Tag Archives: non-fiction

The Book Group and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer

Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)

chernobyl.jpegFrom post revolutionary China in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing back to the Russian Revolution in China Miéville’s October, and now forward to post-Soviet Belarus: the book group has lit on a theme.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chernobyl Prayer is essentially a series of monologues about the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I expected it to be a gruelling read, so I rationed it. I worked out how I would need to read seventeen pages a day to finish the book before the Group met, and set that as a schedule. Of course it didn’t work out like that, but it was a good strategy.

As Studs Terkel’s Working did for working people in the USA, or Wendy Loewenstein’s Weevils in the Flour for the 1930s Depression in Australia, this book provides a platform for scores of witnesses who otherwise would be largely ignored or – as a number of Alexievich’s interviewees tell us – treated as specimens. There are peasants and nuclear physicists, loyal Communists and embittered cynics, ancient women and nine year olds, poets, playwrights and journalists. There’s operatic intensity, fatalistic heroism, jokes that are terrible in both meanings of the word. The cultivated and forested land around Chernobyl is lovingly evoked, along with the invisible horror of nuclear radiation. The monologues that pretty much begin and end the book, each titled ‘A lone human voice’, are long, passionate, heartbreaking stories of love and bereavement, one from the widow of a fireman who was among what we now call the first responders, the other from the widow of a clean-up worker who was conscripted for the job six months later.

Here’s an excerpt from the author’s interview with herself early in the book:

This is not a book on Chernobyl, but on the world of Chernobyl. … what I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. How many times has art rehearsed the apocalypse, offered different technological versions of doomsday? Now, though, we can be assured that life is infinitely more fantastical. … Chernobyl is a mystery that we have yet to unravel. An undeciphered sign. A mystery, perhaps, for the twenty-first century; a challenge for it. What has become clear is that, besides the challenges of Communism, nationalism and nascent religion which we are living with and dealing with, other challenges lie ahead: challenges more fiendish and all-embracing, although still hidden from view. Yet, after Chernobyl, something had cracked open.

I’ve responded to works by other Nobel Prize laureates with a kind of compliant respect, ‘I can see why this person was given the Nobel Prize, and I guess my horizons have been expanded by reading this book.’ In the case of Chernobyl Prayer I am deeply grateful that the Norwegians brought it to my attention (and to the Book Group for prompting me to read it). In illuminating the ‘missing history’ of Chernobyl, it reminds us of the disasters, past and in the making, that we so easily turn our heads away from: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Maralinga, Fukushima, and the overarching threat of climate change. In this way it is like Maralinga: the An̲angu story by the Yalata Aboriginal Community with Christobel Mattingley, or Yhonnie Scarce’s beautiful and unsettling installation Death Zephyr (click for an image). It would be impossible for a reasonably well informed Australian to read this book, especially the sections dealing with the way political pragmatism trumped the laws of physics, without thinking of the pronouncements on coal from Tony Abbott and his ilk.

The meeting: I hosted the meeting this time. I let people know in advance that I had made an enormous amount of marmalade from our cumquat tree this year. One of the chaps emailed on the weekend, ‘The prospect of marmalade is the only thing getting me through this miserable book!’ Others echoed the sentiment.

It turned out that the conversation was so animated that all thought of marmalade vanished from our minds. It’s a perfect book-club book. There is so much detail that the conversation bounced around from one alarming moment to another, as we reminded each other of what we’d read. We were in awe of the author’s skill in getting such poetry down on the page from her interlocutors’ testimonies.

And now a hasty fourteen lines, written before the group met:

November Verse 3: After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
(‘I realise now that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally‘)
Good Soviets, good peasants trusted
authorities that reassured,
a lifetime’s mental habit rusted
on. To keep that Party Card,
to serve the people, serve the nation,
be not afeared of radiation:
in spring the wood’s still gently green,
roengtens, curies can’t be seen.
We have our own insanity
three decades on: the planet warms,
brings bushfires, catastrophic storms,
but ‘Coal’s good for humanity’
wins votes. With luck in time we’ll learn
so millions more don’t have to burn.

T G H Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend & November verse 2

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)

horseshoe

The name Strehlow may not be quite well enough known to feature in a pub quiz question about whitefellas in Central Australia, but it comes close. Wikipedia describes Carl Strehlow (1871–1922) as a ‘linguist, anthropologist, genealogist, collector of natural history specimens, missionary and translator’ who ‘served on two Lutheran missions in inland Australia from May 1892 to October 1922, a total of thirty years’. T G H (Ted) Strehlow (1908–1978), his son, spent his childhood on the Hermannsburg Mission and achieved fame as an anthropologist and linguist, especially for his Songs of Central Australia, ‘a monumental study of the ceremonial poetry of the Arrernte’ (Wikipedia again).

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is Ted Strehlow’s account of the last days of his father’s life, when he was fourteen years old. Written four decades after the event, and now reissued by Giramondo more than four decades after first publication, it’s an extraordinary time machine of a book, consisting of at least four distinct strands:

The main narrative: In October 1922 Carl Strehlow, Lutheran pastor of Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia, is extremely ill, and the only chance to get desperately needed medical attention is to take him by horse and buggy to the nearest settlement that can be reached by a doctor in a car. He has dropsy (that is, most of his body is painfully swollen with retained fluid) and suffers terribly from the jolting journey in the intense summer heat. It’s no spoiler to say that he reaches the settlement of Horseshoe Bend, but dies before a doctor can reach him, and the burial ceremony is described in painful detail. His wife Frieda travels with him, and Hezekiel, the Arrernte man who drives the buggy. Their son Theo – referred to in the third person throughout – travels separately on a cruder, even joltier wagon driven by the Arrernte man Titus.

Arrernte stories: As the vehicles move through country, we are told the stories (called ‘myths’) of the ancestral beings who created its features, and some of the pre-settlement history of internecine conflict. It seems unlikely that the fourteen year old Theo would have known all these stories, but he had  grown up among Arrernte people (here called ‘Aranda’ or ‘dark people’) and though he was never initiated he had a deep sense of belonging to the Arrernte and to that country. Certainly the respectful matter of factness of his story=telling has an insider feel to it.

Settler history and anthropology: As the small party travels down the Finke River, they are given hospitality by a number of settlers along the way. Strehlow gives a brief history of each stopping-place, and casts a dispassionate anthropologist’s eye over them, particularly their sexual mores. At least, his tone is dispassionate: it’s hard to imagine that anyone could describe without a quiver of indignation moments like the one where a new white wife arrives and insists that the children who have been borne to her new husband by an Arrernte woman should no longer have his name. Some pages aim to reproduce the language of the settler patriarch of Horseshoe Bend, and even though its full-blown colonialism is certainly not endorsed by the book, a trigger warning for its liberal use of the N word wouldn’t be out of place.

The elder Strehlow’s spiritual struggle: There’s quite a bit of Biblical exegesis, particularly of the Book of Job and Christ’s anguished cry. ‘Thy will be done’, and some bitter reflections on the contrast between institutional religion and the religion of the spirit. Although, as Philip Jones comments in his excellent afterword, Strehlow’s bitter blaming of the Lutheran authorities for his father’s suffering may well be a projection of his own feelings towards his university employers, all the same there’s some profound meditation here.

The younger Strehlow’s coming of age story:  Theo leaves his childhood home for the first time, and his father’s death marks a decisive turning point – he had expected to go to Germany to finish his education, but now he decides he belongs in Australia. In other ways too, the ordeal changes his sense of himself in the world: for the first time he meets with people who are neither Arrernte nor devout European Christian: his journey to Horseshoe Bend is his first encounter with ‘the outside world’. Though the terrible ordeal of the elder Strehlow is made painfully tangible, we are not made privy to the emotional upheaval it must have caused his son.when we are told what is going on in Theo’s mind, it is mostly his response to the country and then in the final pages his decision to stay in Australia.

I don’t suppose anyone would claim that Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a great literary work. Philip Jones’s Afterword describes in some detail how Strehlow resisted his editors’ suggestions on many fronts: the dialogue is generally wooden, the religious reflections repetitive, the recriminations shrill. But I have to say that it has changed – deepened, expanded, transformed – my sense of what it is to be a settler Australian.

I am grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

[Added later: Lisa Hill has an excellent review of this book at ANZ LItLover’s LitBlog]

And now, because it’s November:

November Verse 2:
(riffing on Journey to Horseshoe Bend pages 262–265) 
Lill had three sons and a daughter.
She was the wife of Gus the boss
of Horseshoe Bend. Well, kinda, sorta.
A wife would not have borne the loss
of stolen fair-skinned daughter Millie.
Her sons would have been heirs – that’s Jimmy,
Bert and Sonny, stockman all;
her wife-pride would have had no fall.
But then a girl bride joined the station,
said, ‘Lill’s sons can’t have your name,
so give them hers.’ She had no shame.
A decade later, commendation:
‘I’d not have coped with life up here
without Lill’s help. She’s such a dear.’

 

Clive James’s Poetry Notebook

Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006–2014 (Picador 2014)

1447269128.jpgI bought this book because I felt slightly grubby after reading Play All, Clive James’s book about television. Play All brings James’s wit, clowning, extraordinary recall, clarity of judgement and contrarianism to bear on the object of an addiction – the relatively harmless one to television; this book puts those qualities, minus the clowning, at the service of a passion – his lifelong passion for poetry. The result is much more wholesome. 

The book is a series of short, free-ranging pieces written for the US journal Poetry, linked by very short ‘Interludes’, and bulked out by  equally short pieces published in sources ranging from Quadrant to the Times Literary Supplement, all between 2006 and 2014. The collection is free-ranging, but it’s not directionless. James’s mind has been concentrated wonderfully by being diagnosed with a terminal illness, and though he writes in his introduction that a lifetime of thinking about poetry has not left him with an aesthetic system to convey, in fact a pretty coherent view does emerge. James could almost have been describing this book when he wrote of  a book of Michael Donaghy’s criticism (page 138):

Many of these pieces, undertaken as journeywork at the time but always lavished with the wealth of his knowledge and the best of his judgement, are collected in this book, and it is remarkable how they coalesce into the most articulate possible expression of a unified critical vision.

James’s main thrust is to defend traditional English verse, particularly verse in rhyming stanzas  in iambic pentameter, to defend it and to explain it to an age that he fears has forgotten how to read it. 

You do have to get past his contrarianism. He’s not crude enough to say that the only poetry worth reading is the kind he favours, but sometimes he comes close. There are too many cheap cracks at the influential US poet John Ashbery or at journalists en masse, and a number of characterisations of the whole of Australia as given over to  the orthodoxy that ‘an apprehensible form is thought to be a repressive hangover from the old imperialism’. He says something vaguely positive about Francis Webb, then adds, ‘but Webb was a mental patient.’  He proclaims that Judith Wright wrote only one or two decent poems. And there are one or two breathtakingly ignorant comments on non-poetic matters, probably intended as curmudgeonly rejections of ‘political correctness’.

But once you’ve thrown the book across the room once or twice, there’s a lot to enjoy and learn from. I read it with my phone beside me, and read for the first time many of the poems referred to, from Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent‘ and Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point‘ to UiAiFanthorpe’s ‘Not My Best Side‘. This might not be a positive quality for readers who are better read or less interested than I am, but for the ignorant but interested it’s terrific. And it’s worth noting that his harsh judgements aren’t limited to ‘informal’ contemporary or near-contemporary poets: he gets stuck into Milton and Alexander Pope, and Ezra Pound emerges as pretty much a grandiloquent phoney.

You wouldn’t go to Clive James for illuminating comment on, say, Jennifer Maiden, Rhyll McMaster or Pam Brown. But he does a brilliant detailed exposition of a poem by Stephen Edgar, and he illuminates with a passion many other poems that he loves, or include a phrase, a line, or a passage he loves. One never doubts that Gerard Manly Hopkins, James McAuley, and a myriad others have won his love, sometimes by a complete poem but often by a single phrase or line. 

He’s concerned, as implied by the US subtitle ‘Reflections on the Intensity of Language’, with the way poetry uses language intensely: with phrases, lines, stanzas, and occasionally whole poems. Writing poetry is all very well, but to write a poem is an achievement. In among his sharp judgements, there is a deep humility about poetry itself: ‘I’m still trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together.’

As my regular readers will know, I sometimes turn my hand to versifying. I found his discussions of the fruitful tension between metrical forms and conversational rhythms enormously instructive. Uncharacteristically, his prose in these passages becomes a little clogged with technical terms, but I for one was glad of that. And here too his gift for epigram shines through: ‘The only way to hide the tensions of a set form is to perfect it.’

Through it all, there’s a thread of farewell. In this book, James says  things he doesn’t want to die leaving unsaid. But it’s not grim or gloomy. He refers to himself as a beginner as a poet. The book’s final exclamation, ostensibly about how to write as ‘innocently’ as Shakespeare, cries out to be extracted from its immediate context to serve as a description of the book’s project:

Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realise what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark

The time when you don’t need hope is when your hopes have been fulfilled. Hope is for when you don’t have what you need and for when things are not OK. It is the belief that liberation might be possible that motivates you to make it more possible, and pursuing hope even when it doesn’t lead to the ultimate goal can generate changes that matter along the way, including in yourself.
Another, more beautiful America is rising. Trump will be resisted‘, The Guardian, 30 December 2016

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004; this revised edition Haymarket Books 2016)

solnit.jpg The paragraph quoted above from Rebecca Solnit’s article on the election of Donald Trump is also a reasonable summary of Hope in the Dark‘s central argument.

First published in 2004 by Nation Books, a small publisher whose motto is ‘Challenging power, one book at a time’, this book challenged the power of the bleak sense of defeat and despair that threatened to overwhelm many progressives after the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. In three subsequent editions new chapters have been added, but the book is essentially rooted in its time – the millennium was new, the invasion of Iraq was fresh, the younger Bush had been elected twice. There was almost as much reason for gloom then as there is now, when the results of that invasion are still laying waste to thousands of lives, and a man who inherited vast wealth and who has never held political office is about to be inaugurated as president of the United States.

Any number of inspirational quotes could be extracted from this book and pinned to the fridge door. For example, on page 20:

There are those who think that turning the official version inside out is enough. To say that the emperor has no clothes is a nice antiauthoritarian gesture, but to say that everything without exception is going straight to hell is not an alternative vision but only an inverted version of the mainstream’s ‘everything’s fine’.

On page 24:

Political awareness without activism means looking at the devastation, your face turned toward the centre of things. Activism itself can generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns away from the corruption at the centre to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges or at your side.

and page 24 again:

Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.

or, just to show that the quotes aren’t limited to the early pages, from page 80:

Paradise is not the place in which you arrive but the journey toward it.

But it would misrepresent the book to leave it at that. Solnit is more than a crafter of superior inspirational quotes.  She’s also a long-term activist and a historian. She has an argument: it’s a mistake to take any defeat as final, because the future is inherently dark, in the sense of unknowable; it’s a mistake to take any defeat as complete, because you can never know the effect of any action you take – tiny actions lay the groundwork for future victories, and indeed all victories build on myriad earlier actions that met with defeat at the time. The stories we tell make a difference to our possibilities. It’s a mistake to swallow whole the mainstream version of history – if you ‘pay attention to what they tell you to forget’ (to quote Muriel Rukeyser, another great US writer and activist) things look a lot less grim. The middle part of the book considers recent US political history and finds cause for hope (that is to say, not certainty of better things to come, but the possibility of them if one acts) in the new, joyful, animated forms of resistance that were developing in the US around the millennium. The note added in 2016 adds quite a lot to this list.

It’s a short book. I recommend it for anyone who finds themselves transfixed by the latest Trumpism in the US or Duttonism / Turnbullism in Australia.

 

Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts

Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press 2013)

Whatever else it may be, a desert is a historical document preserving a complex record of the interaction of past climates, geomorphic processes and cultural systems. I like to think of these landscapes as a palimpsest of different deserts. Stratified in time, stacked one above another, each has its own climate, physical landscapes and environment; each its own social landscapes and people, places of association and belonging, territories, resources and itineraries. Some features of earlier deserts project through these layers to become part of the fabric and cultural geography of later deserts. Structural features and processes are held in common: wind and water shape landforms; the basin and range topography provides the formwork of the landscape. No one desert is erased entirely by succeeding deserts – a fact that makes archaeology possible. This monograph – the first book-length archaeological study of Australia’s deserts – is an attempt to map out these histories.

That’s the opening paragraph of Mike Smith’s preface to The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, and it’s a fair account of his project. The book is written with archaeological scholars and students in mind, and general readers are likely to find it hard going. At least I did. But, with judicious skipping and a willingness to read on even while suspecting I might sometimes be missing the point, I found it fascinating.

Tom Griffiths wrote in The Art of Time Travel, ‘Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened and how we know what we think happened.’ In this book, both stories are wonderful, and neither can be honestly told without the other.

As this is a survey of a vast field of exploration, the story of ‘how we know what we think happened’ really is about ‘we’ the profession rather than ‘I’ the author. Again and again, someone is cited as proposing a version of what happened 20, 30 or 50 thousand years ago, only to have that explanation deemed unconvincing in the light of more recent evidence and replaced by a new theory, which is discarded in its turn. There are many sentence like this:

The prevailing view that higher rainfall, and active rivers and lakes, had marked the late glacial climate [that is, the last stages of the last ice age, a little more than 13 000 years ago] changed so abruptly in the mid-1960s that by 1975, little trace of it remained.

One imagines whole lifetimes of study and theorising falling in ruins in less than a decade, and at the same time one is warned that the chapters that follow may some day meet a similar fate.

This constant, apparently dispassionate scepticism, and the implied scholarly humility, stands in heartening contrast to the common discourse of politicians and opinionators who reject inconvenient science and call themselves sceptics.

A second aspect of the ‘how’, as important as the first but here less captivating, is technological advance, particularly in dating techniques. Some of the new technologies are explained in a glossary, but I mostly skipped the discussions of the different dates arrived at using different  processes – I’ll just trust the scientists to know their ABOX 14C from their TIM U/Th. In this case I’m interested in the findings rather than the nano nuts and bolts.

Then there’s the other story, the provisional narrative created from the archaeological evidence. There were people in the Australian deserts (and Smith does say ‘people’, which reads as if ‘like us’ is implied) more than 50 000 years ago, when they shared the place with diprotodons and giant emu-like birds. Those people’s descendants found ways to survive the most intense period of the last ice age 19 to 26 and a half thousand years ago (the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’ or LGM, ‘26.5–19 ka’ in scientific language). As the bitter aridity of that age passed, there is evidence that the population in the deserts increased, and different kinds of trade flourished over great distances. There were changes in technology, culture (Smith’s discussion of cave art is fascinating) and language (who knew that palaeolinguistics was a thing?). The detail is hard for the inexpert reader to follow at times, but what emerges is a rich, complex narrative that is challenging to widely held assumptions on many levels.

Let me give two examples that came up while I was still reading the book.

First, in the splendid exhibition The history of the world in 100 objects currently showing at the  National Museum of Australia, one of the wall notes reads in part:

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the climate warmed up across the world, humans gradually shifted from hunting and gathering to a settled way of life based on farming – and in the process, our relationship to the natural world was transformed. From living as a minor part of a balanced ecosystem, we start trying to overcome nature – to take control.

Well, not all humans. People in Australia did it differently. Even the term ‘ice age’ doesn’t describe what was happening in this part of the world: rather than great sheets of ice, people here had to cope with great dust bowls. Smith discusses at some length the probable different strategies adopted. And as the climate warmed up and the human population grew, even in the desert areas, people in Australia continued to live as part of the ecosystem. Once, this would have been seen as a failure to progress, but now it begins to look much more like something the rest of the world can learn from.

The second example is something Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong man, said at Jonathan Jones’s profound installation, barrangal dyara (skin and bones) in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Pascoe reminded us that long before settlement (he said that in Victoria he’s not allowed to say ‘invasion’) the old people had worked out something rare if not unique in the history of the planet: how to live without wars over land.

Before reading Mike Smith’s book, I would probably have heard this as somehow meaning that the Aboriginal culture and politics had been been unchanging in since an imagined meeting of elders that happened millennia ago. But not now. The archaeological record is very limited in what it can tell us about what happened tens of thousands of years ago, but it does indicate that as circumstances changed (as sea levels fell and rose by more than a hundred metres, for example) so did people’s behaviour. Cultures developed and changed, as did social organisation and people’s relationship to country (archaeologists talk of ‘territoriality’ and ‘land tenure’). Bruce Pascoe’s observation is a powerful counter to the colonialist notion that there is a single template for progress in human affairs, and that Europeans are much ‘further along’ than Aboriginal peoples. No, he says, Aboriginal people chose a different path, a different kind of complexity. Listening to him with Mike Smith’s book fresh in my mind, I’m struck by the startlingly obvious idea that those ‘old people’ were not some imaginary super-beings, but historical humans who grappled with the problems of existence at least as creatively as anyone else on the planet, and in some respect made wiser decisions.

I read this book because of Tom Griffiths’s chapter on Mike Smith in The Art of Time Travel. It was every bit as daunting as I expected, but worth it: like the difference between a reproduction of a painting and the painting itself.

The Book Group go to the theatre and read the news

Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual  (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

024114647X

This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, an excursion to see a play in which one of us was performing – The Young Tycoons by C J Johnson, about the heirs apparent to two media empires. In deference to our nominal reason for meeting, we agreed to have a look at a book that’s at least tangentially related to the play. (We also read a fascinating piece of journalistic gossip for which, in lieu of further discussion, here is a link).

Before the meeting: This is a high-grade self-help book. If there’s an overall thesis, it’s this:

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.

‘The news’ is discussed in six main categories: politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster and consumption. In each category, de Botton discusses the way the news cycle  and the currently widespread addiction to it mitigate against thinking. There are plenty of interesting observations and insights, many of them obvious on reflection, though when dealing with addictions there’s no harm in stating the bleeding obvious. I had an uneasy feeling that ‘I’ the reader was being invited to feel superior to the ‘we’ that de Botton describes as manipulated by the news media. Maybe that, and a tendency to glibness, is something that comes with the territory..

After the meeting: It turned out, unsurprisingly, that I was the only one in the group, apart from the actor, who had read the book. We weren’t going to have much of a discussion in the foyer of the Eternity Theatre anyhow. But the conjuncrtio of the play and the book prompted at least one interesting reflection. In the chapter on disaster, de Botton compares the way heinous behaviour is typically described in the press with its treatment in ancient Greek tragedy:

The plot lines of [ancient tragedies] were unmitigatingly macabre, easily matching anything our own news could provide … But … in order for a horror (a meaningless narration of revolting events) to turn into what Aristotle called a tragedy (an educative tale fashioned from abominations), the philosopher thought it was vital that the plot should be well arranged and the motives and the personalities of the characters properly outlined to us. Extreme dramatic skill would be required in order for the audience to spontaneously reach a point at which it recognised that the apparently unhinged protagonist of the story, who had acted impetuously, arrogantly and blindly, who had perhaps killed others and destroyed his own reputation and life, the person in whom one might at first (had one come across the story in the news) have dismissed as a maniac, was, in the final analysis, rather like us in certain key ways.

C J Johnson is no Sophocles, at least not yet, and The Young Tycoons is a chronicle play rather than a tragedy, but it illustrates the point. The younger generation of the Murdoch and Packer families appear in the news as glossy celebrities, fair game when brawling with old comrades in a Bondi Street or being patted on the hand by a distraught patriarch before a Parliamentary Enquiry. In this play, stylishly delivered by a cast that has no weak links, we catch at least a whiff of just how appallingly constricted their lives are, and how callous they have been shoe-horned into becoming. I was reminded of Jamie Johnson’s extraordinary documentary, Born Rich, made a couple of years before this play was first staged in 2005.

Alan Connor’s Two Girls, One on Each Knee

Alan Connor, Two Girls, One on Each Knee (Particular Books 2013)

1846148413Let me start with a factoid, a movie anecdote and a memory, all crossword-related:

  • Ronald Knox (1888–1957), Catholic convert scholar and single-handed translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English, is said to have completed The Times crossword each morning, first the across clues, then the down.
  • In the 1961 movie Very Important Person (also known as A Coming-out Party) the James Robertson Justice character arrives in a German prisoner-of-war camp and is left alone in a hut while the other prisoners are all on work details. He sees a copy of The Times on the rough wooden table, and turns to the crossword. His hut-mates arrive to discover that in a matter of minutes he has deprived them of their week’s only pleasure.
  • I once did a cryptic crossword in which the answer to each of three clues – referring respectively to a little pig, a village and a Shakespearean drama – was HAMLET.

None of those appears in Two Girls, One on Each Knee. but they could have: Alan Connor gives us a wealth of similar crosswordiana: gossip about famous solvers; scenes from movies, television and novels; great moments in setting. He also tells the history of crosswords, introduces us to some of the outstanding setters, and goes down the kinds of byways you would expect from someone who writes a regular column on crosswords for the Guardian. The book would be a useful guide to someone wanting to find out how cryptic clues work, or a student researching the history of crosswords, but its main mission seems to me to be to communicate the pleasures of the pastime. It fills this mission brilliantly. As something of an addict myself, I found the book immensely enjoyable.

Due homage is paid to The Times crossword, which appears in The Australian. For years I’ve been a fan, and I confess that in the past I have given money to the Murdoch empire in order to enjoy the crossword. These days I frequent a cafe where the staff tolerate me defacing the complimentary copy. I used to wish someone would edit it for Australian solvers, replacing the more parochial London references with more generally accessible ones, but really, it’s not broke so better not fix it.

There’s a chapter on The Listener, the most difficult crossword in the world, which a friend introduced me to in my 20s. The Listener went out of print decades ago but its crossword lives on in The Times each weekend. Though I rarely have access to it, it’s always a challenging pleasure. I’ve even completed it occasionally. The Spectator crossword comes closest to it in my experience, and has the advantage of being available in Australia and closer to humanly possible.

Connor compares UK and US crosswords. I once subscribed to the New York Times crossword online for a couple of months. The difference from English and Australian puzzles was striking. Apart from the shocking way brand names and capitalist enterprises appear with the same nonchalance as cities and famous people, the US puzzles have a very different kind of playfulness. I enjoyed it, but not enough to keep up my subscription.

Just one of the many clues Connor includes is by David Astle (DA), doyen of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s puzzles, and I’m surprised he rated even one, as in my experience when DA and his minions are not being annoyingly imprecise or obvious, they mosyly offer challenging exercises, but little by way of the pleasure that this book celebrates. And what can you say about a quick crossword in which eastern is clued as ‘from the east’ and pensive as ‘nervous’, or a cryptic with surface meaning as awkward and cryptic play as obvious  as ‘Spoil in a mooring site’? David Astle’s book Puzzled may have been as much fun as Two Girls, One on Each Knee. I hope so, but I doubt it.

One startling fact emerges from the book: there is no evidence for the frequent claims that doing crosswords, especially cryptic crosswords, is a way of staving off cognitive decline. The same can be said for the book itself: I doubt if there is any evidence that reading it will improve the reader in any way. But like the puzzles it discusses, it’s fun anyway.

Gitta Sereny’s German Trauma

Gitta Sereny, The German Trauma (Allen Lane 2000)

1gtGitta Sereny (1921–2012) was one of the great non-fiction writers of the 20th century. Holocaust denier David Irving described her as a shrivelled Nazi hunter, but though she may well have worn the insult as a badge of honour it wasn’t accurate. She said of herself: ‘I am interested above all in how individual human beings succumb to, or resist, evil.’ In Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995), and Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell (1998) she digs with empathy and rigour into the minds of one of Hitler’s closest henchmen and a child murderer respectively, and sheds light on very dark places.

This book, retitled optimistically for the US market as The Healing Wound, was her last. It’s a collection of essays and newspaper pieces spanning 30 years, revised and with new interstitial pieces so that something of a coherent narrative emerges, beginning with the Austrian-born Sereny’s childhood and adolescent experience of Nazism (she accidentally attended a Nuremberg rally as an 11 year old schoolgirl and was enraptured; at 15 she shouted at an SS officer who was humiliating some Jews in Vienna soon after the Anschluss), and tracing her engagement with the meaning and legacies of that time up to the turn of the century.

It’s not pretty. She takes us with her just after World War Two on the extraordinarily distressing task of tracking down East European children stolen from their parents years before, and abetting their being torn from home for a second time – she was in the employ of the UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where she might have rubbed shoulders with Edith Campbell Berry if the latter hadn’t been a figment of Frank Moorhouse’s imagination. We encounter Franz Stangl, who was commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp (I haven’t read Sereny’s 1974 book, Into That Darkness, which expanded the Daily Telegraph article included here, though I may one day have the stomach for it) and Albert Speer (in an essay that doesn’t add a lot to her magnificent book, but is well worth reading). We are introduced to children of Nazis who find strength in each other to face the horrors perpetrated by their parents. We follow Sereny’s dealings with a number of odd individuals who are dedicated collectors of Nazi documents and memorabilia. We gain some understanding of the US’s dubious dealings over decades with the question of justice for Nazi criminals. We meet an elderly woman who was one of Hitler’s secretaries, to whom he was always kind and thoughtful.

And through it all Gitta Sereny’s gaze doesn’t flinch. The book is saved from being a catalogue of horrors by the pervasive sense that she is driven by a need to understand. Perhaps the most impressive moment in the book is her response to David Irving’s book claiming that Hitler knew nothing of the ‘final solution’: rather than dismissing it out of hand as incompatible with her own understanding, she was intrigued, and began her fact-checking exercise, which was to turn into a devastatibg debunking, almost hoping Irving was right.

I learned a lot from this book. The Jewish Holocaust was a towering piece of evil, a calculated attempt to kill a whole people that succeeded in killing a full third of them – something way beyond genocide. But the Nazi murderousness wasn’t restricted to Jews. They killed something like 15 million people – homosexual men and women, political opponents, Romany people, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities – not as war crimes but as murders committed under the shadow of war, some with industrial efficiency in the extermination camps, some a bullet in the back of one head at a time, some with hideous callousness and mind-boggling disrespect for the dead. The US’s ‘denazification’ barely scratched the surface, leaving the German courts to prosecute Nazi crimes for at least 30 more years. While most Germans tried to forget and move on with their lives, Sereny says, a small elite made up of writers, artists and lawyers pursued the incredibly difficult task of coming to terms with what was generally known as ‘the recent past’ until well into the 1980s. Next time I hear an Australian shock jock or rabid columnist condemning ‘inner city elites’ or a combatant in our renewing history wars use. Dismissive phrase such as ‘black armband history’, I’ll remember Sereny and gird my loins for battle.

David Denholm’s Colonial Australians and 14 rhyming lines

David Denholm, The Colonial Australians (Penguin Books 1979)

ImageDavid Denholm (1924–1997) wrote fiction as David Forrest. One of the ‘living Australian authors’ profiled in John Hetherington’s 1962 collection, Forty-Two Faces, he is remembered mostly for two novels and a number of short stories. Under his own name, he had a second career as a historian, which, though productive in other ways, produced just this one book and a pamphlet on land use in New South Wales.

It’s a strange book, not – as the title might suggest – a survey of the population of the Australian colonies, but a series of enquiries into what Denholm describes as ‘odd trifles’ to see what general light they might shed on the those people. Many of the trifling questions are conveniently summarised in the Introduction:

How long would it have taken to reload a musket? What on earth possessed surveyors to divide up much of Australia with little regard for the shape of the land and its resources? Why does this brick wall not look like that brick wall? In a land of cheap horses, why did not everybody ride a horse? Why do some Presbyterian churches have steeples? Why is the Monaro in ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ballads not the real Monaro? Why did some people stack their plates while others had them taken away one at a time?

He does indeed go on in great detail about how to load a musket, about three different bricklaying patterns, and about surveying practices, in each case using them as evidence for persuasive argument against received versions of our history. He also paints an idiosyncratic version of the kind of religion (ie, of Christianity) that dominated the first century and a half of settlement, what he calls determinism as opposed to free-will based orthodoxy – it’s idiosyncratic but rings true and has quite a bit of explanatory power when applied to the Pell and Jensen phenomena. He turns a bit of a blowtorch on romantic versions of ‘the bush’ and writes interestingly about what happened to the idea of a gentry – ‘an historically based manner in which power was projected upon society’ by a class of people possessed of wealth, education and leisure (hint: it was destroyed but lives on).

The chapter ‘Men Bearing Arms’ – about the ‘mutual impotence’ of Aboriginal Australians and their invaders, whose slow loading muskets were  far from making them invulnerable – is a revelation, especially in its discussion of the extent of ‘fraternisation and appeasement’ between the two populations, so that all too often brutal murders and massacres had an element of personal betrayal.

But it’s November, so I have to lapse into rhyme:

Sonnet 3: On reading David Denholm’s The Colonial Australians
How can we know what really happened
a week ago, two hundred years?
Vile things are misnamed on the map, and
victors’ tales besiege our ears.
Historians must play detective,
sniff ash trays, challenge the selective
versions, shift perspectives, ask
what hid behind the public mask.
We want to honour our ancestors:
with courage, ingenuity and toil
they named the land and turned the soil.
But there’s another truth that festers:
a brutal war of conquest here,
sword and musket, club and spear.

Edmund White Flâneur and the Book Group

Edmund White, The Flâneur: A stroll through the paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury 2001)

1582341354 Before the meeting: I was very happy when this book was suggested as our next title. I’d come across the idea of the flâneur, the aimless wanderer through an urban environment, as an artist archetype (I think it was at the launch of Michael Sharkey’s The Sweeping Plain in 2007), and had somehow got the idea that Baudelaire and Edmund White were the go-to writers for anyone wanting to understand the archetype.

I was misled, at least about Edmund White. That is, I thought he was going to turn out to be a flâneur like the protagonist of Teju Cole’s Open City (which I suggested as a supplementary title), and that’s not how this book works at all.

It’s a short book, part of Bloomsbury’s The Writer and the City series, in which, according to the back cover blurb here, ‘some of the finest writers of our time reveal the secrets of the city they know best’. Peter Carey’s self-indulgent and forgettable 30 Days in Sydney was part of the series, and New South’s generally excellent Cities series may have been inspired by it.

There are six chapters: a general introduction to the idea of the flâneur and the general complexity of Paris is followed by essays about French (and mostly Parisian) attitudes on race, Jews and homosexuality, with an inserted chapter on eccentric and little known museums, and a final chapter on the weirdness that is the French monarchist and royalist movements. In other words, the bulk of the book is taken up with considerations of French culture through the lens of US-style identity politics, in particular through the lens of US gay culture.  There’s very little wandering the streets, though as the text wanders through its chosen themes it sometimes creates an illusion of appropriate lack of discipline.

I enjoyed White’s mini-essays on Colette, Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker. He gives a fascinating account of the Club des Hachichins (frequented by Baudelaire, Balzac and Théophile Gautier, if you can frequent something that only happened half a dozen times). His discussion of why AIDS had so much higher an incidence in Paris than in London raises interesting questions about identity politics (big in the US, sneered at in Paris – guess which attitude turns out to be superior!). The stories of a number of individual 19th century Jews are strikingly similar to the story of Charles Ephrussi in The Hare with Amber Eyes – in a good way.

There is all that, and much more that’s enjoyable and illuminating, but more often than not I was irritated. I grew tired of the name dropping (he once dined with Foucault, but that’s only the high point), the preening (his Parisian dinner-party comrades hadn’t noticed until he mentioned it that Paris is no longer a predominantly white city), the false modesty (he once gave a talk on Genet to a Palestinian audience, who surprised him by loving it even though he is white and Western), the persistent essentialising of ‘the French’ and ‘Parisians’, the titillatory titbits (wife-swapping clubs, cruising by the Seine) and the unremitting gay perspective (the most emphatic detail in his description of a mosque is that the Gay men who cruise its hammam on Sundays don’t touch each other out of respect for the religious environment).

After the meeting: It’s Rosh Hashanah, so attendance at the Book Group was down last night. (Memo to selves: Must keep a sharper eye out for High Holidays in future.) The five of us ate a hearty French meal, gossiped, engaged with the problem of an iPhone whose screen had gone blank, and discussed the book.

One man had really loved it. He’d read it when in the south of France, just before going to Paris, and so was much more attuned to its sense of place than I certainly was. He enjoyed the way the text moved between tiny details and broad perspectives. He found himself stopping to re-read paragraphs just for the pleasure of them. Interestingly enough, he loved the first sentence for its elegance and its cheeky wit, while I was irritated by its Americo-Eurocentrism and its snobbish smart-aleckery:

Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zürich a backwater.

One man had surrendered his copy when the library insisted he return it (probably because I was asking for it), but he hadn’t been unhappy about that as he’d had three attempts at the first chapter and been unengaged – because as far as he could tell, all White was doing was quoting a lot of other people about Paris, which is less true of later chapters. One had read it overnight (I’d dropped off that same library copy to him on Tuesday afternoon) and had a similar mix of enjoyment and irritation to mine, though I think with more pleasure and less irritation. Perhaps part of the problem is that we had all read the entry on ‘flâneur‘ in Wikipedia, and then approached the book expecting it to be an example of flâneurism, which it really isn’t.