Movie: Brooklyn

I was surprised to look back at my review of Brooklyn and find that I was muted in my appreciation of the book.  Let me proclaim in a big loud voice, then, that I absolutely loved the film.  Of course, having read the book, I knew what was going to happen and so every scene was pregnant for me with its later sorrow and complexity.

It was rather disconcerting to see that Nick Hornby was credited for the screenplay over Colm Toibin as the original author, especially as the film was so faithful to the book generally (with perhaps a reservation about the explicitness of the ending). What a strange priority.

It’s beautiful, as is Saoirse Ronan. One of my favourite films for the year so far.

And so…

Who IS this ridiculously happy person?

S160525LA002-PA138a

‘Caledonia Australis’ by Don Watson

caledonia

1984, republished  1997 (this review) and 2009. 255 p. & notes.

Actually, I hadn’t intended reading this Don Watson book at all.  I was reading the first chapter of his more recent, award-winning book The Bush and found myself reminded that before Watson was a Monthly correspondent, a commentator on public discourse or Paul Keating’s speechwriter, he was a historian.  His book Caledonia Australis was already on my bookshelves, and having recently had the experience of reading two books from the edges of a historian’s career as I did with Michael McKernan (see here and here), I decided to put the more recent book aside in order to return to Watson’s earlier book.  After all, I reasoned, it would do a disservice to the earlier book to read it after the larger, more mature work, honed by over thirty years of writing.  My assumptions were unfounded. I haven’t yet returned to The Bush but Watson’s Caledonia Australis,  a more consciously historical work, stands proudly on its own two feet.  Watson was a damned good writer in 1984, just as he’s a damned good writer in 2016.

We see in this 1984 book the subtlety that Watson would later display in his exploration of Paul Keating in his Portrait of a Bleeding Heart.  It does not have the trappings of an academic text: it does not have footnotes or an index and its reference list is only loosely tied to the chapters.  It does, however, make a strong historical argument which has maintained its currency- has indeed become stronger- since its initial publication in 1984 and reissue in both 1997 and again in 2009.

The first part of Watson’s book is not about Australia at all, but instead the Scottish Highlands.  I’d heard of the Highlands clearances, but I’d assumed that people were shifted directly from their Highland ancestral homes onto ships to the New World as part of a global diaspora.  But, as Watson points out, there was an in-between period where Highlanders were forced onto the coastal edges where they were forced to work in kelp-harvesting. Kelp was prized as an industrial additive for the soap, linen and glass industries and had become lucrative when imports of Spanish barilla (a salt-tolerant plant) were heavily taxed during the 1790s.   The shifting of the Highlanders to the coast and the attempted suppression of the language and culture of this ‘backward’ people was seen as an ‘improvement’ measure that, fortuitously for the large lords, freed up the land for the importation of sheep. When the duties on barilla and salt were reduced in the 1820s, the kelp market collapsed, and it was at this juncture that the ‘improvers’, especially on the isles of Skye and Mull,  looked to emigration and particularly the large, clan-based Scottish emigration schemes in Canada and Australia.

And so, by Chapter 4, we have ‘Highlanders at Large- the Kurnai at Home’. Both by an accident of timing and also as a result of clan networks, Scottish settlers explored and appropriated the lands of the Kurnai people of what we now know as Gippsland but which  Scottish explorer Angus McMillan christened ‘Caledonia Australis’.   Across the seas come the Highlanders, a clan-based culture, where the land was the basis of their identity, where history and legend were passed through song and dance, where the supernatural world co-existed with the natural one. And here in Chapter 4 they meet the Kurnai with a parallel culture, with similar qualities to their own:   clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world. There was, however, no recognition of these affinities. Charged with their Calvinistic faith, the former Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, turning over their land to sheep just as had happened to them in Scotland.

In the second half of the book Watson hones in on Angus McMillan,  who has been lionized as one of the pioneers of Gippsland in both myth and physical memorials. McMillan is, in effect, the Highlander in Caledonia Australis writ large.

Angus_McMillan_portrait

Angus McMillan Wikipedia

Watson traces the rivalry between McMillan and the driven, publicity-conscious professional explorer Strzelecki in their competing claims to have ‘discovered’ Gippsland. The Highland temperament manifested itself in both exploration and frontier settlement behaviour.  Clan connections and a shared sense of righteousness drove the Scots settlers into their dogged but ultimately fruitless search for the White Woman of Gippsland. Their prickliness, pride and sense of mission had a much darker side as well.

Watson writes:

There were three types of squatters on the Australian frontier: those who thought that their right to the land was qualified by an obligation to treat the Aboriginal inhabitants with kindness; those who believed that their right was conditional only on extermination; and those who combined murder with kindness. (p. 223)

The squatters of Gippsland, Watson writes, were fickle and dangerous and McMillan exemplifies this third type of squatter. McMillan

-half steering his way, half being blown-arrived in the new province and from that moment seemed to embody every paradox the frontier could throw up: making its history and being made by it, writing its story and engineering its secrets, living through all manner of triumph and torment and leaving a legend which put his life beyond our reach, ending up a cliche, a block of stone (p. xix)

When the nephew of his patron Captain Macalister was killed by Aborigines, McMillan was most probably responsible for drawing together the ‘Highland Brigade’ of his neighbours and retainers who, bent on revenge, massacred between 60 and 150 Indigenous Australians at the Warrigal Creek massacre, and beyond.  Yet, this same man was also lauded for his “sympathetic interest” in indigenous people and became in the last years of his life the Aborigines’ protector.  Murder and kindness: a chilling combination.

In his introduction to the 1997 edition of this book, Watson writes that his original intent in writing this book was

to give a more sympathetic portrait of the pioneers than any I had ever encountered.  I wanted to give them blood as well as bones; religion, motives, choices, memories, identity, ancestors, an inheritance of their own (p.xxvii)

This doesn’t sound like the aspirations of a historian whose work, through this book,  became associated with those derided by the New Right as promoting ‘black armband history’. We know, from Watson’s later work on the deadening effect of managerial language and ‘Weasel Words’ that he is impatient and dismissive of ‘political correctness’. But, he argues, “It can hardly hurt a mature society to know that its founders were capable of evil as well as good.  An immature society can only benefit”(p. xxvi)

Hence the importance of McMillan:

The harder we look at McMillan the more we see the patterns of our collective experience and the elements of our contemporary dilemma.  The harder we look at him the more signs we see of the kindness and brutality, self interest and charity, memory and amnesia, decency and hypocrisy that has characterised public and private dealings with Aboriginal Australia from the beginning to the present day.  And the harder we look at the society McMillan came from the more we see how the dispossessed everywhere tend to follow the same path to material and spiritual poverty: in the nineteenth century the Australian Aborigines were not the only ones to be first cast as dangerous and unruly savages, and then left stranded between pity and contempt- and then thrown still further adrift from humanity by Social Darwinism. (p. xxviii)

No: this process had engulfed Highlander society, which in turn subjected the Kurnai people to the same fate.  The last words of Caledonia Australis are “..the irony was lost”. Irony, at its most powerful, does not need a spotlight or announcement, but emerges quietly and insistently out of the material itself.  Just as it does in this book.

Movie: The Silences

I only just caught this at Cinema Nova before it disappeared. It’s a documentary memoir by feminist film maker Margot Nash, based on her own family story.  In her voice-over that opens the film, she explains that after her mother died, she and her sister couldn’t agree on the epitaph to put on her grave.  They both had a very different view of their mother, and this is Nash’s reflection on the ambivalent feelings she holds towards her mother and the secrets that lay within their family.

Visually, the documentary is a montage of images from photograph albums and clips from Nash’s other films, and it relies heavily on Nash’s voiceover to provide the narrative thread. What power a story-teller has in her hands, to expose others and mould a story to make it hers! And yet, just as when reading a book with an unreliable narrator, I found myself resisting her questions and her reworkings, largely because I was uncomfortable with the self-centredness of her endeavour.  While seeking nuance and adult explanation, there is still a childish, underlying protest at being locked out and being given only partial knowledge.  The film maker, who is very present in this documentary, is older than I am. Does she not have (as I do- along with most older people, I should imagine) an accumulated store of regrets, elisions, utterances and actions  that she, too, might want kept secret- or at least, private? Can there be no generosity in respecting others’ secrets? I found myself feeling complicit and disturbed by this movie, although I’m pleased that there was no pat solution, but instead a very human ambivalence.

‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson

atkinson_godinruins

2015, 400p.

This book is a ‘companion’ to Atkinson’s earlier book Time After Time. It’s odd- my recollection is that I very much enjoyed that book and yet when I look back at my review, I obviously had reservations.  It’s strange how one’s lasting impression of a book can differ from the response immediately upon finishing it.

SPOILER

In the earlier Time After Time, Ursula Todd’s brother Teddy, RAF pilot, was missing after a bombing raid over Germany, presumed dead. The  Ursula character had several alternative lives presented within the pages of the one book, and in one of those Teddy reappears at the end of WWII after two years in a German POW camp.

It is this particular scenario that  is explored in this more recent book A God in Ruins. In this stand-alone iteration, Teddy survives over 70 flights and three tours of duty, an almost incredible feat given the attrition of pilots in bombing raids over Europe, and lives to a very old age.

This later book glances off Time after Time, but is not at all dependent upon it.  In fact, you could read this book without any awareness that there is another book until, perhaps the last few pages.  It’s a narrative told straight, albeit with chronological jumps between Teddy’s childhood, his old age, his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Nancy, the birth of his daughter Viola and her anger at him that blights his old age and the childhoods of his grandchildren.  There are rather long stretches of his flying experience which are obviously carefully researched and stop at just the point where the reader’s interest wanes- one of the hallmarks of a writer well in charge of her material but conscious of her readers.

The book seems as if it’s going to be a departure from Time After Time in that there’s only one plot, albeit chopped up and rearranged in its narrative structure.  It was a plot that engaged me completely as I found myself laughing at Teddy’s grand-daughter’s wry asides, feeling disturbed by Viola’s harshness with her father when he was such a good man, and sad to watch illness and old age gradually quash people I had come to care about.  And then, in the last pages, down come all the narrative walls as Atkinson again throws the whole conceit of the book back up into the air, just as she did in Time After Time. I felt disappointed, as if she’d revealed herself to be a bit of a one-trick pony.  The book closed with a fairly academic essay on the nature of fiction.

I suppose that my dissatisfaction with the ending proved the points she made her theorizing about fiction and narrative but dammit- I felt betrayed.  Mind you, as soon as another book comes out, I’ll forget about it just as I did when I opened this book with such anticipation thinking to myself “I love Kate Atkinson”. Perhaps it’s a love where absence makes the heart grow fonder.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

Read because: a face-to-face bookgroup read

Movie: The Witch

 

I wish that the film maker had placed the notice that appears at the end of this film at the beginning instead.  In it, he says that much of the dialogue and ideas have come from testimony and writings generated in 17th century North America, when belief in witchcraft resulted in the Salem witch-trials. Then, by coincidence  I heard a podcast about Salem the very night that I’d seen the film that brought home to me how careful the research had been for this film and how well the filmmaker has constructed the world view it depicts.

Thomasin is the budding adolescent daughter of William and Katherine, who along with their small family have been expelled from their Puritan plantation. Exiled from contact, the family builds a small farm, surrounded by woods. The crops fail and the family is thrown onto its own resources and their deep belief in predestination and a stern, capricious and unyielding God. When the baby disappears and the eldest son dies, the family turn on each other.   There’s a very good feminist discussion of the film here.

If the historical note at the end had come earlier, I would have taken the film more seriously as an exploration of the 17th century mindset and worldview.  As it was, I kept expecting graphic horror effects to explode onto the screen the next minute, and never quite stopped feeling that I was watching actors bumbling around in a historical re-enactment tourist site.  The cinematography is beautiful and the music suitably distressing.  In fact, the film has unnerved and affected me more after hearing the BBC podcast and in the light of its historical credentials.  I just wish I’d known that earlier.

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: May 8-15

NO A BETTER TIME TO BE….A PARTY ANIMAL

It seems that May was Party Time in Melbourne, with intimations of balls to be held later in the month, and news of the Tradesmen’s Union Benefit Society annual knees-up at the Builders Arms Hotel in Little Collins Street.  This Society, comprised of “independent, honest tradesmen and mechanics to whose exertion and expertise this town chiefly owes it original structure and present stability” was formed in May 1839 under the patronage of Captain Lonsdale, with Dr Cussen as the Medical Officer (PPG 29/5/39). Its regulations, which closely followed those of a similar Sydney-based organization, emphasized that it was “based on humanity and charity…and characterized by real utility, and defended by morality and religion”. On payment of a weekly subscription, members were eligible for sickness benefits and surgical and medical aid, based on the length of membership and the availability of Society funds.  Soon after its formation it boasted 100 members. [See: Sullivan Men and Women of Port Phillip p. 236-8]

So what happens at a Tradesmen’s Union Benefit Society Dinner?

Yesterday the annual dinner of this Society was held at the ‘Builders Arms’ Little Collins-street, when about thirty of its members sat down to a most respectable feed, both before and after which, they walked in procession accompanied by a band. (PPH 11/5/41)

A GOOD TIME TO BE… AN ATTORNEY

As long as you were a respectable attorney, that is. On the last day of Easter Term Judge Willis  heard applications for the admission of attorneys (or what we would call solicitors today) to practice in the Port Phillip court. Judge Willis took this very seriously as while he was in Sydney he was responsible for establishing the procedure by which local attorneys were admitted. This included 5 years service under articles of clerkship, an  interview, and examination by practitioner examiners who issued  certificates testifying to the applicants’ fitness and capacity. Applicants needed to demonstrate their ‘Classical proficiency’  which included translation of   Aeneid of Virgil in Latin,  St John’s Gospel in the Greek,  and a competent knowledge of Arithmetic and Euclid.(See: Simon Smith ‘The Shaping of the Legal Profession’ in Judging for the People p. 73)

Several of the attorneys who applied had already been accepted for practice in the Sydney courts but Willis wanted to ascertain their fitness for his own court by himself.  He baulked at the admission of John Duerdin (sometimes spelled ‘Duerden’) who had a question mark over his fitness because, although he had been admitted as an attorney 10 years earlier ‘at home’,  he had been lately carrying on a business in Melbourne as an Ironmonger, Bookseller and General Dealer.  When it was urged that he had “left off business a long time ago”, it eventuated that it had only been since March and Willis rejected the argument that he should be admitted on account of the “peculiar circumstances of the Colony”.  Willis asserted

The peculiar circumstances is the very reason why I am more strict.  If parties are not respectable I will not admit them.  A person who has been carrying on a trade is not a proper nor safe person in whose hands to entrust the legal affairs of others.  I will not permit a person to step from behind a counter to practice in this court… He did not think that he could admit a party who had been a retail dealer in the town only two months since, with that degree of security which was due to the public and the members of that Court. (PPH 11/5/41)

[You’ll be pleased to know, though, that Mr Duerdin went off to refresh his knowledge and was admitted in November and went on to have a long and happy legal career]

GOOD TIME TO SELL REAL ESTATE

The Port Phillip Herald of 11 May had an advertisement for the sale- that very day- of the town lots held by George Coulstock fronting Collins, Elizabeth and Flinders Lane, including property in what is now Staughton Lane, running behind Elizabeth Street. They were known as Number 10 and 11 of Block 4. George Coulstock bundled them up for sale with an additional property on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins known variously as Townend’s or Cashmore’s corner (so named for the grocers who had their shops on that corner). There’s a map from the time available here and my own very dodgy map below:

coulstock

 

Although they had been surveyed as Numbers 10 and 11 in 1837, they had already been subdivided into smaller allotments. They are, of course, prime central city real estate today but I was interested to see what sort of business were located there in 1841.  All the lots sold at auction on May 11 1841, and I’ve put the price per foot reached in brackets but the results (in PPH 14/5/41) became too confused to follow near the end.  We know, as they didn’t at the time, that the bottom was just about to fall out of the real estate market.

Lot 1: 40 ft frontage to Collins Street; 120 ft depth. Commodious dwelling house with workshop and backyards, sublet to Mr Richardson for his ironmongery establishment  [14 pounds sterling, 14 s.per foot]

Lot 2: 36 ft frontage to Collins Street, 70 ft depth. Mr Davis’ Auction Rooms sublet to Messrs Hunter Summerville & Co.[12 pounds sterling per foot]

Lot 3: 26 ft frontage to Collins Street,  60 ft depth. Messrs Dugan and Donelly “one of the most lucrative eating house establishments in Melbourne” [25 pounds sterling 4 s per foot]

Lot 4: 30 ft frontage to Collins Street, 52 depth. Mr Townend the Grocer [13 pounds sterling 13 s. per foot] (the small separate allotment on the other corner of Collins and Elizabeth)

Lot 5: 50 ft frontage to Elizabeth St, 52 ft depth leased to Mr Leadman pointer and glazier [unfettered, 15 pounds sterling 15s per foot]

Lot 6: 30 ft frontage to Elizabeth Street – vacant  [the report of prices received is confused at this point]

Lot 7: 74 ft frontage to Elizabeth St, 108 ft depth. “Upon this allotment is erected the Melbourne Tavern…it contains 9 bedrooms, three sitting rooms, a tap room or bar with cellar, an excellent kitchen and a ten stall stable with all necessary conveniences”. [immediate entry 2600 guineas]

Lot 8: 41 ft frontage to Elizabeth Street,ditto  – vacant [14 pound stirling 14s per foot]

Lot 9: 24 ft frontage to Elizabeth Street, ditto. Dwelling house containing two rooms and a shop [619 pounds stirling]

Lot 10: 24 ft frontage to Elizabeth Street, ditto. Dwelling house and shop containing 3 rooms each 24X12 ft let to Mr Harrison the Hair Dresser and Perfumer. [525 pounds stirling]

Lot 11: 30 ft frontage to Elizabeth Street – let to Mr Woodward the Fish Monger

Lot 12: Corner allotment 28 ft frontage to Flinders Lane- let to Blacksmith

Lot 13  40 ft frontage to Flinders Lane- dwelling let to Mr McGuiness

Lot 14: 34 ft frontage to a lane leading from Flinders Lane- stables containing accommodation at the back of the Melbourne Tavern for 30 horses

Lot 15: 74 ft frontage to a lane leading from Flinders Lane- stabling for 10 horses and a garden as a convenience to the Melbourne Tavern

When the magistrates were awarding liquor licenses two weeks earlier, they mentioned the need for accommodation in the town and I was interested to see that the Melbourne Tavern had nine bedrooms.  In what was probably their version of today’s car parking, the Melbourne Tavern provided stabling for fifty horses, right in the centre of town.

SURGICAL OPERATION  [Could be distressing]

On Tuesday a splendid Surgical operation was performed at the public Hospital in amputating the leg and a portion of the thigh of the Aborigine named “Jack” at present in custody, charged with the murder of Slattery, a Shepperd [sic], who was in the employ of Mr Bennett, near Campaspy [sic] Plains. “Jack” it is supposed received the wound which rendered the amputation necessary from the musket of the Shepperd, who must have fired as the last resource.  Dr Cussen, belonging to the Government Medical Department, was the operator, assisted by Drs Walsome [?], Baylie and Wilmot. “Jack” was fully aware of the operation to be performed, having been made sensible through one of his country-women and a man divested of a leg having been paraded before him. Prior to Tuesday, he had been kept in a tent outside the Hospital, from which at the time appointed he was removed to the Surgery; being placed in a suitable position upon a table, resting in the arms of two men, but without being tied, the tourniquet was applied midway up the thigh: the knife was then brought to bear and the skin (which was found to the astonishment of the medical gentlemen to be as thick as a bullock’s hide!) was severed by a circular incision about four inches above the knee, and the upper portion being severed from the skin to the length of two inches, as a covering to the stump, the knife was passed round to the bone, which the saw soon separated, and the leg was laid upon the floor.  “Jack” bore the unpleasant dismemberment with considerable firmness only interrupting the operation by an occasional interjection of oh! and ah!  The operation occupied the short space of four minutes and a half, reflecting much credit on Dr Cussen, who conducted the whole business with considerable nerve and surgical tact. (PPG 14/5/41)

Some observations: I note that the name “Jack” is in inverted commas, which is unusual. Normally an Anglicized name was given without inverted commas, or there was an attempt to render the aboriginal name phonetically.  I can only imagine that “Jack” was brought to Melbourne and operated on with a view to putting him to trial for murder of the shepherd. He was obviously in a bad way if he was kept in a tent outside the hospital and made no attempt to escape. His ‘countrywoman’ was called upon to explain the situation to him, an unusual example of an indigenous woman being used as a translator.  How did she explain what was to happen to him, I wonder, and what sense did he make of seeing another patient with his leg amputated?  It was a four-minute operation, without anaesthetic, which was not to appear in Australia until 1847.  Not a lot of surgical finesse there, although obviously there was curiosity about his physiology.

THE BURIAL GROUND

There has been recent discussion about the fate of the bodies buried under the carpark at Victoria Market. The first cemetery in Melbourne was located on ‘Burial Hill’, which we now know as Flagstaff Hill in Flagstaff Gardens, but within a year it was recognized that a new position would need to be found. Crown Land was set aside between Franklin, Queen and Peel streets. The northern boundary was Fulton Street, which has since been absorbed into the Queen Victoria Market area. An article from The Age May 8, 2014  describing the history of the old cemetery, has a fascinating picture of the gravestones against the wall of the existing market, before their removal in the 1920s. The Melbourne General Cemetery opened in 1853 and became the major cemetery for Melbourne, although a small number of burials occurred at the site until 1917.

But in 1841 the concern was not so much that the cemetery was becoming crowded, or inappropriately close to other facilities, but that it was being used for grazing:

This place set apart as the receptacle of the remains of frail mortality, it may be naturally supposed would have been held sacred; instead of which, however, it is used as a mere grazing paddock for horses and other cattle (by those who consider themselves entitled to the entre) the herbage being abundant arising from the ground being fenced in. This desecration should be put an end to. (PPH 14/5/41)

AND THE WEATHER….

Quite a bit cooler than the preceding week, with the highest temperature 64 (17.8C) and lowest 40 (4.4 C). There were fresh breezes on 9th, 19th and 12th May.