Archive for the ‘Non Fiction’ Category

Any ordinary day, in Sales’s book (2018), is the day when something terrible happens to you, to someone you love, or even to strangers who are part of your broader community. After her own brush with death during pregnancy, she began thinking more deeply about how we come to terms with the fact that life can ‘blindside us in an instant’. How do we cope if it does happen? What responsibility do we have to people caught up in some terrible tragedy? And what does this tell us about how we should live?

To try and answer these questions, Sales interviews people who have experienced unexpected loss or trauma, often in a very public way. She talks to them about ‘the shock, the grief, the media intrusion, the community reaction, the struggle to keep going.’ Among the interviewees are a survivor of the Lindt Café siege, the sole survivor of the Thredbo landside disaster, a man rescued after being lost for 43 days in the Himalayas, a man who lost his family in the Port Arthur massacre, and a woman whose husband was murdered by his mentally ill son. She talks to them about how they coped in the immediate aftermath and in the longer term. She finds they had a range of strategies, such as ‘locking away’ memories of lost loved ones, working actively for change like gun control, and creating a practical memorial to the lost ones, like a charitable foundation. Some of her interviewees said their Christian faith was strengthened by their ordeal, though most did not profess any religious belief. Sales also talked with some of the people who offer help in crisis situations, including a detective, a priest and social workers. One of the worst things, one of the interviewees told her, was being shunned by people too embarrassed to offer comfort: ‘You could sort of understand, but by the same token it’s another part of loss.’ Sales concludes that just being there, accompanying rather than actively intervening, is the best form of comfort.

Sales also surveys some of the academic literature around these questions, and this gives context to her interviews. She is interested in finding out why the public is so interested in these stories, in questions of probability – ‘it could have been me’ –, in the incidence of coincidence, in the idea that things are ‘meant’ to happen and the human brain’s the need for predictability. She questions why Australians are sometimes more fearful of things that are very unlikely to happen, and over which they have no control, than of things like behaviour leading to ill health which are much more likely and are within our control. She finds the literature on such issues crosses philosophy, mathematics, law, religion and psychology. She finds, for example, from the relevant statistics, that the likelihood of Louisa Hope, the survivor of the Lindt Café siege being both diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a serious blow she was already having to cope with, and experiencing the siege, were one in 1.39 billion. But it is really the individual’s response to their situation that she is more interested in.

In the book, which is written in the first person, Sales also talks about her personal and professional response to tragedy. She reveals her own insecurities about and emotional reactions to disasters she has reported on. She admits to making some mistakes, mostly arising from insensitivity. But she considers that ‘asking the questions everybody secretly thinks about’ is part of her brief in writing the book. She notes that the media has a huge responsibility when reporting on disasters, as it has ‘enormous impact on our sense of personal security and our collective ability to recover’. She also looks at the ways in which the media can intrude on survivors, and based on a study of press interactions with survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, suggests that despite some lapses, most journalist reported in good faith, the interviewees mostly having positive interactions with the media. She also defends the right of journalists to probe survivors’ stories, though acknowledging that ‘maximum public interest and therefore maximum media harassment coincide with peak vulnerability of the people involved.’ I would probably judge they get it right rather less often than Sales thinks they do.

Overall Sales feels that the responses of her interviewees are ‘life affirming’, and I have to agree that their reaction to tragedy is a tribute to human resilience. I couldn’t help noting, however, that there is only one example of a failure to cope in the book. The coroner found that Private Jake Kovko had died when he accidently shot himself in Afghanistan; his mother has never accepted this verdict. Naturally, Sales could hardly interview her. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to interview anyone whose life was in tatters because something terrible had happened to them. But if the stories of those who do cope are life affirming, does this mean that those who don’t are somehow weaker? Sales might have acknowledged that there is a large element of luck in who gets the necessary support, who has the family backing or the financial means to move on from tragedy. The book is a bit unbalanced without this.

You can read a little more about Leigh Sales, her journalism and her other books here.  Or you could simply watch her on the ABC’s 7.30 program each weekday evening.

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I came to read this book – subtitled The Present and the Future of the World (2018) – by accident. The book my sister intended to give me for Christmas is the one that Frankopan wrote immediately before this one: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015). This much longer book turns away from the Eurocentric view of history we are familiar with, and begins with the rise of the Persian Empire, taking the Caspian Sea, rather than the Mediterranean as its centre. The silk roads of the title are the arteries – networks rather than actual roads – along which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed between China and the west. The book chronicles the history of the peoples who migrated, traded and fought across central Asia for centuries before the rise of the west.

The book I did read – The New Silk Roads – follows on from where The Silk Roads ended. In that book Frankopan described how the Silk Roads are rising in importance. In this book, he follows that rise from 2015 -2018. He writes in his introduction that it is not possible to make sense of what is happening today – including Brexit in Europe and Trump in the US – without taking the region lying between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific into account. More and more, he says, decisions that will shape the future of the world are being made in Beijing and Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh, Kabul and Ankara rather than Paris, London, Berlin, Rome or even Washington.

The main reason for this shift in the balance of world power, he argues, is the growing wealth of the east. This in turn is being fostered by the development of a web of economic, political and cultural interconnections between states – like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, or Kazakhstan – that might on their own wield little power on the world stage, states that are middle powers but rising in importance like India and Iran, major players like Russia, and above all, China, the emergent super power. Discussion of its ‘Belt and Road’ strategy to foster infrastructure like roads, ports, airports, energy plants and pipelines by lending money to countries close by, but also as far away as Africa, is central to the book. China needs the resources of these countries; they need her development assistance.

While ‘the story across large parts of the region … has been about consolidation and trying to find ways to collaborate more effectively’, the story of the west on the other hand has been one of ‘isolation and fragmentation,’ of ‘separation, the re-erection of barriers and ‘taking back control’’ – as seen not only in Brexit, but also in the rise of anti-globalist parties in central Europe.  He argues that President Trump’s incoherent foreign policy has only exacerbated the decline of American power in the world; he is particularly critical of the tariff war Trump is trying to wage against China, and his application of sanctions against Iran, both of which, he says, only encourage other countries into China’s orbit. ‘While Beijing has been busy trying to find partners in all places at all times, it is striking then to see how few friends the US and the west have along the Silk Roads.’

China’s expansion hasn’t all been plain sailing – ‘because of strategic rivalries, competition for resources and personality clashes between leaders who might be described as charismatic visionaries by their supporters and as having autocratic tendencies by their critics’. There are territorial tensions between many of these new players, like India and Pakistan, and Russia and Turkey, and Russia and China herself. There are also questions about the level of debt that some countries have entered into, with fears that it may inhibit development rather than fostering it. In some of these countries, the new wealth is going only to a few, fuelling discontent among the rest. Frankopan makes it clear, however, that few if any of the countries he is writing about are concerned about civil rights; they will savagely repress any internal opposition. Western style liberal democracy is not an option. But this will not hinder the rise of the Silk Roads.

Strangely for a book about this region, there is no mention of Islam, or any other religion. And I could have done with a map. Frankopan gives a nod in passing to the realities of climate change and the challenges of sustainable development but does not explore their implications for this region in any detail, even though access to water resources is likely to be an international flash point in the region as the climate changes. He clearly doesn’t see the demand for oil rapidly diminishing; any substantial decline would affect the strategic clout of countries like Saudi Arabia, but this isn’t mentioned. In terms of structure and argument, the book, described by one critic as ‘highly discursive and free-flowing’, suffers from a sense that it has been put together in haste, as if Frankopan has asked his research assistants to collect every reference they could find to the Silk Road countries, then thrown them all together.  But this doesn’t stop his major themes from emerging very clearly.

Western leaders, including Australia’s, should be very concerned, as they appear to have no viable response to this changing world. For example, at a time when China is investing in nations in the Pacific, the current Australian government has over the past five years drastically slashed foreign aid and is only now – probably too late – beginning to realise its mistake . The aid to the Pacific in the current budget, which experts say is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, is to fund an underwater communications cable – which would otherwise be funded by China.

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is also Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He works on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia/Iran, Central Asia and beyond, and on relations between Christianity and Islam. You can check out his website here. I’m going to make sure I read the 2015 book as well.




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Being Mortal (2014) is a blend of memoir, research and comment, with a number of case studies which Gawande uses to make his point. The book’s subtitle, Illness, Medicine and What Happens in the End is a useful summary of the contents of the book but doesn’t give any clue to the emotional weight it carries, dealing as it does with death – which in this context is inevitably a reminder of one’s own death.

Gawande bases the book partly on his own experience as a surgeon. He says he learned little about aging or death in his medical course; learning how to deal with the problems of old age and dying had to be learnt first by experience and then by personal research. Thus he also draws on his experience as a son, and son-in-law. His parents, both medical doctors, migrated to America from India, so he never knew his grandparents. The first old person he really came to know was his wife’s grandmother, Alice. Over the course of the book, both Alice and his father get sick and die. This lived experience on his part adds considerable emotional depth to what otherwise might have been a colder, technical discussion.

Gawande is concerned with two related issues: the institutionalisation of the aged, and the medicalisation of death. He understands why families are no longer willing or able to look after their aging relatives, and indeed why aging relatives often seek independence from their children. But he abhors the regimentation many institutions impose on old people, supposedly for their own safety but often for institutional convenience; it saps purpose and hope from old people’s lives. Through several case studies, including that of Alice, he looks at some of the attempts to humanise institutions or find alternatives to institutional care, such as assisted living facilities. This latter was an attempt to meet the needs of old people for independence, rather than subjecting them to regimentation, even if it kept them safe. Though initially successful, he admits that with the proliferation of assisted living facilities, the concept has been weakened, and regimentation, being cheaper, has crept back in.

But no matter how independent old people are able to be, there comes a time when illness, or failing health due to old age, shunt us into the medical system. Where once people died at home, without much medical intervention, they now (at least in the Western world) mostly die in hospital after sometimes lengthy medical intervention has run its course. At what point is hospital necessary? And more importantly, how should doctors treat people who are near death but not yet terminal? This is perhaps even more of a problem for younger people with terminal diseases than for older people, as one of Gawande’s case studies shows. He argues that doctors are trained to solve medical problems, so favour treatment options which may prolong life, even if they reduce quality of life. He considers that medical professionals are very good at offering options for treatment, but very bad at explaining to patients and their families the options for not treating. He acknowledges it can be very difficult to decide when treatment does not offer reasonable hope. Even when patients have specified they don’t want to be resuscitated, the decision to withdraw treatment can be difficult and relatives often press doctors for further procedures against the patient’s wishes, such is the faith in medical science.

While he does not suggest there are easy solutions to such dilemmas, Gawande, from his own experience and research, advocates home hospice care for people who are terminally ill. Hospice care – called palliative care in Australia –  involves provision of pain relief or other medication to ease suffering, but not usually other forms of treatment. But the first step is to find out what the patient really wants, which in turn involves talking about their death. What is important to them? Is being with family and friends more important than living a little longer in hospital? Gawande touches briefly on euthanasia, which is legal in three American states, concluding that while people are comforted by knowing it is available, few use it. He clearly prefers the home hospice alternative, and studies have shown that people may in fact live longer using it than they would have in hospital. His case studies, however, including that of his father, show that no option works smoothly, without pain to the patient or their relatives and friends.

I noted that all the case studies Gawande uses are of people with loving families or concerned friends. Spouses are willing to help their terminally ill partners with daily routines and to make accommodations to all their needs. But what of those without such support of whom there must be many? Furthermore, few people can afford to pay for the personal home care old and frail people require. Institutional care may be their only option. It is not clear in the book how care or treatment is paid for. Most of the forms of care Gawande describes are private, though some appear to be state-subsidised. Indeed, how Gawande has dealt with funding is the only issue on which his book disappointed me. He does acknowledge that being well off means being able to afford better care both in terms of accommodation and medical treatment. But the vast discrepancy in health care between the rich and the poor in America is not discussed, and nor is the growing disparity between the life expectancy of rich and poor Americans.

Gawande’s plea that we think about our own deaths, and discuss our wishes with family and friends is relevant to everyone. But it is particularly relevant to older people like me. I found Gawande’s perfectly correct insistence that old people get ill and die a bit depressing, though challenging. Would what seems like common sense – that quality of life and imminent death are preferable to longer life but extended suffering – look the same when the choice has to be made? But there is also hope in the book that we can retain our right to choose the best death possible.

You can read more about Gawande’s writing, surgery and research here on his web-site.

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The full title of Don Watson’s The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia (2014) is truly revealing of all the questions he asks in this book. First there is the matter of ‘the bush’ itself, which Watson shows can mean anything from not-the-city, through landscapes such as scrub, grassland, mallee, rainforest or any specific remnant of the pre-European countryside. The nature of Watson’s ‘bush’ is in the eye of the beholder; it is a cultural creation. Then there is the sub-title, which is both literally and metaphorically accurate. Watson travels throughout Australia – inland, into its heart – visiting people and places and telling their stories. But the book is also a journey in the sense of an exploration of people’s different cultural understandings – both past and present – of the bush, of the values that it encapsulates and their place – for better or worse – at the heart of Australian society today.

This is not a ‘start at the beginning and go on to the end’ book. As Watson says, ‘Readers will soon find this story straying all over the place, as the bush does, as I did’. It does start with Watson’s childhood on a dairy farm in East Gippsland, and ends with him living at Mt Macedon, an hour out of Melbourne. But in between, each chapter is to a degree random – swagmen here, pesticides there, and Major Mitchell thrown in for good measure. But there are themes running throughout which give shape and form to Watson’s meditation. These, addressed in no particular order, include the Aboriginal relationship with the bush before European invasion, Aboriginal dispossession – there seems to be reference to a massacre in nearly every chapter- European attitudes to the bush, the struggles of settlers, the degradation of the land by farming and pastoralism and the hold the bush has over Australians’ idea of themselves.

Watson is remarkably fair in his discussion of these themes. Perhaps because of his own rural background, he understands the pride settlers took in ‘civilising’ the bush and making it productive in European terms. ‘Good human lives were lived where the forest had been, enterprise was rewarded, the fellowship of men and women flourished, history was recorded. The bush we know would not exist if we had not cut it down.’ On the other hand, he is fully aware of the costs this enterprise had for Aboriginal people, for the plants, birds and animals, both native and introduced, that were destroyed along the way and the ultimate environmental damage white settlement has caused. He recognises all the good and socially useful values fostered by life in the country, but is equally aware of the narrow, anti-intellectual cast of mind it also produced. He talks about some of the attempts to reverse the degradation of the land, as well as the foolish rejection of expert advice about the effects of a warming climate. And he is fully aware, as anyone reading this book must be, that the civilised benefits we now enjoy were made possible by the destruction of Aboriginal society and the natural environment. ‘In the plainest terms,’ he writes, Australians would not be who they are – and would not know themselves – if they had not fought the war with nature. The same is true of the war fought with Aborigines’. All the while reading the book I felt the truth of this; my own ancestors were among those clearing – or destroying – the bush, the creatures, and quite possibly the people – who had lived there.

The sense of melancholy versus the sense of optimism which the book engenders feeds into the dispute between the left and right of politics about what are Australia’s central values. This dispute, commonly known as the ‘history wars’, involves an argument over whether Australia’s history post colonisation offers a bleak vision of destruction of people and environment, as opposed to a triumphalist one of successful white settlement. Watson addresses the central issue in this war; that of national identity. He looks at the ‘Australian Legend’, the idea that the virtues of mateship, solidarity, egalitarianism and disdain for authority were born in the bush and became part of the Australian national character. While the legend was initially part of a radical vision, it has more recently been appropriated by conservatives who have elevated the bush ethos into the ‘national interest’, and gloss over the racism, narrow mindedness and anti-intellectualism that are the other side of the coin. Russel Ward, who described – or -possibly conjured up – this legend, concedes that ‘It is not so much the bushman’s actual nature that matters, as the nature attributed to him by so many men of the day.’ Watson would agree; the bushmen he describes were honest, hardworking, lazy, drunken, idealist, mad and foolish in the same proportion as anyone anywhere else in Australia. ‘It is possible that for every couple of bushmen who chose to be mates’ he writes,’ half a dozen others had mateship thrust upon them.’ His judgement, finally, is even-handed; he gives both to the bleak and triumphal. ‘Along with steady, sometimes near miraculous progress, the record includes not only follies, but repeat offences and incalculable lost opportunities. The mistakes were so many and so devastating in their consequence we have to remind ourselves sometimes that the story overall is one of triumph: over formidable, indifferent, inscrutable nature; over all kinds of hardship, including the self-inflicted kind; over ignorance, fashion and dogma.’

Of the bush, Watson says ‘we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again’. At his home at Mount Macedon, he does not try to recreate the ‘original’ bush, which would indeed be impossible because the bush was never static. Instead, his motto seems to be ‘whatever works’, in his case a mixture of local plants, plants from elsewhere in Australia and introduced plants, chosen with an eye for their fire-retardant properties.’ This balance of local and imported vegetation can stand as a metaphor for the subtle complex of meanings Watson has woven in this book. Dip into it.

You can read more about Don Watson here. Or you might like his book There It Is Again: Collected Writings(2018).

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Lynne Kelly is a science communicator and teacher. This book (2016) is essentially her PhD thesis, but also an account of her journey to understand the scope and importance of the insights she has gained into the uses of memory in non-literate cultures. Beginning from an interest in the stories told by Indigenous Australians about animals, Kelly developed a theory of memory use by non-literate cultures across the globe.

Kelly starts by explaining the breadth and depth of knowledge that existed in non-literate cultures. Societies that were to any degree nomadic required knowledge of where to find water and edible plants. They needed knowledge of the habits of animals and how to hunt them. They needed to know the forms of the land, the weather, and the seasons. They needed to know their ancestors and their founding myths, who they were, and where they came from, who they could marry and who they could not. They needed to know the terms and conditions of trade. They needed to know secular and ceremonial songs and dances. As hunting and gathering gave way to settled farming, some of the same information was still crucial, but there was further information needed about tools were made and much, much more. How on earth did they remember all this?

She then expands on her theory that people in non-literate cultures used systematic memory aids. Those in nomadic cultures, like Australian Aborigines, who moved about in the landscape, developed what are known in Australian ethnography as song lines, physical and mental maps of the landscape where specific features acted as aids to memory, not just for direction, but for layers of meaning about time and place, seasons, the stars, ancestors, kinship, hunting and so on. Aboriginal people also carried portable memory aids, small objects often marked with abstract patterns, which were understood by those initiated into certain levels of understanding. Kelly establishes that memory spaces equivalent to song lines and portable memory devices existed across a range in quasi nomadic cultures.

A major change in the form of memory aids came about, Kelly argues, when quasi nomadic groups began to settle into farming communities. As they no longer routinely travelled long distances, the ‘song line’ model no longer suited their needs. Instead, they began to build memory spaces near their settling communities. She argues that while some archaeologists claim agriculture freed up time for people to build monuments, she believes the reverse is true: that ‘people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle’. These monuments usually took the form of standing stones or wooden pillars, arranged in precise patterns; there were also mounds, passage cairns and long barrows. Each stone or pillar represented a body of knowledge. Some also encoded the seasonal calendar. Kelly argues further that access to knowledge was restricted to initiated groups, with a hierarchy of knowledge held by a hierarchy of elders, on a continuum from public knowledge to highly restricted knowledge. In line with this, memory sites had both public and restricted areas; the public areas were for performance of songs and dances, and the restricted areas were for restricted performance and higher-level initiation into knowledge. Kelly argues that  societies creating such monuments were relatively egalitarian; the labour to build the memory spaces, which involved huge numbers of man hours, appears to have been freely given, and any elite burials found at such sites ,ie where grave goods have been have been part of the burial, appear chronologically later in the history of the site, and often not at all. This suggests, she says, that knowledge, rather than wealth or military power, animated the societies that built the memory spaces. Wealth and might came later, superseding knowledge, and the memory spaces gradually fell into disuse.

Kelly then goes on to look in detail at a number of memory spaces which she believes fit this pattern. The best known (to me, anyway) are Stonehenge and the standing stones and earthworks around Avebury. Similar monuments also exist in Brittany. But comparable memory spaces, can, she says, also be found in Orkney, and in Ireland. Then, perhaps more surprisingly, she uses examples from the Americas, suggesting that the creation of these memory spaces is a natural human reaction, rather than a learnt one, as these cultures can not have had any contact with the European ones. I found these sections of the book particularly interesting as I was completely ignorant of these cultures.

So it she right? She certainly assembles a convincing array of archaeological evidence, as well as the little remaining oral evidence from descendants of those who used the memory spaces. Earlier archaeologists tended to see the sites she describes in religious terms, and to label any portable items as ritualistic. Kelly suggests the emphasis on religion is a reflection of modern concerns for which there is not much archaeological evidence. She writes, for example, that attempts ‘to marry the actions of non-literate cultures to behaviours in contemporary Western religions acted as a barrier to understanding these complex sites’. She agrees that the chanting and dance that she believes were characteristic of the memory spaces did have a spiritual or aesthetic side, but sees much of it as the promulgation of practical information – though she would argue that knowledge was holistic, containing layers of complexity that could combine all these elements. I certainly find her argument convincing.

As a book, I did find it a bit repetitious in places; she perhaps overdoes the need to hammer home her argument in the simplest of terms. I would also have liked a coherent argument about the earlier misinterpretation of the sites she describes. I also question her use of the term egalitarian for the societies she is describing; they were clearly hierarchical to a considerable degree, though not necessarily rigidly so. I think it likely that there were ordained roles, some granted more respect than others. She is not able to talk much about whether there were gendered roles, though there probably were; one example she gives is from Pueblo culture where men used a coded language that ‘women would not be able to understand’. For me, the saddest thing is that we can’t know: the content of most of the knowledge is gone beyond recall. It is particularly sad that this is true for much of the culture of Indigenous Australians, despite their tenacious efforts to hold onto what they can.

Kelly says she has tried using memory spaces herself, with considerable success. I thought also of historian Tony Judt’s memoir, Memory Chalet, which is based on the same technique.  I don’t think I can manage it though.

You can read more about Lynne Kelly here.

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Published in 2006, this book purports to be an account of the work of an American writer, speaker and philanthropist, Greg Mortenson, as per the subtitle: One Man’s Extraordinary Journey to Promote Peace … One School at a Time. It is a flawed book about a flawed man. But I found it inspiring. I say ‘purports’ because it turns out some of the details are not true. I’ll nevertheless stick with ‘inspiring’ because the essential truth is that not only did Mortenson single-handedly begin the work of building schools for children, particularly girls, in remote northern Pakistan and later Afghanistan, he also told the American people that the war on terror could not be won by bombs; it had to be won by education.

Mortenson, a trauma nurse by training, was an avid mountaineer. In 1993, having failed in an attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, located in northern Pakistan, he stumbled into a village below it. The villagers helped him recover. He saw they had no school building and promised to return and build one. The details about how this happened are among those contested; apparently, he only briefly visited the village and in fact returned later to promise the school. I agree accuracy is important and here Relin, the professional author who did most of the writing, has tried to make the story a bit more dramatic than it actually was. But given how subjective biography always is, I don’t find this a knockout blow. (There is at least one other contested incident where Relin has overdramatised; some people take this as invalidating the whole.) The book then goes on to explain how Mortenson went back to America and tried to raise funds for his school, how he was assisted by a benefactor who set up the non-profit Central Asia Institute for him, how from one school it grew to many, how Mortenson negotiated  the incredibly difficult landscape of northern Pakistan – physical, political, social and religious – and how he fared after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre led to an American war on the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The book is a sort of case study of the growth of one person’s commitment to an idea into a significant non-government organisation, with all the strengths and weaknesses this involves. Mortenson had the dream and the drive to make it happen. Even if Relin overstates the devotion Mortenson seems to have attracted in Pakistan – and he certainly does lay it on a bit thick – Mortenson was clearly visionary, brave and dogged. Maybe he was a bit obsessive. But it is amazing that one man, with just a small band of supporters in Pakistan and America, could accomplish anything where past promises of government aid had come to nothing. That he succeeded in establishing any schools for girls in a poor Muslim country is particularly to his enormous credit. There is a bit of discussion in the book about whether NGOs coming in and changing traditional practices is a good idea, as it will change a way of life in balance with its environment; the book heads one chapter with an approving quote suggesting ‘an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth … that ancient cultures have never abandoned.’ It is clear, however, that improving education, water supply and maternal health are welcomed by those who have to live with the downside of the traditional practices. On the other hand, Relin makes it clear that Mortenson didn’t have the administrative skills or inclination to control the organisation properly. He is open about the fact that Mortenson disliked the fund-raising side – though he got better at it as he went along – and that he was ‘goofy and unbusinesslike’. For the first several years, funds were limited, and he begrudged spending money on administration in America that he felt could be better used in Pakistan. He found it hard to do tasks he disliked – like keeping CAI’s board informed of what he was doing. Even by the time of publication of the book, the organisation was suffering from poor administration.

Just how badly it suffered only became clear after the book was published. It was an enormous success and generated revenue far beyond anything the CAI had previously enjoyed. Mortenson also made a lot of money from speaking fees. Then came the backlash. In 2012, questions about the authenticity of the book were raised, as were concerns about whether all the money was going to the charity. People who had previously supported Mortenson turned against him. After an inquiry found there was no intentional wrong-doing on his part, Mortenson agreed to repay $1 million to the organisation, and was banned from taking a leadership role in it. Sadly, the allegations about elements of the story being untrue caused Relin, already suffering from depression, to commit suicide.

While scandals about the book and Mortenson’s financial mis-management seem to be the frame through which many people view him, to me there is a much more important story. And that is Mortenson’s attempt to argue to his American audience that education is more important than bombs in the war on terror. Indeed, he was acutely aware that bombing, which inevitably killed civilians, made Americans hated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He saw with concern the spread of Saudi Arabian funded madrassas, preaching the fundamentalist Islamic creed of Wahhabism, some of them home to militant extremism. He respected Islam, but wanted children to have a balanced general education, not religious indoctrination. He understood that support for the Taliban came from anti-Americanism, ignorance and a perversion of Islam. This was not what many in America wanted to hear. Of course, only a conspiracy theorist could possibly suggest a direct connection between his criticisms of the war on terror and accusations of impropriety against him. However, framing him as corrupt and incompetent has deeply compromised other possible ways of looking at his work in promoting peace one school at a time.

You can read more about Mortenson and what happened after the book was published here. And this is a summary from the Washington Post giving both sides of the story, and where he was up to in 2014. These are also interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bFnjDigs_w; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH7wmSuMB8k.

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The Last Explorer (2005) has the sub-title Hubert WilkinsAustralia’s Unknown Hero. And before reading this book I had never heard of him. As Nasht points out, even though he was born in South Australia, he hasn’t even been accorded the honour of a commemorative plaque on Adelaide’s historic walk. Yet Nasht makes a convincing case for his heroism that should have made it impossible to ignore him. Why then is he so little known in the country of his birth?

One explanation is suggested by a review of the book in The Age by Bruce Elder, who puts Wilkin’s relative anonymity down to the fact that Wilkins ‘spent most of his life being either unsuccessful or living in the shadow of others’. Nasht certainly works hard to refute this view, and Wilkins’s life gives him plenty to work with. You can read the Wikipedia summary here and his somewhat underwhelming biography in the ADB here. Born in 1888 in the mid-north of South Australia to a family struggling to make a living on a farm on marginal land with patchy rainfall, he dreamt early of improving meteorology, a passion Nasht says informed the rest of his life. Falling almost by accident into the dangerous career of aerial photography, he took part in various Arctic expeditions, and became an official Australian war photographer in the First World War.  He was decorated for bravery and praised by General Sir John Monash as ‘a highly accomplished and absolutely fearless combat photographer’. After the war he took part in scientific expeditions to the Southern Ocean, and in northern Australia. But his passion was exploration in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, which he believed could best be undertaken from the air. After a number of hair-raising brushes with disaster, he succeed in 1929 in flying across the Arctic from Alaska to Norway, a feat for which he was knighted.  His next major expedition involved trying to sail an American First World War submarine named Nautilus under the Arctic ice, but the Nautilus was ill-equipped and possibly sabotaged and the mission failed. Wilkins kept busy, but never again attained the hero status he had previously held in America.

I don’t think Nasht has overstated his outstanding bravery, or his tenacity. But Elder is right that despite these qualities, he didn’t make major discoveries, and the submarine venture was a dangerous folly.

The explanation which is offered by Nasht for Wilkins’s relatively unknown status in Australia is that on the expedition to northern Australia, he criticised both the treatment of Aboriginal people and the wholesale destruction of the local flora and fauna. This he suggests, was considered unforgivable by the Australian government and public alike. This seems unlikely to me. More important was the fact that after the war, Wilkins lived and worked in America, and was famous there, rather than in Australia, because several of his expeditions were financed and publicised by the Hearst newspapers, which had no reach in Australia. He’s probably also right that Wilkins was a modest man who disliked self-promotion, unlike several of the other explorers operating at the time. Nasht emphasises his commitment to scientific exploration rather than the simple race to be the first to be somewhere or to do something which dominated the media reporting of exploration up to the Second World War. But then he would, wouldn’t he.

Given that the risks of polar exploration were so great, I was hoping that Nasht would shed light on what motivated Wilkins to put his life in danger so often, especially after his marriage. He quotes Wilkins as follows:

Is it the primitive thirst for adventure, the desire to penetrate the unseen and unknown; to experience the thrill that comes from the presence of danger and the satisfaction one feels at facing and narrowly cheating death that takes me again and again to the polar regions? Yes, it is, to a certain extent, but the experienced know that there is a thrill greater than that of adventure. It is the thrill of worthy accomplishment.

What are we to make of this? It sums up for me the reason for Wilkins’s lack of recognition; he is ‘worthy’, but dull, and this makes it hard for Nasht to tell a good story about him. Indeed despite the daring things Wilkins did, I only occasionally found the book gripping. Furthermore there is something a bit pedestrian about Nasht’s writing; it does not inspire. This is not an evaluation of Wilkins’s achievements; Nasht rarely criticises him, and seems determined to prove him a hero. Elder suggests the book would have been improved by being shorter, and he may be right; Nasht seems to have included material from every source he could find, leading to an unnecessarily detailed account.

For all that, I think Wilkins does at least deserve one of those commemorative plaques in Adelaide.

Nasht is a journalist, and film maker in partnership with the entrepreneur Dick Smith. I wondered if he felt a sense of affinity with Wilkins in having to scrounge around to get funding for his projects, which you can read about here. One notable one is the ABC documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate (2012) in which he placed together a climate change activist and a climate change denier, allowing them both to discuss their views with people they claimed as authorities on the topic. Many people thought it presented the reality of climate change as a debatable topic rather than something for which there is overwhelming scientific evidence. You can read his defence here. In the book, he highlights the ways in which Wilkins had an early understanding of climate change, perhaps another reason why he deserves to be better known.


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Published in 2015, The Brain’s Way of Healing is a sequel to The Brain that Changes Itself (2007). Subtitled ‘remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity’, it continues the popularisation of the concept of the brain’s neuroplasticity described in the earlier book. Doidge, a doctor himself, is a skilled medical science communicator. I found what he had to say in the earlier book about how the brain can compensate and redirect was fascinating and exciting, as the concept that the brain is not a hardwired machine was new to me. This book looks at understanding and using healing techniques that make use of this neuroplasticity, the reality of which is now, Doidge considers, taken as a given by neurological research. I found it mostly interesting, but sometimes a bit preachy.

Each chapter is devoted to a particular condition that Doidge argues is amenable to a treatment that makes use of the brain’s inherent ability to repair itself. As in the earlier book, he uses a particular case study to illustrate how a specific treatment can ameliorate or even cure the patient’s symptoms and/or underlying problem. These problems include chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, learning difficulties and stroke. Doidge identifies four stages in the healing process: neurostimulation, which helps revive dormant circuits in a damaged brain; neuromodulation, which helps build new circuits and overcomes learned non-use in existing circuits; neurorelaxation, where the brain stores energy needed for regeneration; and neurodifferentiation and learning, where the brain’s circuits begin to regulate themselves and allow for normal functioning. The treatments all rely on this ‘rewiring’ of the brain by methods including visualisation, lasers, sound/music therapy, electrical stimulation and exercise both physical and mental, though he is essentially claiming there is no difference between the physical and the mental. (He approvingly quotes Moshe Feldenkrais, who wrote that ‘the unity of the mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an indispensable whole while functioning.’) He notes in an appendix that while he has linked one possible treatment to one problem, in practice some combination or sequence of treatments would usually be tried. He doesn’t claim that all – or indeed any – of the treatments will work for all people with these conditions, but argues that any or all are worth trying, as they have no adverse side effects, and often at least improve the situation where conventional treatments including surgery and medication do not.

The treatments – at least as practiced in the West – all seem to be the brainchild of a particular individual or small group of researchers, though some have roots in Eastern practice. No doubt Doidge is correct that neuroplasticity is now accepted science, but the practitioners he discusses all seem to be working on the margins of recognized practice. Some, indeed, such as Moshe Feldenkrais, worked on their treatments well before there was any understanding of the brain’s plasticity, an understanding which Doidge says now explains why their tratments work. I seem to remember that the early leaders in neuroplasticity were loners on the scientific frontiers, and presumably that’s how scientific breakthroughs are made. Doidge only includes examples that he has personal knowledge of, the researchers and practitioners that test the science often belong to well-regarded institutions, and there is a whole section of notes and references at the end of the book to which the sceptical can refer. He notes in the acknowledgements that his editor suffered a stroke part way through the publication process, and was told he wouldn’t recover much of his lost functioning, yet recovered sufficiently using techniques from the book to finish editing it (though I wish he’d put the picture of the brain at the front, not the back of the book). Some of the cures are, nevertheless, hard to believe.

And the response to the book has been mixed. One critical review, for example, concludes that ‘[t]hese cures and their emphasis on the patient’s willpower and moral fibre are, at best, bizarre’. Certainly some of the cases Doidge outlines involve highly motivated people who would not have succeeded without that motivation. As one of the patients says ‘you have to want it really badly’. The problem here is that someone else trying the technique, who for whatever reason lacks that will power, will feel themselves to blame if the treatment doesn’t produce results. And yes there can be a moral element to the judgement that they just didn’t try hard enough – victim blaming in other words. On the other hand, some of the treatments, for example those targeting learning difficulties, are designed to help children, and at least initially only require a passive response. It’s true that a number of the examples are cases of last resort but this is presumably because the techniques are new and not yet adopted by most mainstream doctors, who continue to offer treatment within the existing paradigm. A further concern is that such cures offer false hope to patients and their families. Doidge never says they are suitable for all people with the conditions he discusses, and emphasises that they are mostly not do-it-yourself remedies – they require skilled assessment and monitoring, which are resources in very short supply in most parts of the world. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the techniques would give hope to those with the conditions – but a hope probably unable to be fulfilled.

I was telling a friend about this book, and she asked why, if the techniques Doidge champions are so successful, are they so little used? Are they the sort of crazy stuff you might find on medical self-help sites on the internet? Have they been rigorously assessed and found wanting? Or will they, like the concept of neuroplasticity itself, become in time the new paradigm for the treatment of conditions affecting the brain? Time will tell.

You can read more about Dr Doidge and his work here. Here’s a rather less hostile review. And here’s one totally hostile one from a medical writer and parent of an autistic child (and yes Doidge does come close – dangerously in my view – to linking autism and vaccination). And here’s another totally hostile one from an evolutionary biologist who pulls no punches. Ah well, science thrives on controversy.

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Foreign Correspondence (1997) is an early autobiographical work, coming before Brooks had published any of her prize-winning fiction. You can read my review of one of her well-regarded novels, People of the Book (2008) here. This one is not really an autobiography as such; rather it’s a view of her life through a particular lens which focuses on the themes of staying and leaving.

The book has a sub-title – which doesn’t for some reason appear on the edition I read – which pretty much tells you what it is about: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over. As a child being brought up in what she suggests was one of the more boring suburbs of Sydney, Brooks finds ‘the opening I’d looked for to the wider world’ by writing to pen friends, first in Sydney, then America, Israel, Palestine and France. Much later in life, she decides to follow up her pen friends and find out what has happened to them. Thus in Part I the book follows her life growing up in the suburbs and her departure from Australia to become a foreign correspondent – hence the full double meaning of the title. Then in Part II comes the later intertwining of her life with those of her pen friends and the wider world. ‘The geography of this childhood correspondence,’ she writes, ‘has become the road map of the adult life.’

Although she is quite self-deprecating about it, Brooks is clearly exceptionally clever. Is there something in her childhood circumstances that contributed to this? Is it nature or nurture, or possibly, a bit of both? She was effectively an only child; her only sister was eight years older. Her father was an American jazz singer who put all that behind him soon after settling in Australia, to become a sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald; he has clearly influenced her life choices. Through his interest in journalism, she came to see that ‘Australians had lives that were worth writing about’. He was not an easy man; ‘I learned that if I wanted to talk to him it was easier to follow his adult interests’. From this she comes to see that there is a world outside Australia, and sets out to find out about it though reading, and her search for pen pals. However in this account, Brooks’s mother is perhaps the greater influence. As a child Brooks was often ill and unable to go to school; it was her mother who helped and encouraged her, and played games that inspired and informed her creative imagination. It was her mother who could ‘enter a child’s world with ease and spend comfortable hours there’, giving Brooks comfort and security in what might otherwise have been a lonely childhood. School – a Catholic girls’ college – is passed over with little comment; clearly she does not see it as an important formative influence.

Brooks grew up passionate about whatever it was that caught her interest, be it Star Trek, kibbutz in Israel, or the Paris student uprising in 1968. All of these coincided with or contributed to her search for pen friends. Sometimes she doesn’t get quite what she expects, either from her pen friends, or her unfulfilled teenage rebelliousness. She is, nevertheless, able to conclude from the victory of Whitlam’s ALP in the 1972 Australian election that ‘It is a great thing, at seventeen, to learn that it’s possible to change the world’. But it is inevitable that she will, like many others, leave Australia to pursue the fulfilment she seeks overseas.

I’m not going to outline the stories of each of Brooks’s pen friends. They all raise interesting and sometimes disturbing questions about life choices, perceptions of the world, and its realities. Each of them opens up a conversation that Brooks confronts with honesty and humanity, and sometimes humour. She writes with an easy fluency, honed perhaps by her experience as a journalist, and coming to full fruition in her later fiction. The use of her penfriends as a way into her life and experiences works exceptionally well as a structure for the book.

As an Australian brought up in an even more boring suburb than Brooks, I can’t help comparing our experiences. She’s younger than I am – though her schooling was apparently a bit less empowering – and that makes it a bit easier for me to accept her complete superiority in everything she’s done. I can only admire her courage and determination, as well, of course, as her intellectual prowess. Why didn’t I keep writing to my pen friend?

You can read more about Geraldine Brooks here. And this site contains a list of her works of fiction, which include the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, a major achievement since the prize is for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. Brooks became an American citizen in 2002. But she still calls Australia ‘home’, sort of; you may be interested in her Boyer Lectures 2011: The Idea of Home (or “At Home in the World”).

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The sub-title of this book, published in 2010, is A Redneck Memoir. Having read Bageant’s earlier book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (2007) (reviewed here) I thought this one might offer some pointers to current state of American conservative politics and the rise of Donald Trump. I was right, though the memoir also challenges the assumptions of many liberals like me concerning the people he writes about.

Bageant was born into a family that had for many generations worked their own small farm in West Virginia, essentially as a subsistence unit with strong community links. But his grandfather and grandmother were the last generation to be able to do so, as the post-World War II cash economy and large scale agri-business, hand in hand with rampant consumerism, reduced them, and others like them, to being part of a white underclass with no choice but to sell their labour where they could for poverty-level wages.  The subsistence farming community was marked by hard work, thrift and independence; there was no place for government, big business or unions. And even when the tie to the land was broken by economic necessity, the value of independence remained. Bageant traces the swelling of the ranks of a white underclass through the decline of his own extended family, noting that despite continuing hard work, they were caught in a downward spiral. The one thing that might have saved them, a decent education, was for the most part denied them by niggardly local elites who controlled their schools, and who encouraged early leaving for dead-end jobs or military service in America’s overseas wars.

As in his previous book, Bageant explains how gun culture and fundamentalist religion are integral to the values of the white underclass. Hunting has always been a feature of life in West Virginia; guns were an integral part of the subsistence economy. They are no less valued because that economy no longer operates. Any suggestion of gun control is anathema, the more so as these people are traditionally suspicious of almost any government activity. Fundamentalist religion offers a sense of community previously provided by being part of a genuinely close knit, land-based, economy. He isn’t blind to the black/white world view of Christian fundamentalism, nor to the ignorance and superstition often involved, but he tries to explain why this world view has such a hold on people like his family. Central to his analysis is the refusal to accept the reality of class in America: ‘Illiterate? In poor health? Underpaid, disposable, superstitious, and exploited? Big deal. That would describe much of the planet. The difference is American class denial’.

Bageant clearly respects the old ways of independent subsistence farming. I think he may be sentimentalising these old ways, which were almost by definition narrow and restrictive of the individual, especially women. He sees the processes that destroyed that way of life almost as a conspiracy between government – Republican and Democrat alike – and big business. Agri-business didn’t happen, he argues, by chance; it was rather the product of regulation, subsidy, financial instruments and government sponsored propaganda, supplementing the economic power of a few big corporations. I’m not entirely comfortable with his view, but neither can I really fault it. It’s an uncomfortable sort of book.

Equally clearly Bageant hates the circumstances in which the white underclass now finds itself – both from what has been done to it by way of poor health, education and wages, and by what it accepts for itself, particularly the ‘collective amnesia’ which inhibits people’s ability to question their situation. Bageant uses his mother’s diary to inform his account of his parents’ life, so he has primary evidence of the poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that prevailed. However when he askes her about those days, she looks back on them with nostalgia. ‘For all the anxiety, grief and hardship, she … was remembering those times as the days of rainbow pie.’ Hence the ironic title. However this denial, he argues, is not just the blindness of the underclass; it is promoted by the rich and shared by the liberal intelligentsia who do not make the effort to understand this underclass and who may even, indeed, deny its existence. Hence the sub-title, taking to himself and his family the label ‘redneck’.

Bageant did not live to see the emergence of Donald Trump as the leading aspirant for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. But much in this memoir foreshadows the acceptance of just such a candidate. On the issue of the white underclass’s hostility to healthcare reform, for example, he writes that the ‘sad truth is that the pent up anger has little to do with feelings about healthcare, but a hellluva lot to do with all the shitty breaks, insults, and degradations that come with being an underclass citizen of the Empire.’ This anger has been successfully exploited by people who benefit from America’s class war. The calls for exclusion of Mexicans, and increased protection for American manufacturing – however unrealistic – resonate with the overwhelmingly white male supporters of Donald Trump many of whom are themselves excluded from the prosperity and comfort of what they routinely see on TV as the American dream.  Bageant might well be saying ‘I warned you’ from his grave.

Bageant doesn’t say in this memoir how he escaped his background to become a journalist, but you can find out more about him in this quite detailed account of his life. You can also read his Wikipedia entry here. If, like me, you don’t know what rainbow pie is, here is a recipe.

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Before we start, I have to declare an interest. The Jack de Crow of the title (2009) is a Mirror dinghy. I also own a Mirror dinghy, long disused in the back shed, but nevertheless familiar in all its quirks and pleasures. I’ve even rowed a Mirror dinghy and know just how hard it is; even loaded it sits high in the water. Mackinnon’s unlikely voyage is simply amazing.

This is an account of a nearly 5000 kilometre voyage sailing single-handed in an eleven foot dinghy from North Shropshire to Sulina in Romania on the Black Sea. Mackinnon didn’t set out to sail further than a few kilometres, but after reaching each destination it seemed a good idea to go just a bit further. Quite a lot of the journey was on canals, where he mostly had to row (a skill which he learnt on the job), but he sailed across the English Channel and where ever else the waterway – river or canal – was broad enough. It took over a year, as he couldn’t sail in the depths of winter. And along the way he had many adventures.

Of course he’s only picked out the most interesting events and encounters to write about. ‘The next five days were utterly wonderful,’ he says at one point, ‘and so make poor telling, alas.’ This of course dramatizes the journey, which must at some points have been relatively mundane – that is if sailing every day into unknown waters in Eastern Europe could ever be called mundane. ‘I Exaggerate For Effect – my friends tell me I was born for that motto,’ he writes, and perhaps he does overstate some incidents. But even if understated there is more than enough interest to keep the reader eagerly turning the pages to find what scrape Mackinnon will get into next. There is also a certain amount of foreshadowing – as in ‘I set off in a jaunty frame of mind for what was to be, without a doubt, the worst day of my life.’ Really? Read on!

Mackinnon has certain attributes which made the trip possible; he is a skilled sailor since childhood in Australia, he is strong and brave and cool (mostly) in a crisis. On the other hand these are flimsy enough advantages to set against the weather, the waves and perils of his mode of travel, particularly as he was doing it on a shoestring budget. He acknowledges the considerable support he received from family and friends; who of us could rock up to the gates of Eton, drop the name of a housemaster and be taken in and made comfortable for the night? But one of the aspects of his story that makes the book really pleasing to read is the kindness he received from strangers all along his route. Of course he met a few churlish characters as well, but overwhelmingly he found people willing and eager to give him a meal and a bed for the night, and even more important, help him repair his boat after each of the numerous mishaps that befell her. Perhaps the somewhat eccentric figure that he cut – for most of the journey wearing a pith helmet until it was stolen – or the audacity of the venture itself caught people’s attention. But their genuine and unsolicited kindness and care revive even the most wilted belief in people’s innate humanity.

Mackinnon also writes amusingly. His style is self-deprecating and somewhat confessional, which makes him seem like a friend to the reader. He’s happy to share his mistakes and misjudgements. He imagines, for example, that the crew of a Romanian barge big enough to ‘sit squarely in the middle of two football pitches end to end and not leave a lot of room for the players’ will likely ‘live on vodka, deep-fried pig’s blood sausages and any dinghy sailors they can run down and gut.’ In fact they saved the dinghy from certain destruction, and treated Mackinnon with every kindness – if that’s what you call plying him with schnapps.

There isn’t much about Mackinnon on the internet; here is a very brief biography. Since writing this book he has published The Well at the World’s End (2010), which is about a journey from New Zealand to the Scottish island of Iona. A longer review of Jack de Crow is here. And if you want to find out more about Mirror dinghies, try here. Ours has one refinement over Jack de Crow – an automatic bailer, but it only works at speed – and almost certainly not if you’re rowing …

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Why did I read a book I knew would upset me so much? After all, I already knew the ending. Well, I was on a plane, and it was all I had to read … and once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

The book, published in 2014, is subtitled The Story of a Murder Trial, and that is exactly what it is. It tells of the two trials of Robert Farquharson, an apparently ordinary bloke who, on the evening of Father’s Day 2005, drove his car into a dam in country Victoria. He escaped, but his three sons, aged 10, 7 and 2 did not. Farquharson’s story was that he had suffered from a coughing fit while driving, blacked out and ended up in a dam. He said he had tried to save the children but had been unable to do so. An investigation by the police into what had happened concluded that there was enough evidence that Farquharson had deliberately driven into the dam, and he was charged with the boys’ murder.

Garner structures the book around the trial, which she attended every day. So we meet all the main characters: Farquharson himself, looking ‘small, scared and terribly lonely’, Peter Morrissey, Farquharson’s defence lawyer, with his ‘big, fair and bluff, Irish style, with the bulk and presence of a footballer’, Jeremy Rapke QC, the Crown Prosecutor, with ‘a mouth that cut across his face on a severe slant, like that of someone who spent his days listening to bullshit’, and the judge, Justice Philip Cummins, with his ‘open, good-humoured face’. And then there is Cindy, Farquharson’s ex-wife and mother of the dead boys, her new partner, her family and Farquharson’s family. Next, like the jury, we hear the evidence against Farquharson, and Morrissey’s attack on it. Was it possible that Farquharson had blacked out because of a coughing fit? What evidence was there about the path of the car into the dam? Why were the lights and the ignition off? And much worse, what would have happened to the boys when the car sank?

As well as this more or less technical evidence – though being technical doesn’t make it any the less horrible – there are the relationships involved. Was Farquharson bitter and vengeful about his separation from his wife? She said she believed his story, and that he would never hurt the kids, because he loved them (– though she had changed her mind on this by the second trial). And even if he did love them, Garner puts paid to the ‘sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges.’ Had he really tried to save them? And what about his odd behaviour immediately after the crash, when he had refused the offer of two passing motorists to dive into the dam to search for the car, and instead demanded to be taken to his ex-wife’s house so he could tell her he’d killed the kids? Was this a natural desire to share his shock and horror, or an act of revenge? The jury eventually finds him guilty, but he wins an appeal and a new trial. The new jury finds him guilty again.

None of this does justice to the power and passion of the book. Garner almost wants him not to be guilty, because how can one comprehend that a father would deliberately kill his children? ‘In spite of everything I know about the ways of the world,’ she writes, ‘it was completely unendurable to me that a man would murder his own children.’ At times, she almost feels a bit sorry for him, he is so pathetic. I was strongly reminded by her description of his behaviour in the dock of Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ (which you can read more about here). He’s isn’t presented as a monster; he’s ordinary, though lacking in insight or empathy – failing to ‘think’ in the same way Arendt is describing. But maybe this makes him a monster.

Because Farquharson is charged with murder, the court cannot consider the possibility that hovers in the background of the book: that Farquharson’s plunge into the dam was a failed suicide attempt – which might have made his crime manslaughter. His lawyer does indeed clutch at this straw at the end of the second trial, but Farquharson never strays from his ‘not guilty’ plea, and so this possibility – attractive because marginally less horrible than intentional murder – is never explored. Because of this there is never any discussion of what he did or might have done to get his children out of the car; he claims only to have regained consciousness too late to save anyone but himself.

Some of the journalists covering the trial thought at times that Farquharson’s legal team might have established ‘reasonable doubt’; neither jury thought so. The evidence is there for readers to make what they will of it; I know what I think.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, but you still aren’t sure whether or not to read this book, have a look at this masterly review by Peter Craven, who says it all so much better than I can. This one by David Maher is pretty interesting too. Ten years on the case is still ongoing in the sense that Farquharson’s ex-wife is now in the process of applying for compensation from the victims of crime fund. It’s still ongoing, too, in the sense that it’s something no one who has read the book can ever forget.

You can read more about Helen Garner here, and my review of her 2004 book Joe Cinque’s Consolation here.

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When Hugh Stretton, one of Australia’s great public intellectuals, died last month aged 91, I was moved to re-read one of the first books he wrote* – Ideas for Australian Cities. This book, published in 1970 was so unusual that he couldn’t find an academic publisher for it, so he published it himself. At the time, I found it one of the most important books I’d read, one that changed my way of looking at cities. So what do I think of it forty-five years later?

Most of the book is about the history of the cities Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and the town planning arrangements that were operating in them in the late 1960s. Most space is given to Canberra, then still a relatively new city, offering options for planned development not open to older cities. Adelaide gets the next most space, in particular the work of the SA Housing Trust, which was then still a major player in the housing market as a provider of low cost housing for workers, rather than welfare housing, centrally planned, but built through private contractors. Melbourne and Sydney get less space as established cities unlikely, though for different reasons, to be amenable to a planned response to such problems as underinvestment, sprawl and overcrowding which already characterising them.

In 1970 there was considerable novelty in a book about cities. Stretton refers to the existence of some rather more technical urban research and publications, but for most students of Australian history, it was the impact of the bush that defined Australia. Cities were still the ‘five teeming sores’, the parasites on the countryside of A.D. Hope’s bitter poem Australia. Stretton’s book marked a sea change in attitudes to the centrality not only of cities, but also of the suburbs in assessments of national life. Rather than seeing it as deadening, Stretton saw the quarter acre block as a site with potential for freedom and creativity for families.

It’s true that the planning regime of each of these cities as described by Stretton is now out of date; since 1970 there has been both a wave of political interest in cities and a retreat into neo-liberal reliance on the market to shape them. Nothing has come, other than a few false starts, of his hope that new cities would be created, so as to reproduce the amenities and freedoms of the old ones. The problems he identified then have only got worse now: unaffordable house prices in Sydney and Melbourne, long journeys to work for those forced out to the margins, traffic congestion, destruction of parts of cities to build freeways and parking lots, inadequate public transport, well-meaning but ultimately destructive creation of public housing ghettos which breed crime and violence, or, more likely, very little public housing at all, and long waiting lists for the most vulnerable.

But Stretton has nevertheless left a major legacy – or at least he has left me one. This is the understanding that urban development is a site of power. He makes it very clear in his book that urban growth, and the planning – however much or how little – that shapes it, is essentially the result of political choices. In fact he calls the book a ‘political tract’. By this he means that planning choices – even the choice to do nothing – have differential effects on the rich and the poor. It is nearly always, he says, the rich that benefit when development is left to the market, but proactive planning can also have a bias in favour of the rich if it results in ghettos for the poor. His ideal is for as little social segregation as possible, as mixed neighbourhoods generate better schools, because there are parents with the resources to defend and improve them, better facilities because there are more people able to argue for them, and more diversity and interest to leaven the mixture. Unfortunately segregation is becoming more common, and is a major factor in both creating and sustaining inequality in Australian society.

Stretton also has a major concern about planning which focuses on the needs of men as workers and commuters, and ignores the needs of women and children at home in the suburbs. Planners, he felt, often privileged cars over pedestrians, made routes to schools and shops unduly dangerous, and favoured high rise living even though it was quite unsuitable for young children. This is an area where much has changed, with many more women now in the workforce, so that fewer journeys are made on foot (making traffic congestion worse), and unsupervised play in neighbourhood backyards is relatively rare (children without this freedom now play computer games alone inside). Many families live in medium density housing because they can’t afford a house with a backyard or aren’t prepared to drive the long distances to get to one – which they would have little time to enjoy anyway. But I don’t think these changes negate Stretton’s basic concerns about the importance of the needs of children for suburban safety and freedoms.

In an interview in 2007, Stretton was asked how he thought Australia’s cities were going. His main concerns remained the need to develop alternative city centres, with the full range of employment, government services and cultural pursuits, though he thought it unlikely that the political will existed to do that. He also re-iterated the need for public housing that was more than simply for welfare purposes, as that almost always resulted in ghettos for the poor: public housing should be built ‘to sell into the middle and bottom of the housing market to keep it effective for everybody…I would love all that back and I don’t think there is ever any good reason for being rid of it.’ He rather confounded his conservative interviewer by his concluding remark: ‘I think part of the problem is governments have decided that they must buy votes by cutting taxes at election time, not revealing that this means that house prices are anything up to twice what they need be for lack of that public supply into the housing markets.’ An unfashionable view, maybe, but I think it’s as true now as it was in 1970.

Hugh Stretton’s voice in defence of equality will be sadly missed.

There isn’t much about him on the internet; here is the barest outline of his career and work. There is far more to it than I can cover here, but you might like to read two other posts I wrote about his 2005 book Australia Fair here and here.

*The Political Sciences, his major academic work to that time, was published in 1969 by Routledge & K. Paul, respectable academic publishers.

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John Bray (1912-1995) was an Adelaide lawyer, classical scholar, and poet. From 1967-1978 he served as Chief Justice of the South Australian Supreme Court. He was born into the ‘Adelaide Establishment’, a loose grouping of families of wealth and influence in the small and intensely provincial city of Adelaide. His grandfather had been the first native born Premier of the colony, he attended Adelaide’s main private boys’ school, took a law degree at Adelaide University and moved into a law practice in the city, and thence to the Supreme Court. A commendable life no doubt, but what is there about it that makes John Bray worthy of a full biography (2015)?

This is the question asked by former High Court Judge Michael Kirby in his foreword to the book. He suggests that Bray was not only a first class jurist, but also that he ‘challenged elements of his society’ by his life and his values – and that he suffered from a conservative backlash because of it. ‘This, then, is the ultimate fascination of the dichotomy at the heart of the life of John Jefferson Bray,’ he writes. Does the book live up to this promise?

Bray’s literary interests and the friendships he made because of them were unusual enough in the Adelaide of the 1930s. Though not a modernist in cultural matters, or a political radical, he had friends who were. He questioned the prudish censorship of the day and the enforcement of morals by the courts. And he didn’t ever wear a hat! Furthermore, he was a lifelong bachelor, which led to endless speculation about his sexuality. Kirby argues that Bray had a perfect right to privacy in this area, and Emerson leave a full discussion of it until a final chapter. But it was the issue of his sexuality that involved Bray in major challenges in SA.

Before that, however, Bray had made enemies in high places for other reasons. One major occasion for this was his successful defence in 1960 of Rohan Rivett, editor of Adelaide’s then evening paper, the News, against charges of seditious libel. These arose from Rivett’s commitment to see justice done in the case of Rupert Max Stuart, who was facing the death penalty after being found guilty of murder on less than fully convincing grounds. Rivett and the News were accused of libelling the Chief Justice, who was acting as a Royal Commissioner in an inquiry into the case. Emerson suggests that the personal involvement of the Liberal Premier Sir Thomas Playford in this case helped bring about the defeat of his government after twenty-three years in office.

Bray was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by the Labor Premier Don Dunstan. He was not the candidate favoured by the higher reaches of the legal profession. Bray warned Dunstan that his ‘Bohemian and unconventional temperament and manner of life’ made him ‘a dubious choice for the post.’ Dunstan persisted, but was in fact advised not to appoint him on grounds of his lifestyle – read suspected homosexuality. From this advice it became clear that SA police were keeping secret files on Bray – and many others – without legal basis. This issue simmered for a time, but finally in 1978 blew up into a full-blown political crisis which resulted in a Royal Commission into the existence of the files and the sacking of the then Police Commissioner by the Dunstan government on the grounds that he had misled them – resulting in a further Royal Commission into the dismissal. Despite the fact that the Royal Commission found the dismissal to be constitutionally correct, Bray resigned as Chief Justice. Dunstan retired the following year, both, Emerson claims, victims of the deep prejudice in sections of South Australian society against homosexuality.

Aside from these two major episodes, Emerson covers other legal matters Bray was involved in, and comments on his poetry and classical research and writing. Bray was clearly concerned about human rights and personal freedoms, though of course he used his legal skills to defend the guilty as well as the innocent. From Emerson’s account, it seems to me that his poetry and classical writing, while unusual in someone of his background, were interesting rather than brilliant. Emerson also discusses Bray’s friendships with a range of stimulating people, showing he was able to function in a range of social and intellectual environments much wider than the usual, and certainly quite different from the norm in Adelaide at the time. He seems to have been a generous friend, attracting strong loyalties – as well as the enmity of the Establishment. I have to admit to a personal interest here; Bray was unfailingly supportive of a member of my family, one of his legal colleagues who had fallen on hard times.

I read the book with interest because it is about interesting events in Adelaide where I live. But I’m not convinced that it would hold great interest for anyone who didn’t have a special concern for the subject, either as a piece of South Australian history, or as judicial history. Is this because the life itself doesn’t after all command wider attention? Or because Emerson’s book doesn’t do it justice? A bit of both, I think.

You can read more about the Stuart case here. And more about the dismissal of the Police Commissioner here.

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The subtitle of this 2014 book is ‘Australia’s Greatest Citizen General’, which gave me hope that it might look at Sir John Monash as a citizen as well as a general. Alas, this was not to be. The book is a plea for a re-evaluation of Monash’s contribution as a soldier in World War I, and is central to Fischer’s campaign to have him posthumously promoted to Field Marshall. Tim Fischer is a former leader of the National Party and deputy Prime Minister of Australia, so I should have known better.

The book does give a brief outline of Monash’s career before the war as an engineer, and mentions his role as head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission after it. But most of the book concerns the various campaigns Monash was involved in, from Gallipoli to the Western Front, where he became commander of the Australian Army Corps. Fischer argues that Monash learnt from his own and other people’s mistakes and developed an ‘holistic’ approach to military tactics and strategy that was notably lacking in generals like Haig and Rawlinson. He was also much more concerned than many regular army commanders about keeping his men as safe as possible. A successful demonstration of his approach occurred at the battle for the village of Hamel in July 1918, and was repeated in later battles in August, which saw the last desperate German thrust towards Amiens repelled, and the war ended sooner than might otherwise have been the case. Some other senior military commanders were probably thinking along similar lines, but Monash was meticulous in his planning and implementation of a coherent plan of attack, and Fischer is likely correct that others followed his example.

Fischer notes that despite his undoubted successes, The Cambridge History of the First World War, published in 2014, didn’t even mention him. And he argues that having a university and a freeway named after him are scant recognition for him in Australia. So why didn’t he get – and hasn’t he got – the recognition Fischer thinks he deserves? He identifies four main reasons. Monash was a Jew of German heritage, at a time when anti-Semitism, to say nothing of anti-German sentiment, was common; he had come through the ranks of the part-time citizen militia, starting out in a university regiment, rather than from the regular army; he was a portly fifty years old in 1914, and it was openly known that he had a mistress. Perhaps as a result of such considerations, the influential war correspondent C.E.W. Bean took against him: in 1914 he wrote that Australians did not want to be represented by Jews ‘because of their ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves’ – a characteristic he freely attributed to Monash. He and the journalist Keith Murdoch, who also disliked Monash, were close to the war-time Prime Minister Billy Hughes and did their best – unsuccessfully on this occasion – to persuade him against giving commend of the Australian Army Corps to Monash. And Hughes himself didn’t like Monash; Fischer speculates that Hughes may have been jealous of his popularity with the troops. He made sure that Monash stayed in Europe until 1920 as the officer responsible for repatriation of Australian soldiers, and didn’t promote him from a three to a four star general when he could have after the war. In fact his promotion came at the hands of the Scullin Labor government in 1929, which also considered him for Governor General, though Scullin actually chose the Chief Justice, Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian – and the first Jew – to hold the post.

So all in all, Fischer, though he is certainly no historian, makes quite a good case that Monash has been unjustly neglected. The book is more of a polemic than a history; there are various non-sequiturs, and an attack on former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s view that the First World War was ‘devoid of any virtue’. Fischer is firmly in the camp that sees the ‘baptism of fire’ for the new nation as formative of the national spirit.

And this is where I was disappointed – though in retrospect not surprised – to find that there was almost no treatment of Monash as a citizen. As head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission, he belongs in a different formative tradition. Public utilities may now be out of fashion with governments, and privatisation all the rage. But the very establishment of a state owned electricity generator and provider, which Monash oversaw, stands in the same tradition of using the state to create a better life for people as initiatives such as the old age pension, the baby bonus, the basic wage and industrial conciliation and arbitration, all of which were introduced in the first twenty-five years of the new century. This is not to deny that Australia remained a deeply unequal society, or that organisations like the SEC were created piecemeal, without thought for an overarching political purpose. But it has always seemed to me that the national spirit is as much derived  from – and is reflected in – this cooperative thrust to use state power to ameliorate social conditions as it did from the more hierarchical and militaristic celebration of war, whether in defeat or victory. These strands are not mutually exclusive; mateship and courage existed at home as well as at the front. Monash himself summed up the potential divergence of these strands of ‘national character’ when he refused invitations to take part in the quasi fascist New Guard movement, saying that ‘the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate.’ I’d be happy to see him celebrated as both a soldier and a citizen.

If you want to read a proper biography of Monash, try Geoff Serle’s John Monash: A Biography. (1982), or the more recent Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War (2004) by Roland Perry. You can read more about Tim Fischer here, and his crusade for justice for Monash here.

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When I recently read Bryan Appleyard’s Bedford Park – reviewed here – and came across Ford Maddox Hueffer, or Ford Maddox Ford as he is known, as a character in the book, I realised that although I haven’t read any of his books, I was already prejudiced against him. This is because of the way he treated his lover, the Australian artist Stella Bowen. He wasn’t physically cruel to her, but he was unfaithful, and even worse, he strangled her as an artist while she was with him. Stravinsky’s Lunch (1999) recounts their ten years together as part of a biography of Bowen. It also looks at the life of Grace Cossington Smith, another Australian artist whose work went unrecognised for years. I know it’s crazy to dislike a writer because of his or her life; it’s the quality of their work that matters. And I have set myself the task of reading at least one of Ford’s books about the First World War. But first, here’s the reason for the prejudice he’s going to have to overcome.

Stravinsky’s Lunch is more than a biography of two Australian painters. It takes its name from a story about Stravinsky: that when he was composing, he demanded that his wife and children remain completely silent during meals, on the grounds that they might interrupt his train of thought. Modjeska uses this idea to consider whether women’s art may be compromised by their love. Male composers, writers and artists often demand and usually receive the service of the women in their lives, to the detriment of the women’s own creative aspirations. It rarely works the other way round. Modjeska examines the lives and art of women painters in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and Australia, concentrating on Stella Bowen, with a section on Grace Cossington Smith, and reference to a range of other women who sought to make a name as painters, contrasting them with some of the men doing the same. The book can thus be seen as something of a history of modernist painting during these years.

Born in Adelaide in 1893, Stella Bowen did what most creative people did at that time – left provincial, conservative Australia for Europe as soon as possible. She went in 1914 to study art in London. In 1918 she met and fell in love Ford Maddox Hueffer, already a well-known – though not well remunerated – writer, poet and critic. There was already a legal Mrs Hueffer, and another woman who called herself Mrs Hueffer, so Hueffer changed his name to Ford Maddox Ford, and though they never married, Stella was often referred to as Mrs Ford. (The name change may also have been because Hueffer sounded too German, though he had carried it through his days of active service in World War I.) To Stella, twenty years his junior, life with Ford seemed to open up a world of creative achievement. ‘Of course you shall be a painter and see the great world,’ he wrote to her. After their relationship was over ten years later, she generously wrote that what she got out of it – besides her daughter Julie – was ‘a remarkable and liberal education, administered in ideal circumstances.’ But for those years, although she did paint a little, including some portraits of Ford, her time was essentially absorbed in looking after his many needs. He believed in ‘the Divine Right of the Artist’, and expected to be treated as a genius. As Bowen wrote later, ‘a man writer or painter always manages to get some woman to look after him and make his life easy, and since female devotion … is a glut on the market, this is not difficult. A professional woman, however, seldom gets this cushioning unless she can pay for it.’ After she left him, she devoted her life to her work – and her much loved daughter – but had a hard time of it during the depression of the 1930s. She was appointed an official war artist during World War II and produced a memorable body of work. But like other female painters, she was often ignored in the mainstream histories of Australian art. I can’t blame Ford Maddox Ford for all this – but I blame him for some of it.

The story Modjeska tells of Grace Cossington Smith is very different. Born the year before Bowen, in Sydney, she only ever left Australia for a two year visit to England and Europe. She never married, and domestic duties fell to her sister. She worked in a studio on the edges of Sydney, aloof from the artists and writers of the inner city, painting ‘what she saw’ ‘from the thing itself’, though clearly in a modernist idiom. Largely ignored, she was ‘discovered’ in old age and her work is now widely admired. Though Modjeska says she isn’t making a comparison with the life of Stella Bowen, she makes it clear that a life committed to the vocation of art wasn’t easy for either of them, whether or not there was a man involved. But I don’t really see where Stravinsky’s lunch comes into Cossington Smith’s story.

I’m not being entirely accurate in calling this book a biography, or even a history. Written in the first person, it is rather Modjeska’s own search for understanding of the lives of these two painters. Bowen at least left a memoir, Drawn From Life (1941) that gives insights into her thoughts and feelings, though Modjeska concludes that it hides nearly as much as it reveals. In Cossington Smith’s case, there are just a few letters and interviews, leaving Modjeska guessing about many aspects of her life and work. Cossington Smith said late in life that she knew little of the work of other painters. But it seems incredible that she did not visit galleries in England and Europe when she was there, and even if there were limited occasions in Australia to look at the work of the great modernists, that she did not take up the opportunities that did arise. But we’ll never know. What Modjeska has, on the other hand, are the paintings of both women, many of which are reproduced in colour in the book and are a joy to see. She is a thoughtful observer who is knowledgeable about modernism and sees much that illuminates the paintings for the reader. Though sometimes she gets a bit self-involved with her questioning, I feel that there’s far more to the book than I’ve suggested in this short review. It is certainly worth reading.

Modjeska has mostly published in the area of memoir – albeit fictionalised – and non-fiction. Her first novel, The Mountain, came out in 2012 I’ve started reading it a couple of times, but never finished it. Maybe I should add it to the list after Ford Maddox Ford. You can read more about Modjeska’s life and work here.

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This highly acclaimed memoir was published in 2000, and has since been made into a TV series released in 2003. Robert Drewe, first a journalist and later a novelist, has an arresting tale to tell, and the literary skills to tell it with affection, humour, some bitterness and a good deal of drama.

The memoir tells the story of his coming of age from a child to a man in Perth, then the remotest capital city in the world, during the 1950s and ‘60s. When Robert was six, his father Roy, who worked for the Dunlop Rubber Company, was transferred from Victoria to Western Australia and the whole family had to make the adjustment to life in the raw suburbs built on the sand hills around the city. After a short period of transition – where his mother makes him wear shoes and socks instead of the bare feet favoured by the other boys, and warms him against sunstroke (or boiling brain as she calls it) – Drewe finds much to love about his new home. Through the prism of his family life, he tells of experiences that were common to boys growing up in this period – adventures with neighbouring children, Saturday afternoons at ‘the pictures’, interaction with girls and a growing interest in sex.

Through the specifics of his own family, Drewe also manages to give a fascinating picture of the social setting of suburban life in Perth at the time. Roy rises fairly quickly to become branch manager for Dunlop – it is ‘a branch manager town’ – and the family mixes with all the other middle class business people who live nearby. Since Dunlop makes sporting goods like tennis racquets and sponsors sporting events, Roy and his wife often entertain famous tennis players and other sportspeople; Robert rubs up against fame much more often than most boys. But his picture of family life also has darker currents running beneath it. Roy is bluff and hearty to his mates, but bad tempered and demanding with his wife and children. Does he hit her? Is he unfaithful to her? Possibly and probably, though Drewe never says so directly. He grows up alienated from his father, and at odds with his mother. Because he is such a good writer, this combination of family concerns and social backdrop works seamlessly.

But there is an additional element to all this; right from the beginning of the book, we are aware of the fear and horror caused to the people of Perth by a serial killer who murdered eight strangers between 1958 and 1963, and committed a number of other violent crimes. The story starts with the man’s committal hearing; Drewe is present as a junior crime reporter, watching with terribly mixed feelings. One of the people he killed was a friend of Drewe’s and one of the murder weapons belonged to another friend. Drewe has met and spoken with the man a number of times. At several points in the book Drewe adds sections in which he imagines what the man might have been thinking and doing at various stages of his life. Not till quite a long way through the story, with all the suspense-building skill of a good novelist, does he eventually reveal who the murderer is.

Like many coming of age stories, this one can be seen as a loss of innocence, by both Drewe himself and by Perth as a result of the murders. The book’s title is clearly a metaphor on a number of levels. Near the end, he ponders the usefulness of shark nets –nets set up to keep sharks away from beaches and swimmers. The distance – mostly desert – between Perth and the eastern states, from which all things bad emanate, is its own protecting shark net. Perth beaches don’t have shark nets; the shark was in any case inside the society, killing at will. And in his own life, Drewe thinks that there are sharks cruising just below the surface of everyday things, just as there are in the sea he loves. Yet the book concludes on an optimistic note, as Drewe leaves Perth for a job on the eastern sea board, passing, if you like, to the other side of the shark net which may protect, but also stultifies.

In his author’s note, Drewe says ‘this is a both a book of memory and my portrait of a place and time. Memory may falter and portraiture is a highly subjective endeavour, but I have tried to tell a truthful story.’ I guess this pre-empts my usual gripe that no one can possibly remember so much of their childhood, including conversations, in such detail. The novelist doesn’t have to. It’s a case of creative remembering that adheres as best it can to the truth. But I did note what is left out, even if I didn’t really miss it. Some of his experiences ring true to my upbringing in another small provincial state capital at much the same time – bearing in mind the gender differences of course. But one huge dissimilarity is that the first question anyone in Adelaide asked then of anyone else was what school they went to. There isn’t any reference at all to Drewe’s life at school, or his intellectual life. Obviously he must have read more than the comics he admits to. But school? He’d never have got away without mentioning it in Adelaide.

You can read more about Robert Drewe and his work here. He doesn’t seem to have a web page, but here’s a long article about him – which fills in some of those school details. Perhaps he thought he’d sound like he was blowing his own trumpet if he put them in. The article was published at the time his second memoir, Montebello appeared in 2012.

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Subtitled A true Australian love story of the 1920s, told mostly through letters (2014), this modest book is Nancy Sarre’s tribute to her parents, Cherry and Horace, and to the families of her mother and father. Letters between the young couple and other family members tell mostly of personal circumstances but also touch on some of the broader social issues shaping Australia at the time.

The book starts dramatically with a letter recounting the death of Cherry’s mother in childbirth in 1893. ‘”Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate” is a quotation which might be applied with awful truthful literalness to one today,’ writes William, the bereaved husband. Cherry was their second child, and it was William’s second marriage, his first wife having died leaving one child (two others having died in infancy). We follow the story partly through letters, and partly through Sarre’s commentary. William married again quite quickly – hardly surprising since he had two babies to deal with – and fathered five more children. They lived in Coolah, as small town in central NSW, where William worked as a saddle and boot maker, among other things. Sarre suggests that the family was a happy one, but the prospects in Coolah must have been limited, and when she was 17, Cherry left to work in Sydney, living there with an aunt. She worked at first at David Jones, but in her twenties, trained as a nurse, and worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She said she expected to be an ‘old maid’.

She met Horace in 1926 when visiting a friend – a former fellow nurse – in Albury, a town on the NSW bank of the River Murray. Horace’s family were partners in a hardware store, where he worked. Cherry’s and Horace’s story is something of a classic romance: boy meets girl, there are obstacles, but these are eventually overcome. The obstacles are partly the good old tyranny of distance, and partly, it seems, hesitation on Cherry’s part.  Horace begins their correspondence correctly enough – ‘Dear Miss Cole’ – but moves quickly from ‘Your humble admirer’ to “My dear Cherry’ … ‘Your ardent swain’. Cherry isn’t comfortable with this. ‘Horace,’ she writes, ‘we don’t know each other, and we should not discuss, anything other than friendship, now.’ Horace bows to the inevitable. ‘I must possess my soul with patience, and be happy with the privilege of exchanging thoughts with you’. So over the next six months they write about work in the hospital, friends in common, the weather, gardening, birds, poetry and music. Horace plays the piano and the organ; he likes Schubert and reads Joseph Conrad and Robert Browning. Cherry likes the Messiah – though neither has much time for reading or listening. They write about friendship – ‘it depends a lot on the number of things two people have in common’ – but nothing more profound. Cherry even wonders whether she might join the Bush Church Aid Society – an evangelical organisation providing pastoral and spiritual services in the outback. ‘It is the work I’m most interested in,’ she writes – but such a project wouldn’t have included a role for Horace. Then just before Christmas, Cherry changes. Suddenly it’s ‘Horace dear’, and ‘my Dear one’. Horace is delighted, and in a couple of weeks they are engaged – though for the time being Cherry is still at the hospital. ‘It is a beautiful letter,’ she writes in response to one of Horace’s, ‘and you are very wonderful to love me so and to tell me so.’ Sarre, who unfortunately can’t say what brought about Cherry’s change of heart, writes that her parents’ love affair continued for the rest of their lives; she was his ‘sunshine from the North’.

Amidst the family concerns, there are some letters that shed an interesting light on wider concerns. There is, for example, a letter from Roy, Cherry’s brother, from a hospital in London to which he has been repatriated after being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. ‘It cannot go on for long at the awful cost we suffered in the Somme. The Australian public will get an awful shock when the particulars & casualty lists are published in full’. But he goes on to praise his comrades: ‘we, as a whole, did our jobs without thought of the reckoning.’ Just out of the front line and undergoing a series of painful operations, his comments seem frank, and without any over-blown patriotism. Then there is Cherry’s endorsement of prohibition: ‘I have always been keen for prohibition,’ she writes. Poor Horace prevaricates: ‘There are arguments on both sides, of course’.  But he inevitably comes down on Cherry’s side …

The letters of Cherry, Horace and their families have a further historical importance in showing just how impossible it is to generalise about life in rural Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. They are not the bush workers of the Australian legend – itinerant, unionised, disrespectful of authority. Nor are they the inhabitants of Don Watson’s The Bush (2014), who ‘battle to drive back nature and eke a living from the land.’ Cherry and Horace and their family were distinctly of the middle class of their country towns. Their letters show them as reflective, literate people who appreciated and participated in ‘high’ culture. They were beginning to engage with new technologies like wireless and motor cars. They loved the Australian bush, and noted with approval moves to preserve it. They moved freely between city and country – though increasingly the opportunities for work outside the home for women lay in the city, as shop assistant, nurse or teacher. I find it interesting that Cherry was thirty-three when she married; this challenges the idea that before World War II, marriage was the only acceptable role for women. They worked hard, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. They were certainly not rich, but could afford travel to visit relatives and for holidays. If public affairs or politics were important to them, they didn’t write about it.

Collections of letters like these are immensely valuable for teasing out such nuances in the social history of rural Australia. If you’d like to read more about country towns, try Struggle country: the rural ideal in twentieth century Australia, edited by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (2005). And here’s Professor Davison’s summary of the history of country life in Australia. If you like family letters, you could also try Growing Together. Letters Between Frederick John Cato and Frances Bethune, 1881 to 1884, edited by  Una B Porter.

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John Carey’s autobiography (2014) is subtitled An Oxford Life in Books. It is, as he explains in the foreword, ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it,’ a case study in ‘what kind of upbringing produces a preference for some books rather than others’.  One of the things that came of it is one of my favourite books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) by John Carey, so naturally I was interested to see the upbringing and outlook that produced it.

While it is true that the story of a life that is utterly different to one’s own can be fascinating and challenging, I tend to agree with Carey’s somewhat ironic comment that the autobiographies of ‘people who share your own views, are of course, the best.’ Not that Carey’s life has been anything like mine – for a start, he was way cleverer, which is why he gets to write an autobiography people might want to read and I don’t. But I was fascinated by the comparison of his student life at Oxford, and mine at a provincial university in the colonies, where Oxford set standards that were never quite lived up to. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Carey was a scholarship boy, the product of a good grammar school classical education; no one was exposed to that sort of education in post-WWII Australia, so a restrictive Oxbridge syllabus was fortunately never possible here. 1960s university Arts curricula may have cast wistful glances back at Oxbridge, but thank goodness we didn’t end our idea of ‘English Literature’ in 1834, as Oxford did when Carey was an undergraduate in the early 1950s. In later years he did much to change this, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues. He also tried to ensure that students received better teaching, in terms of how to read, what to read and how to criticise – an area where some Australian academics might have benefited from following his lead.

Carey researched and taught at a number of Oxford colleges during his long academic career. From the first, he was aware of the class distinctions that operated in most of them, Balliol being an honourable exception. Of Christ Church, ‘just walking through it was an object lesson in how architecture can be used to make people feel small.’ At Keeble, he encountered one academic whom he loathed, seeing him as ‘a symbol of the monstrous injustice of Oxford, its crooked admissions policy and its shameless favouring of wealth and privilege.’ Of course he met with much intellectual honesty and generosity, as well as friendship. But it was the sense of superiority evinced by many of the academic staff that was the seed that germinated as The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Carey comes from a solid middle class background, of parents who had no particular aspirations towards high culture. His father was an accountant, understandably proud of his clever son. It occurred to Carey that people like the snobbish don he met at Christ Church – who pointedly refrained from ever addressing the young Carey – would despise his parents, and that thought eventually turned into The Intellectuals and the Masses. This is a study in cultural history of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who created what is now called ‘modernist literature’. Carey argues that many intellectuals resented the ‘semi-literate masses’ produced by the compulsory education reforms of 1870. In response, they excluded them from high culture by creating a literature which the masses couldn’t understand, because it ‘cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions.’ Carey is not saying that this literature was necessarily bad; indeed he very much admires some of the work of D.H. Lawrence, one of the writers he uses as an example. Others he comments on are T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells.  Needless to say this analysis was met with howls of fury, but I found it wonderfully liberating.

Most of Carey’s early academic work is high quality commentary on Milton, Donne and Marvell; later he wrote about Dickens, Thackeray and William Golding. But he is more broadly known for his collections of reportage and science writing. More recently he again shocked his academic colleagues with a small book entitled What Use Are the Arts? (2005), in which he considers what is a work of art, and whether exposure to works of art makes you a better person? The answers he reluctantly arrives at are that anything can be so considered, and unfortunately ‘no’. But he concludes that what matters is whether a book – or a painting, a piece of music – gives ‘joy and satisfaction’, and surely there could be no better test.

You can read a little more about Professor Carey here, including a list of his major works, and an interesting profile of him here. If you don’t fancy the autobiography, try the Faber Book of Reportage (1987) – eyewitness accounts of history – or the Faber Book of Science (1995). Or, of course, The Intellectuals and the Masses.

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The Alhambra (titled Tales of the Alhambra in later editions) was published in 1832, and now forms Volume 14 in the standard edition of Washington Irving’s complete works – and there are at least ten more volumes in the set. But who, these days, has heard of Washington Irving – except maybe to remember that he was the creator of Rip Van Winkle? Yet in his day, he was considered a major – possibly the major – American literary figure. A travel writer, a writer of tales and histories rather than a novelist, he fitted the now rarely used category of a writer of ‘belles lettres’, and his work was popular in both Europe and America.

Born in 1783, and named for a hero of the recently successful American Revolution, Irving travelled extensively in Europe, and lived in Spain in 1826-9. There he wrote a book about the life and journeys of Christopher Columbus and a history of the conquest of Granada by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1829, he lived for some months in the Alhambra, and as a result, produced this mixture of journal, social commentary, history and legend.

The Alhambra palace and fortress complex was constructed in something like its current form in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, a place, Irving says, ‘of grace and beauty’. When Irving saw it in 1828, and lived in it in 1829, some of it was in ruins and much of it was deserted. According to him,  it had been saved from the ‘absolute ruin and desolation that were overwhelming it’, not by the Spanish, but by the French forces that occupied it during the Peninsular War of 1808 -14; they had fixed leaking roofs and restored the water supply, the fountains and the gardens. On leaving they had also blown up some of the watch towers around the walls, which is perhaps why some Spanish commentators blame the French for all the decay. Irving also gives credit to Granada’s governor of the day, who was beginning the restoration which would slowly bring the site back to life. But it is in their very dereliction that Irving sees the abandoned halls and gardens as full of ‘poetry and romance’.

The tales Irving tells about ‘this Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land’ are written with a light touch, with humour and acute observation. Some of them are about his day to day experiences, such as his journey to Granada, moving into what had been the Governor’s quarters, exploring the halls and gardens and the country round about; he finds the Alhambra to be ‘an elegant memento  of a brave, intelligent and graceful people’. There are a number of legends, which he embroiders from the tales told to him by the locals. There is often a touch of magic to them, reflecting the fancies of the locals who view the faded magnificence of the Alhambra with superstitious awe and believe that there must have been magicians involved in its creation. These legends echo the Moorish tradition of tales such as the Arabian Nights. My favourite is ‘The Legend of Ahmed al Kamel’; I like how Ahmed can’t control his magic horse.

Some of Irving’s ‘tales’ are musings on the history of the Alhambra; for example he traces the route taken by the ‘unfortunate’ Boabdil, the last Emir of Granada, when he left his beautiful palace to go into exile after the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. ‘You do well to weep as a woman,’ his mother said, ‘over what you could not defend as a man.’ By Irving’s account, this was an unfair comment; the Moslems that still remained in Spain were fighting among themselves as well as against the Christians, and Boabdil’s only option other than surrender was to die in a losing battle. Perhaps that was his mother’s point. But Irving sincerely feels for poor Boabdil. ‘He was personally brave,’ writes Irving, ‘but wanted moral courage … [and this] deprived him of the heroic grace which would have given grandeur and dignity to his fate, and rendered him worthy of closing the splendid drama of the Moslem domination of Spain.’ Again, a very romantic view of these events.

In fact, Irving is a thorough-going Romantic. He sees Spain in general and the Alhambra in particular as almost part of a fairy tale; ‘there is a romance,’ he says, ‘about all the recollection of the Peninsular dear to the imagination.’ It might be thought from this that his interest in the exotic remnants of Eastern culture he found in Spain were part of the movement in nineteenth century Europe that has been called Orientalism. Following the thesis of Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism, critics have claimed that the nineteenth century western visitors and writers who established that the East was glamorous but outlandish, played to the idea that the East was both ‘other’ and ‘inferior’, indeed by definition, the opposite of the West. It’s true that Irving does occasionally slip into the common stereotype whereby the east is supine and impractical, as when he talks about the ‘voluptuous lords of the Alhambra’ indulging in ‘that dreamy repose so dear to the Orientalists’. But for the most part, he admires the Moors far more than the Spanish peasants who have replaced them at the Alhambra. His aim, he says, is both ‘to record the regal and chivalrous traditions concerning those who once trod its courts and the whimsical and superstitious legends of the motley race now burrowing among its ruins.’

When we recently visited the Alhambra, our guide told us that Washington Irving’s interest in the Alhambra, and the interest in it generated by his book, helped persuade the Spanish government to pursue its restoration. It seems that the move to restore it began before Irving’s book was published, but I like to think he may well have contributed to the impetus that has produced the magnificent World Heritage site that exists today.

You can read more about Washington Irving here. The Wikipedia entry for the Alhambra is here, and if you want to follow up on Washington Irving and Spanish Orientalism, try this and this.

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