‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell

o'farrell

2013, 338 p

On a hot July morning in 1976, recently retired  Robert Riordan gets up from the breakfast table and announces that he’ll pop out to get the newspaper. He doesn’t come back.

His wife of 40 years, Gretta waits a little while, then calls her children. Two of them, anyway: school teacher Michael whose wife is growing away from him as she becomes increasingly engrossed in her Open University course, and Monica whose relationship with her stepdaughters is strained and leaching into her second marriage with an older man.  Gretta can’t call her youngest daughter, Aoife in New York, because she doesn’t know her number.  Aoife, who has struggled with dyslexia all her life, has a job as a personal assistant to a photographer she admires, and is just embarking on a new relationship. She had fled to New York after a falling out with her sister and had cut off all contact. But once the word is out, all three children come home to help find their father, trailing their disappointments, anxieties, tensions and resentments behind them.

The action stretches over four days, but a very long four days in narrative terms because so much of the story is being told in flashback- not a technique that I’m particularly fond of.  The focus shifts from one family member to another, with the exception of the absent Robert, who is just as ‘missing’ in the book as he is in the plot.

The book is set against the 1976 heatwave that roasted London with sixteen consecutive days over 30 degrees.  English houses are not built for heat, and water restrictions were imposed.  (There’s some good photos here). I must admit that as a reader more accustomed to antipodean heat waves, it didn’t quite capture heat as we know it here . We were being told about the heat, but as a reader, I didn’t feel it.  What I did feel was the oppression of family arguments and pain, and the burden of secrets.

I read this for bookgroup and it was a good bookgroup choice.  It always sounds a bit patronizing saying that, but it was the sort of book that nudged you into making judgments and taking sides.  It was certainly easy to read and my interest in the characters ensured that I didn’t particularly care one way or the other about what happened to Robert, and whether he did get that newspaper after all. The book’s not really about him at all, or the heat, for that matter.  It’s about families and secrets, and choices and their consequences.

My rating: 7.5

Read because: CAE bookgroup

‘Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason’ by Norman S. Poser

When I look at the header that runs across the top of this little blog, with its picture of the first Supreme Court building here in Melbourne,  Crocodile Dundee comes to mind.  “Call that a court? Call the man hidden away inside that humble little building a judge?”

Now this is a judge!

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Lord Mansfield was born William Murray at Scone Palace in Scotland in 1705 and he was Chief Justice of the Kings Bench in England for 32 years.  His long life (1705-1793) spanned most of the eighteenth century, and he was related to varying degrees with many of the momentous occasions of that time: the Jacobite uprising, the age of Enlightenment, the coffee house culture, the American Revolution, the Wilkes and Gordon riots and most famously for us today (although somewhat incorrectly), the question of slavery.  He is remembered as the father of commercial law. Continue reading

‘When it Rains’ by Maggie Mackellar

Whenitrains

2010, 223 p

Right at the end of this book the author, Maggie Mackellar, tells us what she has set out to do:

At times I feel like a voyeur in my own life.  What right do I have to portray these events, to try to place them in a frame I might understand?  I return to the question asked by Anne Carson of Euripides’ tragedies: why is tragedy so important as an art form?  Her answer brings me up against my own terrible truth. Tragedy is important because it enables us to imagine our own reactions in a dark well of horror.  It lets us watch others suffer.  By watching, we are prepared. By watching, we place a frame around our world and pace its boundaries.  We guard against unknown horrors that call to us from beyond our walls.  I watch so that I might know, and write so I might be understood. But my terrible truth is that no matter how carefully I place that frame, no matter how deeply I dive under the sea, I will never really understand why. (p216)

As readers, we have been watching a tragedy unfold as this young widow, historian, mother, daughter packs up her Sydney life and academic career to return to her grandmother’s home in a small outbook town with her two young children. She has come undone with grief.  Her husband  had committed suicide, four years earlier, leaving her with a five year old daughter and an unborn son.  Her husband (for this is how she refers to him throughout)  had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, when he absconded and killed himself. She had been many miles away, unable to reach him in the depths of his illness and frightened by his violence. Her mother was there for the birth of now father-less child, and it was her mother who taught her to love her new baby:

It was my mother’s hands that received my baby boy as he slipped from my body. She held him and sang to him, her hands firm around him, swaddled him, patted him, learnt him…. It was a relief to let her hold him.  To watch her loving him. I followed her lead.  This baby, whom I’d sheltered and who’d grown stronger within me even as his father’s mind was splintering; this baby, who was my constant companion through trauma and despair, had finally arrived. I didn’t fall for him as instantly as I did for Lottie…. In the end it was my mother who taught me to love him.  She held him high, she held him to her.  (p. 17)

Then suddenly her mother died, struck down by a fast-moving cancer.  Her grief for her mother’s death was not alloyed by anger and a sense of betrayal as her response to her husband’s death had been.  Her mother’s presence and assistance had been the rope that tethered her to the semblance of a career and single motherhood, and with the cutting of that connection, it just all became too hard: the child-care, the teaching, the marking, the academic hamster-wheel. She took leave of absence from her job and eventually resigned, knowing the significance of turning her back on a job as an early-career researcher and lecturer at Sydney Uni.

She returns to her grandparent’s pastoral property in Central Western New South Wales, her mother’s childhood home and a place that has happy memories for her.  Her aunt and uncle have taken over the farm, and she knits herself into small-town country life with the  primary school, the Tuesday Ladies tennis club, sheep, tractors, horses, dogs, chooks and snakes.  In many ways she is fortunate: she steps back into an extended family network; she has the financial resources to take the children to Europe for seven weeks for a holiday (brave lady!) and academic projects seem to come to her, instead of having to seek them out.

Her outback country life is juxtaposed against her memories of a six-month trip she and her husband took to Alaska when she was twenty-three years old and unexpectedly pregnant.  They had rock-climbed and kayaked in the wilderness, then lived for three months in a tiny shack outside a small Alaskan town. It had been a “shape-altering” trip that underscored her husband’s physicality as they talked about the future, study, life with a small child.  And now, as she watches their children fit into their new life in the red dust of the NSW outback, without him there, Alaska seems very far away.

The blurb on the back of the book describes her as “a brilliant new talent”, but I’d met her on the page before and even blogged unwittingly about her here.  She talks about her academic work, and I know the SLV manuscript room that she describes and, because I’m a historian of the Port Phillip district, I know of the people she’s researching.  She brings her skills as historian and academic to this memoir as well.  She tells us that

After he died, I sought clarity by writing in strict chronological order the events that led to his death.  I took each day, sketched its beginnings and end, recalled each mood, read into every silence some sort of message.  I wanted to trace the trajectory of his breakdown, to look for clues about spaces into which I could have stepped and saved him.  I wanted his past to speak to me.  As I wrote, what emerged was not clarity, nor understanding, nor peace; what was left was a chaotic scrawl filled with pain- and, looking back, an inevitable end (p. 5)

In this book, she has left strict chronological order behind and instead spirals around her story. The book is written as a series of short chapters, mostly in the present tense, that read a bit like newspaper columns in that each one seems self-contained with apparent closure in the final paragraph of each one.  But you turn the page, and still it goes on – just as she must.  As one chapter follows another chapter, she is still circling warily around her pain but gradually stepping away from it as well.  The academic is always there, making connections with other writers and literature, and her observation that she is a “voyeur in her own life” is apt.  There is much pain here, but there’s a detachment and abstraction as well.  A memoir is a construction, and I was very aware of the layers in this beautifully written, honest, intelligent book.

awwbadge_2014 I guess I’m still doing this Challenge although I’ve probably reached my target by now.  Nonetheless, I’ll still post my review to the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge.

‘London Under’ by Peter Ackroyd

ackroyd

2012,  182 p.

If I bemoaned the lack of poetry in Nick Cooper’s London Underground at War , then I found it- as I might have expected- in the astoundingly prolific Peter Ackroyd’s London Under.

London Under is written as a slimmer companion volume to Ackroyd’s big baggy monster London: A Biography.  In that book, he described London as a palimpsest, alternately destroyed and rebuilt, the same patterns or practices  repeated on the same site, albeit in different manifestations, across the centuries.  This book repeats the same theme, but this time he delves under the surface where layer upon layer reflect similar patterns over time. But there’s also a web-like aspect as well:

In a previous book I have explore the city above the surface; now I wish to descend and explore its depths which are no less bewildering and no less exhilarating. Like the nerves within the human body, the underworld controls the life of the surface.  Our activities are governed and sustained by material and signals that emanate from beneath the ground; a pulse, an ebb, a flow, a signal, a light, or a run of water, will affect us. It is a shadow or replica of the city; like London itself it has developed organically with its own laws of growth and change. (p. 1-2)

His underground world is often a watery one, based on the rivers that flow beneath the streets of the metropolis.  He starts by considering the wells that early Londoners were so dependent upon, and which are often marked by street-names in the world ‘on top’.  In ‘Forgotten Streams’, he traces the thirteen rivers and brooks of London as they entwine themselves with the underground infrastructure which has been superimposed on them in the form of sewers and tube lines.  The pages are sprinkled with black-and-white illustrations, many from the early nineteenth century, which show the presence of these rivers before they were subsumed by development.  The chapter ‘Old Man River’ concentrates on the Fleet, the most powerful of all London’s buried rivers. ‘Heart of Darkness’ examines the construction of the sewers that carried away the filth from London while the ‘Pipes of London’ looks at gas and water piping that brought facilities to London.  The ‘Mole Men’ deals with the Thames Tunnel, which from an engineering viewpoint was the precursor of the Underground, which is dealt with in ‘The Deep Lines’.  Three chapters, ‘Far Under Ground’, ‘Buried Secrets’ and ‘The War Below’ deal with much of the material covered by Cooper’s London Underground at War, although in a more people-focussed manner.  The final chapter ‘Deep Fantasies’ draws out the theme of imagination and the underground which he has mentioned in several places in the book.

There are no footnotes in the book, although it does include a bibliography at the end.  Like so much of Ackroyd’s work, it is atmospheric and erudite, steeped in literature and popular culture, especially that of the nineteenth century.  The language flows seductively and smoothly in a very easy, beguiling read.

And by coincidence, what should be on SBS recently but ‘Secrets of Underground London.’ It’s on SBS Catchup until 25 November 2014.

 

‘London Underground at War’ by Nick Cooper

londonUnderground

2014, 120 p & appendices

Heaven knows that I have a million things that I should be reading, but I found myself returning to the ‘new books’ shelf of the library each day just to have another little browse through this small book. In the end I thought- sod it!- just borrow it! and so I did. From the safety of sixty years on and the comfort of being in another hemisphere on the other side of the world, I’m fascinated by the Blitz.

The book has seven chapters and two lengthy appendices.  The chapters are not long, and they are supplemented with many black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings.

Chapter 1, ‘Beginnings’ explains the construction of  London’s Underground. I am amazed that it commenced so early, opening in 1863 -( about twenty years after the opening of the little Port Phillip courthouse shown on the top of my blog!)  Privately owned London railway companies linked most large cities with London, but they stopped on the boundary of the city, prevented  either by an act of Parliament from encroaching into the city from the north, or by prohibitive expense from entering from the south.   The North Metropolitan Railway Company was incorporated in 1853 to build a three-and-a half mile underground railway using ‘cut and cover’ where a deep trench was dug down a road, lined with brick then covered over again and the road re-laid.  In the mid 1860s the engineer James Barlow developed a simplified version of Brunel’s huge tunneling shield that had been used to construct the Thames Tunnel between 1825-1843 (and again, I’m stunned, thinking of the technology in Australia at the time). With this new technology, the tunnel could be built in segments using a series of 8-foot diameter rings, without surface disruption.  They were off!!  The creation of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933 finally brought all public transport in the capital under central control and the lines were given generic names (Central, District etc) instead of the private railway company initials that they had used until then (e.g. CLR, GN&CR)

I must confess that I wish at this point that there had been larger map than the ones provided.  There were two- each taking up half a page, and I think they merited a whole page to each.

Ch. 2 ‘Preludes’ starts in World War I, when German airships bombed London. People sheltered in the Underground tunnels then too, but not enough for the authorities to worry about it or, alternatively, promote it.  During the Spanish Civil War civilians used the underground metro for protection, and the British government resolved that in any future wars, they would not use their Underground in this way again.  The major concern was that the tunnels would flood under sustained bombing and so flood-gates were installed (remnants of which can still be seen in some stations today).

Chapter 3 ‘Sheltered Lives’ explains the arrangements that were made by Councils and Corporations that did, as it turned out,  utilize the Underground stations, despite the pre-war intention not to do so.  There are many photographs here of people sleeping on platforms, storing their bedding etc. and the chapter describes the arrangements made for  sanitation and litter collection. People paid at least a penny ha’penny to enter (how frustrating- WordPress doesn’t show halves- a penny and a half)  which would be the equivalent of 80p today.  I should imagine that buying a ticket would be a form of head-counting as much as anything else.

Ch. 4 ‘Deep Defence’ describes the deep level shelters that were used for official and emergency service provision- offices and troop and firefighter hostels etc.  These deep shelters had liftwells leading down to them as well as emergency staircases, and so at ground level, square boxes were built onto the top of existing buildings to accommodate the lifts.  There are many current-day photographs of these buildings which are otherwise unremarkable, quite ugly and no doubt ripe for demolition without people realizing what they are.

Ch. 5 ‘The Blitz and Beyond’ is a chronological list of damage to the Underground, most particularly between September 1940 and May 1941.  Night time bombing recommenced in 1944 with the ‘Baby Blitz’, followed by the V1 and V2.  There was less damage to the Underground with these later waves of bombing.

Ch. 6 ‘Major Incidents’ describes the major bombing incidents and the infrastructure damage and loss of life entailed in each. Again, they are arranged chronologically

Ch. 7 ‘Aftermath’ is only a short chapter of four pages (two of which are pictures) describing the changes to the lines post war.

A lengthy appendix  lists the names of those killed in the incidents identified in Chapter 6.  It does not claim to be definitive, and the opening paragraph explains the parameters that govern inclusion in this list.  The lists are arranged alphabetically by station.  It is sobering to see whole families lost, particularly in the earlier bombings.  A final appendix discusses the fears of flooding from the Thames, and the arrangements that were made to prevent the inundation of the whole system.

As you can probably detect from this chapter summary, this is very much a book of lists and incidents.  Chapter 3 does describe the conditions in the tunnels and the human response, but it’s all at a rather technical and disengaged level.  There’s not a lot of poetry in the writing: it is very matter-of-fact.  This is a book that focusses on the Underground and its infrastructure, and it is not (and nor does it pretend to be) a social history.  As the author notes on his website,

this new book details the early years of the London Underground, concerns about public air raid shelter provision in the 1930s, and how sheltering in stations and bombing affected the operation of system during the Second World War.

The emphasis is on how the presence of Londoners affected the Underground during the war,  more than how the Underground affected them.  The detachment of the writing does mean that it reads a bit like a report.

There was, however, one quotation at the end of Chapter 6. The bombing of Bank station on 11 January 1941 resulted in, according to most accounts, fifty-six killed and sixty nine wounded.  The only doctor on the scene was a Hungarian refugee, Dr Z. A. Leitner who treated patients for an hour and a half until help arrived.  He gave testimony to the inquiry held afterwards, and even allowing for any ‘buttering up’ in order to stay in the country, his statement is quite remarkable and has the ring of truth:

I should like to make a remark.  You English people cannot appreciate the discipline of your own people.  I want to tell you I have not found one hysterical patient.  I think this is very important, that you should not take such things as given, because it does not happen in other countries.  If Hitler could have been there for five minutes with me he would have finished this war.  He would have realized that he has got to take every Englishman and twist him by the neck- otherwise he cannot win this war.  (p 115)

The author has a website that contains much of the information in this book, and it will give you a flavour of the approach he takes.

http://www.nickcooper.org.uk/subterra/lu/tuaw.htm

‘Muddy York Mud: Scandal and Scurrility in Upper Canada’ by Chris Raible

raible

1992,  272 pages including appendix.

I came across this book just as I was about to go to Canada in 2011 to research the Upper Canada period of ‘my’ Judge Willis‘ career.  I began reading it and became increasingly excited that it captures the small-town, censorious attitude of a small Canadian outpost of Britishness in the 1820s so well. No wonder an English judge, full of his own importance, fell foul of this intermarried web of government officials!  But then there were bags to pack and planes to catch, and I didn’t finish it. I’ve just returned to reading it, some three years later, and almost at the end of my first draft instead of dabbling around in the shallows of my early research.   On this second and now completed reading, it doesn’t so much open up new areas (thank goodness, I must say), but it does confirm and add colour to the context of 1820s York (Toronto) in a highly readable and informed manner.

The central event of this book is what has come to be known as the Types Riot.  Late on the summer afternoon of 8 June 1826, when the editor of the Colonial Advocate newspaper was away, nine young  ‘gentlemen’ smashed their way into the newspaper office, emptied the type cases from their cabinets, strewed fully made-up printing frames across the office, then carried type cases across the road, along the wharf,  and threw them into the bay.  They were not drunk; they made no attempt to disguise themselves and they were watched without intervention by several bystanders, including two magistrates.

The argument of this book is that there is a direct link between the Types Riot and a series of satirical articles published some weeks earlier  in the Colonial Advocate known collectively as the Patrick Swift commentaries.  These articles, published at very great length over several issues, were a fictitious report entitled ‘A faithful account of the proceedings at a general meeting of the contributors to the Advocate, held in Macdonnell’s Parlour on the evening of Monday, May 1st 1826′.  These ‘contributors’ were ostensibly gathered to select a new editor for the Advocate as, supposedly, the present editor, William Lyon Mackenzie, had resigned.  ‘Patrick Swift’, [described as “a grand nephew of the famous Doctor Johnathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin” and the author of Gulliver’s Travels]  was selected. The ‘report’ described the debate and ribald comments of this drunken group of fictional characters.

In this way, ventriloquizing through the fictional ‘Patrick Swift’, the real-life editor of the Colonial Advocate, William Lyon Mackenzie launched on a tirade against the pretences of the Upper Canada ‘gentry’. In a thirty page, small-font appendix to the book, Raible reproduces the commentaries, annotating them to identify the victims of the humour:  judges, lawyers, the attorney general, prominent clergymen and even the lieutenant-governor and his wife.

As Raible says:

The notorious “Patrick Swift” satires, published by William Lyon Mackenzie a few weeks before the Types Riot trashing of his Colonial Advocate printshop, contained a number of explicit barbs intended to prick the over-inflated egos of the members of the little York elite.  That he succeeded, and thereby provided a group of men with socially acceptable justification for acting out their personal grievances against the outspoken editor, has been a theme throughout this book. (p. 229)

In the short chapters of this book, Raible ranges chronologically and episodically over a number of grievances and scandals that led to and flowed from the Types Riot.   It’s not an easy task: many of the events occurred in geographically disparate locations, across a long period of time. Although by themselves they are trivial  and petty, together they add up to the abuse of power by a puffed-up and mutually distrustful clique with the levers of judicial power in their grasp.

Raible keeps the tone light, with no apparent historiographical framework. There are footnotes (called ‘Sources’) and a bibliography, but you’re certainly not aware of them while reading the book. There’s a tongue-in-mouth jocularity that runs through the book, and it reflects the rambunctious/nostalgic tone of the antiquarian books that have provided much of the source material.  For Australian readers, there’s definitely a touch of the ‘Garryowens’ about it.

‘The Trouble With Harry’ Northcote Town Hall

troublewithharry

Allow me to rave.  No- before I do, if it’s before November 9 when you’re reading this,  open a new tab and find tickets and buy them. Right now.  If it’s after November 9, then you’ve missed a wonderful show.  Remember the name and look out for it.

I’ve been fascinated with Eugenia Falleni’s story for some time and have reviewed Mark Tedeschi’s book Eugenia here  and Suzanne Falconer’s book Eugenia: A Man here.  If you’re not familiar with Eugenia’s story, you can see her ADB entry here.  Eugenia Falleni lived most of her life as Harry Crawford in post- WWI Sydney where he worked as a ‘useful’ at various factories. He was convicted and found guilty of the murder of his wife, Annie. This play adopts a different slant to the two books that I have read by placing a queer interpretation onto the relationship between Harry and his wife.  The dramatist, Lachlan Philpott does not give definitive answers: instead he opens up possibilities.

Apart from my fascination with the subject, I was drawn to see this because it stars Maude Davey (who played the minister in the excellent movie My Year Without Sex- one of my favourites) and Caroline Lee.  But, by the end of the show, I really couldn’t have identified any one actor out of the six in the cast as ‘the star’ because they were all excellent. Excellent.

It is staged at Northcote Town Hall which is just like any other 1900-ish town hall- stage at the front, large hall behind.  They do not use the platform at all, but instead utilize about 2/3 of the space at the front of the hall as stage, with temporary raked seating placed in the rear 1/3 of the hall.  The set is minimal: a large wooden box, a wall of panelling which looks at first as if it is part of the fabric of the Town Hall itself, and several steel structures, not unlike the legs of a table with the table top removed.  The actors themselves shift these around the performance space, turning them one way to be a pub bar, another way to represent a front porch; another way to represent a window. The set is fluid and changing continuously throughout the play

You are handed a set of headphones as you enter the hall.  Not only does this give scope for the use of a soundscape to supplement the admittedly sparse set – bird calls, fairground, night sounds- but it also acts to unsettle you as listener when you hear whispered asides that would otherwise have been lost in a more conventional sound production.  The script itself comprises mainly short sentences, often uttered over the top of each other.  There is a ‘chorus’ of a man and woman who comment on proceedings  in short stanzas, like a poem. The headphones help, I think, in keeping the different voices distinct.  It is a strange, disconnected experience, though.  You feel very much as if you’re watching it alone, completely immersed, and it’s not possible to nudge the person next to you and comment on what you’re seeing.  At one stage, people laughed and I’m still not sure if it was the audience around me, or whether it came through the headphones.

This is a fantastic production- one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time.  It is lyrical and it has emotional depth.  It’s clever.  See it if you can.