Category Archives: Modern History

Don’t cry, my beloved country

Snowy RiverWhat another Australian novel? Yes, just so.

The Trout Opera covers a number of Australian tropes, but once again the characters are largely European Australians. There is one native Australian in the whole book and he, a character called Percy, gets the opportunity to prick a fair number of assumptions made about the indigenous people.

In the following scene, Wilfred Lampe and Percy are looking for someone who has gone missing in the Snowy Mountains:

They reckoned Hayes had become disoriented, despite his expertise on the skis. […]

They’d already found Hayes’ gloves and scarf. And ski tracks near Merritts Lookout. Yet  no Hayes.

On the ride up, Percy said: ‘I think the tree line.’

‘Why?’

‘You are not going to leave the tree line in the big snow.’

‘Why not?’

‘Have to be crazy to leave the tree line. Maybe he was crazy.’

They rode to where Seaman was found and ate quietly, looking down into the valley.

‘You think you can find any tracks?’ Wilfred asked. ‘You’re a black bloke.’

Percy chewed a sandwich. ‘You think all black blokes can track?’

‘I dunno. Can you?’

‘You don’t know much.’

‘I’m just asking you.’

‘If you knew anything you don’t need to ask if I can track. Course I can track. My mother could track. My sisters, they track. It’s nothing special to track. Just a way of getting food. Taught when we’re little. If you knew anything you’d be able to track.’

However, in spite of the apparent disappearance of the “blackfella” in so many modern Australian novels, this is still an interesting and well constructed novel. It shows an Australia that is steeped in manufactured myth. The year is 1999/2000. A team responsible for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics are looking for a typical near-one-hundred-year-old Australian and eventually they settle on Wilfred Lampe. Sadly, the day they arrive at his shack, they find him collapsed in the back yard amongst the weeds and long grass. Panicking, the two men summon assistance, and Wilfred is whisked off to hospital.

Matthew Condon‘s novel segues between Wilfred’s life, almost a hundred years living in the same spot, near to the Snowy River, so the ultimate man from Snowy River [a famous Banjo Patterson poem] and the means by which the men from the committee try to find his family, and try to incorporate him into the festival ceremony. At the same time, the novel also covers the story of the Snowy River itself, once a huge and gushing torrent, full of fish and life, until choked and spoiled by damming and pollution.

There are poetic stretches of life as a fly fisherman, and the tying of flies for fishing which are interesting in themselves. The delicacy of these deadly lures and the inventiveness.

It is also a long love story, a human love story and a love story devoted to a place – the Snowy River and its environs.

Unlike The Dry and many other novels, this is real Australia. The places mentioned all exist in real time and in character. And it is a land despoiled by pollution, and by cheap housing but also, in places completely unspoiled.

The novel covers the big debate about where the capital city should be built. Dalgety, the first, and seemingly obvious, choice has its moment in the sun and then suddenly it is dropped in favour of Canberra. Dalgety is where Wilfred Lampe and his family live, Callistus his grandfather, Uncle Berty, a damaged veteran of World War I, his mother and his sister Astrid.

It is also about the darker side of life amongst drug addicts and city drop-outs.

It is a marvellously complex story, beautifully told.

 

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Wild about Wilde

Not Oscar, but Thomas. Rory Clements has abandoned his Elizabethan hero, John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous William, in favour of a period a little closer to hand: specifically Britain in the late 1930s.

Clements - CorpusThe first volume, Corpus, of a promised three, is set in the short period between King Edward VIII’s accession to the throne and his abdication. There are moves afoot to prevent the abdication, championed by among others Winston Churchill, but also a much more sinister group who looked kindly upon National Socialism in Germany, and felt rightly that King Edward with his wife beside him, whether Queen or no, was also mightily in favour of Herr Hitler’s regime.

Reading this book brings forcibly to mind the months of crisis that eventually led to The Abdication. Historical facts bleed seamlessly into this fictional narrative which centres on Cambridge and an American history professor, Thomas Wilde and his neighbour Lydia Morris.

At the start of the novel, there is an unexpected death, heroin overdose or something more sinister? Lydia’s friend, Nancy Hereward is found with a syringe by her side, slumped on her bed. To all intents and purposes, this looks like a simple case of one dose too many; but Lydia is not quite sure.

A second more horrifying murder site is found, and this one has links to Nancy through her father, Sir Norman Hereward who is close friends of the victims. A third murder points sickeningly towards involvement with Russia, but maybe all is not what it seems.

Lydia and Thomas, with the connivance of a Times Correspondent, Philip Eaton follow an increasingly dangerous and contorted trajectory of intrigue and conspiracy, while at the same time we are following the tense machinations going on between Edward and his government regarding the possible marriage to Wallis Simpson, twice-divorced American wife of the industrialist Ernest Simpson.

It is hard, possibly, for readers very much younger than me, to recognise a world in which newspaper magnates could be asked by Buckingham Palace and the Government not to report on The Situation. David, Prince of Wales (now Edward VIII) was hugely popular; debonair, handsome and easy-going, the ordinary people loved him; the aristocrats played at his court in Fort Belvedere, aware that he was loose in his morals, flagrantly cuckolding at least two well-born husbands, but that he was good fun and a great host. But the arrival on the scene of the glamorous, stylish but cold schemer, Wallis Simpson changed the climate. Many close friends of the King distanced themselves from the ensuing debacle; courtiers and officials made efforts to curb the excesses but without much success. Meanwhile, Edward, in many ways a weak man, fell completely and unequivocally in love with Wallis Simpson and insisted that he would marry her.

As I said, the historical background blends seamlessly and importantly into this gripping saga.

It is worth remembering that even without The Abdication, we would still have Elizabeth II on the throne, but Britain would have been a very different place, a protectorate island of Germany possibly, or a satellite state of the USSR, like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Not a happy thought!

Clements - NucleusIn the second book, Nucleus, war still has not started and we are back with our two friends Thomas and Lydia in another intrigue of devastating consequences, if successful.

Scientists and physicists in laboratories Germany and Cambridge are close to the realisation of creating nuclear fission, and the chain reaction which would, they think, lead on to great energy and possibly an atom bomb. Germany in particular needs to know quite how near Britain is to mastering this force.

The Nazi regime has forced the mass exile of many Jewish physicists and others, most of them have entered laboratories in Cambridge or in Princeton, America. German warmongers need information about the extent and success of their research. So, once more, against an historical background, our story, with Thomas Wilde and Lydia Morris in its meshes, outlines this uncomfortable stand-off with a convoluted plot that involves several different strands.

There are many aspects of this novel that bring to the fore genuine acts of heroism by real people. One strand in the novel follows the path of a little German Jewish boy put on the Kindertransport, he is to be met from the train by Lydia Morris – but he is not there.

The book names many real people involved in the race to save as many Jewish children as possible, an undertaking by the Society of Friends led by the astonishing and brave Bertha Bracey. She deserves a whole book to herself.  With The Society of Friends and volunteers she was responsible for soup kitchens which were set up in Germany after the First World War to feed starving children, that effort alone must have saved thousands and then when it became clear, after Kristallnacht, that things in Germany were going to be deathly for the Jews, she persuaded the British Government to allow 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children into this country. The Society of Friends funded and managed this evacuation just in the nick of time.

The other real person in this book, apart from those in the German high command, is Frank Foley who was an official at the British Passport Office in Berlin. Against all the codes of conduct, he handed out exit visas to many Jewish families trying to leave the country.

Another strand intertwined with the nuclear problem is the possible involvement of the IRA, who were being funded and supplied by Germany and who hoped that as a result of co-operation with the Nazis, would finally succeed in uniting the island of Ireland. But you need a long spoon if you sup with the Devil.

It is all grippingly told, page-turning-un-put-downable stuff. Can hardly wait for volume three, I hope it does not take as long as the one awaited from Hilary Mantel.

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Lenten Fast

If you have followed or read any previous posts, you may know that in Lent I eschew fiction. So far, my copy of the Archbishop’s Lent Book has failed to arrive, though according to the publisher has been sent. So in the meantime, I have been flitting between the Middle Ages in Britain (and France); nineteenth century poetry and painting through the life of Edward Lear and the twentieth century through the lens of Stalin.

Weir Queens 1So in that order. Queens of the Conquest (1066-1167) is the first part of Alison Weir‘s study of the female counterparts to England’s kings from William the Conqueror presumably to Richard III. The first volume begins with Mathilda, wife of William I, she was regent for him in Normandy while he was conquering England, and she was then crowned in her own right in 1068 in Westminster Abbey. It concludes in 1167 with The Empress Maud (also sometimes called Mathilda as these names were interchangeable, as were Mathilde and Mahaut). I have a slight failing here, as I find Maud endlessly fascinating and frightening. Her life spent fighting against Stephen for the right of her son Henry (II) to succeed to the throne led to a civil war in England that caused famine and destruction on a vast scale, a time which contemporary chroniclers described as “a time when Christ and His saints slept”. [Incidentally also the title of a book by Sharon Penman which describes in fiction this whole messy period – see my posts written in July 2013 and January 2014 ].

LearWhen not immured in the lives of the queens, I travel forward several centuries to Edward Lear, poet and artist through a new biography by Jenny Uglow. Mr Lear A life of Art and Nonsense is infinitely readable and enjoyable. Lear lived in a golden age, a man of great simplicity and charm whose rhymes have enchanted children for years, and for years to come but who was also an accomplished water colourist, a traveller and adventurer in Egypt, Corfu, Italy, Palestine and India; contemporary of  Darwin and Dickens; teacher to Queen Victoria to whom he gave drawing lessons; and friends with Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. But he fits uneasily into all these categories. His nonsense verses and limericks set a tone of frivolity not usually associated with Victorian England; his paintings are naturalistic, empty of humans – exquisite renderings of landscape – but devoid of any hidden message, so neither romantic nor mysterious, in a age of photography they would be described as photo-realism.

Stalin 2Both these volumes might be described as frivolous compared to the other book I am reading, of which I can only read around one chapter at a time. This is the second volume (and there is at least one more volume pending) of Stephen Kotkin‘s magisterial and forensically researched biography of Josef Stalin. This volume Stalin Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941 covers probably the bloodiest, most unforgiving section of Stalin’s dictatorship: ruined by paranoia, betrayals, executions and gulags. It brings us teetering upon the German invasion. Two terrible dictators pacing their rooms, playing the waiting game. Each entrapped in their own logic and about to descend into the furious, destructive and, ultimately, final stages of the Second World War.

MaiskyAnother marvellous volume, The Maisky Diaries, edited and compiled by Gabriel Gorodetsky fits neatly into this period and expands the horizons. Ivan Maisky was the Russian ambassador to London at this time, 1932 to 1943.  At a time when most people even remotely associated with the Stalin regime kept no written records of their activities for fear of reprisals, the Maisky diaries are remarkably frank and intact and shine a searching light upon a volatile and crucial period of European history.

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Dancing on the head of a pin

There is an old philosophical argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some of the answers lie in the twelve-part chronicle of the twentieth century in Anthony Powell‘s series Dance to the Music of Time, itself an homage to Nicolas Poussin‘s painting of the same name in The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London.

spurling 1Now Hilary Spurling has brought out her biography of her great friend and mentor Anthony Powell, called unsurprisingly, Anthony Powell Dancing to the Music of Time.

There are other novels by Anthony Powell, as there are other books by Hilary Spurling. But this one is a marriage made in heaven, with plenteous angels dancing on pins.

Early on in her career, when she had only one book published, she was invited by AP to compile a sort of dictionary/encyclopaedia companion to Dance to the Music of Time which he had completed in 1975 with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of the series. This admirable little volume is called Invitation to the Dance, it is a handbook to the characters and situations found in the long series.spurling 2

Powell lived a typically literary life of the twentieth century, sometimes radically short of money and often hard pressed for the next payment; he had a wife, Violet and two children. Violet is described by a contemporary and friend as “the right-arm of Tony’s imagination”. This I suspect, exactly represents their long relationship and intense marriage. Violet, born of a great literary family herself, the Pakenhams, had a marvellous memory for the detail in the sequence, and was always the first reader of any of Anthony’s books; but this came into its own once he began the series, which was first of all to be a trilogy, but then extended almost by its own volition into a twelve volume sequence which took almost twenty five years to write, a new volume coming out at almost two yearly intervals.

The delight of this biography is that it puts names of real characters to their fictional avatars in The Dance. Some fall straight from life on to the page, others are a combination of characteristics drawn from life and combined in fiction and a few characters in The Dance are completely original.

In the three volumes that cover the war years, more characters fall straight from life into fiction and Anthony Powell had a nervous lunch with one of them when his commanding officer invited him to lunch; AP was expecting a dressing down and possibly a legal action, but to his relief the Colonel had mis-identified himself with another much more likeable and congenial military figure, actually based upon a Major in Anthony’s unit of the Welsh Regiment.

In this biography, we meet more literary giants than you can imagine.  The Powells were well connected through Violet’s family and had a web of literary friends through Anthony’s other work as a reviewer, variously for Punch and The Daily Telegraph and other papers and periodicals. So parties and country weekends seem to burst with talent:  Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, T S Eliot, Philip Larkin, John Betjemen, Graham Greene and many others; not confined to the literary arts they were also friends with the painters Edward Burra, Edward Bawden, Henry Lamb, Osbert Lancaster, Adrian Daintrey, John Banting and Augustus John; through their friendship with Constant Lambert they mixed with the ballet crowd, including Margot Fonteyn and Michael Helpmann and through the Pakenhams (Lords Longford et al) they were connected with many other strands of society, both literary and nobility, and were often found to be staying with the Duke of Wellington in Granada, Spain, with the Sitwells at Renishaw, at Pakenham Hall in Ireland (in case you have not made the connection Lady Antonia Fraser, later wife of Harold Pinter is one of many) and the Mitfords.

This makes for fascinating reading because it is a glimpse into the lives of writers, artists and others that have figured enormously in the lives of anyone between the ages of 95 to 65, because these were the writers of modern fiction when we were “growing up”.

This large and talented group were the social opposite of the other famous, not to say legendary, literary giants of a slightly earlier period, the Bloomsbury Group. While the later group were all equally “well connected”, their lives were predicated upon the different mores that followed the First World War and during and after the Second.

If you have never read anything by Hilary Spurling, there are twelve other books to choose from, ranging from biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett to Pearl Buck, taking on Matisse and Paul Scott and the Raj Quartet as well and if you have not read Anthony Powell – I sort of envy you, because you have such a treat in store. The Dance to the Music of Time is one of the very few re-reads I make, and I follow through by re-reading Marcel Proust The Remembrance of Things Past, for they are enduringly fascinating, wonderfully revealing and each time make the reader feel differently, as you perceive more layers and meaning in the increasingly familiar texts.

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Reading Australia 2

If you read my posts at all regularly, you will know that I have an unbridled passion for Australia: its land – which I consider God’s Own Country; its history – which makes me want to weep; and its culture – in which I include novels by English and Australian authors as well as everything else: film, painting and all things man-made.

My great hero in the writing world is Thomas Keneally. His output is prodigious and unfailingly interesting, gripping even, and apart from once straying into foreign fields, seems always to have a tenuous link to his own country.

KeneallyCrimes of the Fathers, his latest novel, is no exception. The fathers in question are priests and the crimes are all too awful and apparent. Being of Irish-Catholic extraction himself, Thomas Keneally knows at first hand about the rituals and confessionals of the Catholic faith,

In this novel, he is both channelling the good priests and chastising the bad ones. He obviously knows whereof he writes, which is not to say at all or even to suggest that he was himself a victim of child abuse, but who nowadays can honestly say that they know nothing about it. He was himself training for the priesthood but recognised, in time, that it was not the place for him.

We are all aware now that abuse exists throughout society, in almost every conceivable walk of life where children and young people are vulnerable to approaches of an abusive nature by a responsible adult behaving irresponsibly.

The protagonist in this novel, Father Docherty, has returned from Canada to his home turf, Sydney, to give a lecture in an archdiocese from which he was expelled some years earlier. His topic is child abuse: its foundations and the Church’s response, which to say the least, has been inadequate.

In this searing, insightful account as exemplified by the narrative, Thomas Keneally exposes a wearisome conundrum. As an ex-seminarian, he knows at first hand how the training and practices of the Catholic priesthood – celibacy and the confessional – can lead inexorably to corruption and abuse in the hands of a few emotionally stunted men; a situation that leads them into sexually abusing young men and women, exposure following them in secret, but not public censure; the Church hierarchy moving them on, often to repeat their offences; shielded by a system whose fear of scandal, and worse, whose fear of being undermined allowed the top people, all of them men, to cover up a practice that should have been rooted out and exposed and dealt with long ago.

Only the threat of national media exposure has changed everything, and this novel shows both the damage and the insidious cancer, to both victim and the Church that this avoidance of acknowledgement has caused.

RhoadesA second Australian novel The Woolgrower’s Companion is a book of a different order of narrative. The chapter headings all start with a quotation from the The Woolgrower’s Companion 1906, this is a double bluff, no such book or pamphlet exists. But it is a deceit which adumbrates the many different deceits inherent in this story. Joy Rhoades‘ novel is a heartbreaker.

I mentioned in a previous post the treatment of the Aboriginal People, I forgot to mention the equally appalling treatment of half-caste children, these were unfathomably always taken from their mothers and brought up, trained and sent out into service – generally into the service of white farmers, the very colonials who had often abused their kind.  Orphans were also treated this way and always sent to places far from their origins so that they could not go walkabout and find their own people.

Set in 1945 Longhope, New South Wales, the family in this narrative, the Stimsons, were on the surface wealthy landowners. The book opens with Ralph and his married daughter Kate Dowd, waiting at the local station for the arrival of Italian prisoners of war who were detailed to help on the farms in the absence of the young men still fighting.

Kate Dowd and her father live on a large sheep farm in New South Wales, a farm that Ralph had extended from a Soldiers’ Settlement after the First World War. This was a scheme parcelling out of plots of land for returning servicemen; some thrived and some failed and in Stimson’s case he was a thriver, and had bought up his neighbour’s plots as they went under, not without some chicanery on his side.

As well as the POWs, they have picked up a young boy, Harry, the nephew of their overseer, Grimes.

There are, on the farm, Grimes and another hand, Ed (who is possibly of Aboriginal descent) and two Aboriginal People and the two POW’s. Ralph Stimson the owner, his daughter Kate and an Aboriginal girl, Daisy, a half-caste from the local Domestic Training Home live in the house.

The whole area though is suffering from extreme drought, so all farming is on the knife edge of disaster, Amiens (the name given to this farm) has a dammed reservoir (an advantage not unconnected with the failure of his neighbour’s enterprises), but the water level is getting dangerously low.

This combination of adverse weather conditions and a small team make for intense relationships, each person relying on another to make things work. Ralph, however, has been slipping into a state of absent-mindedness and erratic bursts of fury, brought on partly by the death of his wife and partly as a result of his experiences in the First World War. So Grimes, and eventually Kate, are having to manage the farm, knowing all the time that soon the Second World War will end, their men will return and the Italians will go.

As I indicated earlier, this is a novel full of deceptions and one by one, they reveal themselves, with devastating consequences.

Taut, evocative writing – suspenseful and poignant – this is a story of universal appeal.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 12

What a glorious finale to my festival! Going back to who I wasIn this extraordinary film, we follow in the footsteps of a young Buddhist monk, Padma Angdu a reincarnated Rinpoche. Once the little boy monk is around six or seven his disciples are expected to come to find him and to take him back to their monastery.

In the case of Padma Angdu though, this is unlikely to be possible, for he is the latest incarnation of a teacher from Kham in Tibet and he has been born in Ladakh, India. For a while he is allowed to stay, but eventually the monastery reject him and he goes to live with the village healer, Urgyan, also a monk, who has been chosen as his guide.

The socio-political situation in Tibet makes it unlikely, if not impossible, for anyone to come and get Padma, but as a Rinpoche he needs teaching at a higher level and eventually to return to his “home”. So he and his guide, Urgyan have to make the journey themselves.

This is no small undertaking. Padma is about twelve and Urgyan must be about seventy or eighty and the journey will take about two to three months, much of it on foot . But full of hope, they set off on this perilous journey, stopping at various monasteries along the way to see if one will accept Padma for higher training.

This documentary was filmed on location, by a small crew of only two or three and took eight years to film and nine years to edit. This was mostly because the two main people on the team, Chang-yong Moon and Jin Jeon are based in South Korea and make documentaries for television so had to keep dropping this film, to work and to find funding.

Leaving aside the amazing and heart-breaking story, the spectacular scenery and visual delights of the settings makes this a film of exceptional interest. At its centre though is the astonishing love and fidelity shown by the older monk for the younger, and the desire of the younger one to return to Tibet.

We leave Padma Angdu in Sikkim, the nearest place he can get to near Tibet where a monastery accepts him for the training he needs and we see Urgyan turning for home…

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.ii

Angel wear white

Angels Wear White could not have been more different. Though also a film about exploitation, this is set in a seaside town in South China. Directed and written by Vivien Qu, it follows the lives of some young schoolgirls and their indirect relationship with a young girl working in a motel.

Brilliantly cast, with young girls who were not necessarily actors, this film explores Ms Qu’s observation that in modern China, where families are becoming dis-united, parents sometimes working in different cities, leaving children with grandparents, relatives or alone, there is a growing and disturbing rise in young people living rough on the streets, sometimes working in the sex-industry or simply giving “favours” for food and accommodation.

Runaways without ID are also vulnerable to exploitation and do menial work in hotels and restaurants, low paid and borderline work which is neither legal or safe.

In this film the setting is a coastal town, there is a huge funfair at the gates of which is a gigantic statue of Marilyn Munroe (who some might also see as an icon of exploitation) in her famous dress malfunction pose in Some Like it Hot. Her high-heeled shoes are just about the same height as the first girl that we meet, the runaway hotel worker.

The story focuses upon bribery and corruption in the highest echelons of the justice service, and the behaviours which lead to blackmail and beatings. It is a compelling look at the underworld and although set in China, it has a universal message about how young people are treated in the 21st century.

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