Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Monkey Grip (1977) is famously Helen Garner’s first novel. It comes mid-generation, marking a clear point of no return, a clean break with with Australian writing’s past. If any one novel represents AWW Gen 4, then this is it.

When I first read Monkey Grip I saw it in the tradition of the Beats – Kerouac, Burroughs, and as I read more widely and time passed, of Kathy Acker and Irvine Welsh, leading on to Australia’s brief Grunge movement in the 1990s – Ettler, Tsiolkas, McGahan. With this re-reading, I don’t resile from those connections, but I’ve also read a lot more Garner. This is more than just living poor and taking drugs, this is Garner’s deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others, and of course to autofiction.

The book it now reminds me of most closely is her fictionalised account of her friend’s treatment for late-stage cancer, The Spare Room (2008).

In December 1972 Garner, who was then 30, was fired from her job as a teacher for talking dirty to her 11-13 year old pupils: ” …the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I’m not going to say “sexual intercourse”, I’m going to say “fuck” and I’m going to say “cock” and “cunt” too, so we’d better get that straight. Is that OK?”

Joseph Steinberg writes in an ALS article that “the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place.” He quotes Kerryn Goldsworthy: “[male] reviewers were made uneasy ‘by frank, serious, knowledgeable utterances about sexuality made by a woman’ in Garner’s early novels and sought ‘to query her status as a literary author: in a word, to sack her’ (again)”.

In Monkey Grip, Nora – who stands in for Garner – is a single mother, with a five year old daughter, Gracie, living in share houses, old workers’ cottages in nineteenth century terraces around the CBD and Melbourne University (both presences which are felt but hardly ever mentioned); if I’ve got it right, first in Fitzroy, then near the Victoria Markets, and then back in Fitzroy.

It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack… But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart.

Or as Steinberg summarises: “Nora needs to fuck Javo, Javo needs dope; Nora needs Javo not to need dope, but Javo needs it to need Nora, and Nora needs to be needed by Javo, ‘must learn not to need him’ though he needs her, for when it is her turn to need him he will ‘he will have nothing to give’. ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’, muses Nora midway through the novel.”

Gracie is an odd presence throughout, bored witless in her first year at school, already able to read, and at home, a Jiminy Cricket, seeing everything, an independent spirit with her own opinions, her own life.

One of the most interesting things about the story telling is the complete absence of back story for any of the characters. You get to know them as they appear on the page, entirely without explanation. Anything that’s not relevant at that moment, you don’t hear about.

Kevin Brophy in another ALS essay writes about Monkey Grip‘s reception over time. Especially early on, male reviewers were unhappy with Garner’s focus on women’s issues; Garner was an author who ‘talks dirty and passes it off as realism’; male and female reviewers, as was always the case with works by women, shrugged it off as a love story; almost no attention was paid to the innovation in both writing and subject matter. Brophy suggests an alternative reading, one which was resisted by nearly every reviewer:

The text proposes that people can throw conventions aside and reinvent themselves and their social relations in a process of change that is self-imposed, liminal, unpredictable and spontaneous. These new possibilities involve the reader in a world where communal living and single parenting can be the norm, where children are relatively independent and have insights to offer on the behaviour of the adults around them, a world where women insist on meeting men as equals. It is a world where a woman can speak and write of sex explicitly, dispassionately, even ‘tastelessly’ in a literary work — an accomplishment long granted to male literary figures. In these and other ways Monkey Grip invites readers to recognise and reassess the conventions by which they take their ‘realist’ fiction and by which they live.

Today, forty something years later, Garner’s autofiction is still controversial. In 1977 it was just plain un-literary.

I haven’t made it clear, but we make our way through a year and a bit of inner Melbourne life; hot summer days at the Fitzroy baths; cycling through Carlton and Fitzroy’s achingly familiar plane tree lined streets; in and out of each others’ share houses; in and out of beds in all the painful permutations of ‘open’ relationships; struggling to a resolution.

One last quote from Brophy:

[T]here is a further, more socially fundamental and political perspective on addiction offered in the novel. The patriarchal value system— the ideology that socialises us from childhood—is here presented as the overwhelming addiction suffered by characters who are wanting to reinvent value systems for social relations.

Garner is a revolutionary, remaking the way we think about living, about bringing up children, about relationships; remaking the way we think about Literature. If you haven’t read Monkey Grip yet, do yourself a favour.

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Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin/McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1977. 245pp.

References:
Joseph Steinberg, Helen Garner’s Education, Australian Literary Studies, 28 Oct 2021
Kevin Brophy, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, The Construction of an Author and her Work, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 1992


Lisa/ANZLitLovers is first off the block for AWW Gen 4 Week with a review of Amy Witting’s, The Visit (here) and Sue/Whispering Gums has promised to be on topic in tomorrow’s Monday Musings, and now (Sunday afternoon) I see she’s reviewed a Janet Turner Hospital short story (here) as well.

Re my North America Project 2022, I’m sorry but it’s weeks since I’ve been in the truck so I have not made a start on Their Eyes Were Watching God audiobook. As I have Octavia Butler’s Kindred on my shelves, I am reading that and will put up a review on 31 Jan. Next month is still The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and March is Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (BIP, I know you suggested Salt Roads, thank you, but I decided to go with MR because it is earlier.) I’ll advise other months, including Their Eyes, when I get more organized.

Jennifer Government, Max Barry

AusReading Month 2021

Emma/Book Around the Corner had at least two goes at getting me to listen to Jennifer Government (2002) and to appreciate the SF writing of Australian, Max Barry (1973 – ) as I had heard of neither. So thank you Emma, I appreciated the experience so much that I repeated it. Ok, to be honest, I retained so little first time round, that I had to re-listen to be able to write a review.

Max Barry, research tells me, is a Melbourne marketing type guy, who writes fiction, film scripts, computer games and blogs (here). Jennifer Government was his second novel, after Syrup, which was made into a movie, of which I also had not heard.

The setting for Jennifer Government is a near future when Australia and most other countries have been incorporated into the USA. A near future in which every neo-con wet dream has come true and big business is almost entirely free of the shackles of government. And social services are a pipe dream (except in much-derided Europe) because of course big business doesn’t pay taxes (so, much like now).

I found the book both well written and entertaining. Without any info dumping we discover that employees’ surnames are now the names of their employers; schools are sponsored by corporations (whose names the children bear); during the course of a shooting we find an ambulance can’t be ordered without credit card details; when the victim of the shooting dies, her parents are required to pay all the costs of both the investigation and the subsequent prosecution.

We can laugh, but like much SF, this is a fair analysis of the direction in which our society is trending.

There is a large cast and a sweeping story line. It goes something like this: Hank Nike, just a merchandising clerk, runs into John Nike, guerilla marketer and John Nike his offsider/fixit man. They offer him the chance to join Marketing and wave in front of him a multi page contract with very small print, which he signs, only to find that it calls on him to shoot dead 8 shoppers for the new range of Nike shoes, thus demonstrating how desperate shoppers are to get them. All the stores are stocked up in advance. Consumers are led to expect there are only a limited number available. In fact there are 500,000 pairs at $2,000/pair. A billion dollars.

Hank’s girlfriend Violet – no surname, she’s unemployed, working on a new computer programme/virus – persuades Hank to go to the ‘police’, a sort of Pinkertons (if you read Westerns) and they, for a large fee, agree not to prevent the murders, but to carry them out themselves, though it subsequently turns out they in turn subcontracted to the NRA.

One of the shootings, at Chadstone shopping centre – and it is a joy in this (deliberately) American accented read to so often run into familiar Melbourne place names – is witnessed by a French Australian stockbroker, Buy Mitsui who is traumatised when he fails to prevent the schoolgirl victim, Milly, from bleeding to death.

Jennifer Government has had information that the shootings are to occur and is one of many agents stationed outside Nike stores around the country. She is unsuccessful in stopping the Chadstone shooting and is shot herself, saved by her bullet-proof vest but falling four floors through the atrium to land on the roof of a Mercedes lottery prize.

This is an action story, but with a difference. Violence is not glorified. Jennifer is a single mother, her daughter Kate aged 8 at a Mattel school (and hence, Kate Mattel). JG is forever making promises to Kate which she cannot keep, and when John Nike is promoted overseas and she takes off after him, she chooses to leave Kate in the care of the man whom she met and slept with just the previous day.

Meanwhile Violet, beats up on the second John Nike when he attempts to rape her, and is then taken up by Exxon Mobil who want to use her virus to disadvantage a competitor, Royal Dutch Shell; she leaves Hank who takes up with her sister who in turn introduces him to her protester friends.

The corporations, with John Nike somehow in the lead, go rogue and the government attempts to rein them in. It all comes to head in a meeting in the House of Commons in London, at the end of which John Nike has hired an unwilling NRA gunman to assassinate the President.

SF is often outrageous when it is written, and surprisingly close to the mark a decade or two later, and such is the case here. Read it as SF or read it as Satire, it works either way. But read it.

I don’t know why Max Barry and Jennifer Government haven’t been on my radar. Are they on yours? Maybe they are better known overseas than in Australia. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention. But I am now.

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Max Barry, Jennifer Government, 2002. Audiobook: Audible, read by Michael Kramer, 2004. 9 hrs

see also: from Guy Savage/His Futile Preoccupations, a Max Barry fan –
Jennifer Government (review)
Other Max Barrys (here)
Guest post on Whispering Gums (here)

The Sentimental Bloke, CJ Dennis

Brona’s Books: August is Poetry Month

CJ Dennis (1876-1938) was born in rural South Australia to Irish Catholic parents. His father was a publican in the Clare Valley north east of Adelaide. His mother died when he was young and he was brought up by aunts. He had various jobs in pubs and newspapers until late in 1907 he moved to Victoria, to Toolangi in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne where he camped, lived with friends and later, married, built a house.

The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke [his second book of verse] was published in October 1915; twelve of the fourteen poems had appeared in the Bulletin since 1909. It was an immediate success, requiring three editions in 1915, nine in 1916, and three in 1917″ (ADB) These of course were War years and many of the copies were sold to men serving overseas who knew Dennis from his famous anthem, The Austral-aise.

Fellers of Australier,
Blokes an’ coves an’ coots,
Shift yer — carcases,
Move yer — boots
Gird yer — loins up,
Get yer — gun,
Set the — enermy
An’ watch the — run

I would say most Australians know The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, by reputation anyway, except it’s hard to know what ‘most Australians’ know these days, bugger all probably. The most famous section, The Play, begins –

“Wot’s in a name?” she sez . . . An’ then she sighs
An’ clasps ‘er little ‘ands, an’ rolls ‘er eyes.
“A rose,” she sez, “be any other name
Would smell the same.”

Recognize it? Of course you do. The setting for this cycle of poems, and therefore presumably the language, is from the backstreets of inner Melbourne, not Dennis’s native territory. Whether, as an outsider, he captures it perfectly I of course can’t tell. But he certainly captures the way we (used to) like to think ‘we’ spoke. Well, except for the upper classes, who spoke like a cross between the Queen and BBC radio announcers.

The story begins with The Kid (Bill, or as his future mother in law calls him, to his disgust, Willy) down in the dumps, willing to give up both the push (his gang) and drinking if he could only get a girl. “if this dilly feelin’ doesn’t stop/I’ll lose me block an’ stoush some flamin’ cop!”

He sees around the place a better class of girl than he’s used to, and finally scores an introduction

‘Twas on a Saturdee, in Colluns Street,
An’ – quite by accident, o’course – we meet.
Me pal ‘e trots up an’ does the toff –
‘E allus was a bloke for showin’ off.
“This ‘ere’s Doreen,” ‘e sez. “This ‘ere’s the Kid.”
I dips me lid.

and he’s a new man. “‘Er name’s Doreen . . . An’ me – that thort I knoo/The ways uv tarts, an’ all that smoogin’ game!/An’ so I ort; fer ain’t I known a few?/Yet some’ow . . . I dunno. It ain’t the same.”

Time passes. “So goes each day, like some celeschil mill,/E’er since I met that shyin’ little peach.” At the beach he declares himself. “I wish’t yeh meant it, Bill.” But this is the real thing.

That bosker feelin’ that come o’er a bloke,
An’ makes ‘im melt;
Makes ‘im all hot to maul ‘er, an’ to shove
‘Is arms about ‘er . . . Bli’me? but it’s love!

They go to see The Play. But then, is she interested in someone else? A coot in a stror ‘at? But no. He’s done her wrong. “She sung a song; an’ orl them bitter things/That chewin’ over lovers’ quarrels brings/Guv place to thorts of of sorrer an’ remorse.” And so he gets taken to meet her Mar. On the way home reality bites (but only for a moment) “An’ as I’m moochin’ ‘omeward frum the car/A sudden notion stops me wiv a jar -/Wot if Doreen, I thinks, should grow to be,/A fat ole weepin’ willer like ‘er Mar!”

We make our way through the wedding; getting looked after after coming home drunk; a visit from an Uncle who offers them the opportunity to become farmers (orchardists); and finally, a kid.

But in that stillness, as the day grows dim,
‘An I am sittin’ there wiv ‘er an’ ‘im –
My wife, my son! an’ strength in me to strive,
I only know – it’s good to be alive!

I have, from my father’s collection, the book with the cover above and thought for one moment he may have left me a first edition. But no, it’s a second edition, also 1915, inscribed by the author “CJ Dennis March 23/16”. A card has been pasted into the flyleaf to “Mr Holloway” thanking him for a gift. Not my grandfather who was then still at school but maybe my great grandfather, Edwin Holloway (1851-1923).

For the original editions Henry Lawson was induced to write a Foreword. ‘My young friend Dennis has honoured me with a request to write a preface to his book… The “Sentimental Bloke“, while running through the Bulletin, brightened up many dark days for me. He is more perfect than any alleged “larrikin” or Bottle-O character I ever attempted to sketch …’. I also have a much later edition (1992) with an Introduction by Barry Humphries who laments the loss of the Melbourne of his youth, before the homogenizing effect of ‘skylineitis’.

The illustrations, including the cover, are by cartoonist Hal Gye (1887-1967). Throughout The Sentimental Bloke the characters are rendered as naked (sexless) cherubs, shades of Norman Lindsay! But I couldn’t find any examples online to reproduce here.

I also had recourse to Alec H Chisholm’s The Making of a Sentimental Bloke (1946) a first (and no doubt only) edition hardback with dust jacket intact that I got some years ago in a job lot at $2 a pop. Dennis’ “larrikin” poetry was a bit of a shock to the locals of Auburn and Gladstone in rural SA who knew him as a small, quiet boy often over-dressed in eton collars and so on by his maiden aunts.

On leaving home he never really settled down and by the time he was 40 and this book came out he had been living in poverty for some years, with the assistance of friends. Within a year or so The Sentimental Bloke and The Moods of Ginger Mick which followed it had sold over 100,000 copies. Dennis became if not famous, then well known in England, Canada and the US, and spent the rest of his life in relative prosperity, with increasingly conservative opinions to match.

.

CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1915. 130pp including Glossary
Alec H Chisholm, The Making of a Sentimental Bloke, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1946. 138pp.

see also Whispering Gums’ reviews of –
Philip Butterss, An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis (here)
CJ Dennis, The Moods of Ginger Mick (here)
and
Brona’s tribute to her uncle and his favourite poet, CJ Dennis, (here)

Vida, Jacqueline Kent

Image with no description

Given that I specialise in unmarried turn of the C20th women, Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) is one of my favourite people, and I have been meaning to read this recent (2020) biography for some time. I finally got it on BorrowBox and listened on the way over to Melbourne. I had a heap of deliveries throughout rural Victoria and had set aside Tuesday to get them finished, but as it turns out, I finished early, Mum is unvisitable in these Covid times, and so for once I had a day off. Hence this review.

Vida Goldstein was a suffragist, a pacifist and a socialist; she stood for Federal Parliament, unsuccessfully, three times; she undertook popular speaking tours of England and the US.

Kent’s biography, and her reading of it, are pretty dry. There is none of the life which made Sylvia Martin’s Passionate Friends for instance so enjoyable. Passionate Friends centres on Mabel Singleton and Mary Fullerton who were committee members of Goldstein’s Women’s Political Association, and on their friend, Miles Franklin, but provides lots of detail about early WPA meetings.

I imagine there are not many mistakes of fact, but Kent makes a couple in regards to Franklin, whom she claims for Vida as a significant friend. MF only lived in Melbourne, Goldstein’s home town, once, in about 1904. The two met then – MF had introductions from Rose Scott, the Sydney suffragist with whom she had stayed in 1902 (see My Career Goes Bung) – and they remained lifelong correspondents. They met again, briefly, in 1911, when both were in London. And except maybe in later years when MF was back in Australia and moving around a bit, that was it.

For whatever reason MF didn’t attend Goldstein’s meetings in 1904 – she didn’t meet Mary Fullerton until the 1920s. And in London they were attracted by different branches of the suffragist movement – not mentioned by Kent. Goldstein was a firm supporter of the Pankhursts’ Suffragettes, until they took a pro-war stance in 1914; while Franklin was a member of a breakaway group – the Women’s Freedom League.

What really got up my nose was the sentence which went “when she was about 20 Franklin’s family moved from her birthplace Talbingo to Penrith” [then a country town on the outskirts of Sydney]. Talbingo was MF’s birthplace, but it was her mother’s mother’s home. Mrs Franklin famously rode 60 miles through the snow to get there for the confinement. The Franklin’s lived at the Franklin family property Brindabella until MF was 8 or 9, when Mr Franklin moved them all to a dairy farm nearer to Goulburn. My memory is that MF had already left home before the move to Penrith and was a trainee nurse, though she was familiar enough with the town to set her second published novel there, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn.

I don’t have any more criticisms, well one small one, and a surprising one coming from me, Vida is overwhelmingly parochial, nothing important (in suffragism etc) seems to happen except in Victoria. (White) female suffrage was achieved in Victoria in 1908, in NSW and Federally in 1902, and in South Aust in 1894. Rose Scott and Louisa Lawson in Sydney are barely mentioned; Goldstein’s struggling newspaper the Woman’s Sphere is never compared with Lawson’s much more successful Dawn. The mother of Australian suffragism, Catherine Helen Spence, a South Australian, does not come into it until she congratulates Goldstein after her first campaign for the Senate.

Kent awards Goldstein the accolade “the first woman [in the British Empire] to nominate for Federal Parliament”, though eventually four women stood in that 1903 election; and Spence had been Australia’s ‘first female political candidate’ when she stood for the Federal Convention in 1897.

I’ll skip over Goldstein’s adherence to Christian Science, which played an important part in her life, to the extent that when she retired from politics she became a minister. There were two questions in my mind, coming into this book: How did Vida get started? and what about Cecelia John?

Kent is discreet about John, whom Sylvia Martin implies might have been in a relationship with Goldstein. John was a flamboyant type, I picture her on a white charger with a green and purple standard leading a peace march (maybe in connection with the first conscription debate of WWI). When she came into the WPA she was quickly given responsible positions and the two travelled together to England. That’s about it really. One time I wrote to Martin about one of her books and suggested John might be her next subject, but probably not.

So how did Vida get started? Her father, despite his surname, was an Irish protestant (his father was a Polish Jew). Her mother, Isabella, was from the Scottish/Australian squattocracy of Victoria’s Western District. Mr Goldstein was in business, in rural Victoria and then in Melbourne and was able to send Vida to PLC, Melbourne’s principal girls’ school (other alumnae include Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer). Both parents were involved in charities and Isabella was with Annette Bear-Crawford in obtaining the funding for Melbourne’s first women’s hospital, the Queen Victoria, in 1897.

Initially, Vida and her sisters supported themselves by running a co-ed preparatory school. But Vida quickly discovered an aptitude for organizing and speaking alongside her mother and Bear-Crawford, and by the time the latter died unexpectedly in 1899, Vida Goldstein was undisputed leader of the radical women’s movement in Victoria.

The book goes into some detail in relation to each of Vida’s campaigns, for the Senate and for the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong; her attempts to get women’s suffrage through the Victorian state parliament – always stymied by the upper house, the Legislative Council; her public speaking and her newspaper.

During the War Australian suffragists generally took a pacifist position and Goldstein received some flack about her name (its German-ness rather than its Jewishness). She seems to have become increasingly open about declaring herself a socialist, without ever abandoning her essential upper-middle-class persona.

This is a book I needed to read, for all its imperfections. I’m still a Vida fan and, while I might argue with her emphases, I’m sure Kent got the facts of her life right.

.

Jacqueline Kent, Vida, Viking, Melbourne, 2020.

Iso again

Journal: 070

Iso again reminds me of Alone again, naturally. It’s certainly how I feel. Our incompetent federal government, with its incompetent international traveller quarantine and incompetent vaccination rollout and incompetent stewardship of the aged and disabled has allowed the latest, almost instantly transmissable strain of Covid-19 out into the general populace and so Victoria is locked down, heading into its second week as I write, WA has reinstated its ‘hard border’ and I in Melbourne loading, am heading back into mandatory isolation.

At least as an essential worker I can keep moving. And I will. I should be in Perth on Monday, unloaded Tues, second vaccination Weds, loaded Thurs, Fri and on my way back east over the weekend. Customers have not only contacted me with freight but one has organised to pay me in advance. How good is trucking!

Interestingly, it’s been a while since I had my brain probed with a nasal swab. The seven day test rule for truckies seems to have fallen into abeyance. Last year South Australia maintained testing stations at truck stops. But the one I used, at Port Augusta, has been closed these past two or three trips. I wonder if they’ll open it again with so much Covid on their border. Otherwise, I expect I’ll be tested within 48 hours of crossing into WA – Sun night if I’m making good time, more likely Monday.

Can you tell I have time on my hands and an itch to write? Posting just once a week seems wrong somehow, though it seems to be enough to keep my readership up. But as it turns out I’ve had nearly two days off in Melbourne since finishing unloading. Yesterday I wrote up Vida which I listened to on the way over (to be posted Sunday). Today’s Weds and I’ll post this, such as it is, while the ink’s hot.

I thought about writing up an episode in my life – I still owe Melanie an ‘I ran way to the circus’ story – but that seems to be something I would rather not just dash off. I’ve been thinking for a while about writing my autobiography, not as a book but as a series of posts over a number of years. How would I start? Brian Matthews writes that he thought about (and rejected) a conventional opening for Louisa – “she was born on such and such a date at …, add incidental detail for colour”. I could say “I was born in the bush hospital at Daylesford [70 years ago], weighing 8lb 10oz, after a farmer took mum in in his car from the little one teacher school at Leonard’s Hill, dad following later on his motorbike.” A few more sentences to dispose of my childhood and we could get on to the interesting stuff. I’ve no intention of competing with Sartre’s Words. I’m more Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Catcher in the Rye if I was good enough.

No one will ever be Joyce but if I were a writer I wouldn’t mind being Salinger or maybe DH Lawrence – yes I know, I’m Tiny Tim to their Placido Domingo.

The clock on the right of the screen says 10:58. That’s WA time, so it’s really 1pm and I’m due at the steel warehouse to load at 3.00. I have this constant backwards and forwards in my head between local and WA time because, by law, we have to keep our logbooks in home state time to stop us cheating when we cross the border. I normally drive from 5am to 10pm. The other day I leapt out of bed at 5.45 (on my phone) only to realise, after I started the engine, that I was in South Australia and so couldn’t move on for another 45 minutes.

I haven’t had time to list my audiobooks. But I’m currently listening to Herman Koch’s The Ditch (so-so) and reading Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Cafe (whimsical).

Looking for a photo to illustrate this post I saw I had a sequence from my last trip – loading steel; tarped; some cars on top; hooked up as road train (on the cliffs overlooking the Bight).

I don’t usually have anything else under my tarps, but that trip I was carrying a drill press, ‘protected’ by shrink-wrap which quickly goes all Priscilla Queen of the Desert if you don’t cover it up.

As I said, Vida next, then, if I get them written, another installment of Such is Life, and a review of Butter Honey Pig Bread. Where will I find the time? And more books being if not read then listened to all the time. Maybe, by the end of next trip, a spell of iso will be looking more attractive.

Madame Midas, Fergus Hume

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

When Kim at Reading Matters announced Southern Cross Crime Month I had a C19th century Australian detective novel at the back of my mind but struggled to bring it into the light. It was not Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud (1886) which Lisa and I both reviewed on its publication in book form for the first time in 2017. Nor was it Madame Midas which I found serendipitously in my ‘new books’ TBR pile; it was of course Hume’s much more famous The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886), which seeing as it is not on my shelves I must have borrowed, probably as an audiobook.

The cover notes say Hume self-published The Mystery of the Hansom Cab in Melbourne, where it sold 20,000 copies. He then sold the copyright in London, where it was also a success, in fact “the best-selling mystery novel of the Victorian era”, for £50, and never received another penny. He went on to write 140 novels and a small number of plays.

Fergusson Wright Hume (1859-1932) was born in England, raised and educated in New Zealand, came to Melbourne in 1885 or 6 and returned to England in 1888 (ADB). For the short time he was here he shows a remarkably intimate knowledge of Melbourne life and of underground mining at Ballarat. But he betrays himself in the opening chapter when two French convicts escaped from New Caledonia drift in their stolen boat to the coast of Queensland.

A bleak-looking coast, with huge water-worn promontories jutting out into the sea, daring the tempestuous fury of the waves, which dashed furiously in sheets of foam against the iron rocks.. At the back the cliffs rose in a kind of semi-circle, black and precipitous, to the height of about a hundred feet… At the top of these inhospitable-looking cliffs a line of pale green betrayed the presence of vegetation, and from thence it spread inland into vast rolling pastures ending far away at the outskirts of the bush, above which could be seen giant mountains with snow-covered ranges.

The Madame Midas of the title is a real woman, known to the author, Alice Cornwell, who owned and made a fortune from the Midas Mine in Ballarat. Clare Wright devotes her Introduction to her, another Independent Woman to add to my list, though here she has the name Mrs Villiers. As it is an important part of the plot that Villiers defrauds and deserts her, it is no wonder the real husband sued Hume. Unsuccessfully apparently.

Although The Mystery of the Hansom Cab was reputedly the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) Madame Midas is not a detective novel. Prior to Sherlock Holmes it was common for the role of detective to be split amongst a number of characters, see Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) for instance, but even that is not really the case here. About halfway through the novel Villiers attacks his estranged wife and steals from her an enormous gold nugget. Mrs Villiers knocks him down but we know he was still alive later in the night, after which he disappears, and although various people’ including the police, look for him, life goes on.

The two French escapees are a Parisian playboy convicted of poisoning his mistress, who adopts the name Gaston Vandeloup and a big, mute man, unable to read or write, or understand English, whom Vandeloup is constantly worried will reveal his secrets. After we have been introduced to Mrs Villiers and her mine, which is following a promising lead – the bed of a stream buried eons since which contains alluvial gold – the two Frenchmen turn up and are given jobs, Vandeloup as office manager.

Villiers is hanging around Ballarat looking to intimidate his estranged wife into sharing with him her new fortune, after having run through the fortune she inherited from her father. And we get to meet the pretty and innocent Kitty, daughter of a non-conformist minister. There’s also a family of travelling players who pop up as needed, and various others, mostly upper-middle class loafers and socialites.

Vandeloup persuades Kitty to fall in love with him, takes her to Melbourne, but puts off marrying her because the big prize is Mrs Villiers, if Villiers is finally gone. Mrs Villiers makes her fortune and moves to a big house in (Melbourne bayside suburb) St Kilda previously featured in The Mystery of the Hansom Cab. After a year Kitty and Vandeloup break up and Kitty ends up living with Mrs Villiers. Kitty plans to poison Mrs Villiers to stop Vandeloup from marrying her, Vandeloup plans to poison Kitty. Someone puts poison in a glass by Mrs Villiers’ bed. Her companion Selina drinks it and dies.

I won’t tell you any more. It’s an entertaining enough story, with the expected convoluted ending, of general rather than literary fiction quality, but an interesting view of Melbourne after the goldrushes when it was for a while the richest city in the world.

A note for Emma/Book Around the Corner, Fergus Hume’s early novels were apparently inspired by the works of French detective fiction pioneer Émile Gaboriau (1832-1873) who was at that time very popular in Melbourne (in translation).

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Fergus Hume, Madame Midas, self-pub. Melbourne, 1888. My edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2017.

Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner

On Melbourne summer mornings the green trams go rolling in stately progress down tunnels thick with leaves: the bright air carries along the avenues their patient chime, the chattering of their wheels.

I might stop my review right there. How Melbourne is Helen Garner!

I should have stopped there. The much praised Cosmo Cosmolino, as far as I was concerned, was almost completely incomprehensible. Not the individual words and sentences, not of course Garner’s always perceptive accounts of Melbourne inner suburban share-house life, but where the hell was she going with it.

My Text edition (not the one pictured – the Text edition has a boring black cover with a few stars) has an Introduction by Melbourne biologist and radio presenter Ramona Koval, which I didn’t read, two short stories – Recording Angel (25pp) and A Vigil (27pp) – and then Cosmo Cosmolino (217pp).

Recording Angel

The narrator is unnamed. Let’s call her Helen. Helen’s friend Patrick lives in Sydney with his wife and son. On a visit Patrick tells Helen he has brain cancer. Helen is devastated.

.. Patrick recited my life like a poem he had learnt by heart; and over the years of our friendship I had come to endure his version without open rebellion ..

They discuss Helen’s friend Ursula who Patrick had filed under ‘Became an Alcoholic and a Prostitute’ and who threw herself under a tram after the death of her daughter. A visit or two later and Helen is at Patrick’s to support Natalie while Patrick undergoes an operation. The night before, they talk and talk. After Patrick comes out of the operation the two women gape “with shock and fear at the foot of the bed” then rush out of the hospital.

A Vigil

Kim was hanging on by a thread, taking pills, waiting endless months for her father to come down from Queensland, pay her uni fees, take her away. Raymond, living with her, or in the same house anyway, uses her

The nightdress was twisted up round her waist and her skin was loose, like old sacking. She had about as much life in her as a half-deflated dummy, but without complaint she opened her legs, and he kept his face turned away, to avoid her breath.

Raymond stays away for four days, at his brother’s in a rooming house in another part of the city. When he comes back he passes Kim’s mother in the street, a man tagging along. Ursula. Kim is dead. He finds her, still in bed, her face flyblown, and rushes back to his brother’s, where Ursula finds him a few days later to drag him to the funeral. And then to be punished.

Cosmo Cosmolino

Janet has an old two storey terrace house that used to be a vibrant share-house. Those years are long gone. She’s been married. The stain is still on the wall from the saucepan of beetroot soup she flung at him as she told him to get out. Now she works from home with a battered typewriter, making a living knocking out short pieces for magazines, the decaying house an albatross around her neck. Over the years she had ..

retreated before chaos, closing doors as she went, leaving timber half-stripped and plaster unpainted, until only in the kitchen was any kind of order maintained.

Maxine “lived in a shed and called herself a carpenter”. For money she did cleaning, ironing, mowing. But the property she lives on is sold, and she is homeless. She ends up at Janet’s, in the shed at the end of the garden.

And there’s a guy, Ray, who is taken in the same day, down from the North where his brother, Alby, has fed him stories of communal living, half naked women, food always on the table in vast quantities. He takes Alby’s old room, upstairs at the back. Is disappointed to discover they buy their food separately, and eat at different times, hurriedly, “in a kitchen corner, or bowed over a newspaper at the white table”.

So far, so Helen Garner. But the story develops a fanastical element. Where did that come from?

Something tells Maxine that she will have a baby. Fathered by Ray.

Janet swallowed. ‘And – Ray does know about this, I suppose?’
‘Perhaps not with his conscious mind, yet,’ said Maxine. ‘That depends on the number of his incarnations.’
‘Sorry?’ said Janet.
‘Oh, everybody,’ said Maxine, ‘at some stage has to do a spell on earth.’…
‘I know it sounds strange at first’ … ‘See – angelic beings aren’t necessarily aware of their status.’

Ray, on the other hand (being a Queenslander) “knows Jesus”. Sure, Garner is making fun of them, but somewhere along the line she buys into it.

Life goes on. Maxine makes a ‘bride’ out of straw and Ray’s best shirt (a doll with magic powers) which assumes an importance I don’t understand. Ray somehow gets a job, saves money, hides a grand at the bottom of his dirty clothes basket. Maxine gets involved with a pyramid scheme for getting rich. ‘Borrows’ Ray’s grand and blows it on the scheme. Alby arrives with a truckload of worthless second-hand furniture. Maxine floats away in a cloud of jonquils.

If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel.

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Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, first pub. 1992. My edition Text, Melbourne, 2012. 283pp.

The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas (1965 – ) might have started out all rebellious, inner suburban and edgy, but The Slap (2008) has him situated with all he pretends to despise in middle class middlebrow Australian/Melbournian leafy suburban life and writing. The Slap is a waste, a waste of my limited reading time, a waste of his talent.

I will say the worst thing I can about The Slap. It was not written to be read, it was written to be marketed, to generate argument, to generate sales. It is not a novel, just a list of issues wrapped around a thin story. I could say good luck to him. Perhaps he looked at Liane Moriarty’s sales and felt envious. But I expected more.

What are the issues? Corporal punishment, of course, by a person not the child’s parent or teacher; paedophilia; domestic violence; multi-ethnic relationships; homosexuality; abortion; adultery; suburban tedium; they all get a run. Some of them I have opinions about, well all of them really, but not in the context of this review. Interestingly, in light of Loaded, drugs are not an ‘issue’, everyone just takes them.

The story starts with a backyard bbq hosted by Hector and his wife Aisha. Hector is a Greek-Australian public servant, boring as batshit; Aisha, despite her Muslim name, is an Anglo-Indian with her own veterinary practice. Both are fortyish. They live in Northcote, a gentrified northern suburb of Melbourne, not inner and trendy like the adjacent Fitzroy, but more than ok. In fact the only joy of this book is that Tsiolkas knows Melbourne and gets all the suburbs just right.

It was a tacky pokies pub in the middle of nowhere, boganville. Every street looked the same, every house looked the same, everybody looked the same. It was where you came to die. Zombies lived here. He could hear them monotonously tapping away at the machines.

Richie: And as he subsequently ends up at a flat in Whitehorse Rd, he’s presumably talking about the Blackburn Hotel.

At the party are Hector’s cousin Harry a successful mechanic/garage owner who lives in an expensive bayside MacMansion (think Shane Warne); Hector’s parents; Aisha’s brother (who plays no part in the story); Aisha’s besties, Rosie and Anouk, from her schooldays in Perth’s Scarborough Beach; various wives, husbands and children; and two teenagers who are in year 12 together – Connie who works part-time in Aisha’s surgery, and Richie whose mother does likewise. I seem to have left out the token Indigenous guy who with his wife has converted to Islam, they pop up occasionally playing bit-parts.

Rosie and her alcoholic husband have a three year old boy, Hugo, who is still breast-fed and who is totally unrestrained. Hugo when given out at cricket lifts a bat at Harry’s older and larger son Rocco. Harry instinctively smacks him on the bum. The party breaks up in outrage and disbelief. Rosie goes to the police, who lay charges.

The story, being told initially by Hector, is carried forward in turns by most of the people named above, which leads to a lot of unnecessary digression.

Anouk for instance is a screen-writer for what is obviously Neighbours – Tsiolkas even has her driving out to Channel Ten’s outer eastern suburban studios, just across the paddocks from my parents’ first Melbourne house, in Blackburn South – with a younger lover who is an actor in the series.

And so while Hector (40) lech’s over Connie (17); Harry restrains his violence with a mistress in the (working class) western suburbs; Anouk gets pregnant, has an abortion, starts work on the Great Australian Novel; Richie deals with his gayness; Connie chooses a boyfriend and becomes, with Richie, Hugo’s babysitter; Hector’s father deals with being retired and being Greek; Aisha attends a conference in Thailand, gets laid and discovers that apart from still being extremely good looking Hector doesn’t have much going for him; they all take sides, with all the Greeks on Harry’s side and everyone else on Rosie’s. There’s the court case. There’s lots of subsidiary drama, yes I know, all straight out of the Neighbours playbook; and after the best part of a year everyone seems to be no further ahead than they were.

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Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008


Melanie/Grab the Lapels and I read this as a buddy read. She doesn’t review men writers on GTL but she has written to me with her responses and I will put them up in a couple of days (just as soon as I get home). Meanwhile, I have turned off Comments and I hope you will save them up till you have read us both.


See Also:
Bill curates: Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, (Whispering Gums)
Melanie’s response: A letter from America (here)

Covid-19, Testing, Testing

Journal: 054

SF Naked Women

Why have I commenced with three naked women? Because I can? Maybe. Or because WG and I and Neil@ Kallaroo diverted ourselves in the Comments on a recent Monday Musings to a discussion of old time SF covers and naked women in bubble helmets. A quick survey of my shelves brought up these just in the Vs and Ws but not any bubble helmets, and in fact I would say the majority of my 1960s and 70s covers were space ships, as below.

Jack Vance The Face

So, does this presage a change in direction of my reviewing. In short, no. I’ve been blogging more than five years without exhausting my stocks of pre-War Australian women writers, and with judicious up-topping will easily manage another five. To even make a dent in my shelves of SF would take me another lifetime.

But to the matter at hand. I am home, in Perth. Let us put up a truck pic and restart.

IMG20200730142558

When last we spoke I was masked up in Melbourne, loading for home, looking forward with some trepidation to crossing from Victoria into SA and more particularly from SA into WA. I loaded three trailers with steel, topped up with cars and set out once more, on Thursday, up through the Mallee to Ouyen and into SA at Pinnaroo. SA require drivers to obtain an entry permit on line. I’d submitted an application but been refused. I complained. Two very nice clerks from SAPol phoned me separately to get me going. Turns out my permit for my previous trip was valid for six months. Problem solved.

The WA border was just as easy. In the two or three weeks since my last crossing WA had instituted an online permit called G2G, presumably Good to Go. I got one. The policeman at the border – police people are so young these days – scanned my phone with his phone, issued me stern instructions to get a virus test within 48 hours of that minute, 9pm Friday, and another on the eleventh day – I was given a chart showing that the eleventh day after a Friday is a Tuesday – on pain of a $50,000 fine.

I forgot to say I’m not allowed in SA without a test every seven days. Seems to me the chances of WA’s eleventh day and SA’s seventh day being the same day are pretty slim.

I had my 48 hour test this afternoon (Sunday) at Royal Perth where I was met at the door – separate from the main door of course – by two preliminary surveyors, passed on to a receptionist who took down much the same info and then after a short wait, to a serious senior woman, nurse or doctor I don’t know, who was at some pains to discuss my situation, the situation of truck drivers in general, and to explain the procedure – swabs from the back of my throat and from each nostril. It’s meant to be uncomfortable rather than painful but the back of my nose was still stinging an hour later.

I had been concerned that if I was ever going to get infected it would be in a waiting room full of people waiting to be tested, but as I should have guessed from WA’s usual daily zero cases, I was the only customer.

Homer, the friendly manager of the transport company I load out of Melbourne for, has a new client and wants me to do the first load from Perth to Melbourne (probably because his own drivers refused). I’m loading one trailer tomorrow just as soon as I can get it unloaded and I think I’m expected in Melbourne Friday. I hope he’s not reading this because I can’t get away early enough to be there before the following Monday.

The big problem of course is that as of last night Victoria has declared a ‘State of Disaster’ and tomorrow will start closing businesses. I can always unload at the transport depot if the client is unable to receive me, but will I then find a load home? And having loaded will SA let me transit, will WA let me back in?

Tune in this time in ten days for the next exciting episode. Chicken Man! (oops, sorry, wrong promo).

Covid-19, the Second Wave

Journal: 053

IMG20200727183405

All masked up in Melbourne. I didn’t know selfies were reversed, which you can tell, well I can, by the name on the truck behind me. Melbourne is up to 500 new Covid cases a day, the rest of Australia maybe 20. Melbourne is in lockdown while Sydney partys. They’ll get theirs.

I set out on this current trip last Thursday. The Victorian government had already made masks mandatory in Melbourne, but the big new development (for me) is WA’s announcement that drivers from Melbourne and Sydney will be tested for Covid at the border and not allowed to proceed until the test results are returned a couple of days later. I’m not sure how this is going to work, there’s no where to park on the WA side of the border until Mundrabilla roadhouse, nearly 100 km further on (and it’s illegal to carry fresh food with you!). I’m hoping we’ll be allowed to proceed to Norseman, another 600 km and the first town on the WA side of the Nullarbor. I should be there by Friday, I’ll let you know what happens.

All small beer compared with the preparations for civil war in the US. Trump’s troops trained to fanaticism on the southern border, Black Water mercenaries, US Marine wannabees and dropouts, airlifted into Democrat controlled cities, ostensibly to control anarchist protesters (and moms) but really to intimidate POC/workers attempting to vote in person in November – 98 days to go. Republicans mobilising tens of thousands of “poll watchers”, reinforced by ex-Navy Seals, in support, the defence forces hopefully lining up with the government but police forces – looking at you Seattle – showing signs of swinging the other way.

Trump you’ll notice is barely campaigning, he obviously believes he doesn’t have to. And then there’s Facebook and Russia. Meanwhile Covid-19 is a firestorm raging through the populations of the USA and all the other poor or poorly managed nations (I read somewhere that the US is a third world nation with a very rich plutocracy and a shrinking and increasingly irrelevant middle class).

I follow Trump news on the internet obsessively. Obviously! And it struck me as I began to write this in the few hours before I go out to load home just how much has changed in the two weeks since the last Journal. One word – Portland. I really hope that in another two weeks I’m just another crazed conspiracy theorist. And I really, really hope that by my 70th in March it is all over – Trump, Covid-19, Recession. Don’t like my chances.

What else have I been doing? I was nearly at the end of my 14 days quarantine in Perth when a very nicely paying road train load came together, even when one customer cancelled another popped up straight away. I took my time and toddled over to Victoria, arrived at the weekend, unloaded Sunday/Monday and here I am, masked up in the truckstop, after a big vegie breakfast, waiting for Homer to call me back with my first pickup.

I finished listening to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) – from Proj. Gutenberg with one very pleasant reader – I’m sure it’s a standard in American Lit classes but I had no expectations and boy, the ending comes as a shock.

Then a standard US murder mystery thriller, and a short, very well written memoir by [I’ll look this name up when I get back in the truck, Annie Ernaux] a French woman writing about her mother’s descent into Alzheimers. The most interesting bit for me was her writing about writing.

Now I’m in the middle of Jasper Fffforde’s Shades of Grey, an amusing take on steampunk SF. The young male protagonist is surrounded by marriage prospects and what I’ve been thinking about most – goes off to load…

that’s one trailer done. Two to go.

… is the sort of girl or woman I find attractive in books (and in life, as it happens). It’s nearly always the bright, annoying one on the edge of the crowd at school, and the lead guy’s friend, not girlfriend – Jamie Lee Curtis and not Elle Macpherson, though the one that really springs to mind is Roseanne’s second daughter. The reason’s obvious when you think about it, who is more likely to write books, the outsider or the prom queen? So I’m pretty sure the permanently angry working class (‘grey’) girl who is seemingly trying to kill the hero will be the one he ends up with.

Ok, I’ve got another trailer to load. More anon.