Monthly Archives: September 2011

No thanks, bank.

I don’t get my cash from a “hole in the wall”.  Instead I go to the “money box”:  a squat little stand-alone unit that stands inside the hideous shopping mall that I use. But when I went to the money box last week my card was returned with the ominous message that my card was declined and to contact my bank.  There must be something wrong with the money box, I surmised, and  trotted off to the supermarket , intending to EFTPOS my cash when I got to the register.  But – oh dear- the card was declined again and once again I was told to contact my bank, which I promptly did after scraping together enough cash to buy my groceries.

My card had been compromised, the voice in the call centre said.  There had been a suspicious attempted withdrawal of 56 cents from “Melbourne Mobile Services” or something, and so they had closed my card down.  If desperate, I could go back to the money box, call them on my mobile and they would lift the ban for five minutes while I stood there withdrawing my cash, then reinstate it instantly.  No thank you, I thought, envisaging my pre-paid phone balance leaking away with each recitation of “Our customer service officers are busy at the moment….”  I could wait until Monday to withdraw cash in person from the bank, and I would patiently wait for my new debit card within 5-6 working days.

You might note that it is a debit card, not a credit card.  I am a rather old-school bank customer.  In the wake of the breakdown of my first marriage, panicked by the tightness of my budget in paying a mortgage on just one wage, I started withdrawing a set amount of money every fortnight and using only that money for food and pocket money while paying bills and mortgage from the account and through BPay.   Once my allowance of “spending money” cash is gone, it’s gone and I do without.  I haven’t had to change the amount in ten years, probably because my children have either left home or pay for their own food now, so it’s just me. And I admit that  I now have to use the card for petrol instead of paying it from “housekeeping”, and I sometimes have to withdraw extra cash for large one off purchases, clothes and haircuts.  But in general, I pay myself a cash allowance and use that.  I have never had a credit card, only debit.  I B-pay everything, and have only one direct debit which was unavoidable.  I’ve never understood automatic debits- I wouldn’t dream of opening my purse to Telstra, the council, electricity etc. and saying “Here, help yourself once a month”, relying on them to take notice of me when I might say someway down the track “That’s enough- stop taking it now, please”.  I am uneasy when I send off my credit card details to pay through the mail- how do I know that it’s not going to fall into someone elses hands? How do I know that they’re only going to make that one withdrawal?  I’ve never had any trouble with this, but it still seems a remarkably lax system.  Likewise when I use my debit card- why don’t I have to sign AND pin?  Often I sign when my card has been given back to me and my signature is never checked.  Why are the banks encouraging this?

So, given my old school proclivities, I was horrified to find that my new debit card arrived with Paypass technology.  No need to sign or pin- just wave it in front of the console beside the register and away I go with up to $100.00 of purchases. Or maybe it’s someone else waving it in front of the console and going away with $100.00 purchases on my card without my knowledge.  I didn’t ask for this.  How ironic that the alert on my card was triggered by a small purchase, and yet this technology encourages a string of small purchases, all of which would be so small that I doubt that I would notice them.  No worries- says the bank- you’re covered against fraud as long as you comply with the terms and conditions on the website.  But  I can imagine a whole number of scenarios where this could be abused- the sulky teenage child who slips the odd purchase here or there (not that MY children would do that!), the elderly neighbour who asks someone to pop down to the shop, or an opportunistic use of a card in a wallet left carelessly.   I can’t understand why this is the default provision- given to everyone whether they want it or not.

I have complained to the bank and asked for this feature to be blocked on my card. That’s another irony: being left on hold in order to complain.  After 5 minutes waiting, I sent an email.  I’ll be interested to see what the response is.

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‘Untold Story’ by Monica Ali

2011, 345 pages

My off-duty reading life seems to be rather bi-polar at the moment: fluff (The Book of Rachael) followed by depth (The Eye of the Storm) and now back to a bit of fluff again.  I really enjoyed Monica Ali’s Brick Lane,  and the television adaptation it spawned, so when I saw her new book at the library, I snapped it up.  Reading the blurb at the back, I wondered if I should put it straight back onto the New Books shelf for some other reader to enjoy because it didn’t really sound like the sort of the book that I normally read.  Sure, I’m happy to catch up on the adventures of the royals as I sneak a peek at the magazines at the check-out, and I’m a sucker for remaindered books with glossy pictures of the royals.  But I wasn’t sure about making the investment in time to read a 300 page book exploring WHAT IF Diana didn’t really die but faked her death in order to start a new life in America.  I borrowed it anyway.  I was interested to see what a talented writer would do with what must be the chick-littiest theme of them all.

Ali doesn’t actually name her character as Princess Di, but you’re expected to make the connection. The story is told in alternating slices.  The first slice is a  2007 narrative of a group of friends in small-town America who have welcomed Lydia as a newcomer to their midst.  Lydia is English, mysterious and unforthcoming about her background, and on the verge of falling in love with a good local man.  Rewind, then, in the second slice, to the 1997 diary of Lawrence, an academic and secret service man who once served as Princess Diana’s private secretary.  While he is penning his entries, Lydia (Diana) is writing to him, as her only confidante after faking her own death, leaving her sons to grieve her loss.  In the third slice, the  2007 narrative steps back a couple of weeks  to the arrival of an ex-paparazzi photographer who unwittingly, and rather implausibly, stumbles onto the biggest scoop of his life when he recognizes the disguised princess.

Does it work?  It’s trashy, it’s light, it’s contrived and it’s also rather unputdownable once you stop scoffing and  just go with it.  If I wanted to intellectualise it, I would say that it explores similar themes to Brick Lane: exile, displacement, identity.  But that would be to put too much freight onto a very light vessel. It’s an indulgence all round: Ali probably didn’t need to write it and I certainly didn’t have to read it.  But she did, and I did, and I can probably think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.

My rating: a rather abashed 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I’m a supermarket check-out royal watcher deep down. Obviously not deep enough.

‘Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada 1780-1870’ by Francoise Noel

2003, 384 p.

Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada 1780-1870’ by Francoise Noel, 2003

In this case, the book’s title tells you exactly what the book is about- family life, sociability and Upper and Lower Canada.  Because my research interest is Upper Canada, and for such a limited period of time (i.e. 1827-9), I’ve tended to restrict my reading as much as I can to that small canvas. I haven’t really explored Lower Canada (i.e the French-speaking part) at all.  This book, which draws on diaries and letters as its source material, straddles both the Upper/Lower Canada divide. Its focus is  on family and social life, which are  not constrained by political borders  and so I am venturing into new geographical regions in this book!

The diaries she uses are mainly general records of daily activities, including visits received and made, family and community events, daily work and weather.  They are the sort of diaries that often pass off the details under the terse phrase “the usual”.  There’s not a lot of introspection in them, and they focus more on the social than the individual.

For the individual focus, she turns to family correspondence, which became increasingly important in the 19th century as part of the rise of the middle class, heightened in the case of Canada by the waves of migration and distance.  Letters were the key to maintaining family links, exercising patronage and sharing family culture and information.  Again, they were not necessarily personal confidences, as they were often handed around the family.  Although she did not consciously limit the study to any one social group, the nature of the sources resulted in a bias towards writers with more education and the ability to write.  She also draws upon portraits of the period, but this too leans towards those with the wealth to either encourage drawing and sketching within the family, or to commission portraits commercially.

The book is organized in three parts.  Part I, ‘The Couple’ takes a chronological life-stage approach, starting with courtship and engagement, moving to marriage, housekeeping and married life.  Part II ‘Parents and Children’ traces childbirth and infancy, childhood, and parent/child relationships as children approached adulthood and started the cycle again.  In this regard, the book reminded me of Amanda Vickery’s  Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.   Noel  highlights those aspects which reflect specifically Canadian conditions: the ready availability of land for all children which influenced English hereditary patterns more tailored towards preserving a limited estate for the eldest son;  the shortage of women; the frequent absence of husbands; and distinctions between English advice literature on childrearing appearing in the newspapers and the ‘Republican Motherhood’ ideal being promulgated in the nearby American states.

Part III departs from the focus on the immediate family and moves into ‘Kinship and the Community’.  One of the most striking impressions she noted was the wide extent of social networks over great geographical areas.  As she says:

The social networks that supported individuals and families were composed of [these] overlapping categories of friends, neighbours and kin, and to focus exclusively on any one would make us lose sight of the complexity and extent of these networks. (p. 132)

The degree of socializing is startling- constant coming and going, visiting, staying over for weeks and months. New Year was particularly important- more so than Christmas- and social activity focused on the Jan-Feb winter season.  It is strange to my Antipodean sensibility to think that you would deliberately choose to socialize during the coldest, most snow-bound  time of the year, and that snow made transport easier through sledding across a smooth surface rather than more difficult along unmade roads.  Otherwise, though, social life amongst the elite seems fairly similar to that in Australian colonies – subscription balls, governors balls, picnics, fairs, horse racing, sermons.  But the extended family was central to this sociability, and in this, I suspect, Australia and Canada differed, at least in the early years of Australian free settlement. Siblings might travel out to the Australian  colonies in pairs, or one by one to join their family already here, but networks of cousins, aunts and uncles developed gradually. The injection of single-male travel to Australia through the pastoral industry and later the gold rush deferred the highly complex integrated family pattern found in Canada for some decades.There are extended families In Australia of course, but in comparing 1840s Canada and 1840s Australia, family connections and sociability seem much stronger in the former.

The author is largely content to let the writers speak in their own words, and there is not a great deal of theorizing in this book. I was interested in this book to see how Noel would deal with her informants.  She introduces the main ‘characters’ early in the introductory chapters, especially in establishing their identity as discrete families with their own family trajectory, interspersed generously with portraits then and there (rather than saving up for an insert later in the book).  It surprised me a little that in the closing chapters she seemed to backfill on the Papineau family in particular, who to my reading, seemed very well established earlier in the book.   For other, smaller family groupings, I found myself wondering “Hold on? Have I met this person before?”  A very good index, which not only listed the family, but also life-stage details (e.g. marriage, children) and page numbers, helped to re-establish the family in my mind when I’d forgotten them.  She  also has sources that are particularly useful for one particular theme (e.g. childbirth) but who provide little information in relation to her other themes.  These informants tended to star in one or two sections, but then disappeared from sight entirely.  I found myself wondering what happened to them.

The portrayal of life-story and wider sociability that she stitches together here is so rich that I found myself forgetting that , by her own admission, many of the diaries especially that she dealt with are rather humdrum documents.  Here she has the advantage of being able to range over several sources, picking the eyes from them.  In this regard I envy her-  when you are focussing on an individual you have to content yourself with the documents you actually have (terse, scrappy and incomplete though they may be), rather than the full and densely informative ones you crave.

 

‘The Eye of the Storm’ by Patrick White

1973, 609 p.

After finishing reading the dissatisfying The Book of Rachael,  I felt like reading something astringent and masterful.  The pre-publicity for Fred Schepisi film was gearing up, so I thought I’d have a quick read of the book before seeing the film. What was I thinking? There’s no such thing as a ‘quick read’ of a Patrick White: he’s magisterial, allusive, dense and uncompromising.  But, after overcoming my aversion to him after being subjected to Voss  as assigned HSC reading (what were they thinking?), I now consider him to be challenging, but well worthwhile.

Nonetheless, it is just as well that I saw a blurb summarizing the plot of the upcoming film because even on p.195 I hadn’t quite realized what the book was about.  You could say that it took some little time to get going. I don’t know whether the nutshell synopsis of the film helped to focus my attention, or whether the book itself tightened at that point, but from about p. 200 on, I found it  compelling in a grubby, voyeuristic way.

When I was a child, one of my favourite stories was Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen.  I think that, like Kay in the fairytale, Patrick White has a splinter of glass in his eye too, and it lacerates everything it sees.  His characters are often flawed, ugly and marred by their physicality; there is the whine of weakness or the throb of madness about them, and their mannerisms are coarse and grotesque.  And yet White also stretches out for beauty and transcendence as well, in the midst of an ugly and petty world.  The same clearness of eye that strips his characters naked also washes clean our view of the natural world.  Here’s the tropical rainforest, that will soon be lashed by the cyclone in the title:

Now [the island] hushed the strangers it was initiating. At some stage of the journey the trees were so densely massed, the columns so moss-upholstered or lichen-encrusted, the vines suspended from them so intricately rigged, the light barely slithered down, and then a dark watery green, though in rare gaps where the sassafras had been thinned out, and once where a giant blackbutt had crashed, the intruders might have been reminded of actual light if this had not flittered, again like moss, but dry, crumbled, white to golden. (p. 375 Virago edition)

The emotional stillness of the book- the eye of the storm- is the dessicated,manipulative matriarch, Elizabeth Hunter.  She surrounds herself with nun-like nurses who cater to her petulant, fretful demands as everyone waits for her to die.  Circling her, sweeping in from their European lives are her two children, the celebrated actor Sir Basil who has probably seen the best days of his career, and her brittle daughter, Dorothy, the Princess de Lascabanes, whose marriage into minor European nobility had failed. Despite their platitudes, they despise their mother for her beauty, her promiscuity, her self-centredness and her casual, but deliberate, cruelty.  Her children are both failures in their different ways, and in need of money.  They decide to curtail the expenses of their mother’s home-based nursing care by placing her into a home in order to access the income from the sale of her home and effects.

And that’s all there really is to the plot itself, although it’s a story that has been told many times before as the frequent allusions in King Lear attest.  In many ways, the whole scenario is a staged performance, and the characters themselves are conscious of the theatricality of the situation- indeed, the narrative breaks into scripted dialogue in places.  At times I really wasn’t sure what was happening, or whether what I thought had happened actually did.  There are whole paragraphs of images tumbling one on top of the other as a rush of disjointed memories floods Elizabeth’s mind,  and events on which the whole book turns seem to occur in that half-world between sleeping and waking. White’s narrative style continually unsettles your confidence in yourself as a reader.

I’ll be interested to see the film, because given the fairly slight plot line, I wonder how the nuances and complexities of the interior world of the characters will be portrayed.  White himself barges into carnival and parody at times with his crudely named nurses Sister Manhood and Sister Badgery, and the exaggerated grossness of his characters’ behaviour is probably better left imagined than depicted on the screen.  Still, if anyone can carry this off, it would have to be the cast assembled for this film version- so watch this space.

Snap! Lisa at ANZLit Lovers has just read the book before seeing the film too (and I strongly suspect she’ll see it before I do)- her review is carefully-referenced and well worth reading.

My rating: 9/10

Reason read: to read it before seeing the film

Book sourced from: my own bookshelves! Purchased second-hand from the now defunct Printed Treasures bookshop in Macleod.

I don’t like the look of this

What’s this peg doing in the middle of the Banyule wetlands?

Is this the harbinger of the Eastern Freeway/Ring Road extension?

There’s a lot to lose….

Why I’m mad as hell about Banyule Homestead

Update August 2016: Applications by the owners have been made to Heritage Victoria to make changes to Banyule Homestead in order to fit it out as a functions venue.  Go to http://banyulehomestead.wordpress.com for more information about this latest chapter.

Update May 2015: I have decided to archive the site that was ‘Banyule Homestead Matters’. It can now be found at http://banyulehomestead.wordpress.com

And now, back to the original post that was in this blog entry from September 15, 2011, nearly five years ago:

September 15, 2011

The risibly named Heritage Victoria this week approved the subdivision of land surrounding Banyule Homestead for the construction of three townhouses.  I am appalled.

Banyule Homestead has long been one of the landmark buildings in Heidelberg. The gothic-style mansion was constructed in 1846 by one of the overlanders from Sydney, Joseph Hawdon and it is, in fact, one of the oldest surviving houses in Victoria.  Construction of an early, single-story building commenced in 1842 and so, yes, our Judge Willis would have been able to see the first buildings of Banyule as he stood in his driveway on the hill above what is now Warringal Park.

Heidelberg, with its fertile flood plains and views attracted men who became squatters, and indeed, it was the quality and reputation of his wealthy neighbours  that attracted Willis to living in the area, even though it was some ten miles from the court.  You can almost plot the houses out on a map- on all the high peaks around Heidelberg, the houses attached to large properties would have been visible to each other.  Willis’ rented house on Rose Anna Farm looked across east to  Joseph Hawdon’s Banyule in what is now Buckingham Drive;   south towards D.C. McArthur’s house Charterisville along what is now Burke Rd Nth,  and west to  the Boulden Brothers property at the top of the hill leading up to Upper Heidelberg Road.His friend William Verner lived in the valley between Willis’ house and Banyule, while Viewbank Farm stood on a raised area on the Yarra Flats, clearly visible from Banyule.  These houses, as they stood in the early 1840s, were not the mansions that they were later to become with further additions and alterations, but they did form an important network of the pre-gold rush ‘gentryin Port Phillip.

You need imagination to visualize the sightlines between these houses today (where they still exist) because they have been largely obscured by trees. But you don’t need imagination to see Banyule as it was from the river, because as an aspect it is still largely unchanged today.  Until Heritage Victoria’s decision, that is.

Banyule stands on a cliff, overlooking the Yarra flats below.

It can be seen from across the billabongs…

…and  it was visible from my front garden, just to the right of  my father’s head in this 1960s photo of party games on the front lawn (how quaint!)  In fact, this is how I know that Judge Willis could see Banyule because his house stood on the hill immediately behind my childhood home.

It is the house that gives my local council its name: I went to Banyule High School and I go to the Banyule Festival. The Victorian Heritage Database shows that it is listed as being of National Significance by the National Trust; it is on the Victorian Heritage Register and it has local council heritage listing.  These are long-standing listings, already in place when Banyule (shamefully) returned to private hands after being in public ownership as an art gallery.  How can all these listings count for nothing?  Is anything safe? Obviously not.

As it is, the gardens that surrounded Banyule have been degraded and surrounded on three sides by houses. A slice here, a slice there. Enough has been lost already, and it can never be regained.  We can put a stop to further loss now.  One of the oldest mansions in Victoria should not be further nibbled away by development.  A house might be privately held, but its aspect belongs to all of us.  Most large houses in suburban Melbourne have been hemmed in by other houses and hunker on truncated, remnant blocks, with all scale and sense of position lost. But with Banyule,  we don’t have to rely on our visual imagination to see it as it was.  We can stand on the wetlands on the Yarra Flats and look up- and there is it.

P.S. Update April 2012. If you share my concern about Banyule Homestead, please go to Banyule Homestead Matters . It is located at http://banyulehomesteadmatters.wordpress.com . At the moment, it is just celebrating Banyule Homestead, but the moment that anything changes, you’ll read about it there.

P.P.S Update 29 December 2014. I have decided not to renew the premium status of the Banyule Homestead Matters website.  The site is still available, but the URL now includes ‘wordpress’  (i.e. it used to be banyulehomesteadmatters.com  and now it is banyulehomesteadmatters.wordpress.com) You will probably see a screen telling you to contact the administrator to renew the registration.  There’s no need to do that- I know that the registration has lapsed.  If you click on the small X, the warning will disappear and you’ll be able to access the site as before.  You may need to use the menu on the right hand site to negotiate the site as the Home page no longer shows all the posts in chronological order.

P.P.P.S. Update again. I’ve archived the Banyule Homestead Matters website and moved it all across to a new site. The website address is now http://banyulehomestead.wordpress.com

It might be worth keeping an eye on the Friends of Banyule website, and the Heidelberg Historical Society has information about Banyule as well.

P.P.S. Good places to see Banyule Homestead. The homestead  is located at 60-74 Buckingham Drive, but it’s not easily seen from the street.  Click for a Google Map showing good vantage spots here.

‘The Future of History’ by John Lukacs

2011, 177 p

There’s a new John Lukacs book out, I see.  I like books about history, written by historians. As a reader, they make me feel like an eavesdropper and novice rolled into one. This small book felt as if it were perhaps compiled from a series of lectures, similar to Margaret Macmillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History or Inga Clendinnen’s True Stories. But no- these are chapter-length reflections on historianship as a way of viewing the world and as a profession, and its relationship with literature.  They are written for their own sake.

I don’t really know all that much about John Lukacs.  I have only read one of his books- Five Days in London: May 1940- and I was very impressed by its close attention to just five days spent before and after Dunkirk, when Churchill decided that Britain would continue the war against Hitler after the fall of France.  It was a closely-focussed history that looked at just a few days (although VERY important days to be sure) while addressing big questions and issues.  After reading this latest book, I realize that it exemplified two of the big themes that Lukacs has explored over his long publishing history. First,  Five Days in London was an analysis of the personalities who were involved in the choice to stand up to Hitler, and the aspect of choice is important to Lukacs.

“Choice” is the operative word: because people, as well as their individual components, do not “have” ideas; they choose them. (p.30)

There is an emergent quality in events and decision-making as well: that perhaps the question is not “why” something happened, but “how” and “when” something became to be as it was:

Notice the emphasis on process in the syntax: not how “was” but how did it “become” (p. 39)

His second theme, again exemplified in Five Days in London is that of public sentiment. In the case of Churchill’s decision in 1940, it was set against the perceptions of the British people that were being monitored through the Mass Observation project.  He draws a distinction between Public Opinion which ostensibly can be measured and quantified and Popular Sentiment which is a more subtle and less graspable thing. I guess, in an Australian context, this would be the difference between  a Newspoll with its stark black and white choices, and a Hugh McKay survey .  He notes the dangers to democracy of government driven entirely by public opinion- and don’t we all know about that in Australia at the moment.

Lukacs is dismissive of statistical-based history, psycho-history and counterfactuals, and even more scathing of recent gender,  subaltern and other “faddish” histories.  However, it’s rather a cheap shot to mock journal papers from their titles alone, which are often framed to attract interest through their quirkiness.  There’s an element of grumpy-old-mannishness over the use of computers in research as well. He notes that there has always been more of a problem with spurious papers being inserted into an archive than papers being removed and that technology makes falsification even easier. He warns against the “insidious” practice of

“the presentation of a scholarly apparatus, listing or citing microfilm numbers or other archival “sources” that are not easily ascertainable- or, even if so require careful reading by a professional historian to eventually reveal that they do not prove the  “fact” or statement that they are supposed to confirm”. (p. 58)

To my mind, false claims can be made for both digital/technological and paper-based sources, and digital data-banks of journals and digitization have brought otherwise obscure journals and sources into a brighter light.  A microfilm is more accessible to many more sets of eyes than an individual archive will ever be, especially on the other side of the globe.

He notes that history is not science, and that it is much closer to literature.  Fact and fiction are related to each other, but not identical, and he champions not so much the fictional nature of history, as the historicity of fiction- that “every novel is a historical novel in one way or another” (p. 120)  He is open to the work of amateur historians and aspects of what-if histories that acknowledge the potentialities that lie in any situation.

“…the historian’s recognition that reality encompasses actuality and potentiality reflects his propensity to see with the eye of the novelist rather than with the eye of the lawyer” (p 124).

He closes the book with an Apologia and a greeting to his ‘good, serious’ historians.  He is, indeed, an “old” historian- eighty six years old, and by his own admission he spent much of his career working in small universities.  Although his list of publications is exhaustive, many were published by ‘trade’ presses with an eye to a wider audience and  he senses the ambiguity in the term “prolific” that his academic peers use to describe him. There is, as he admits, an element of  vanity in his chagrin at his marginalization.

Lukacs has elsewhere described himself as a reactionary and certainly elements of this come through here.  He is dismissive of the shortsightedness of American liberal historians, and there is an implicit assumption that the historians and the profession are male.  But I sense that he does not fit easily into any one political box.

He describes his book The Thread of Years as his “most extraordinary book”. It has 69 chapters, each consisting of two parts- the first a vignette about episodes in the lives of various imaginary people existing because of the historical realities of their places and their times.  The second part of each chapter is Lukacs’ own dialogue with an imaginary conversant who challenges either the historicity or the accuracy of the vignette.  He says that it is not a new kind of history, because almost all the men and women within it are imagined, but the times and places are not. He sees it as neither a history nor a novel.  And it’s sitting over there on the shelf, third row down, eight from the left.  I think he would want me to read it.