The Way of the World by William Congreve

It was hard not to have at the back of my mind whilst watching this, the National Theatre’s performance of The Beaux’ Strategem by George Farquar. But how unfair. That vast auditorium at Southbank, the huge budget, a set that was enormous in all directions – how could a play reading with $20 of props and a notional idea of costume in a 200 seat theatre compare?

Being a reading, this production of The Way of the World at the Little Theatre at Adelaide Uni, was far more uncertain than a fullblown production would have been. The cast ranged from what felt like highly professional to young and inexperienced, with the unsurprising result that the roles of the latter did not engage as they presumably should have. Then there is the language, which is a challenge to the audience not because it is particularly difficult, but because we are used to Shakespearean language, whereas Restoration plays are rarely performed. We wondered if we enjoyed the second half more than the first because we were in the zone by then, we’d slipped into the idiom.

Then there is the form of the Restoration comedy as well, with which to contend as the audience. It’s a style which ruled for fifty years up to the early 18th century. It was largely comedic, exceptionally bawdy with the position of women quite changed from the Shakespearean period. It is no coincidence that we see the professional actress for the first time in UK theatre in this period. There are a couple of nice female roles in this play, the standout being Lady Wishfort played by Christine Runnel who gave an exceptional performance.

Harking back to the big budget Beaux’ Strategem, I would love to see a first rate production of The Way of the World. That said, we can only be grateful to the Guild for giving a rare opportunity to see this play in Australia. I suspect it was last performed in 2003 when Miriam Margolyes played Lady Wishfort with the STC. The audience on Saturday night was small, but very appreciative, with much laughter throughout. A better turnout was deserved, but between St Patrick’s Day, the election and the tail end of the Fringe, perhaps no more could be expected.


Breaking Glass: A Novel in Two Parts by John Clanchy

Clanchy, a distinguished short story writer has set himself a challenge with his first novel. The two parts referred to in the subtitle are very different from each other. The first takes the form of a writer, writing his own life as a work of fiction under the guise of it being a ‘friend’s story’. His sister hates it. She has no taste, is all I can say. It’s utterly engaging, and that applies even when he gets into the gross details of his bucks’ night. It isn’t at all easy to make those kinds of scenes work. Another aspect I was particularly taken with is the ease with which he writes about sport, without, let me hasten to say, ever being offputting for the reader whose eyes glaze over at the very word. There’s a hilarious scene with his marriage counsellor, which is no doubt informed by having been in that line of work himself.

The second part of the novel could not be more different from the first. Now death, not life is firmly at the centre of affairs and we are in the present, it is the author speaking of himself, not the author speaking of himself through his ‘friend’. The jump is difficult to pull off and I don’t know if Clanchy really manages it. I would dearly love to be able to talk to another person who has read this. I read some of the second part again, trying to get a better sense of it, but it didn’t really help.

How can it be that I am apparently the only person in the world who has read this novel, by an established Australian writer who has won the odd prize? It’s so very disappointing. Reading has become such an undiversified activity, apparently, that not one person on goodreads has read this. The sum interest in it consists of one person’s to-read-list.

I do hope that changes. He’s a massively underrated writer and with the loss today of Peter Temple, bumping Clanchy up the list of Australian writers would do no harm.

There’s no excuse for ugliness by Clive Blazey

I want to end on a good note about this, so let’s start with the bad. There is no excuse for ugliness in book publishing, Clive Blazey. This book has one very poor typesetting decision (repeated several times) and has been abominably proofread. In fact one could safely assume that it can’t have been proofread. May I point out to the author that the same care which he requires us to take of our garden design is no optional matter when it comes to a book.

I won’t talk of editing, as the passionate voice of the author may require a slack hand in that regard.

Few people could be further from being a gardener than am I. In fact, when we took possession of a house with a small amount of land last year, a friend visited whom I bombarded with questions – is this a weed? This? And what about this? He was impressed by my complete ignorance. The ‘garden’ we now owned was a detestable thing with not one concession to beauty. It consisted entirely of yaccas and agaves on account of their being water-cheap. Dirt-cheap in fact.

After a month, I mentioned to our neighbour across the road that I hated them and they were all going. The next morning, whilst still in bed, I heard the sound of chopping out the front. By the time I’d popped some clothes on and gone out to investigate, we had nothing left there but bare, sad looking soil. Step one was finished.

There was nothing for it now but to buy things and plant them, something neither of us had ever done before. I was completely intimidated by the prospect, not least because in my observation of others gardening, it never seemed to be fun. It was a chore involving lots of preparation and grunting. Not to mention barking crossly at the underlings involved. But in fact it couldn’t have been easier. We randomly put in plants all of which were happy with full fierce sun and were drought tolerant but looked nice too. This included several ground covers so that we could stop the weeds and help the soil.

If I had those first days over again, I’d do things differently. We didn’t prepare the soil nearly well enough. Still, the fact is that most things we planted lived and even thrived. In order to get a garden that was flowering in summer, which was our aim, we followed the straight-forward advice of buying the things in nurseries that were flowering. Our first impression is that gardening was too easy.

A year down the track, instead of an arid desert landscape of horrible succulents, we have a pretty, chaotic teensy cottage garden thing happening. But it isn’t enough. Like all slightly interested gardeners, I wanted more, and I wanted to improve what’s there. Mistakes were made which I wanted to fix.

Which brings me to this book. A major hope for me was to create a garden that would be aesthetically pleasing in summer. Serendipitously, for Blazey this is a vital consideration. We have fierce, debilitating summers which are only going to get worse. Blazey not only wants gardens which neutralise, as much as possible, that summer heat, but he is concerned with the psychological aspect as well. One ongoing theme is colours not only that fit together, but which counter the weather. For the dry heat of my part of the world, he wants cool colours. I couldn’t agree more. Some of the garishly extravagant pinks and reds one sees around the place are so wrong. I put in some flowers so blindingly white that you could land an aircraft by tme in the dead of night. It just isn’t right for summer and detracts from the more gentle colours around it.

The book has short guides to what is going on in the garden, basic health of soil, the chain of events keeping plants alive, the general things one should consider in the design. The Diggers Club does something that apparently is novel, though it seems obvious – it gives a guide to the cold zone and hot zone of your area. Each plant’s description includes a code which shows the zones it can be planted in, as well as various attributes such as deciduous, when it flowers, high and width when grown.

Most  notably, Blazey is strongly anti-eucalyptus, whilst happy with suitable imports. Eucalyptus trees do not do a good job of providing shade, which is such a critical requirement in the dry hot heat of Adelaide. So pleased to hear this. I would dearly love to see Adelaide covered in lush greenery that provides the shade which will provide livability to houses, as well as make it far easier to walk. If we don’t have suitable trees, there are at least several months of the year in Adelaide where it is simply impossible to walk. It’s that simple.

That leaves the main part of the book, a reference to many plants which he sees as viable for the various conditions of Australia. I love it, I’ve gained many ideas from it, but nonetheless, to me it makes a basic presumption that he can afford to, since his gardens are huge, but normal householders can’t. A reference like this has to discuss root issues. There are sites online that do this, but I would much preferred it to have been a given in this guide. I think in general I would have loved more guidance for very small gardens.

In summary, a highly informative, slightly eccentric, passionate guide to the potential of suburban gardening in Australia. I thoroughly recommend it.




Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I love the way blogs continue to survive the onslaught of mega-umbrella-sites. In this case, I’m thinking of Margery Sharp Day, initiated several years ago by the blog Beyond Eden Rock, and picked up by lots of readers who maintain their own blogs. Each has their own community of followers and commentators.

This year Jane, for the day she put into the calendar, read Britannia Mews and as chance would have it, I picked up a copy (along with several other Sharps) just a couple of days later. I put it at the top of the pile.

It’s almost entirely lacking the often acerbic humor of her books, presumably because it was written just after WWII. Instead, there is a story which might almost be a metaphor for the stubbornness without which the UK could not have stood against Hitler, stubbornness without which it is impossible to think of how the world might look now. Adelaide, the chief protagonist, is a young woman with no future she can bear to look towards. She is deprived in the late nineteenth century of the higher education her undeserving brother is permitted. She watches her cousin fall into the sensible marriage that is her only real future and while that is happening, a revolution takes place in her life.

Her painting instructor makes love to her and she instantly is transformed by it. She believes she is in love and nothing – NOTHING – is going to take that away from her. After secret assignations, she announces to her family that she is going to marry this man and elopes with him because it is that or nothing.  They go to live in what is at that point, the slum of Brittania Mews. She soon discovers that he is an alcoholic wastrel. Her life is ruined. And yet she displays all the stiff upper lip of the English in WWII. She has made her bed and although it has been made clear to her than she (but not the scoundrel husband) can come ‘home’ whenever she likes, that is not an option in her mind. When he dies it is still not an option.

After a while she becomes involved with a married man (whose wife is in India and wants nothing to do with him). They live together unmarried for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t mean life becomes easy for Adelaide, it isn’t. But she remains strong and stubborn. Most importantly she relishes being in control; she’d rather a hard life like that, than an easy life as the doormat of family. Independence is everything to her.

This is clearly no conventional kowtowing-to-the-morals-of-the-time storyline. Adelaide has a niece whom she eventually meets and takes under her wing. The niece – and really, this is a long time after Adelaide’s young adulthood – has exactly the same experiences. The utter meaningless of her life insofar as it would be perforce marriage and the running of a house, a loveless union, but no doubt a civilised and practical one. She breaks off her engagement, leaves home, and in a state of profound confusion ends up in the Mews. I don’t know if these things sound trivial these days, but there is no doubt that they are brave and far from trivial acts at the time.

So here we have Adelaide, an eloper, living ‘in sin’ for decades with a married man who takes his wife’s name and Dodo her niece living a fulfilling single life – the implication being this will never change, when the book ends. The book sees the women who behave in the ‘right’ way feeling as if they are losing out to the women who eschew their duty. How unfair! Both Adelaide and Dodo fail to give the filial love which is the only important thing women can do with their lives. Yet it is these two women who carry the book morally. They are true to themselves; though there are moments made to tempt them, they never seriously waver. Sharp makes it quite clear that the women who stay at home and keep house and raise children are not the good women in this story. I thought this was interesting for the period – but maybe that reflects no more than my ignorance.

At the same time, it should be made clear that Adelaide and Dodo aren’t doing what they do, taking the paths they do, living the way they do, because they are moral people trying to do a moral thing. They are simply doing what they want to do. If they are good people, that’s incidental. Indeed, going back to the start of the story, it is entirely Adelaide’s aim to rehabilitate the ‘painter’ she marries. Her plan is for his success (as she dotingly expects in the first instance) to carry them back triumphantly into the mainstream of upper-class society. Tragically, her no-good husband has one talent, it’s for making marionettes. But far from understanding and appreciating this, she scorns them, and him for making them. She wants something to get him into the National Gallery. Later she discovers how wrong she was and interestingly, her defacto partner is presumed to have made them. Neither he nor Adelaide sees any need to rehabilitate the name of the husband. Indeed, the defacto takes on Adelaide’s married name, the first husband is quickly forgotten and nobody even knows within the story that the defacto is not the original husband. It’s all odd and interesting.

There is a movie of the book and it murders the whole idea of it, from what I’ve read of the plot. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to watching it.




The Well and the Shallows by GK Chesterton

I hope it isn’t true, as described on GR, that this is his best collection of articles. It is my first of his. Curiously, although the GR blurb for it calls it a book of essays, one of the pieces in it specifically discusses the notion that he is writing something entirely different from that genre. Indeed, he seems to rather scorn the ‘essay’.

In the main it’s ponderous discussions of Catholicism. Almost however it starts, whether it’s Evolution, Fascism, Birth Control, Liberal politics, it fast becomes what’s good about Catholicism and bad about the other ones. Especially Protestantism, which being Germanic, is linked to the appalling state of affairs in Europe. The one unhesitating thumbs up for the book is that he gets stuck into Hitler, Nazis and Fascism.

But even when he is engaged elsewhere, such as the first essay on alliteration and puns, it all reads like it was hard work to write. He even has the gall to include unaltered as his opening piece, one that has a go at TS Eliot for having a go at him, even though it transpires that it wasn’t TS Eliot he should have been attacking. His preface apologises. But why didn’t he rewrite the piece to fix this? It strikes me as the writer being too fond of his words and not for any good reason.

This is a 1935 collection, which I’m considering interesting primarily for its comments on what’s happening in Germany/Italy etc. I’m not going to give up on him yet as I had a friend stay recently who picked up another from our shelves and stayed up half the night reading it. It must have been a darn sight better than this one.

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

So this is great up to a point…the point it finishes. I don’t really understand why writers are allowed to set up a terrific story which is truly hard to put down and then stop rather than end. I know that’s the modern thing to do, but all the same, does that make it art or a cop out? We all know that anything might happen in life. But I don’t see why it isn’t part of the duty of a story teller to tell the story. Not just the beginning and middle, but the end. The whole kit and caboodle.

I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a critical aspect of the new genre ‘book club’. It’s something to talk about isn’t it? OMG, what did YOU think was going to happen next? Blah blah blah. But I don’t give a rat’s what my friends at ‘book club’ think about how it might have ended IF it had had a darned ending instead of just stopping. I want the author’s take on that. Instead she’s taken the easy way out.

Is that too much to ask? For a story to have an ending? Did it have an ending and I missed it? Opinions sought.


Two Weeks in Another Town by Irwin Shaw

What a shambolic mess of a melodrama, lacking all the good things there were to be found in the first Shaw I read.

I don’t read chicklit. But I have an idea that this is the boy equivalent. The men are the fall guys for the women – even when they are treating them badly somehow it’s supposed to be the men you are sympathising with, not the women. I guess that’s how chicklit works in reverse.

It’s a stinker.