‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters


Whenever I open up a book by a favourite author, my anticipation is edged with anxiety that perhaps -alas- this might be the book that does the literary equivalent of jumping the shark.  I’ve loved every one of Sarah Water’s books and  her last,  The Little Stranger marked such  a departure from her earlier work that I wondered if I’d seen the last of the Sarah Waters I’ve enjoyed so much. I need not have feared.  She’s back to her plots that involve lesbian relationships, and as with all her earlier books, she combines careful but lightly- worn research with intricate plotting and multi-layered characters.  I shut the book with a very satisfied sigh and no, she hasn’t lost it one little bit.


The Paying Guests is set in post WWI London, in a society still raw with grief at so much loss of young life.  Frances Wray has returned to her widowed mother’s empty house,  her two brothers having died at the Front, and in their straitened circumstances, mother and daughter shift into a couple of rooms on the ground floor and let the upper rooms of the house.  The rooms are taken by Mr and Mrs  Barber, who after initial awkwardness they come to call ‘Leonard’ and ‘Lilian’. The domestic details are captured so well: the embarrassment as Leonard clatters through the kitchen to the toilet outside, the unaccustomed creaks and thumps as the Barbers move around in their upstairs room and just the change in the air of the house as new people move into it.  This is a Sarah Waters book, you’ll remember, so it’s no surprise that Frances and Lilian become close – very close.  It happens slowly, with every movement suffused with the significance of new and uncertain love, and it takes almost 200 pages.  I felt apprehensive: this isn’t going to end well… (and besides, there’s another 250 pages to go)

Abruptly the novel changes pace as two crimes take place. It’s probably a bit of a stretch to compare this book with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but as a reader, I found myself feeling  the same cover-your-eyes, sick-at-the-pit-of-my-stomach emotions. By turns nightmarish, then banal, this tension is sustained over two hundred pages as Frances  begin to doubt Lilian and the details of the crime itself.    Lilian is always a bit of a mystery, but Frances is a nuanced, grounded, character and completely believable.

Waters captures so much here: the tenderness and tentativeness of new love, the gradations and details of class difference, the leached-out greyness of 1920s London as if worn down by grief for sons, brothers and lovers who did not return and the betrayals felt by those who did.

I need not have feared.  This book is vintage Sarah Waters, and she’s just as good here as in her earlier books.

Banyule Homestead sold

Banyule Homestead went up for auction on Saturday 16th May 2015 and sold for $5.2 million.  Unfortunately only registered bidders could gain access to the interior of the homestead on the day, leaving lesser mortals to mill on the lawns outside.

The auction was held at the rear of the property. Bidding started at $4 million, initially at $100,000 increments, then smaller.  Progress was boosted considerably by a $500,000 bid that took it from $4.5 million to $5 million.  It was purchased by a very young-looking couple for $5.2 million.

The view from the back is spectacular.  There’s nowhere else that you can get this outlook which makes the loss of this property from public ownership and access even more regrettable.

The Age has a good article on the auction, complete with video.

‘A Camera on Gallipoli & Recollections’ Hatch Gallery until 30 May 2015

Hatch Gallery, 14 Ivanhoe Pde Ivanhoe Tues-Sat 10.00 a.m -5.00 p.m, until 30 May 2015. Free entry

An inordinate number of your taxpayer dollars have been directed towards the commemoration of Gallipoli and there have been many enticements to community groups to participate at a local level in the centenary. Banyule City Council put up its hand and its display will be open until 30 May- so only a couple more weeks to view it.


The HATCH Gallery is a fairly new venture located in a small hall behind the iconic Heidelberg Town Hall in (perversely) Ivanhoe. It is on two levels, as is this exhibition. The ground floor features a travelling exhibition mounted through the Australian War Memorial of the photographs of Sir Charles Ryan, while upstairs is a more localized display of artefacts and stories of local men who enlisted.

Sir Charles Snodgrass Ryan (1853-1926) was a scion of many early Port Phillip pioneers.  His father was Charles Ryan, who along with Peter Snodgrass were part of the ‘Gallant Five’ who helped  capture the Plenty Valley Bushrangers. His maternal grandfather was Joseph Cotton; his uncle, Albert Le Soeuf was the pioneer director of Melbourne Zoo and his sister was the artist Mrs Ellis Rowan.  After starting medicine at the University of Melbourne, he finally qualified through the University of Edinburgh.  While touring Europe and undertaking postgraduate qualifications, he saw an advertisement for medical officers to work for the Turkish government. He  worked in a medical capacity with the Turkish armies in the Turko-Serbian war of 1876 and the Russo-Turkish campaign of 1877-78. He would have only been quite young, and this serves as a reminder to us that the Balkans and Ottoman regions were heavily contested long before World War I.  On return to Australia he was appointed an honorary surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital where, among other patients, he had the care of Ned Kelly to ensure that he faced trial after the Glenrowan siege.  When WWI broke out, he volunteered for the position of Assistant Director of the AIF Medical Service, aged sixty. He took with him his camera and the black and white images in this display are the result.

Perhaps because of his administrative and hence logistic role, many of these photographs show the supplies stacked along the small beach at Anzac Cove. It hadn’t particularly occurred to me that the task of supplying the troops continued during the months that the troops were there. He took photographs of the men in the trenches and swimming at Anzac Cove- it was certainly no Bondi Beach. In many of the photographs, men were sleeping in the trenches in broad daylight. This reminded me of the comment that Peter Cundall made at the ANZAC Eve commemoration I attended that soldiers often slept because of both physical and emotional exhaustion. One of the photographs depicts Lt Col Robert ‘Dad’ Owen, who had fought in the Sudan in 1885 with the NSW contingent and now led the 3rd Battalion at Gallipoli. His son fought in the same battalion and died in Belgium in 1917.

On 24 May 1915 after particularly heavy fighting, the corpses were piling up, rapidly putrifying in the sun. A truce was called and, against orders, Ryan took him camera with him to photograph the bodies. There is a story that he was challenged by Turkish officers who saw his Turkish medals from his youth, but they were mollified and then intrigued when Ryan conversed with them in Turkish (I assume), regaling them with stories of the war that their fathers and grandfathers had fought.


Source: Australian War Memorial site

These truce photographs are disturbing a hundred years later, and would have been even more so at the time, had they become public. In fact, I don’t think that I’ve often seen so many photographs of dead bodies and there is certainly none of the nationalistic ra-ra that makes me uncomfortable about much Anzac commemoration.  You can read historian Frank Bongiorno’s speech in opening this travelling exhibition in Canberra in 2014 here.

Upstairs there is a small theaterette that has a rolling, silent loop of photographic images of the war (although I must confess to feeling somewhat sated by the display downstairs). Another room contains artefacts donated by local families whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought during the war with biographical panels alongside.

This is a well-laid out exhibition that combines the national with the very local. It hasn’t really received a great deal of publicity, and given that it closes soon, you’ll need to visit soon to catch it.

Writers and Readers: Books that Shaped and Subverted the British Empire Conference 8-9 May 2015

I’ve just spent a fascinating two days at a conference held at Melbourne University that explored the impact of books and writing on and in the British Empire. Held to support the launch of Ten Books that Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons, this was an interdisciplinary conference that brought together academics from history, anthropology, English and museum studies to examine the writing, reading and distribution of books that both shaped and subverted the British Empire.

1888 Building, University of Melbourne

1888 Building, University of Melbourne

The keynote address was by Elleke Boehme, Professor of World Liberature in English from Oxford University (and one of the judges for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize).  She compared autobiographical texts written by Jawaharlal Nehru (Autobiography and The Discovery of India) and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.   Both texts were written by outstanding leaders, both were fostered during long periods of imprisonment, and they even drew on similar themes, tropes and imagery. However, Mandela’s text departed from Nehru’s narrative in that he projected a more confident view of the future beyond the nation.

It was followed by a session that explored religious texts in empire. Troy Heffernan from USQ discussed the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer- two Anglican texts that accompanied the expansion of the British Empire.  I hadn’t realized that the Book of Common Prayer had undergone major revisions, most particularly in relation to the daily obligations that had shaped earlier Anglican religious expression. Then Samia Khatun from the University of Melbourne explored the global circulation of the Quran, and the Ahmadiyyan prophesies that emerged from British India at the end of the nineteenth century.  The prophesies of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, were regularly published in Australian newspapers, and his predictions of the defeat, rise and then collapse of Turkey were interpreted, of course, in the light of World War I. Dr Khatun then shifted her attention from these public prophesies to the private stories of prophesies and dreams that were circulated through women’s stories, drawing on stories from her own family.

Large magnolia tree outside 1888 building

Large magnolia tree outside 1888 building

The next panel, Texts of Dispossession, explored three texts of empire.  Tracey Banivanua Mar discussed Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s work over the length of his career, noting in particular the feedback about Indigenous landownership that Wakefield received from his brother Felix, a surveyor in Tasmania, and Arthur, a settler with the New Zealand Company who was killed by Ngati Toa over stolen land.  Lucy Davies (fellow PhD candidate from La Trobe) took Beatrice Grimshaw’s 1911 novel When the Red Gods Call, set in New Guinea, which addressed fantasies and anxieties about masculinity, sex and gender when the main character, Stephanie Hammond, learns that her husband had once married a ‘native’ woman.  Finally, Tom Rogers from the University of Melbourne explored William Westgarth’s writings published between the 1840s and 1860s- “booster” literature that lauded Port Phillip’s progress and encouraged emigration to the colony. He traced the change in Westgarth’s attitudes towards the Indigenous population over time, with  increasingly heightened claims about infanticide and cannibalism as a way of justifying the settler-colonial project.

Two papers on Jane Eyre followed: one by Charlotte Macdonald, the other by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins, an anthropologist.  Both these papers were carefully written and beautifully presented.  The first explored ideas of possession and re-possession, picking up that very first scene in the opening chapter with Jane defiantly rebuffing Master Reed who bullied her when she crept behind the curtains in the drawing room to read.  The second paper ‘placed’ the image of the deserted, lonely Haworth Parsonage into the industrial context of cotton bales and looms of the Pennines region.  These were two really special papers (probably my favourites of the whole conference), quite different in construction and delivery to the more history-based papers to which  I’m accustomed.

The fourth session examined the book trade.  You only have to look at any of the early Australian newspapers on Trove to note that the final page of each four-page edition was made up of articles extracted from newspapers from across the empire. In fact, it has often struck me that these little local newspapers had probably as much international  (or at least inter-empire) focus proportionally as our newspapers do today- if not more.  Isobel Hofmeyr from the University of the Witwatersrand explored the role of the ‘exchange editor’ whose job it was to scour the newspapers as they arrived from overseas and literally cut-and-past articles into the local papers. When the concept of copyright arose- and it did not do so for some time-  it became tied up with Customs and Excise, and an exercise in sorting out the desirable from the undesirable.  David Carter from the University of Queensland discussed the transatlantic book trade which, although it restricted the development of local printing houses, did provide a means by which Australian books were offered to American and European markets (even though they were seen as ‘British’).  Australian books were reduced from three volumes to one, and often circulated in cheap libraries and as pirate copies – although at a time when copyright was unknown, a cheap knock-off was seen as a legitimate way of broadening the audience.

Christina Twomey explored Emily Hobhouse’s 1902 book The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell which demonstrated the impact of the Boer War on white women and children, but what struck me about her presentation was her sensitive portrayal of Hobhouse as the frustrated youngest daughter, confined for years in caring for her ailing father. [And I must confess that at this point, I had to leave and missed the next two papers and the book launch]

The beautiful (plane?) tree at the rear of the 1888 building. When I attended, the creche was located in the building and this tree dominated the children's playground.

The beautiful (plane?) tree at the rear of the 1888 building. When I attended, the creche was located in the building and this tree dominated the children’s playground.

But I was back bright and early this morning for the second day.  The first session ‘The Caribbean’ explored three texts- two of which were unfamiliar to me, the other more well-known.  Trevor Burnard from University of Melbourne discussed Edward Long’s History of Jamaica, published in 1774 by a wealthy and influential British absentee planter, who was resident in Jamaica between 1757-1769. This three-volume book is more often dipped into for its facts rather than read as as a text in its own right, and although it is a racist rant, it is also a critique of the short-termism of English policy compared with French planning, perseverance and expenditure.  Aaron Kamugisha from the University of the West Indies followed, with a presentation on C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, published in 1938, and hugely influential in shaping the views of three generations of radical activists and intellectuals.  The text was originally a stage-play starring Paul Robeson before James reworked it as a history, and appearing as it did just as World War II broke out, the first edition is difficult to find.  It was translated into French in 1949 and promptly banned, and it is the second edition of 1963 that had such a profound effect in bringing the Haiti Revolution to audiences throughout the world.  The final paper of the session was by Sue Thomas from La Trobe University who discussed Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (which of course links with the Jane Eyre papers of the previous day) and the biographical influences of Rhys’ own family that are echoed in the novel.  She quoted from a cache of financial letters from Rhys’ great-grandparents, their son, and their creditors, that highlighted the indebtedness and sense of financial injury that form the background to Rhys’ own family and which inform the context of Wide Sargasso Sea.

The next panel ‘The Colonial Writing World’ started with Ken Gelder’s discussion of colonial Australian detective fiction- especially the world’s first detective novel, John Lang’s The Forger’s Wife (1853).  George Flower, the detective, was himself an emancipated convict, and was probably based on Israel Chapman.  He went on to Mary Fortune’s detective stories, especially Dandy Art’s Diary where one detective undercover watched another detective undercover.   The detective held an uneasy social position, just below respectable, and as in Fergus Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab, there were many others who competed with the detective to solve the crime.   Bruce Knox then followed with a paper on Edward Bulwer Lyttton, who was a novelist, MP and eventually Secretary of State for the Colonies.  He wrote what sounds like a very strange science fiction/satire The Coming Race where a subterranean people, possessing the awesome power of ‘Vril’ practiced colonization  and planned to eventually ascend to the upper world and displace the existing inhabitants.  It was a satire and critique on Utopianism, Equality and Democracy (and was also the source of name of the ‘Bovril’ drink [Bo as an abbreviation of bovine or beef, and ‘vril’ from The Coming Race])


Helen Bones rounded off the session with a discussion of Antipodean writers who span the Australian/New Zealand nexus, in particular Arthur H. Adam and Edith Lyttleton (who wrote as G. B. Lancaster).  Lyttleton’s books are ‘Dominion’ novels, set in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Both these writers are often overlooked because they are in-between the two countries, and fall outside nationalistic approaches to literature with their emphasis on identification with landscape.

The final session that I stayed for (because I again left early) was ‘The Imperial Formation of Australian National Identities’.  Karen Downing who wrote Restless Men (reviewed here) gave a beautifully constructed paper that picked up on the argument in her book for the importance of Robinson Crusoe as an inspiration and point of identification for men in the emerging British colonies. Melanie Nolan, the General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, followed, with a discussion of Coral Lansbury (Malcolm Turnbull’s mother) and her book Arcady in Australia which argued that the egalitarian, Arcadian view of Australia was not formed in the bush in the 1890s as Russel Ward argued, but was instead imported to Australia by English writers of the 1850s – Samuel Sidney, Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton (who we met in an earlier session).  She suggested that Lansbury and her book Arcady in Australia  has been largely overlooked because she was an expatriate, died early, went into English Departments rather History (as Russel Ward did), and she didn’t write about women beyond an article in Meanjin.  I have a copy of Lansbury on my shelf, and I’ll be reading it soon.  And, for me, the last paper of the day was by Kate Darian-Smith who discussed two post-war books, Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s The Fatal Days (1847) set in Ballarat and a thinly disguised book on Australian nationalism, and Florence James and Dymphna Cusack’s controversial Come in Spinner, which had a long and stormy gestation after winning a prize as an unpublished manuscript and then had to be cut and censored for its raciness and anti-Americanism.

The beautiful stained glass windows in the Gryphon Gallery (where the conference was held), commemorating members of the Melbourne Teachers College (whose building this originally was) who died and served in World War I

The beautiful stained glass windows in the Gryphon Gallery (where the conference was held), commemorating members of the Melbourne Teachers College (whose building this originally was) who died and served in World War I

As you can gather, this was a wide-ranging conference that discussed many books and ideas.  The panels were well-organized by theme, and I enjoyed being exposed to the different presentation styles from other disciplines.  And so, what WERE  the Ten Books That Shaped the British Empire? I don’t know: I wasn’t there for the launch and there were no copies on sale today. So I guess I’ll just have to read it to find out!

[If I’ve made any errors or misrepresentations here, please contact me at my email address in the ‘About’ section]

‘From Botantical Illustration to Research’ Baillieu Library- until 28 June 2015

I’ve been going into Melbourne Uni over the last couple of weeks to read a thesis in their Special Collections room and I noticed this small exhibition on the first floor of the library.  I could see what looked like some large sponges in the display cases, but when I looked more closely, they were old mushrooms. I’ve got to say, there’s not many things that look deader than a dead fungus.  And that’s why, if you want to see its real colours and structure, you either need a photograph or a botanical drawing.


Source: National Museum of Australia

The illustrations in this collection were drawn by Malcolm Howie. There was a photograph of him on the wall, and he seemed a very young man, sitting rather awkwardly on the grass.  He died at the age of 36, a victim of spinal muscular atrophy that rendered him unable to walk by the age of sixteen. Towards the end of his life, he could only make small movements of his wrist when painting.

His brother-in-law was Jim Willis, a botanist with the National Herbarium of Victoria with a strong interest in fungi.   Willis published a booklet Victorian Fungi in 1941 that featured Howie’s illustrations, which went through several editions right through until 1962. Howie had died by this time.

It is likely that Willis sourced the fungi for him to paint, and all of Howie’s paintings have annotated details on them in Willis’ handwriting.  Howie painted 200 life-sized species in total, and Ethel McLennan at the School of Botany at Melbourne University commissioned a series of 80 illustrations.  These illustrations form the heart of this display.

There are specimens beside some of the paintings- and rather dessicated and shrivelled specimens they are too- and other botantical illustrations of fungi from rare books in the library’s collection.

It’s a small, rather weird but nonetheless beautiful collection of illustrations, tinged with sadness at the death of the artist at such a young age.  The exhibition is on show until 28th June, with a series of talks about the illustrations running through May.  The website is here, complete with a slideshow of some of his illustrations.

From Botanical Illustration to Research, Noel Shaw Gallery, University of Melbourne 27 March -28 June 2015

‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn


2002, 213 p.

For Proust it was a madeleine.  For the narrator of Spies it was the cloying, heady smell of a flower in a suburban garden, and it took him back to a wartime summer, a hideout in the garden hedge, secrets, fantasies and ambivalent shame.

Stephen Wheatley was small and unpopular, with ears that stuck out. His friend Keith was unpopular too, but he lived in a big house, his toys were kept in pristine condition in their boxes, and the afternoon teas dispensed  by Keith’s mother were Blytonesque, even if she did so without ever quite acknowledging Stephen’s presence.  Stephen was drawn along in Keith’s wake and when Keith announced that his mother was a German spy, well, then- yes, perhaps she was.  After all, there was her diary with the odd crosses once a month in keeping with the phases of the moon (for night-time spying duties, of course), and she seemed to spend a lot of time going into the village posting letters (to the German authorities, of course) or pretending to shop for her sister who lived down the street.  So the boys  snooped in her writing desk and followed her, and found more than they had bargained for.

This is a beautifully told story.  It has that wistful, golden glow of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and as in those books, the narrator in Spies also sees too much and yet doesn’t know what s/he is looking at.

Frayn’s control of the story is masterful, especially in the switch between present tense and reminiscence, which can be clunky in less sure hands. This was the second time that I had read the book, but I think even the first time I quickly cottoned on to Stephen’s misconstructions – just as Frayn, I think, intended his readers to do.   The story is told with humour and humility, and the adult Stephen is affectionately kind to his younger self and withholds judgment from him.  Little details fit together so cleverly- the play on ‘privet’ for example- and the last chapter colours in much of what had only been sketchy or incomplete previously.

I really liked this book, just as much on the second reading as on the first. You’re in the hands of a master writer, and you know it.

The War To End All Wars, ANZAC Eve

What a wonderful night.  This Anzac-eve function was organized at the Deakin Edge theatre at Fed Square by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, with support from the ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition and funding from the Dept of Veteran Affairs ANZAC Centenary Local Grants Program.

The night started with a presentation by Jackie Mansourian from PEN Melbourne who spoke about the Armenian Genocide- that other centenary that marks the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals on 24 April- and the resistance of the Turkish government to have it acknowledged as the century’s first genocide. She spoke of the assassination of Hrant Dink, the editor of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos by anultra-nationalist in 2007 after Dink referred to the 1915 massacre of Armenians as ‘genocide’. At the time Dink was being prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for ‘denigrating Turkishness’.


First up Shaking the Tree Choir, decked out in scarlet and purple, sang a bracket of four thoughtful songs, including the beautiful On the Turning Away, the Pink Floyd song that they have adapted in their video clip:

Then Kellie Merritt, the widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel who was killed in Iraq in 2005.  She said that she was apprehensive about public speaking but she was fantastic: controlled, articulate, forceful.  She spoke of her resentment at the conflation of personal grief with political argument.  Honouring personal grief did not necessarily mean honouring the political purpose and intention for deployment.  The two aims of the Iraq War of 2003 were never met: there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, and one dictator was merely replaced with another dictator of a different sectarian hue. She particularly resented Attorney-General George Brandis who attacked those who drew links between the 2003 and 2015 deployments as “simple-minded” and “ignorant”.


She was followed, after long and heartfelt applause, by the Melbourne Singers of Gospel, a huge choir – I counted at least 55 people -who gave a terrific rendition of ‘When the War is Over’ .


Adam Bandt, the Greens member for Melbourne spoke next after taking a picture on his phone of the assembled audience.  He picked up on Kellie Merritt’s call for Parliament to be required to approve the deployment of Australian troops (unless we are facing imminent threat). Even though Parliament may still approve it- and with our current government and opposition, that would be the case- it is still important that the reasons for sending troops overseas be articulated and that Parliament be accountable for the decision.


Peter Cundall, the 88 year old peace activist and gardener spoke next, speaking about his experience in both WWII and the Korean War.


I was struck by his description of the pervasive, nauseating smell of battle.  He finished with a beautiful recitation (from memory!) of Seigfried Sassoon’s ‘Aftermath’, written in 1919 . What a fitting poem during this current tsunami of bad history and mawkish emotionalism:

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

You can find the rest of the poem here.  It’s powerful writing.

It was affirming to finish with a group from Brunswick Secondary College, singing a beautiful arrangement of Dolly Parton’s ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, prefaced by the worlds spoken in many different languages.


I was proud that this is a government-school based choir of engaged young people.

We left on a drizzly ANZAC Eve, really pleased that we’d attended such an affirming and respectful night.  The crocheted poppies spill over the steps of Fed Square.  Beautiful

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