Margery Sharp Lise Lillywhite and Virginia Woolf The Years

One of the things I do in Geneva is hang out at the local flea market trying to suppress my urge to preserve dead lives. Every week you’ll see people disrespectfully pawing over the beloved libraries of the deceased, libraries which with possibly indecent haste, have been taken away by market vendors who, I can imagine, don’t pay a cent for them. It is merely enough that they are willing to cart them off. There in the market they sit in boxes, 2CHF a book. Amongst them will often be intimate belongings such as photo albums, travel diaries or autograph books. Every time I see this, I want to save the memory even if nobody else does. Could I not keep just a skeleton of the library’s existence?

As it is, my own library is, as much as anything else, a cemetery of book bones, nothing as whole as a skeleton no doubt, but each death provides my shelves with something more. There are many reasons for loving a book. Some of mine I love simply because they belonged to people who cared about them and I have inherited them if only by chance. Not least, the library remnants of the Hautevilles’ library.

When the sale of the chateau and its contents was first mooted, the best of the books went to a posh auction house. The refuse of that process ended up at the local flea market. Each time I see one of these discarded deceased estates, lying higgledy-piggledy in boxes, I don’t just look at the books one by one, deciding which small treasure to take home. I also read the story of the library itself. Ah, so and so was a jazz and cinema lover, as I see a record collection, the reference books lovingly collected on its side, now the junk man’s province. This Swiss person made trips to Australia in the 1950s, here are the photo albums, the travel books of the period. Oh, and he was into….

So it goes on. Most of these deceased book lovers leave only a small tale. The Hautevilles, however, were a prominent family for many generations and their story is told via important legal battles, their castle and through the auction of the contents of that castle. They loved theatre and put on productions, so the auction included the costumery collected over the years. At the ‘junk’ end, ordinary books not worth anything, was a lovely collection of children’s and adult’s fiction from the pre and post WWII period. It contained many gems of the period including an author, almost forgotten these days, Margery Sharp. She is perhaps due for the requisite revival, not least because it would not be entirely unreasonable to call her the Jane Austen of her day. I hesitate to do that, but as it may get somebody to read her, and as almost nobody on GR – none of my friends – have read this, I will take the chance.

I always hope, going back to writers of this period, not to be disappointed, but often am. Approached with some trepidation, therefore, I am pleased to announce that Lise Lillywhite is a total winner, surpassing even optimistic expectations. Sharp by name, sharp by nature, the author most wittily and insightfully dissects social life and manners of the immediate post-WWII period. London is not what it was. As in every war, men took bullets whilst young girls acquired freedom. As after every war, no doubt the men wanted everything to go back to what it was, but it never does. The story is tight, with surprises I guess I should have predicted but didn’t – maybe that is a mark of a good writer, maybe it’s only if you are bored into thinking ahead that you pick up the clues. I don’t know!

The author has sympathy, if not empathy, for everybody in the story and I expect that makes all the difference in the depiction of character. Is it not so that while you read fiction that you have in your mind’s eye a clear picture of each character and yet, that clarity is in actuality an evasive phantom. That’s how I always am, at any rate. And so on the occasion of a film or play being made of such a book, there are the characters you feel are perfectly cast and the ones that aren’t. You are totally sure about this and yet you could never have made so much as a pen stroke yourself to draw the people you imagine as you read.

As it happened, I read Lise Lillywhite straight after The Years, by Virginia Woolf. The contrast could not have been greater. Some of these differences are per force. The Years is a work which has no plot, whereas Lise Lillywhite is driven by one. But in particular, whilst Sharp’s characters live, and do so now, seventy odd years after being created, Woolf’s are wooden collections of description which for me evoked nothing. Whereas I ‘know’ or perhaps ‘feel’ is more accurate, all of Sharp’s characters, even though I can’t put a finger on exactly what they are; in the case of Woolf’s, I have no mind’s eye picture at all. And being aware of this and trying to assemble a picture from the clues provided, for it isn’t as if there is no physical description, I come up with blankness.

A few days ago a shocking exposé appeared in The Guardian, “VS Naipaul: shockingly disloyal to his literary friend, claims Spurling. Biographer Hilary Spurling unmasks ‘vengeful’ posthumous reviews of Anthony Powell novels by onetime fan”. I suppose when news was a finite thing printed on paper, this never would have seen the day, but now that ‘news’ is an infinite black abyss, it requires a never-ending attempt to fill it. Naipaul wrote to Powell when he was alive saying how much he’d liked what he had so far read of Dance to the Music of Time. After Powell died, he wrote what he really thought. One fails to understand what Spurling finds difficult to comprehend about this. She seems to think that because Powell helped Naipaul, that Naipaul has an obligation to be nice to his writing, rather than to speak his mind. She thinks, in other words, it should be rather like so many people conduct themselves on social media these days. I’ll vote for you if you vote for me. You can read the whole story here.

Somehow I doubt that Spurling would have found it any better if Naipaul had trashed Powell whilst he was alive, which presumably would have been a worse act of ‘betrayal’ as she likes to see it. Pretending that your friend can write is all but impossible to avoid. Certainly my experiences have taught me to err on the side of discretion at such moments. Spurling doesn’t seem to understand, if it comes to that, the significance of Naipaul declining to praise Powell in public – if he did so, she fails to mention it. Rather Naipaul sent Powell a discreet fan letter, which left him all the freer to speak his mind when the obvious moment came.

I, fortunately, having the acquaintance of neither Powell or Woolf can say what I like about them. I have no idea if Powell was equally unrestrained in his opinion of Woolf while she was alive. Certainly he made his distaste loudly known post her demise. I wonder if his stealing from her had anything to do with it, the old idea that we behave badly towards those we have wronged. (Of course, it may be as simple as his liking his upper class women to be cleaner than Woolf.)

For as I read the unfailingly tedious and instantly forgettable The Years, it was impossible not to dispel the boredom with speculation as to the similarities between this and Dance to the Music of Time. Similarities that go well beyond the tedium they share. Indeed, look at this passage by Woolf and surely all but the most one-eyed supporter of Powell for the Cup will see what I mean:

But his glance was a little vague. His attention was distracted. He was looking at a lady who had just come in; a well-dressed lady, who stood with her back to the bookcase equipped for every emergency. If I can’t describe my own life, Eleanor thought, how can I describe him? For what he was she did not know; only that it gave her pleasure when he came in; relieved her of the need of thinking; and gave her mind a little job. He was looking at the lady. She seemed upheld by their gaze; vibrating under it. And suddenly it seemed to Eleanor that it had all happened before. So a girl had come in that night in the restaurant: had stood, vibrating, in the door. She knew exactly what he was going to say. He had said it before, in the restaurant. He is going to say, She is like a ball on top of a fishmonger’s fountain. As she thought it, he said it. Does everything then come over again a little differently? she thought. If so, is there a pattern; a theme, recurring, like music; half remembered, half foreseen? …a gigantic pattern, momentarily perceptible? The thought gave her extreme pleasure: that there was a pattern. But who makes it? Who thinks it? Her mind slipped. She could not finish her thought.

‘Nicholas…’ she began; but she had no notion how she was going to finish her sentence, or what it was that she wanted to ask him. He was talking to Sara. She listened. He was laughing at her. He was pointing at her feet….But they are very happy, Eleanor thought: they laugh at each other.

‘Tell me, Nicholas…’ she began again. But another dance was beginning. Couples came flocking back into the room. Slowly, intently, with serious faces, as if they were taking part in some mystic rite which gave them immunity from other feelings, the dancers began circling past them, brushing against their knees, almost treading on their toes. And then someone stopped in front of them.

‘Oh, here’s North,’ said Eleanor, looking up. [Sally and Nicholas dance off.]

‘What an odd-looking couple!’ North exclaimed. He screwed his face up into a grin as he watched them. ‘They don’t know how to dance!’ he added. He sat down by Eleanor in the chair that Nicholas had left empty.

‘Why don’t they marry?’ he asked.

‘Why should they?’ she said.

‘Oh, everybody out to marry,’ he said. ‘And I like him, though he’s a bit of a – shall we say ‘bounder?” he suggested, as he watched them circling rather awkwardly in and out.

”Bounder’?’ Eleanor echoed him.

‘Oh it’s his fob, you mean,’ she added, looking at the gold seal which swung up and down as Nicholas danced.’

‘No, not a bounder,’ she said aloud. ‘He’s -‘

But North was not attending. He was looking at a couple at the further end of the room. They were standing by the fireplace. Both were young; both were silent; they seemed held still in that position by some powerful emotion. As he looked at them, some emotion about himself, about his own life, came over him, and he arranged another background for them or for himself – not the mantelpiece and the bookcase, but cataracts roaring, clouds racing, and they stood on a cliff above a torrent.

The question which naturally presents itself, as it does when we look at Powell, is whether it is bad on purpose. As in Dance to the Music of Time, The Years is populated by an entire tribe of unpleasant upperclass bores who seem between them to have no good reason for existing. At the same time, O’Neill’s Strange Interlude came to mind. Just as his characters address the audience in those frozen asides, it seemed to me in some odd way that Woolf’s characters in their stream of consciousness delivery do the same thing with us. It’s a very long book of sentences and conversations and thoughts that never end, and it is really we who know that. The characters in the book are always oblivious to what they miss. They are just living (if you call that living) whilst we see the inadequacy of it all. The unfinishedness of it. Nothing ever ends, not thoughts, not conversations, meetings. Things simply fade away, and then flush back in.

This may be an interesting idea, but the execution is lacking. If you need evidence of the shortcomings of the skills of Woolf in this book, look at a section where she hangs her anti-semitism out for all to see. It’s not just morally repugnant, it’s badly written. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the characters. Nor do we who  have the the book. The characters are unknowable.

“That’s Eleanor,” said North. He left the telephone and turned to Sara. She was still swinging her foot up and down.

“She told me to tell you to come to Delia’s party,” he said.

“To Delia’s party? Why to Delia’s party?” she asked.

“Because they’re old and want you to come,” he said, standing over her.

“Old Eleanor; wandering Eleanor; Eleanor with the wild eyes . . . ” she mused. “Shall I, shan’t I, shall I, shan’t I?” she hummed, looking up at him. “No,” she said, putting her feet to the ground, “I shan’t.”

“You must,” he said. For her manner irritated him — Eleanor’s voice was still in his ears.

“I must, must I?” she said, making the coffee.

“Then,” she said, giving him his cup and picking up the book at the same time, “read until we must go.”

She curled herself up again, holding her cup in her hand.

It was still early, it was true. But why, he thought as he opened the book again and turned over the pages, won’t she come? Is she afraid? he wondered. He looked at her crumpled in her chair. Her dress was shabby. He looked at the book again, but he could hardly see to read. She had not lit the lamp.

“I can’t see to read without a light,” he said. It grew dark soon in this street; the houses were so close. Now a car passed and a light slid across the ceiling.

“Shall I turn on the light?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I’ll try to remember something.” He began to say aloud the only poem he knew by heart. As he spoke the words out into the semi-darkness they sounded extremely beautiful, he thought, because they could not see each other, perhaps.

He paused at the end of the verse.

“Go on,” she said.

He began again. The words going out into the room seemed like actual presences, hard and independent; yet as she was listening they were changed by their contact with her. But as he reached the end of the second verse —

Society is all but rude —

To this delicious solitude . . .

he heard a sound. Was it in the poem or outside of it, he wondered? Inside, he thought, and was about to go on, when she raised her hand. He stopped. He heard heavy footsteps outside the door. Was someone coming in? Her eyes were on the door.

“The Jew,” she murmured.

“The Jew?” he said. They listened. He could hear quite distinctly now. Somebody was turning on taps; somebody was having a bath in the room opposite.

“The Jew having a bath,” she said.

“The Jew having a bath?” he repeated.

“And tomorrow there’ll be a line of grease round the bath,” she said.

“Damn the Jew!” he exclaimed. The thought of a line of grease from a strange man’s body on the bath next door disgusted him.

“Go on —” said Sara: “Society is all but rude,” she repeated the last lines, “to this delicious solitude.”

“No,” he said.

They listened to the water running. The man was coughing and clearing his throat as he sponged.

“Who is this Jew?” he asked.

“Abrahamson, in the tallow trade,” she said.

They listened.

“Engaged to a pretty girl in a tailor’s shop,” she added.

They could hear the sounds through the thin walls very distinctly.

He was snorting as he sponged himself.

“But he leaves hairs in the bath,” she concluded.

North felt a shiver run through him. Hairs in food, hairs on basins, other people’s hairs made him feel physically sick.

“D’you share a bath with him?” he asked.

She nodded.

He made a noise like “Pah!”

“‘Pah.’ That’s what I said,” she laughed. “‘Pah!’— when I went into the bathroom on a cold winter’s morning —‘Pah!’— she threw her hand out —”‘Pah!’” She paused.

“And then —?” he asked.

“And then,” she said, sipping her coffee, “I came back into the sitting-room. And breakfast was waiting. Fried eggs and a bit of toast. Lydia with her blouse torn and her hair down. The unemployed singing hymns under the window. And I said to myself —” she flung her hand out, “‘Polluted city, unbelieving city, city of dead fish and worn-out frying-pans’— thinking of a river’s bank, when the tide’s out,” she explained.

“Go on,” he nodded.

“So I put on my hat and coat and rushed out in a rage,” she continued, “and stood on the bridge, and said, ‘Am I a weed, carried this way, that way, on a tide that comes twice a day without a meaning?’”

“Yes?” he prompted her.

“And there were people passing; the strutting; the tiptoeing; the pasty; the ferret-eyed; the bowler-hatted, servile innumerable army of workers. And I said, ‘Must I join your conspiracy? Stain the hand, the unstained hand,’”— he could see her hand gleam as she waved it in the half-light of the sitting-room, “’— and sign on, and serve a master; all because of a Jew in my bath, all because of a Jew?’”

She sat up and laughed, excited by the sound of her own voice which had run in to a jog-trot rhythm.

“Go on, go on,” he said.

“But I had a talisman, a glowing gem, a lucent emerald”— she picked up an envelope that lay on the floor —“a letter of introduction. And I said to the flunkey in peach-blossom trousers, ‘Admit me, sirrah,’ and he led me along corridors piled with purple till I came to a door, a mahogany door, and knocked; and a voice said, ‘Enter.’ And what did I find?” She paused. “A stout man with red cheeks. On his table three orchids in a vase. Pressed into your hand, I thought, as the car crunches the gravel by your wife at parting. And over the fireplace the usual picture —”

“Stop!” North interrupted her. “You have come to an office,” he tapped the table. “You are presenting a letter of introduction — but to whom?”

“Oh, to whom?” she laughed. “To a man in sponge-bag trousers. ‘I knew your father at Oxford,’ he said, toying with the blotting- paper, ornamented in one corner with a cartwheel. But what do you find insoluble, I asked him, looking at the mahogany man, the clean-shaven, rosy-gilled, mutton-fed man —”

“The man in a newspaper office,” North checked her, “who knew your father. And then?”

“There was a humming and a grinding. The great machines went round; and little boys popped in with elongated sheets; black sheets; smudged; damp with printer’s ink. ‘Pardon me a moment,’ he said, and made a note in the margin. But the Jew’s in my bath, I said — the Jew . . . the Jew —” She stopped suddenly and emptied her glass.

Yes, he thought, there’s the voice; there’s the attitude; and the reflection in other people’s faces; but then there’s something true — in the silence perhaps. But it was not silent. They could hear the Jew thudding in the bathroom; he seemed to stagger from foot to foot as he dried himself. Now he unlocked the door, and they heard him go upstairs. The pipes began to give forth hollow gurgling sounds.

“How much of that was true?” he asked her. But she had lapsed into silence. The actual words he supposed — the actual words floated together and formed a sentence in his mind — meant that she was poor; that she must earn her living, but the excitement with which she had spoken, due to wine perhaps, had created yet another person; another semblance, which one must solidify into one whole.

The house was quiet now, save for the sound of the bath water running away. A watery pattern fluctuated on the ceiling. The street lamps jiggering up and down outside made the houses opposite a curious pale red. The uproar of the day had died away; no carts were rattling down the street. The vegetable-sellers, the organ- grinders, the woman practising her scales, the man playing the trombone, had all trundled away their barrows, pulled down their shutters, and closed the lids of their pianos. It was so still that for a moment North thought he was in Africa, sitting on the verandah in the moonlight; but he roused himself. “What about this party?” he said. He got up and threw away his cigarette. He stretched himself and looked at his watch. “It’s time to go,” he said. “Go and get ready,” he urged her. For if one went to a party, he thought, it was absurd to go just as people were leaving. And the party must have begun.

I was willing, whilst reading the tawdry anti-semitic tripe, to think okay, that’s the story talking, but it isn’t. Woolf simply felt like that, and talked like it all the time. She didn’t just talk in this way about Jews. The lower classes coped it too. Her opinion of Ulysses was based entirely on her upper class snobbery:

An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?

Enter Sharp. Sharp who is as economical with words as Woolf is loose, whose structure is tight, who makes useful observations about life in interesting and hilarious ways, and who hates nobody. Sensing while reading Lise Lillywhite, that Margery Sharp is the sort of writer who has affection for all those in her work, I was pleased to come across genusrosa’s Sharp-dedicated website, which confirms this trait: ‘It is obvious that Margery Sharp loves people; equally obvious that she understands them very well and forgives them a great deal.’

The literary canon being the opinion of males, for whom humour and observation of society is never a comfortable choice, it is no wonder that Sharp is forgotten. But how wrong that is. To quote genusrosa again:

We relate to the work of the humorist because he/she deals with reality. They distill their own experience through a fresh vision that enables us to recognize (with a thrill) that it is our experience, too.

If it is true, as Marcel Proust said, that ‘in reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self’, then the task of the humorist makes our touch with that awareness more palatable. We feel we know these people they write of….However removed we are from the era or geography of the story, we welcome the feeling of identification that we can have with the characters.

Humor establishes continuity. If we can share a laugh with someone who lived fifty years or two hundred years ago; if we can identify with the scenes or people chronicled there, then we have formed a bridge with the past. The resulting sense of interrelatedness can be reassuring. In an ever-changing, sometimes frightening world, this is by no means a ‘light’ accomplishment. So even while we laugh with the humorist, we take their work and their vision very seriously.

To live at all as a writer is a small miracle. To do it when your metier is humour, so much the more impressive. However, it would be wrong to suggest, despite how often I found myself laughing out loud during this book, that it is straightforwardly funny. Its observations of human behaviour are not only acute, they are also poignant. Both Woolf’s The Years and Sharp’s Lise Lillywhite end up in the same place, a sense of wasted lives. I shall say no more on that for fear of spoiling the latter. It is interesting, however, to compare the delicacy of the one with the flatfootedness of the other.

I am  now on the hunt for all of Sharp’s books. I shall leave it to others to convince me that I should give Woolf another shot.

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It’s time to talk about Brian

It’s time to talk about Brian

Brian Medlin optimised

Prompted by Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence Between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976-1995 edited by Gillian Dooley

On a certain Sunday in 1970, I was still at primary school and we were still devout Roman Catholics, though all this was about to change. The day before had seen a huge demonstration in the city, the first in my town of the famous Moratorium marches against the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across Australia marched against the idea of the war, and in particular against the conscription of young men like my father and his friends to provide cannon-fodder for the Americans.

On this certain Sunday we went to church and the priest started a usual sermon about the usual subjects. We were there with various friends of my parents who had marched the day before and slept on the floors of our house in order to watch what was going to happen now. My father stood up in church and interrupted the sermon. How could it be, he called out, that a priest would talk about anything that day except the momentous events of the day before? I recall the drama of the moment, the confusion of the priest, but nothing more.

The day before, Brian Medlin, a philosopher who saw no boundaries between philosophy and life, a radical leader of the anti-war movement in Australia, was arrested and spent some weeks in gaol. Although he had nothing but good things to say of his treatment while there, one might point out that this was the same police force which was infamously stained for its brutal murder of homosexual academic George Duncan shortly after. Not surprisingly, ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) saw Medlin as a person of interest. He was watched in this period, his files released some years ago.

In the US, France and Australia, the student unrest of the sixties and seventies was intimately connected with the Vietnam War. However, it spread in many directions. Barbara Ehreinreich in her important account of the early stages of the demise of the Middle Class – Fear of Falling – was one of those students. She recounts the fact that academic staff were mostly conservative and reactionary in their fearful and angry attempts to deal with the students in this period. One can even suppose that when the military and the police shot and killed student demonstrators in the US, academia might have given it the nod.

In Australia, without that level of bloodshed, the same things happened: radicalisation of students at university level in particular (though schools could be involved too) leading to serious conflict with academic and administrative staff. By far the most radical was the newly established Flinders University where Brian Medlin taught Philosophy. At its high (some will say low) point, the students occupied the administrative headquarters of Flinders for an entire month. In this period, they were able to establish the CIA connections of the (American) Vice Chancellor.

Teachers could be for or against the students. Medlin, unlike most teachers, was generally speaking on the side of the students. He was without doubt an inspirational teacher. He introduced political philosophy – the study of Marxist-Leninism and Maoism. He insisted on a politics in art course. He introduced ‘women’s’ studies. His content and ways of teaching were radical and above all were about the real world. Philosophy for him could not be separated from the real world. Nothing was abstract.

All this had real consequences. NOT citations. If you want to measure the man in metrics, you will find him sadly lacking. But if you want to understand, for example, the important mainstream interaction of politics and folk/rock/pop music as is still ongoing in Australia, it comes from one person. Brian Medlin, who inspired students through the politics in art course to take this as their lives. Red Gum was the start. Many others were to follow.

We have here a man whose country origins, in the middle of the edge of nowhere, a town on the Goyder Line, never left him. As soon he could read, he became a poet and we see in Medlin an important type of character in white Australian history, the bush poet. And this poetry is not the stuff of dusty slim books, it is true poetry, to be spoken, shared around a camp fire while swatting flies. Drunk. As blokey as it gets. No matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine a female in the setting.

He had no need to be important, he was important if there was need to be. Flinders University saw him as a total disaster and generally speaking, his colleagues wished they had never set eyes on him. Yet he was larger than all of them combined. He suffered fools not at all. In 1957 he wrote “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism” an essay against objectivism. I’m guessing it’s the only thing he is cited for. His real work was for the environment, and that in a small, personal non-polemical way. He simply took land and healed it. Made it what it used to be. What better occupation for a philosopher I wonder?

I see a connection between Feyerabend and Medlin here. Neither was really interested in the business of being an academic, the paper work, the course work, none of it. Despite this (or because of it?), they were inspiring teachers. However, Feyerabend was a lost soul, spending his life on the road, being famous in one place and then in another. Feeding off that. The adulation, the money, the faux insistence on seeking solitude. Medlin on the other hand had no need to prove his cleverness, he took it in his stride. He absolutely knew every moment of every day that his home was the Australian bush.

In his reminiscences of Medlin after his death, David Armstrong recalled the poem written by the philosopher Charles Martin about Brian.

Some of his bones
Were broken by others
But most
Were broken by himself.

He loved
Far more
Than he hated
But the fight
He fought
Called more
For hate.

To make up the rest
Anger, feeding anger
Would have to do.

And thus Armstrong had to admit that despite the ferocity of their antipathy for its many years’ duration, it was never Hate.

It was a strange period for children of parents who were questioning society, the rules, how they should live in that period. A year or so after the Sunday of the Questioning of the Priest, I found myself in a school with one of Medlin’s sons. The school was a place for people who could afford to, to lodge their misfit kids. I didn’t know that at the time. My parents asked me if I wanted to go there, it was a Summerhill inspired place, and I, knowing no better said yes. I found it depressing to discover that in a school of misfits I did not fit in. Even amongst them I was a misfit. I don’t know how Brian’s kids managed, it must have been terribly hard having such a man as one’s father. Fortunately, in the end, we are able to grow up and escape our childhood homes.

I gather somebody is going to write about Medlin and I hope it isn’t too late. I confess, I’d love to do it myself. I hope they understand the idea of the sort of person Medlin was. A country boy whose brilliance took him to Oxford. They have to understand the Goyder Line and moving animals across Australia, which is something Medlin did pre-Oxford. They will have to look at his brother, Harry. This town of Orroroo produced two boys who became prominent academics. Harry was older and I suspect that the experience of WWII prior to his education must have severely challenged his relationship with his brother. Certainly it’s an old story, that one, the boy who goes and the boy who doesn’t in Australia. (Brian was too young to go). Harry spent years of the war in the infamous Changi, went to university after his release and became an important part of the University of Adelaide. I can’t help thinking this would make such a great story, the two boys, so close and not. Harry was no Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, but he was no arch conservative either. When the Adelaide Festival committee in the 1960s refused as a censorship move to stage one of Patrick White’s plays, Harry insisted that the University Play Group put it on and they did such a great job of it that White gave them other premieres. Teaching science he once asked a girl what she thought about something. She said coming from the sexist European background that she did, she’d never been asked that before. What did she think?

Whoever writes this book has to examine this relationship, strangely almost non-existent, as far as I can see, in public, but there must be more to it, surely. How strange it is that Harry’s wiki article doesn’t mention the existence of an important academic brother. Still, at least he has one. Brian doesn’t. Metrics aren’t good enough.

One of the things that struck me as I observed Manny reading this book is that he had no respect for it. This was partly because he saw Brian Medlin as an academic with little in the way of citations – and therefore isn’t worthy of consideration as a thinker – and partly because Iris writes so little back. The most superficial of interpretations is that she was obliged to write back. So he doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny as a ‘real’ friend of a celebrated writer, as Iris was (I feel her standing is steadily decreasing for the moment).

Another issue for Manny was that these letters from Brian were not well written. They weren’t Letters, they were letters. Who could have thought to write like that to the great Murdoch.

It’s not such a hard question to answer. A friend. A friend who loved communicating by the written word, at least if the spoken was not available when words meant more, harder to write and harder to speak to one’s audience. It is precisely the point that he didn’t write Letters. Not pompous literary epistles with a view to their ultimate public unveiling, but a mishmash of this and that which can only derive from real friendship.

I don’t know if I can capture Medlin in a way that will make Manny – or others to whom the culture is alien – understand that he is important. But I will end with this, written by Professor Brian Matthews on the release of this book. Source is Eureka Street.

It was January 1968. In those summer days before the start of my first term as a university lecturer, I’d arrive early in the morning, go into my room and more or less skulk there. I didn’t even go to morning tea. I knew two people in the whole School of Language and Literature at Flinders University and they were both on leave.
After about two weeks of my reclusive behaviour, I was startled one morning when there was what sounded like not a knock but a kick on my door, which then burst open before I could speak, and in walked Brian Medlin, inaugural professor of philosophy.
‘Look, mate,’ he said, ‘if you’ve taken a vow of silence for some reason, then of course I’ll respect it. As a matter of fact, there are a few people round here I wish would emulate you. But if that’s not the case, why don’t you come and have a cup of tea and meet some of your colleagues, for what that might turn out to be worth.’
So I did, of course, and my life at Flinders changed radically for the better under what became a stern, no bullshit but straightforwardly affectionate mentorship.
Though in general, like most of us, Brian loathed meetings and committees, the committee room was one of the many stages on which he gave some of his more memorable performances. I would often sit with him at the meetings and so had a privileged view of the theatre that frequently followed his entry into a debate.
At one meeting, while Brian was speaking I could see that on the opposite side of the table a self-proclaimed Medlin antagonist was becoming quietly enraged and the moment he had an opportunity he launched into an extraordinary tirade. When the chairman offered Medlin the right of reply, he said, ‘Mr Chairman, I did not say what I said with the express intention of driving our colleague opposite into an apoplectic fit. That this has in fact happened I can only regard as a bonus.’
At another characteristically tumultuous meeting, the head of the discipline of fine arts handed round a printed page headed ‘Propositions’. There were 11 propositions but as it turned out not enough of the sheets to go round. When one of them reached me I put it between us and we both read it. Brian, having studied it intently for a few minutes, passed the page on for those who still might not have seen it.
When the item came up for discussion there was a quarter hour of the usual swapping of opinion, outrage, assent and objection. Then Medlin entered the fray. Still without a copy in front of him, he said something like this: ‘If proposition 4 is true then propositions 8 and 10 can’t be; if propositions 8 and 10 are in doubt then proposition 6 becomes redundant, if we scrap Proposition 6 then Proposition 1 becomes …’ and so on.
It was an extraordinary performance and the question of whether or not there was any flaw in his analysis — though no one pointed any out at the time — became secondary to the sheer cavalier daring of his intervention.
Medlin expected such daring of others. In May 1988, having heard that I was going to Sydney, Brian asked me why and I told him it was because I’d won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award. He was genuinely delighted to hear this and asked me if I would have to give a speech. I told him I would but had no idea what to say.
‘The Elder Cato’, Brian said, ‘ended every speech to the Roman Senate with the words, “And furthermore Carthage must be destroyed — Carthargo delenda est.” You should end like that,’ he said as if nothing could be more obvious.
Well, with difficulty and severe contortions of sequence and logic, but with the ameliorating help of a judicious amount of alcohol, I actually did contrive to end my short acceptance speech with Carthago delenda est.
During the drinks afterwards I met Ed Campion, an old friend, Jesuit educated, a fine writer and a priest.
‘What did you think of my Latin conclusion?’ I said incautiously.
‘Delenda est Carthago would have been more elegant,’ he said.
I reported to Brian on my return and quoted Campion’s amendment.
‘Fucking Jesuits,’ he said.
Brian Medlin, on his own admission, left the publication of his life’s work to his last few years, but the passions, gifts and lyricism of this poet, essayist, philosopher, naturalist and storyteller were set free in an extraordinary correspondence he conducted with British novelist Iris Murdoch.
Now published as Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie, edited by Graham Nerlich and Gillian Dooley, their letters cover more than two decades and, with love, wit, subtlety, argument and insight, address an inspiring range of subjects until, with both writers terminally ill, Murdoch’s last letter tapers off tragically, movingly:
‘How much time has passed … Much love dearest Brian, do write —
Iris.
Also; love, mortality and the meaning of life.’

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.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

When I was seven my father disowned his family. It was, he explained at the time, because he did not want us to be raised in the culture of violence and ignorance that made his family what it was. Although from the stories I heard from him, I had some picture in my mind of what that meant, it was really only upon reading this series that I have a clear sense of what we escaped. In fact, my father’s family is Calabrian from the area where John Paul Getty III was held after being kidnapped. Far more violent than the pussy Neapolitans.

So, on a personal level what I got from this was an inkling of what my life might have been like, had my father not made that decision. The culture is violent, the people, all relationships on all levels. The language is not violent, it is violence. That is the purpose of dialect, to express violence and threats and anger and powerlessness and vitriol and abuse.  It is a weapon. Having read these books and lived through the sometimes terrifying behaviour of my father I wonder whether it is learned or genetic. I do so hope it isn’t something I can’t undo in me.

I felt part Elena so often I stopped counting. Not just because my father, despite his best intentions, could not save us entirely from this life because he could not save us from himself, but for so many decisions she made as a child, growing up, and then as an adult. It’s an excruciatingly painful business, watching a person in a book do incredibly idiotic things as she does in her personal relationships all the time, knowing that one has done them all with no better capacity to explain than this series does.  How could she have got involved with Nino, even as a teenager, let alone as an adult. The only thing that makes me realise that it is permissible within the constraints of the book is that I’ve done the same stupid, stupid things.

I was unable to put down the first volume until I’d finished it. The most fantastic end to a book I’ve ever read by the way, and endings are impossibly hard to do. Two weeks in Melbourne, back to Adelaide and I discover that there is one shop where I can buy them. Imprints Booksellers, thank you! I bought the other three volumes and read them back to back over the course of a week. Does one need a review after that statement? A friend in Melbourne who is an Italian literature academic started reading the first and called up uni to say she wouldn’t be in that week. Unputdownable does not in the slightest exaggerate the effect of these.

Peter at East Avenue Books put me onto this series. It’s a secondhand bookshop in Clarence Park specialising in literature – if you live in Adelaide you must go there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does James Bond have to go through airport security?

Geneva airport, our plane is boarding. We have just got to the top of the security check queue which is so long today that they have extended it into the airport pathway. That, after a ten minute wait in the fast track of Easy Jet luggage checkin. And today, of all days, is the first time our Easy Jet flight has been on time for years. That’d be right.

But we were okay now, through the thing where you might beep but don’t. Hand on my luggage when a voice says:

‘Is that your luggage ma’am?’

And you look up and say ‘yes’ to the female security guards who ask you to ‘come this way’.

‘Do you know why we are going to search your bags, ma’am?’

I give a seriously stressed out answer because I’m seriously stressed out.

‘So that I miss my plane?’

‘It’s because you have a large knife in your bags, ma’am.’

Do they think I’m a complete idiot? What sort of dickwit would pack a knife in their carry on luggage? Manny comes over and I tell him when he asks, ‘They are looking for the large knife we packed this morning.’ Spoken with all the sarcasm I could muster, which was quite a lot.

Losing it in Switzerland isn’t a great idea. Losing it in airports isn’t a great plan either. Swiss airports? Don’t even think about it. But our plane was boarding. They couldn’t find the knife. They are inclined, in fact to believe me and turn to look at the X-ray dude who has put me in this position. He stares at me and shakes his head in a way that says ‘Think you are getting away with this? Forget it.’

I start getting a wind up, I’m ranting away. ‘Hello? Do you really think ‘a big knife’ could be in there’ as one of them unzips my purse which is maybe 2 inches wide. They are pulling everything out of my bags and I’m in the middle of ‘What are you guys doing, seriously. Why aren’t you out catching terrorists instead of harrassing innocent travellers like -‘ and I don’t actually finish my sentence because as I’m saying that, it dawns on me that one of them is pulling a knife out of my carry-on, where it is hiding in the side at the bottom, just about where you would hide a knife if you were.

Hiding a knife. Which I wasn’t. But there it was. Undeniably there was what I would not call a large knife, but a decent sized one all the same in my carry-on. If Sharia law insisted that somebody’s head had to be removed from their body during the course of our flight to Gatwick airport, this knife wouldn’t cut it. But absolutely one could see it sticking into somebody’s heart or slitting their throat.

Or…as I recollect during the horror I am feeling, cutting cheese and fruit. The weekend before we had been on a train trip and I’d taken the knife to cut things for lunch. Here it was, still in my bag.

Fucketty-fuck. Grovelling apologies. Tip to the X-ray man who was so on the job. It turns out it only looks like they aren’t really looking. How tricky can you get? I’m explaining away and these very nice security guards who have just put up with my diatribe couldn’t be, well, sweeter about it. Maybe their English wasn’t up to it, I don’t know. Or it’s because I’m short. But although they said it was all right, no problem, they did nonetheless take my particulars.

They put my name and address in a big black book whilst telling me not to worry. If they don’t want you to worry, why is it big and black?  Couldn’t they make it pink or something? And smaller. A Hello Kitty notepad, something like that.

The terrorist register. I can just see it. And my worst fears are confirmed. I’ve felt like a terrorist since September 2010 when I was given my second passport. I guess lots of people have two passports from two countries. But mine have two names on them. Now I’m a person with two passports with different IDs and a penchant for packing dangerous weapons in my carry-on. James Bond, eat your heart out.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler

Consider this book a small break in transmission. One can read only so much about 1930s and 1940s Europe without respite.

Like the work of many good and bad writers, a Tyler book is something you slip into, she has her template. I continue to be amazed as what she does with it.

Every book is about the most ordinary people living the most ordinary lives, drab humdrum lives. Every book is hauntingly sad. But Tyler’s touch is so deft, where other writers stamp their words on the page, making sure they are noticed, Tyler’s float. And every now and then one suddenly stops and thinks, yes, that was the meaning of life just there, not trumpetted and fanfared – hel-lo reader, are you paying attention, I’m going to say something important now – but just a sentence, towards the bottom of a page, easy enough to miss altogether as you advance to the next.

There is always humour in her books.

Anne Tyler loves people. She loves her characters, she is effortlessly all of them. The main character, a male, whose downer of a life is managing to spiral even further down, or a teenage girl, it doesn’t matter, they are all intensely real and intensely characters; that is to say, you can picture them all clearly in your mind’s eye. So many writers can’t do that at all, it’s not to be taken for granted to find one that can give you this vision.

She writes novels, but they are sparing of words. There is no padding.

There is something of the Lucy-Charlie Brown relationship between the reader – Charlie – and the books – Lucy. Every time the reader hopes against hope, that this is the one, the one that’s going to end up happily ever after. It never is. I don’t mean by this that the boy never gets the girl, or the girl the boy, but that however the specific story goes, you will be left with the same emptiness inside. Boys cry when they read Anne Tyler. But despite that, Tyler doesn’t want her characters to give up, she certainly wouldn’t want the reader to either.

Her books are never judgemental of anybody or anything. They are never political. They contain no messages. They are simply as finely crafted observations of the absurd nature of the human condition as one could ever read.

The Philosopher as Expert by Richard Rorty

This is an essay which anybody who has ever regaled a professional philosopher should read. It will make you snort with laughter as Rorty tells you exactly how it is, these guys in their glass castles having obscure debates about nothing that matters, when we all know that philosophy is about the things that do matter. Well, it should be anyway, right? It’s lost its way, it used to be vital, now it’s irrelevant. We all know it except the professional philosophers and you have to wonder why they are so thick that they don’t get it.

So, there you are, chortling away, thinking how hilarious Rorty is, and how brilliantly he has captured what makes you right and them wrong, when at some point you start thinking you didn’t laugh at all on that page and you turn and, well, you don’t laugh on this one either, or when you do, it’s getting a bit half-hearted, and you note that you are still there on the page, but shit, somehow Rorty is starting to explain that you are a complete arse-hole, an ignorant narrow-mindeded bigot of an amateur philosopher. He explains exactly what philosophy is, so that even you can understand it and understand why it is doing exactly what it should be doing. And why every time you told a professional philosopher his business, you were being a complete dick.

I don’t know if I will get to the book that comes with the essay, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but for the first time in my life I have half a clue what philosophy is and why it’s important. What a pity there does not seem to be anything in the way of a Rorty-Feynman exchange. One cannot help feeling Feynman would have been put in his place too.

You can find the essay here.