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Monday, 25 March 2019

Book review: The Helpline, Katherine Collette (2018)

This comic gem is all about women but it encompasses a number of major themes. Foremost among these is the importance of cooperation and the dangers of discord, so the book is timely. In an age when the things that separate us seem more prominent than ever before, Collette’s message is crystal clear.

The drama involves Germaine Johnson, who loses her job at an insurance company when an annual review meeting goes badly for her. She lands a new job at the local council in Deepdene (which is a suburb of Melbourne in real life) to be a staffer on the senior citizens’ helpline. Fortunately for Germaine, the mayor, Verity Bainbridge, asks her to help solve a problem the council is having with the committee of the senior citizens’ centre, which uses a municipal property for its activities. Committee members had reportedly chained up the tyres of cars that had been parked in its parking lot but that belonged to patrons of the neighbouring golf course, which is managed by Don Thomas, a man Germaine had known from earlier in her life as Alan Cosgrove the national sudoku champion. Germaine had been a sudoku fan since her adolescence and her job at the insurance company had involved calculating probabilities.

Much to the mayor’s delight, Germaine is successful in resolving the problem with the senior citizens but things become complicated when Germaine gets involved in teaching maths in the centre on weekends. She also starts to have feelings for Jack, a guy from the council’s IT department. And then one day she finds out that Celia, who had been the president of the centre’s committee, has been calling the helpline looking for company as her husband had died.

Germaine is caught between conflicting loyalties, and the magic of the book is to show how her feelings change with time. On the one hand the mayor has been very generous to her, giving her a pay rise and an office. On the other hand she sympathises with the committee and the people involved in the senior citizens’ centre.

It’s not often that you find a competent novel that explores the conflicts that are implicit in keeping an office job, and Collette does a very good job of describing how an individual can be affected by the shifting ebb and flow of power in a typical office. The kinds of stories that Germaine tells herself to justify her behaviour at various points are emblematic of your average workaday existence, and they involve such ideas as justice and expediency, loyalty and friendship. This is a complex novel in which humour functions as a kind of plot device, facilitating the emergence of new trajectories as Germaine navigates the intricacies of office politics and the sometimes conflicting demands of the relationships she makes.

Secondary characters play important roles in the drama. There is Celia, already mentioned, who is a stalwart for the senior citizens and who marshals her forces like a general on a battlefield. There is Germaine’s mother Sharon who is a committed greenie. There is Germaine’s neighbour Jin Jin who is an international student from Japan. There is Betsy from the committee who is a champion CWA bakery expert. And there is Jack, who likes to wear shorts to work and who is kind and a bit goofy (a perfect foil to Germaine’s punctiliousness).

Germaine herself is an interesting and multifaceted character who demonstrates a common human failing: an inability to see ourselves the way others see us. She sometimes bumps into things as she makes her way through the world and even though she has a strong work ethic she often finds herself in conflict with others. She is a comic masterpiece, one suitable for such a novel as this, which is suffused with an abiding humanity and love of justice.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Book review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, Holly Ringland (2018)

The main theme this novel deals with is that of domestic violence but I found the story too upsetting to read past a certain point so I didn’t finish it. Clem Hart, Alice’s father, is a controlling monster who beats his wife and daughter. He also forbids Alice from going to school, insisting that she be educated at home. Alice’s mother finds respite from her husband’s cruelty by tending her garden, and Alice becomes enthralled by books.

There are at times signs of hope for the reader. On one occasion, Alice runs away from home and goes into town, where she has never been before. There, she finds the library and goes inside. The librarian is a kind woman who takes an interest in the raggedy Alice – the child has left home dressed only in a dirty nightdress – and who calls her husband to report on the apparition, but Alice flees before the authorities can be called and so an opportunity for relief for poor Alice and her unfortunate mother is lost.

The writing that serves the purpose of conveying meaning in this book is very fine and suggestive. Ringland does a good job of communicating the depths of feeling experienced by a child, and while the threat of danger is ever-present other things are also given prominence, notably the love that Alice feels for her mother, and for her dog, Toby, who is deaf because of Clem’s violence. Clem has a wretched habit of spoiling his daughter in the aftermath of episodes of abuse and tiny Alice’s feelings about him are complicated as a result. There is plenty of nuance involved in creating the drama that animates this book but I just couldn’t continue to subject myself to the suspense that orbits around Clem’s outbursts. I found no fault with the novel.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Book review: The Everlasting Sunday, Robert Lukins (2018)

This relatively short novel is fairly narrow in scope although thematically its ambit is broad. The style is graceful, borrowing from Joyce, especially the first chapter of ‘Ulysses’. The writing also reminded me of that of Cynthia Ozick for a certain economical flair that it possesses. Many will find the writing in this novel to be difficult but I found it vigorous and fresh. As a vehicle for signification, it is acutely metaphorical and does well the job it is meant to do.

The ensemble that the author creates has echoes of the Harry Potter mysteries because of the way the old house in it seems to contain elemental forces that emblematise good and evil. But while the Harry Potter stories were deliberately aimed at children, this book aims determinedly at securing a place in the adult market for literary fiction.

The story centres mainly on the lives of a group of young men. Most of the narrative is focalised through the character of Radford, a youth who is sent to Goodwin Manor, a foster home in rural Shropshire, by his uncle, who presumably cannot look after him. The first winter of Radford’s stay is harsh but he gets by in the company of others, notably a physically delicate but lively boy named West. There are others too who animate this cloistered universe with its country lanes and its tame river. Parts of the narrative are also focalised through the personification of winter itself, and this is intended to lend the story a kind of gravitas in the same way that a chorus can lend depth to a song.

In charge of the home is a kind man named Teddy who gives the boys in his care a degree of freedom to do what they like. He is helped by the cook, whose name is Lillian and who dispenses affection according to her own categories of deservingness. Manny teaches Radford about electrics and one day a former resident named Snuff turns up with a young woman, Victoria, who takes a liking to Radford.

The boys often seek diversion from other activities (lessons don’t appear to take place very much) and can often be found outside drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. One tradition the boys have is to go to a cemetery nearby and stage a wake for one of the people buried there. To do this they make up stories about the dead person and make toasts to their memory. It is all very congenial, serving to underscore in dramatic fashion the loose regulations circumscribing life in the home.

But of course there are dark undercurrents that confuse the glow these kinds of events provide. The character of Foster, a heavyset young man, is loaded with secondary motivations and Radford discovers things about him that he might have wished to remain ignorant of. Foster stands in, in the drama, for the irrational forces that exist wherever humans live their lives. The story tells us that terrible things can happen despite people’s best efforts to create a nurturing and supportive environment. The story’s climax comes with the end of winter, and it has echoes of two earlier events that had shaken Radford to his core.

By setting the bulk of the story in the early 1960s Lukins is able to establish a certain distance between the present and the events he chooses to convey in his fiction. When the story opens, wartime shortages have not yet ended and there is a kind of grey pallor thrown over the whole that serves to muffle some of the emotions felt by the people involved. Yet even in this circumscribed world there is plenty of room for several stories to evolve that enable the writer to explore a range of different themes, including loyalty and mental illness, friendship and desire.

This historical setting also enables Lukins to focus on ideas to do with society’s understanding of the nature of the individual and his or her place in the community. Teddy comes across as particularly enlightened in this regard and the point is reinforced when an inspector named Cass is sent by the authorities to Goodwin Manor to report on the situation there.

This carefully-crafted novel is successful on its own terms and the quality of the writing in it promises good things to come from Lukins, who is Australian, if he decides that he wants to essay another novel at some point in the future. 

Friday, 22 March 2019

Getting some bags repaired at Venus Repairs

My satchel and my rucksack, the one I use for grocery shopping, needed repairs. The satchel’s strap has a metal link that had twisted and had cut into the loop that is attached to the bag. The cloth of the loop was almost severed. I had bought the satchel in southeast Queensland while on a trip to see mum and dad, probably in 2008. The rucksack had developed a tear in the Nylon fabric at the seam at the back, and there had opened a hole that threatened to let purchases fall out onto the road as I walked home from the supermarket. I had bought the rucksack in about 2002 so that I could carry library books back to my home from Sydney University.

Having decided to repair the bags instead of throwing them out and buying new ones, on the last day of February I put up a notice on Facebook and someone I used to work with responded telling me to try Venus Repairs, so I emailed them and the next morning a reply came asking me to bring the bags in for them to have a look. They said they could fix them. I had to go to the city that morning so I left home a bit early and walked across the bridge into town. The business is in a building on Bathurst Street and I got in the lift when a young man who had arrived before me held the door open.

On level three of the building, where I got out of the lift, the rooms are all numbered. I opened the room numbered “36” and saw a woman wearing a red singlet and a skirt, who was standing behind a table that had been placed next to the door. I put the bags on the table and told her about my email, which she said she remembered.

She had a look at the rucksack and commented on the plastic piping that runs around the seam, but conceded that it was possible to fix it. The satchel she also looked at, and in this case she said that she would have to take off a black band that had been sewn on to hold the loop in place. She told me it would cost $77 to fix both bags. I gave her the money in cash (they have a sign on the wall informing clients that they don’t use EFTPOS) and then she had a look at a calendar on the wall as we decided which day on the following week I should return to pick the bags up.

About two weeks later the shop called me on the phone because I had not come in to pick the bags up. I had had a cold, I told the woman on the line, and would come in the following week to do so. I had actually tried to email the shop earlier but the email address that I used for them (in reply to an earlier email from them) resulted in a bounce error.

On Monday of the following week I caught a cab into town and picked up the two bags. I gave the same woman who had served me the first time the receipt I had brought with me, and she found the bags in a pile next to the front door. I helped her by pointing out my possessions in the crush of bags on the shelf. Then I took the lift back down to the street and walked home. On Kent Street I walked past two camping goods stores on the way to Market Street, where I turned left and crossed the bridge over Darling Harbour.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

More conversations with taxi drivers

On 9 February I caught a cab to Enmore. The driver told me that the taxi industry is not doing well. I said I never use Uber, that I'm not interested in making a rich dude in Silicon Valley who won't pay income tax even richer. He told me he never uses social media. "If I want to read a news story I use the internet," he said. I said I use social media a lot but that to me it was an indictment of the education system. He told me he wanted to go away. Where? I asked. He had plans to go to the Philippines to live. He reckoned he would be able to use a tourist visa and just renew it every few months. If you take out a retirement visa, he explained, you have to deposit a large amount of money into a bank account and he wasn't hopeful the money would stay there. He told me that you can rent a studio apartment in a security building in Cebu for $200 a week. In other areas, not so close to population centres, the cost is even lower. He told me how much it cost to buy a bottle of rum and a packet of cigarettes. He told me how much he had paid for a recent holiday there, including airfares and accommodation. He was three years older than me, 59. I don't know where he had migrated from but he wasn't a local. It seemed as though his life was just beginning.

Another taxi driver on 9 February, who took me home from Enmore, told me about how he had lost his entire wages on the pokies in the days after he had migrated to Australia from Chile. In those days, the machines had handles that you pulled to make the barrels turn. After he had left the Spanish club, where he had been playing a machine, he had had to beg for money to get the bus fare so that he could return to his home in Leichhardt. A woman on the street gave him 20 cents. When he got back home he had to go to see his landlady, an Italian migrant, and explain that he would be unable to pay the rent because he had lost his wages. She verbally berated him but allowed him to continue to live in the apartment until his next pay came through and he was able to pay her what he owed. So, he said to me, "Two women helped me when I had nothing."

On 4 March I caught a taxi with a friend and the driver had a heavy foot, causing me to begin to get sick. I told him as we were on the Princes Highway that we weren’t in a hurry. He had been checking compulsively to see if there would be a slightly faster trip achieved in the alternative lane. It was like a nervous tic. Added to his tendency to accelerate constantly, and to break seemingly at random, I had to speak up. We dropped my companion off at her house and I caught the same cab home. This time we went through Alexandria but he was still doing the overtaking thing all the time. And I was sneezing. My companion on the outward leg had asked him to turn off the aircon and he had done so, then when I got in the cab again for the trip back to my place he turned it on again. When we were on Wattle Street he asked me which way I wanted to take to get back home. I said that it would make no difference at that time of day, so either Fig Street and Harris Street would be fine or else the other way, around past the Fish Market. He asked me how long I had lived in the area and I said four years. He said that I had worked out which routes were fastest by this time, and I agreed with him.

On 17 March I was in a taxi coming home from a dinner in Newtown and the driver was Chinese. He had asked me if I was going to the casino and I said “No.” I said that the only time I went there was to go to the food court to have a meal. He said the only time he goes to the casino is to go to the theatre. I mentioned that there would be a Chinese performance on soon and he said he knew about it. It would be put on by the Falun Gong religion, he said, in order to raise money for their cause. The dancing would be very good, he added. I mentioned that I had read a bit of Chinese poetry from the Tang era and he made an appreciative comment. I said that what struck me about this kind of poetry was the focus on the natural world. He agreed, and added that the poets of that era didn’t talk about their own feelings. I said that what he said was true. He said that this was the case because their lives were not very good, and they didn’t want to complain. I agreed that the poets whose work I had read from that era never talked about themselves, and instead mainly took inspiration from the world around them.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Dream journal: Seven

As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. 

15 February

On the Sunshine Coast (where I lived in real life from 2009 until 2015) there was a French enclave that jutted out into the bay that was shaped a bit like Spain. Near the main road, which took coast residents from one settlement to another, there were reliques of the old colonial days, including an old tavern that had seen the slaughter of a number of natives in the past. Now, all these old buildings had been fenced off with a heavy mesh of chicken wire coated in green plastic and the only way to get into the settlement was by foot. I had wanted to live there to do a course but I wondered how I would get around without a car.

Then I was riding a bike with friends along a coast road. We were going fast from place to place. At one place we stopped and I cooked some eggs with herbs but I left them go for a bit too long and they turned watery and brown. I cooked them for a bit longer and ate them anyway. The people I was riding with included the actor Alan Alda and his wife.

Then I was in an office and I was free, without any tasks to do, so I was distributing the faxes that came in. We were organising a popular music show and I gave out to other employees faxes printed on their flimsy light-sensitive paper that had already been stapled together, in some cases. Some of the faxes I had to staple together also, and at one stage I ran out of staples. I asked one of the women in the office where to get more staples and she told me they were on the seventh floor. I was about to climb up on top of a set of shelves to get there, then decided at the last minute to catch the lift instead.

24 February

This segment of dream came at the end of other segments. In it, I was at restaurant table sitting opposite a man who was very overweight. The table was part of a club, one of those clubs that are founded for an ethnic community to use. He was Italian but second-generation, so he spoke in a particular accent that its common in the community. We were eating from a plate of sausages with some sort of clear sauce. The man was telling me about two men who were, like him, involved in the operation of the club. He didn’t like them and I couldn’t work out what the source of the enmity was. He said at one stage, “That Mark Alexander is a disgrace.” It must have been something pretty serious to warrant that kind of language, I surmised about this man’s disliking of the two men. Finally I understood however that his animosity stemmed from the fact that the two men in question, who ran a restaurant in the club, were gay. The man I was talking with was merely homophobic. I told him that what he was doing was like telling a 10-year-old boy that you couldn’t trust someone because that person had black hair. He didn’t care. We had finished eating the sausages by this time, or at least he had. I took another fat sausage and put it on my plate, and continued eating.

27 February

I was in the water helping people get out and making sure they didn’t have any difficulties. The library I was temping for had hired drones to survey the area and to do various things. I saw one of the drones fly up in the air as though I were up in the air too, although I knew that I was down in the water. The drone was white and had five whirring propellers with one in the centre of the thing. It looked very expensive. For my job on this day I had to take care of the volunteers and get them home safely. I was standing on the rocky and muddy bottom of the bay near the ladder that people were climbing up to get out of the water. I had to keep adjusting my face mask to make it sit comfortably on my visage. The rocks on the bottom were hurting my feet a bit. There was a long line of what looked like Dutch water polo players and they were getting out one by one, holding up the rest of the people as they advanced in single file.

4 and 5 March

I got a flu but it was not that bad. Had strange dreams under the influence of the virus on the night of 3 March. I dreamed that I was sick and that it was affecting my health. It was very literal, a dream of being sick and suffering. The next night I had the same kind of dream but this time I was imagining that I was writing a dream journal chronicling the dream, and I was noting the dramatic effects of the dream. In my dream, I wrote down the ways that the dream was working as a narrative, including its resemblance to other narratives I have seen in films or in books.

17 March

Someone was making a diorama that was shaped like prominent buildings housing art galleries in Paris. The display was made in slices, and seen from an angle you could see the different shapes of the buildings distinctly. Some of the buildings had very unusual shapes. There was one that was shaped like a map of the UK. Others were very modern designs that had special significance when seen in this way. There were many buildings and to make the display took quite a long time. I was observing the whole process from above, trying to understand what each shape signified, trying to understand. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Book review: Cries of a Dying Waterhole, Wa’qaar A Mirza (2018)

This novel is promoted as a thriller but it relies on such a stale confection of tropes that you find yourself pinching yourself every time a character opens his or her mouth. In addition there are a lot of basic grammatical errors that might have been prevented by better subediting.

The drama centres around an actor named Harry Firstone who has a mixed Lebanese and English background. When the novel opens, Harry is on his way to attend a ceremony where he is to receive an award. He goes by train and arrives at an art gallery in London. For his acceptance, Harry ostentatiously screws up the speech he had prepared and wings it, giving the audience, which comprises people from the London entertainment industry, a piece of his mind. Poverty is his subject and he lets rip with both barrels. After he has finished, the place is invaded by a group of anarchists who use smoke grenades to create havoc and who unfurl a banner with a message on it. During the confusion, Harry is injured and is transported to hospital in an ambulance.

Harry’s manager Max goes with him to the hospital and Harry is taken into the operating theatre as soon as they arrive. The action then switches rather abruptly to Virginia where Harry meets an American industrialist and the two then meet with a CIA operative of some seniority. This man also wants to talk about poverty. The action switches again, this time to the offices run by an Israeli software firm. Here the two men meet an attractive woman aged in her late 40s who shows them a large control room filled with computers and holograms of city streets representing places around the globe.

There is very little preparation for each of these cuts of scene, and you get the feeling that the author thinks that this is how thrillers are meant to work, just as he thinks that, on the level of prose, stale clichés are enough to keep a reader interested in the narrative he is making. And the mechanics of the work are just as poorly conceived as are the ideas behind it, ideas that suffer from a desperate lack of information. It’s as though the lamest commonplaces that animate Twitter had been hastily cobbled together to formulate the semantic core of the novel, ideas of such blundering obtuseness that you fairly grunt with the effort needed to sustain your belief in the story unfolding.

The stupidity starts very early on in the piece, as Harry is travelling to the art gallery. On the way, the author conveniently lets Harry take in with his eyes the sight of a beggar on the pavement and, at almost the same moment, two men driving Aston Martins (not one, mind you, as if without two you wouldn’t get the message strongly enough). Stretching the credibility of the artifice even further, the author lets us see into the cars as they pass along the street and note that the drivers are both well-dressed and, as well, that they are both using mobile phones as they are driving (just to press home the idea that such people must necessarily be so selfish they are completely heedless of public safety).

You can almost hear the gears clashing in the author’s head. But the problem with this sort of material is that it shows the author doesn’t understand the complexity of the realities of wealth and, especially, of homelessness. Most people who are homeless are not rough sleepers; only a very small proportion of the people without a home on any given night are sleeping in parks or on the streets, although the UK doesn’t count these people as homeless. Most homeless people are in fact sleeping in friends’ living rooms, in cars, or in some other kind of unsuitable accommodation.

Further than that, the solution to rough sleeping is not just making accommodation affordable. Even if you find an apartment for a rough sleeper and give them the money they need to pay the rent, and even if the rent is low enough for them to afford, the chances are that they will not stay there very long unless they are supported in a number of different ways. You have to wrap rough sleepers in a swathe of services in order to keep them housed, and even then some of them will end up again on the streets. For many rough sleepers, there are multiple problems preventing them from living normal lives. There might be alcohol and drug addiction (or both). There might be mental illness. There might be all three operating on the same person. A rough sleeper might never have finished secondary school and may have spent their childhood in foster homes because of problems with their biological parents. There are any number of reasons that a person is unable to even use a welfare payment to pay their subsidised rent.

But well-intentioned, misguided people like A Mirza don’t care about facts, they are so focused on pushing a line aimed at shaming what they see as a distant and uncaring elite in the developed world. This author doesn’t care about the problems with incipient democracy that are faced by the demos in many countries around the world. He doesn’t acknowledge the steady stream of refugees travelling across borders intent on finding homes in one stable democracy or another. He ignores the fact that what these refugees want more than anything else is an opportunity to get ahead on their own steam. He thinks that a simple transfer of wealth will solve all the world’s problems. In the same way that many Americans chose to vote for Donald Trump, he decides to turn to an undemocratic solution because he can’t see elected governments making the kinds of changes he aspires to create room for. And to top it all off he can’t write a line of prose to save himself.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Book review: The Tailors’ Cake, Noel Devaulx (1946)

Every now and again as a reviewer you come across something so strange and sui-generis that you find yourself looking for things to compare it to among the sister arts. In the case of this book, the closest thing I can think of to illustrate the nature of the short stories in this collection, which were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, are the photographs of Eugene Atget, a Frenchman whose strange portraits of the places he lived in are so strikingly modern to our eyes even though many of them date from the beginning of the last century. There is also in this book an echo of Italo Calvino’s fabulism.

Each of the stories has a strong dramatic core but the structure that supports it in each case is often not very strong. Devaulx tends to peter out at the end in his narrations, and there is a distinct lack of force at the conclusion of each story that limits the reader’s enjoyment.

If there is anything beyond the magical qualities already mentioned that unites all the stories in this book it is the existence, near the surface of an otherwise bourgeois normalcy, of otherworldly forces, forces that embody something outlandish or evil or, in the case of the story that concludes the collection, something angelic. In one story, two people driving in the hills in a car have their way blocked by rocks and are forced to proceed on foot. They enter a township where the people don’t speak the same language as them but where they are shown the kind of hospitality that is due to travellers. In the morning they wake up and walk through the forest a bit further and come across the town they had been heading for in the first place. The strange town they had initially come across recedes from consciousness as though it had been part of a dream.

In another story a travelling salesman driving in the countryside comes across a large manor and he goes off in search of its occupants. There, inside the walls of the building, he sees many people seated silently around a table. Below, through a grating, he can see horrors and the existence of some infernal creature (the story is titled ‘The Vampire’) is hinted at, a being that demands regular sacrifices.

It is a shame that this author is not better-known in the Anglosphere. These are fine stories that have aged well and they give access to ways of thinking that belong to a time now well in the past. The poetic vision that animates the stories in this book is very strong and so the whole can serve to form a kind of link to a simpler time. The melding of magic and realism in the stories is, furthermore, something marvellous, hinting at things that would come alter in the century, and beyond that this book can be seen to form a legitimate part of the canon of speculative fiction. It will please readers of science fiction if they decide to give it a go.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Jussie Smollett is an index of a deeper malaise

Not long ago, a black American actor staged an assault in Chicago with two men he had employed for the purpose, and reported it to the police. It turned out that Jussie Smollett, the actor involved in the case, had wanted a wage rise and had conceived the fake attack in order to generate sympathy for himself in the community, so that he could put pressure on his employers to give him what he wanted. He was indicted on 20 February for disorderly conduct.

The event turned into a cause celebre in the US but for me it seemed unsurprising that this kind of thing would happen. About time something like this occurred, I thought to myself glumly as I peered at the scrolling messages in TweetDeck. People are always using social media to deploy the rhetorical forces they are able to command in order to bring about change in the political and economic settlement in favour of themselves. Part of that effort is the ambit claim. This is when you ask for a lot more than you think you are going to get because you know that in the process of negotiation that will precede a settlement your demands will be watered down in consideration of those of the opposition.

Smollett’s ploy reflects this kind of ambition, and it is as common as mud these days online. You see it also in opinion pieces by seasoned commentators with an axe to grind. For women this will often involve the use of the word “patriarchy”. The other day I saw an article on the website of a reputed outlet by a popular commentator that linked climate change to the patriarchy. This kind of overreach is typical of the culture warrior on the left, who believes that there are systemic barriers that prevent them, or people like them, from getting what they want.

A guy I follow on Twitter who often posts things about books and literature tweeted the other day: “As soon as I hear a proposition, I immediately consider its opposite.” This was, he said, a quote from American author Donald Barthelme, and it reminded me of the art of compromise that has disappeared in the new age of the ambit claim. Instead of looking to find the kind of solution that all parties involved might be able to agree to, today people in the community use all their persuasive powers in order to demand as much as they conceivably can, knowing that what they ask for will anyway be reduced in the end with regard to the claims of the opposition.

It is a shrill and irrational and brittle age of thin skins and low tolerance for the accommodation of the wishes of the other side. We are all, now, separately and in groups on the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate or the House of Commons, whatever the legislative chamber is called where you live. We are all prosecuting a case in favour of our tribe and we use the same rhetorical tactics and strategies that elected representatives use when they make their cases in whichever legislature you care to mention. They ridicule, they taunt, they dismiss what the opposition says as nonsense or illegitimate twaddle or rubbish. We are all debaters in a giant contest for supremacy and we assume, because this is the nature of the Manichaean (two-sided) realpolitik we live with, that if we win the other side has to lose, and vice versa.

Things are actually in reality a bit more complex than this, however. It might sound reasonable to say that the frail egos of men are the cause of the foot-dragging in legislatures around the world on the issue of climate change. I can see how such a trope might be attractive, because it conveniently allocates all blame to a credible scapegoat: men are (supposedly) in charge therefore there is something about them that has led to the impasse we find ourselves in. In reality the answer to the problem probably lies elsewhere, and most likely has to do with the complexity of the issue from a technological and economic standpoint. It might also be that we cannot agree to a solution because of the highly-polarised public sphere that is normal these days wherever social media is used. It also no doubt has something to do with the fact that the climate is a global matter whereas laws are made only for nation states, so there is an implicit disconnect between the power of the individual legislature from a legal standpoint, on the one hand, and its ability to actually achieve any positive outcome from a technological standpoint, on the other.

The complexity of many issues is why it seems to me that we need representative democracy more than we have ever needed it before. Some people talk about the possibility of direct participation in the democratic process using IT. But going by the nature of the debates that you see all around you on the internet, good decisions are rarely arrived at in the absence of considered and careful deliberations by dedicated actors, people whose only job it is to make laws and to debate them in public.

A nation is always an abstract thing because no-one has the ability, at any given time, to know exactly what all of his or her peers are thinking about any issue. We need a buffer between the “will of the people” (whatever that is) and the moment when ideas become law, otherwise we risk our economies being being buffeted by the vague winds of passion that blow constantly in the populated avenues of the public sphere, places where people congregate to mock and jeer and attack those whose ideas they disagree with.

People hardly ever even wait for evidence when something comes up for discussion online. They jump on statements that seem to confirm their own beliefs and amplify them with commentary to telegraph that fact. There is hardly any debate between any two (or more) people. People are more aware of what the other side thinks now than ever before but they don’t care. Conversations between people with opposing views are very low-quality. People make bald statements in such a way as to give their own views the maximum advantage, and if they see they cannot win they often resort to ad-hominem attacks (attacking the person, rather than what they are saying). How can good laws possibly be produced in such an environment? It can hardly be possible.

To finish, it has come to my attention that there is a certain kind of culture warrior that uses the term “milquetoast” to refer to people who inhabit the centre, as though there were something effeminate and illegitimate about having reasonable views rather than the most extreme set of views possible. The term, in case you don’t know it, refers to the habit some people used to have in the old days, of asking for their toast to be served soaked in milk because plain toast was too hard for them to comfortably eat. I’ve seen this term used especially by people on the left. It strikes me as emblematic of the whole argument about how to properly “do” politics. Any day of the week, I’d rather be an honest milquetoast than a criminal reprobate like Jussie Smollett.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Heteroconceptuality and the political left

Heterochromia is, I learn, where a person has eyes of different colours. This kind of thing is common in nature. We talk about people who do not identify with either of the common genders (male or female) and we pride ourselves in being able to recognise the validity of their various realities. Difference is as common as its opposite, homogeneity. In fact, when it comes down to looking at the details, people are usually different one from another. Except when it comes to politics.

Here, people are less tolerant. If you want people to go along with you you have to adopt the position, on whichever issue is under discussion, of one of the major political parties. If, for convenience's sake, you are largely in favour of progressive policies but if you also think that some conservative policies have merit, then you will find yourself without a home. There is no place for heterodox opinion in the public sphere, you have to be either on the side of the people you are talking with or against them. All or nothing.

This kind of thinking appears to me to be a tyrannical constraint on intellectual freedom. It is also logically fallacious, for as long as we have existed people have been taking exception to ideas, or to the ways society implements them, that are accepted as routine. If you belong to a community you are hardly likely to stop being a human being simply in order that you can continue to live in harmony with your fellows. But that is what the political left asks you to do. If you want to get along with the crowd you have to lobotomise yourself. You have tor remove the faculty in your brain that enables you to make distinctions between things, to separate the wheat from the chaff. You are not allowed to disagree because to do so is to threaten the coherence of the group.

Artists and individual thinkers have faced this kind of problem for as long as society has existed. Language is innate and we have been telling each other stories in order to create community, without which we cannot survive, for as long as communities have existed, which is as long as we have been a distinct species. The thing that is different now is that orthodoxy does not belong, as it did in the past, or at least until very recently, purely to the conservative side of politics. Nowadays there is a very strong and very vocal progressive orthodoxy that is every bit as crushing for the spirit of the individual as its counterpart.

I’ve stopped telling people how I intend to vote in elections. People respond in unseemly ways, very often, when confronted by this sort of information if they personally have a different preference among the available choices. But I find as I get older that no single party can answer all the questions I have about the world. For some issues I find the Labor Party is the most satisfying but for other issues the Liberal Party does a better job in my mind of rationalising the world. I even agree with the Greens on several important matters, but if you want to know more about all of these things you’ll have to follow me on Facebook.

Friday, 15 March 2019

"No, that’s not correct": A Twitter language survey

This short survey chronicles the quality of language used on Twitter. It started on the morning of 10 March, at about 11.15am, so any earlier time stamps are retweets. It continued for a period of about three hours and 45 minutes but I did also take a nap during this period as I had the flu. As in the cases of other surveys of this type I have done, the examples included here are from the #auspol hashtag. Nothing of this nature can be exhaustive but what this shows is that the basic skillsets that people bring to social media vary widely.

I categorised the entries (spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, grammar) to make them easier to consume, but you will see if you pay attention that some posts contain multiple problems. If a tweet has more than one problem it will still only be included in one category of tweets, that being the most obvious category for the tweet in question.

It was surprising to find that people might have no idea about where to put spaces other than between words. In the punctuation category I could have made a separate subcategory for tweets that used the ellipsis or the n-dash in place of more conventional forms of punctuation, such as commas or full-stops. A prominent form of grammatical error I found was a lack of agreement of number (where a plural noun results in the use of the singular form of the verb). Some problematic tweets I found did not make it into the survey, often for the simple reason that there were already sufficient examples of a certain type of problem to give an accurate idea of what was happening.

From time to time a completely error-free tweet appeared to break up the routine, but I didn’t include any of these, although they usually left me feeling as though I should at least give a cheer.

Spelling
  • 10 March 2019, 11.17am: Who is Michael McCormack? Encourage the Nationals to replace him with Barnaby.  It will be a complete electoral route for them.They are stupid enough to do it.
  • 10 March 2019, 12.02pm: NSW  Premier coming across as being under pressure.  Maybe she is not used of going so far out as Penrith. No smile evidient.
  • 10 March 2019, 1.48pm: It's funny, you never hear a peep from Rowan every tines there's a heat wave, or the BOM release the fact we just had our 3rd hottest year on record. Climate change deniers always rally against records until they want then to work in their favour. Rowan is a conman
  • 10 March 2019, 2.13pm: Yes. And his calling out of the political press gallery "reporters" as LNP stenographers feels good. We've known it for ages but first time AFAIK it's been acknowledged be someone still within the profession
  • 10 March 2019, 2.15pm: Scraping the bottom of the barrel? Go back a few more years, godness knows what you find.
  • 10 March 2019, 2.56pm: Gladis. you love building hospital's but what about giving them money for beds, nurses and other health professionals.@smh @GuardianAus release your figures in how many Full time staff there are in each hsoptial compared to population!
Punctuation
  • 10 March 2019, 8.11am: I would be extremely disappointed in Labor if they left Brandis there. And ....former senator David Bushby, who was appointed consul-general to Chicago just one hour after his resignation from Parliament in January......this guy should go too, seeing that Abbott removed Bracks.
  • 10 March 2019, 11.41am: Sanctions on two of the countries you have shown crippling these countries ...Cuba despite sanctions still has better medical than America ...imagine if America and corporations were fair and no bullies these places would be great !!
  • 10 March 2019, 11.53am: Paul Kelly- One certain consequence of Bill shortens Wages referendum will be, Job creation will dry up and unemployment will go up.
  • 10 March 2019, 12.07pm: Accepting the blame-shifting narrative of #auspol staffers- gone-rogue just perpetuates the status quo of Australian politics - also speaks to the character of (would-be) politicians
  • 10 March 2019, 1.17pm: So @Dymocksbooks are to be applauded for their actions to ensure every child in Aust has a book - but this raises the question - in an affluent democracy - why is the private sector relied on to address this clear failure of governance?
  • 10 March 2019, 1.45pm: There's a women's only gym down the road. Should  go down there and demand entry? No, because I'm perfectly fine with women's only gyms. Let the market do what it wants. This is much ado about nothing.
  • 10 March 2019, 2.52pm: Everything they sacked Malcolm Turnbull for...they're implementing... Dutton just wanted to be PM.  All it was about.
  • 10 March 2019, 3.04pm: Idiot ppl have no jobs to go to and are shit scared of losing what they have with 13% under and unemployed its little wonder
Capitalisation
  • 10 March 2019, 11.52am: Vital Signs: Australia’s sudden ultra-low economic growth ought not to have come as surprise because it is deliberate @LiberalAus Policy , Low Wages , Wage Stagnation , Wages Not Keeping It With Cost Of Living
  • 10 March 2019, 12.18pm: An additional 20,000 people each year for 10 years will inevitably cost Australian Tax Payers much more than $6,200,000,000, as it equates to only $31000 each year for  20,000 people over Ten Years & that's bugger all for what Government/Centrelink would need to hand out!
  • 10 March 2019, 12.19pm: Warringah voters know, that I'm not wishy washy on all policies. I stand for more Dunnys for Manly to accommodate the visiting Knights and Dames, and I'll Shirtfront Putin to get them if I have too!
  • 10 march 2019, 3.12pm: NEW SOUTH WALES LABOR CAMPAIGN  LAUNCH. BILL SHORTEN MP.
Grammar
  • 10 March 2019, 7.24am: Is been nearly a month since the medical bill has passed but no sick men from Manus or Nauru has been medivac to Australia. The govt is trying to delay the removal of sick refugees from the islands till the federal election, Ppl with critical conditions can’t wait another 9months.
  • 10 March 2019, 1.43pm: Isn't it a bit too late when in the past few years @GladysB and the @LiberalAus had done nothing but serving the oligarchy of powerful men in the business world and the society? Ordinary citizen and culture didn't count for them as those proved to be empty pledges
  • 10 March 2019, 1.56pm: @VictorDominello you're a scumbag. The actions by your supporters carrying corflutes with your name and party assaulting a woman and young child is disgusting. You don't deserve to be in parliament.
  • 10 March 2019, 2.35pm: Why are the Adelaide Crows Womens side playing at Unley oval??? You wouldn't have the nerve to make Crows or Ports men's teams play a league game there!!!!

Thursday, 14 March 2019

The Labor Party: lapdogs of the big end of town

You see these graphs all the time these days showing how increases in productivity have been captured by the managerial class since the beginning of the 1980s. Here’s one that I saw just the other day.


This graph shows the change in relative growth to incomes in the US since the 19080s, when neoliberalism kicked in under Ronald Reagan. There are others and they’re not even hard to find. Here's another one which I also saw just recently. 



In this graph the black line shows that average incomes in the US between 1946 and 1980 doubled. In the years between 1980 and 2014 they flatlined for the majority of the population, with the notable exception of the incomes of the very rich.

All of these diagrams (and they appear all over the place all the time, you don't even have to go looking for them) show the same thing: that beginning in Reagan’s day the salaries of the middle class have stagnated in the US. And it’s not just in the US either. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia thinks that unions have to be given more power in order to make sure that wages start to rise, since they have been flat for years here.

On the last day of February, the Sydney Morning Herald tweeted: "The NSW Business Chamber has filed a groundbreaking application to create a new type of employee in between a casual and a permanent worker: 'permaflexi'." Here you have the managerial class still trying to squeeze more profits out of employees without giving them a just wage in return. 

In the run-up to the federal election we have the Labor Party looking set to win. And what do they do? They go after retirees. Instead of picking on the big end of town and its tame attack dogs, the Murdoch press, the ALP has decided to go after grandma and grandpa, those twin evils of contemporary society, people so heinous that they remember your birthday and send Christmas cards even though no-one else does. They deserve everything they get from Bill Shorten and his loyal troops.

But the rot set in a long time ago. Back in the day, Whitlam actually had policies worth believing in. Things went downhill beginning with Hawke, who began to liberalise the economy to suit employers. Then Dawkins with his university fees for students. (Can’t have people getting educated for free! Oh no!) The less said about Rudd the better. Labor is now the party of faceless apparatchiks and technocrats, people with the sort of vision that you would expect from a manager at a bank. They are spineless and full of wind, like some special tribe of puffer fish. They are beneath contempt.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Women and the laughing emoji

This is about Facebook posts, so it might not make sense to people who don’t use that social media platform. It has to do with the “laughing” emoji that Facebook brought in a few years ago to accompany the standard “thumbs up” (or “like”) emoji that had been in use from the early days. Other emojis brought in at the same time as the “laughing” include a “surprised” emoji and a “crying” emoji. There are others too but the one that concerns me here is the “laughing” one.

I’ve written about women and the way that they can sometimes use social media on one earlier occasion, on 9 October last year, when I posted a piece titled, “Ever been mansplained? How about femmesplained?” That piece talked about how women will often stand on ceremony when they have a conversation with you. If you argue with a woman or counter something she has said she might say something like, “I’ve got a doctoral degree in English literature so you can just shut up.” Men don’t do this kind of thing. Men will argue with you no matter who you are, and bugger the consequences, but they won’t stand on a high horse and look down at you as though you are a pleb if they are better-qualified than you. Women do.

Lately I’ve been seeing another thing that women often do on social media. This is to use the “laughing” emoji on Facebook to ridicule something that has been written.

The other day I was on Facebook and someone posted an article, with a comment, about Julie Bishop, the former foreign minister of Australia. I commented saying that Bishop is my cousin and I gave some details about the family that I knew, including information about another cousin who is a genealogist. Then someone, who is a theatre critic, put the “laughing” emoji on my comment and said below, in a comment of her own, “So what is your point.” No question mark, just those words. I decided to remove my comment entirely in order to avoid an ugly confrontation. I saw her name and realised that in the past she had been a Facebook friend, but that now she wasn’t.

Then the next day the same thing happened again. I had put up a post on Facebook saying the following:
Not sure what Roger Waters has been smoking but the fact is that Australia allows tens of thousands of Asians and Muslims to become citizens every year. What is his problem?
This was in response to a story in which the English rock musician had been quoted saying that Australians are racist. A woman is an academic, put the “laughing” emoji on the post. I didn’t take my post down but I did feel as I had before when this sort of thing had happened. I felt hurt.

It had appeared on posts in this way before, of course, this “laughing” emoji. And always it is a woman with progressive political views who does it. Conservatives are too polite to do something like this, although they might put up a counter-argument if they feel strongly about something they read on Facebook.

It is usually progressive women who use this particular item of commentary in order to signal their feeling of scorn in the face of what you have said. One woman who had done this I quickly unfriended because even though she had been enthusiastically “liking” posts of mine and even commenting on some of them, it became clear that she was likely to be nasty again on a mere whim. Another time that a woman had used this kind of emoji I had unfriended her, then about a week later she asked to be friends on Facebook with me again and I assented. (It would turn out that one of her friends would use the “laughing” emoji to criticise a post of mine again, later, and in that case I decided to unfriend her, and her friend).

Of course, women aren’t the only people who use the “laughing” emoji in this way. There was a man who did it to me once who had been nasty on a few other occasions and so I unfriended him. He is the cousin of an Australian historian and writer whose books I admire (and who is now deceased). He is, like the women I have described in this post, a progressive. In fact, he is very left-wing in his views, which no doubt gave him the feeling that he was justified in being as bad-mannered as he wanted because, presumably, he would end up being on the right side of history …

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

“Whataboutism” and the political left

Radio station 2GB tweeted at around 9.10am on 5 March: "Labor leader Michael Daley tells @AlanJones he will sack him and the entire SCG Trust board if elected." Then a Queensland journalist tweets at around 11.30am: "Seeing a potential NSW premier refuse to kowtow to a puffed-up radio personality is the best thing you'll see today." If that wasn't ironic enough (freedom of the press works both ways, it doesn't just apply to views that agree with your own), an ex-subeditor tweeted at around 2.50pm: "Hey Alan Jones, you don't get to refer [to] the Leader of the Opposition as 'this man'." When I pulled him up on this, he replied: "It's Jones being discourteous to the next Premier while having a sulk. AM bandwidth is in limited supply. Responsibilities apply." So much for principles!

In response to this nice piece of bias I posted a link to an article I had written about the insulting comments that were put up on Twitter on the day Christopher Pyne announced his resignation from Parliament. In reply to this, the guy tweeted, “Whataboutism doesn't apply. Don't do it again. But I'm also on record criticising what you are talking about.” I then put up a link to an article I had published in February about the way that politicians and other people in the public eye are treated by the political left on social media. “The left is manifestly worse than the right when it comes to this sort of behaviour,” I tweeted with the link. He responded, “You've crossed the line.” Then he blocked me.

This accusation – “whataboutism” – had been used in a conversation I had had earlier on Twitter with a guy who, like the ex-subeditor, is a professional. This class of progressive likes to think that they are right about everything, even though their field of speciality is actually quite narrow. The accusation they level in these cases is a way of avoiding scrutiny and indeed of diverting attention away from a weak argument. In my case, described above, the things that the ex-subeditor accused Alan Jones of doing was exactly the same as what dozens of people had done to Pyne on Twitter. There was no difference in nature between what they two parties did. Because they cannot win the argument in any other way, the only recourse that people like this have is to block. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

Studied Sunday Night Takeaway ad entrenches stereotypes

The other day I was casually surfing the web when I saw an ad for this TV program on the SMH website. It was beautifully put together. Whoever had designed it had lots of talent and it struck me as it often does how much effort is made in our society just for the purpose of appearing normal.


The program has its own web page and there’s also another, separate page introducing this new product to the community. This page, like the ad, has a likeable tone and has been written to within an inch of its life by some very clever PR people so that you are offered something that will fit in with your regular weekend routine. Ever had takeaway on a Sunday night because you couldn’t be bothered cooking? Need a night off, mum? Then this is the place for you.

The introductory web page has some special features too. It addresses the issue of the program’s name (“Wait, why isn’t it ‘Julia & Chris’ Sunday Night Takeaway’?”) quickly before it can fester, with humour and a sly nod in the direction of the comedian, Julia Morris, whose name comes second. She, we are told, is also asking the same question. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the formulation adopted is much easier to say than the alternative would have been, as in the latter case you would have a repeated vowel (the “a” marking the end of the name “Julia” and the beginning of the conjunction) that would impede the production of the required sounds.

Chris Brown is about 10 years younger than Julia. He was the vet in the program ‘Bondi Vet’ which began screening in 2009. He is a vet. In the ad it looks like he’s going to play the straight-man as a complement to what we are led to expect will be outlandish routines from Morris. But he’s also, like his co-host, remarkably Anglo. Plain white-bread stock of a kind that is now a minority in this country. Regular features, blonde hair. Who do the Channel Ten executives think they’re kidding?

In the SMH ad, Brown is seen standing facing the camera with a goofy look on his face. Anything could happen with a host this crazy! To underscore the comedic potential, he has a party horn in his mouth, as though he were in the middle of creating some goofy mayhem. To his right, Morris is standing with her right arm leaning on Brown’s shoulder in a familiar way, although her face is turned away from him to face the camera. Close but not too close (she’s married to someone else). She is smiling very broadly while Brown is not smiling at all, which also serves to emphasise the differences between the two people. It’s as though she had been in the middle of doing something and had just at that moment looked up and smiled. She has her left hand on her hip in a confident pose designed to communication “independence”. She’s her own woman but she’s happy to play second-fiddle to Brown for the show. Nothing here that would serve to rock the boat.

Brown is wearing a dark suit and tie that make him look very formal, as though he were about to go out to a posh dinner in town. Morris wears a pink jacket and you assume she’s wearing a matching skirt or trousers but you can’t see that far, and she has a formal black shirt on. Their clothes speak of the special treat that the program promises to give viewers. The cuffs of brown’s shirt are just visible in the frame, which serves to make the formality of his attire more prominent. Morris is wearing a set of pearls around her neck, and this does the same thing too. In her right hand she is holding a party horn that matches the one in Brown’s mouth, implying that she was about to blow her own horn or that she had just done so. There is a certain quantity of movement in this prop, which ads to the zany vibe the designers were looking for.

To the left of the couple, deep in the ad’s field of signification, is the logo for the program. It is done as though it had been made out of neon tubes of different colours. The words “Sunday night” are blue with, above them, “Extend your weekend” set in red letters. The word “Takeaway” is done in a different, cursive font designed to emulate the kinds of fonts that were used for the signs of cheap restaurants in films of a past era. The whole assemblage is set at a jaunty angle that mimics the diagonal line separating the ad’s background colour fields. The sense of nostalgia that the neon lettering contains is strong. Nestled in among the glowing letters are the names of the show’s hosts, in a neat, compact font that is distinct from the surrounding words but that has a strong visual impact.

The background for the show’s name is black and this section of the ad is separated from the canonical orange that is used for the company’s logo and the rest of the ad by a diagonal line that serves to give movement and vibrancy to the whole design. On the right-hand side of the ad are the words “Live” and “7.30 Tonight” which give the viewer the essential information they need to connect the drama of the ad with their own schedule. Now, they can tune in and watch something that is going to buttress their conventional beliefs in a way that accommodates diversity and inclusiveness with a nod and a wink. Brilliant work by designers. Give them a raise!

Sunday, 10 March 2019

People on Twitter are like friends who crash a party

People like to have their biases confirmed on social media. Proof is the response I had to a post I made about the way politicians and other public figures are treated on social media. I had spent about four hours one day surveying the types of comments that people used to attack individuals, as opposed to attacking policies. Most of the language I picked out was insulting and some of it was obscene. The majority was from political progressives attacking politicians who are part of the government. The post is on the blog if you want to read it.

Then someone said today on Twitter, "Good grief man. Get a life." I responded by saying that someone has to do the hard work. She responded to this in this way: "I don’t think you know the meaning of hard work. Looks like you have a lot of time on your hands."

Progressives are always complaining that conservatives ignore the evidence when it comes to things like climate change. They want the Liberal Party to take what scientists say more seriously. But what my story shows is that this only applies if what you have to say confirms their own beliefs. If you show them something that can be construed as an attack on their prejudices, they will try to belittle your achievement.

If you see this kind of thing – as I did with the insults being hurled on Twitter at politicians – and you yourself have mainly progressive views, then find yourself at a crossroads. It’s sort of like crashing a party when you are a teenager with a group of friends. They are your friends and you like them but you see them doing things that are bad, like drinking all the vodka, trashing the living room, stealing things, and aggressively hitting on girls at the party who are trying to have a good time. How do you deal with this sort of thing if there’s a fight outside the house later on and someone is seriously injured or even killed? How do you react if the cops ask you questions, when you saw what was being done by your friends? How do you deal with this kind of ugly situation? Where do your loyalties lie?

This is how I feel when I see people who have views that are similar to mine behaving badly on social media. I can understand why they are doing what they are doing but I disagree with their conduct, in fact I find it objectionable in the extreme.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Book review: The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe (1962)

I read enough of this piece of Postmodernism to get a feel for it but it wasn’t really very good so I stopped. The story opens with the tale of a man who goes insect collecting near the sea and who then goes missing. After seven years the authorities declare him dead as no trace of him had been found. This tiny vignette at the start of proceedings sets up a certain quantity of suspense.

Then the story of what happens to the man begins. On the day in question, he goes from the train station by bus to a small village and then climbs a large sand dune to get to the beach side, where he starts looking for insects. He is intent on finding an insect that he can be the first to discover, and he has a net and a box at the ready. As the day wanes, he is approached by an old man who asks him if he has somewhere to stay. He says that he does not and the man organises for him to spend the night in the home of a woman aged about 30. Inside her house, the sand is forever encroaching, and she tells him that it causes things to rot. He disputes this while she keeps digging the sand that accumulates around her house.

The ideas that animate the drama within the secondary material that is used to flesh out the bare bones of the narrative are encouraging on account of what appears to be a certain quantity of perspicacity. There is something about sand and its shifting, impermanent nature that the author is trying to convey to the reader, but the story’s forward movement by contrast lacks a certain vigour and you get caught up in apparently irreconcilable differences between the views of the two main characters. The thing doesn’t just go anywhere.

I’m all for novels of ideas and for free lateral movement in narratives that I read. They are often very entertaining and they can offer the reader ways of seeing the world that can be quite surprising. But what happens – or, more precisely, what doesn’t happen – in Abe’s novel means that you lose your ability to imagine the world he is trying to invent. Without this kind of engagement on the part of the reader, the whole enterprise falls apart. It’s as though Abe sets the reader up to expect something extraordinary and then subsequently forgets that he ever did so. The result is something like a broken promise.

It’s true that sometimes it can feel like a writer who creates a story for a reader to enjoy is like someone who throws a stick for a dog. You set up a scenario, you give the reader a puzzle to solve, then you release clues over the length of the novel until you reach the denouement, at which time all the problems are tied up in a neat bundle. Fini. Applause. Buy the next one. But writers at a certain point began to feel that this kind of pattern was inauthentic and they started looking for new ways to engage the reader that would be “more meaningful”.

In a sense, what Modernism was about was writers saying “No” to traditional methods of characterisation and habitual stylistic forms. They began to try to find ways to represent reality using texts that did the job more faithfully and more accurately. New forms and approaches were investigated for a period spanning about a century, right up to the emergence, in the middle of the 20th century, of the postmodern mode. You might be forgiven for saying that the Modernist project takes in everything from Melville to Proust to Faulkner. Things began to change with the appearance of novelists like Nabokov and Cortazar, who began to interrogate the very stuff of the fictive process itself, and whose books are therefore called “self-referential”. For these writers it wasn’t just about style and character, it was also about plot. Abe’s book falls into this category, it’s just that it’s not that good.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Grocery shopping list for February 2019

This post is the third in a series.

7 February

Went to the IGA and bought some snapper fillets, mahi mahi fillets, tuna steaks, pork medallions, lamb cutlets, Cheddar cheese, milk, corn chips, snacks.

15 February

Went to Coles and bought a container of Greek salad, some sliced silverside, bread, milk, snacks, chocolate biscuits, zucchini and broccoli.

19 February

Went to Coles and bought some tabouleh and quinoa salad, some dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), some sliced silverside, some biscuits, snacks, and soap.

21 February

Went to the IGA and bought some sliced cooked pork, a ling fillet, some sea perch fillets, a couple of pieces of fillet steak, some quinoa salad, some chickpea salad, potatoes, corn chips, milk, Cheddar cheese, snacks, a packet of loose black tea, and a container of laundry liquid.

25 February

On the way back from the post office in the morning I went to IGA and bought bread. In the afternoon I made a trip out to Coles to buy toilet paper.

28 February

I went to Coles and bought chicken mince, Scotch fillet steak, lettuce, shallots, pears, mushrooms (shimeji, oyster, shiitake, white), biscuits, vermicelli, and rock sugar. In the evening I went back to Coles and bought some salmon fillets, celery, corn (on the cob), sweet potatoes, carrots, oranges, eggs, pine nuts, bread, biscuits, and tissues.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Book review: Balga Boy Jackson, Mudrooroo (2017)

The story told in this novel starts in 1947 when the protagonist is aged nine years. He lives with his mother and sister in a town named Shiloh near Perth and the two kids start breaking into buildings in the town and are confronted by the local police. Balga is sent away to a Catholic orphanage in the capital to be educated. The man who wrote this book, Colin Johnson, was also reportedly born in 1938, and was reportedly educated at an orphanage. At least the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica says as much, so you are inclined to believe it.

But then you are confronted by other details of the author’s life. There seem to be two versions. One is as the author sets down in this novel and the other is slightly different in some of its details. According to this alternative version the author has no Aboriginal forbears and so the claims he made during his life (he died last year, reportedly) to be a representative of that community were fabricated. At the present point in time it seems impossible to discover which version is accurate. One person, a Dane, calls attempts to discredit the version of Colin Johnson (he adopted his pen-name in 1988, it is reported) “politically correct” when, in fact (if she knew much at all about politics in Australia), the reverse would be truer. It’s all a bit of a puzzle and I don’t mean to attempt to clarify things here.

The first thing to say about this curious production is that it desperately needs more subbing. There are incorrect spellings, a sometimes cryptic sentence structure that in many cases suggests a lack of education, and some really serious solecisms, as where the same character is given words to say in reply to himself, but under a different name (Balga is deprecatingly called “Skinny” by the malicious priests in the orphanage, and both names are indiscriminately used for the one person by the author, which sometimes causes problems for the reader).

The second thing to note is that the truth of the version of events as they relate to the time spent in the orphanage is brought under question by the controversy surrounding the author’s ancestry. If you can’t believe one set of facts, it makes it harder to accept the other. The parts that cover the period Balga spent living with his mother and sister in Shiloh are furthermore very vividly imagined but once you get into the orphanage the details are not quite as convincing. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which way he or she wants to fall: on the side of Johnson or not.

Johnson also has this problem with his story: there is no shape to it. He hasn’t thought out what he wants to say and when, and all you get is a plain recount in episodic form. One thing comes after the next in a straight sequence and the dramatic arc is constantly being interrupted by unrelated events. Sometimes, with little preparation, a new event or theme is introduced, and you struggle as you get through the narrative, all the while trying to make sense of what you are reading. As well as the sometimes idiosyncratic syntax this characteristic of the book makes it hard to follow. The payoff is usually not there and just as one episode ends another has appeared to take its place. There is enough drama to make this novel interesting but it needed to be written a bit more, to be given more form and structure.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Book review: Grand Hotel, Vicki Baum (1930)

This book was originally published in German in 1929 and was brought out the next year in England in English. It was made into a film by MGM that was released in 1932. Baum was an Austrian Jew who ended up living in California. Her publishing career, first in German and later in English, was long and she died in 1960 of leukemia, or blood cancer.

With a history like this you might have expected a novel of some note if not brilliance, but the latter most certainly does not apply here. Except for the fact of its vintage it would be stretching the truth to say that this book is even worthy of remark. The plotting is as creaky as an antiquated lift and the characterisation is as stale as week-old bread. The narrative is merely episodic, like a picaresque novel left over from the 18th century where one thing happens after another in a raw sequence and there is little development. The concept sustaining the novel relies for its vigour on the wisdom of focusing, in turn, on different occupants of a hotel: visitors and staff.

The hotel is reputedly a fine one that is located in the heart of Berlin and it is one that attracts businesspeople, members of the nobility, and actors, among other guests. But only one character in the part I read exhibited any sign of life. This was Doctor Otternschlag, a WWI veteran whose face has been terribly ravaged by the violence of combat. In one scene that managed to scrape together a few scraps of readerly emotion, Otternschlag gets Rohna, the head reception clerk, to find a vacant room for a strange man named Kringelein who appears one evening at the front desk looking for accommodation.

No-one in the lobby that night knows it but Kringelein is in Berlin due to an illness that we writes to his solicitor with information about, and he has left his wife, who he despises, back home in Fredersdorf. Kringelein knows about the hotel because his boss, an industrialist named Preysing, is due to arrive any day, and he, Kringelein, wants to stay in a hotel suitable for that eminent personage. We are meant to sympathise with Kringelein but no reason is given to us that would justify such an emotional investment.

There are other characters who inhabit the hotel but over all of them lies a blanket of sheer mediocrity that stifles the emergence of anything like personality or even of life. These characters are all dead. If there can be said to be a theme that survives the desultory progression of scenes that appear in this novel it would have to be that no-one in the hotel cares about anyone else and that practically the only thing that motivates anyone to do anything at all, is money.

Except for the general poverty of imagination that people often betray by making some books, and not others, into commercial successes, the enthusiastic reception the novel received when it was first published is something that, having read part of the novel, would be utterly beyond comprehension.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Tweets published as Christopher Pyne’s retirement announced

This brief survey started at around 3pm on Friday 1 March and went for about an hour after it was announced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the Liberal Party’s Christopher Pyne would retire from politics at the upcoming federal election.

This post will be of interest to people who observe Australian politics but on the other hand it does show in general how people in the public eye can be tarred once with a brush, only to have the same perceptions resist the effects of time and stick to the bitter end. In Pyne’s case, the accusation of effeminacy has stuck around regardless of its truth. The tag “poodle”, which you will find in what follows if you read on and which is related to this idea, focuses specifically on Pyne’s distinctive wavy hair. Other labels have survived as well, such as “fixer”, a word Pyne had unwisely used to describe himself in public on one occasion.

What is striking in this survey is how nasty many of the comments are, a quality that reflects badly on the Australian character. The charge of effeminacy, especially, is in very poor taste. And this from social justice warriors who pride themselves on being “politically correct” in their dealings with minorities. In response to a comment I made the other day about the lack of manners displayed on Twitter by people on the left of the political spectrum, one of these people said to me: “And define ‘political correctness’[. A]s far as I can tell it means being polite and respectful.” When I sent a link to her that led to a post I had written that illustrated precisely the opposite, she countered with this: “Yeah we swear all the fucking time, but then we don’t issue quite as many death threats as [people on] the right.”

Pyne is notable for being the Liberal Party whip (the person responsible for making sure that lower-house MPs are in the chamber for divisions, which is what votes that are held there are called, and also for draughting and assigning questions for MPs on the government’s side to ask during Question Time). He also performs a role in the management of House business as leader of the House, and is one of the government’s most senior MPs. Because of his prominence in the Parliament, his holding a portfolio (minister of defence), and his characteristic (slightly toffee-nosed) way of speaking, he has gained notoriety in the broader community.

In what follows, tweets included that are time-stamped earlier than 3pm on 1 Mar are retweets. The greatest intensity of comments came in the period leading up to about 3.45pm, after which time they slowed down and plateaued to a trickle. Most were taken from the #auspol hashtag.

This sample mostly ignores the more mundane type of comment of the “rats leaving a sinking ship” variety, of which there were literally dozens of examples, and instead concentrates on ones that had a sharper edge. I have classified the comments using arbitrary themes. As usual with this kind of thing (politically most people who use Twitter are progressives), most of the comments were insulting. Some were merely observations concerning the types of policies Pyne promoted in Parliament and these are included at the end of the selection, followed by a few comments that I saw applauding Pyne.

Other news on the afternoon in question was the announcement that retired journalist Mike Willesee had died and the announcement of the identity of the secret “Lawyer X” who had been part of the reason for the Victorian Royal Commission into Management of Informants. For three-quarters of an hour Christopher Pyne was all anyone was talking about.

General celebration
  • 3.32pm: Omg!!! We’re getting #pynefreepolitics !!! Imma throw a fucking party
  • 3.33pm: Hope the door hits #Pyne's butt on the way out. A nasty piece - good riddance
  • 3.44pm: Why wait until tomorrow #Pyne? On the bright side, 12-24hrs of more fabulously funny twitter posts
  • 3.48pm: #pynegap
  • 3.54pm: Splitters.
  • 4.02pm: And ciobo and pyne resigning. Gosh. The stench is appalling
  • 4.05pm: Quitting before the electorate .... er.......cuts his throat. Good riddance.
Rat
  • 3.14pm: Don't let the manhole hit you on the head on the way out Ciobo and Pyne. (Came with a photo of a rat coming out from a manhole set in a street.)
  • 3.16pm: Rats. Ship. Glug.
  • 3.18pm: Running from his constituents. What a sad miserable pathetic loser
  • 3.20pm: @cpyne puts himself out with the trash on a Friday afternoon.
  • 3.23pm: Oh isn't it wonderful to see all these "totally committed" LNP grubs abandoning ship. Are they expecting rough seas? Pencil Pyne broken, and addio Ciobo. Hope the emus kick down your super funds.
  • 3.24pm: Rats. Ship. Sinking.
  • 3.39pm: Squeaky won’t be missed, you know the Government is in trouble when they all retire before an election
  • 3.41pm: Christopher Pyne is take-out-the-trash Friday!
  • 4.07pm: ‘Oh oh the Rats are getting bigger’ 2 more rats @cpyne & Steve Chobo deserting sinking @LiberalAus flagship ‘No Policies’ in the background are the still afloat ‘Turnback’ & ‘Fear’ Both vessels are believed to be empty despite the cacophony emanating from them.
Fixer
  • 3.19pm: But who’s gonna fix stuff now the fixer is leaving politics?
  • 3.29pm: I guess even 'Mr Fixer' could not fix what is left of this minority government.
  • 3.36pm: In a career full of hysterical interviews, @cpyne I'm A Fixer classic I think will always be my favourite. One of the funniest in #auspol history.
  • 3.41pm: Of course, he fixed it #Pyne #auspol lovin' politics at the moment #LNPFail #LibFailing BIG time. Private schooled kids don't like to lose
  • 3.42pm: The Fixer is done? Bye Pyne!
  • 3.45pm: There - that’s fixxxxxsssssed it
  • 4.06pm: I guess it can’t be fixed if the fixer is going. Call the election.
Effeminate
  • 3.19pm: Young Pyne to leave the Halls of Residence!
  • 3.20pm: See ya princess.. Actually - I really hope NOT to see you anywhere - ever again
  • 3.22pm: News of Christine's  retirement is a good thing for the CWA who are looking forward to his ANZAC biscuits and inclusion at the Canasta table!
  • 3.25pm: I wonder if Young Pyne is going to take a gap year? If so, what will he do? Towel boy in a "gentlemens'" private club? Who knows, the world's his oyster.
  • 3.25pm: I hear that US president, Darth Mango needs a groom of the stool. Sounds like a good job for Young Pyne.
  • 3.28pm: Ermehgerd how spicy
  • 3.43pm: Can't wait for the #ScoMo farewell speech where we reflect on Pyne's famous shoes!
  • 3.51pm: You fuck off! No, you fuck off! You fuck off first! No, you fuck off first. Why don't we both fuck off? Yes, let's finally do something positive for the Australian people & fuck off together. (Came with photo taken in the House of Reps showing Pyne and Ciobo talking to one another.)
  • 3.58pm: The other guy at the back called #CPyne a F***wit and he loved it. As he as confirmed the little weasel unpopularity.
  • 4.02pm: What now for "ship ahoy" Pyne? Off to star in a remake of a Carry On or AB FAB?
Poodle
  • 3.08pm: Be good to see the back of the “mincing poodle” the duplicitous weasel, Pyne..
  • 3.12pm: Run, Poodle. Run!
  • 3.15pm: The poodle is going to the farm.
  • 3.45pm: If Pyne was the rep top bitch that I think he thinks he is, then when he announces his retirement he should say it’s because he has no confidence in the government and Scott Morrison farts when he yells.
Just strange
  • 3.34pm: I hope everyone in #auspol still remembers that time Christopher Pyne helped his dear old granny out of her chair using a friggin’ Jedi mind trick (Came with a video about the former speaker of the House of Reps, Bronwyn Bishop.)
Moderate (tweets in this category, which is about Pyne’s distinct brand of politics, were a bit more responsible than most of the others)
  • 3.17pm: With the lefties being purged from the Coalition Party or leaving because they can't handle the thought of losing, it might now be time to vote for Libs again instead of a minor? Maybe... we'll see
  • 3.17pm: It’s official. The moderates lost the War.
Past performance
  • 3.48pm: Ahhh the memories...one of my first twitter posts featured a picture of Pyne, back in the day when he was Minister responsible for pushing $100,000 degrees and a deregulated fee structure
  • 3.50pm: pyne as opposition education spokesperson for 5 years asked just three questions in parliament... none related to education...but he was thrown out 28 times.. he is a complete dick
Speculation
  • 3.31pm: ....will both walk straight into high paid jobs associated with their portfolios?.......yep, of course they will......
  • 3.34pm: Would anyone be surprised if @cpyne takes up a job with the defense industry, maybe ship or submarine building in SA?
  • 3.38pm: Christopher Pyne is 51 and the Australian average life expectancy is ~82 meaning he will likely receive upwards of $6million. For NOTHING.
  • 3.41pm: The only thing that #Pyne has fixed is his superannuation - $220,000 a year.
  • 11.48am: If Pyne goes straight into a Defence Industry job I will lose it.
  • 3.52pm: What a personally rewarding career and now retirement it will be. After beinf part of a regime that made the vulnerable more vulnerable. Nevermind the irresponsible fiscal mismanagement and wilful environmental vandalism. What a generous reward for failure
  • 4pm: Time for Kevin Andrews & Rowan Ramsey to step up post Election #auspol #OppositionInWaiting
Compliments
  • 3.27pm: End of an era.
  • 3.36pm: BREAKING: It's official. Christopher Pyne to announce his resignation from politics tomorrow. We may not have agreed on everything, but Christopher was one of the best in his party. His departure is a huge loss to the Liberals. All the best in your retirement mate.
  • 3.37pm: He gives the best gossip in Canberra, with daylight second.
  • 3.38pm: And it seems @cpyne is set to go. A big portion of @LiberalAus front bench experience out the door now...

Monday, 4 March 2019

Book review: The Rip, Mark Brandi (2019)

This curious novel is focalised entirely though the character of a young woman, whose name we are not told, and who lives in a park with a man named Anton. The two are friends. Anton had been in prison but now they survive by squeegeeing the windscreens of cars and begging and Centrelink. The primary character is a heroin user and one day Anton and she meet with a man named Steve who invites them to return to his apartment. He gives the narrator a deal of the drug and she shoots up and she and Anton stay the night.

Anton and Steve start burgling properties and stealing things that they take to a fence who doesn’t require an ID. The narrator is still staying at Steve’s place with her dog Sunny but she gets curious about the lock on Steve’s bedroom door and gets a knife from the kitchen and tries to remove the screws that are holding the latch in place. Then Steve comes home.

There is a disturbing feeling of dread underlying much of the drama in this book, and the police form a regular element of the rhythm of life. From time to time the narrator talks with a police officer she calls Dirty Doug who might give her ten dollars if she is begging when they meet. Doug warns her about Steve. She also goes to the Salvos for a meal. There are other places that she and Anton go to for supplies but once they are involved with Steve things start to go from bad to worse. People are trying to get in touch with the girl who rents the apartment Steve and the two friends are staying in and the narrator starts to wonder about two large containers she can see in Steve’s bedroom from outside the window down the side of the house.

This is the first novel about a homeless person I have read. In real life, only a small proportion of the people who are homeless on any given night sleep rough like Anton and the girl in Brandi’s interesting book. Most homeless people are couch surfing or living in casual accommodation, but when people think of homelessness they automatically think of the people they see on city street corners begging, or sleeping in sleeping bags in parks. Most people will not know how such people came to find themselves in this type of situation. It might be because they were always living in foster homes when they were growing up and never got a proper education, like Brandi’s hero. Or they might have been in jail, like Anton, and had not been able to find a place to rent or a job to pay a wage to pay the rent with.

As Brandi’s narrator knows, many people who sleep rough have multiple problems; with substance abuse, with mental illness, or a combination of the two. They may have suffered abuse as a child and have never been able to get their act together for long enough to secure employment or an education. This is why she gives money to people she meets in the parks around Melbourne after she has been out begging. Because she knows the truth.

As a character she is fully realised, and you are provided with a sort of stream-of-consciousness as she goes about her business during the day. Popular culture furnishes a fair number of the referents that she uses in these monologues with different people she conducts in her head. Often it is with Anton, who she has a special connection to that is characterised by a fierce loyalty. She has a rich interior life, which is something that might surprise most people, who if they think about homeless people and junkies only ever think about how unsightly or inconvenient they are.

At the core of this novel, which keeps you turning the pages impatiently, is a crime the nature of which you are given only the slightest clues at the outset. Certainly the narrator’s safety is often uppermost in the reader’s mind. Things are not even perfectly clear by the time you reach the denouement. What is clear is that there is often a strong current against which people are forced to fight for much of their lives, just so that they can survive. Just to be able to get enough money to eat, to keep a roof over their heads, to make a relationship work. The forces that impede many people are often unseen but no less real for that. Brandi has given the community another way to frame the world of the homeless person. Instead of asking a rough sleeper to move on, it is possible instead to put out a container of water for their dog.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Book review: Sultana’s Dream, Roquia Sakhawar Hussain (1905)

This little short story evidences the kind of abrupt machinery of one of those Medieval accounts that involve a dream about angels that a man (the writer) has after he has fallen asleep during the day. First he goes to sleep then he opens his eyes and he sees an angel and a conversation ensures. It is almost without adornment and artifice it is so simple and bald, like a freshly-boiled egg that you just have to peel in order to get the goodness out. The story is a standalone in the volume that contains it, and is not part of a collection of short stories.

In this story, a woman named Sultana falls asleep in her room and when she awakes she looks up at the stars. Then a woman who resembles a friend, named Sister Sara, appears to her and the two go out into the garden, where it is suddenly morning. Sister Sara takes her into a town, which she calls “Ladyland”, where there are no men in the streets. Sultana asks where they have gone.

Sister Sara tells Sultana that the men have all been sent to the zenana (the inner apartments of the houses, which in the subcontinent are where the women of the household traditionally spend their time). The two continue talking and Sultana learns that in Ladyland water is harvested from the atmosphere and power is provided by the sun. The men had been enticed into the zenana after a neighbouring nation tried to invade. The queen of Ladyland had deployed her scientists with their war devices, which deployed the power of the sun, and her enemies had been defeated. The men were then told that they should retire from the world, and they complied.

In the end, Sultana is awakened and returns to her routine life when the story suddenly ends. As in the beginning, where there is little narrative material to build up to the appearance of Sister Sara, material that might have given some context that might tell the reader about Sultana and her life, at the end of the story Sultana simply stops dreaming and the story closes. There are no subsequent episodes that might help the reader to understand the nature of Ladyland or the reason for the writer dreaming it up.

Nevertheless, this is a sweet tale that for the casual observer of Bangladesh (where Hussain lived, in the years before independence or partition) evokes a range of feelings linked to the status of women in that country and, indeed, in India as well. Feminists and nerds will get especial enjoyment from this strange item. The flying vehicle that Sister Sara assembles and then uses to transport Sultana and herself to an audience with the queen is characteristic of the kinds of ideas this short story retails in. The device reminded me of nothing quite so much as the winged personal transports that people use in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Book review: Plum Bun, Jessie Redmon Fauset (1928)

This frightfully engrossing novel is set in apartheid America, in the period now called the “Jim Crow era” that followed the Civil War and that came before the civil rights era of the post-WWII period. Structurally it is mostly sound but the plot sometimes relies on some rather bald coincidences, which makes it seem a bit shrill and high-toned at times. There might have been a bit more preparation, as well, for the announcement of the name of betrothed of one of the main characters, named Anthony Cross.

While the book is very readable and entertaining some parts of it borrow rather heavily from the Gothic mode that had been popular in the 19th century. Some of this kind of writing is furthermore not quite clear, notably the section about Anthony’s childhood in the US south, which is rendered as reported speech. You kind of get lost in the cascade of dramatic moments in this part of the book and you just have to struggle on until it finishes. In these passages the narrative becomes a bit breathless and loses some of its definition.

Some of the writing on the other hand is a bit literary. The novel seems to owe a fair bit to an earlier generation of writers, such as Henry James, especially in the way it creates atmosphere by borrowing ideas from an intellectual tradition that Fauset clearly felt that she belonged to but that tends, in the reading, to place some of the ideas the novel retails in in a sphere that lies slightly above the realm of lived experience. In short, the style is slightly dated.

What is very real however is the feeling of shame felt by many Americans at the time that were associated with being black. The novel centres on a very fine character named Angela Murray who grows up in a middle-class family in Philadelphia. Like her mother, Angela is very fair-skinned. Her sister Virginia and her father are not so fortunate. When she reaches her majority, by which time her mother and father have died, in order to escape painful memories associated with her past Angela decides to go to New York and pass herself off as white. She changes her name to Angela Mory and starts attending art school. Filled with youthful ambition and dreams of a comfortable life she goes out with a young man named Roger Fielding who is very rich and whose father has ambitions of his own for his son.

Her life goes well until Roger asks her to be his mistress. She had been awaiting a marriage proposal. She refuses initially but he persists with his suit and eventually she accedes to his desires. Meanwhile, she disappoints Anthony who she thinks is Spanish but who actually had lived in Brazil. Anthony had almost declared his love for her but she had put him off, thinking that he would only end up being a struggling artist with nothing substantial to offer her.

The theme of marriage is explored further after Angela makes friends with a young woman named Rachel Salting who wants to marry a young man but their plans are scotched when her parents, who are orthodox Jews, and his parents, who are Catholics, declare themselves against it. Rachel is distraught but takes care of Angela when Roger drops her.

People in this book ultimately reveal their worth, however, in terms of how they see black people. There’s no other way of saying it. The writer had her eye trained fixedly on the future. The novel hurries on toward its conclusion but one by one the people Angela found to accompany her life in New York drop off as their real views emerge from behind whatever façade they held up for popular consumption. Eventually Angela, who is prone to introspection, reassesses the significance of her roots, and on the eve of her departure for Europe, where she wants to continue practicing her art, she visits Philadelphia and while there she bumps into Matthew Henson, who had had a crush on her when they were younger. Matthew had since given up on any hopes that might have survived of being with Angela.

Matthew now invites Angela into his house and they have dinner together, and she discovers that he is still in love with Virginia who, in New York, has become engaged. I won’t give away any more secrets except to say that the ending is accompanied by a massive, if at heart sly, wink from the author.

One thing that is clear is that even in the 1920s there was a strong civil rights movement, in places such as Harlem, that served as a centre of gravity for sections of the community. People like Anthony turn up one night to listen to a famous black orator speak about what would later be called the African-American experience, and to be entertained by ideas that were very much outside the mainstream at the time. As an art student Angela belonged to the demimonde even though after she first arrived in New York she had aspirations to be a leading light in the haut monde. The author also belonged to the same world, a world of alternative ideas and of hope for a better future.

The meaning of the book’s title is obscure. The epigraph is a nursery rhyme that goes like this:
To market, to market
To buy a plum bun;
Home again, home again
Market is done.
The chapters in the book are, as follows: ‘Home’, ‘Market’, Plum bun’, Home again’, and ‘Market is done’. Each chapter has several sections. What a “plum bun” is exactly is also obscure, although Wikipedia says it was a kind of baked item that had plums in it. This could refer to Angela’s mixed-race heritage, with an off-colour suggestion attached to it. It could mean that Angela is attractive (which she is, but not just to look at) because of her African ancestry, or it could mean something quite different. It could perhaps contain a wry comment about Angela’s selfish wish to dissociate herself from her past. It’s too hard to work out at this remove from the time in which it was written. The novel also has a subtitle, ‘A novel without a moral’, which is deeply ironic given its contents. I think that Fauset was trying to make a point about her heroine, who tries in whatever way she can discover to live a good life. For much of the period covered by the narrative that involves not admitting to being part black.

There are some delightful anachronisms in this novel, with “bus” spelled with an apostrophe (to show that it was a short form of “omnibus”) and with “sundae”, “barbeque” and “show” (as in, a show you see when you go to a theatre) written with quotation marks to show that they were neologisms at the time. There is certainly a lot that has changed in the US since the 1920s, and for that we should all be immensely thankful. The sheer ugliness of institutionalised racism is incomprehensible for someone who has never experienced it, but this book can operate as a tonic for ignorance if people choose to give it a go. I found this book to be tremendously fun and wise. Above everything else, however, it is competent as a piece of fiction and deserves to still be read today.