The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham

12 Books of Boyhood. #3

John Wyndham (1903-1969) is the one Science Fiction writer most of us have read. I was probably introduced to him by having to read The Kraken Wakes in fifth form. I can’t say when I first read The Midwich Cuckoos but the edition I have now, with the cover above, is a 1976 reprint.

Mainstream SF begins, I think, in US, and specifically New York, pulp magazines after WWII. We were wondering where Wyndham, who is of course English, fitted in with this: if he was part of that mainstream or a side track carrying on after HG Wells (1866-1946). But there is more of a crossover than you might think (than I thought, anyway). So Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) for instance, was serialized in magazines in both England and the US in 1897. And Wyndham also was published initially in US pulps.

‘Worlds to Barter’, Wyndham’s first story, 1931

[Wyndham] first started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 till 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications…. In 1946 [after War service] he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’. (Penguin bio.)

The Day of the Triffids (1951)
The Kraken Wakes (1953)
The Chrysalids (1955)
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
The Seeds of Time (1956) short stories
The Outward Urge (1959) with Lucas Parkes
Trouble with Lichen (1960)
Consider Her Ways and Others (1961) short stories
Chocky (1968)
were all subsequently published by Penguin.

Two further novels were published posthumously, Web (1979) and Plan for Chaos (2009) (Wiki)

Despite his publication in the US, Wyndham writes a very English story, set in English villages with English upper middle class, male heroes.

The English village of fiction consists of a pub, a church, houses and surrounding farms. The lower classes – the tradesmen, farmworkers, shopkeepers, farmers, all their wives – are rarely named, forming a bucolic background for the people that matter: the squire, the vicar, two or three genteel spinsters, a writer maybe, bankers and other city chaps commuting to the city, and of course their wives and older daughters. And so it is with Midwich, though, as it has no access to a railway, instead of city chaps there is a nearby research establishment in a converted Victorian mansion, the Grange.

Richard, our narrator, and his wife return from a trip to London to discover a police road block preventing them from reaching home. They can see ahead of them on the road a pile up of a bus and a few cars. When they attempt to walk home, cross country, first the wife collapses, then Richard. Eventually a policeman with a canary in a cage determines that there is a perfectly circular boundary around Midwich which may not be crossed by man or beast without the man or beast dropping to the ground unconscious, and on retrieval, unharmed. And it is further determined this boundary is almost certainly a dome, a hemisphere.

The airforce is called in, and photograph, at the centre of this containment zone, a large egg. A day later, the egg and the containment zone are gone. Most of the inhabitants awake unharmed, though one family has died in a house fire and five or six others having collapsed outside have died of the cold. One man has died in the garden of a woman whose husband was away, and she cops a beating for her trouble.

It is some weeks before the realization sets in that every woman of the appropriate age in Midwich, 65 in total, is pregnant. (In passing I am pleased that Wyndham made the lower limit of this appropriate age 16 or 17). Of course quite a number of especially the single women and girls are suicidal (and that wife cops another beating).

Richard is asked by his friend Bernard, who is in one of those ministries covered by the Official Secrets Act, to act as the ministry’s eyes and ears. The squire, Zellaby, is a philosopher of some note and the three, with sometimes the Vicar and sometimes their various wives, when they are not off making tea, attempt to nut out what is going on.

The vicar’s wife and the squire’s wife call a meeting of all the women, explain the situation as best they can and they all undertake to support each other. When the children are born, the squire’s wife, Angela, has an ordinary son but all the rest of the children, or as they become, the Children, are identical – 30 boys and 28 girls (there’s a couple of deaths) – with large golden eyes.

It slowly becomes apparent that the Children are able to exert control over first, their mothers, then, over anyone nearby. The wifebeater’s child is discovered with a bruise to his cheek and the wifebeater nearby having apparently beaten himself half to death. As the children get older, growing at twice the rate of normal children, the Ministry converts the research establishment to a residential school and all the Children move there.

When a Child’s life is threatened and one of the villagers dies, Zellaby deduces that the Children are thinking as one – or rather, as two: all the boys and all the girls.

I won’t spoil the novel for you. Wyndham utilizes Zellaby to do a great deal of philosphizing about the nature of Evolution, the unsatisfactoryness of ‘missing links’ and whether or not the Children represent the next step up, a replacement for Homo Sapiens. It becomes clear Bernard hasn’t been telling Richard and Zellaby everything that the Ministry knows. It all comes to a climax very quickly.

I’m still not clear whether I’ve read this before, but it takes the reader back a long way, to those few brief years after WWII when Britain thought it was still the centre of the world. What the Americans thought of it I can’t imagine.


John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos, Michael Joseph/Penguin, London, 1957. 220pp,

Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) is the ninth of Murakami’s 15 novels/novellas, coming 20 years after the first, when the author was about 50. And at the height of his powers? I’m not sure. This is certainly not one of my favourites. I like the first three – Hear the Wind Sing (1979), Pinball (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) for their grungieness; and I like the later novels – After Dark (2004) and 1Q84 (2010) for their flights of fancy. Indeed they are probably my favourites.

I’m in no way an expert on Murakami, indeed I came to him late, and in particular I have not read the five novels between A Wild Sheep Chase and Sputnik Sweetheart. Still, the impression I get is that Murakami in this novel was building up to an idea (or ideas) of parallel worlds which he handled much better in later works.

I can barely write “parallel worlds” without thinking/writing “therefore Science Fiction”. Certainly, if Atwood wrote or implied “parallel worlds” (which is all Murakami does) I wouldn’t hesitate. But Atwood writes from firmly within the traditions of English Lit. and Murakami doesn’t. If he fits anywhere well it is within European Surrealism, though of course SF has always had its own surrealist stream. But what streams exist within Japanese Lit, I can only guess.

Lit Professor and blogger Jessica Schad Manuel says (I think !) that Murakami is rendering the products of the unconscious real. Certainly, many aspects of his later fiction work like dreams. What I am saying is that they are not alternative environments for exploring human behaviour, which is how I think of SF.

Sputnik Satellite is dry, and although the character Sumire seems to have slipped out of this world, it has none of the poetry and dreaminess of After Dark. The narrator K is a (male) school teacher whose one divergence from conformity is his platonic friendship with Sumire, a struggling writer

Sumire wanted to be like a character in a Kerouac novel – wild, cool, dissolute. She’d stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black plastic-framed Dizzy Gillespie glasses, which she wore despite her 20/20 vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversize herringbone coat from a second-hand shop and a pair of rough work boots.

K is in love with Sumire, though she would laugh at him if he said so, and so he sleeps with other women, with the mother of one of his students eventually. K and Sumire have flats in different parts of, I presume, Tokoyo – I miss being able to follow the geography, both for its own sake and for the class clues that are there when a writer uses as his location a city you know well. Sumire’s flat is tiny and full of books, so mostly she comes round to his place and he cooks her meals, which she often forgets to do for herself.

She writes and writes, beginnings of novels, ends of novels, parts of novels, but never beginning, middle, end. Scraps most and brings what’s left to K to read. “My head is like some ridiculous barn packed full of stuff I want to write about.” But somehow she is unable to infuse her scenes with a life that brings them all together.

Sumire meets Mui, a rich, older woman, a wine importer, at a wedding reception and is invited by her to dinner. When Sumire later phones K in the middle of the night, from the phonebox in the street outside her flat, it is to tell him she’s in love and can she come round.

Suumire arrived at my apartment a little before five… Her hair was short in a stylish cut … She wore a light cardigan over a short-sleeve navy blue dress and a pair of enamel, medium-high heels. She even had stockings on

Mui has told her that she, Sumire, is not ready to be a novelist yet, and has offered her a job as her assistant. If I haven’t made it clear, Sumire is in love with Mui, who maybe realises, but does not want/is unable to get physical.

The story potters along, told in K’s dry school teacher style. Sumire does her job, polishes up her languages, reads. Her writing dries up. K helps her to move to another suburb further away, closer to her job. Then he gets a long letter from Rome. Mui and Sumire are in Europe on a business trip. Shorter letters follow as the travellers visit vineyards and attend concerts around Italy and France. In the last, a guy they have met over dinner tells them he has a house on a Greek island and they would be doing him a favour if they stayed in it for a while. I should meet this guy.

A little later K gets a phone call from Mui. She’s on the Greek island. Sumire has disappeared. Will he come. He’s in the last two weeks of summer break. He flies to Greece, makes his way to the island.

We’re at p.90 of 230. For the remainder of the novel K searches the island without success, returns to Tokyo (sleeps with his student’s mother). Sumire has vanished without trace. Murakami manages to imply that Sumire is both gone and not gone. That is his genius. As I said, not my favourite Murakami, but definitely worth reading.


Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart, first pub. 1999. English translation, Penguin, London, 2001 by Philip Gabriel. 229pp

My other reviews:
Wind/Pinball (here)
After Dark (here)

ACCO Twinsteer

Journal: 099

When I decided to stop being a cadet journalist at $44/week – and when my father gave my address in New Farm to the Federal Police – I hitched up the Bruce Highway intending to find a driving job and got one at the first place I tried, Marrs Carrying in Nambour, just 100 kms up the road. I got a flat, single bedroom, one of four in a row along a short driveway, and in a couple of days I was given a trip to Brisbane in one of Marrs’ old C-series International furniture vans, picked up the Young Bride and our little furniture, and brought her back to our new home.

Alan Marr was a big, angry man, a former POW on the Burma railway, and he got through employees pretty quickly. But his sons, big like him, weren’t so bad and luckily Danny, the older, took a liking to me and YB and so I got on ok.

A lot of our work was bringing building materials up to Maroochydore where they were just beginning the process of digging the canals and putting in subdivisions. We brought up all sorts of freight to Nambour; did furniture removals throughout the Sunshine Coast; and three trucks, the elite, carried fruit from central Queensland to Sydney and Melbourne.

As well as home base in Nambour, we had a depot in Eagle Farm and every night the last truck out of Brisbane would load up all the bits and pieces off the dock and take them back to Nambour to be delivered. Then, in the morning all the drivers, sometimes as many as 10 or so, would turn up at 6.00 am. All of us would line up beside that ‘last’ truck and sometimes shoulder to shoulder to fit us all in, would pass items from hand to hand until the truck was unloaded. No man could be seen to be unemployed!

If there was a flour truck in from Dalby, one or two of us would be deputed to go down to the bread factory to unload twenty ton of 120 lb flour bags. The driver would drag each bag to the edge of the trailer, tip it onto our shoulders and we would run -yes run – it inside and lay it on the stack, running up the sides of the stack as it got higher. Grown men would wilt and walk away, but I was pretty wiry then and once you got into a rhythm it wasn’t bad work.

Soon anyway I was promoted to a long-distance job running beer and and building materials to the new mining town of Mooranbah, inland of Mackay and about 600 miles or 1,000 km north of Brisbane. My truck was a ‘butterbox’ ACCO towing a single axle trailer, with a carrying capacity of 12 ton. That’s an ACCO pictured but a twin-steer, which I’ll get to later. Mine was single steer and single drive. The engine was a trusty old Perkins diesel putting out 130 HP. By then, 1972, American trucks had 240 – 300 HP motors and even the Europeans, mostly Mercedes at that time, had 205 HP. So progress, with a top speed of 48 mph, was slow. But on reflection it was a good truck in which to learn my trade.

Well, except for the brakes! Sadly, after a few pumps, the old ACCO had no brakes at all. You learnt to approach corners and other difficulties slowly. And usually, halfway down a long decline, you would let her rip, while you revved the engine and built up brake pressure again.

YB and I had the second flat along. In the first were a couple of guys, Spot, who was a barman at one of the hotels, and a tall awkward guy, Nebo. One night we had all been drinking around our kitchen table and I had gone to bed. After a while I could hear tall, awkward guy trying to persuade YB – 18, friendly, and good looking – to come next door with him. I chased him out, and we all stayed friends.

Still, she always came with me on trips. I liked being with her, and it was amazing the friends we made along the way because people liked talking to her. If we had to, we’d sleep sitting up, our heads on pillows in the corners or leaning over the engine cover. But often I would arrange the load, especially if it was beer and soft drinks, so there was a space on the deck where we could stretch out on furniture packing.

The coast road, the Bruce Hwy, was pretty primitive back then, narrow, barely two lanes, and all the river crossings single lane ‘bridges’ just above the water, with a log along each side to stop you driving off.

Summer of course is rainy season, and the water coming off the coastal range would flood all the creeks and cover the crossings. You’d check the level wasn’t above two feet, aim at the road on the other side and head right in. Going into Rocky there was a long stretch of river flats and the road had a big curve, so if it was under water there was nothing to aim for and the police would close it, or sometimes guide us through.

Towards xmas, YB and I went up on a Sunday. There were roadworks north of Gympie and they were a quagmire. There should have been a grader to tow the tucks through but the driver had gone to the Sunday session, so we had to wait. Eventually he turned up, not particularly worse for wear, and we got going, up to Moranbah, unloaded, and home without incident. That should have been our last trip for the year, but the boss had loaded up another ACCO, a petrol-engined twin steer tray with ten ton of beer, for us to take straight back. So off we went.

We got to Gin Gin, outside Bundaberg, that evening and there was a queue of cars and trucks waiting to cross the river which was a bit over two feet. Eventually, a couple of trucks came through southbound and we set up a convoy heading north. I was about third, tucked in behind the truck in front so I wouldn’t splash water on my engine, and particularly the distributor. We got through ok but no-one followed us. The truck behind had run up on the log side and was stuck there. I heard later, up the road, that it was 24 hours before they got a crane to lift him off and re-open the road.

There was more rain on the way, so YB and I made a run for it. The Bruce Hwy between Rockhampton and Mackay was then inland of it’s current route, as the map shows, running north from Marlborough. There were some good roadhouses along there, derelict now. We made it as far as Boyne River where there were already a couple of trucks pulled up with huts and another with oranges. The river was at two foot six, so we went inside to have breakfast and wait for it to go down. That evening it was at eight feet and we’d all backed up, and the next morning it was sixteen and rising. We were stuck there three days, eventually about 50 trucks and a heap of cars. The roadhouse tried to ration what food it had, and otherwise we lived on oranges and my beer, resting in the shade of the huts and playing pontoon. I was selling the beer at 50c a stubby, hot. People would keep coming up to me and YB giving us money. Another guy up the back in a Peters Ice Cream truck told me later he was chilling the stubbies and selling them for 60c. I wish he’d told me at the time!

When we finally got to the Moranbah pub, the publican just laughed and charged us Brisbane cost price for the shortages, so we made a whacking profit. Back in Nambour, friends, a couple from Moura where we also did deliveries sometimes, had arrived to spend the break with us. The guys next door broke a louvre and let them in. YB and I were back by Xmas Eve and we all went to the drive in, at Maroochydore or Caloundra, I forget now, and sat on the ground on rugs and drank the night away.

Kokomo, Victoria Hannan

Bodies in the sand, Tropical drink melting in your hand
We’ll be falling in love, To the rhythm of a steel drum band.
Down in Kokomo

[Beach Boys, 1988]

Not deathless prose (or verse) Not sure why Hannan’s novel has that name; neither the name nor the cover do the novel any favours. As various characters point out, Kokomo qua tropical resort is not even a place, the only real Kokomo is a middling industrial city in Indianna. Have you been there Melanie? Is there a statue to the Beach Boys?

So the name’s a distraction, doubly with its vaguely Japanese feel. This is a novel set in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Northcote or Preston, I forget now, about a thirtyish (Anglo) woman dealing with her widowed mother dealing with grief and guilt; dealing with glass ceilings (and glass walls); dealing with her unsatisfactory love life; dropping – at least temporarily – a lover and a good career in London to return home, to her mother and to the Chang’s across the road whose house she grew up in as much as her own, whose children were effectively her only brother and sisters.

I read Kokomo as an audiobiook, a freeby from Audible. I thought last trip I would listen to it again, refresh it in my mind, but more exciting options intervened, so I will have to make do with what memories looking stuff up prompt. First cab: Kate W. Surely “dealing with grief and guilt” means she’ll have a review and she does (here), from nearly two years ago.

Kate discusses Hannan beginning with a “sex scene”. In fact, the novel’s first words are : “Mina knew in that moment what love is.” The protagonist Mina (Jasmina) is about to take her lover and workmate Jack into her mouth when the phone rings. And she answers it!

Next we know, Mina is on a plane from London to Melbourne, and Jack has been left hanging (or standing). Her mother has been seen down the shops, at the chemist, having apparently gone outside her suburban home for the first time in 12 years, since the death of Mina’s father. Over the next two thirds of the novel, Mina waits, increasingly frantically, for Jack to answer her texts and emails. And I thought guys were thick.

Arrived in Melbourne, plopped down on her old bed, in her childhood bedroom, Mina finds her mother won’t talk to her, doesn’t want her there, is perfectly happy with daytime soaps and grocery deliveries to the door. Mina is forced into an aimless existence of polite small talk with her mother; hanging around the Chang’s; going out with Keira Chang, her lifelong Best Friend, whom she had left behind; running into the boyfriend she left behind; chasing up Shelley, her and Keira’s friend from university, now hopelessly lost to them in marriage, motherhood and upwardly mobile suburbia.

All this time Mina’s head is still in London. In her flat and Jack’s flat. In the advertising agency where she and relative newcomer Jack are joint department managers. Jack geeing up the troops, playing golf with the boss, screwing Mina. Mina falling in love, working back, getting presentations out on time and perfect. There’s a promotion coming up …

One day Mina sees her mother walking in the street with Arthur Chang, Keira’s father.

The voice of the novel changes from Mina’s first person to Elaine, her mother, in third person (and switches back briefly to Mina right at the end). And so Hannan slowly unravels the mystery of Elaine’s agoraphobia.

If you haven’t already read Kate’s review, do. She captures stuff that I (may have) thought about but couldn’t/didn’t commit to paper –

“Where this book really succeeds, is in how recognisable the uncertainties, introspection, and tensions are – a pause in the conversation that is a beat too long; a work colleague quietly but determinedly undermining you; the poorly disguised dismay of a friend when you drop in unannounced – in fleeting scenes, Hannan creates a gripping emotional narrative. And it culminates with the question, how do we manage the gap between what we have and what we need or want?”

And, like me, Kate loves that the author gets the feel of Melbourne just right.

Victoria Hannan is a Melbourne-based writer and photographer (website). Kokomo was her first novel. She now has a second out, Marshmallow (2022). I must read it.


Victoria Hannan, Kokomo, Hachette, 2020. Audiobook read by Liesl Pieters. 9 hrs 35 min.

Empathy, Fay Lee

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Empathy (2022) is good, straight SF – not ‘dystopian’ or ‘Cli-Fi’ or any of those other things – from an Australian author and an Australian publisher, Hawkeye. And still it doesn’t say SF anywhere on the cover, nor on the author’s website. The author sent me a review copy, presumably after reading some reviews from our recent Gen 5-SFF Week. I guess she’ll read at least this far, so Fay, were you told not to use the term “SF”, do you think you’ll sell better as a “thriller”, or is there some other reason?

Hawkeye, whom I have not run into before, are a small, Brisbane-based publisher, specializing in new authors, and it must be emphasized, offering “traditional” publishing contracts.

The world Empathy is set on is some future Earth where the mega-rich have established ‘Sky Towns’, domed cities floating above the grime and troubles of the planet below, but tethered from time to time to Earth to re-supply.

Later, I floated in the infinity pool while Gerry slept on a lounge chair, recovering for the soiree. Leaning on the edge of the pool, I looked down down at the polluted metropolis squatting beneath me. At one edge, a darker smudge stained the haze. A riot was in progress. I traced the pattern of the city and guessed it was work of refugees, sick of being excluded from the privileged suburbs of the endemics.

As you can see it is written in the first person, by a ‘pleasure nymph’ whom I am sure has a name, but skip reading (re-reading) the first few chapters, even where she is introduced or people greet her I can’t see that a name is used. The problem is that when I am reading I carry a picture of the protagonist(s) in my mind rather than names and so am often stumped when they are referred to in the third person. And I don’t take notes.

A pleasure nymph is an escort whose skin and nerves have been enhanced so that touching her produces a feedback loop of pleasure. She feels the customer’s pleasure and feeds it back to him (or her). But she also acts in that geisha/escort role of greeting and entertaining the client’s guests.

Our nymph has just resurfaced from being kidnapped and tortured – tortured so that the victim attached to her felt her torture, it turns out – and then has suffered a period of blackout where her body has been rebuilt both to enhance her responses and to include bionics which allow her to change shape from female to male.

This is about the extent of the world-building, once these elements have been established the story devolves into a crime thriller with half a dozen well written characters with whom we get familiar. Gerry, mega-rich, a ‘grandee’ of the town; Marissa, a former refugee who has become wealthy and has recently been admitted to grandee status; fellow nymphs, Elise, Wentao, Rochelle, Kareena; a policeman from the surface, Ianto.

Our nymph has to restablish herself with her clientele. She holds a soiree wherein we are introduced to all the main characters; finds that she has a booking to attend a party at Marissa’s – who turns out to lean in the direction of sadism; where she meets and begins a sort of relationship with the policeman. Gerry has her for a night and is so impressed he attempts to ’employ’ her for the next 20 years, paid in advance at her usual rate, which she rightly it seems to me, regards as an attempt to return her to the slavery from she had escaped as a child.

How can I explain that I need my freedom? That I don’t want to be locked into a contract for a trip to the moon and back – always back? It would bind me to a man for years after he was tired of me, a man who could continue to dictate my movements, my dress, my food, my acquaintances – I try not to imagine two decades of enforced celibacy – long after he stopped thinking of me as anything more than a thing to be ordered around.

There are two crime threads. One is to work out how and why she was kidnapped. The other evolves through the course of the novel. There is the usual excitement, double crossing and reveals. Lee has obviously put a great deal of thought, not just into the plot, but into developing our nymph as a sympathetic character and into how both the emotions and the economics of her situation might work.

This is Science Fiction in the old way. A well thought out ‘world’, and a plot that rocks along. Not literary at all. But it is also Women’s SF, a distinction I have been exploring/trying to make for a few years now, which depends far more on the character of the (female) protagonist than straight, men’s SF, and on character development. Sure, it’s escapism, but it’s well done.


Fay Lee, Empathy, Hawkeye, Brisbane, 2022. 209pp

Fay Lee’s website (here). I can’t see that there is an e-book version but you can always ask.

I put a link in my own recent review of Future Girl to Kimbofo’s review for AWW Gen 5-SFF Week of The Hush by Sara Foster but I suspect not many of you saw it.

Welcome, Ms 19

Journal: 098

The pictures I take are mostly of my truck, because that’s what I’m mostly doing. If I’m with the grandkids I take pics of the grandkids. A week or so ago I did a couple of trips for Dragan, to Roy Hill, Gina’s iron ore mine 1300 km north of Perth; wide loads, the first with my own trailer and the second with Dragan’s four axle float because he wanted me to bring home a mobile crane which was too heavy for my (3 axle) trailer. So here I am, ready to load, at Tom Price (a Rio Tinto mining town) with Mt Nameless in the background.

When I say, that’s what I’m mostly doing, I mean that’s what I should be mostly doing, I spend a lot of time sitting at home thinking about working, or thinking about what I might write about for you guys. I told (texted) Kevin, my mate whose paddock I park my truck in, that no-one had phoned me with work, and that also I hadn’t phoned anyone to let them know I was home, and he said: You need to put your hand up like I used to Pick me Pick me, at which we fell about laughing, LOLing probably, thinking about being schoolboys 60 something years ago, and pens with nibs and inkwells, and collecting sticks to light a fire in the fireplace. Meanwhile, the crane’s on.

It wasn’t so hot up north, mid 30s mostly (C), a bit higher sometimes, but I took it slow, tried not to build up too much heat in the tyres, which on these low trailers are a bit smaller than a standard low profile tyre. Had a little bit of excitement getting off the road for 8m wide loads coming the other way, and there’s always a few, 200 tonne dump trucks being carted to and fro between Perth and the mines. I had a lot of weight up high and in places the shoulders slope away pretty savagely, so it’s hard to pull far enough off to make room. I think on one of these excursions a rock may have damaged the sidewall of my left hand front trailer tyre, because coming down the hill to the outskirts of Perth, it blew.

On the last Sunday of summer Perth was having a bit of a hot spell – zero 40 deg days this summer – and I was tired, and the wheel nuts were stuck, and the wheel nuts securing the spares were stuck, rusted in place, and Dragan said he’d send out a tyre fitter in the morning, so I dropped the trailer at a truckstop and motored bobtail (sans trailer) the last 50km home, to sleep in my own bed and have a leisurely breakfast. Of course Dragan being Dragan there was no tyre fitter when I made it back out to the trailer, but another guy got the nuts off for me, and by lunchtime I was on the other side of town at Dragan’s depot.

Where he asked, nicely, if I would deliver the crane the following day to a site (Manjimup) 300 km south, which I did, and a very pleasant drive it was too through lots of touristy towns with windy, tree-lined main streets. I might take Milly that way next time we go down to Gee’s place on the south coast.

By then it was Wednesday, so I went over to Milly’s and we walked to the little Thai place nearby which is only open weekdays, and is cheap with really nice food and you get your own grog at the bottle shop across the road (Hay St, if you know Perth) and sat out in the street where I won’t get Covid, Milly says she has stopped worrying. She had Gee and the kids for the weekend while I was away so I missed pancakes. Ms 19 comes up from Freo if her mum’s in town and they all fit somewhere in the spare bedroom and the lounge. Gee has always had the babies in bed with her anyway – the last two are 1 and 2 now – I wonder if she thinks she didn’t get to sleep in our bed often enough. She is a thoughtful mother and her parenting is a mix of things she’s thought of, read about, that Milly tried out on her, and of course occasional exasperated shouting that she learnt from me. Milly never shouts. She was mad at me the other day, before I went away, and I know why, but I’m still shocked thinking about it. I mean she told me why, after, but is that the whole story? Not likely.

Ms 19 has just discovered I write a blog. She told Milly: Nanny, Poppy writes about a family. Is it us? I think she must have followed the link from a facebook post where I mentioned her by name. So, Hi Ms 19 and happy reading, though I’m afraid most of it is just ordinary old book stuff.


Recent audiobooks 

Jennifer Armentro (F, USA), From Blood and Ash (2020) – SFF
Katherine Scholes (F, Aus/Tas), The Beautiful Mother (2020) – Family Drama DNF
Victoria Hannan (F, Aus/Vic), Kokomo (2020)
Dervla McTiernan (F, Aus/WA), The Good Turn (2020) – Crime
JD Robb (F, USA), Secrets in Death (2017) – Crime
Max Barry (M, Aus/Vic), Jennifer Government (2004) – SF/Crime

I recommend Kokomo, which I think was a freeby from Audible. Set in Melbourne, a daughter dealing with her mother dealing with … stuff. It deserves a review. I hope I get there. (more here). And the Fay Lee SF below, I am half way through and have promised the author I will review. And I will.

Currently Reading 

Fay Lee (F, Aus/SA), Empathy (2023) – SF
Haruki Murakami (M, Jap), Sputnik Sweetheart (1999)
Miles Franklin & Dymphna Cusack (F, Aus/NSW), Pioneers on Parade (1939)

AWWC Feb. 2023

Wed 1Elizabeth Lhuede“A clever and pretty blue stocking”: Ada A Kidgell
Fri 3Stories FTAAda A Kidgell, The triumphant candidate (short story)
Wed 8Jo-Anne ReidKylie Tennant, Tiburon (review)
Fri 10Stories FTAKylie Tennant, Tiburon (novel extract)
Wed 15Bill HollowayKylie Tennant, Ride on Stranger (review)
Fri 17Stories FTACamden Morrisby, A novelist I know: Kylie Tennant (extract)
Wed 22Whispering GumsLouise Mack, Teens and Girls together
Fri 24Stories FTALouise Mack, In a country school (short story)

A Difficult Young Man, Martin Boyd

12 Books of Boyhood. #2

The four novels of The Cardboard Crown quartet are the story of the Langtons, an idle rich Melbourne family at the turn of the Twentieth century. They are a fictionalised account of Boyd’s own family and an accurate account of the upper class, high church (and atypically pacifist) lens through which Boyd saw the world. I reviewed his memoir, Day of My Delight some years ago.

I read A Difficult Young Man, the second in the quartet, for my matric, in 1968, and for this exercise I have also read The Cardboard Crown, the first.

Martin Boyd (1893- 1972) was a good generation younger than English-born Australian writer, Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) but they shared a common background, which we Australians generally become first aware of in Jane Austen – the idle, land owning upper middle class. And before you get cranky about ‘idle’ let me say that I mean that their income was unearned, coming from rents and dividends.

Cambridge wrote in her memoir, Thirty Years in Australia, that whereas gentleman farmers and rich merchants were a level (or two) below the upper class in England, in Australia they were (and are) the upper class. Boyd goes a step further, claiming that his family, who had claims to an English title, were part of a genuine upper class in Victoria, until they were supplanted by the post-Gold Rush wealthy (This ‘upper class’ lingered well into the 1960s. There was a ‘Rupert Clarke‘ a year or so ahead of me in College whose family had claims to – I think – Australia’s only baronetcy).

The quartet is framed as Guy Langton (the Martin Boyd character) in old age, telling a young nephew his family’s story. So that Guy will sometimes pause in the telling to tell us where he is ‘now’, or what materials he is using, or to discuss his feelings about what he has told us. “I am supposed to be extremely snobbish, even in Melbourne, the most snobbish place on earth,” he says, and goes on in an attempt to show why he thinks snobbishness is rational.

The Cardboard Crown (1952) is based on Guy’s grandmother’s diaries and A Difficult Young Man (1955) is the story of his older brother, Dominic.

The Langton’s estate was in the hills past Dandenong (say 70 kms east of Melbourne) in the region of Koo Wee Rup. But the wider family had houses/mansions in what are now inner beachside suburbs, East St Kilda and Brighton. Guy’s grandfather, Austin marries Alice, the heiress of a brewery fortune and subsequently inherits a title and an estate past its best days in England.

So The Cardboard Crown is the story of how Alice’s money keeps the family afloat; their restlessness as they move between Australia, England and Europe; and their related families, byblows, and their various influences, with in the background, the mad C16th Duke de Teba to whom Dominic apparently bears a striking likeness.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed The Cardboard Crown back in 2013, saying: “it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother’s story. And following on from this, there’s a lot of ground-setting to be done”. But it grows on her and she enjoys it, and so did I.

Kim has now read and posted a review of A Difficult Young Man which she reads as a satire on Australian pretensions. My take is the opposite, that Boyd is deadly serious about the distinction between well-born families and the hoi polloi.

In my grandmother, Alice Langton’s diaries, which are my chief source of information about what happened before I was born, there was not much reference to Dominic. He was then overshadowed by Bobby, our eldest brother, who was all sparkling sunlight and mercurial wit […] When Bobby died at the age of nine, Dominic may have thought he was going to step into his position as the eldest son, but would also bestow, as Bobby had done, laughter, hope and joy about the family, and then he found that he had not the equipment to do this, and so was filled with resentment.

In fact Dominic mostly bestowed on his family bewilderment and despair. I remember matric English as being about fathers and sons (and daughters), but on re-reading I see Dominic’s parents were inclined to go easy on his foibles, and to attribute his extreme sense of right and wrong to the embittered maiden aunt to whom was left a great deal of his upbringing.

At the heart of A Difficult Young Man is Dominic’s love for his beautiful cousin, Helen. At all the family gatherings at grandmother’s East St Kilda mansion Dominic and Helen would always be together, until on one central occasion at the beach, when they were in their mid teens, he was discovered ‘worshipping’ her with her upper body bared and him kneeling with his face in her lap. They were of course kept separated from then on.

Boyd doesn’t appear to like women much, and in this case he ascribes no agency to Helen, or at least only views this and subsequent incidents, via a single-minded focus on Dominic.

The Langtons re-migrate back to their English estate, where Dominic falls in love with and becomes engaged to marry the daughter of a neighbouring Lord, whom Guy is sure is completely unaware of the relative poverty that lies before her. Back in Melbourne, it is announced that Helen is engaged to marry a middle class blockhead, heir to Australia’s richest wool properties.

Dominic is one of my favourite characters in literature – high minded, often ridiculous, ready to give all for love. Martin Boyd as Guy is more interested in ascribing his various faults and characteristics to this or that bloodline threaded through all the inter-married cousins. But Dominic stands out nevertheless, and so does Helen, despite Boyd’s failure (or inability) to give her a pedestal. And what also stands out on rereading is the endless summer of their adolesence – in Melbourne at the very height of its time as the world’s richest city, on the beach, on their horses in the golden green forests of those two covers above, and even on the Langton estate in England.


Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man, first pub. 1955 (my ed. Landsdowne 1967, with a purple cover, presumably a school’s edition as it was a set text for (Vic.) Matriculation English in 1968). 191pp. Cover above taken from Perry Middlemiss’ blog – Landsdowne, 1978. Cover detail from “The Milkmaid” by Julian Ashton.

Martin Boyd, The Cardboard Crown, first pub. 1952, revised 1954 (my ed. Landsdowne, 1974). 168pp. Cover detail from A Summer Morning’s Tiff by Tom Roberts.

Just as I finish proof-reading and generally tidying up, 6pm-ish WST, I see that Brona has also posted a review of A Difficult Young Man. I’m off to read it and you’ll find this in your inboxes in the morning (Tue). I noticed Brona wrote Helena, not Helen, so I checked, and she is right. But I have thought of Dominic and ‘Helen’ for 55 years now and I can’t bring myself to change.

Whispering Gums reviewed A Difficult Young Man back in 2010. Lisa/ANZLL reviewed When Blackbirds Sing in 2016 and includes a link to her review of Brenda Niall’s biography of the Boyd family.

I find myself constrained in this series by the books I have on hand and the time I have to read them. I had hoped to read Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh for March, but it is too long, too dense and I have yet to even get it down from the shelf.

So I thought how about a John Wyndham. I seem to have neither The Kraken Wakes nor The Day of the Triffids, but I do have The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) whose story I remember not at all. Read a Wyndham, any Wyndham, and we might see (on Mar. 30) why he is everyone’s (every old person’s) first SF.

For subsequent months I have in mind some or all of:
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Jack London, The Iron Heel
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Georges Simenon, Act of Passion
Jane Grant, Come Hither Nurse (jointly with Doctor in the House?)
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
there will be additions and subtractions, I’m sure.

Even Cowgirls get the Blues, Tom Robbins

Melanie/GTL has been at me for some time to read Tom Robbins, especially Even Cowgirls and also his memoir Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life (2014); based on the partly mistaken belief that we are of similar generations and footloosedness. Partly mistaken because Robbins (b. 1932) is almost exactly the same age as my mother. An excusable mistake maybe to one so young as Melanie.

Even Cowgirls get the Blues was Robbins’ second novel, published in 1976, making it one of a number of novels which were iconic to boomer hippies but whose writers were actually of the previous generation. Two others which come immediately to mind are Catch 22 (1961) written by Joseph Heller (1923-1999) and A Woman of the Future (1979) by David Ireland (1927-2022).

Boomer hippies’ motto was ‘Free Love’ which a) wasn’t practiced anywhere as much as we pretended, nor as much as it appears to be today; and b) meant guys getting everything they’d ever dreamed of without giving much back in return. Robbins’ and Ireland’s upbringings in earlier, stricter times shows, as they adopt ‘free love’ in their fiction with prurient glee.

I wrote to Melanie: This is a novel about young women and it’s focussed almost entirely on those things about young women that men get off on. What distresses me most – and that is not too strong a term – is that he describes Sissy at age 8 (!) casually giving in to being fingered by men car drivers, and later has her describing it (being molested) as a side benefit of hitchhiking.

Before I give Melanie a chance to respond, let me say that this is a postmodern novel with a number of threads all based around Sissy Hankshaw, born in industrial West Virginia in the ‘Eisenhower years’ (1950s), whose mutated thumbs make her a hitchhiking legend.

Melanie wrote back that she was “happy to think about Sissy and her thumbs and her sexcapades this afternoon [I had thought she might be weighed down by the pressures of schoolwork]. I also read an article about a lesbian who was born without a hand and how Cowgirls resonated so deeply with her when she was 17, but now she sees the flaws in it. Nonetheless, she still recommends the book to young women.

Unfortunately, it’s a long time since Melanie read Even Cowgirls, and all she can say in response to my question is: “While I have completely erased from memory the sexual assault on Sissy when she was eight, later, when she is an adult hitchhiking, she is a willing sexual participant, and part of her confidence comes from her thumbs, which are categorized as a disability of which she is proud. In that sense, Robbins is ahead of his time.”

I can never hold the formal definitions of postmodernism in my head for very long, but this is a novel, though it is entirely about young women, which has a male voice, the voice of the author, taking the part of one of the minor characters, though I didn’t notice until he pointed it out; speaking to you the whole time, discussing what he is writing:

Or is the author trying to ease you into something here, trying to manipulate you a little bit when he ought to be just telling his story the way a good author should? Maybe that’s the case. Let’s drop it for now.

But look here a minute. Over here. Here’s a girl. She’s a nice girl. And she’s a pretty girl. he looks a bit like the young Princess Grace, had the young Princess Grace been left out in the rain for a year.

What’s that you say? Her thumbs? Yes, aren’t they magnificent? The word for her thumbs has got to be rococo – rocococototo tutti! by God.

and which has a certain playfulness in its premises – Sissy’s unreal thumbs; the two Clockworks, keeping geological time, which play no part in the story, yet are described at length; Sissy’s sometime employer (a gay guy), The Countess’s fortune built on his loathing of female odours, his feminine hygiene products empire, his beauty ranch in the Dakotas, the Rubber Rose; the rebellion, led by Bonanza Jelly Bean, which sees the ranch staffed entirely by young women who grew up wanting to be cowgirls, who deploy their unwashed bodies to chase off The Countess; a rebellion which takes a darker turn; and finally, the diversion of the migratory path of the endangered whooping crane who, initially attracted by the noisy lovemaking of Sissy and Bonanza Jelly Bean, are eventually persuaded to roost permanently on the shores of the ranch’s little lake.

What have I left out? Sissy’s off and on career modelling for The Countess; the Chink – a man of Japanese descent who has adopted ‘ironically’ the name given to him by the Indians who captured/rescued him when he escaped from wartime internment – who having been initiated into to one lot of Clockworks, has established his own in caves in the hills above the Rubber Ranch; Julian, an Ivy League educated Mohawk New Yorker who has renounced his Indian-ness just as Sissy is attemting to establish hers; who marries Sissy and then commits her to an institution; a pitched battle between the FBI and the cowgirls, over whooping cranes (!).

Of course, before the Hippies was the Beat generation, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, and while they too were taken up by boomer students, and Burroughs at least, was writing into the 80s, they were clearly of the generation before. The bible of the Beats was Kerouac’s On the Road (1951/57). Sissy’s hitchhiking is an homage to Kerouac (by Robbins) and Robbins has Sissy and Kerouac spend a night together, off stage as it were, in a sunflower field from memory, and without ‘going all the way’.

I’m glad Melanie persuaded me to read this work, it’s fun, innovative and well done. And if Robbins shows his age, which he does, then that can be largely taken in good part too – except for implying that an 8 year old can give consent – like looking at the relatively innocent pictures in an old Playboy.


Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls get the Blues, first pub. 1976. 365pp. Audible version, 1999, read by Michael Nouri. 13 hrs

Future Girl, Asphyxia

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

I opened AWW Gen 5-SFF Week with Melanie/Grab the Lapels’ review of this work which I had intended to pair with a review of my own, but my copy was late arriving, work intervened, and I’m only now ready to post. Future Girl (in America, The World in My Hands) is YA and SF – set in a Melbourne a couple of decades in the future, in which fuel shortages and hyperinflation have led to widespread unemployment and poverty – and is based on the author’s own experience of growing up deaf and of being introduced late to signing (Auslan) and the Deaf community.

Melanie, for those newcomers who have not yet met her in these pages, is a blogger from the American mid-west, who relies on hearing aids and is now, in her thirties, learning signing (ASL), and learning, and teaching us, about being Deaf. Her review then shows a great deal of empathy with Future Girl‘s protagonist, 16 year old Piper. So I won’t go down that path myself, which in any case, I know nothing about except what Melanie has told us over the past two or three years.

Firstly, the author. Asphyxia is a writer, artist and performer whose career so far spans twenty or so years. I had wondered, on reading Future Girl, if it were written by a 16 year old, it certainly feels like it, but no, it was written – very well – by an adult woman for 13-16 year olds, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she had been aiming a bit older than that.

The presentation of the book is excellent. Piper is a painter and this is ostensibly her journal (of the months June to Dec of an unspecified year) which is filled with drawings, painting, stencils and collages. The story flows too well for a journal, but the progression from day to day does give it a bit of a ‘first this happened, then that happened’ feel.

Asphyxia, though she now lives in hippy heaven on the NSW north coast, is a Melbourne person and this shows in her descriptions of inner northern Melbourne streets, centred on Northcote and Fitzroy. Piper goes to a private school two or three suburbs away, as she has to come home on the tram up Church Street.

The most horrifying aspect of Asphyxia’s imagined future is that ‘tree vandals’ have stripped Melbourne’s tree-lined streets and, it later turns out, all the exotic trees of the Botanic Gardens, cut them all back to the roots.

The story of these six months is that Piper meets a boy, Marley, 19, a CODA – child of deaf adult – who has been immersed in Deaf culture by his mother, Robbie, but who is also drawn towards living ‘normally’. Piper’s mother is a scientist with Organicore who has invented supplements which prevent cancer, obesity and [something else] to go in Organicore’s artificial food products. Marley’s mother, on the other hand, grows all her own food at home, in a walled garden (to protect her from thieves).

The major problem in this future Melbourne is that (petroleum-based) fuel is scarce and prohibitively expensive so that farmers are increasingly unable to deliver fresh food to the supermarkets, and Organicore is unable to get ‘Recon’, its artificial food to consumers. You might think that this could have been averted by increased electrification – but not in this universe anyway. Organicore, despite being a monopoly, and having installed its own stooge as Prime Minister, is going broke and Piper’s mum is let go.

Piper, increasingly unhappy with her failure to connect with her hearing fellows, drops out of school; is inspired to begin her own food garden; and is co-opted into a protest movement.

News Melbourne

McBride’s Daughter Rejects Recon in Bid to Solve Food Crisis

Piper, the sixteen-year-old Deaf daughter of former Organicore scientist Irene McBride, has turned her back on manufactured meals and is taking her chances growing wild food. In a move that’s proven popular with her neighbours, Piper’s created a thriving community garden on the nature strip down the middle of her Northcote street, which she expects will provide an abundance of vegetables, eggs and meat for the community.

The government introduces food rationing. The government-owned, Organicore-controlled messaging service “Cesspool”, which has replaced the internet, fails to transmit any messages about food growing or protesting.

Breaking News: McBride’s Garden Scheduled for Demolition:

In a heartbreaking move, as we prepare this story for the feeds, the local council has classified Piper McBride’s community garden as ‘litter’ and insists it be removed.

Piper takes her art to the streets, is arrested and jailed.

There is the usual YA angst with best friend, boyfriend and parent. All ends well.

I could rant about the failure of the author and the publisher to acknowledge their debts to a long tradition of SF, but what’s the point.


Asphyxia, Future Girl, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2020. 373pp.

A few days ago, Kim/Reading Matters posted her review for AWW Gen 5-SFF Week, The Hush by Sara Foster. All the books we have reviewed for this period are listed on the AWW Gen 5-SFF page.

Ride on Stranger, Kylie Tennant

We’ve been doing quite a bit of Tennant on my other gig, the Australian Women Writers Challenge; most recently a reflection on Tiburon and what it had to say about NSW teacher education by Emeritus Prof. Jo-Anne Reid (here) followed by an extract from Tiburon (here), with an excellent illustration by Norman Lindsay; and this week, a rehash of my thoughts about Ride on Stranger, which Elizabeth has chosen to follow with an extract from “Camden Morrisby, A novelist I know: Kylie Tennant” (here).

Looking for a cover to go with this piece I chose the popular at the time (1979) ABC TV series. The principal actors were:
Liddy Clark, Shannon
Noni Hazlehurst, Beryl
Michael Aitkens, John Terry
So, is that Clark and Aitkens above? It looks to me like a young Noni Hazlehurst, the guy I have no idea.

Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was, like Katherine Sussanah Prichard, an early member of the Communist Party of Australia, although not for long, and was soon at loggerheads with them over her depiction of the communist apparatchik Charteris in Ride on Stranger. Nevertheless, she remained committed to the depiction of the plight of working people in general and working women in particular .. Read on …