Monthly Archives: February 2014

‘White Mischief’ by James Fox

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As a historian of British colonial societies, particularly focussing on the colonizers rather than the colonized, you often come across people who are parodies of themselves.  At time I feel that way about my own subject, Judge Willis.   It is even more true of the people who populate the pages of this book which highlights the decadence and moral vapidity of this bunch of British expatriate misfits in Kenya during World War II.

In the early hours of January 24th 1941 the body of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol was discovered in a crashed car at a junction near Karen.  At first it was thought that he had run off the road, but closer inspection revealed that he had been shot at close range behind the ear.   The main suspect was Jock Delves Broughton, the sixty year old husband of the young and beautiful Diana, who was having an open affair with Josslyn Hay.  He was charged with the crime and the case heard in the Kenya Supreme Court. He was acquitted of the crime but many felt that he had, in fact, committed the murder or arranged for it to be committed, and even Hay himself confessed and denied the crime from time to time.  Multiple books and articles have been devoted to the question of Who Killed Josslyn Hay, but this is possibly the best known of them, forming is the basis of the recent film starring Greta Schacci and Charles Dance.

The British government officially took control of the Kenya Protectorate in 1895 in order to compete with German imperial expansion in East Africa.  To counter the German railway from the port of Tanga in what is now Tanzania, the British quickly began construction of the 580 mile long  Mombasa to Lake Victoria railway (on which I am travelling at this very minute).  Nairobi was established in 1899 as the last possible rail depot before the track climbed the Kikuyu escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley.  A scheme was produced in 1901 by the Commissioner of East Africa to encourage settlers to farm the land, thereby creating profits for the railway through haulage costs.  The first wave of settlers arrived in 1903 from Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa, and they were followed by a second wave, drawn from the Edwardian aristocracy and British officer class.  They included peers of the realm and their younger brothers who were victims of primogeniture, millionaires and wasters who had cruelled their chances in England through scandal and bankruptcy.  Kenya was particularly attractive to the aristocrats.  The Kenyan highlands had an English or Scottish air and there were servants aplenty to protect them from hard work on their own behalf.  All this was at the expense of the African population.

This is a different type of colonialism to that which I have encountered in my studies of the 1820s-40s.  There is no frontier as such, just lines on a map drawn up in part of the scramble for African amongst the European powers.  They feared sunshine and madness, but for these aristocrats at least, there was not the contingency of life and death on a distant frontier.  The experience of the 19th century gave them a bombastic confidence in the treaties that they could produce almost by template by this stage, and all the qualms of the humanitarians that constrained (officially at least) the excesses of colonialism had been soothed and put at rest.  The ready availability of divorce for those who could afford it led to a succession of ill-fated marriages, and the alcohol, drug use and promiscuity of the Bright Young Things  back in England translated well to a Kenyan context. I’m finding many familiar names from 1840s colonialism, one generation on.  They are a quite different class of colonist to their parents and grandparents.This familiarity with an older type of colonialism has perhaps made me somewhat more tolerant of this bunch of indulged and heedless sybarites than other readers might be.  They are truly awful.

The book is presented as creative non-fiction, and I have no reason to distrust this framing narrative.  The author, James Fox, was a journalist working alongside the cultural critic Cyril Connolly who was himself the contemporary of many of the main protagonists.  Connolly had been obsessed by the story for many years and they co-wrote a newspaper article about it, which flushed out many ex-Kenyans and family members who had their own take on What Really Happened.  Connolly had died before penning his own account, and Fox took possession of his notebooks and continued the quest. This book is the result.

It is divided into two sections: The Murder and the Quest.  In the first section he introduces each of the main characters and their possible motives for wanting Joss Hay (also known as Errol) dead. He also argues against himself, pointing out the holes in the argument that might place them as the murderer.  In this regard, the lengthy ‘Cast of Characters’ at the start of the book is particularly useful, especially in tracking the marriages, divorces and intermarriages and the frequent change of title as peers ascended the table of precedence.  So too is the index, which is extensive.

In the second section, James Fox himself takes centre stage as he tracks down those participants still living or their descendants, culminating in what he thinks is the definite answer.  Of course, the continued publication of recent books suggests that many others think that Fox and Connolly have got it wrong.

It is hard to get past one’s revulsion for these larger-than-life characters and their lifestyle.  But I have recently met someone who could be a dead-ringer for any of these characters, holding tight to a vanished lifestyle and discredited politics.   The continued interest in the question suggests that this particular past is not yet a foreign country (to paraphrase L.P. Hartley), or at least that there are some who wish to hold on to it still.

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‘Out of Africa’ by Karen Blixen

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1937, 271 p.

I don’t often read the book after I have seen a movie but as I’m in Kenya, it seemed particularly appropriate that I do so in this case.   I saw the movie many, many years ago and can barely remember it, but it seemed to me that the Robert Redford character was rather dominant in it.  Obviously the screen writers were drawing on other source material  in scripting the film, most particularly her letters I expect, because the Denys Finch-Hatton section is minor in the book and certainly not the main theme.  In the book, it is a rather chaste relationship, and she says nothing about Baron Blixen (her husband), adultery or syphilis.  She says little about the white settler Happy Valley set, and is even rather dismissive of them.

I confess that I was struggling a bit at first.  It is very much a book of its time and colonial mindset, and I found myself bridling at her patronizing ethnographic commentary and the see it-shoot it attitude that pervades the book.  She asserts a oneness with Africa and with her workers,most particularly Kamante the cook and Farah her overseer,  but it is shot through with a strong sense of noblesse oblige.  Nonetheless, she is critical of other people’s colonialism, but not her own.  Yet in many ways she comes over as an anti-colonialist that we might want to identify ourselves with today.  She comes to regret her participation in hunting; she lobbies the government for a reserve for the Kikuyu people and she recognizes that both white and native are obsessed with their own worldview and oblivious to the ‘other’:

The tales that white people tell you of their Native servants…If they had been told that they played no more important part in the lives of the Natives than the Natives played in their own lives, they would have been highly indignant and ill at ease… p. 186

There is not really a strong narrative line at all: it is more a series of connected and roughly chronological short stories.  One chapter ‘From an Immigrant’s Notebook’ is exactly that: vignettes that feel a bit like writing exercises that could be taken from a scrapbook.

My reading of this book has been completely shaped by my experiences while reading it.  I had commenced it in the knowledge that we would be visiting Karen Blixen House, and having been there, I have a much greater appreciation of the book.  Her life here centred on her farmhouse and  she describes events within the various rooms and places: writing in her sitting room, meeting with her workers on the round stone tables on the west porch,  working in her kitchen.  I’ve been there now, and can see her there.  But it also reinforces for me the strong sense of possession she proclaimed as colonist – ‘her’ kitchen, ‘her ‘ house, ‘her’ natives.

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The writing  is evocative and beautiful, deeply imbued with a sense of place.

The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world.  There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.  The colours were dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery.  The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers… (p. 15)

However, I must admit that had I not visited the house, I would have closed the book thinking that it had been a rather insipid, dated and slight story.  And I must say that this book and the film seem to have very little connection at all.

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Postscript: I’ve just read an article that compares the book and the film which argues that Blixen’s voice and viewpoint in the film has been twisted completely out of shape to emphasize the Denys Finch-Hatton character as the romantic and anti-colonial lead.  If you can access it (try State Library perhaps), the citation is:

Cooper, Brenda, and David Descutner. ““It had no voice to it”: Sydney Pollack’s film translation of Isak Dinesen’s out of Africa.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 82.3 (1996): 228-250.

 

 

 

Off to the Land of Increasing Sunshine

My daughter and I are  off to visit the Lad and his Lady in Kenya.  I’m blogging the great adventure at http://landofincreasingsunshine.wordpress.com/

‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

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2013,  458 p & notes

All Australian schoolchildren – and perhaps Victorian ones in particular- at some stage (and often more than once) encounter the Eureka Rebellion.  It’s quite a flashpoint in a constitutional history that has rather a dearth of such things.  Ballarat has made good tourist use of it. The  Sovereign Hill Tourist Park has leveraged its sound-and-light show from it for many years, complete with burning hotels and gunshot.  As well I know, having visited Ballarat many times.  We used to go to there every September for the South Street Eisteddfod, first to see a niece on the stage, then to see  a daughter. Bakery Hill (now dominated by McDonalds) and the stylized stockade on the site that is now the Museum of Australian Democracy are very familiar to me.  But even for those not subjected to the icy Ballarat winds every September, Eureka is something that you tend to ‘do’ at school and tuck away as part of your Australian consciousness.

Clare Wright’s book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is big, bold and different.  Published by Text Publishing in hardback only so far, it takes the Eureka uprising and puts people into it: particularly women and children, but also storekeepers, commandants, theatre owners, newspaper proprietors and publicans.  It’s a noisy book.  Her opening sentence to Chapter One is

You could hear Ballarat before seeing it. (p. 19)

and voices clamour in this book for attention.  It teems with personalities, some of whom recur frequently, others who are encountered once then pass by.  Wright is the politest of guides: she takes you to her main informants and introduces you to them properly.  It’s a technique that Inga Clendinnen used so masterfully in Dancing with Strangers, and Wright uses it well too. Not only do you have a leap of recognition when you meet them again, but you’re able to detect change of mood and circumstance and gain some sense of people living through an event instead of being just stationary props.  And they talk!  Letters, diaries, memoirs-  Wright has combed carefully and weaves their words into her text as italicized phrases, only rarely and deliberately breaking her narrative to provide block quotations.  While the book is crafted from primary sources, she carries on a conversation with other historians as well, both in the text and in the footnotes that, commendably,  Text has not stinted on,  in what could probably be marketed as ‘popular history’ (whatever that means).

The book opens on Monday 4th December 1854.  On the preceding morning at 3.00 a.m.  troops and police had stormed the hastily constructed stockade in a twenty-minute attack.  The numbers killed are still debated. But the goldfields themselves that morning were quiet.

In Part I, ‘ Transitions’, she rewinds to November 1853 as one of her main informants, Charles Evans (thought to be Samuel Lazarus until Wright’s own research identified him correctly) arrives in Ballarat.  He was just one of a flood of gold seekers who arrived in Melbourne,  and Wright traces through the arrival experience as the tide pulls him, along with a bobbing host of other characters, to Ballarat.

Part II, Transformations, takes the year 1854 as its site of analysis, drawing a vivid, bustling, LOUD picture of goldfields life.  But its not the ‘digger and his mate’ experience of an S. T. Gill watercolour.  As she points out, Ballarat was not the male-dominated diggings of our imagination.  With 6650 women, 2150 children and 10,700 men, it had the highest female proportion of any of the Victorian goldfields.  While there were shafts and tailings and mud, there were also clothes lines sagging with washing,buying and selling, visiting, entertaining, and babies being conceived and born as a shadowplay on the walls of flimsy tents.

Part III ‘Transgressions’ moves to Spring 1854  and the burning of Bentley’s hotel and its aftermath in the courtrooms of Melbourne.  We’ve been in this hotel before, with Catherine Bentley, the publican’s wife.   Wright takes us to the military camp on (of course) Camp Hill and the administrative play between the newly-arrived Governor Hotham and the military and police contingents.   The action moves inexorably to Sunday morning 3rd December 1854 where it slows down, then unfolds in a nightmare slow-motion.  She does not spend much time on the battle itself- leaving that to others- but instead watches the raw, keening grief afterwards.  In a rapid shift of tine, her concluding section ‘A Day at the Races’ has a brisk “move on” feel to it as the events of Bloody Sunday are commemorated, forgotten, rediscovered, burnished, embroidered and used for various purposes.  An epilogue bids farewell to the characters we have met as they drift away from the gold fields into other endeavours, or become entwined into family trees diligently tended by their genealogist descendants.

While Eureka is the flashpoint, the real strength of the book is peopling the event and the wider context with flesh and blood, often unknown characters.  The emphasis is very much on women, and writing them back into the story that they always inhabited- but it’s not just about women.  There is a conscious emphasis on Jewish emigrants, American gold-seekers and a consciousness of the Aboriginal people whose lands were deluged by this flood of humanity. Nor is it just about the rebels, because she distinguishes carefully between the military and the police and explicates carefully the politics of Eureka from the government perspective as well.

Nonetheless, there is a very strong feminist intent to the book.  It is, perhaps a little strained, as in her explanation of the drifting away of men from the stockade in the hours immediately preceding the attack and her suggestion that rape might have been one of the outrages committed in the aftermath.  Both of these are offered only as suggestions- and historians can make suggestions, with evidence- but at this point the murmurings and conversations of her informants who have borne her so confidently through the rest of the narrative drop away, and it is only her voice left speaking.

And a distinctive voice it is.  Clare Wright often appears on Australian history documentaries- for example, in Utopia Girls– where her narrative voice is warm, with a burble of humour.  It struck me when reading this book that it is a particularly visual work, staged and narrated much as a lengthy documentary might be.  The chapters are divided into scenes, marked with asterisks, as the action swings from one character to another, and many conclude with ‘cliff-hanger’ comments that lead onto the next scene.  It is sustained throughout the whole book, which at 458 pages is a lot of talking.  It is such an insistent, strong voice that I think that your response to the book would be very much influenced by how you respond to the teller.

That said, this is one of those books that would make you look at familiar events with new eyes.  It is a compelling read that is well-researched and scholarly and at the same time very, very human.

Yvonne Perkins at Stumbling Through the Past has written a very detailed review- well worth reading.

This is my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

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I’m b-a-a-c-k (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

A new year, and time to sign up to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2014.  It’s the third year that I’ve been involved in this, and its website is turning into a handy little resource for reviews on Australian women’s writing.

The challenge was provoked by the Miles Franklin shortlist of a few years ago that was comprised solely of male writers.  I strongly suspect that a similar situation may arise again this year with the Holy Trinity of Franklin, Winton and Tsiolkas all releasing books during 2013.  We shall see.

Anyway, I’m in again.

‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

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832 p., 2013

832 pages is a lot of reading in anyone’s language.  I have been busy reading The Luminaries every chance I could to avoid a hefty overdue fine at the library. I thought that I had succeeded in avoiding reading any reviews of it before I finished, but there was one that did get through my defences: Jane Sullivan’s review in The Age a fortnight ago.

And there it was-

That’s one of the main objections to the book: that it’s too long.  Others, variously, are that it shouldn’t be written in ponderous Victorian style; that it has too many characters and we don’t care about them; that the astrology framework doesn’t enhance it; and that the story, clever as it is, doesn’t add up to anything much.

Well, that’ s pretty much written my review for me.

I was reminded many times of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White while I was reading this book.  Both are long; both are mysteries; both are about switched identities, and both involve deception for financial gain.  But the difference is that The Woman in White was highly original at the time, and is today viewed by many as the first mystery novel, and the first and finest ‘sensation’ novel.  What a gulf there is between being the first and being merely a pastiche.

For Victorian pastiche this is, complete with convoluted (but always well controlled) sentences, the summary at the beginning of each chapter, and the opening scenes on a dark and stormy night.  As in  most Victorian novels conceived in the serial format of a periodical (think Dickens, Collins…), there is a huge cast of characters who swarm in and out of view,  with false starts and red herrings, and the need for the author to draw breath and offer the occasional recap to the bemused reader lest everything threaten to spiral out of control.

I find myself admiring many things about the book.  Her characterization is excellent, and I found myself becoming engaged by each vignette as actors  gravitated around one another.  Her characters are complex beings,  each with a back story, dreams and regrets.  The conversation is pitch-perfect.

Her description of place is excellent, too. You could see, hear and smell Hokitika, and as an historian of 19th century colonial towns (ah, always an historian!) it rang true in every regard- not a single false note.

The plotting is painstaking and detailed as well. So many characters, so many intersecting motivations and lifestories.

And her control of time is impressive too.  The first long chapter starts on a particular day, the second less-long chapter jumps ahead slightly, etc. etc. with occasional chapters jumping back a year or more as the book progresses until it ends up on the day with which it opened.  Each chapter gets shorter and shorter- somehow mirroring the astrological schema that runs through the book.

But, but, but… how to put it all these vignettes  together? How did this story fit in with that story? Who is this character again?  Had I forgotten this bit of information, or has she only divulged it now, half way through the chapter?  I don’t understand the overarching conceit of the astrological chart that she has superimposed over the story. It was not explained and, to my way of thinking, is not necessary either.

I think that, in spite of my admiration for the parts, I begrudge the length of the whole.  As others have mentioned, the action of the book really picks up at about page 575.  Page 575?  What an act of faith in one’s readers and confidence in one’s abilities as a writer to hold out for so long!  And at the end of it all, the actors take their bow, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

When I finished reading War and Peace, I couldn’t read another fiction book for days.  I felt the same way about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books ( here and here) that preceded this book as Booker Prize winners.  With these books, I had been transported to another world and  whatever book I read immediately after would be diminished after I had been immersed so thoroughly by these big, ambitious books. After reading The Luminaries I feel rather short-changed.  I put so much time into something that, despite its technical brilliance, has very little at its core.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums  was reading it at much the same time and beat me to the end. In spite of some ambivalence, the depth of Catton’s characterization won her over.  Lisa at ANZLitLovers was underwhelmed.

The Guardian review by Kirsty Gunn makes similar observations to what I have written above, but sees that as part of the book’s artistry and brilliance. I’m not convinced.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because: it was sitting all shiny and new on the ‘New Books’ shelf  and because I knew that it had won the Booker.  In other years I’ve tried to read the shortlist before the announcement but The Thesis got in the way this year- so straight to the winner this time.