26.2.21

A Long Way Home


I went to see the movie Lion when it came out in 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Dev Patel's performance (and his outstanding Australian accent!) So I was interested to read the autobiographical book by Saroo Brierley, A Long Way Home, on which the film was based.

It really is an extraordinary story. Aged 5, Saroo wound up on a train that carried him across India to the city of Kolkata. Unable to tell anyone where he'd come from, he survived on the streets for several weeks before entering an orphanage and very shortly being adopted by an Australian couple and taken to Tasmania to begin a new life. Though happy and grateful to his new family, he never forgot his old life and as a student, began a painstaking search on Google Earth for the town he'd left so many years before, with only a half-remembered name and some geographic markers for guidance. 

It was startling to learn that Saroo had vastly underestimated how far he'd travelled to wind up in Kolkata; he was searching the wrong part of the country, and only by chance came across the tiny railway station with the landmarks he remembered. His account of how he managed to reconnect with his family (his mother had never moved, in case he did one day find his way home) and discovered the truth of what had happened that fateful day, is very moving. 

Saroo had garbled the name of his neighbourhood, the name of the town he'd travelled from, and even, most startlingly, his own name -- his family knew him as Sheru. Reading A Long Way Home made me want to go back and re-watch Lion, which brought the lost little boy's experiences so vividly to life.

23.2.21

The Growing Summer

 

I found this copy of Noel Streatfeild's The Growing Summer in Savers in Footscray, where my big girl has moved. While she was hunting for novelty glasses and board games to furnish her new flat, I was scouring the book shelves. 

The Growing Summer is dedicated to Elizabeth Enright, which is a lovely touch. Enright's books often centre on children exploring their environment and developing their independence, and this novel shares that flavour. The rather sheltered Gareth children are abruptly shipped off to their great aunt in Ireland (topically, their father is researching a 'microbe' that 'might start an epidemic' in the 'Far East' and then falls dangerously ill himself).

Great Aunt Dymphna is highly eccentric, lives in a near-ruin of a big old house and leaves the children very much to their own devices, expecting them to cook and clean and amuse themselves; which over the course of the summer, they gradually become capable of doing. There is an added complication in the form of a mystery runaway boy whom the children shelter, and while his presence provides the excuse for secrecy and drama, he is quite peripheral to the heart of the story which concerns the growing self-sufficiency of the family as they learn to cook, to fish, to do laundry and generally look after themselves.

Poetry-loving Great Aunt Dymphna introduces her nephews and nieces to the 'quotation game' where each player in turn recites a line of poetry, and the next player has to offer a quote where the first word starts with the same letter as the last word of the previous player's quote. Weirdly, I was simultaneously reading Jill Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death, where Harriet and Peter play the same game!  It was the only time I've come across this somewhat esoteric pastime (and I doubt very much that any child of this generation would be capable of playing it -- with the help of Google, maybe!)

21.2.21

Songlines

 

Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly was an impulse Kindle buy because I couldn't wait to read it. It's the first in a series of six books introducing Indigenous knowledges to a general reader; other titles will explore topics like astronomy, medicine, land management and architecture and design.

Margo Neale, who has co-ordinated the whole series, is a Senior Research Fellow and Principal Indigenous Advisor to the Director of the National Museum of Australia. Lynne Kelly is an Australian academic, an expert on orality and memory systems, and she draws in many other examples of oral and indigenous cultures from around the world, including Native American, Inuit and Pacific Island learning and knowledge systems.

However, the primary focus of the book is on Indigenous Australian knowledge. I first came across the concept of The Songlines in Bruce Chatwin's book of the same name, and though it's an imperfect and incomplete account, it lit a fire in my imagination which has been burning ever since. Neale and Kelly's book might be less poetic, but it is more authoritative, and fills in some of the blanks that Chatwin couldn't access. It sketches out the way that Aboriginal Australians connect landscape, story, dance and song in a rich web of knowledge, weaving together geography, history, morality, obligation, law, plants and animals, water and weather, stars and seas, and have passed on that knowledge through 60,000 years, generation after generation. There are stories which remember the eruption of long-extinct volcanoes and the existence of long-drowned islands.

I felt overwhelmed with envy reading this book. What an incredible way to live! Imagine being wrapped in such a deep, rich culture, accessible to every member of the community to some degree through performative dance, song, art and story. That is surely the way that humans are supposed to live, in a world drenched in meaning and deeply connected in every facet, moving securely through the universe. And all that knowledge, all that meaning, is still there for all of us to plug into if we choose. What an amazing privilege to be born in this ancient land.

19.2.21

The World of Elizabeth Goudge

 

I ordered The World of Elizabeth Goudge from Girls Gone By. Goudge was one of my favourite authors as a child (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians, Smoky House) and I also read some of her adult titles which my mother must have borrowed from the same library. I enjoyed them too, though some of the  content would have gone over my head; but I do remember the lovely atmosphere of the Cathedral books. More recently I got hold of The Dean's Watch, a masterpiece which I think I must have also read when young, as so many bits chimed in my memory.

Elizabeth Goudge is such a joyful, sensitive writer, and her later books are deeply spiritual, compassionate and forgiving. Perhaps it's not surprising that the daughter of a clergyman would be preoccupied with spiritual matters, but note that I'm using the word spiritual rather than religious. In Goudge's work, solace is often found in churches and wisdom in vicars, but there is surprisingly little overt religiosity -- it's the tranquillity of ancient buildings, the beauty of nature, the faithful love of animals and the very human qualities of kindness, laughter and forgiveness that ultimately give salvation.

The World of Elizabeth Goudge is part biography, part travel guide, part personal reflection, as Sylvia Gower journeys around the various towns and counties where Goudge lived and worked. Elizabeth Goudge enjoyed a relatively peaceful and uneventful life, embarking early on her writing career, but she did live in various parts of England, as well as visiting Jersey where her mother's family lived. She took deep inspiration from all these places, in fact the notion of place and belonging is particularly strong in her work and one of the elements that drew me in, even as a child. 

This book has convinced me to go Goudge hunting. Many of her books are still in print and I think I might try to collect as many as I can.

16.2.21

A Presumption of Death

 

I enjoyed A Presumption of Death very much. I think was the first of Jill Paton Walsh's forays into Lord Peter Wimsey territory and it's excellent. Sensibly Paton Walsh realises that Harriet Vane is the better part of Wimsey-world, and for most of the book, Harriet is detecting alone at Talboys during the war while Peter is off doing mysterious Top Sekkrit spying stuff in Europe. 

During the war, Dorothy Sayers wrote various magazine columns purporting to be letters between members of the Wimsey family, discussing their wartime activities; Paton Walsh has used this material as a canon source for their whereabouts and attitudes, which provides a solid foundation for the story. There is lots of well-researched detail about rationing, black market shenanigans, spy fears, evacuees and so on -- the one nit I would pick is that Peter refers openly to sending a coded message to Bletchley, at a time when Bletchley was super-secret and I doubt he would have mentioned it even to Harriet and Bunter (though Bunter no doubt knew all about it already -- hm, perhaps it is excusable? No secrets from Harriet, obviously!)

Elements of the central mystery were enjoyably guessable, and the relationship between Harriet and Peter is beautifully depicted. It's so nice to see them working together, very much in love but not sickeningly so; it's the rock solid partnership hinted at in Busman's Honeymoon, and thoroughly satisfying.

14.2.21

The Stones of Green Knowe

 

First published in 1976, too late to make it into the Mt Hagen library, The Stones of Green Knowe remained unknown to me until adulthood, and rounds off the series with a look forward rather than backward in time, as young Roger d'Aulneaux, in 1120, becomes the very first child to live in the brand new house that will become Green Knowe.

He discovers the two immeasurably ancient stones on the hilltop which will take him briefly forward (or once, terrifyingly, backward) in time, so he can see what will become of the new stone house of which he is so proud. He meets Linnet and Toby and Alexander, Susan and Jacob, and Tolly, and there is a lovely scene where all the children are able to gather together across time.

However, there is a melancholy undertone to this final book. Moving forward to Tolly's time, Roger is dismayed to notice the devastation of the wildlife -- so few birds and animals, hardly any insects, the wild profusion of plants disappeared. If it was this bad in 1976, one can only imagine how horrified Roger would be in 2021 (unless there has been some rewilding at Green Knowe). And the books ends on an abrupt, brutal note as the ancient stones are uprooted and carried away. It's not a comforting note to end on, rather like the catastrophic ending that The Last Battle provided for the Narnia books. And like The Last Battle, I think if I'd read The Stones as a child, I would have avoided re-reading it. But I do enjoy the glimpse of twelfth century life, seeing the first carving of St Christopher and the newfangled wall-fireplace, and Roger is a worthy ancestor.

12.2.21

A Nursery in the Nineties

 

I ordered A Nursery in the Nineties because someone in the Antonia Forest Facebook group mentioned it, and it turns out that the pertinent section comprised just one short chapter out of 53 in this memoir by Eleanor Farjeon.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known as the author of The Little Bookroom (after which our beloved Melbourne children's bookshop was named) and also the words to the hymn Morning Has Broken (which I sang regularly at school assemblies), but she also wrote poetry, plays, history and biography. Much of A Nursery in the Nineties tells the stories of her father (emigrated to New Zealand, admired Dickens, worked as a journalist), and her mother (from an American theatrical family) before and after their marriage; the last part deals with Nellie's own childhood. Her family moved in theatrical and literary London circles, and many of the names she drops are forgotten now, but she enjoyed a happy, secure and creative upbringing along with her three brothers. She includes plenty of fascinating quotidian detail about Edwardian life which is worth reading (though the family histories drag on a bit).

The chapter that most interested me (and the whole reason I bought the book) is called TAR, standing for Tessie-and-Ralph, a game she and her older brother played (with occasional input from their younger brothers) for over twenty years. She and Harry would pace for hours, narrating and acting out stories of their own invention based on their favourite characters -- originally Ralph and Tessie, from a children's play they saw when Nellie was five. Harry would announce, 'We are X and Y' (perhaps from The Three Musketeers, Greek myths, or any other story that had gripped their fancy) and then he and Nellie would plunge into absorbing parallel lives, until Harry was forced to halt the game by declaring 'We are Harry and Nellie' again.

Farjeon says that this private game absorbed so much of her attention and emotional life that it really became her life, far more real and vivid than her everyday existence, and reflects that ultimately it was quite unhealthy.

I had no desire for new adventures, friends or experience, outside this powerful game. When I should have been growing up, it was a harmful check on life itself, for its imaginative extension did not include natural knowledge. Because of it, I was never aware of my own sex until I was nearly thirty years old, and it took least ten years more for emotional crudeness to get abreast of mental ripeness.

What an extraordinary admission! Though Farjeon credits TAR with turning her into a writer and giving her 'flow of ease,' it's notable that she never married or seems to have had any adult relationship. The Facebook reference came up during a discussion of Antonia Forest's Peter's Room, which also deals with a group imaginative game which spirals out of control, and which in turn references the Bronte's Gondal games and writing.

This is a topic of particular interest to me. Though I didn't share it with anyone else, all through my childhood and teenage years I had a similarly absorbing and addictive private fantasy life. Unlike Eleanor Farjeon, I deliberately renounced it at eighteen (though there were many later lapses), I think because I realised that the potential dangers that she describes above might be lying in wait for me. I'm trying to write about this experience now. If anyone knows of any similar stories, I'm all ears!

10.2.21

An Enemy at Green Knowe

 I'm reading faster than I can blog at the moment! An Enemy at Green Knowe is probably my least favourite of the Green Knowe books (I was interested to see that someone in the comments nominated it as one of their favourites). Frankly I find it quite creepy, and I don't like the idea of sinister spirits hanging round Green Knowe. The book made from a dead bat that flaps and rattles in a closed drawer; the invisible something that slithers down an outside wall; the battle between the maggots and birds, birds and cats, cats and snakes (though I love the scene when Ping calls up the ghost of Hanno the gorilla to help them); the washing line pegged with dead birds... Horror piles upon horror as Tolly, Ping and Grandmother Oldknow are besieged.

Perhaps the most disquieting episode is when Mrs Oldknow falls into a trance on the river, the hypnotic spell only broken when the boys hang the druid's stone around her neck. I hate the thought of Green Knowe and Grandmother being so vulnerable, even if she and the boys triumph in the end. Incidentally, it's the scholar Mr Pope who finally banishes the demonic Melanie, which is perhaps another reason why I don't enjoy their victory as much as I might.

It's very well done, and someone who enjoys horror and witchcraft more than I do would probably relish the battle between good and evil; but I prefer Green Knowe to be safe and impregnable!

7.2.21

The Attenbury Emeralds

 

Having discovered Jill Paton Walsh, I've found myself stymied in my search for her children's books. But I did discover (I think I was vaguely aware of these before but steered clear because I didn't realise how good a writer Paton Walsh is) the three books Lord Peter Wimsey books she wrote, using the characters of Dorothy L Sayers. The Attenbury Emeralds is actually the last in the series, but it doesn't matter.

I suppose this counts as fan fiction, but it's definitely superior fan fiction. In some ways I preferred The Attenbury Emeralds to the later Wimsey novels, which to my mind became a bit arch -- all those bits in untranslated French! Harriet and Peter's love talk! But Paton Walsh takes a sensible, down to earth approach to Sayers' characters, keeping the best bits (Harriet's intelligence and compassion, Peter's wit and sensitivity) and ditching the embarrassing excesses. And if the mystery itself is a little lacking in Sayers' ingenuity, it's a bargain I'm happy to make.

The Attenbury Emeralds is divided into two parts. In the first, Peter and Bunter re-tell Wimsey's first case to Harriet (a wartime story, featuring the horrific bombing of the Cafe de Paris during the Blitz); in part two, highly coincidentally, the emeralds re-emerge in a continuation of the old mystery. The coincidence is awkward, but the setting is really well done -- after the war, when social norms have been upended and the lines between staff and employers are blurring. Bunter and his wife sometimes eat at the same table as the Wimseys, and their children are friends; the elite conventions of wealth and title are more burdensome than ever. It's the personal story of Harriet and Peter's adjustment to circumstance rather than the mystery itself which hooked me into this book. I can't wait for the next two.

3.2.21

A Stranger at Green Knowe

In some ways, even though it involves no magic at all, A Stranger at Green Knowe is the most extraordinary story of the whole series. While I was re-reading it, ten years after I read it aloud to her at the age of nine, my elder daughter picked it up and said, 'Oh, Green Knowe! So sad.' I read her this novel when she was in the grip of an obsession with gorillas, and she made me stop reading before the inevitable tragic end, so that in her imagination, Hanno the escaped gorilla would stay safe and happy in the garden of Green Knowe forever (as it seems he might, in ghostly form, according to the next book).

Displaced child Ping returns to Green Knowe at the invitation of old Mrs Oldknow, and he serves as a surrogate great-grandson to her in place of Tolly. As always, the easy, playful, respectful relationship between the very old and the very young is touching and delightful. And Ping's loyalty and empathy with Hanno, another creature displaced from his proper home, is beautiful.

Of course there can be no happy ending to this book (in fact the last three books in the Green Knowe series are all quite melancholic) but when Ping declares, 'It's all right. I saw him choose,' most readers will accept a fitting conclusion. Not Alice, though. And her solution has its own magic.

1.2.21

The River at Green Knowe

 

The third of Lucy M Boston's Green Knowe books, The River at Green Knowe, takes the story away from the old house and out onto the river. There is no Tolly in this book, and no Grandmother Oldknow -- instead, the house is leased for the summer (ooh, I just realised the first three books go winter, spring, summer) to two ladies and three displaced children, Ida, Oskar and Ping.

Evidently the magic clinging to the house extends to the river, because the three children have numerous magical experiences -- from flying horses to encounters with a giant. Oskar shrinks to the size of a field mouse, they meet a hermit, and go back in time to a moonlight ceremony older even than the ancient house itself. But there is also the everyday magic of swimming, rowing, picnicking, and shooting through the locks in flood.

As a child, I didn't read The River as often as the other books, being at heart in indoor rather than an outdoor person, but I enjoyed it this time more than I expected. The friendship between the three children is lovely. 'There isn't anything real except thoughts,' says Oskar, so I suppose the magic in this book might be created by the children themselves, just as they create the long river map on a roll of wallpaper. But that's a very grown up attitude, just like Dr Maud Biggins, who refuses to recognise a giant even when she sees him with her own eyes, so I think I'll side with the children instead and say it's all real.

28.1.21

Farewell Little Bunny

In a piece of heavy-handed symbolism that you could never get away with in a work of fiction, my daughter's childhood rabbit has died in the very week that she's moving out of home. 

Maya lived with us for almost eight years, a pretty good innings for a Netherland Dwarf. He was a pretty little rabbit, so cute when he cleaned his face with his paws. He wasn't much of a cuddler, but he would hop over eagerly at the sound of the fridge opening, and allow us to pat his soft brown fur. Originally he and his brother Momo lived in Al's room, but they kept her awake at night -- especially Maya, who would naughtily leap from his enclosure and hop around her room -- so a few years ago we moved his hutch into the living room, where he lived ever since. (Momo died in mysterious circumstances quite early on. I don't want to speak ill of a departed rabbit, but we did wonder...)

We whinged freely about having to clean out his stinky enclosure, about cutting his nails, and having to feed him with a syringe when he got sick a couple of years ago. But he was part of our family, and yesterday we all had a cry when we said goodbye.

27.1.21

Cosmo Cosmolino

 

I was spurred to re-read Helen Garner's 1992 novel, Cosmo Cosmolino, after reading her references to wrestling with 'my angel novel' in the latest volume of her diaries, and also how its publication lost her a treasured friendship (not permanently, I believe). 

I read this novel when it was first published, living in a share house in the inner suburbs, quite lonely and probably depressed, working alone on my own writing but not feeling as if I was getting anywhere (like Maxine, the artist/carpenter, I was working in a glorified backyard shed). Cosmo Cosmolino did little to cheer me up at the time. I remember my response being bafflement and a vague disappointment; I didn't get what Garner was aiming at, and parts of the novel upset me deeply.

Reading it again, I have a greater sympathy for her portrait of three lost souls, drifting past each other in an empty house, accidentally hurting and misunderstanding each other, all craving meaningful connection but struggling to achieve it. It's not until the very end of the book that hope arrives in the form of Alby, who manages to draw them together (with a long, perhaps invented story) and ends up joining them in what the reader senses will now be a household, rather than just a house with random inhabitants. It's really a novel about faith, belief and connection, and how hard it can be to trust -- to trust oneself, to trust others, to trust in a greater pattern or power. 

At the time Garner was widely derided for talking about the 'mighty force' she had experienced, described in the novel as haunting Janet (who is surely a thinly-veiled Garner) in the shape of a dark column hovering behind her shoulder. It's a powerful image, whatever it represents. In her diaries, Garner seems to accept Tim Winton's characterisation of it as the Holy Spirit; but in the novel, Janet resists its power with all her being and finally seems to defeat it.

In many ways, Cosmo Cosmolino is a deeply bleak novel. But the ending is a joyous blast of hope.

26.1.21

The Chimneys of Green Knowe

 

The Chimneys of Green Knowe was far and away my favourite of Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe series as a child; I read it so many times I still know it almost by heart. In contrast to The Children of Green Knowe, which has a dreamy Christmas atmosphere and almost no plot at all, Chimneys is set in spring and absolutely brims with exciting stories -- Jacob's escape from slavery, his and Susan's juju ceremony, Jacob being sent up the chimneys by Sefton, the fire, the gypsies, young Boggis's narrow escape from the press gang in which Tolly plays a helping hand, the lost jewels...

Alas, some aspects of the novel haven't aged well. The N word is used (though never approvingly) and racist attitudes are well to the fore, albeit with the explicit disapproval of the author. Jacob is dressed up as a monkey, his black hands are regarded as dirty by the servants etc; but his character is utterly admirable, he is brave, resourceful, loyal and inventive, and his friendship with intelligent, adventurous, blind Susan is delightful. On the other hand, the description of the gypsies at the very end of the book has no redeeming qualities; the sympathy and understanding extended to Jacob apparently doesn't apply to these stereotypical villains.

Despite these reservations, I still thoroughly enjoy Chimneys and the interweaving of past and present: Tolly's part in the rescue of young Boggis which I mentioned above, the way Susan and Jacob in 1799 hear 'the ghost boy' Tolly singing his sea shanties in the treetops a hundred and fifty years later. The relationship between Tolly and his great-grandmother is lovely, and the motif of the quilt patches which tie past and present together is clever and satisfying. One of my favourites of all time.

(I first read Chimneys as a child in colonial PNG. I think, I hope, that the portrayal of quick-witted, fierce Jacob helped to counteract the racist attitudes to the 'locals' that surrounded me every day.)

23.1.21

Stravinsky's Lunch


I have read Drusilla's Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch before, but not for many years. I wrote above (below, actually!) about the anecdote which sparked her thinking around this subject, at a dinner with Helen Garner and other friends, mostly writers. Stravinsky's Lunch is a biography of two Australian women artists, but it is also a mediation on the clashes between the demands of any creative practice, love, family and the world that women artists experience particularly acutely. (Rachel Power's The Divided Heart is another excellent book on this topic.)

Naturally this is a subject close to my own heart, as I try daily to juggle writing with the multiple needs of family, domestic responsibilities and self-care. The two artists Modjeska writes about, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, took very different approaches to the compromises and conflicts they both endured for their art. Bowen left Australia to pursue her artistic studies, but ended up sacrificing her own work for many years after falling in love with the much older writer, Ford Madox Ford, who was supportive of her work (up to a point) but took it for granted that his writing should come first, barely conscious that a quiet house, regular food, and the pleasures of domestic comfort (including children) require work by someone (not him). Eventually they separated and she enjoyed late success as a war artist, but she died relatively young and under-appreciated.

Grace Cossington Smith never married, and in fact, never left her parents' home. Her middle class family supported her financially through the ups and down of artistic recognition, though again she didn't receive the accolades she deserved until late in her long life. Cossington Smith doggedly followed her instincts, painting mostly in isolation and suffering the derision of male critics, and eventually amassed an incredible body of work. But again, her independence was bought at a cost -- in this case, her sister Madge, who kept house and cared for their ageing parents, and then for Grace herself. Modjeska is careful to acknowledge Madge's presence and sacrifice which made Grace's achievements possible.

Annabel Crabb's The Wife Drought makes the same point -- any individual who wants to combine a demanding career (in any field) and a fulfilling personal life (family, children, love) needs a WIFE to do the endless, tedious, draining, time-devouring work behind the scenes. Or a Madge, or a faithful servant, or a partner who is willing to sacrifice a bit of their own time or success or leisure to share the load. Only some us are lucky enough to score one of those.