Nothing New


Robyn Annear is a prolific Melbourne writer (actually I think she lives in Castlemaine) but I'm aware of her from her history of early Melbourne, Bearbrass, and A City Lost and Found, which is the story of Whelan the Wrecker. It's not surprising that she's chosen to turn her pen to a history of second-hand -- well, everything! (Ironically Nothing New is one of the few books I've read lately not sourced from that massive trove of second-hand reading matter, Brotherhood Books; I borrowed this one from the library.)

Nothing New examines many different aspects of secondhand goods and trading, but focuses particularly on clothing. In the olden days, there was no such thing as vintage -- clothes were worn, cut down, and adapted until they simply wore out, whereupon they were transformed into multi-purpose rags. Everyday clothing doesn't get preserved for museums, which is why the historic clothes we see on display tend to be strictly for special occasions - silk dresses, bridal gowns and parade uniforms.

Annear also looks at the enormous trade in used clothing in Africa, the valorisation of mending and making do during times of shortage during the First and Second World Wars, and the subsequent backlash in the 1950s when consumers were encouraged to throw out the old and embrace the new in order to help the economy along. 

These days we are encouraged (perhaps vainly) to reuse and recycle what we can, but at the same time, society isn't organised to facilitate this. It's almost impossible to get major appliances repaired -- why would you, when it's just as cheap to buy a new fridge or washing machine? I'm constantly horrified by participants on House Hunters who cast an eye over a perfectly functional kitchen or bathroom and pronounce that it 'needs to be updated.' Does it, really? Having lived in many houses with sub-standard kitchens and bathrooms and survived perfectly well, I can tell you that having everything new might  be nice, but it's by no means essential.

There is, however, a sub-section of society (which clearly Annear belongs to) which celebrates the pre-loved, the historic, the shabby, the characterful. My sister-in-law is currently making a fortune connecting discarded items with new owners. Long may she and her kind flourish.


The Shepherd's Life


James Rebanks' unexpected 2015 bestseller, The Shepherd's Life, chimed well with my recent readings of Underland and Alan Garner -- and also with Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk. Rebanks is part of a farming family in England's Lake District: Beatrix Potter country. For generations, his ancestors have farmed sheep on the fells, and he has witnessed the rise and fall of farming fads, eventually returning to the traditional methods of managing sheep on these marginal lands.

His connection to the land is unbreakable; he glories fiercely in the deep family connection to farming that stretches back for hundreds of years, and which he in turn is passing to his own young children (though he accepts that they may or not not also become farmers). He is no fool, and doesn't suffer fools either, like well-meaning outsiders who take a more romantic view of the countryside and see the sheep and the farmers as a picturesque decoration rather than an integral part of the landscape. His people are proud and prickly, and that comes through forcefully in his prose.

Just as when I read Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, I was struck by the parallels, half a world away, with Australian First Nations' visceral connection to country and how these English authors experience their own deep roots in the land. It's not the same experience, but it chimes, and it makes me wonder if all traditional societies share this fundamental sense of connection to the landscape -- if it's a universal experience that modern, mobile societies have lost. 

The Shepherd's Life is divided into seasons and describes the rhythm of the farming year; the book also traces Rebanks' own life. He drifted through school and didn't think much of it, dropping out as soon as he could to help on the farm. But clashes with his father contributed to driving him back to education. He ended up at Oxford (he describes wryly how he found himself suddenly rebranded locally as 'clever') and now finds himself a writer. (I didn't know it, but he has a new book out: English Pastoral.) I've also just discovered a Conversations podcast with Richard Fidler which I am now itching to listen to.


The Stone Book Quartet


I think The Stone Book Quartet is my favourite Alan Garner novel. It's really a collection of four novellas, each focused on a child of a different generation of a family strikingly similar to Garner's own: he has said that this is his most personal book. In these slim but tightly controlled stories, each taking place over a single day, Garner explores themes of family and history, memory and craft, belonging and loss.

In The Stone Book, Mary's stonemason father takes her up to the stop of the church spire and then deep into the earth to discover a secret painted cave. In Granny Reardun, Mary's son chooses to come a blacksmith rather than a mason, to work with metal instead of stone. In The Aimer Gate, Robert helps with the wartime harvest but alone of the children, can't find a moment of joy or a vocation. Finally, in Tom Fobble's Day, set during the Second World War, William's grandfather (the smith of Granny Reardun) makes William a perfect sledge on his last day of work.

There are echoes and resonances between the four stories. The demolished house from Granny Reardun reappears as rescued rubble in The Aimer Gate. Robert climbs inside the church tower and finds his grandfather's mark hidden in the 'cave' of the belfry. In each generation, there is deep skill and respected mastery. And Alan Garner himself, descended from these craftsmen, has created a homage to them using the tools of his own craft: words.

There are also gaps and mysteries here. No one seems to know what the 'aimer gate' means. Mary, who longed to work in a great house and care for beautiful things, can't afford to care for her own firstborn son. Robert is not drawn to any particular mastery and we don't know what becomes of him; the last tale centres on William and his grandfather, and William's father doesn't even appear. 

Hot on the heels of Underland, it was especially wonderful to read of the ancient painted cave of The Stone Book with its vivid animal scenes, overlapping footprints and handprints, a secret handed down through a single family. Do the later children know of it, or is the secret lost? The broken loom of Mary's uncle becomes William's perfectly balanced sledge four generations later; some knowledge, some possessions, are passed down unknowingly. 

Like the sledge, swift and balanced, sweeping and sure, the product of hand and eye and history, The Stone Book Quartet itself is close to perfection.