Monthly Archives: September 2010

So where does the buck stop?

We’ve had the rather unedifying spectacle of our airports filling up with disgruntled would-be passengers, unable to book into their Virgin Blue flights because the computer is down.  But it’s not Virgin Blue’s fault- oh no- it’s Navitaire, the company contracted to run the reservation system.  And who are Navitaire? Ah!  They’re a subsidiary of the outsourcing company Accenture.  Is this where the buck stops? Are we there yet?

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Ah, footy!

Simon says “Hands on Heads!”

What a beautiful game! We didn’t lose! And we get to do it all again next week!

‘Talk to the Hand’ by Lynne Truss

2005,  210 p

Lynne Truss is  right in many ways: we are surrounded by obnoxiousness, rudeness and aggression every day, exemplified by the Jerry-Springeresque “talk to the hand coz the face ain’t listening”.  I must admit that no-one has ever said that to me directly, but unhappily I know exactly what it means.

Truss herself admits that the book is a “big systematic moan about modern life” and that’s what it is.  It is only a short book, which is a blessing in a way- it’s a bit like sitting through a boxed DVD set of “Grumpy Old Women”  and even for me there’s a limit to such unmitigated grumbling.

Her six good reasons to stay home are:

1. the absence of ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ (one of my own moans is the ubiquitous “if anyone takes offence…” )

2. the way that companies push their demands back onto you as your responsibility ( my contribution: the con of ‘self-serve’ in petrol stations which is slower for everyone and means that my oil is never checked and my tyres are always flabby)

3. the invasion of personal space (yes, the mobile phone in the train).

4. the “F### off” response ( I hate it but must also confess to being too ready to drop the F word myself. It’s a bad habit that I would like to work on)

5.  Disrespect and non-deference  (I agree: I don’t necessarily want my first name used by everyone)

6.  the idea that someone else will clean up your messes (my own teeth-grinding trigger- junk food packaging thrown out of a car window).

We can all add our own-  for example, it makes my blood boil when an unsolicited phonecall rings you then puts you on hold!!!  I don’t thank John Howard for much, but tougher gun laws and the do-not-call register are two good things.

She makes the point that her book is not an etiquette or manners book, and now having read about the 19th century literature of this type, she’s right about that too.  An etiquette book is premised on helping you as an individual to join the  others, by doing the right things.  The 19th century version was based on the precept that you could judge an individual by the way they behave, and that there is a connection between manners and morals.  The outside world and the people in it was a world that the reader desperately wanted to be part of. If changes had to be made to one’s behaviour and demeanour in order to be accepted, that was a price gladly paid.

All this is reversed here.  As she says, many people think that it is harmful, unhelpful and simply wrong to judge a person by the way s/he behaves (p. 193).  Instead of the outside world being something we want to join, it’s them out there who are the problem.

It’s ironic that the 19th century version of the etiquette book was based on making “me” part of “them”. In the 21st century version,  it’s all about me- with  our ‘i’pads, and ‘My’ spaces and, heaven help us, ‘My’ school (which I still haven’t looked at because I don’t want my visit to count as approval of the whole concept).  But now it’s me against “them” who are so obnoxious because they all care only about their own “me”. And let’s face it, who’d want to be them?

All these pronouns are confusing me (or I).

Hanging around with the naturalists

I see that more than 600,000 plant species have disappeared.  No, not by logging, global warming, pesticides etc. etc., but because botanists have been combing through the listing of plant species, weeding out the duplicates.  I was interested to read that

One of the databases was established using 250 pounds left in the will of naturalist Charles Darwin

I’m sure that Charles would have approved wholeheartedly.  Although, looking at his will, most of his goodies seem to be divided up amongst family. Perhaps it was established later.

Speaking of Charles Darwin, he certainly has a prodigious online presence, spurred on no doubt by the anniversary recently.  There’s Darwin Online – huge! And have you seen the repository of all the letters that Darwin wrote and received up to 1867 at the Darwin Correspondence Project?

Apparently Darwin had over 2000 correspondents from across the globe, and he was not the only one.  Naturalism and collecting was a favoured gentlemanly past-time and for colonial civil servants scattered across the globe, providing information and samples for their highly-placed naturalist patrons was a way of keeping connections open with men in positions that might prove useful in the future.

And so we see our  Resident Judge of Port Phillip- Judge Willis- sitting down and packaging up samples for his patrons at home.  Like other men of his time, Judge Willis  was not averse, as Rolf Boldrewood reminds us, to a bit of the old huntin’ and shootin’  on the Yarra Flats-

This not undistinguished legal celebrity we had known in Sydney, and he presented himself to my youthful intelligence as a good-natured, mild-mannered old gentleman, with whom I used to go quail and duck shooting in the flats and bends of the Yarra over Mr Hawdon’s and the neighbourhood estates.  On these occasions the late Mr Archibald Thom, who rented part of Banyule from Mr Hawdon, often accompanied us.  And a very deadly shot he was.
The judge shot fairly well, and after a decent morning’s sport was genial and generous in a marked degree. But when he doffed the russet tweeds and donned the ermine, he became utterly transformed. It was averred, too, altogether for the worse. ( Rolf Boldrewood, Old Melbourne Memories, p. 159-60)

But he also indulged in- or at least arranged for someone else to indulge in- a bit of naturalistic hunting as well.  Here he is, in April 1843, writing to Derby, the father of the Secretary of State (how convenient!)- sending a- ye Gods, what on earth IS he sending him?

I have the pleasure of sending by the “Arab” an animal, temporarily stuffed, which is not common even here; I think is seems a commixture of Monkey, Opossum and Sloth, more like the Sloth perhaps than any other.  It has a pouch.  I do not forget the Musk Duck & hope my efforts to obtain them may yet prove successful.

And then, on board ship on the way home

The hurry in which I left Australia prevents me collecting such Natural curiosities as might possibly have been acceptable to your Lordship.  I enclose however a good specimen of the Flying Mouse, possibly as curious an animal as inhabits those regions, & a fair illustration of many larger animals of the same Genus.  It can only fly in an angle of 45 degrees- It has a Pouch & the featherlike tail is not a little remarkable. On our voyage we put in at Bahia and I have a few Brazillian Seeds & Roots, which the English Chaplain gave me very much at your Lordship’s Service, if they be worth acceptance.  I have also some of the Wattle Tree, or Mimosa of Australia Felix, which I have no doubt will grow in the Open Air in England with a little care & be a great ornament in a Garden or Shrubbery.  The Bark of it is become a profitable article of Export for Tanning being stronger and preferable to English OakBark.  The flower of the Wattle is fragrant and pretty.

I wonder if the Mimosa of Australia Felix was one of the expunged varieties?  And the flying mouse- probably a pygmy glider of some sort.  Though I prefer this one-

J. I Little (ed) ‘Love as Strong as Death: Lucy Peel’s Journal in Lower Canada’

Lucy Peel was the wife of a naval officer on extended half-pay leave and in 1833 she and her young husband  Edmund arrived in Sherbrooke, Lower Canada, “attracted to a romantic and utopian dream of creating their own genteel Eden in the wilderness, but they were pragmatic enough to regard a permanent return to England as a possibility” (Little 1999 p.58).  And indeed, this is what happened- some three years later they returned, despondent that their plans had not come to fruition:

Edmund is, after four years hard labour, convinced that nothing is to be done by Farming in Canada; the land here produces too little to pay the labour requisite to cultivate it.

Lucy’s diary  has been published as Love strong as death: Lucy Peel’s Lower Canadian Journal 1833-1836, edited by J. I. Little (2001).    It was written as a “letter diary”, where she recorded the letters that she sent as monthly instalments to her mother and occasionally to her sisters and in-laws.  Her husband Edmund also contributed a few letters as well.  The letters survived as transcriptions in three bound volumes titled “Letters from Canada” and the transcriptions, written (and possibly culled?)  in two different hands, were donated to a university archive by a great-great-grandson. As such, it should be seen as a series of letters rather than a journal as such, and subject to the qualifications about letters discussed and commented on previously by Hels and Yvonne.

I have not been able to locate a copy of Little’s book here in Australia, but Googlebooks has a generous excerpt that includes the introduction and the Canadian Historical Association’s journal has a downloadable version of Little’s article “Gender and Gentility on the Lower Canadian Frontier: Lucy Peel’s journal 1833-36.”

Little cautions us:

While it is necessary to remember that journals such as Lucy Peel’s reflect the experiences and views of a small, privileged sector of society, their authors were nevertheless sharp observers of their social and natural surroundings and they provide valuable insights into the ideology and behaviour of the families who dominated the Canadian colonial socially and politically in the pre-Rebellion era. (2001 p. 2)

My interest is in Upper Canada, and at this stage I am not sure how much the mindset in terms of social expectations within the English community differs between Upper and Lower Canada.  Of course, the French presence in Lower Canada was a major distinguishing feature between the two provinces.  Little notes that English gentry preferred Lower Canada to the more sparsely populated Upper Canada, which was afflicted with cholera and malaria. (In my total ignorance of Upper Canadian climate at this stage, the reference to malaria surprises me.)   Peel, at least in the excerpts and article, does not make much comment on the French at all, but she does describe the English community and expresses some fairly virulent anti-Americanism, and I would expect that similar sentiments would apply in Upper Canada as well.

The excerpts reveal a lively, perceptive letter writer, and their marriage seems to be a loving one.  Little uses Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter as a thematic touchstone for describing Peel’s writings and identity as a gentlewoman on the frontier : love and duty; fortitude and resignation, prudent economy, elegance, civility and vulgarity, and propriety.

Both she and her husband Edmund are engaging and surprisingly modern writers, and I was touched by Edmund’s description of his wife’s experience of childbirth.  I suspect that many men stumbling out of the labour ward today might say the same thing, perhaps less eloquently (although possibly with fewer commas!) :

I was present all the time to support Lucy and I was much distressed to witness her agonies.  I thought it the proper place for a husband at such a moment, considering it nothing more than false delicacy which would make a man absent himself at a time when his presence and support are most required, it is a fearful thing to see a woman in her pain, I could not have believed it possible they had suffered so much, at times I felt quite distracted, as soon as the child was born I staggered into an adjoining room and cried like a child until I saw Lucy smiling and free from pain, her face last seen was distorted with pain, the impression made on me will not be forgotten (19 Dec 1833 entry by Edmund, cited in Little 1999)

Move over, Lucy- I think I’m a bit in love with him myself!

Sources:

J. I. Little Love “Strong as Death”: Lucy Peel’s Lower Canadian Journal , Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2001. Googleview excerpt

J. I. Little  ‘Gender and Gentility on the Lower Canadian Frontier: Lucy Peel’s Journal 1833-1836.’ Journal of the Canadian Historical Association Vol 10 (new series), 1999

Writing home

Read a good article last night:

David A. Gerber “Acts of Deceiving and Withholding in Immigrant Letters: Personal Identity and Self-Presentation in Personal Correspondence.”  Journal of Social History, Vol 39, No. 2 (2005) pp 315-330. I accessed it through my university library, but I see that it’s available through SLV as well.

With the current trend to write the “I” into history ( something that I am ambivalent about and will no doubt explore one day in another post)  you’ll often read about the emotional rush that researchers feel when holding a letter.  The precariousness and contingency of its journey into your hands, the physicality and smell of the paper and the knowledge that your subject had picked up a pen, smoothed out that very sheet, re-read it on finishing-  it all gives the act of reading the letter an edge of sanctity that is lost when reading it on microfilm, or digitally.

In this article, the author has obviously moved beyond that initial response- as must we all eventually. Instead of attending to the content of the letter, he looks instead at the immigrant letter as a strategy in maintaining interpersonal relationships across distance.  We know for ourselves that what we project and present in letters is not necessarily the case, and he focusses on what is not made explicit, what is hidden and held back.  Perhaps that’s part of the uneasiness about an online communicative presence now- that the interconnectedness of different online genres means that our different personae are no longer quarantined from each other. We may intend to remain silent, but instead earlier conversations are overheard.

Gerber’s research involves immigrant letters written between Canadian and American migrants and their families in Britain.  They were separated by a sea-journey of approximately 7-10 days which could stretch out to as long as 4-6 weeks: whatever the range it was certainly of a different magnitude to the voyage to Australia.  He describes his immigrants as “venturesome conservatives”, pessimistic about Britain’s future after the Napoleonic Wars and hostile to modernity and again I find myself wondering whether this also applied to Australia.

In these letters there is a psychological need to continue the relationship they are seeking to maintain in some way.  It’s often a collaborative exercise, even though in the archives we often only read one side of the communication.  Of course there is the issue of incompleteness and representativeness: letters may not have been collected or saved; they may be in private hands; they may have been culled; and the illiterate or those with completed families may not appear at all.

He explores the reasons – using examples from his letters- of outright lies and misrepresentations, but also untruths and silences.  Letter-writers might not want to cause worry to those at home; perhaps they had been discouraged from emigrating and have the need to save face.  On the other hand, perhaps it suited their purposes to exaggerate their situation.  Either way, there was the danger of being found out.  As Gerber points out “Gossip became transnational” as letters were shared between family and acquaintances in both settings.  Even silence is itself a type of communication.  It was a way of changing the tenor of the relationship.  For example, a child could take her time in replying to a parent and there is nothing at all that the parent could do about it.

Often the reason that we come to a body of correspondence is because we need the content that we hope they contain, or because the writer or recipient is important to our research in some way.  We become swept up in the details they offer, and the relationships that we try to reconstruct from them.  This article reminded me of the relationships that underpin the artefact itself, as a genre, that lie at the bottom of the act of writing and reading at a distance.


‘Come Inside’ by G. L. Osborne

2009, 170 p

I hadn’t heard of this book until I read Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers, but I see that it has attracted quite a bit of attention with shortlistings at both the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize First Book of Fiction and the Age Book of the Year.  It’s only short- just the right length really, because she teases her reader and as we know, it’s a narrow line between teasing and tears.

It’s an unusual and risky book.  A young girl is rescued by a young man after being swept ashore as the only survivor after a shipwreck in 1887.  She is  unable to remember her earlier life, and her story becomes part of the local folklore, heavily mined by the press at the time,  a series of oral histories in the 1940s and then centenary publications a hundred years later.   There’s shades of the Loch Ard here, but not quite; the small seaside town of Colego seems as if must exist somewhere in Western Australia, but it doesn’t seem to, either.  The slippage between fact and fiction starts on the flyleaves, where the author thanks “Ken and Claire Stewart” for the extracts from an unpublished manuscript by Caroline Stewart held at Colego Public Library.  It is this manuscript that forms one strand of  the narrative: the other strand is the drugged delirium of a woman on what appears to be a ship.  Woven around these two main strands is an assortment of tangentially-related ‘evidence’- press clippings and letters from 1887,  extracts of books, interviews with Colego inhabitants in 1946, a collection of letters by Isobel Smith, a book by the same Isobel Smith, then an edited anniversary edition of the same work.

There’s much here about memory and history, as layer upon layer is built up over the story.  Caroline Stewart, the author of the manuscript, works in the small Colego museum where she works cataloguing the objects,  and although her instructions are to label the materials empirically, the edifice of objectivity is just as tottery for the ‘fact-based’ local museum as it is for the other retellings. The curator of the museum is fiercely protective of the artefacts and the version of local history that the museum promulgates but there’s a flatness and deadness about the history it embalms, especially compared with the other stories we are given based on people rather than things.

A risky book? Sure is.  She has assembled it all carefully, but it is the reader who puts it together.  I’m not sure if I understood it, and that’s an uncomfortable reading experience.  At 170 pages it is short and as the number of pages diminished,  I found myself wondering how she was going to draw it to a close, and even why it ended at that particular point.  It is beautifully written, and she deftly catches the tone and cadence of many different genres in the material that she lays out for us.   And yes, I know the adage about judging books and covers, but that is a truly lovely photograph on the front.

I mentioned a couple of posts ago a book called Pistols! Treason! Murder! which, labelled “History” on the back cover, uses a similar methodology.  I’ve borrowed it and I’m interested to see the technique used in non-fiction. I wonder if I’ll experience the same sense of floating anxiety (yes- that front cover is well chosen)  about whether I’m putting it together “properly”.