Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Poetry - The Overlander

I've nearly finished listening to the audio book of Mary Durack's Kings in Grass Castles, the story of her pioneering grandfather & his amazing life in 19th century Queensland & the Kimberley. I already have the sequel, Sons in the Saddle, ready to download & I also have Brenda Niall's biography of Mary Durack & her sister, Elizabeth, True North, on the tbr pile. I feel a bit of an Australian pioneering history tangent coming on.
The Duracks were great drovers & moved cattle across vast distances between properties or to market. This is a traditional folk song about the drovers or overlanders. If you'd like to hear how it sounds sung by a traditional bush band, here's the Sundowners version.


Oh there's a trade you all know well it's bringing cattle over
I'll tell you all about the time that I became a drover
I wanted stock for Queensland to Kempsey I did wander
And bought a mob of duffers there and began as an overlander

Chorus
So pass the bottle round boys and don't you leave it stand there
For tonight we'll drink the health of every overlander

Well when the cattle were counted and the outfit ready to start
The lads were all well mounted with their swags left in the cart
I saw I had all sorts of men from Germany France and Flanders
Lawyers doctors good and bad in the mob of overlanders

The very next morning I fed up where the grass was green and young
And the squatter said he'd break my snout if I didn't push along
Says I my lad you're very hard but dont you raise my dander
For I'm a regular knowing card I'm a Queensland overlander

If ever our horses get done up of course we turn 'em free
And you can't expect a drover to walk if a pony he can see
So now and then we bone a prad and believe me it's no slander
To say there's many a clever trick done by an overlander

In town we drain the whiskey glass and go to see the play
We never think of being hard up nor how to spend the day
We shear up to them pretty girls that rig themselves with grandeur
And as long as we spend our cheque my lads they love the overlander

A little girl on Sydney side, she said dont leave me lonely
I said it's sad but my old prad has room for one man only
And now my lads we're jogging back this pony she's a goer
We'll pick up a job with a crawling mob along the Maranoa

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Brat Farrar - Josephine Tey

Patrick Ashby committed suicide when he was just thirteen. He threw himself off a cliff or swam out to sea until he could swim no more. His parents had been killed in a plane crash shortly before but his family - twin brother Simon, sisters Eleanor, Jane & Ruth & Aunt Beatrice - & friends had no idea that he was distressed enough to take such a drastic step. Beatrice Ashby (known as Bee) had stepped in to look after her nephews & nieces & take on the running of The Latchetts, the estate & horse stud that would provide a precarious living for the family. Precarious, that is, until Simon, now the heir to his mother's fortune after Patrick's death, turns 21 when he will inherit.

Just before this milestone, a young man turns up claiming to be Patrick Ashby. From the beginning, the reader knows that he is not Patrick but an imposter. Brat Farrar was a foundling, brought up in an orphanage. When he runs into Alec Loding on a London street, Loding is overcome by the family resemblance to the Ashbys, mistaking Brat at first for Simon. Loding conceives a scheme to defraud the Ashbys & make his own life as an unsuccessful actor easier. Loding had grown up at the neighboring estate to Latchetts & knew the family intimately. He convinces Brat that the scheme can work & coaches him in the part. Brat soon finds himself enjoying the adrenaline &, in a short time, he has convinced the family lawyers & Bee that he is Patrick returned from the dead.

Brat's own life has been anonymous enough that he can just tell his own story, apart from the motives for his disappearance & how he found himself in America. Brat had worked with horses there & loved it until an accident left him lame. The Latchetts is everything he had ever dreamt of & he soon finds himself in love with the house & everyone in it; everyone except Simon who curiously refuses to accept that Patrick has returned. Simon has been done out of the inheritance that for eight years he had confidently expected would be his. But, is there some other reason for his attitude than arrogance & bad temper? How long will Brat be able to keep up the pretence before someone or something trips him up?

This is such a wonderful book. I love Josephine Tey's novels & I read them all many years ago. The Daughter of Time is the only one I regularly reread but I love them all. Tey is so good at the psychological motivations of her characters. We are aware of Brat's emotions from the start -  suspicion of Loding's motives, to the excitement of the game & deceiving people so successfully to the complications that arise when he is welcomed into the Ashby family & begins to feel ashamed at his deception of these people he has grown to love. There's also his wariness of Simon as he tries to work out his feelings & account for his behaviour. Bee was my favourite character. She has given up her own life to care for her brother's children (like Elizabeth Branwell, who left the warmth of Cornwall for Haworth after her sister's death - I'm rereading Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë) & has endured not only his loss but that of Patrick as well. She is kind, loving & principled, refusing to touch the trust money even when the stud was in trouble & she, along with Simon & Eleanor, have kept Latchetts going.

Patrick comes alive to us as a sensitive, kind boy, as is evident in the joy that neighbours & tenants show on his return. Bee has been haunted by the thought of his final moments, wondering whether, at the last minute, he regretted his actions. One of the stumbling blocks for Bee in Patrick's return is why he should never have written to her to let her know that he was safe. The Patrick she knew would not have been so cruel. Still, she welcomes Brat wholeheartedly & never reproaches him. Simon is arrogant, privileged & unlikeable but still, it's not difficult to understand his shock at the change in his fortunes & the future he thought he would enjoy.

Tey is also good at creating a world, in this case, a horse stud & riding school. I'm not interested in horses at all but she made that world, with its horse shows, racing, riding lessons for bored schoolchildren & the precariousness of success where a bad season could almost destroy the business, very real & interesting. The minor characters are also interesting - vicar George Peck & his beautiful wife, Nancy, who is Alec Loding's sister & was once the belle of county society, shepherd Abel, fussy Mr Sandal the lawyer, Lana Adams, the "help" who epitomises the new breed of household help post WWII & Glaswegian Mr Macallan, the local reporter who hopes his story about the Ashby resurrection will get him onto the front pages of the London papers. I couldn't help but think that Tey made him Scots because of her background. I must find out if there's a model in her life for all the young American men who pop up in her books - Brat & Brent Carradine in The Daughter of Time & I'm sure there was one in The Singing Sands. I could always read the recent biography on the tbr shelves, I suppose!

I listened to Brat Farrar on audio, read by Carole Boyd, one of my favourite narrators.

Anglophilebooks.com There is a copy of Brat Farrar available from Anglophile Books.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

I'm reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë - the first edition with all the libelous bits, of course. I've had this copy for about 30 years & I also have a copy of the third edition with the changes Gaskell was forced to make. In Charlotte's Bicentenary year, it felt like the right time to reread the first &, in some ways, the best biography because Gaskell knew Charlotte. I've also recently read Hermione Lee's Biography : a Very Short Introduction which has made me aware all over again of the motives of biographers. Often it's more about the biographer than the subject. That's why I can read several biographies of the same person as all of them emphasize different aspects of the life. Then there are memoirs & autobiographies. John le Carré's memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, has just been published in the UK & his biographer, Adam Sisman, has just written a very gracious article in the Guardian about the experience of being le Carré's biographer & the difference between memoir & biography. I enjoyed Sisman's biography & I'm looking forward to reading The Pigeon Tunnel.

As this is supposed to be Sunday Poetry, not Sunday Biographical Ramblings, here's one of Charlotte's poems.

If thou be in a lonely place,
If one hour's calm be thine,
As Evening bends her placid face
O'er this sweet day's decline;
If all the earth and all the heaven
Now look serene to thee,
As o'er them shuts the summer even,
One moment ­think of me !

Pause, in the lane, returning home;
'Tis dusk, it will be still:
Pause near the elm, a sacred gloom
Its breezeless boughs will fill.
Look at that soft and golden light,
High in the unclouded sky;
Watch the last bird's belated flight,
As it flits silent by.

Hark ! for a sound upon the wind,
A step, a voice, a sigh;
If all be still, then yield thy mind,
Unchecked, to memory.
If thy love were like mine, how blest
That twilight hour would seem,
When, back from the regretted Past,
Returned our early dream !

If thy love were like mine, how wild
Thy longings, even to pain,
For sunset soft, and moonlight mild,
To bring that hour again !
But oft, when in thine arms I lay,
I've seen thy dark eyes shine,
And deeply felt, their changeful ray
Spoke other love than mine.

My love is almost anguish now,
It beats so strong and true;
'Twere rapture, could I deem that thou
Such anguish ever knew.
I have been but thy transient flower,
Thou wert my god divine;
Till, checked by death's congealing power,
This heart must throb for thine.

And well my dying hour were blest,
If life's expiring breath
Should pass, as thy lips gently prest
My forehead, cold in death;
And sound my sleep would be, and sweet,
Beneath the churchyard tree,
If sometimes in thy heart should beat
One pulse, still true to me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking - Frances Wood

I had mixed feelings about this book. It's the story of an English student studying Chinese language & history in Peking in the 1970s, during the final days of Mao's Cultural Revolution. What disconcerted me at first was the tome of humorous incomprehension. I was tempted to pick this up because I'd been reading articles about the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Everything I read emphasized the horror & the tragedy of this period of Chinese history, when the Communist leadership, led by a resurgent Mao Zedong, incited students to form the Red Guard. The Red Guard violently suppressed intellectuals, exalted the role of the peasants & forced so-called class enemies to work in the fields. In the process this new policy ruined the economy & led to millions of deaths from famine as well as the many people imprisoned by the regime. China was almost an unknown land to most people in the West at that time & Frances Wood didn't know about the atrocities until her return from Peking. The book was based on her letters home & emphasize the absurdities of a regime that she compares to Sellers & Yeatman's 1066 and All That rather than Orwell's 1984.

I can't imagine how Wood kept her sense of humour in the circumstances of her life in Peking. She was one of a group of foreign students studying at a Language Institute & then, she was permitted to study history at Peking University. Living conditions were primitive, no heating in the winter, very little hot water (& that was usually monopolised by the aggressive North Korean students). Washing sheets in the winter & trying to keep the sleeves of a thick padded coat free from soy sauce are only two of the challenges Frances faces. Her Chinese tutors & fellow students lived in a state of fear that their words would be misinterpreted & so real friendships were impossible. Some of the foreign students deliberately tried to question the official version, which changed depending on who was in or out of favour with the leadership of the Party. Teaching materials were bland & uninteresting because so much history was being rewritten & so many books stamped Negative Teaching Material & only available from the library with written permission from a tutor.

Then, there were the compulsory games & the periods spent working in the country, trying to plant rice or bind enormous cabbages with inferior rice straw that broke. Every aspect of life was dictated by the Party & foreigners were restricted in their movements, forced to get permits to travel &, like other Chinese, having to take all their food with them for the journey. There are some beautiful moments, seeing the dawn at the Great Wall, for instance, but most journeys, whether by train or bicycle, were frustrating. The British Embassy staff provided respite for the British students, providing transport for them to get into Peking & inviting them to social events & outings. Wood always feels an outsider & the horrified reaction of most Chinese to Westerners gives her insight into racism at a very basic level,

An immensely tall and lanky Swedish student with a great clump of fair hair got tired of walking along city streets and having the entire population call out Waiguo ren (Foreigner) as if he didn't know. ... The same thing happened to the rest of us, all the time, although we weren't quite so visible from a distance. Wherever we went, whatever we did, there was always the insistent whisper, Waiguo ren. If you just slipped out of the Institute gates to post a letter, people staggered back, arms flailing, or flattened themselves against walls and stared. I remember one little old lady in her thick black cotton padded suit, hobbling along on bound feet, who had to clutch at a tree when I passed as she muttered Waiguo ren to herself.

After a year in Peking, Frances returns home after a long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway & through Eastern Europe. She regrets her failure to really become a part of China, unrealistic though such an aim might have been. On her return home, she was paralysed by the choice of cereals at breakfast (even though she'd dreamed of such choice in Peking) & felt paranoid when she was ignored by her fellow travellers on the bus. Frances Wood & her fellow students were witnesses to the essential absurdity of all totalitarian regimes. She was fortunate in being an outsider, able to observe & be amused by the ridiculousness without becoming a victim of the arbitrary whims of the leadership. I enjoyed Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking with reservations. Having just read Christabel Bielenberg's memoir, The Past is Myself, I had similar questions about writing & reading memoirs. Although written many years after the event, both authors take us back to the people they were at the time with the knowledge they had then. I can only respect their honesty & their ability to strip away the knowledge they gained after the fact & take their stories at face value, for the fascinating slices of life they are.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sunday Poetry - William Shakespeare

I'm off to the movies this afternoon to see the Almeida Theatre production of Richard III with Ralph Fiennes & Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret. It's had some interesting reviews here & here.
As a member of the Richard III Society I disagree with a lot of Shakespeare's ideas, but I do love this play & this opening speech by Gloucester, soon to be King, laying out his evil plans right from the start. Such a famous speech with some wonderful images - the dogs barking as he halts by them & "descant on mine own deformity" as he observes his shadow & the first four lines ending on that sombre "buried" & the pun on son/sun.
I'm looking forward to seeing what Ralph Fiennes makes of it & I'm sure I'll have to reread Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time afterwards as well as several issues of The Ricardian.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Literary Ramblings

A few more bits & pieces that I found interesting as I wasted time on the internet when I probably should have been doing something else. Taking photos of the girls probably isn't the most effective use of my time either but I was so stunned to see Lucky (on the right) lounging in the sun on Phoebe's purple bed the other day that I couldn't resist. That wary look is just her default expression although she's never happy to see me approaching with a camera, phone or iPad. I think she was just too comfortable to move. The photo of Phoebe was taken on a lovely late winter afternoon the previous week.

The covers for the much-anticipated reprints by Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow (in conjunction with Dean Street Press) have been unveiled. I've already preordered the Winifred Pecks & A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell. Can't wait to get my hands on these.

One of my favourite podcasts is Chat 10 Looks 3 with Leigh Sales & Annabel Crabb. In the latest episode they recommended Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcast. Gladwell is an author & "global thinker", probably what used to be called a public intellectual. In this 10 part series, he looks back at moments in history that have been overlooked & reconsiders their importance. The first episode is about Elizabeth Thompson, better known as Lady Butler, a Victorian artist best known for her monumental pictures of military subjects. Everything about her career was unusual & typical of her sex & time. She was a woman artist in an age when women couldn't attend art school or attend life classes (unless they were the model); she became famous when her picture, The Roll-Call, was exhibited at the Royal Academy; she was not elected to the all-male Academy & her career ended when she married. Gladwell is very interesting on all these points & he interviews former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for another angle on the difficulties of being the first in her field. I'm looking forward to listening to the other nine episodes.

An extract from John le Carré's memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, has been published in The Guardian. I'm looking forward to this after reading Adam Sisman's biography of le Carré earlier this year.

More books have entered this house lately than are really necessary but one that is entirely necessary & that I'm very excited about is Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport. The story of Petrograd in 1917 told by the outsiders, the foreigners who were living in the city at the time. I'm a fan of Helen's, having loved Four Sisters & Magnificent Obsession. This is definitely next off the tbr pile, actually, it's not even going to make it on to the pile, it's on my reading table already.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Moon and Sixpence - W Somerset Maugham

This is a story about artistic genius & the responsibilities that go with it. Part of the story is supposed to be based on the life of Gaughin but I was curious about the title which is never explained in the book. Wikipedia tells me that, in a letter, Maugham explained it in this way, "If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don't look up, and so miss the moon." There's also a quote from Maugham's novel, Of Human Bondage, that is very similar. I was also interested to learn from Wikipedia that a movie was made of the book in 1942 with George Sanders as Strickland & Herbert Marshall as the narrator. Two of my favourite actors! It's on YouTube here with French subtitles.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator (I did wonder if it was Willie Ashenden, the narrator of Cakes and Ale as well as several short stories). He tells the story of Charles Strickland. At the age of 40, Strickland, a stockbroker with a wife & two children, suddenly leaves his family & goes to Paris to become an artist. He does this in the most callous way, leaving no explanation for his wife, Amy, or his business partner. They are left penniless & he never communicates with his family again. The narrator is sent to Paris to track Strickland down as the family assume he's run off with a woman. He's found alone, in a garret in a very poor area, with virtually no money. He refuses to explain himself & refuses to go home.

A few years later, our narrator is in Paris when he meets Strickland again. He's still painting, still unsuccessful & almost half-starved. He has never sold a picture. The narrator's friend, Dirk Stroeve, also knows Strickland. Stroeve is a jovial man, a painter of very bad, chocolate-boxy pictures that, nevertheless, sell very well. He is relentlessly friendly to Strickland who is morose, rude & dismissive of Stroeve's work. Stroeve's wife, Blanche, loathes Strickland & is embarrassed to see her husband's kindness dismissed. However, against her better judgement, Stroeve brings Strickland to their home when he is ill with a fever. This precipitates tragedy for the Stroeves although Strickland is unconcerned of the consequences of his actions. All he cares about is his work.

Strickland eventually goes to Tahiti where he continues to paint. He takes a native woman, Ata, as his wife & retreats to an inaccessible valley. The narrator travels to Tahiti some years later, after Strickland's death & when he is acclaimed as a genius, his work now selling for thousands of pounds. He wants to find out more about Strickland's last years & he hears the terrible story of his death.

Strickland is a genius but he's an intensely unpleasant man. He leaves a trail of destruction behind him in the lives of those who love him & seems to feel no remorse or even concern. He has no compassion for anyone he meets. When he's dying in his garret, he's not grateful to Stroeve for rescuing him. It's as though he would be just as happy to die alone. He doesn't seem to care that no one admires his pictures, he is compelled to keep working even though no one but himself can see any point. It's not even clear whether he is ever satisfied himself. Is he always striving to achieve something out of his reach? I'm sure he would have been scornful of the experts who acclaimed his work after his death. There are bigger questions here about genius. Strickland was never recognized in his lifetime. Would he have considered that all his sufferings, physical & mental, were worth it? Would he have been a genius if he'd been a nicer, more compassionate man or was his single-minded pursuit of excellence mean that he should be absolved from the ordinary human politenesses that keep society functioning?  Such interesting questions & I have no answers! I don't think Maugham had any answers either, I think he was just intrigued by the contradictions of life & fame. The narrator is certainly fascinated by Strickland even as he's shocked by his cruelty & dismissive of his work. He tries in vain to warn Stroeve & to soften the blow for abandoned Amy but he obviously feels that there must be something more than mere stubbornness to account for Strickland's obsession with his art.

Maugham is interested in the idea of fame & genius (it's also one of the themes of Cakes and Ale) but always at one remove. I need to read more of his books to see if he uses the same device of a narrator observing the action rather than the viewpoint of the central protagonist. I also need to know more about Maugham himself & I'm tempted by Selina Hastings' biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham - has anyone read it? Although the narrator always remains slightly shadowy, the other characters are full of life. Dirk Stroeve is pathetic but also ultimately quite dignified. Amy Strickland's desire to be part of artistic circles in London (which is how she meets the narrator) & seen as Bohemian can't survive the reality of her husband's desertion. She's resigned to being left for another woman & magnanimously declares that she'll take him back when his fling is over but she can't comprehend being left for art. She ends up learning typing & running her own agency while being secretly ashamed that she's had to earn her own living instead of being proud that she was able to do so. There are also some wonderful minor characters whom the narrator meets on his journey, like Dr Coutras & Tiaré, a woman who runs a lodging house in Tahiti where Strickland meets Ata.

This is such a compelling story. I listened to it on audio, narrated by Robert Hardy. I wish Robert Hardy had narrated more audio books, he does such a wonderful job with this one. I remember listening to his recording of Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree many years ago but there's very little else. However, I couldn't stop listening to this book which is a testament to Hardy's narration as much as Maugham's storytelling.