Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

I don’t have the issue that bother some with this book, the way characters disappear. But I’ve been to see Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines and it turned out I could pack up and go home about 20 minutes in. One of those life experiences that hardens you.

A young policeman, whose preference is painting birds, and who is in the police because it was the first civil service position for which he qualified, keeps changing the lives of odd but good people without having any interest in doing so. I want to call him corrupt in that he has a job he doesn’t care about and he treats it in a way  you can’t treat that sort of job. He should care. But in fact he does what he is told, toes the line, hopes to get up the ranks, hopes mainly that he can spend as much time as possible with birds. And so. First he is responsible for the incineration of a group of crazy good people. One escapes and in chasing him down, he is responsible for a brutal police attack on another equally odd group which is doing nothing more than going shopping.

So far I think all this is great. Wonderful story telling in the Indian tradition. It has the quirkiness of, say, a Narayan story, but with that added stark realism that marks modern Indian literature as I’ve experienced it. However, I was lost in the third part where his target is still on the run and they find each other again. It seemed sort of slapsticky and without the same intensity of the first parts. I didn’t understand it and I certainly didn’t believe it. If I’ve missed the point, please tell me what it is as I’d like not to be disappointed by it.

Absolutely worth a read, I was engrossed for much of it. It has much to show the reader about Indian history and politics, the way certain types of societies and situations function. And there are some deeply moving parts, particularly in building up to the first catastrophe. The first parts of the book are utterly gripping. But despite that I’ve put it on my pile of books to give to my local secondhand bookseller here. It’s a pity that when you finish a book, it’s the ending that leaves the taste in your mouth.

Henry V Man and Monarch. Shakespeare performed by Brett Brown

Dear Henry V,

As you married me this evening, I expect I might briefly hold your attention here. My name is Catherine, by the way, less often Cate. And I spend much of my life in exile in Geneva – close enough to France for the occasion. I have been going to Shakespeare since I was a  young child, my father knew quite a few of the plays by heart and instilled a love of them. So, I feel like if I see a great Shakespearean actor I will recognise him and I sincerely think that is what you are, having seen you two nights running now.

The audience is always tempted, I’m sure to join in parts of Shakespeare because we all know some of it. But with rare exception a modern audience restrains itself. One such exception was when Jacobi as a young man played Hamlet (as I’m sure you will, if you haven’t already) and one night Winston Churchill was in the front row. As Jacobi set about To Be or Not to Be, he must have been nonplussed to discover Churchill going word for word with him, out loud for all to hear. (I do so wish I’d been there!) But for the rest of us, we are bound to you, but can you tell? Perhaps it helps to have it said. We are bound to you. Of course, I and my villages are particularly so until about 8.45 tomorrow night, no doubt.

Yours etc, Cathy

The show: Henry V Man and Monarch on until March 5.
At: Holden St theatres
Occasion: Adelaide Fringe 2017
The actor: Brett Brown, incredibly accomplished young actor. How is it he isn’t already a star? He nails Shakespeare. He has the lot, the poise and pose, the emotions, the courage and cowardice, doubt and certainty. He uses simple sets and devices to sensational effect. Stunning singing voice to boot. What can’t he do, I wonder?
Go: because it is shame on you if you don’t.
Stars: Out of five? At least six.

Fear of Falling by Barbara Ehrenreich

When I picked this up in the sale bin of East Ave books in Adelaide for $1 I was hoping to get insight into the surreal nightmare of the US’s current state. A better dollar I will never spend. It was published early 1990s, which was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want a hindsight constructed narrative. Trump is no more than a casually mentioned billionaire of a type towards the end of Ehrenreich’s account of the middle class and its relationship to the other classes in the US during the course of the twentieth century. She explains the rise of the new Right in the US as well as the new Left. The book is highly readable whilst being dense; it’s both deeply and widely researched. I will be reading all her books. I think everybody should read this one.

The story she tells in this one is painful. She shows the rise of the middle-class, how they made themselves a financial and politically important group based on professionalising what they did and excluding others. She talks of its permanent insecurity as a consequence. Even though I’ve always known about it, her analysis of the exploitation of the educated youth and their university-student-led rebellion of the sixties and seventies when university students were actually mowed down by troops in the US was particularly illuminating and excruciatingly sad; staff in universities trying to protect their status from the questioning of the kids who were expected to work at derisory rates in their young professional years. Staff more or less on the side of the troops. None of this has changed, one might add. She documents the discovery by the middle class, to its great astonishment, that there were poor people in the US and she examines the way in which the middle class then set about categorising them and determining how to relate to them. She shows the fabulously patronising attitudes to those below them and the trouble it has ultimately caused.

I am really baffled and scared and disappointed by the way small ‘l’ liberals around the world (whom I tend to refer to as ‘nice white people’) treat certain groups as nothing but scum and even when that scum attempts to have a voice we as a whole have treated it with nothing but the utmost disdain. You’d think, for example, that Brexit might have had the impact in the US election of making the Democrats wary of going the same way and yet, there we had Clinton and her party not even ‘just’ treating the supporters of Trump as morons but calling them that in public as official policy, one might say.

I can see, however, from this history of the middle class in the US and its relations with others that it is perhaps inevitable that this is how things are, the liberals treating poor working class people as scum at worst, as people to be patronised at best, and being hated for it. (There is a presumption that these people are white in the US, a presumption which is obviously at odds with the facts, but so much of how the middle class sees the world about it is not in accord with reality.) Ehrenreich for example discusses the impact of TV, which made middle class Americans thinks that all white people had what they had, there wasn’t anything else on TV, whilst at the same time making white working class people both aspirational and angry that there was no representation of how things really were. Fascinating to read.

And there is the question of where exactly all this started, the ruthless ruination of the working class by the middle class which is still being played out, though the middle class is discovering its own capacity to be ruined by the same thing, really. Technology. To quote at length a key passage:

The profession of management was born on the front lines of the early twentieth century battle between labour and capital, and its story illustrates the tensions between the working class and the emerging middle class. Since the story has been so well told elsewhere, I will be recklessly brief: until the early twentieth century there was no profession of management – or for that matter of engineering. The reason, as the virtual inventor of scientific management, Frederick Taylor, later observed ruefully, was that ‘the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses.’ Manual and mental labour had not yet been sorted into distinct occupations; skilled craftsmen dominated both the technology and the organisation of the work process. This left the employer in the vexed situation of being unable to comprehend or control the labour he paid for. Only the workers could judge, for example, how long a given job should take, and hence how much they should be paid.

Taylor’s contribution was to show how the intellectual command of the production process could be stripped from the workers and concentrated in a more reliable cadre of middle class managers and engineers. Through a careful analysis of the production process, the complex and intellectually demanding work of the craftsmen could be broken down into simple repetitive motions to be divided among less skilled workers. Henceforth, no mere worker would be able to comprehend or control the entire process; each would be reduced to a few repetitive motions such as turns of a wrench. Meanwhile the manager or engineer, armed with a stopwatch, now oversaw the work process, determining who would do what and, crucially, how fast it should be done.

Henry Ford’s assembly line sealed the new division of labour into the hard steel of heavy machinery. America’s working class began to be transformed into an army of wrench turners, required neither to think nor to create – in fact, usually required, not to think or create. The creative functions (such as designing new products were removed from the shop floor to the engineer’s work station; the day to day decision making was lifted into the clean and quiet offices of management. This ‘rationalisation’ of production did not succeed in taming the working class, which rose up with a new burst of militance in the 1930s. But it did greatly enhance the day to day power of employers over their blue collar hirelings, while – not incidentally – providing employment for growing numbers of educated white collar men.

Outside of the industrial workplace, other professions consolidated themselves by offering to ‘mediate’ class conflict or by usurping skills that had belonged to the working class. Social workers and teachers provided invaluable services to the urban poor, but in an ideological context that stressed ‘Americanisation’ (patriotism as opposed to class or ethnic identity) and middle class gentility – or as they insisted on calling it, ‘right living’. Medicine achieved its professional monopoly in part through a campaign to discredit and outlaw indigenous healers, especially midwives, who had played a key role in every ethnic working class community. (This was dubious ‘reform’, since as late as 1910 mid-wives were achieving lower rates of still births and maternal mortality than the profession physicians who sort to eliminate them.) Public health officials introduced the sanitary measures that eventually curbed epidemics of infectious diseases, but they also incurred lower class resentment by their heavy handed policing of immigrant ghettoes.

As it happens I am reading Gaita’s wonderful After Romulus at the moment and this passage in Fear of Falling brought into mind nothing so much as this, by Gaita. It is in the context of talking about goodness in the world and the hours Hora would spend telling stories of good people.

Simone Weil, when she was a radical activist working at the Renault factory in France before the war, said that only the very greatest literature was good enough for those who suffered the afflication of soul-destroying work. She read her translations of Greek tragedies to large groups of workers. When I hear talk of elitism in discussions about literature and art more generally, I remember that, and I remember my father and Hora in the kitchen filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of slivovitz. After Romulus pp. 23/4

Nice white people: it may be that we are moving into a period where in the same way we have destroyed the lives of poorer people in our society, people who would do physical work if we were prepared to pay them to do it, we too will largely be destroyed by technology. It could be that we will be part of a world we ourselves have not only permitted, but positively nurtured, of a handful of multi-billionaires who own everything, who live in gated ghettoes with the secrets of medicine and DNA and pure water whilst the rest of us live Orxy and Crake style, or even worse, most of us won’t live at all. We won’t even be needed, after all, as beasts of burden.

But hoping for the best that this isn’t going to happen or that people still have the power to stop it in its tracks, we have to find ways to live with our neighbours. Our actual physical neighbours, the poor people we have created out of our own greed and aspirations. It isn’t enough to buy freetrade coffee whilst treating one’s neighbours as scum because they are white and poor. There are reasons people are both these things, and we can look at ourselves for the explanations.

This is the note that Fear of Falling ends on, exhorting the middle class to do the things it needs to do to stop the fall. Going on for 30 years later, one can see that she has been paid no heed. I find Gaita inspirational, his belief in goodness. However, I do sometimes wonder, when I watch nice white people’s relationship to other white people, if it is symptomatic of needing to detest and look down on somebody and who, after all is left? One may no longer be racist or sexist. That pretty much leaves other white people. Ones that aren’t like us.

I hope that isn’t true.

One of the Wattle Birds by Jessica Anderson

Another writer bites the dust, dead a few years and all but forgotten. Two reviews of this on GR.

I wonder if others were as irritated as was I by ALL THE BITS IN CAPS. The author was looking for a way to indicate a particular way of talking and although I have some sympathy for her chosen method, nonetheless IT DROVE ME CRAZY. Text in caps is aesthetically displeasing. Turning to a page and seeing them sporadically scattered through the text puts me in a bad mood before I’ve read a word.

Then, the protagonist is a 19 year old girl. Ugggh. You can trust me, I’ve been one, they aren’t worth writing about.

And yet, despite these obstacles to my reading pleasure and the grudging way I picked it up each sitting with it, despite the ending, it’s probably okay. I don’t know! I tried hard to be the girl – mother knows she will die while you are on the backpacking ‘trip of a lifetime’ the one that at least didn’t used to come twice, the one with no technology (pre internet story). No phone calls (expensive) your mother says, the sensible thing to say at the time, but she KNOWS SHE IS GOING TO DIE. So the girl, upon finding out what has happened, naturally sees it as something her mother did to her. WHY? WHY DID SHE DO THAT TO ME? DIE, PURPOSELY WHILE I WASN’T THERE?

In the same pre internet period I was in London, only communicating by letter to Australia on an extended stay. My mother almost died – not as in this story in a relatively controlled way where there was plenty of time to change her mind, beg her daughter to come back and share her death – but still, the decision had to be made about whether to tell me and nobody did. They decided that it wasn’t right to worry me, interrupt my trip, perhaps induce me to come back and it might be for nothing. Indeed, as it turned out it would have been for nothing. But if my mother had died, I wonder if I would have been as troublesome as Wattle Bird was, harrassing everybody over and over and over about WHY? Maybe I would have been just as angry and overwhelmed by it, unable to move on.

Of course, to make things worse, her mother, a single parent by choice, left a will which only let Cecily have the dosh if she gets married. Wow, what a thing to weigh upon a person. If you ask me, that’s worse than how she decided to die. Imagine how bad the daughter must have felt about that. A sort of denial of her life having been okay. My mother wished she’d done it different and is now trying to make sure I do too. I tried to get into those shoes to understand how that would feel.

And in the end, no truth, no revelation to explain any of this. It’s just people muddling along, one can’t even say right or wrong. And Cecily, always inclined to lie, starts hiding things in new ways from her partner, ways that signify that she also sees her own self as being something that must in part at least be secret. Much, I guess, like her mother. And I suppose we are left to understand this, that it is by acknowledging what she is, that she comes to terms with what her mother was too.

I’d love to know what other people think about this book. ARE YOU OUT THERE? TALK TO ME….











Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

This is an absolute stunner. It gets Australia completely right without the cheapness of St John’s shots. It nails the state of captivity of women without agency. Nora’s need to escape, and taking marriage as the way out is heartbreaking. The role of education, and even more that of reading, which I might add is big in Women in Black and also in My Brilliant Friend comes comes into play here too. To be educated is to escape the poverty and meanness of life in city Australia and country Australia as much as it may extract you from neighbourhood Naples. To forsake education in favour of marriage as one’s saviour is to court utter ruination. To read is to build one’s dreams of escape. Oh, I did this as a child and many must have had it much, much worse than I.

Unadornished truth – put both simply and exquisitely – from her discussions of sex to abortion to family relations, mothers-in-law, the house-wife reduced to pilfering coins from the wallets and purses of those who hold her in captivity. Life alone. I read that in the eighties this was a set text for high school in Melbourne. Harrowing stuff. Bitter-sweet. Sad. True. This is a book I’d like everybody to read.

Easily five stars. I confess I had not heard of Anderson, and I shall most eagerly be seeking out more.

Death in the Limelight by AE Martin

Plot-wise I can’t say I liked this as much as The Chinese Bed Mysteries, but it was still surprisingly fresh. Anybody who likes the old-fashioned pot-boiler murder mysteries should give Martin a go. As well as an engaging style, he knows his stuff, the world of his action is the world he actually lived in for many years prior to WWII, and this really makes a difference, not just because he is technically knowledgeable, but because he adds that air which comes from your subject matter being part of you.

I’ve a couple more on the shelves and I’m curious to see if they stack up. Will report.

Women in Black and The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John

Given that St John is one of those Australians who leave and declines ever to come back, I was in an uneasy state whilst reading Women in Black. Is the satire affectionate or spiteful? One might assume the latter. And yet, thinking enough of it to try another, The Essence of the Thing set in the London in which she spent most of her adulthood, it is evident that she does have the necessary sympathy for her subjects to keep the reader onside.

Women in Black was her first novel and it was promising; promising enough to expect more of later work. The Essence of the Thing is generally considered her best – shortlisted for the Booker evidently is a legacy a book keeps for ever.

I thought it was a terrific brief observation on the little that most people manage to make from life. All the happy people were dull, but so is the protagonist and her partner. Not surprisingly, unhappiness makes their stock rise in the interest dept just a little, but the author doesn’t overdo it. There are no Heathcliffs and Catherines here.  As one review on GR put it:

It’s not a great story, it doesn’t have great characters, you won’t be swept up in the emotions of the read, but you’d struggle to find a more familiar retelling of a falling out, a telling closer to your own story. GR 

I don’t really understand how one could read it and not be moved.

Reading hint: don’t be put off by people comparing it with Austen, it’s nothing like it.

These two books show a writer who does her own thing and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. I don’t understand why my GR friends, even the Australian ones, have apparently not given St John a whirl. Women in Black is quite a nice portrayal of how Australia was, and just for that is worth picking up.