Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London


2014, 156 p.

I don’t know how Joan London managed it, but by only page 32 into this book, my eyes were brimming with tears.   It was a feeling that stayed with me  right until I turned the last page – a deep sadness that not once threatened to tip into sentimentality.

The (real life) Golden Age was a former hotel in suburban Perth during the 1950s.  At a time before the Salk vaccine put an end to the fear of polio, rehabilitation hospitals were established for children affected by polio.  The door stayed open all night and parents were welcomed but many  –  fearful, distressed and bound to work and their other children- came only at set times, or barely at all.  They were frightened by the illness and the future for their hurt, sick, too-aware children.

Thirteen year old Frank is almost too old for this children’s home but too young for adult hospitals. He is the only child of Jewish Holocaust survivors, cultivated educated Middle European migrants who have already lost so much, finding their way in a new country.  He falls in love with the frail, thin, Elsa who tumbles from her harried family into the quiet world of the Golden Age.

The horrific scenario of young bodies stilled, weakened and contorted by polio is lulled into a quiet, soothing, muffled presence.  This is a serene book, told in very short chapters like snapshots.  They are laid out before us, intersecting each other:  gentle, soothing middle-aged Sister Penny who takes lovers when she can;  Albert Sutton who runs away; the older boy Sullivan, an accomplished athlete and poet who dies in an iron lung; and Frank’s own parents, his father a successful Budapest businessman now driving soft drink trucks and  his mother the angry, coiled-tight concert pianist who plays a twilight concert in the yard of the Golden Age with the factory lights blazing next door.  The thread that connects them is Frank and Elsa, shyly negotiating new feelings.

This book reminded me of two other books: Atonement by Ian McEwan and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley.  Both those books are suffused with summer heat and bathed in regret and nostalgia.  So too is The Golden Age.  It is a beautifully crafted book, quiet, confident and sad.  It’s very good.

awwbadge_2014I really must tally up my books for the Australian Women Writers challenge.

‘Death or Liberty: Rebels and radicals transported to Australia 1788-1868′ by Tony Moore


2010, 398 p.

Many books, history books included, have a page of acknowledgments.  Along with the usual thanks to colleagues and family, appreciation is often expressed to librarians and archivists who have offered assistance along the way.

In this book, the author Tony Moore makes another acknowledgment.  It is to the commissioning editor of Murdoch Books,  Diana Hill, who selected him to fulfil the brief for this book.  Commissioned books, of course, are nothing new: institutions and individuals have often  paid a writer to document and argue their significance to a wider audience.  But this commission is slightly different in that it was for a narrative concept- transported rebels to Australia- left to the historian chosen to flesh out. When  Tony Moore spoke at the Australian Peace Coalition seminar I attended recently, he noted that the ABC has since commissioned a documentary series based on the book. Certainly the book and the topic is ripe for a television series.  It has, in effect, five self-contained episodes, studded with articulate, interesting people, and ripping yarns of defiance, escape, coincidence and courage.

As Moore notes in his introduction:

This is the story of how the British Government banished to the ends of the Earth political enemies viewed by authorities with the same alarm as today’s ‘terrorists': Jacobins, democrats and republicans; machine breakers, food rioters, trade unionists and Chartists; Irish, Scots, Canadian and even American rebels.  While criminals in the eyes of the law, many of these prisoners were heroes and martyrs to their own communities, and are still revered in their homelands as freedom fighters and patriots, progressive thinkers, democrats and reformers.  Yet in Australia, the land of their exile, memory of these rebels and their causes has dimmed  (p. 8)

He notes that when he was growing up, Australian history seemed bland and uninteresting, especially compared with European, American, African and Asian history with blood, revolutions, wars etc. He later came to learn that Australia had its own robust history of dissent and resistance to authority, and the blood and war was there all along.

We elide the nuances when we uncritically celebrate the convict trope of the “poor downtrodden peasant transported for stealing just a ribbon!”  and we are largely unaware of the political prisoners transported to Australia: 3600 of them out of a total of 162,000 sent between 1787 and 1868 when transportation finally ceased in Western Australia.  Of these political prisoners, 2500 were from Ireland, 1200 from England Scotland and Wales and 151 from North America.  It is these political prisoners that Moore deals with in this book. Continue reading

‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie 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!


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


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


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


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.