City of Women, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976),  A Woman of the Future (1979) and City of Women (1981) are his fifth, sixth and seventh novels. Before came Burn (1974) a fictionalised life of an Aboriginal VC winner which I found unbearably racist, and after came Archimedes and the Seagle (1984) which I found twee first time around but which I suppose I must one day attempt to re-read.

I mention the three together not because they make up a trilogy but because thematically they form a triangle of intersecting issues. So, The Glass Canoe is a series of linked stories about the drinkers in a working man’s hotel, basically an exploration of the culture of (white, Australian) blokes. A Woman of the Future is a surreal story from the point of view of one young woman –

… sketches of her moral upbringing and of a dystopian suburbia in which her neighbours suffer an inexplicable wave of biological mutations.

She is compelled to explore and observe the limits of her organism, including sexual free will in which masturbation, incest and masochism each have their place.

Bonny Cassidy, Sydney Review of Books, May 2018 (here)

In City of Women Ireland again attempts a woman’s point of view, this time an older woman, Billie, who lives in a flat in central Sydney, a Sydney from which men are barred from entering by (female) armed guards. The story is very similar to The Glass Canoe, both in structure – a series of linked stories about drinkers at The Lover’s Arms, and in the celebration of a love who is effectively off-stage.

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Sydney CBD 2019 (not much changed since 1981) (c) Google Maps

The Lover’s Arms is in Cathedral St, on the right of the map, at the bottom of the yellow freeway section. Billie’s flat is a little further south, near William St (the thick white street running east-west) and must be quite high up. Strictly, this area is Woolloomooloo, once an old working class area around the wharves, and the CBD proper is on the other side of the parks (I think. I’m not a Sydney person).

Out of my window … I look across to the brown cathedral [St Mary’s], the deep green foliage of the Sydney Domain, below me to the school, across again to the steel-blue harbour, the pastel colours of the Woolloomooloo terraces.

Billie mourns her missing love, Bobbie, in a series of asides in which we see Bobbie both as daughter and as lover. She has been adopted by a leopard whom she also names Bobbie so she may continue to use the name. She walks Bobbie around Sydney on a leash and takes her to the Lover’s Arms, and talks to her almost constantly.

I think it is very unlikely that Ireland is attempting to use this format as a way of better understanding women. Rather, by putting women in the position of men, he is again shining a light on Australian working men’s culture, as he did in The Glass Canoe and more famously in The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (which I must re-reread and write up next).

Billie was an engineer with the Water Board, made redundant, and is now at 62, a therapist. Bobbie studied engineering to work with her but has gone away.

My engineer is at the back of beyond. I thought I held her like a bird in my hand, happy to be there.

The women drinkers are tough old birds, or sometimes young, with a wide range of strange illnesses..

Donna McDevitt is a miser, a woman of great debility… she’s eighty-seven… Doctors had treated her at various times for head bounce, foot fester, labial pus, tongue crumble, lung quake, hand bunching, nipple destruction: she was a walking catalogue of decay.

Billie tells their stories – do they build? It’s hard to say. We gradually form a picture of an inner Sydney where all the manual labour is done by women, where women have walked away from husbands and children, where renegades will sometimes go ‘outside’ for sex with men and are shunned, where marriages are between women, and children somehow come about, where women get men “into trouble”.

The unifying story in the background is that there is a rapist, Old Man Death, who abducts women and cuts them, depositing his semen in the cavity and then sewing it up. What is the point of this? Who knows. Perhaps it is Ireland releasing his inner misogynist. It certainly involves a fair amount of gratuitous violence.

The Glass Canoe ends with the redevelopment, gentrification of the men’s pub, the Southern Cross and likewise the City of Women seems to come to an end too. Not with the closure of the pub but with the ageing and dying out of the women. Ireland has been describing a period in time now past, when drinkers were tribal, barely troubled by outsiders. By 1981 Gough Whitlam had been and gone but Ireland’s drinkers still seem to be of the generation that voted futilely for Arthur Calwell.*

 

David Ireland, City of Women, Allen Lane, Melbourne, 1981. Cover illustration and design Helen Semmler (the cover illustration goes on round the back, ie. to the left, but I couldn’t find an image of it).


* The election of the Gough Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 marked Australia’s coming of age as an interesting, multi-cultural nation. Whitlam’s predecessor as Labor leader, Arthur Calwell had enforced the white-Australia policy as Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Labor government, before heading into 23 years on the opposition benches.

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Running, Swimming: Me and Murakami

This is a book about which many of you have expressed positive feelings, not just because Murakami is a great writer – though that is not so much in evidence here – but because his dedication to running strikes a chord. I’m not a runner and unlike Murakami, I enjoyed team sports, playing football, hockey, cricket, baseball and basketball in my last year at school (none of them well!), but I am (or was) a competitive swimmer, both at school and for more than twenty years from my late thirties.

If you have read his first two works (Wind/Pinball) you will probably be aware that in his twenties Murakami ran a jazz bar, until he had an epiphany at a baseball game and decided that he should be a writer. Shortly after, he decided that he should also be a runner.

I started running in the fall of 1982 and have been running since then for nearly twenty-three years. Over this period I’ve jogged almost every day, run in at least one marathon every year – twenty-three up till now – and participated in more long distance races all around the world than I care to count.

I resumed swimming because I was taking my kids to Nunawading pool for lessons and, well, because I still thought of myself as a swimmer despite 20 years out of the water. Started with 8 (50m) laps on Saturdays and it grew. I joined the Nunawading adult squad, under my old club mate and later Olympic coach Leigh Nugent, for 3 morning sessions of 3km each per week and was soon a member of Doncaster AUSSI masters club, training with them some evenings and competing at weekends.

Two or three years ago in a review WG, I think, was talking about elite sportsmen being winners, but by definition most of the people in any competition don’t win. Of course they’re often very good, but what motivates them, what motivates Murakami, what motivates me, is the race against an internal standard, to do the very best of which you are capable.

Marathon runners will understand what I mean. we don’t really care whether we beat any other particular runner. World-class runners, of course, want to outdo their closest rivals, but for your average, everyday runner individual rivalry isn’t a major issue.

I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself.

Early on, while AUSSI sets a whole heap of tasks, like five 400m and five 800m butterfly swims per year, my personal objective was in the freestyle sprint, to get my 50m time below 30 sec. Sadly, my best recorded time is 30.01. If only the timekeepers had pressed their stopwatches 2 one hundredths of a second earlier, I would have been able to boast 29 point something.

… the hour or so I spend running, maintaining my own, silent, private time, is important to help me keep my mental well-being. When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody… I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I am running? I don’t have a clue.

A 3km swim training set is about an hour too. This is what I think about “cold, god it’s cold, and wet. 1.” Over I go, heading the other way, “1, that was 1, 1, 1. 2” Over I go, heading the other way. “2 … 2, don’t forget, 2” and so on to 20, 40, 100. If I think about anything else, then I do forget, and must try and recall which number I was chanting last.

As well as his philosophy of running, Murakami discusses in detail his preparation for and running of, three or four emblematic races, including a run early in his career, uphill! from Athens to Marathon.

Looking back at my running log, I think I’ve been able to prepare for the race [a Boston marathon] at a decent pace:

June   156 miles
July    186 miles
Aug.   217 miles
Sept   186 miles

The log forms a nice pyramid. The weekly distance averages out in June to thirty-six miles, then forty-three miles, then fifty, then back to forty-three.

The marathon of Australian swimming is the Rottnest Channel Crossing, from Cottesloe beach to Rottnest Island, a distance of 19.6 kms across the Fremantle shipping channel.

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2015. Cottesloe, pre-dawn start

When I moved back to Perth in 2002 my swimming was already dropping back from the peaks I – like Murakami – had achieved in my mid 40s, and anyway trucking was cutting into my opportunities for training. I joined my local AUSSI club, and in 2005 did a Rotto swim in a 4 person relay. Lots of fun and a really luxurious cabin cruiser as our support boat, but I didn’t have the money or the contacts to organize the support team for a solo. And it was another ten years, and I was well into my 60s, before the opportunity came up. O’Neal, one of my 2005 relay partners, offered to train with and coach me, O’Neal’s husband Ben agreed to kayak alongside me – a decision he both regretted and repeated on two more occasions – a mate had a boat, I hired accommodation on the island for the weekend, we were all set. All I had to do was train.

I swam between and during trips (at Port Hedland), sets of three, five and seven thousand metres three, four times a week, building not in Murakami’s smooth pyramid, but building nevertheless through ten, fifteen, twenty kilometres a week over the second half of 2014, peaking at twenty five in January then tapering to the swim in late Feb.

During January there were three 10 km races, completion (within four hours I think) of any one of which was required as a qualifying swim. I made a mess of the first, missing one of the bouys – I actually don’t like ocean swimming very much, and my stroke is not suited to it. But I aced the second, on the shallow, muddy rowing course at Champion Lakes.

On the day I was up at 4.00, round to O’Neal’s and down to Cottosloe. Launch kayak, grease swimmer (Gee’s job, then she raced off to get the kids and her sister and catch the ferry to see me finish). At 6.00 we’re off, high-stepping into the freezing water, dive, stumble, dive, settle into a stroke amidst the kicking of a hundred others, out to the first marker, look for Ben’s bright blue wig (he feels like a git, but he has to be recognisable) we meet and settle down for the long haul. I am at the 10 km mark in a bit over 3 hours, aiming to finish in 7.

Then it all goes to shit. The boat skipper has aimed us straight at the island, but the current in  the shipping channel is sweeping strongly out to sea. I spend an hour swimming back to the line, making almost no progress. I’m ill, I want to get out. What am I thinking? I’m thinking that if I stop moving my arms I will sink straight down. The support boat pulls alongside and they all shout at me to keep going. In the end O’Neal passes me a sea-sickness pill and I promise to do one more kilometre. They lie to me about which mark I’m up to. Slowly I come good. At ten hours and ten minutes I struggle up on to the beach. Gee and Psyche wrap me in towels and escort me to a shower and then to a gin and tonic. I think Psyche thought she was going to lose me. We party quietly into the night. Ben goes to bed early, his back agony after 10 hours of slow paddling.

And how was my time? Truth be told, not so great. At least, not as good as I’d secretly been hoping for. If possible, I was hoping to be able to wind up this book with a powerful statement like, “Thanks to all the great training I did I was able to post a great time at the New York City marathon [2005]. When I finished I was really moved.”

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2016. Rottnest Is. finish line

The following year O’Neal and I kept training, though without the same determination, and we did Rotto as a duo, following a perfect line and finishing in 7 hours 20 min. In 2017 I fronted up again solo, but hadn’t put in the training. Again we got caught in the channel, and by the 17 km mark I wasn’t going to make the cut-off and the officials called time. I love the idea of doing another but I haven’t swum since.

If you haven’t read this already don’t be misled by my ‘review’. In the course of this memoir of his life as a runner Murakami talks constantly about whole heaps of things. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is an important insight into an important writer.

 

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Vintage, 2009. Translated by the author.

see also:
Liz Dexter’s reviews (here) and (here)
Sue/Whispering Gums (here)

Traveller Inceptio, Rob Shackleford

Traveller inceptio

An Open Letter to the Author

Rob,

Your letter to me began –

Hi!

My name is Rob and I’m an Australian author.

My book ‘Traveller Inceptio’ has been recently published by Austin Macauley and I’m shooting this email to see if you might be interested in casting your eye over it.

Traveller-Inceptio is a gentle Sci-Fi that blends the genres of Historical Fiction and Action / Adventure, with a dash of Romance thrown in.

I’m used to Science Fiction and to the awkwardness of the often geeky (sorry!) types who write it and are its biggest fans. So I mostly regarded your overstretched prose, your blonde heroes, the few token women, and the fewer token people of colour with tolerance. But around half-way through, at Loc 5500, I got angry.

Your words were –

Vague surprise on their simian faces, they shrugged and wandered into the crowd to cruise for any infraction, real or imagined, that would allow them to instigate a forced ejection and the occasional thump if resisted.

I’m sure you know that ‘simian’ means “monkey or ape-like”. This is SF, you may have been referring to aliens or to humanised apes, but in fact the people you are describing are the security staff at an Auckland night club, “bull-necked Pacific Islander[s]”. There are many situations where the use of ‘simian’ in this context could see you in jail or cost you your job. Your usage is made more egregious here because it is in the context of brave white soldier heroes seeing off bullyin, cowardly Maoris.

The antagonist was big and beefy, with the arrogance and barely contained violence of a football player… The Maori looked to his back-up in delight, and they seemed to swell in size and threat.

I do have a second, related area of complaint that I might have discussed in the normal course of a  review and that is from when the initial time travellers, in Queensland, run into a party of Aboriginal men.

… three bearded and naked aboriginal men stood by the fishing line, eyes comically wide in terror as they stared.

What can I say? The Black man with his “eyes comically wide in terror” is a trope of the Jim Crow era, and I struggle to see how you might be so ignorant as to use it here. Further, ‘aboriginal’ should no more be uncapitalised than ‘Australian’ or ‘Shackleford’. You compound these errors, at Loc 3375/Chapter 29, by purporting to describe the encounter, including its religious and spiritual significance, from the Aboriginals’ point of view. This is a form of racism, sadly all too common in White writers, called ‘appropriation’. Look it up.

I can only hope the offence you have given here was unintended and that your book is taken down until it is rectified.

yours faithfully,

Bill Holloway


 

Traveller Inceptio begins with a group of graduate students in Queensland getting funding to invent a 3D scanner for baggage through customs. They set up in a shed on the beach near the mouth of the Maroochy River (so two of the researcher dudes can go surfing every morning) and an accidental bump to the wiring of their prototype turns the scanner into a transmitter able to send and recover people 1,000 years back in time.

Because, and the author really says this, armies are mostly white and male, half a dozen white, male soldiers from SAS regiments in Australia, NZ, UK, Canada and USA are trained to return to Saxon England – during the Danish invasions at the time of Etherald the Unready, prior to the Norman invasion of 1066 – because they’ll fit in.

Two story lines proceed in alternating chapters – the grad students set up their workshop, make their discovery, deal with their commercial sponsors, the university, Australian and US spooks; a man called Michael wanders through Nottingham Forest (its Saxon name is Snot-something), meets primitive but civilised villagers etc.. The grad student story fades away and is replaced by SAS men training to be Saxon warriors. And it all comes together in a series of very gory battles – not to my taste but I think I understand the point the author was trying to make.

The writing is over-descriptive, but does settle down after a while. There are token women, but that is a given in mainstream SF, of course they are all beautiful and good in bed (SF writers get their sex education from Playboy), except for one geeky woman who is also good in bed but of course wears glasses. The novel starts out as campus fiction but morphs into something else as the author studies what real face to face conflict with swords and axes might mean to modern soldiers. It’s ok, well except for Shackleford’s ineptitude – I hope it’s nothing more – in dealing with race.

 

Rob Shackleford, Traveller Inceptio, Austin Macauley, London, 2019o

Purchase here
Author website here

 

New Oz Lit Fic

Journal: 031

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Eltham Bookshop

New Oz Lit Fic: I can’t say I haven’t read any, but I haven’t read much. A situation I’ve ‘undertaken’ to Lisa (ANZLL) to do something about. My preferences can be covered by the words edgy, grunge, experimental, and leaving aside Gerald Murnane, I would say my favourite recent Australian was Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik, and before that The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood and everything by Jane Rawson (here, here and here).

For the second weekend in a row I’m stuck in Melbourne and overnighting at Mum’s (during the week I wasn’t completely idle, though some of Dragan’s drivers were, I did a load of mining equipment to Roxby Downs (map) – a round trip of 2,800 kms according to my run sheet). So, using as my starting point a couple of Lisa’s lists of prize-winners (here, here), the Stella Longlist, and your reviews, I am making up a wish list of my own, which I will take down to my local indie bookshop.

Ok, this is what I came up with:

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (Reading Matters)

Ruby Murray, The Biographer’s Lover (Nathan Hobby)

Pip Adam (NZ), The New Animals (ANZLitLovers)

Kristina Olsson, Shell (ANZLitLovers)

Krissy Kneen, Wintering (Readings)

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip (ANZLitLovers)

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Whispering Gums)

And a couple of extras, in case I run into them in the shop:

Anything by Charlotte Wood before TNWoT

Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which WG (I think) recommended, for my grandson’s approaching birthday

What do you guys think? What have I missed (that fits my criteria)?

None of you has reviewed the Krissy Kneen. I enjoyed her earlier An Uncertain Grace and am tempted to put Wintering at the top of my list. Lisa I’m pretty sure would put Shell and numerous judges have put Boy Swallows Universe about which I am doubtful (on the basis of course of zero evidence).

Kate W where are you? I’d better check your Stella posts too. No, I’m afraid you didn’t persuade me on Little Gods.

I think I will make Pink Mountain on Locust Island my #2. Interestingly Kate (Booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and Kim (Reading Matters) make the same complaint about “nonsensical” similes, but Kate got me at:

I understand why readers are excited by Lau – her writing is expressive and commanding, with bizarre descriptions that have you re-reading and imagining –

Like many of you I follow Kim who covers English, Irish and Canadian Lit as well as Australian, Emma (Book Around the Corner) French and European, and Naomi (Consumed by Ink) Canadian. I am tempted by nearly every new book they review but #solittletime! And of course when I do run into these books as audiobooks, which are anyway mostly mainstream, I don’t connect back to the review. Case in point Herman Koch’s The Dinner. However I will add one US title reviewed by Melanie at Grab the Lapels because I am absolutely determined to read it ‘one day soon’.

fat assassins

And it’s only $1.00 on A*#@*# if I ever open an account.

Has weekend off, takes Mum shopping. How’d it turn out? I wrote most of the above Sat night. Today, Sunday I tried Eltham Bookshop which honestly I didn’t think was as good as its reviews. I looked at but bought neither Too Much Lip nor the prominently displayed Boy Swallows Universe.  Bought a book for Gee because, well she’ll have a birthday eventually, and one for Mum. Then we went round to Warrandyte and had a much more fruitful time in the second hand shop there, not to mention a very nice lunch at Next/Door.

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Warrandyte

What I Actually Bought

Kath Engebretson, Red Dirt Odyssey (2016) for Mum
Nam Le, The Boat (2008)
Gerald Murnane, A Season on Earth (2019)
Gee’s present

David Ireland, City of Women (hardback, dustjacket, 1st ed.)
Another present (One author. Stories from 1910-1920)
Christina Stead, The Little Hotel (hardback, dustjacket, 1st ed.)
Christina Stead, Ocean of Story
Elizabeth Jolley, An Accommodating Spouse
Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey
Kim Mahood, Craft for a Dry Lake (memoir)
Bill Wannan ed., A Marcus Clarke Reader
William Burroughs, Junky

Recent audiobooks 

Judith Saxton (F, Eng), A Merry Mistress (2003) fictionalized life of Nell Gwynne
Jaqueline Winspear (F, Eng), Maisie Dobbs (2003)
Kurt Vonnegut (M, USA), Cat’s Cradle (1963)
John Steinbeck (M, USA), The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Debra Webb (F, USA), Revenge (2013)
Amy Tan (F, USA), The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2003)
F. Paul Wilson (M, USA), The Dark at the End (2011)
Anne McCaffrey (F, Ire), Freedom’s Landing (1995)
Charles Willeford (M, USA), Miami Blues (1984)

Currently reading

Rob Shackleford, Traveller Inceptio (Australian new release ebook)
Haruki Murakami, What I Talk about when I Talk about Running
Thea Astley, Collected Stories (sitting neglected in the bottom of my backpack)

Currently reading on the net

Palmer Report (here).  If you want to follow the inevitable collapse of the Trump presidency day by day, minute by minute, this is for you (and its slightly hysterical tone is part of its charm).

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792 (Project Gutenberg). No, I’m not really reading it but Brona has and discusses it in a must-read post (here) and she in turn references the ‘Vindication’ read-along on A Great Book Study (Intro, Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4 (Ruth @ AGBS doesn’t seem to provide links between her own posts)).

This is all deserving of a full post but in the meanwhile let me make a couple of notes so they don’t get lost:
1. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was the mother of author Mary Shelley (Wiki).
2. I’ve always thought the major text first wave feminists like Catherine Helen Spence looked back to was JS Mills, The Subjection of Women, 1869 (Project Gutenberg). ” … the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement …”

 

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Roxby Downs: Unloading drill rig from my (red) trailer to low loader for transport into mine.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is one of the classics of American and World literature, THE great novel of the Depression, and of course a great Road story, of impoverished farming family the Joads, and their journey from Oklahoma to California. It was made into a movie, one of the great movies according to Wikipedia, the following year. The image above, of the Joads’ ‘truck’, a 1926 Hudson Super Six cut down from a sedan and given a home-made truck body, is from the movie.

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1926 Hudson Super Six sedan

When I was a boy scout if we went on a troop camp – say 15 or 20 boys – our scout leader would take us in his farm truck with a cattle crate 16 ft long by 8 ft wide with 6 ft high slat sides, and we boys would sit on tents or on our bags with our backs against the slats, smoking Alpines, Camels, Viscounts, Marlboros, and it is this sort of roomy feeling I got reading (listening to) the book once again last week, but in fact the body on the Hudson wouldn’t have been much larger than the tray on my Hi-Lux ute – 8 ft long by 6 ft wide – and there were 13 Joads, counting the preacher and the son-in-law, some of them lying on mattresses (and at one stage Connie talks Rose of Sharon into having sex!). That’s awful crowded.

Don’t you think Rose of Sharon is a great name? Luckily I’m past the age of giving names to daughters or I’d have been tempted. It’s from the Bible, though apparently no-one is sure what flower it describes.

Everyone has read and seen TGoW I’m sure, but what struck me this time round was the number of trucks and the time Steinbeck takes to describe them. First up is a new diesel truck. Tom Joad, just of jail for killing a man, hitches a lift home.

For a moment the driver stared after him, and then he called “Luck!” Joad waved his hand without looking around, then the motor roared up and the gears clicked and the great red truck rolled heavily away.

I had thought most US trucks were petrol engined but I discover GM introduced the 71 series two-stroke diesel engines which I was driving in the 1970s, in 1938.  And Mack too had diesel powered trucks back then.

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1938 Mack Type 75 (I think)

Not much later Steinbeck introduces a roadside cafe by describing two drivers – a long distance two-up team – chatting to the woman behind the counter. Their truck has a sleeper berth “high up, behind the driver”. I can’t imagine what their truck was (maybe Melanie/GTL’s father can tell me), but they did exist, as these images show.

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Image result for 1938 truck sleeper cab

I’m sitting in a roadhouse (Wingfield, Adelaide today) waiting for work and using Google Books to look up quotes. It’s hard to know what phrases to search on but the scene in the cafe brings up this, which resonates:

He’d go nuts just settin’ here and the road sneakin’ under the wheels. Fella said once that truck skinners eats all the time – eats all the time in hamburger joints along the road.

I owned and drove old trucks (20 or 30 years newer than these in build if not in design), Inters, Atkinsons, AECs, Leylands on long distance and Austins and Bedfords on local, so a lot of what Tom and Allan put up with is familiar. I never cranked a truck though I think we could crank our old Prefect and Granddad used a blowtorch to heat up his single cylinder Lanz Bulldog tractor, then a big flywheel to turn it over, with a deep bop-bop-bop that would send me running out of the machinery shed and down the track to the house.

When a big end bearing fails on the road the boys drop the sump (oil pan) and swap out the piston. I’ve done the same more than once, though not with secondhand parts from the wreckers as they did. I’m fascinated that they were able to get the replacement piston up past the crankshaft and into the cylinder, holding the piston ring tight with bronze wire which melted when the engine fired up. I’ve always had to remove the head – which means a new head gasket – and put the new piston in from above.

Enough trucks? The Grapes of Wrath is a Realist novel, following in the tradition of Zola and Jack London, not just describing the poor but explaining how they are cheated by the rich, the banks and the big landowners. ‘Conservative’ governments again and again allow the banks to create credit on the back of low quality paper, and again and again the paper – often junk mortgages – fails, the banks fail or at least withdraw credit, and so businesses relying on credit fail. Here the businesses are small farms, 40 acres – tiny by comparison with Australia where my grandparents’ selection in the Mallee was a square mile, 640 acres – many of the farmers already reduced from owners to tenants by years of drought, and with the coming of mechanized ploughing the banks force the people off the land causing a great wave of migration from  Oklahoma and surrounding states to the land of milk and honey, California. Only there, the banks and land owners are squeezing the little guys too, using their ownership of canneries to force down prices and ruthlessly underpaying the great influx of farm workers.

So the migrants are hated. Even workers in employment can’t afford to spend. Big business profits skyrocket while the economy stagnates. If it all sounds familiar that’s because it is. While the middle class is prosperous Capitalism seems benevolent. But it never lasts. Does it?

Interestingly Steinbeck alternates the Joad’s story with chapters of general description, economic theory, or illustrative stories with unnamed characters. And it works. Do you think the novel has a central protagonist? Sometimes I think it is Tom and sometimes I think Ma.

Ma is certainly the most interesting character. She says to Tom senior (her husband), you can give me a few whacks when you’re doing your job, supporting the family, but now we’re down and out, I’ve got to step up, assert control, and if you try and give me a few whacks now you’ll find I’ll be whacking back.

The Joads never get on their feet in California, the old people die, Noah, Connie, the preacher leave. Eventually Tom is forced to leave. But the novel ends with a flicker of hope, or at least of life-goes-on. Al settles down with his girl, and Rose of Sharon, her baby still-born, brings a near-dead man back to life.

 

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, first pub. 1939. Audiobook: Hachette, read by John Chancer

The Shining Wall, Melissa Ferguson

SF books used always to have SF loudly on the spine and front cover. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more, part of the unwillingness of mainstream writers to be seen as genre (looking at you Ian McEwan) maybe and part also, as in the case of this book, the laudable uptake of dystopian themes in recent Australian women’s fiction, of which I have written before.

SF, although of course it had antecedents in Frankenstein, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is largely a post-WWII phenomenon, rising out of US pulp fiction, short stories and novels of space travel, ray guns and grotesque monsters, dashed off at the rate of two, three, four novels a year for a pittance by (mostly male) writers. I read the sedate (English) John Wyndham at school but really discovered SF in the MU Union library, reading short stories and serialized novels in the pulp magazines Galaxy, Astounding, Analogue etc. and in particular Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil which Galaxy brought out in 6 parts over July-Dec 1970.

SF in the US had an almost cult status – an idea taken literally by L Ron Hubbard, SF writer and founder of the Church of Scientology – with fans and writers mixing at frequent Conventions. Heinlein, who is a good writer, but with a Superman complex (in the Nietzschean sense) became a figure of fun in fanzines (remember when blogs had to be published on paper!), his slight stature contrasting with his muscular, wealthy, high IQ, sex god (and occasional goddess) protagonists.

I write this as a lead-in to the idea that literary values in SF were often sacrificed to speed of writing and the rush of new ideas. To some extent this still continues though the movement has thrown up over time some great writers – JG Ballard, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin and more recently William Gibson – whose merit has been obscured by the SF label attached to their writing. But SF is not unique in this, there are plenty of other genres where literary values are sacrificed to story telling – just look at the popularity in Australia of Di Morrissey, Judy Nunn, Bryce Courtenay etc., etc.

So. The Shining Wall (2019) is an Australian SF novel, without the SF label, in which the ideas and the story are more important than the writing. The author, Melissa Ferguson “lives in Geelong [Vic.] with her husband, two children, two guinea pigs, and one axolotl.” God, that annoys me! And is a “cancer-fighting” scientist, though the ideas in this book don’t particularly relate to her science.

The setting is a near future where Citizens, with perfect health, young bodies and the possibility of near-immortality have retreated into a walled city, City 1, surrounded by the ruins of the suburbs. The underclass, “demi-humans” live in shanty towns outside the walls. Neanderthals, “neos”, have been cloned to work as servants and soldiers. Re-wilders advocate the rejection of anything to do with City 1 and especially the brain implants which serve to both monitor health and act as inter-personal communications devices. Trolls tunnel under the city walls. And there are colonies of free-Neos who have escaped to the bush. Government is a dictatorship privatised out to LeaderCorp which provides both utilities, basic water and medicines, to the Demi settlements, and policing, via mixed squads of ‘sapiens’ and Neos.

We are meant to be involved in the lives of three characters, a Demi, Alida, a teenage girl who with her mother has adopted a younger, stray girl, Graycie; Shuqba, a very straight Neo woman cop who while policing a LeaderCorp ‘hub’ in the settlements befriends Alida and begins to unstraighten; and Ferrassie, another Neo woman, working in a factory turning cockroaches into flour, who falls foul of the authorities and is sentenced to the medical research facility from which no Neo ever returns.

Characterisation is ok, but subservient to plot. The oddest thing is Alida’s speech which is full of archaic Australian slang – littlies, threads, dunny, dosh.

A jigsaw of the front of the mansion appeared through some leaves, all its slick lines and creamy rendering dreamily distorted by the domeshield. Alida’s guts were in a tangle. To top it all off she need a shit. Anxiety was truly the best laxative. She pressed her knuckles into her belly. She’d shit her pants before bolting back into the mansion in search of a dunny.

Rhea darted from one greenhouse to another, peering around at the back door of the mansion and muttering some prayers.

‘Someone’s gonna clock you acting so suss,’ Alida whispered as loud as she dared.

Briefly, Alida’s mother dies and Alida has to work for Freel the local crime lord to make rent. Ganya, his offsider, smuggles Alida into the City where she is Cinderella to a Prince and two Fairy Godmothers. A drug, ‘passenger’, gets her through the sex. After, the two Citizen women ask Alida to have a child for them.

Alida refuses and refuses any further jobs; Graycie gets ill; Alida’s junkie mate is using up all her credits. Shuqba gives her some work, but eventually Alida is forced to acknowledge that Graycie would be better off if she were adopted by citizens.

There are various adventures as City 1 collapses and Shuqba attempts to save Ferrassie and reunite Alida and Graycie. The story’s ok but Ferguson never settles into a comfortable writing style and, for me at least, this was intrusive.

 

Melissa Ferguson, The Shining Wall, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019

A Day to Remember

Journal: 030

Image result for moratorium march melbourne

Anzac Day is not my favourite day. For a long time it functioned as a remembrance day, fostered by the genuine anti-war feeling of servicemen and women returned from two world wars. By the 1970s in the face of a popular anti conscription, anti Vietnam War movements, Anzac Day was out on its feet. But it was designed by politicians in the immediate post-WWI years as an excuse for jingoism and so it has been revived, in a form nearly as distasteful as (white) Australia Day, by ‘neglected’ Vietnam ‘vets’ and right wing politicians wanting revenge for their defeats in student unions.

In other years I’ve put some work into my Anzac Day post but this year it nearly passed me by, and it’s only in the last couple of days I’ve given it any thought. Monday, coming down through the Mallee from Port Augusta to Melbourne I was listening to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut enlisted during WWII, fought in Europe, and was captured by the Germans. He writes with feeling of war as the slaughter of children, which of course when you think of the age of most soldiers it is. I wish I was in a position to write a review.

My father’s father fought in WWI, in France. He died when I was 15 and I never heard him speak about it. Dad was in the Air Training Corp while at Melbourne High during WWII, joined the Navy in 1945 and later spent some years in the CMF (now the Army Reserve), as a lieutenant with a swagger stick. He was at a camp in 1959 when I managed to slice my toe while chopping wood in bare feet and mum’s bravery didn’t extend to watching the doctor giving me injections inside the wound prior to stitching it up.

Daughter Gee did a school project on Dad’s war years and if I was home I could have used the photo she used of him, at 19, posed in his Navy uniform with peaked cap; and the matching photo of his father at much the same age in his slouch hat and army great coat, which Dad always had where he could see it on his desk.

So I was a disappointment. As I have written elsewhere, I went up to Melbourne Uni from Mudsville as a Fabian, tried the MU Labour Club and was moved on to the Anarchists where I stayed. First year was a mess. I had left behind a pregnant girlfriend, I was a country boy mixing at Trinity College in (junior) high society; I was clearly over-excited and drank too much; and I plunged head-first into the anti-war movement. And of course I failed. And it shows how out of touch I was, that that came as a surprise.

Three or four years ago, that high school girlfriend contacted me, out of the blue on Facebook, and we have become friends again. Mostly we write, though once or twice a year we catch up for lunch. I asked her early on had she read my blog and she wrote back, “I have read 4 and you may call me Fancy.” So Fancy she is.

To my surprise I find there are limits to what I can write about myself. But a baby girl, Simone, was born and was adopted out. My father was angry. I failed Engineering and he wouldn’t have me in the house, exiled me for the summer to work on a dairy farm. The following year he found two little old ladies for me to board with near the MCG. I lasted a few weeks and took a room in North Melbourne.

I’d been voted first year rep on the committee of the Engineering Students Club and by the end of the year I was President. The club of course was a shambles and on failing I pulled out. The following year, ostensibly repeating (no credit for the subjects I passed), was devoted to the Moratorium, May 8, 1970. I formed a body called Engineering Action to mobilise the engineering students and also worked with SDS on the Melb Uni organizing committee.

May 8 was a Friday. Early in the week Dad wrote and said we should talk and he would be available all day in his office to speak to me. Fat chance! In the morning we gathered near the Union, and then with me and a mate, Bruce at the head, holding our banner between two poles, we marched down Swanston St and across to Treasury Gardens to join the crowd. When the march proper formed up we surged out down Bourke Street, 12 abreast, the full width of the street, still pouring out of Spring St when the head of the march reached the GPO a kilometre down the hill, far more than the 100,000 we were credited with. Our lot were near the head, outside Myers. “Myers belongs to the people, Myers belongs to the people”, “The people have Buckleys” (Myers and Buckleys & Nunn were two prominent department stores). There were speeches, if you could hear them, singing and chanting, it was a joyous day.

Image result for moratorium march melbourne

Soon after there was a Socialist Scholars Conference in Sydney, organised by the communists (CPA) probably as I attended a session given by Eric Aarons (party secretary) and became temporarily famous for asking him a question which began “Lenin was a fascist c#@* …”. Most of the Melbourne party took the opportunity of being in Sydney to go and see Hair, but I chose instead to see Zabriskie Point which was a fine movie, but didn’t have Roy Orbison singing the theme song. On the way back down the Hume (driving the Premier’s daughter’s car) I announced I was dropping out and a week later I was a truck driver.

There were other demos. All small, some violent in a mild sort of way. July 4 outside the US consulate was always good for some argy bargy. This year when I got home I found Fancy sitting on my bed. She told me some home truths and left. For the second Moratorium I was in Brisbane but hitched in to town from the transport depot to take part.

The following year I lost my licence and enrolled in my third first year – Arabic, Aikido and MU Rifle Club – I was going to be a revolutionary. There was a world-wide feeling that we were forcing the US government to back down over Vietnam, over civil liberties, over everything. At Melbourne we kept meeting, demonstrating, attending lectures – Jim Cairns was a favourite speaker. I spent one afternoon in the cells under the old Magistrates Court for “publishing” (handing out) a Save Our Sons document against conscription.

I had already been ‘conscripted’ once when I filled in false papers (to “disrupt the system”). By March I was officially a draft-resister and was automatically conscripted for real this time, if they could catch up with me.

By the end of the year, the Federal Police were closing in. I had no wish, and perhaps not the courage, to spend two years in jail. The Young Bride and I took off for Queensland. I got my licence back. We spent a happy year truck driving with the rednecks. In December Labor got in and Gough gave us all a pardon.

Maisie Dobbs (2003), Jaqueline Winspear

By coincidence I spent all today (24th) listening to the first Maisie Dobbs novel. Maisie is a working class girl given the opportunity to attend Girton women’s college at Cambridge, is a nurse during WWI, and subsequently becomes an (English) Independent Woman detective, sort of a more serious Phryne Fisher. Winspear devotes a fair amount of the novel to Maisie’s back story, and apart from the standard horrors of trench warfare stuff, her main thesis is that society needs its returning heroes to look (and act) acceptable, that returned soldiers with facial and mental injuries are forced by social pressure to keep themselves hidden.

Recent audiobooks 

Kathy Lette (F, Aust/Eng), Altar Ego (2012)
Georgette Heyer (F, Eng), Arabella (1949)
Robert Heinlein (M, USA), Beyond this Horizon (1948)
Orson Scott Card (M, USA), Earth Awakens (2014)
Georgette Heyer (F, Eng), Friday’s Child (1944)
Nadine Millard (F, Ire), An Unlikely Duchess (2014)
Mickey Spillane & Max A Collins, (M, USA), King of the Weeds (2014)
Anne McCaffrey (F, Ire), Dragonsdawn (1988)
Tim Winton (M, Aust/WA), Land’s Edge Abandoned this memoir written with Winton’s usual flowery descriptiveness when he claimed that to go down the beach is to commune with god.
Franz Kafka (M, Czech), The Castle (1926)
Raymond Chandler (M, USA), Playback (1958)
P Finn & Petra Couvée (M/F, USA/Russ), The Zhivago Affair (2014) How the CIA published Dr Zhivago

Currently reading

Melissa Ferguson, The Shining Wall (Australian new release)
Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows
Thea Astley, Collected Stories