Out of Copley Street A Working-Class Boyhood by Geoff Goodfellow

I’m afraid I’m going to undersell this. It’s a wonderful book, indispensably adding to the theme of growing up in Australia.

It’s my second five star book in a row, the first by Helen Garner and now this, with Garner’s words on the cover: ‘a dry, sparkling clarity, a pure tone that hovers on the edge of laughter: these stories are a revelation’.

It is frequently observed that part of Garner’s attraction is the way she writes about Melbourne. One could say the same of Goodfellow about Adelaide, the difference being that she is looking and he is being. It’s his life, not hers.

For me, ten years younger than Goodfellow, raised in an asbestos Housing Trust house in an area full of them, on the outskirts of the city, this was memory lane, but it doesn’t need to be that. I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t be entranced by this collection of a now-gone way of life written with a poet’s understanding of keeping it simple and focussed. It’s a delight to read for its own sake. But it’s also important that we preserve history this way, if only to give life to research like Adelaide Housing and Planning 1946-1959.

It took a few hours to read this, but I will treasure it for a long time to come. A report on his poetry to come.

Lost Illusions by Balzac; pt 1

Blackadder:
[describing a novel he’s written] ‘Edmund. A Butler’s Tale. A huge, roller coaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters. A searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in.’

Okay, so Balzac’s novel is early nineteenth century, it’s hot teenage actresses, not gypsies and the indictment is of society as a whole – nothing escapes Balzac’s eye. But in spirit, Lost Illusions is Edmund to a tee. Sizzling roller coaster ride that never stops, indeed.

Update: I am happy to report that when I wrote on social media for my friends that I’d finished a Balzac that could be thus described, Gareth, immediately guessed ‘Lost Illusions’? My comparison was presumably apt.

 

 

 

 

 

The Scarecrow by Ronald H Morrieson

On the way home from somewhere, I noticed that our local op shop had a bookshelf out on its verandah. I picked up six books for which I still owe $3, the shop being shut then, and for the duration of the Thing. Luckily for me, one of the books was The Scarecrow. The copy is the text classics edition, one of the series inspired by Di Gribble.

New Zealanders will have to forgive me for listing this under Australia. If you want our dole money then quit complainin’. The rural setting and the appalling drinking surely could come from the Australian backblocks. But this has an assurance and a ‘I’ll do this how I darn well please’ attitude that are pure NZ.

The assurance is not polished, it’s the confidence of existing with no natural predators. That’s NZ for you. Only a confident and inexperienced writer could even think of writing this book, let alone bring it into the world. The young teenager’s view is honest, witty, scared, sexual, full of the bravado which shows its true colours fast enough. All this creates a really beautiful small town story and that, despite the ugliness of it. Yes, it stacks up though it’s hard to understand how.

The author’s sad short life explains why he was so able to capture the setting of this and his other books. More on that here. And please, despite being thus referred to on Wiki, it is not a horror story, not even close.

There is a movie, but I have so far no luck in getting hold of it.

Highly recommended for: those who like reading. Those who want to understand a bit more about the rural areas which are so important to the ethos of Australia and New Zealand. That said, I am pessimistic enough to file it under ‘books you won’t read before you die’. Prove me wrong, please.

Text Publishing — The Scarecrow: Text Classics, book by Ronald Hugh

 

Scotland Before the Bomb by M.J. Nicholls

I’ve read this in an unconventional way and I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read a substantial portion. I began with a couple of the episodes that were on themes I warm to.

MJ Nicholls

The first, a diatribe on the Fringe Festivalisation of Edinburgh. As a resident of Adelaide, at the other end of the world, which vies each year to be bigger than Edinburgh, I entirely sympathise. These festivals suck. They suck the life out of theatre for the rest of the year. They suck the life out of originality and complexity. As Fringe Festivals around the world become more and more about extracting money ‘for the economy’ from back packers, many of whom have no English, linguistic complexity is an absolute no-no. Preferably one can dispense with language altogether. Physical ‘theatre’ take a bow.

The next one I turned to was about Amazon. Our future Amazon-driven world. I’ve listed this book under comedy, but the laughs are often bitter.

Having a couple under my belt that I immediately took to, I started dipping into others. This is a strange, compelling book, probably because the author doesn’t give a flying f*ck about the reader. He is doing what he wants. As Odetta (among others) had it:

I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler
I’m a long way from home
And if folks don’t like me
They can leave me alone

MJ makes me think of these words, it’s really lonely, doing what you want. The audience for this book is consequently niche, but I recommend you find out for yourself if you are part of it. At the very least it’ll do you good to be out of your comfort zone.

My favourite is Tickertape of Misery. Anybody who has read the book may laugh at the idea that I forced somebody to listen to me read the whole piece out loud. I’m pleased to be able to report we are still conducting conjugal relations.

Kudos to the author for employing a real artist to do pictures for the book, Alan Lyons has a striking style which genuinely adds to the finished work.

To end with a small rant about the ‘star’ system. I want to give this three stars, but we live in a world where that’s failure. I don’t think it is at all, but my opinion doesn’t count. So, I’ve given it four stars because I think that reflects how others use the star system and that probably matters.

Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan

Plenty of spoilers ahead.

There is a choice when writing this sort of book. You can put it in a near future, like Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or you can apparently put it in an alternative past. This is the 1980s, but not as we knew them. I am curious to know the motivation for this. It could be that it’s harder to make up a future than edit the past to taste. Or it could be that it will make it feel more like this is how it is.

And, it seems to me, if that was McEwan’s idea, he’s succeeded surprisingly well. I wasn’t irritated once that he’d made his own version of history – but then, most movies now are bio-pics, so why not? I guess we are used to the idea now that history is just an opinion, a story, my facts versus yours.

In fact there isn’t much to choose between the two settings, both Atwood’s and McEwan’s are completely believable. Probably because we are already in them, her future and his past. It would be nice to think that the point of a book like this – or like the movie of a few years ago, Her – is that it’s important for big picture thinkers to talk about these revolutionary changes upon us in AI. The biggest of all, that we have created our own destruction, and plenty of others working down from there. It’s hard to believe that we have marginalised the role of story tellers, philosophers, sociologists, ethicists, thinkers at this crucial point in our history. Stepping onto university soil recently for the first time in a few decades, I discover that it has been completely hijacked by business. Ethics, science, thought – nothing is independent of business in these once hallowed halls of intelligence at work. How can AI possibly develop in an ethical way if it is all controlled by big money?

But is this the point of the book? A thoughtful person giving his glimpse of understanding of a difficult future? Or is McEwan, expressing the concern of a friend who raised it with me, just on a bandwagon? Writing about it because that’s the show-me-the-money thing to write about now. A decade ago it was autistic female detectives (extra money if you can write about it in Swedish).

Certainly McEwan has scooped bits and pieces from the media of late, I guess to set some of the issues out in ways that may be easily digested. The famous Go match. The problem of the driverless car’s ethical decisions. Perhaps this is also to make what he segues to more believable. The ‘human’ robot who likes good clothes, washes the dishes, is obsessed with writing haikus and despite this is way ahead of the human curve. Is that just a small step from the Go match?

Curiously, although the 1980s Britain in which this is set, is in economic and social chaos with a bad Tory government in power (is bad redundant?), McEwan not only makes it inevitable that these human robots exist, but he makes them the product of good minds. This seems odd, doesn’t it? AI is a business, controlled by enormously wealthy men (sic) who have no discernable social instincts. One wouldn’t be surprised if they were all assessed as sociopaths given the opportunity.

In McEwan’s near past, the people who create the robots are Nice Scientists, the robots are Nice and Terribly Much Cleverer than Us Really Quickly, and humans are muddling along much as in the past. The moral of the story is that these inventions are sentient, conscious, like sex in a ‘human’ like way, and are altogether better than us too.

Well, I didn’t feel like that reading the book. I can completely understand why one failed human took the ——– and – well. I’ll stop that spoiler right there. Was I supposed to? I’m not sure.

The book sucks you in, chews you up, spits you out. Completely worth reading if that’s what you want from a book. I’m just not sure if I believe his line. I suppose, though, that we’ll find out soon enough. The alternative near past is definitely catching up with us.

 

 

 

 

Hunger by Knut Hamsen

I don’t understand why anybody would be surprised that this guy could be a Nazi.

Super easy to read, a few hours, no more. The guy understood that a one-idea book with no plot has to be short. I don’t mean that to be deprecating. It’s gripping, on the edge-of-your-seat-stuff. Well, I read it on the bed, lying down, but.

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

It’s hard not to be impressed that Maugham has managed to make a firecracker of a novel whilst making much of internal reverie, the joys of the nunnery and the possibilities of Tao. Somehow he does this in a manner not exactly modern, but not old-fashioned either. Passages like this:

It was singular that men attached so much importance to their wives’ faithfulness; when first she had gone with Charlie she had expected to feel quite different, a changed woman; but she had seemed to  herself exactly the same, she had experienced only well-being and a greater vitality. She wished now that she had been able to tell Walter that the child was his; the lie would have meant so little to her, and the assurance would have been so great a comfort to him. And after all it might not be a lie: it was funny, that something in her heart which had prevented her from giving herself the benefit of the doubt. How silly men were! Their part in procreation was so unimportant; it was the woman who carried the child through long months of uneasiness and bore it with pain, and yet a man because of his momentary connection made such preposterous claims.

Why should that make any difference to him in his feeling towards the child? Then Kitty’s thoughts wandered to the child which she herself would bear; she thought of it not with emotion nor with a passion of maternity, but with an idle curiosity.

She’s such an interesting character. She was happy not to get married until circumstances forced it upon her. She loves nobody, not even the one person who loves her, not even the baby she’s carrying, not even the idea of the baby. She knows herself. And as she develops from a girl without a thought in her head, to this uncomfortable state of being self-aware and alone in the world, she changes. She uses her experiences to become as admirable as she was once despicable.

She is good enough to herself to know none of the awfulness was really her fault. She’d been born and raised to be what she was. Hence another speech at the end, militating for women to be equal to men, starting with her own to-be-born child. The conversation is with her recently bereaved father. Both of them are in the situation of having been liberated by their spouses’ deaths.

“…what fun we’re going to have together.”
“You haven’t forgotten that you’re going to have a baby.”
“I’m glad she’ll be born out there within sound of the sea and under a wide blue sky.”
“Have you already made up your mind about the sex?” he murmured, with his thin, dry smile.
“I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan’t make the mistakes I’ve made. When I look back upon the girl I was I hate myself. But I never had a chance. I’m going to bring up my daughter so that she’s free and can stand on her own feet. I’m not going to bring a child into the world, and love her, and bring her up, just so that some man may want to sleep with her so much that he’s willing to provide her with board and lodging for the rest of her life.”

She felt her father stiffen. He had never spoken of ‘such things’ and it shocked him to hear these words in his daughter’s mouth.
“Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.”
“Why, my love, you talk as though you were fifty. You’ve got all your life before you. You mustn’t be down-hearted.”
Kitty shook her head and slowly smiled.
“I’m not. I have hope and courage.”
The past was finished; let the dead bury their dead.

Other than the odd short story by Maugham, I have neglected him. I can see this was a mistake which I need to rectify.

The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp

Folklore expert Professor Pounce is evading a bridge game by hiding in the attic of a friend’s place when he spies a diary which discusses, he discovers, the Stone of Chastity. Set in a brook, it is a test for females. If they can cross without falling as the step on said stone, they have passed.

For an academic it’s a godsend. He decamps to the village in question, with an entourage including his nephew who is to assist him as he finds out more about the stone and sets upon an experiment using the village women to test the veracity of the legend. What could go wrong?

It’s a nice commentary on the self-absorption of academics. Why on earth would these women object to giving him details of their sex life. It’s for science. Won’t cooperate? What a ridiculous idea. Of course they will.

Meanwhile, the nephew is having women troubles of his own.

This came out in 1940 – I expect Sharp had finished it before the war started. It must have been a gentle distraction at the time and as with all her work hasn’t dated. The humour is fresh, the scenarios hilarious. And as always with her books, I find some new aspect of the English language to delight in.

 

 

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.

There is also the form of the Restoration comedy, 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.