22.8.19

Constable and Toop

Well, no prizes for guessing why this book leapt out at me from the secondhand book stall at Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre (I was there with Dad, a different Mr Constable).

Apparently Constable and Toop is a real funeral firm in London, and it was sitting in a cafe opposite their building that sparked Gareth P. Jones to write this book. This is a real Victorian ghostly treat, teeming with spirits and colourful Dickensian characters. Young Sam Toop is a Talker, who can see and talk to ghosts; Clara Tiltman aspires to become a journalist; Tanner is a Rogue ghost, an urchin with a collection of spirit hounds; Lapsewood is also a ghost, but trapped in the coils of post-worldly bureaucracy. There are many, many more characters intertwining through the pages of this novel (including the wise and kindly Mr Constable!) but the short, pacy chapters never allow the complex narrative to become bogged down.

Constable and Toop is fairly gory, with several murders and ghastly exorcisms, so I wouldn't give this to the squeamish. But on the whole, it's a fun romp and very evocative of Victorian London.

19.8.19

The Vacillations of Poppy Carew

The Vacillations of Poppy Carew is the third Mary Wesley novel I've read, and I'm starting to see some definite patterns. There is a gorgeous but unconfident young girl, shackled to an unsuitable or unappreciative man. There is a highly suitable man waiting in the wings, with some obstacles thrown in the path to true love. There are farcical scenes (in this instance, the rescue of a still-living trout from the fishmonger's slab), moving moments (a lovely horse-drawn funeral) and touches of black humour or horror (the death of a dog, the unexpected hanging of North African rebels in a public square). There is much frank talk of sex and lust, impulsive passion and a background of stifling social convention.

I'm full of admiration for Mary Wesley, who only started writing novels in her 70s and went on to produce a raft of best-sellers. She was no cosy sentimentalist, and no prudish fuddy-duddy. I suspect that the character of elderly Calypso Grant, who reappears in this novel, with her gorgeous woods and garden and her much-mourned husband, might be based on Mary herself. Maybe I'll just read one more novel and then tackle her biography, to see how many of my surmises are actually true.

12.8.19

Why Weren't We Told?

Twenty years old, Henry Reynolds' personal account of his journey of growing awareness of Aboriginal history, Why Weren't We Told? is sadly more relevant today than ever. Perhaps more people are aware of the truth of what happened when Europeans invaded Australia than they were in 1999, but plenty still aren't. There are still lots of myths and misinformation, still plenty of denial and ignorance, and the need for understanding and truth-telling is as urgent as ever.

Reynolds wrote this memoir in the heat of John Howard's condemnation of the so-called 'black armband' History Wars, a conflict in which Reynolds himself was one of the most outspoken voices. And yet just last week I heard a caller to the ABC complaining that the broadcaster placed too much emphasis on telling Aboriginal stories, whingeing that they had an 'agenda.'

I finished reading Why Weren't We Told? during a trip to a regional high school to talk about Crow Country (itself now nearly ten years old). A number of schools have found studying Crow Country to be a useful and not-too-confronting way to raise the troubled history between Europeans and Indigenous people, and I'm very happy to add some extra information into the mix. One student asked me what I thought of the Adam Goodes affair* and I said I was deeply saddened and angered by it. The students had just watched The Final Quarter, and I got the impression that most of them agreed with me. So maybe, slowly, we are getting somewhere? God, I hope so.


*An extraordinarily talented AFL footballer, Goodes started being booed during games when he bagan to speak out on race relations. Eventually he retired, basically driven from the field by the hostility of the crowds. Two recent documentaries have explored this shameful episode.

7.8.19

Staring At The Sun

Irvin D Yalom, psychotherapist and author, wrote Staring At The Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death when he was only 72! Now he is 88 and still meditating on the same human, existential dilemma -- the reality that death will come to us all.

Staring At The Sun was lent to me by my friend Chris, one of whose jobs is in pastoral care. I found it both confronting and comforting. Yalom is unflinching in facing 'the dread of death' (or 'the terror of death' as it's subtitled in the US), and traces many of the seemingly minor crises of therapy back to the ultimate fear, the fear of ceasing to exist. Yalom is an atheist, and while he doesn't try to talk people out of their personal religious consolations, he doesn't believe in any kind of afterlife. He is quite certain that death is a state of non-consciousness, exactly the same as before our birth.

As usual, the greatest strength of Yalom's writing lies in his case studies, accounts of his clients and their struggles, and his own role in teasing out their fears and assumptions. He readily and refreshingly admits his own mistakes, his own biases and fears; to Yalom, we are all humans travelling the same road together.

As for myself, I think an experience I had a few years ago has done a lot to soften my own dread of death. It was when I went under general anaesthetic for abdominal surgery; I was terrified that I might gag or vomit and die under the anaesthetic, and as I went under I was earnestly explaining my panic to the anaesthetist. Just as I was losing consciousness, I was aware of a sense of liberating surrender. If the worst happens, I thought, I can't do anything about it now. If I do choke and die, I won't know anything about it. This was an immensely comforting thought. So I slipped easily into the dark, and woke up hours later, when it was all over.

Of course I don't know what my own death will be like, and if there is a 'waking up' afterwards, I'll be extremely surprised. But I hope it's something like that experience of losing consciousness under the anaesthetic -- just an inexorable falling asleep.

1.8.19

War Horse

Michael Morpurgo's 1982 short novel War Horse, the story of Joey, a horse who is pressed into service in World War I, is a modern classic. I think it's been constantly in print, made into a film, and adapted into an extraordinary stage show with life-size puppet horses (coming to Australia in 2020, I see).

Therefore it feels slightly churlish to admit that I wasn't completely enamoured of Joey's adventures. Now that I'm thinking about it, it reminds me a lot of Black Beauty, which I read several times as a child -- it shares the same calm, slightly ponderous first person voice, and the same panoramic sweep of potential equine experience. One difference is that Joey doesn't converse with other horses; he makes friends with them, but it's a silent communion. He does overhear many human conversations, on both the English and German sides of the fighting, and he experiences even-handed kindness and cruelty from both sides.

The aims of War Horse are admirable, showing the humanity and futility of the conflict and the way in which innocent animals (and people) became caught up in the machine of war. But somehow I couldn't completely sink myself into the narrative. I've always had a bit of resistance to stories told from an animal's point of view; perhaps this is just my prejudice showing. I'll be interested to see what the rest of my book group make of it.