life of fishermen (no fisherwomen during her time there) and their families. She went out on trawlers and smaller fishing boats. She drank with young and old. She formed solid friendships. She learned to gut fish and oscillated between horror and unholy glee as she graduated to stabbing rays in the heart – all part of a fisherman’s job. She talked and listened to everyone who would give her the time of day. And she wrote a lot of it down.

Meanwhile, she read or remembered writing by Elizabeth Bishop (whose poem ‘At the fishhouses‘ describes the sea as ‘Dark, salt, clear’), Barry Lopez, Walter Benjamin, Marianne Moore, Herman Melville, Antonia Barber (author of the picture book The Mousehole Cat, whose name doesn’t appear in the well-deserved praise of the book), W G Sebald, and other literary giants – and found ways they shed light on what she was discovering.

Then she made all that into this book. I enjoyed it. The author’s extreme youth gives rise to some embarrassing moments – as when she explains that ‘yarn’ is an old term meaning ‘story’, or when she reflects on how differently one sees the world when one is older, for values of older that are less than 25. The literary references sometimes feel forced. But by about page 100 these qualities had come to feel like part of the charm of the book. She’s capable of mocking herself, as when she writes of the walks she takes to stave off loneliness:

I often leave notes for myself on my phone when I go on these solitary walks, little inanities I wish I had someone else with me to whom I could say them out loud. This morning I wrote myself a particularly bold one. ‘For someone who gets lost a lot, coastal walks are a godsend. Only if the sound of the sea disappears from your left ear, can you have possibly gone wrong.’

Well yes, I guess it’s an inanity, but no more so than many of her observations, and this little moment of self-deprecation earned my forgiveness for a lot.

On the other hand, no forgiveness is required for her description of her week on board the trawler Filadelfia, which forms the book’s narrative backbone. Here’s her wonderful account of gutting a stingray:

I flip the ray over on to its back. Its stomach is a cadaverous grey and its almond-shaped mouth gapes open and shut like the puckering of a teenage kiss. The lips are so human I am momentarily dumbstruck. Open and shut, open and shut, its mouth sounds out a wordless plea.

I shake myself from my trance and hear Stevie prompting me to make an upside-down V incision along the translucent flap of skin that conceals its vital organs. Underneath is a mess of multi-coloured, pulsating guts – bright pinks, yellows and oranges. Over the roar of the engine, the men guide me to seize hold of a fistful of guts and pull them away from the ray’s body. But as I do so, the ray’s muscular wings start to close in upon my hand. In film footage of rays swimming, they use their wings, properly named pectoral fins, to propel themselves forward, gracefully rippling through the water like thin material animated by wind.

The ray’s last desperate bid to defend itself shocks me out of the automatic, mechanical state I usually induce in myself while gutting. In panic, I try to withdraw my arm, but its wings are still clutching me tightly. Beyond the boat, the waves have picked up and the boat slams down into the water. ‘You have to stab it!’ the men cry, goading me on as if we were outside the Swordy [hotel in Newlyn] preparing for a brawl. I let out a cry and stab the ray in the heart.

(page 256)

Her initial horror changes to murderous glee. The crew take to giving her all the rays to gut, and nickname her Raymundo.

After the meeting: For no particular reason we met in an Indian restaurant, the food was excellent, and the tragedy currently unfolding on the subcontinent had no obvious impact on the mood of our hosts, but there were nine of us at a long table. Conversation was animated and the book was discussed vigorously, but it was hard to manage a single shared for more than a very brief time. Next meeting’s host, who is responsible for summarising each meeting, put it well on WhatsApp: ‘

So yes, it was a excellent banquet last night where I got a week’s worth of meat, we agreed the book was somewhere between 2.5 & 4.5 stars, was either deeply revealing or a series of pleasant vignettes, … was in a place we should all visit and was generally an enjoyable read.

The 2.5 party hadn’t finished the book and didn’t intend to. He hadn’t read the fascinating historical account of how the town was saved from actual destruction in the 1930s at the hands of bureaucratic health and safety regulations, how a petition was taken to London on a small fishing vessel whose crew were astonished to see the banks of the Thames crowded with well wishers. He felt that the (to me fascinating) tidbits of Cornish language were mere padding.

The 4.5 party, just loved the book. He was completely charmed by the author’s voice. He described her quotes from other writers as smacking of undergraduate naivety and enthusiasm, but saw it as part of her youthful charm. (Given that our group is made up, all but one, of old farts gentlemen of a certain age, the youth of the writer was an issue for all of us one way or another.) He spoke eloquently of the way the narration would move from descriptions of social life in the pub to a deep dive into some aspect of the life of the town.

Whereas I, and others, found the description of life on fishing trips, of the way time at sea opens up spaces for communication and reflection, one man who has worked on boats said he found that fairly ordinary and wished there was a lot more about the women left ashore. Though the difficulties of the life were touched on, we were left feeling that a much darker story could have been told.

One chap had been to Cornwall a couple of years ago, and could show us photos of the town, including the very boat on which a pigeon dies in once of the book’s many atmospheric anecdotes. Actually he showed us these pics on WhatsApp before the meeting; he brought them to the dinner on a tablet, but couldn’t see a way to pass it around.

A couple of chaps drew comparisons between this book and James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life. Each of them is an account of a community, a place, a working life that has endured for centuries and is under threat in the modern capitalist world. One is a passionate insider’s story, the other that of an interested visitor. It’s not that Lamorna Ash was trying to do do a James Rebanks: she’s completely upfront about her outsider, ‘posh’ status, her lack of skin in the game, but the book is still a serious piece of non-fiction, combining advocacy, memoir, linguistic sidelights, character studies, and adventure on the high seas.

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Black Inc 2019)

As I’m writing this blog post, allegations of men in the Australian Parliament abusing women currently and historically are dominating the news cycle, and the frighteningly inadequate responses of the powerful are on display. It’s a very difficult time for women who have survived abuse, and probably not a good time for them to read this book, which isn’t about the kind of abuse that’s in the news, but, well, I imagine it’s close enough to make the unbearable climate even worse. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, in happier times and without a personal history of abuse, but when I reached the acknowledgements at the end and read Jess Hill’s appreciation for her male soulmate who had backed her in the arduous four years of writing, and her delight in her witty and charismatic two-year-old daughter, I almost wept. It was like emerging from a vision of hell to be reminded that fresh air and sunshine exist, that there are decent men and happy little girls in the world.

But let me say right up front that although it gives many detailed accounts of hideous violence and abusive behaviour, this is not a book that wallows in the horrible. Hard as it is to read – and, I imagine, immeasurably harder to research and write – it’s a serious, level-headed attempt to anatomise the phenomenon of domestic abuse, to understand the perpetrators and the victims, to give an account of the way police, the courts and lawmakers have dealt with the issue, and to cast about for examples of more effective measures. In a prefatory note, Hill explains that she did her best to ‘flip’ the usual journalist–source power imbalance: where she told a survivor’s story (and there are many) as far as possible the subject/source of the story had a chance to read a draft, and suggest changes and, especially, deletions. One chapter begins with a couple of paragraphs acknowledging an extraordinary woman whose story was central to that chapter, but had to be withdrawn at the last minute because of major safety concerns.

The first chapter. ‘The Perpetrator’s Handbook’, describes the remarkable similarity of the techniques used by domestic abusers, across all locations, cultures and social status. ‘It’s like you go to abuse school,’ one reformed abuser told Hill. ‘They all do it.’ Stunningly, the suite of techniques was identified by a scholar seeking to understand how US prisoners of North Korea during the Korean War had their spirits broken. In the 1950s there was talk of ‘brainwashing’, a semi-mystical process. Now it is understood to have been coercive control, a term that is explored at length in this book. The Korean War researcher, Albert Biderman,

established that three primary elements were at the heart of coercive control: dependency, debility and dread. To achieve this effect, the captors used eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation and the enforcement of trivial demands. Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’ showed that acts of cruelty that appeared at first to be isolated were actually intricately connected. It was only when these acts were seen together that the full picture of coercive control became clear.

Physical violence isn’t a necessary part of the system. Hill’s prefatory note says that as she came to understand her subject, she had to go back and change most references to ‘domestic violence’ in her text to ‘domestic abuse’. It’s not uncommon, she says, for an abuser’s first act of physical violence to result in the victim’s death.

The techniques are virtually universal, but perpetrators do exist on a spectrum. ‘It can be hard to pinpoint where garden-variety fighting ends and domestic abuse begins,’ Hill writes, but actual abusers fall into two types: insecure reactors, ‘who don’t completely subordinate their partners, but use emotional or physical violence to gain power in the relationship’; and coercive controllers, who ‘micromanage the lives of their victims, prevent them from seeing friends and family, track their movements and force them to obey a unique set of rules’.

Chapter 2, ‘The Underground’, discusses the dark and extensive world of women who are abused, behind closed doors and hidden in plain sight. It addresses the question, ‘Why do women stay in abusive relationships?’, or rather gives a brief history of victim-blaming answers that have been given given until alarmingly recently, then discusses structural and psychological difficulties in the way of leaving, and many modes of resistance.

Chapter 3 to 5 address the key question: not ‘Why does she choose to stay?’ but ‘Why does he choose to abuse her again?’ In these chapters, Jess Hill never falls into all-men-are-bastards rhetoric. Some men do monstrous things, but it’s important not to simply dismiss them as monsters. To understand everything may not mean to forgive everything. It certainly doesn’t mean anything is to be minimised. But to understand is an important step on the way to putting things right. Hill describes research that categorises coercive controllers as either cold, calculating ‘cobras’ or morbidly jealous, paranoid ‘pit bulls’, with a third type of violent man, the ‘family-only batterer’, who can be just as dangerous but needs different responses. It’s not always easy to tell which category a particular man belongs to, and there’s plenty of slippage between the categories, but the distinctions are useful – there can be no one-size-fits-all response to domestic abuse. Two superb chapters deal respectively with shame, which when linked to a sense of entitlement lies at the base of much male violence, and patriarchy, the overarching system that permeates cultures, and inhabits the minds of perpetrators, victims, responders and bystanders alike.

I’ve lived in a number of all-male environments – boarding schools and religious communities. I’ve participated in many men’s groups and workshops where we grapple with masculinity, sexism and male domination. I love my all-male book group. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a woman writing with such force and clarity, and also compassion, about male conditioning and its potential for disaster. If you’re interested but the prospect of reading all 371 pages of this book is too daunting, I recommend these three chapters.

The bone-chilling chapter 6, ‘Children’, includes a discussion of complex PTSD (which Rick Morton has just written a book about) and the ever-present tragic possibility that a son will follow in his abusive father’s footsteps. Chapter 7, on women who use violence, points to the key difference that without the backing of patriarchy and male conditioning, they are unlikely to have their partners living in fear for their lives. Chapter 8, ‘State of Emergency’, discusses the resources available to a woman trying to escape a dangerously abusive situation:

Women don’t just leave domestic abuse – they journey away from it, step by step. There is no straight path out – it’s a game of snakes and letters, and women can slip back underground just when they’re about to escape. This means that any potential escape route needs attention and support.

Speaking of these resources – police, refuges, the law, the health system – Hill says, ‘Often, the stories with the worst endings are not blockbuster horror stories, but catalogues of negligence, laziness and procedural error.’

Possibly the most distressing chapter of all is Chapter 9, which deals with the Family Court of Australia. Its title, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, tells you a lot about it. Contrary to the much lobbied argument that fathers are badly done by in the family law system, Hill argues that it is the other way around. The use of untrained ‘single experts’ to make judgements about custody, the invocation of the discredited Parental Alienation Syndrome by which a mother is held to be responsible if children are frightened of their father, and a general discounting of women’s and children’s voices make for a hideous mess. If anything the stories here of women and children being betrayed by the law are even more horrifying than the stories of actual abuse.

Since the book was published the Family Court of Australia has been abolished as a freestanding institution, and merged with the Federal Circuit Court. Sadly, it seems likely that this will only make things worse, because it will continue the erosion of resources from family law that has been steadily happening since John Howard’s prime ministership.

The penultimate chapter, ‘Dadirri’, deals with the way intergenerational trauma and grief from colonisation and genocidal policies – including the widespread disruption of families by child removals – put a rocket under issues of domestic abuse for First Nations people. The notion that violence against women is ‘cultural’ is given short and convincing shrift. Hill argues, with evidence, that domestic abuse was more prevalent and tolerated to a greater extent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England than in pre-invasion Australia. There are stories of powerful initiatives taken. For example, Indigenous women in the remote community of Yungngora in the central Kimberley made it happen that disruptive behaviour would result in expulsion from the community for three months after three warnings: ‘In twelve months, domestic violence went from six per week to none‘ (page 334).

The final chapter, ‘Fixing It’, manages to be convincingly, if guardedly, upbeat. ‘Social problems often seem insurmountable,’ Hill writes, ‘until they’re not.’ She makes the obvious point that more funding is needed by emergency services, and is scathing about the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children: it has no clear targets, and tackles domestic violence as an attitude problem’:

The mission to transform attitudes to gender inequality and violence is laudable, and will no doubt produce important cultural changes. But as a primary strategy for reducing domestic abuse, it is horribly inadequate. Why do we accept that it will take decades – possibly generations – to reduce domestic abuse? Why isn’t long-term prevention work paired with a relentless focus on doing everything possible to reduce violence today? Why do successive governments insist that reducing domestic abuse is a matter of changing attitudes – or, at best, parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff? How on earth did public officials decide that surveying community attitudes was the best way to measure whether their strategy to reduce violence was working?

There are places where initiatives have had substantial success in reducing domestic abuse. The High Point Initiative in North Carolina, which you can read about here, has been amazingly effective. It has clear goals, and has police cooperating with service providers to call out perpetrators publicly and make public the severe consequences of future offences. And promising things are happening in Bourke in New South Wales, where a community led program brings services together, with daily check-ins, and cooperates with the police, whose commitment to deal with domestic violence has been organised as Operation Solidarity. Without a big government spend, stunning results have been achieved:

Across the Darling River Local Area Command, domestic homicides dropped from seven in 2015–2016 … to zero for the following 18 months. By 2018, the repeat victimisation rate – which was twice the state average – was also down by a third. Victims have greater trust in police: the number who cooperated with police to pursue legal action is up, from an average of 68 per cent in 2016 to 85 per cent in 2018. And even with this increased legal action, at 75 per cent – something which [the Police Superintendent in charge of Bourke police] puts down to the fact that their prosecutor has been trained to properly understand domestic abuse.

See What You Made Me Do won the 2020 Stella Prize and has received a lot of publicity, but my sense is that it hasn’t been widely read. If I’m right, that’s a shame. It’s journalism at its best, bringing people’s stories into the light, making important research available, and demonstrating that it’s possible to think, and to hope, about a seemingly intractable subject.

A TV series his scheduled to be shown on SBS later this year, and there’s a video of Jess Hill talking at an event run by the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation at this link.


See What You Made Me Do is the fourth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Audio Books, sadly

When the Emerging Artist and I were much younger, I used to read to her on long car trips. For quite a while now, my voice has given out after an alarmingly short time, and we have turned to other entertainments. Audio books we’ve enjoyed are Magda Szubanski’s reading of her memoir Reckoning, and Bruce Kerr and Helen Morse’s reading of Donald and Myfanwy Horne’s Dying: A Memoir, though we only listened to half of the latter. We couldn’t stand David Tredinnick’s actorly reading of Tim Winton’s Island Home, though we could tell the book itself was interesting.

This blog post reports on two more experiments on Audio books on car drives from Sydney to Aireys Inlet in Victoria.


Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason, Saga Land (2017, audible.com 2018)

This is an introduction to the Icelandic sagas embedded in a travel book. It includes Kári Gíslason’s personal story of claiming his Icelandic identity – he was born in Iceland to an Australian mother, but his Icelandic father wasn’t acknowledged on his birth certificate, or at all until he went looking for him as a young adult. It also tells about the friendship between travelling companions Fidler and Gíslason. They wrote alternate chapters and each reads his own chapters in the audio book.

I loved the tellings of the Icelandic sagas – both for their own sakes and for the light they cast on books like Independent People and movies like Rams, and TV shows like Trapped. A year later, my mind has indelibly retained a chilling moment from one of the sagas where a woman exacts revenge for what would now be called an act of domestic violence. And Fidler and Gíslason were excellent company.

Either my ageing ears or our feeble car radio meant that Richard Fidler’s tendency to fade away at the end of sentences made his sections of the book hard to follow at times. But this was a minor blemish compared to readers of other books (see below).

Our car trip, in January last year, ended before the book did, and I didn’t blog about it immediately because I intended to read the rest of it to myself. But as more than a year has now passed, I have to admit that I’ll never get around to it. That is to say, it was a pleasant, instructive read, but not compelling enough to make me go to any trouble to finish it.


Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Bolinda Publishing 2011, read by David Tredinnick)

In spite of my having wanted to throw Evie Wyld’s more recent novel All the Birds, Singing across the room, we’d both enjoyed it enough to expect to enjoy this.

We didn’t. In spite of the pleasures provided to this North Queensland boy by a sugarcane-field setting, we gave up after three of the ten discs, partly because its two narrative strands were going to meet in fairly predictable ways, partly because in one of them the characters felts utterly contrived, especially a weirdly taciturn little girl, and partly because David Tredinnick’s ‘do the police in different voices’, though probably objectively excellent, got on our nerves. For my taste, his reading injects too much actorly interpretation between the writing and me, and I find myself fighting with him over the characters when I’d rather be lost in the story.

We shifted to podcasts – Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews and This American Life. Maybe if I go blind I’ll reconcile myself to audio books, and I’m not ruling out getting another one from the library if we do that drive again. But for now, I’m not an audio book fan.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know at the Book Group, plus November Verse 6

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Penguin Random House 2018)

Before the meeting: I was going to say that this book does what it says on the tin – that is, it tells about the three fathers of famous Protestant Irish writers named in the subtitle. But it doesn’t come good on the implication of the main title – which is a slight variation on a phrase used to describe the poet Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, and which has been used as a title for a number of works since, including a play about Byron by Australian Ron Blair. Neither Byron nor Byronic heroics are to be found in these pages. Nor, really, are any of the three men all that mad, all that bad, or all that dangerous.

Three of the book’s four chapters were given as lectures at a university in Atlanta Georgia in November 2017. I imagine the lectures were riveting. I don’t know this for sure, but it looks to me as if Colm Tóibín has added an introduction and padded out the lectures in a bit of a rush job.

So: there’s plenty of interesting information about the three men and their roles in their sons’ lives and works.

The chapter on William Wilde is framed by Tóibín’s account of a five-hour reading he gave of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in the Reading Gaol prison cell where Wilde wrote it. A striking thing about De Profundis, he writes, is that while it honours Wilde’s mother it barely mentions his father. Nonetheless, Tóibín argues, William Wilde was a big influence on Oscar. And a striking picture of the man emerges, gleaned from contemporary accounts and biographies. My takeaway from this chapter, however, is the desire to see Paul Capsis reading from De Profundis in Woolloomooloo – seven of us from the group are planning to do so.

John B Yeats didn’t get on with his famous son. The elder Yeats was a failed artist – he had trouble finishing paintings, and even his masterpiece, a self-portrait he spent years on, remained incomplete at his death. He was an amazing letter-writer, which we know because his correspondents kept his letters, and many of them have been published, and republished. Among the letters he wrote to William, there’s one that Tóibín quotes advising him to turn away from the mystical path he was taking. In his later years, and this is where the chapter comes fully alive, he wrote frank, passionate love letters from New York to Rosa Butts in Ireland, a woman he may or may not have ever had physical intimacy with. She and he had agreed to burn their letters once they had read them: he kept his part of the agreement, but she did us a favour and reneged.

John Stanislaus Joyce had the dubious honour of being written about by two of his sons, Stanislaus and James. Stanislaus’s books, My Brother’s Keeper and The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, make it clear that he was a terrible husband and father: drunk, improvident, at times cruel. The main thrust of his chapter is an exploration of how Joyce in his fiction managed to combine ‘the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fulness, and indeed its pain and misery’. If ever I reread Ulysses my reading will be richer thanks to this chapter.

A key question about a book like this is whether it engages the interest of a reader who doesn’t have a prior commitment to the subject. I’m moderately interested in all three of these writers: not the Wilde of De Profundis so much as the one who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, who doesn’t really get a look in; the Yeats who wrote ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’; and the Joyce who, as my eldest brother told my father when he was 19 and I was 10, wrote a ‘dirty dirty‘ book called Ulysses. I enjoyed a lot of it, but there’s a lot that I found dull. In particular, the Introduction, which might have offered some basis for general interest, takes the reader on a stroll, pedestrian in both senses, through Dublin streets, telling us how the Wildes, the Yeatses and the Joyces were sometimes neighbours, or not, how their lives intersected (‘Yeats’s grandparents and his father knew Oscar Wilde’s parents’), and how other poets and writers since have lived in or near those places.

I’ve no doubt that Colm Toíbín has a deeply felt interest in these three men. Not a Protestant himself as far as I know, perhaps he is fascinated by the eminence of these Protestant writers and their fathers in mostly-Catholic Ireland. But the book fails to communicate to me why I should be interested. In particular, it may be that Toíbin’s heart just wasn’t in the process of expanding his three lectures to a 205 page book. The lectures were published in the London Review of Books (and are available online here, here and here). I expect they make excellent reading.


After the meeting:

I was nearly two hours late for our meeting. Ice creams were being eaten when I made my entrance. Though there was a feeble attempt to convince me that everyone else had completely loved the book it didn’t take long to elicit an elegant summary of the discussion so far: the book was mostly dull and unengaging with some excellent bits. Most of the discussion had been about people’s relationships with their own fathers and, where possible, sons. I was very sorry to have missed that conversation, though the remnants of it that followed my arrival were terrific: an extraordinary tall traveller’s tale about one chap’s father shouting him and his brother to dubious treats in Bangkok; unspectacular but treasured moments of play; how different generations express affection among males.

About the book: about half of us studied literature in some way at university a long time ago. If the book was marginally interesting to us, it was substantially less so to the others, and fewer than usual bothered to read to the end. One man, who is deeply cultured in other respects, didn’t know the circumstances of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, knowledge that Tóibín assumes in his readers; and I’m pretty sure someone said they’d never heard of W B Yeats (though he’s now tempted to seek out Yeats Senior’s letters).


And because it’s November, here are 14 rhyming lines. I went searching on my bookshelves for anything on the fathers of famous Australian writers, and found this little anecdote in Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass (Jonathan Cape 1981, page 5).

November Verse 6: 
Patrick White, when just a laddy,
felt his penis growing hard.
There's something odd, he told his daddy.
Daddy reddened, hummed and haaed,
and said, 'Step out' – the passing glimmer
of a smile told the young swimmer
all was well. At that same age
a first poet stepped onto the stage
of Paddy's life. Face like a wrinkled,
sooty lemon, driest kind
of gent, the Banjo paid no mind
to Patrick. But those first notes tinkled:
first ripples on great passion's tide
delivered at his father's side.

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father (2018, translated from French by Lorin Stein, New Directions 2019)

It was purely fortuitous that I read this book immediately after Susan Hill’s Black Sheep, but they make a beautiful pair. Arthur, one of the sons of the mining family in Black Sheep, disappears overnight, and only we and his youngest brother Ted know that he has escaped rather than met with disaster. Édouard Louis is a young Gay man who has escaped from the working-class conditions that have destroyed his father’s life. It’s as if it calls out to that book: ‘This is what it’s like inside your story!’

The opening sentences of Who Killed My Father – notice the absence of a question mark, also a feature of the French title Qui a tué mon père – says a lot:

When asked what the word racism means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.

The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class – to social and political oppression of all kinds.

This is not an agony memoir, a whining portrait of a father who made his Gay son’s life a misery. For a start, it wields a certain amount of intellectual heft (Ruth Gilmore is not the only scholar to illuminate the narrative).

In all but the first couple of pages, Édouard Louis speaks to his father, who is still alive at the time of writing, presenting him (and, of course, us) with a mosaic of memories from which emerges a picture of how the father’s ‘male privilege’ and ‘hatred of homosexuality’ affected the son, but also the constricting and distorting effect they have had on the father:

Masculinity – don’t act like a girl, don’t be a faggot – meant that you dropped out as fast as you could to show everyone you were strong, as soon as you could to show you were rebellious, and so, as far as I can tell, constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality = poverty.

(page 35)

It’s a passionate, painful, complex monologue, full of rage and frustration, reaching a kind of climax when the teenaged son deliberately provokes a near-murderous family row, and in the end it’s a love letter.

There’s a turn about 20 pages from the end. The father is critically injured in an industrial accident. Though he suffers severe pain from the injury, policies brought in by the governments of Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron ensure that he doesn’t receive the help he needs but must continue in demeaning and damaging work. ‘Why do we never name these names?’ the words just about scream from the page.

The Wikipedia entry on Édouard Louis describes this book (on 9 October 2019) as a novel. I think that’s just plain wrong. I’d be astonished if the author’s father doesn’t read it and recognise every word as real – and find in it a difficult joy.

Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city (Doubleday 2013, Little Brown 2014)

Russell Shorto is a USer who lived in Amsterdam from 2006 to 2013. This book is something of a love letter to the city that was his adopted home for those years, and a salute to others who have lived there and contributed to the life of the city – Amsterdammers as a whole as well as a number of extraordinary individuals from Renaissance scholar Erasmus and early Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, to Rembrandt and (briefly) Van Gogh, to Anne Frank (who needs no label) and Roel van Duijn (founder of the Provo movement in the 1960s).

It’s a history built around the central notion that because of its origins as a city built on land reclaimed from water by collective effort and owned individually by its citizens, Amsterdam has always had a strong ethos that values the individual while expecting a degree of cooperation. He contrasts this version of liberalism, both economic and social, with the stark individualism of the US version.

Entwined with this concept is the theme of tolerance. Amsterdam’s tolerance, which has been a hallmark of the city for centuries, isn’t necessarily a principled moral stand, but has a stubborn pragmatism to it. When the Holy Roman Emperor issues a ruling that certain unorthodox religious practices were to be outlawed and punished, the Amsterdam authorities imposed punishments like compelling miscreants to process down the main street carrying candles. In our own time, marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands, but the uniquely Dutch concept of gedogen, illegal but tolerated, means that Amsterdam is studded with coffee shops (not to be mistaken for cafes) where you can smoke pot at leisure in a regulated, tax-paying environment.

Shorto doesn’t shy away from the terrible aspects of the Amsterdam story: it’s the city that loosed the notion of a share market on the world; the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded there, to create vast wealth for the city and nation at the expense of devastation at an unbelievable scale in the colonised lands.

The writing is lively and genuinely illuminating. I came away from it having learned a lot about things I already knew a little, and a lot more about things I was ignorant of. I loved reading Erasmus at university decades ago for instance, but knew nothing of his troubled childhood. All I have of Spinoza is a line from a Martin Johnston poem (‘Spinoza scratched the core of light’): I’ve got a lot more now. Rembrandt has become a rounded character. The standard history of feudal, mediaeval Europe, has become much more complex in my mind now that I know how differently the Low Countries were organised. I no longer think of the boy who put his finger in the dyke as a Dutch story: it’s an individualistic US story that makes no sense to the Dutch.

And so on.

One thing that stood out for me was the story of the Social Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, or SER). This was formed in 1950, as part of the Dutch recovery from World War Two and, Shorto writes, ‘has been a feature of the Dutch landscape ever since’:

There is no equivalent of it in the American, British, or most other systems. It is a panel comprising three groups: labour leaders, industry leaders, and experts appointed by the government. On a given topic, the panellists will consult with their constituencies, then convene as a group and hash out the issue until they reach unanimous agreement on how it should be handled. Then they lay their finding before the government. Alexander Rinnooy Kan was the head of the SER from 2006 to 2012. He told me that the government almost always adopts the SER’s position because ‘it’s not just the position of the members of the council, but of all of their constituencies, whether employers or trade union members. That equals 80 percent of the economy.’

(page 280)

Well, ain’t that a model that allows for a degree of serious deliberation that seems to be missing from our polarised and point-scoring politics in Australia just now (and not just Australia)! Imagine if we had something like that to address issues such as global warming, offshore detention of people seeking asylum, or even an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley n Search of America (Penguin 1962)

Before the meeting: Neither of the two libraries I belong to had a copy of this, and my local bricks-and-mortar bookshop took a couple of weeks to get it in. But my impression that it was an obscure enthusiasm of this month’s Book Chooser was modified when a young woman behind the counter, seeing it in my hands, said cheerfully, ‘I’ve got a red poodle.’ I realised the Charley of the book’s title must be a dog, so I smiled, and she went on, ‘His name is Steinbeck.’

The book was published in 1962, the year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s an account of a road trip he took in late 1960, in a truck with an odd little house on its back that he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He describes the countryside he drives through and devotes very little ink to the cities. He recounts conversations and draws conclusions, but if one was looking for a coherent journalistic ‘narrative’ one would look in vain.

The election that made John F Kennedy president happened during the course of his travels, and is mentioned in passing, mainly to say that people generally aren’t talking about it. The Cold War is raging and there’s a pervasive anxiety about nuclear weapons. The US War in Vietnam has not yet happened. State troops haven’t killed university students. Richard Nixon hasn’t disgraced the presidency. Oral contraceptives have arrived but not so you’d notice, and the sexual revolution is over the horizon. The women’s liberation movement may be fermenting, but the news hasn’t reached Steinbeck: for the most part he converses with men, women are either relatives or monsters of one kind or another, and his version of masculinity is unreconstructed US warrior-macho. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing in the southern states, but until he reaches New Orleans in the second last section, there’s no African American voice. That section turns out to be brilliant, rising to visceral disgust and rage in its account of the Cheerleaders, the women who led the harassment of small children in the desegregation of schools in the south, and its account of his brief encounter with a young man who supported them.

Until that chapter, the book felt to me like a museum piece, its humour quaint rather than funny (Charley ceremoniously salutes a lot of trees), its charm decidedly of a bygone era. For my taste, it was a case of too late, too soon: too late to be current, too soon to be historical. The Book Chooser this month is an actor, and there’s a splendid encounter with an actor in North Dakota, one of the very few people who are accorded a reasonably rounded portrait.

Having recently read Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes, I had an eye out for embedded aphorisms. Here are a couple I noted:

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.

(page 83)

Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.

(page 121)

It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time comes nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry.

(page 157)

The edition I read has an Introduction by Jay Parisi and notes for further reading. What with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and other distractions, I didn’t get a chance to read them.

After the meeting: Over an excellent dinner of pea soup cooked to an Ottolenghi recipe using fresh peas and spaghetti vongole with some prawns tossed in, followed by Messina gelato, we had a terrific evening, even though two people hadn’t managed to get hold of the book.

My impression is that others enjoyed it much more than I did, and by the end of the evening I thought more highly of it than I had, Someone read out a passage about small towns becoming antique-shop strips and what had seemed laboured humour was revealed as beautifully crafted sentences foreshadowing the whole fake heritage thing that afflicts many small country towns these days. Other readers enjoyed the dog much more than I did, and his account of waste and environmental degradation had impressed. It turned out to be a book full of interesting bits that give pleasure when recalled in conversation: the description of Montana, a hilarious encounter with bureaucracy at the Canadian border, the Cheerleaders of course, and the list goes on. There was some disagreement over the personality of Steinbeck as projected in the book: a preening boaster about his masculinity or a decent, serious man? Others had read the introduction, and were able to place the book in the context of the rest of Steinbeck’s life: there’s palaver at the beginning of the book about how he felt removed from the America he was writing about and this was an attempt to reconnect, which was more serious than I ha rad it to be – contemporary critics were saying that his writing at that time of his life lacked the power of his earlier stuff, written when he was living geographically close to the people he wrote about. A number of guys had gone to visit places from last month’s book.

Someone else had loved The Chaperone, which I thought was basically a telemovie. Someone had been in New York (in this group it seems that every meeting someone has been to New York) and bought their copy of the book at the fabled Stand Bookstore in Manhattan. I seem to be the only one who had made it to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which happened about 200 metre from where we met. Excellent books and forthcoming theatre productions were promoted. We had an impassioned conversation abut Israel – Folau, not the state – and resolved the issue of hate speech, freedom of speech, workplace responsibilities and the status of Australian Rugby Union when compared to New Zealand’s.