The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.


Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index



Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:


After watching Under Milk Wood

I watched Guy Masterton’s amazing Under Milk Wood in Adelaide some years ago (back for two performances at the 2016 Adelaide Fringe, it’s a must see if you are in town).

As it happened, the next day in a comments thread on goodreads somebody said they were waiting for someone to write a story called “Slow Thighs” – from the poem “The Second Coming”. Apparently they are about the only words in the poem that haven’t been used.

So, in bed, still cocooned in the words of Under Milk Wood, I wrote this over the next two minutes.

A just woken up haven’t had a cup of tea yet poem.

Slow thighs wait. Patient.
Wait for man. Men. A man.
And should they chance upon one,
Open up, invite him into the dark of darkness, that sloe black,
Slow black place where he dreams wicked and
In that dark of dark places cries out
As he becomes impossibly light.
He floats away.
And slow thighs wait, patient, for him to return
For the Second Coming.

The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare

In London recently we saw the Almeida Theatre’s interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. Concerned that I hadn’t seen it before, I set out to watch the film version with Pacino and Irons first – half way through there was a hitch in reception and I was happy to abandon the exercise as by then it was clear that this was a straightforward exercise by Shakespeare, background research not needed.

Imagine my surprise, those of you who might also have watched the first half of Pacino’s Shylock and Iron’s Antonio, to discover that this is a comedy. The production in Islington was in a long line of productions that serve to demonstrate the incredible robustness of Shakespeare’s work. It is set in Las Vegas, complete with an Elvis look-a-like performing Elvis songs. Portia is a southern belle, an absolutely hilarious performance with, as the play demands, the capacity to wear an entirely different hat as well. The language works, the plot works, Shakespeare is a master like no other. I imagine he would have loved what was done to his play on this occasion.

Over the years, this particular play has been made in every possible way. It’s been done by the Nazis and it’s been done by directors utterly sympathetic to the idea that Shakespeare’s play is far more profound than the facile treatment accorded it by the anti-Semitic Germans. The performance we saw had comedic effect where the film had none, but still took the view that Shakespeare was as critical of the anti-Semites as he was of Shylock. Given the historical circumstance of the play’s creation, one needs little convincing that this is the case and the play is able to tell this story.

As a comedy, this should have a happy ending, but at the Almeida we saw a brilliantly ambiguous ending in which nobody was happy and nobody seemed to know why. ‘Know thyself’? These people didn’t have a clue and in that, it had a modern message for the dis-ease rich white people have without really wanting to know why. It’s a play whose message is as apt now as it ever was. I’d love to see it again.

Four days in London. Four pieces of theatre.

First up Cans by Stuart Slade at Theatre503. In brief this is the story of how family members cope with the aftermath of a celebrity sex abuse case such as have been prominent in the UK recently. In this case the man is found not guilty, but subsequently kills himself. His brother and his daughter comprise the characters trying to come to terms with this. The play could easily not work. Graham O’Mara is an absolute star, whose perfectly hilarious and sad performance ensures the success of the play. Apparently Slade has worked a lot with O’Mara:

So far I’ve written five plays, and Graham O’Mara’s been in all of them. I always write a part specifically for him, because he’s just the most incredible actor – spectacularly funny, crazily versatile, and brilliant to work with. This Week London

The daughter, played by Jen Clement, is the straight man. I gather Slade wanted her for the part and expects great things of her in the future. I couldn’t tell that. It isn’t an easy job, playing a role like that where one is the foil for the main character, but nonetheless, I did not get excited by her performance. I felt like O’Mara had to be there, whereas the daughter could have been anybody.

Well done, Theatre503. We got 3 tubes, a train and then jogged for a couple of kms in the rain to get there and it was totally worth it.

The next night could scarcely be a greater contrast. Sonnets by Shakespeare held in the archaeological dig that is the Rose Theatre. At some point this will become a nice modern theatre whilst keeping in some way with its past – it was built in 1587. But for now it is some temporary seats next to a large pool of water, no heating, no loos. Wonderfully atmospheric, which was nicely exploited by Martin Parr: I can’t help thinking we got to see it at is best. The sonnets themselves were performed by Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro, who gave the them the urgent immediacy of Shakespeare’s plays; Parr’s organisation turned them into a story, a very moving one at that. A really nice combination, music that fitted in, all in all a bargain at twelve pounds.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing something at Finsbury Park theatre, a great addition to this London suburb. Man to Man by Manfred Karge is a monologue performed by a female, most famously, I expect, by Tilda Swinton, but here by Tricia Kelly. I struggled with this, I think maybe because I wanted more insight into the period instead of the person. I wasn’t able to engage with the person – I read the word ‘creature’ somewhere online and it may well be the better word – or her dilemmas. If you happen to be a person who feels complete without having produced babies, it is difficult to empathise with somebody for whom this is evidently important and this was one of the prominent themes.

Lastly, La Soiree at the Spiegeltent camped at Southbank. As far as I know, the oldest Spiegeltent is in Australia.

The Melba Spiegeltent, located at the Circus Oz home in Collingwood, was built in Belgium in 1910. It travelled across Europe and saw numerous performances through its bevelled doors, including Edith Piaf and Kurt Weil in the ’20s and ’30s. In 2006 it came to Australia and was renamed after one of Australia’s fabulous opera soprano, Dame Nellie Melba. Circus Oz

Then there is the ‘The Famous Spiegeltent’

A European Mirror Tent – the ultimate cabaret and music salon’.
Spiegeltents are hand-hewn pavilions used as traveling dance halls, bars and entertainment salons since they were created in the early 20th century. There are only a hand-full of these unique and legendary ‘tents of mirrors’ left in the world today. Built of wood, mirrors, canvas, leaded glass and detailed in velvet and brocade, each has its own personality and style.
The most beautiful of the last remaining Belgian Spiegeltents, The Famous Spiegeltent, was built in 1920 by master craftsmen Oscar Mols Dom and Loius Goor. This Grande Dame has spent her lifetime at the bequest of festivals and fairgrounds throughout Europe and beyond, playing host to the world’s greatest cabaret artists, musicians and circus burlesque performers.
Since Marlene Dietrich sang ‘Falling In love Again’ on The Famous Spiegeltent stage in the 1930’s, its magic mirrors have reflected thousands of images of artists, audiences and exotic gatherings.

The Famous Spiegeltent is the very essence of a festival club, ‘kabaret salon’ and intimate concert hall. Like every old theatre, her ghosts travel with her, woven into ballooning velvet canopies, circular teak dance floor and stained, cut-glass windows. Her intimate booths, ornate bar and beveled mirror columns hold a million secrets while her glorious Art Nouveau chandelier, or trapeze rig, swings overhead.

The Famous Spiegeltent is a mainstay of the Edinburgh Festivals season and is a star in her own right, hosting parties, concerts, clubs and a myriad stunning performances. She has launched the careers of countless artists and travels to the four corners of the world from Edinburgh to Melbourne, Brighton to Montreal.

The Famous Spiegeltent embodies the living spirit of her operational team of the cheekiest hat checkers in the business. She is a living legend and will forever remain the stuff of dreams!

I have no idea what the history of the Southbank’s Spiegeltent is; it doesn’t strike me as being as pretty as the one that sits on the Southbank in Melbourne. We took the secondbest seating: “These seats are ideal for relaxing and enjoying an incredible view of the show.” In practice, several rows for our price category were unstaggered, we had tall people in front of us and that meant disappointing viewing. I’d pay top dollar or get there really early to avoid this. But then you would have to listen to the same five minutes of circus music played over and over really loudly until the show started and this drove us slightly crazy.

I guess in a variety show you get some duds, not many in this case. One of them is the compere, so hang in there, he goes away. The usual physical skills, saliva swapped through pingpong balls, trapeze, jugglers who might drop their knives; no big surprises. I thought the standout best was Australian Asher Treleaven. His second stint, which involved sex education via Mills and Boon was completely hilarious. He was a wonderful discovery for me, I’ve been away from Australia so long I seem to have lost track of comedy there.

A nice selection of theatre, don’t you think? And now back to Geneva. I need the rest.

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis

i’ve always loved archie…i’m rather tempted now to see the archie in all cockroaches and love them too

except sydney cockroaches
and brisbane cockroaches
in fact i’ll leave the east coast right out of that

but the cool, sort of laid back, stoned, sort of man-i-am-not-moving-fast-and-you-are-not-going-to-kill-me, sort of maybe hippy cockroaches of st. kilda, i could try loving them


Evening Land by Pär Lagerkvist

Poetry continued. It is hard not to notice the fashion-driven nature of goodreads. I wrote the following in late 2009, so four years ago, and it has yet to receive a vote. I have, I might add, over the years, got many votes for writing crap about the right books. Be rude about Harry Potter, rake them in. Poetry, in particular, is shunned, but for a couple of poets like Plath with whose private lives non-poetry readers are obsessed. Arrgghhhhhhhhh!! It drives me crazy. It is such a shame that poetry was taken over by people who don’t like it and turned it into something unreadable and inaccessible. It is not what poetry is supposed to be. By all means do that to long-writing and call it something snobby – ‘literature’, let’s say. But to do that to poetry is a cruel act of deprivation. The odd thing is that although obtuse literature has some fans, the same can’t be said of difficult poetry.

RD Fitzgerald once said:

Among both the learned and the not so learned it is accepted that poetry can be the language of the emotions; what does not gain such ready acceptance is that poetry is a living language whose syllables fall naturally into verse. And yet both these effects may be illustrated simultaneously by the easy experiment of dropping a weight on your toe. Any really prolonged and heartfelt profanity may lack originality but its imagery is elaborately fantastic; and it invariably scans.

Due to some misunderstanding of these very simple principles verse is considered difficult. Some modern poets have surrendered to this belief by writing not free-verse, which is legitimate, but outright prose; though as an act of appeasement to conventions which they affect to despise they saw it unceremoniously into lengths; and some have contributed to the belief by being as unintelligible as possible. It is an illogical belief nevertheless; for written verse is always far more carefully constructed than prose; the ideas are more carefully set out; the words are more carefully selected; the very spacing of the lines relieves the eye and assists the mind in following the sense.

For more of this elegant essay on what poetry is and is not, go to my post here:

The good news about Evening Land is that it would not offend the poetic sensibilities of Fitzgerald. Here follows my original text.

I can’t imagine a more special book of poetry. Start off with the poems of a Swedish Nobel Prize winner. Have them translated by WH Auden. And already you are interrupting. Yes, I know. You didn’t know that Auden spoke Swedish. Well he doesn’t. This book has a go-between, Leif Sjoberg, who gave a plain literal translation of each poem, with alternatives for words when appropriate.

It’s a bi-lingual edition and, as a compulsive researcher who always wants too much information, I have to say my disappointment with this book is that I would like a third version of the poem: Sjoberg’s. Then, without having the ability to speak Swedish I could better judge how each poem has ended up, what Auden has done with them. In fact I spent some time lying in bed on the weekend wondering how to go about this. Might I find the originals in Auden’s papers wherever they are kept? Or Sjoberg’s? I played the literary detective in my sleep.

For I think it is important to know at the outset, this not being explained in the book’s introduction, that Sjoberg is no pedantic dull chooser of words himself. A rivet man he is not. He had an important career as teacher and academic while single-handedly doing more than anybody else in the period to see Swedish literature made accessible to the English-speaking world with the help of many, including Auden.

Upon the death of Sjoberg, the novelist Folke Isaksson, said:

As I write this on a dark November day, Leif becomes again visible to me, a man with light above his brow. There was a fresh wind in his life but also consistency, fidelity to the assignment, his way of speaking at once hesitantly and eagerly, as if each syllable had its meaning. There was something pure-heartedly beautiful in him that one never can forget.

Elsewhere his ‘blinding intuition and liberating humour’ were remembered.

So, I think we can say that it is not unreasonable that this book is listed as having two translators, both Auden and Sjoberg.

There is only so far an Australian could go in terms of a meaningful critique of this book. It is a book of the most delicate laments and gentle regrets that get under your skin and stay there. How to compare it with Ikea and Abba? I just don’t know. And, yes, we do have Bergman retrospectives on TV from time to time, but. Somehow right now as I finish this book, Bergman seems like a chap with a big hammer.

I can’t do better than present a couple that especially moved me.

p. 99

Who walked past the window of my childhood
and breathed on it?
Who walked past in the deep night of childhood,
that still was starless?

With his finger he made a sign on the pane,
on the moist pane
with the ball of his finger,
and then passed on to think of other things,
leaving me deserted
for ever.

How should I be able to interpret the sign,
the sign in the moist afterwards of his breath?
It stayed there a while, but not long enough
for me to be able to interpret it.
For ever and ever would not have sufficed to interpret it.


p. 119

My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know.
A stranger far, far away.
For his sake my heart is full of disquiet
because he is not with me.
Because, perhaps, after all he does not exist?

Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence?
Who fill the entire world with your absence?

It was serendipity at work that I got to read this book. A customer ordered it, it is missing four pages and thus it is mine. I don’t know how one otherwise goes about acquiring a copy…but if you live anywhere near me and ask nicely, you may borrow it. Well…I think you can…right now I feel a bit like I can’t part with it, even for a minute, but I should get over that.