Stand Easy

In the late 1950s we were living in Leongatha, a smallish country town in the green hills east of Melbourne, in one of a row of five weatherboard housing commission houses in a gravel street sloping down to a creek and blackberry bushes, and looking across the paddocks to the butter factory on a hill in the distance. At the bottom of the street were the Grimes. Mr Grimes was a returned soldier and at some stage, knowing I was a reader, he gave me his copy of Stand Easy, a collection of stories written and illustrated by soldiers in the Pacific while the War was winding down, and published at the end of 1945.

I read it, memorized it, throughout my childhood and adolescence. It never made me want to become a soldier, rather the reverse really, with the gritty – though not too gritty, this was an official Army publication – realism of its portrayal of Army life. I always try and have a pertinent post for Anzac Day – which, for overseas readers, used to be our day to remember the fallen in all the various wars we have taken part in, mostly at the beck and call of our masters in England and America, but is become increasingly over time a celebration, a day to glorify all things military – and so this year let it be some stories by men who were there.

Gill Wanted It is the story I remember best, because it’s first I suppose. A woman back home unwraps a package, a gold watch with a flexible gold band, in cotton wool in a tobacco tin, and the message “Gill wanted it”, nothing else.

In a tent in Wataivalo (New Britain Is., PNG) some men, Gill, Macey, Freider, Jock, are playing poker. The kitty rises. At eleven quid an officer calls them to come on patrol, just a quick recce job, and the hands are left for their return. “The track through to Eggshell Hill was slippery underfoot and the jungle smelt of rain and closeness.” Just on dusk a Japanese machine gun opens fire on them, the men answer with their Brens and Owens, shutting it down. But Gill is dead. On their return the men declare Gill the winner, top up the kitty, and one of them goes down to the Americans to buy the watch. After all these years, still makes me cry.

Stranger in the Hills is a story about God, or Jesus maybe. A long column of men, on New Britain again, are returning from a three day patrol. “Sometimes when the ceiling of trees broke, the branches parting to frame sky and part of the world that lay beyond this green wall, you could see the blue curtain of rain coming across the valley from the mountain opposite, hanging soft and fine in the air ..”. A machine gun opens up, there’s answering fire, then silence. Only four survivors, one wounded, a bullet in his shoulder. They dress it roughly and make their way into the jungle in the dark. In the morning they have been joined by a man, bearded, long hair, no name, who digs out the bullet and cleans the wound. He leads them to safety then fades away once again into the jungle. The narrator, a war photographer, hastily develops the images he has taken, but of course they show nothing.

I Lie Waiting. This is another that has stuck with me all those years. A man having crashed off the road down an embankment, stuck under his bike, waving, hoping for a truck to pull up. A soldier, home from the War after months in hospital, trying to make a go of things with only one leg. At first, people “look you in the eye, and smile, and you feel pretty good and hero-like. But after a while they forget. I don’t know whether it’s pity, or whether they’re just not game to face the facts.”

Killed in Action. A story from Buna, PNG, in 1942 when it was still held by the Japanese. The narrator, himself shot, is attempting to drag his mate, Mac who was hit in the neck, to safety. They’re out near Japanese lines where no one will find them. During the night Mac dies and the narrator slips in and out of consciousness, to be woken near dawn, by the sounds of a rescue party, a pastor and bearers. Mac has gone as he said he would and guided them back.

And that’s as many God stories as you’ll get out of me in a long time.

There are other stories, funny ones and straight, factual ones. I don’t know what it says about me that these are the ones I have chosen. Cut me some slack, I was only a kid.

The Army (and Navy) produced a number of these books under various names during both the First and Second World Wars. The War in the Pacific ended before this one came out, hence the name Stand Easy. And the last third is taken up with descriptions of the final campaigns as the Australian and US armies pursued the Japanese through the islands to the north.

Thinking about the defeat and subsequent occupation of Japan leads me to thinking that next year I might write an economics post, about how re-financing Germany and Japan after WWII worked so much better than England and France’s imposition of punitive reparations on Germany after WWI.

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The Australian Military Forces, Stand Easy, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1945

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NameArmy No.Author
Gill Wanted ItNX73132Cpl SA Robinson
Stranger in the HillsNX15943Gnr JS Cleary (Jon Cleary?)
I Lie WaitingVX105554Cpl AC Wann
Killed in ActionNX73132Cpl SA Robinson
Coastal AdvanceSX13471Sgt GR Mainwaring
Life on Slater’s KnollNX37175Sgt HF Abbott

Attribution was originally by Army No., but because the War was over, a listing was published at the back of Stand Easy of all the contributors, including in previous years, attaching names to numbers.

see also:
The Conversation, Anzac Day Crowds have Plummeted (here)
Whispering Gums, Writing about the War (here)
Previous Anzac Day posts:
2020 The Black Line (here)
2019 A Day to Remember (here)
2018 Randolph Bourne vs the State (here)
2017 Internee 1/5126 (here)
2016 Miles Franklin’s War (here)
2015 To mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings (here)

How We Are Translated, Jessica Gaitán Johannesson

Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) is hard work! Each infintessimal advance in the plot takes soo many words. I needed a break. Grandson Dingo needed books for his first birthday. And once inside the bookshop I couldn’t really not check out new releases. So now I own How We Are Translated and John Kinsella’s short story collection, Pushing Back.

Johannesson “grew up speaking Spanish and Swedish and currently lives primarily in English”. She lives in Bath and the book is set in Edinburgh, about which she writes as though she had lived there too.

I was attracted to the book because it seemed to be in the first place a book about words, about language, about languages, about playing with the way words and meanings change as they slip from one language to another. It is turning out to be a very difficult work to write about, so I will start by answering Melanie’s question up front. Did I like it? Yes I did, Very much.

My question, Is it Literature? is more difficult to answer. At one level, How We Are Translated is ‘just’ a whimsical novel about a bi-lingual young woman dealing with her boyfriend/partner (no one says de facto anymore, though that is the relationship they are in. Is that maybe because ‘living together’ is no longer intended/expected to be permanent?) and with her (odd) job. But at another level the author clearly expects us to look at her writing as well as at her story. In particular the way she counterposes Swedish and English. So, yes, Literature.

After reading the whole book I find I don’t know the protagonists’ names. The author/narrator refers to them as I and you. She I think is Kirsten or Kristin, a Swede five years in Edinburgh, who found her odd employment to see her through uni, but is now two years graduated and still in the same job. He is Brazillian, brown, adopted young by a Scotswoman, who in the last couple of years has trained as a nurse and works for the council as a carer, visiting old people. They live in a flat, on the second or third floor. I see much/all of this in the text, but it bothers me that I look out for it because of the blurb I necessarily read to make the purchase. I hate blurbs. They spoil the reading experience. But how else can you choose?

As the book begins, they have not so much stopped talking, as stopped communicating. It is a difficult time, The Project has commenced, and ‘he’ has responded by insisting on communicating only in Swedish, which he has only just begun to learn. The Project? An unplanned and as yet unconfirmed pregnancy which they may or may not terminate, and about which, the pregnancy and the termination, they both speak obliquely, fearing to bring it out into the open.

I’m looking for quotes. The word Ciarin pops up from time to time. I’ve been ignoring it but perhaps it’s ‘his’ name. I wonder if I’d thought that earlier, some passages would have made more/different sense.

You said you wanted to ‘immerse’ yourself in ‘my language’ to ‘prepare’. ‘For both our sakes,’ you said, which is NOT an answer to why you’re JUST NOT HERE ANYMORE…

By the way, Swedish isn’t going to help you much if your future is within the NHS. And anyway, didn’t you say there was no future?

‘Jag är ledsen,’ you said.

This means ‘I am sad’, though he means it as ‘I am sorry’ which, as we Australians already know from (former Prime Minister) John Howard’s refusal to say ‘I am sorry’ to Aboriginal Australians, can express both sorrow and an acceptance of guilt.

Her ‘odd’ employment is as a Norse woman, Solveig, in an ongoing historical diorama about immigrants to Scotland, in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle. There are 3 or 4 ‘Norse’ – Ida, Solveig’s mother in law played by an Icelandic woman, and Sigurd/Niklas, a Norweigan. At work, they may only speak their ‘home’ language, so Solveig and Ida must communicate via Sigurd who luckily understands both Swedish and Icelandic. Their supervisor, and each ethnic group has a bureaucrat to enforce the rules and advance their interests over the others, Joanne Tarbuck, speaks only English (and schoolgirl French it later transpires) so must communicate with them by gestures, or hold them back for meetings after work.

The other ethnic groups are Lithuanian coal miners, farmers waylaid on their way to America, and Irish dock workers. Towards the end I may have noticed some emigrés from the French Revolution.

The elements of the plot are that the Lithuanians are plotting a rebellion and K won’t go to the doctor to confirm her pregnancy, but increasingly stays up all night worrying and walking the streets. ‘She’ ignores ‘his’ texts, in increasingly good Swedish, but wallows in the emails from their early days.

Mitt nya favoritord:

sköldpadda

Sköld-padda


My new favourite word:

turtle

Shield-toad

K does this quite often, As he tries out a new word she looks at its literal meaning. [I’ve used ‘columns’ for the first time – Emma, how do you do it? – but the Swedish and English won’t line up and I’ve had to switch to Classic block to trick the columns into ending].

The truth of the matter is that you haven’t told me what you think is the right thing to do either, and you think I haven’t noticed that you’re as far from knowing what you want as I am.

From that point of view it’s a touching story, and it comes to a head, sort of, as the Lithuanians mount their rebellion. There are other elements, the use of language of course, K’s relationship with Joanne Tarbuck is a mild satire on bureaucratism, and there’s ‘his’ status as an overseas adoptee which she is more interested than he is, or than he is willing to talk about.

Give it a try. It’s an innovative work, not quite but nearly up to the standard of Normal People, and I hope it features in next year’s awards.

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Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, How We Are Translated, Scribe, London/Melbourne, 2021. 229pp

Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods (2014) is Tsiolkas’s first collection of short fiction. I have been listening to the stories over a couple of months as I had time to kill, the Audible version, read, sadly, by Humphrey Bower whose educated, rounded tones are a very poor match for Tsiolkas’s frequently rough and ethnic protagonists.

Melanie/Grab the Lapels wrote, when she was reading Tsiolkas for the first time (The Slap) that she felt she “was being pursued by penises”. James Ley writes of these stories, “they are notable for their preoccupation with sex and violence, which they frequently bring into uneasy alignment.” (Sydney Review of Books, 1 Sept 2015). I can only say that Christos Tsiolkas writes with his dick.

If you are interested in a proper review, follow the link to Ley. I’ve been listening to these stories over a number of months and barely remember the last few I listened to, let alone the first. I would not have attempted this ‘review’ at all except that one story, Civil War, concerns a young man hitchhiking from Perth, getting lifts with truck drivers across the Nullarbor. Just for you, I am going to have to listen to it again, at my desk, so I can pause it and take notes.

Here’s an admission, discussing this story with Milly over dinner at the Balmoral, she looks it up. Now, days later, I can’t find what she found, a list of chapter headings/story names. Luckily, she gave the story a name, the reading doesn’t (yes it does, I just wasn’t paying attention), and searching on ‘Civil War Tsiolkas’ I find an earlier version published in the Barcelona Review, Issue #86 (here), so suddenly excerpts are a whole lot easier.

I am thinking about God, what it would look like, taste like, smell like. Outside the window of the truck the ochre ocean of the Nullarbor spreads out before me. The massive vehicle I’m travelling in is dwarfed by the grandeur of the prehistoric earth. Its deep guttural snorts, its thundering wheels are no competition for the explosive silence of the desert. God is absent from this landscape. Or rather, God too is eclipsed by the rocks and the dirt, the scrub and sand.

In fact, truck driving is a cocoon, insulating you from the sounds, the smells, even the temperature outside. Your preoccupation, to the extent that you are paying attention, is the road, always the road, what’s ahead – traffic, kangaroos, rest stops – and how your truck is doing. Looking around requires effort.

Nothing can withstand the hold of the desert. The truck driver, over a working life of breathing in this landscape, is also becoming part of it.
‘Don’t you ever get bored by it?’
He laughs loudly and points out to the plain. ‘You can’t get bored by this. I get real fucking bored by this road, by the asphalt and the bloody white lines. But you can’t get bored by this,’ and again he points across the scrub. ‘This land that looks like an atom bomb hit it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’

This is interesting, to me anyway, but is not the point of the story. In Perth, a “white city [living] in fear of the shadows cast by its black inhabitants”, the narrator has had a lover, a young Aboriginal man, who has died of a drug overdose.

I sat next to him and gently pulled out the syringe and took off his T-shirt, wiping away the vomit from around his mouth and chin.
I cried, but I’m still not sure if it was for him or for myself. I had not yet got to know this man who was still so very much a boy. I had been up his arse, I had sucked on his cock, but I knew very little about him. I knew that there was someone I should call: the police? the ambulance?

We move backwards and forwards, from the death and funeral of the young man, to the truck, a truckstop, a meeting of likeminded drivers.

‘People are getting ready … arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.’ He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying.

The drivers are certain that a civil war is coming, that Aboriginal people are being armed “by the Jews”, and that they, we, must be armed to put them down. The truck moves off again, night falls, the narrator dozes, wakes to see a dark shape in front of them, a thump, ‘Sorry, mate, I think I might’ve just hit some pissed coon.’

A week later he’s in Sydney, making a new life.

I will feel safe and I will not question this safety. But occasionally, when a hot wind blows in from the west, I will remember that they are gathering guns in the outback.

Do truck drivers really talk like that, is that what’s going on in the other Australia, the not-Melbourne-Sydney? Maybe. They certainly use that language, and the idea that “The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars” is widespread. But no one imagines that Indigenous people are armed, and hopefully the days of “dispersions” are over.

What really impressed me was not Tsiolkas’s “knowledge” of truck drivers but his self awareness as a white man that these thoughts are not entirely repressed in his own mind, nor in ours. As he leaves the family gathered around a fire in the backyard after the funeral –

And what about you, you bastards? I was thinking. What about you lot? You were family. You should have done something. And now you insult him. You were too busy drinking and getting out of it in your own way. You fucking good-for-nothing lazy black bastards.
I’m ashamed even as I write these words. But it would be more shameful to pretend I did not think them.

I don’t recommend you read Merciless Gods. I don’t even recommend you read ‘Civil War’. Tsiolkas is a fine writer but his endless sex and violence is wearing.

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Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods, Allen & Unwin, 2014. Audio version Bolinda Books/Audible read by Humphrey Bower.

Such is Life (04), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.

We resume near the end of Chapter II with Tom visiting an old friend, Rory O’Halloran and his wife and five year old daughter, Mary, who live in a shepherd’s hut in a remote corner of Willandra Station. Tom spends the evening talking to Rory and Mary – Mrs O’Halloran is taciturn, no doubt unused to company. The next morning he accompanies Rory on his rounds, but the sight of a particular tree recalls to Tom’s mind the traveller he saw resting, and who hadn’t after all come up to the house for tucker.

Suddenly a strange misgiving seized me, and I asked involuntarily, “Do you have many swagmen calling round here?”
“Nat six in the coorse o’ the year, ” replied Rory … [who then relates that someone from the station had told him a couple of weeks ago that there was a man blind with sandy blight, making for Ivanhoe “fur till ketch the coach”]
“A found a swag on the fence a week or ten days ago, an’ a man’s tracks at the tank a couple of days afther; an the swag’s there yit ..”

Of course they find the traveller, under the tree, dead that morning, in sight of safety if he could have seen. “Such is life, and such is death.”

AG Mitchell in Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism (1967) writes –

there is an appalling incongruity between the trivial, light-hearted reason for Collins’ checking his natural impulse to speak to the man, and the consequences of his action …

Such is Life abounds in incidents of this kind, on larger and smaller scales; happenings which not only mock the most careful judgement and patient forethought but which twist themselves into stranger shapes than invention could contrive.

Mitchell argues that the underlying thesis of the novel is, What is the nature of Providence? and that this is a question which Furphy is never able to resolve to his own satisfaction. There are, Mitchell says, four “qualities attributed in literature to the spirit or force sustaining and governing the universe in its relationship to man:
Benevolence, Malevolence, Indifference and ‘Sport'”
And the author “represents all four ideas, either explicitly through one of his characters or implicitly through a series of events seen against a background of individual character, motive, responsibility, intention.”

I make Tom’s account of a few hours in the evening and the following morning sound very straightforward, but in between he’s discussing with us the beauty of Mary’s Celtic features –

Mary O’Halloran was perfect Young-Australian … she was a very creature of the phenomena which had environed her own dawning intelligence. She was a child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees. The long-descended poetry of her nature made the bush vocal with pure gladness of life …

the history of the Celts in Ireland, England and Europe; Rory’s writing – a twenty page treatise titled A Plea for Woman

.. no mere abstract can do justice to the sumptuous phraseology of the work, to its opulence of carefully selected adjective, or to the involved rhetoric which seemed to defeat and set at naught all your petty rules of syntax and prosody.

then there’s Eyre’s expedition along the shores of the Great Australian Bight; American Presidents; the Massacre of Cawnpore; the real location of the garden of Eden. Rory has questions for Tom which he answers off the top of his head: the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (6 miles); Renaissance painters who painted Calgary with a skull at the foot of the Cross (Schoen, Limousin, Durër).

Kerryn Goldsworthy writes in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000) “Such is Life [is a] sprawling, opaque and very funny novel … at once a late experiment in realism and a very early anticipation of postmodern techniques of fragmentation, allusion, pastiche and authorial self-consciousness.”


The next morning – Tom, at the beginning of this chapter, determines to relate the events not of one week, but of one day of each month. But now: “I have already exceeded the limited exactions of my diary record”.

Swagmen – men walking the backblocks looking for, or avoiding, work. Barbara Baynton, often left on her own (as it happens, nearby-ish and at this time) was understandably terrified of them – see her short story, The Chosen Vessel. A swag is a bedroll, maybe containing as well a change of clothes.

Ivanhoe, NSW – is north west of Willandra, so O’Halloran’s hut would have been on the blind swagman’s way. There must have been a coach service from Wilcannia, north of Ivanhoe, to Hay (map) which is due south and probably on to Deniliquin and Echuca. And no, Ivanhoe’s one place I’ve never been and have always wanted to (if only for the romance of the name).

Sport – As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport (King Lear).

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903

FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).

The book cover at the top is from US publisher Standard Ebooks. Their ebooks are free (here). They say they have made very few changes (eg. Mahomet to Muhammad) but they don’t say if they were working from the “standard” version – Angus & Robertson, 1944 – but from what few checks I made, they appear to be.

Cover image not credited, but appears to be from:
Frederick McCubbin, Down on his Luck, 1889
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Until I read or re-read Jane Eyre last year all my memories were from the 1943 Orson Welles movie with a young Elizabeth Taylor (above right) as Helen Burns. I didn’t write a review straight away because I was going to discuss it with my family who all seemed to be holding strong views. But then, Covid.

So, I’ve been listening to it again. Unfortunately when my last trip ended I was only up to Jane lying starving at the door of Moor House. But I’ve made some notes, which my family can discuss at our various do’s over the next two weekends – which of course have now passed if you’re reading this.

If you’re reading this, isn’t that a famous way to begin. If you’re reading this, they’ve come to get me, as a concerned friend wrote privately to warn me after I expressed the wish that Kirribili House be bombed. I didn’t mean with the Prime Minister’s family in it, but just as a reaction when I learned it was Scotty from Marketing’s official residence though we pay him to live in and govern from Canberra. I really must learn to be more temperate (in the last few years left to me).

So as I was saying before I chose to interrupt myself, if you’re reading this then Gee, Milly, I and anyone else who joined in, have if not reached a conclusion, then at least have had a say. Here are my notes:


Jane Eyre is apparently the first novel ever to follow the consciousness of a first-person protagonist.

My interest is in the way that Brontë regards employment for young middle class women as natural, and posits that they may prefer to be employed than to be married, or may continue their employment after marriage (see also, The Professor).

Gateshead Hall

JE aged 5-10 is bullied by her 14 yo old cousin John and by her Aunt Reed, whose daughters, Eliza and Georgiana, about Jane’s age, generally follow her (their mother’s) lead. I got the feeling, though it was never anywhere stated, that the danger from John would soon be sexual, and that she was well out of there.

Bessie the nursemaid is short tempered and this obscures from Jane the real affection Bessie has for her.

Jane demonstrates her inner strength (and surprising command of language) by speaking out to her aunt about the unfairness of the way she has been treated.

Lowood Institution

Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood, is a bully and a misogynist (eg. his hatred of curled hair which inflames his lust, which otherwise seems to have had little outlet if he has been restricted to just two offspring, now grown). But after two years at Lowood, he is the last bully Jane has to contend with.

Jane is loved by Helen Burns and by the Superintendent, Miss Temple, although they both leave her. But over the next 8 years, lightly passed over, 6 as star pupil and 2 as teacher, she seems to have gained a healthy (ie. normal) self esteem. Jane already has another friend by the time Helen Burns dies and we may therefore assume she had friends throughout her time at school; but it is still good that Bessie calls on her before she leaves to remind her that she has friends in the wider world.

Thornfield Hall

Jane slots in easily to her role as governess to Adele; and slowly falls in love with her master, Edward Rochester. Brontë the vicar’s daughter seems quite comfortable writing about Rochester’s mistress, the mistress’s various lovers, and Rochester’s subsequent mistresses.

A theme comes to its head here which draws comparison with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and that is Jane’s susceptibility to ghost stories. The shrieks which she assigns to Grace Poole in the room above hers of course don’t help.

Gateshead Hall

Jane comfortably deals with her cousins as their equal, indeed their superior in intellect and moral development. The spoilt and selfish Georgiana goes on to a socially successful marriage (Brontë doesn’t bother drawing a moral from her behaviour); Eliza eschews marriage for the nunnery and a life of contemplation and there too Brontë comments on neither the ‘goodness’ nor the sterility of her choice.

What I am trying to say is that Jane is growing into a self-assured young woman, and that the comparisons with Georgiana and Eliza demonstrate she is probably taking the path that suits her best.

Thornfield Hall

Rochester proposes, Jane accepts, and the marriage is aborted at the altar by the revelation of Rochester’s youthful marriage to the mad Bertha.

There are elements of racism here, in references to Bertha’s mother being ‘Creole’ and also in an earlier instance where Jane unnecessarily refers to ‘Jewish usury’. The madness is portrayed as a moral and perhaps even a racial failing and not as an illness.

Interestingly, Brontë has Jane give serious consideration to becoming Rochester’s mistress and then has her feeling guilty about the pain she is causing R by fleeing.


Spoilers. As I said, my trip ended with Jane prostrate at the door of Moor House. Leaving aside the ‘Gothic’ coincidence of the occupants of the house being her cousins, and this is to some extent a gothic novel, this chapter of Jane’s life is characterised by her ability to support herself as a teacher, and the pressure her cousin St John Rivers puts her under to accompany him to India as his wife and assistant (more bullying?). But Brontë clearly doesn’t intend Jane to be a martyr. She inherits and shares with her cousins a fortune (which as she was a minor, should have been impossible) and returns to Thornfield Hall.

Gee wrote back as soon as she had my notes to say that she thought Brontë lost her nerve in this final section, that Jane Eyre was a potentially great Independent Woman brought down by an inconstant author:

The idea that a young poor friendless woman would be enough for a rich handsome man, simply because he likes her personality is unacceptable to the writer.

My own first thoughts were to compare Brontë and Jane Austen. Snippy Elizabeth Bennet was never going to be other than a rich man’s wife, whereas Jane Eyre, like JA (and almost Ch. Brontë) may well have stayed unmarried. The best comparison for Jane Eyre is Uncle Gardiner. They are both plain, reliable and self-sufficient. Jane is slightly above him in birth and he of course is well above her in wealth.

I am not so unhappy as Gee that Jane chose marriage – I’m a sucker for love stories – though I agree it was unnecessary to make her and Rochester more equal. I envisage Jane going on to a productive life improving the villages around Thornfield and of course, funding and supervising schools.

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Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, first pub. 1847.

As you can see, none of us, over the course of two long weekends, looked up from our food and drink long enough to engage in bookish discussions.

The Silence, Susan Allott

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

The Silence (2020) is an Australian mystery by an English woman which I came to via a review and author interview on an American blog – Grab the Lapels (Melanie). Author, Susan Allott spent a few years in Sydney, as a teenager I think, but homesickness got her and she’s now back in England. She says that between having an Australian husband and her own time here, she became interested in and angered by the policies which led to the Stolen Generations. In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy.

The principal character of the novel is Isla, who in 1967 is a four year old whose parents, Joe and Louisa, have come out from England and settled in an ordinary northern Sydney beach-side suburb. While her mother works, Isla spends all day with Mandy, their next door neighbour. Joe is a construction supervisor in the city and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic, while Mandy’s husband Steve is a policeman whose only job, seemingly, is to drive his ‘truck’ into the outback to take Aboriginal children from their families.

And for those, like our Prime Minister, who like to claim that this stuff only occurred way back in the past, I should point out that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board authorised the taking of Aboriginal children up till 1969. That is, there are Indigenous men and women, who were born at the same time as the Prime Minister, and in the same state, who were stolen by people of his and our parents’ generations.

The story proceeds on two timelines in parallel, and via the viewpoints of all five main characters. The second timeline begins in 1997 when Isla, who is working in London, returns to Sydney to stand by her father who is a person of interest in the belated police investigation into the disappearance of Mandy who, it turns out, has not been seen for 30 years.

I’m guessing Allott has chosen ’67 and ’97 to fit in with Aboriginal ‘Protection’ ending at the end of the ’60s, although this does make The Silence Historical as well as Crime Fiction. Particularly in the 1967 timeline, there will be a radio on in the background with Harold Holt defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Sydney Opera House under construction and so on, to remind us of the period.

In the earlier timeline Louisa is unable to deal with her homesickness, nor with Joe’s drinking and violence, nor his inability to understand, and despite being pregnant, she flies home to her mother (at a time, the author says, when flying was still expensive and relatively unusual. My grandparents went ‘home’ by sea in the early 60s but flew for other trips later in the same decade*). Allott says she originally intended Louisa to be the principal character so she could discuss her own homesickness, many years later, but the Stolen Generations part of the narrative took over.

Isla feels a distance between herself and her mother and is much more comfortable with Mandy who has no children of her own, and likes it that way, but is happy to have Isla around her feet or to take her down the beach at the end of the street. Mandy has to deal with Steve’s distress each time he returns from a trip which has resulted in another Aboriginal child being dragged from its mother’s arms to be put into care, and also with his unhappiness at their having no children of their own. I must say Isla remembers a lot for a four year old. All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.

‘Steve’s back!’ Isla held onto the back of the couch and sprang up and down, her backside in the air. ‘He’s back, Mandy!’
Mandy stood at the window and looked out. Steve had parked up already, and the truck was filthy, as always. Mud-caked wheels; brick-red dust at the fenders. The windscreen was covered in muck but for the small double-arc of the wipers.
Steve turned the engine off and slumped over the steering wheel, resting his head on the bridge of his hands.
Mandy’s stomach turned. ‘Here we go,’ she said, as he lifted his head. She stepped away from the window, afraid to catch his eye.

Australian writer, Sara Dowse commented recently in Whispering Gums about crime fiction: “.. when it’s done well it’s often where you find the best characterisations, and the feeling of place and time.” That was in the context of a Gary Disher novel, though my own examples would be Ian Rankin or Camilla Läckberg. This novel is not of that standard but Isla and the four adults are well defined and we understand them better as the novel progresses, though this is less true of the locations, which are relatively generic.

This is not a classic whodunit, but 1997 Isla works her way around indifferent policing to prod her parents and the hard-to-find Steve until she and we get some idea of what happened to Mandy and why. I’m not sure Allott got 1967 Australia exactly right, but in the end I found the novel both plausible and interesting.

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Susan Allott, The Silence, The Borough Press, London 2020. 350pp.


*The era of cheap international flights began for Australians in 1971 when Qantas introduced into service its first Boeing 747.

Speak, Louisa Hall

I’m home. I’m bored. I have posts written up weeks ahead. I’m reading almost at random. Georgette Heyer, The Toll Gate; Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, ETA Hoffman, Mr Flea, another chapter of Such is Life – I’m dying to just read on instead of stopping to research and analyze; and this one which appeared lying around the flat one day, which has a Crow Books (local indie) sticker, and which I suspect Milly picked up a year or two ago when we would go across the road to Crow after a meal at the Balmoral and which Lou found in his relentless search for SF he has not yet read.

Yes, Speak (2015) is yet another dystopian novel carefully avoiding the descriptor Science Fiction. But Science Fiction is what it is. The premise of the novel is that dolls with AI were so life-like that girl children loved them to the exclusion of all else, friends and family, and that when mothers forced the government to withdraw them, substitutes made of toxic plastics caused many children to “freeze up”, to suffer a creeping paralysis. This all taking place in an America twenty years in the future where fresh water is scarce and mostly owned by corporations; cities are being lost to rising seas; the Gulf of Mexico is turgid brown from spilled oil; and people who have sold off their rights to movement are trapped in their apartments.

“Louisa Hall grew up in Philadelphia. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa”. She has three novels and some poetry to her credit. That’s all her website says about her. By her photo she might be 35-ish. Is there anyone writing novels today who is not an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing somewhere? It doesn’t seem so. There must be some pressure on all these Assistant Professor/novelists to show some innovation/points of difference in their craft otherwise what is the point of all those years of study (and how else to get to full Professor).

In Speak, Hall has us listen to the voices of a number of different characters, from different times, all linked in some way to these ‘babybot’ AI dolls. It’s a clever and interesting work, but not one I was planning to review, until near the end the author hit on a couple of subjects – which I will get to – which clearly she regarded as personal.

One of those characters is the computer science genius, Alan Turing (1912-1954) who, although Hall does not discuss it directly, proposed a test, now known as the Turing Test, to determine if a computer was ‘intelligent’. Mary, the AI in the novel, we see at various stages of ‘her’ development. As Mary(3) she has absorbed a great deal of material and has been given the ability to ‘grow’ or change in response to what she learns, so that when she becomes the intelligence in the babybots, each babybot is soon unique.

A man I once knew believed I was alive. Another man taught me to speak; the woman he married filled me with stories. A third man gave me my body. One child loved me. They spoke to me and I listened.

The voices who alternate throughout the book are –
Stephen Chinn, the developer of the babybots, in the 2030s and 40s
Gaby White, a girl whose babybot was taken away
Karl Dettman, the developer of Mary in the 1960s
Ruth Dettman, Karl’s wife
Alan Turing, posits the idea of Artificial Intelligence in the 1940s
Mary Bradford, a 13 year old Puritan emigrating from England to Massachusetts in 1663
a babybot, unnamed, which is being shipped out, with hundreds of its fellows, into the desert to run down and die.

As far as I know, only Turing is a real person.

Briefly, Chinn is in gaol in the 2040s where he is writing his memoirs; a transcript of conversations between Gaby and a computer linked to Mary(3) was tendered as evidence in the case against Chinn; the Dettman’s are German Jews who left Germany (separately) for the US before WWII; Turing, largely friendless, writes letters to the mother of a school friend who died; Mary Bradford keeps a diary of her emigration to America with her parents and with the man they have forced her to marry (not consumated during the course of the book). Mary has an unnatural love for her dog and an unusual interest in Copernicus’ proof of a helio-centric solar system.

Chinn’s original interest, as an archetypal nerd, is in writing algorithms for interactions with women which will make him irresistible to them. This works; he turns his discoveries into a financially successful dating site; becomes bored with the subsequent wealth and orgies, marries his housekeeper, they have a child; he invents babybots to distract his daughter so his wife will pay him more attention; she gets sick of him spending all day inventing and divorces him; the babybots are too successful; he goes to gaol.

Dettman too, a half century earlier, spends too much time developing Mary. He thinks he is communicating with his wife but she turns away from him. Her interest is in old diaries which have been published but then forgotten. The breaking point of their marriage is not his inability to understand how she feels about the loss of all her family in the Holocaust, when his family were safely in America, but his fear of what Mary might become and his refusal to include the diary of Mary Bradford in her memory banks.

Hall herself obviously has an interest in ‘lost’ diaries, but also a much greater interest in husbands who assume they know their wives well enough to be able to tell them (their wives) what they are thinking. In the last third of the book Dettman goes off with a leggy grad student and Ruth gets to do the talking.

Turing’s story is well-known but sad nonetheless. Mary(3)’s doubts about her own intelligence will I am sure become less and less as years pass. There’s a fascinating article in today’s (15 Mar 21) New York Times about the white male biases being built into AIs by, of course, Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

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Louisa Hall, Speak, Orbit, London, 2015. 314pp.

Nada, Carmen Laforet

Four years ago next month Milly and I met up with our daughter, Gee and grandchildren in Paris and travelled with them to Avignon where Gee had taken a house for a week. Milly was to stay and help with the kids but my Eurail pass was burning a hole in my pocket so after one night I caught the local train out to the mainline station. Choices! I could go north to Lyon, Paris, Frankfurt; south and east to Marseilles, Nice, Monaco and on into Italy (as we indeed all did at the end of the week); or south and west to Spain – Barcelona and Madrid.

I had already decided on the last, and was reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in readiness. For some reason – I have no French and the ticket sellers had no English – I could only get a ticket to the Spanish border. I paid my €10, and at the border jumped off briefly to pay another €10 for a ticket to Barcelona (which is not how the system is meant to work, but no matter, I was happy).

A couple of more hours and I was there. And I did not want to be. There were thousands of people watching motorbike races in the plaza outside the station and thousands more queuing up all down the street to go into some exhibition or other. I walked around the motorcycle crowd to the ruins above them, back down again to the station and caught the next train to Madrid where I spent the night and a pleasant morning before making my way to Zaragoza and Huesca, on the edge of the country where Orwell saw action, and from there by local transport over the Pyrenees to Toulouse. Milly and I had hoped we might make a more successful visit to Barcelona this year, but it was not to be.

Orwell entered Spain, as I did, from the south of France, in 1936 to join the Trotskyite forces in the coalition fighting to save the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic from General Franco’s Fascist/Monarchist armed takeover. He found Barcelona in a state of Anarchist self-governance

It was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist… All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State …

Nada (1945) is set in Barcelona, in 1940, after the Civil War and with the rest of Europe in the early stages of WW II. A year in the life of Andrea, an orphan country girl who comes up to the city to stay with her once prosperous upper middle class relatives, and attend university. Andrea is largely oblivious of the Civil War which must have been fought all round her as she was growing up, and only mentions it in the context of her two uncles’ – Roman and Juan – uncertain allegiance to the Republican side and their now uncertain tempers.

The family home, a third floor apartment in an once ‘good’ street, is now decrepit and dirty and housing too many people – Grandma, pious Aunt Angustias, Juan and his beautiful lower class wife, Gloria and their baby, the maid and a dog. Roman lives some levels above them in the attic. Food is scarce, the family is almost entirely without income. Juan is a talentless artist. Gloria who must spend hours modelling for him, sells his paintings for their scrap value, and goes down to her sisters’s in the slums to play cards for money, at which she is successful and for which Juan beats her mercilessly and repeatedly. Roman is a fine musician and composer which talents he has always been too lazy to profit by and instead brings in a small income from smuggling. Andrea, when she gains control of her student allowance from her aunt, spends it all at once in the first days of the month then starves through the remaining weeks, Her bird-thin Grandma leaves out portions of her own meals for her for when she gets home, and as she slowly makes friends at university they too conspire to keep her fed. Only the dog eats well.

This is one of those brilliant novels played out entirely in the head of the first person protagonist. Roman attempts to persuade Andrea that the only life of any importance is that of the apartment, where he is the centre of all disruption – attacking Angustias for her ‘secret’ lover whom her father had forbidden her to marry but who was now rich (and married to someone else); attacking Juan for bringing Gloria into the household; and Gloria for her attraction to him (Roman) when he rescued her during the war.

Juan put Gloria in the bath and without taking off her clothes ran the icy shower over her. He brutally held her head so that if she opened her mouth she couldn’t help swallowing water. Meanwhile, turning to us, he shouted:
“All of you back to bed! Nobody has any business here!”
But we didn’t move. My grandmother pleaded:
“For your baby’s sake, for your baby! Calm down Juanito!”

Slowly, Andrea, poor and unfashionably dressed, an outsider at University, is befriended by the beautiful Ena and by some of the arty boys, all of course from well-off families. They come and go in the story over the course of the year as Andrea pays them attention, or not, and as they do other stuff. Ena, is clearly fascinated by Roman, and we live with all Andrea’s reactions to that as the reasons for Ena’s fascination slowly become clear.

I was interested in the Catalan (separatist) side to this, but very little is said. It becomes apparent that the family mostly speak Castillian Spanish and Catalan only to working people. Apparently it was better for Laforet to gloss over the Catalan problem to evade Franco’s censors.

Thank you Pam/Travellin’ Penguin for sending me this. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Carmen Laforet, Nada, first pub.1945. translated by Edith Grossman. Edition read: Vintage 2008. 241pp

Such is Life (03), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)

We’re at Chapter II which begins with Tom giving up on his idea of describing minutely every day of one week and instead determining “to pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day for amplification and comment, keeping not too long in one tune, but a snip and away”. This “transports” us to 9th October 1883 and a hundred miles northward, to Willandra Billabong, real black-soil desert country on the middle reaches of the Lachlan River which in dry times peters out and in flood spreads across country as far west as the Darling.

On the verandah of the Willandra Station men’s quarters an argument breaks out as to whether cattle can smell water. This leads of course to a story, in this case of Tom as a bullocky delivering fencing wire to Willandra two years earlier (his bullocks dying of thirst stood next to water without realizing it was there), and on to a second story of meeting an Irish shepherd at that time whom he had previously known when he (Tom) was a settler in northern Victoria, and thence to a considerable digression on the British fomenting trouble between Irish Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers.

Tom determines to call in on the shepherd again on his way northwards and soon he and his horses are fed and he’s ready to depart –

A few minutes afterward, Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down by means of the exercise with which he habitually opened the day’s work. But this was to be expected in the same spirit as the abusive language of a faithful pastor, It was all in the contract. ..I dare say I might have gradually weaned him from his besetting sin, but I didn’t want to be pestered with people borrowing him.

Travelling through “the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub” which he clearly loves, “painted by nature in its Impressionist mood”, he muses on its virgin state “sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal savage” before running into the Irish shepherd, Rory O’Halloran, some miles from his hut. They travel together until a Rory sees some task to be done and sends Tom on ahead.

A half mile or so from the hut Tom espies a traveller resting under a tree. Etiquette stops him from hailing the traveller who would probably prefer to arrive at the hut after dusk when there was no danger of his having to chop the wood in exchange for a feed. But the author wants us to mark that this was a decisive turning point, and then discourses for some pages, citing Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet to make his point, that an option once taken cannot be reversed and will always have unexpected consequences.

Or put it in allegorical form. The misty expanse of Futurity is radiated with divergent lines of rigid steel; and along one of these lines, with diminishing carbon and sighing exhaust, you travel at schedule speed, At each junction, you switch right or left, and on you go still, up or down the way of your own choosing. But there is no stopping or turning back; and until you have passed the current section there is no divergence, except by voluntary catastrophe. Another junction flashes into sight, and again your choice is made; negligently enough, perhaps, but still with a view to what you consider the greatest good, present or prospective.

So Tom goes on, to meet the unwelcoming Mrs O’Halloran and their five year old daughter, Mary whose fate rings down through the novel.


transports you (saving reverence of our ‘birth stain’)” – A small pun on our origins as transported convicts

as far west as the Darling – The Lachlan nominally runs into the Murrumbidgee but this country is very flat.

Willandra – near present-day Hillston, in the middle of this map, and on the road-train route from Melbourne to North Queensland which I know well.

Willandra Station – have I made it clear that in Australia a ‘station’ is a very large grazing property on unimproved country, running sheep or cattle. Squatters are station owners. The state governments at various times – as late as the 1950s – made the squatters give up portions of their land to Settlers, but the squatters generally managed to hang on to the best watering places; and would sometimes put in Dummies to act as settlers on blocks they wished to retain. In passing, this policy of breaking up stations is why the anger of white commentators towards Zimbabwe’s Mugabe was a total confection. Yes, his execution of the policy was corrupt (or corrupted) but it was a policy common in all settler countries.

Tom, a settler – In 1868 Furphy, his father and brother took up land at Sand Hills between Bendigo and Shepparton but Joseph was unable to make a go of it (see Such is Life (01)).

The Irish question – Tom is presumably English Protestant but the Furphys (as was the shepherd) were Irish Catholics, from Tandragee, County Armagh in 1840.

“Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down” – you might recall, Tom’s horse responded to being remounted by bucking.

Tom in his musings “appears to subscribe to the Terra Nullius theory that completely disregards the long history of the country’s Aboriginal inhabitants, but this is at odds” with Furphy’s own published views. (annotation 66:7)

On re-reading, this is a very slow post, and it reflects the book’s slow build up to the underlying dramas. What I have failed to convey is the amusement derived by the reader from the individual stories as Tom wends his discursive way.

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FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).

The January Zone, Peter Corris

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

Peter Corris (1942-2018) must be our best known crime fiction writer, especially his Cliff Hardy novels of which this is one, the tenth as you can see, of 44. Looking through the list I can see that I’ve listened to a few, but this one happened to be on my shelves so I thought I would add it to Kimbofo’s month. In passing, his Wikipedia entry tells me Corris was married to AWW Gen 4 writer Jean Bedford, and that he had a PhD in History with a thesis on the South Seas Islander slave trade (into Queensland).

The Cliff Hardy novels are set in Sydney, Corris’s adopted home city (he was born and educated in Melbourne). Hardy’s home is an old terrace house in the inner-west, off Glebe Point Rd I think, which I used to know a little bit as B2 had a house there, 2 storeys, 11 ft wide and with a sandstone cliff at the end of the backyard. Although the novels are generally read independently, over the course of reading them you get some familiarity with his home life.

In The January Zone (1987) Hardy is late fortyish, so the same age as his author, divorced, alone, Helen his lover back living up the coast with her husband and daughter. He has a military background of course, in his case service with the Australian Army in Malaya; and is scruffy and anti-authoritarian and all those other cliches of modern detective fiction.

I am used to Hardy sloping around the streets of Sydney in his battered old Ford Falcon doing sleuthing stuff, but this novel jumps the shark a little – and it surprised me to find it was relatively early in the series – with Hardy acting as bodyguard (“security consultant”) to Labor politician, pacifist and Assistant Defence Minister Peter January during a trip to Washington to appear before a Senate Committee into the Russian threat in the Pacific or somesuch.

Hardy doesn’t want to be a security consultant but is persuaded when he’s present when a bomb goes off in the Minister’s office and a young intern is killed (and is barely mentioned again). And yes it pisses me off that a Federal Minister’s office is in Sydney. A constant stream of Sydney-based Prime Ministers over the past 30 years has incrementally moved the seat of government, not to mention the PM’s residence (I’d bomb Kirribilli if I could), away from Canberra in defiance of the Constitution.

January, so he fits in with every other male politician, pretends to be a lecher to divert attention from the fact that he’s actually going about with the wife of a senior Liberal. Hardy has the hots for Trudi, January’s secretary, though when his big opportunity comes he thinks of Helen and keeps his pants on (sort of).

She collapsed and I got properly onto the bed and held her. After a while she reached down and pulled the sheet up over us. “How do you feel now?” she said.
“I want you.” I was still hot and hard.
“Better we don’t,” she murmured. “This way you’ll remember … something different …”
“I’ll think of the Queen.”
She smiled and curled herself up.

A sniper takes a shot at Trudi before they leave Sydney; someone attempts to run the Minister’s car off the road on the way in from Washington airport; an assassin electrifies the microphone, killing the warm-up speaker at a January rally; January is a media sensation (the first Australian media sensation in the US since the PM’s wife wore a dress with a slit all the way up the side back in 1971). So you can see what I mean about jumping the shark.

Politicians around the world are struck by the brilliance of the junior Minister’s plan for peace in our time. Back home there’s a kidnapping, men playing merry hell with shotguns, more deaths, all the stuff you see every day in your morning newspaper. Not. The January Zone is more Action novel than Detective, very Sydney. I probably should have read a Peter Temple instead.

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Peter Corris, The January Zone, Unwin Paperbacks, Sydney, 1987. 205pp