Monthly Archives: March 2013

‘Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies’ by W. L. Burn

slavery

If you had placed this book into a shiny new coloured cover, I would never have picked it for being written in 1937.  It has all the things that I look for in histories that are being written around me today:   exploration of big themes through grounded, personalized examples; a sense of place;  careful attention to detail through the sources; an attempt to step up out of those same sources into a more literary style; decisiveness in coming to a pithy conclusion,  and a judicious use of the presence of the historian him/herself as researcher and commentator.

It’s also a book that attracts my interest as a politically engaged citizen concerned about what a former Prime Minister described as “the greatest moral challenge” of our time- climate change.  In reading about the abolition of slavery I’ve been again and again reminded of the parallels between the two.  Both climate change and the abolition of slavery involve/d self-inflicted economic pain for a higher long-term purpose; both involve/d  well-organized pressure groups with powerful media access; both provoke/d  fears that international competitiveness would be hampered; both campaigns stretch/ed out  over decades.  It may well be that climate change policy, like abolition, may have to accept a compromised ‘solution’  in the short-term as part of a bigger, long-term picture- although of course, in climate change  the earth and the systems of its climate will follow their own trajectory, whatever the politics.  In the case of the abolition of slavery, the compromise was the Apprenticeship System.  Continue reading

‘Love Song Circus’ by Katie Noonan – a ‘post-view’

Others preview: I post-view.  We went last week to see Katie Noonan’s show ‘Love Song Circus’ at the Famous Spiegeltent.

Ah- the Spiegeltent! Such an exotic idea better left in the realms of the imagination, I reckon.  Fortunately it was a balmy night as we lined up outside, instead of a 43 degree scorcher or -more likely- one of the grey windy greasy-chip-smell, leaf-whipped days outside the Arts Centre during a Melbourne cool change.  Then you’re ushered in to be shoe-horned into ricketty fold-up wooden seats in long rows around the stage. Determined (dare I say inconsiderate?) souls, intent on buying a glass of wine, push their way along the row.  There’s no point standing to let them pass as the seats are fixed anyway, so on they tumble, their alcoholic  prize held above their heads, spilling into the laps of their fellow-audience members,  with an apology here and a grumble there.  Surely the hard fought-for wine could scarcely be savoured when you can hardly move your arms enough to bring glass to lip.  It’s an “intimate” setting, to be sure.

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Katie Noonan has a beautiful, crystalline voice, and she’s an intelligent and amazingly versatile performer.   This show, which she wrote herself, was prompted by an exhibition at the National Museum called Love Tokens.  These were coins that were smoothed and engraved as a memento for the convict’s family and loved ones, and they record the name of the convict and his/her loved one, the length of sentence and a popular rhyme or sentence.  The National Library holds 314 tokens, dating from 1762 to 1856- the largest collection in the world.   There’s a wonderful website devoted to the exhibition- well, well, well worth looking at.

These love tokens, so simple and yet so heavy in the stories they carry, have spawned many artistic responses, including this one.  As Katie Noonan writes in the program:

This symbol of love captured my imagination immediately- it is a profound glimpse into the minds of the first convicts to come to this land.  As a woman and mother I felt deeply compelled to explore these stories… Unfortunately the records I did find left me with the feeling that the things of women weren’t considered worth preserving.  Their stories have been silenced for a long time.  I decided to research the lives of particular women, try to really get into their hearts and minds and write songs from their points of view…

Some of the songs evoked the Irish origins of many convict women; many were about loss of children through death, separation through the act of  transportation itself, and then the orphanage arrangements in places like the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart.  It is sad, plaintive material and it came almost as a relief to move onto the feisty resistance of Ellen Scott, the leader of a flash mob at Cascades, and Mary Reibey who is on the $20.00 note.

Noonan’s performance is interwoven with a circus performance by three female performers.  While the performance reinforced the awareness of women’s bodies, both in the types of crimes for which they were charged and the punishments to which they were sentenced, I found it rather distracting.  I was wanting it to mirror the lyrics more than it did.  Perhaps dance would have been a better medium for the narrative?

The songs themselves were beautifully rendered.  We had been handed the programme with the lyrics while waiting, but I really wanted to follow along the words as she sang.  Alas, it was too dark to do so, and in such a lyric-heavy performance, I wished that I could do it more justice as a listener.

Her website has the lyrics to several of the songs.  Have a look- you’ll see how beautiful they are.

Postscript I have since purchased her CD and have been playing it over and over.  I wish that I’d had the CD before I saw her, so that I could have enjoyed recognizing familiar music, rather than coming to it for the first time.  If she brings this performance back (which I strongly suspect she will), I suggest buying the CD first.

Twilight Sounds at Sills Bend 2013

It’s March, so it’s Banyule Festival time again and down to Sills Bend we went last night for Twilight Sounds, just like we did in 2011 and 2010.  I’m nothing if not a creature of habit.    This year it was Mental As Anything.

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I suspect that the person or committee that chooses the acts for Twilight Sounds has a baby-boomer streak, because they tend to be acts from at least twenty years ago who are still performing -or perhaps it reflects the budget provision for the event?  Certainly the age of the audience is much younger than that, with lots of young families with kids in strollers, as well as the baby-boomers you’d expect to be attracted and still spry enough to negotiate the crowd with their fold-up chairs and picnic sets (that’s us).

They were good and the crowd responded accordingly.  When I think back, there’s no way that I would have known or listened to the music that was popular when my parents were young.  But with the ubiquity of broadcast sound in public places, radio stations that have a 30-year music list, remixes and re-recordings, and exposure to music in films that now have an extended life in DVDs after their cinema and television life is over,  it’s quite likely that songs from 25 years ago are part of the aural wallpaper of people not even born when they were released.

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In fact, I’d forgotten just how many hits the Mentals had.  They just kept them coming, one after the other.  The crowd was a-jigging, too- in fact, I had just as much fun watching them as what was going on onstage.  And if the voices were a little strained, the music itself was essentially unchanged and you were able to mentally singalong with the original soundtrack in your head anyway.

But, in case you want to here one of the originals- here it is, courtesy of Countdown. Strange track (as many Countdown clips are) – no one actually seems to be singing!  I could never work out what the song was about at the time- in fact, I thought it was somewhat racist!!

‘Sea Hearts’ by Margo Lanagan

seahearts

2012,  343 p.  Also published as ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island”

I’ve always loved stories about mermaids and selkies.  As a child, it was a special treat for me to read a book that had belonged to my mother called “The Children’s Treasure House” by Alfred Noyes, copyright 1935.  It has beautifully rendered coloured plates, black and white art-deco line drawings and it is indeed a treasury of stories and poems including Hans Christian Anderson, The Brothers Grimm and simplified retellings from the works of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare etc.  I see through Trove  http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/47810432b  that it cost 5/- with 1/- for postage, and was available through the Women’s Weekly.  I had two favourite stories in the book.  One was the Snow Queen, and the other was The  Little Mermaid- the REAL Little Mermaid:  no Disney-saccharine Ariel, Flounder and Scuttle the Seagull here-  but the proper story, with its pain, yearning and sad, sad ending.

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Whenever I’m in a boat travelling across clear, shallow water and I see those glistening threads of sunlight in the water or foam on the edge of waves, I think of this picture.

Selkies are more confronting, given their connection with seals, but fascinating none the less. According to the legend (which of course has many variations), male selkies are handsome, powerful and seductive but can only remain a short time before returning to the sel. Female selkies  will stay on land as long as their sealskins are hidden from them, and even have children with human men, but will return to the sea as soon as they find their skin again.  Often their own children unwittingly help the selkie to find the skin that has been deliberately hidden from her, and either the selkie forsakes her husband and children to return to the waves, or takes the children with her. Several years ago,  I fell in love with the movie The Secret of Roan Inish with its selkie and the little lost boy. I liked it so much so that I watched it two days in a row when it came to a local theatre. Again- yearning and loss, and a beautiful, windswept setting.

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So when I read that Margo Lanagan’s book Sea Hearts is about selkies, I wanted to read it.  Off to the library I toddled, only to find that it wasn’t on the shelves even though the catalogue claimed that it was.  Ah- silly me- it’s in the Teenage section

I really don’t know what distinguishes ‘teenage’ from ‘adult’ here.  It’s a beautifully told story, spun out over several generations. It is set on remote Rollrock Island, with its village of fisherfolk and small cottages.  The  chapters are of varying lengths, told in the first person in a curious, lilting accent.  Each chapter focuses on a different character and time elapses between generation to generation.  One of the longest and most compelling chapters is told by Missakaella, an awkward young woman, shunned by the villagers, drawn to the sea and especially the seals in the bay.  They are attracted to her, too, and her mother forces her to wear an apron with crossed strings, that somehow keeps the seals at bay.  It is through Missakaella that the age-old meeting between selkie and human is reconsummated.  It is a powerful and evocative piece of writing that I found oddly, and breath-holdingly erotic.  That’s quite a narrative feat: to not only be lulled into suspending disbelief about the physicality between seal and woman, but to actually stir in response to it as well. But actions have consequences: obsession becomes possession; love becomes loss; something taken can take in return.

This is a handsomely presented book, with each chapter separated by a black-and-white illustration that evokes seaweed, bubbles and deep cold water.  I must admit, though, that I found the front cover rather sinister and disturbing.  The book itself is not.  Instead, it’s a haunting love story, too good to be left to teenagers.  It has been longlisted for the Stella Prize  but if it were to win, it would be an usual, rather ‘brave’ choice.

My rating:  8.5/10

Sourced from: The ‘teenage’ section of the Yarra Plenty Regional Library (hah!)

Read because: several people had reviewed it on the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2012; I noted that it had been shortlisted for the Stella; and because I’m fascinated by selkies!

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Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #16

To live over other people’s lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth , the change, the varying intensity of the same – since it was by these things they themselves lived.

Henry James, William Wetmore Story and his Friends 1903

Leon Edel used this quote as an epigraph to the first volume of his Life of Henry James.  To be honest, I can’t actually find it in the online versions of William Wetmore Story.  Still, interesting quote…..

Fragile subversions

Yet another hot day, so off to the National Gallery of Victoria to enjoy their relative coolth.  Melbourne has had seven consecutive days of temperatures higher than thirty degrees, with at least another three to come.  What happened to my ‘four-seasons-in-one-day’ city?  It’s all getting a bit tedious.

Anyway, off to the NGV International to see their current exhibition Kings Over the Water.  This time, I’m writing about an exhibition that has months to run- until December 2013- instead of writing about it two days before (or even after) it has closed, as is my wont.  So, there’s a good chance that it will still be on when you read this.

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In 1688 James II, the Catholic King of England, Scotland and Ireland fled to France, and William and Mary of Orange were installed as monarchs in the Glorious Revolution.  The Glorious Revolution is now, and certainly was during the nineteenth century, held up as one of the cornerstones of British parliamentary democracy.  But many of the supporters of James II did not accept the legitimacy of the William/Mary ‘package’, and for seventy years held fast to the hope that the Stuarts would return.  In 1745 it seemed that this was to come to fruition when ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’  (the grandson of James II) led an insurrection that culminated in defeat at  the Battle of Culloden .

Seventy years- my, that puts the Coalition’s snit at not forming government after the 2010 election into the shade.  It was dangerous to publicly avow loyalty to the Stuarts, and so Jacobite (the latinized form of ‘James’) sympathizers formed into clubs where they would toast loyalty over a bowl of water- thus toasting The King Over the Water  (i.e. in French exile).  The heavily engraved glassware they used in these toasts was decorated with etched symbols, and while at first glance the glasses seem similar to other glassware in vogue at the time, they were an act of fragile subversion.

Some have the actual image of the Pretender- although such glasses are particularly rare.  More subtle were those draped in Jacobite imagery: the six flowered rose with two buds (symbolizing James and his two sons); an oak tree with a daffodil (Charles II sheltered in an oak tree during the Civil War and the daffodil symbolized Wales and the Prince of Wales); the six pointed star; and engravings of Latin mottoes.  Some of them had Maundy money embedded within the stem of the glass: the threepences dispensed to the poor on Maundy Thursday before Easter by the real King (in their view) in 1687, the year before the Glorious Revolution.  Others had the Jacobite anthem engraved onto them in tiny script.

It was here that I felt rather let-down by the curators of this display.  Mention was made that the Jacobite anthem was the fore-runner of the National Anthem today.  But I gather from Lord Wiki that this is not necessarily the case as the Hanoverians (i.e. the supporters of William/Mary and later the Georges) and the Jacobites each had their own versions of the same song.  I found one version of the Jacobite anthem,  halfway down the page, sung to something similar to the National Anthem today:

God bless the prince, I pray,
God bless the prince, I pray,
Charlie I mean;
That Scotland we may see
Freed from vile Presbyt’ry,
Both George and his Feckie.
Even so. Amen.

This 'Amen' glass sold for 43000 pounds last November in UK.

This ‘Amen’ glass sold for 43000 pounds last November in UK.

So what was written on the glass on display at the NGV?  The writing was tiny, and it was on the side facing away, so you needed to squint through the glass to see it written backwards on the other side. I found myself wishing that either the glass was turned around, or better still it had been magnified with a transcription of the anthem provided in a panel on the side.

Part of the subtlety of this subversion- and make no mistake, treason had its consequences- was that the symbols were hidden within the decorative fashion of the day.  Six-petalled roses were a common decoration and not subversive in themselves- but if they had two rosebuds beside them, they were.  Placing money in the stem was quite common, but it depended on the date shown on the coin. One of the symbols was only visible from the bottom, when the glass was being drained- and again I found myself wondering why the curators didn’t make it more visible by putting the glass onto a mirror so that you could see the bottom.

I found myself wishing for a time line or a family tree or some other graphical depictions of the history of the period.  There is an explanatory panel at the beginning of the display, but it was more a memory-prompt than an explanation.  For those of us old enough to have done ‘The Kings and Queens’ in history at school, the memory is getting a bit fuzzy;  those who were spared the long chronologies of such arcane knowledge, a bit more explanation wouldn’t go astray.

Still, it’s a good exhibition and one that makes you appreciate the wealth of the NGV’s holdings.  They’re beautiful glasses in their own right, very carefully and tastefully displayed, with a fascinating back story as well.

 

‘The Long Song’ by Andrea Levy

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2010, 310 p.

After reading the very dissatisfying, Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question, I mused that if that won the prize, then the rest of the 2010 Shortlist must have been duds.  Not so.  Andrea Levy’s The Long Song is much the better book, and unlike Finkler, which I am sure will sink into literary oblivion, it’s an important book as well.

Levy’s earlier book Small Island, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Orange Prize in 2004-5  is an important book too, in terms of framing and claiming British West Indian identity in modern Britain.  The Long Song follows in this tradition, but takes a step further back to early 19th century Apprentice-Era Jamaica.   For us, in our policy-comprised times, it’s an interesting era:  the Apprenticeship scheme was a political ‘fix’ that ostensibly abolished slavery in British colonies by introducing ‘slavery-lite’.  The Apprenticeship System, as it was known, transformed former slaves into compulsory ‘apprentices’ who would work set hours on their former masters’ plantations for six years (although as it happened, the apprenticeship period ended earlier than that).   It was a highly unpopular measure, strong-armed into legislation by the British government using the stick of executive action if the colonies didn’t create their own enabling legislation locally , and the carrot of ‘compensation’ payments that flowed, not to the slaves, but to the proprietors of the plantations.  But it did very little to change the basic  relations between masters who were able to leverage power through rents and working hours, and their ‘apprentices’ whose ‘freedom’ consisted of merely a quarter of their own time.

Levy uses an interesting structure for this book.  The fly-leaf opens with an explanation:

You do not know me yet but I am the narrator of this work.  My son Thomas, who is printing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages.  As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.

The narrator, July, was born in Jamaica, the daughter of a field slave Kitty as the result of a rape by an overseer.  July was taken from her mother by Caroline Mortimer, a white woman from the ‘big house’ on the plantation and renamed ‘Marguerite’.  The pattern of forced sex and maternal loss continued into the next generation.  July’s son, Thomas, learned his trade in Britain after July left him as an infant on the minister’s doorstep.  That same Thomas,  Jamaican publisher-editor in 1898,  then writes his own foreword:

The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving.  My mama had a story- a story that lay so far within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son.  Her intention was that, once knowing the tales, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters.  And so it would go on….

I explained to my dear mama, once spoken these precious words of hers would be lost to all but my ears.  If, though, committed to a very thin volume, I could peruse her tale at my leisure and no word would be lost when my fickle mind strayed to some other purpose.  And better, for the excess books which would be produced from the press could be given for sale, taken around the island so others, far and wide, might delight in her careful narration…

…So I was able to assure my precious mama that I would be her most conscientious editor.  I would raise life out of her most crabbed script to make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language.  And there was no shame to be felt from this assistance, for at some of the best publishing houses in Britain- let me cite Thomas Nelson and Son, or Hodder and Stoughton, as my example- the gentle aiding and abetting of authors in this manner is quite common place.

And so the book is the gentle, good natured to-and-fro of mother and son, jointly constructing the story: the mother July with her humour and resilience;  the editor son with his careful, somewhat stilted prose.  I loved it when July’s voice took up the story again, as if a nudge to remind me that it is her story after all.  And all the pomposity of Thomas’ voice would drop away, at times, when the sheer humanity of the story became overwhelming.  It’s wonderful, well-sustained writing.

The energy  and inventiveness of  Levy’s  narrative voice obscures the fact that this deceptively-easy book is actually very well researched indeed.  In her acknowledgments she lists the historians and other writers who have assisted her, and a list of 16 sources, both primary and secondary, that she drew upon in writing this book.   I’ve read several of them myself, and when I see their traces  here, and the use she has made of them,  it only increases my admiration for the fictional power of this book.

Take, for example, this description of the manuring process as part of plantation production, from Burn’ s very good  history Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies:

When the holes had been prepared manure was placed in them and on top of the manure a few shovelfuls of light mould. (p. 42).

And here is Levy:

Some of this mess is taken from the pen to be shovelled into baskets and slung either side of a mule.  The mule then, unaware of the load it carries, trots off as happy with this weight as with any other.  But the wicker dung-baskets- overflowing and spilling- that Kitty carried to the cane pieces of Dover, Virgo, or even as far as Scarlett Pondes, were borne in the way of most slave-burdens, upon her head.  The weight was no sufferance, for Kitty could carry much heavier, much further.  Come, it is true, the smell would see our white missus faint clean away with just one sniff.  But the Lord, in making the nose, fashioned a shrewd organ; although so renk that upon Kitty’s first breaths the solid odour did choke her at the throat, after mighty cough and a few strong inhalations, all the air about Kitty, be it sweet or bitter, came to smell like shit, so the offence was lost… And if this dung did find its way into her eyes- for the brown juice from this waste matter did ooze through the weave of the basket to slipslide all down Kitty’s face- then, oh! Its sting did well up such tears as to leave her blind (p. 123).

I think that Levy’s book exemplifies all the good in historical fiction:  lightly worn research;  fidelity to the voice and perspective of primary sources (with all their flaws);  characters and dialogue bounded by and consistent with knowledge at the time;  a plausible plot, and imagination and creativity in its narrative framing.  As for the Booker?  Levy was robbed.