Thursday, 29 October 2020

Book review: Age of Conquests, Angelos Chaniotis (2018)

I bought this book at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD one day as they have a well-stocked ancient history section. I had wanted something to give me the same kind of broad overview of the early Greeks as the other, recent, reads had given me of the Roman political system. Other, similar reviews will follow this one …

The cover image is a mosaic from Italy in the Classical period, and the story the book tells includes that period, starting with Alexander the Great. His expansionist exploits – inspired by literature – formed a model for other Greeks, as well as Romans once they began to consolidate territory under their laws.

For the Greek city states, Rome’s involvement in local politics was part of a wider and older process of war. In fact, the Romans were invited to participate in the East by a group of city states who wanted to keep the Macedonians out of their territories, so it’s difficult to fault the Romans for “conquering” this part of the world. It’s difficult to see, on the surface, if anything at all was given up by conquered people, once they became of the pax Romana. Even before this political development, war was constant for most Greeks. In fact, the coming of the Romans seems to have allowed many people to live, for a change, in peace.

Chaniotis marshals an impressive array of facts in order to tell his story, and he does better than most in linking such ideas as religion, war, and kingship. But this book is, as the title says, mainly about politics, and for the most part the interests of ordinary people are only reflected inasmuch as they are mentioned as part of treaties, say, or celebrations. 

The role of religion was bound up with the idea of conquest, however, so it’s salutary to restrict the purview to bellicose activities. All adult men in the community were, presumably, involved in the processes of war and alliances, and women and children are largely absent from the records; occasionally a daughter is married off in order for a king to cement an alliance with a foreign city state. 

Philosophy at the time in question had to do with politics as much as learning (Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher), and art was mainly practiced in the service of a higher secular or holy power. 

There are sections on women, education, slavery and religion but the texture of daily social interaction might’ve been more consciously studied. When discussing political matters, it’s infrequently that the book addresses religion – Jews are an exception and, later, Christians – but for people alive at the time politics, identity and religion were all part of the same set of ideas that animated their thoughts. Just as the stories written by Homer and preserved over time by the Greek city states fomented action by such men as Alexander, the stories of the gods provided guides for the conduct of the same people.

The book nevertheless penetratingly chronicles how alliances were formed and broken among the collection of city states in the region. Such alliances made it possible for Alexander to achieve what he did, and they also ushered in the Romans (a notoriously tolerant people, who gave equal rights to waves of foreigners over a period of hundreds of years). The idea of the ecumene that began to gain a foothold in the popular imagination during the Classical period became more important during the Hellenistic period and, under the Roman emperors, even more so.

The nature of the world was changed by Alexander. It became possible to imagine the ecumene – the inhabited world, however vast. Then, subsequently, the ascendancy of the Romans in their pursuit of a universal peace and of booty (and other revenue streams), changed the world again. Hence the inclination of both the Greeks and the Romans to deify their leaders. The reach of empire encouraged encomium. Praise grew from conquest, but conquest grew also from praise.

Monday, 26 October 2020

Book review: Ten Caesars, Barry Strauss (2019)

I bought this at Gleebooks while on a mission to find books on Rome. This is a good primer for the imperial period, achieving its goals by focusing on each of the main emperors – a term that in plain Roman terms meant “victorious general” – each in turn, starting with the first, Augustus.

Some readers will try to find their favourite, but I wager all readers will be entranced by Strauss’ exhaustive knowledge and attention to detail. Nevertheless, he proceeds apace and you never find the narrative flagging. For those who might, after reading this book, want more in-depth information on Nero, for example, or Vespasian, other books can be consulted.

As far as the topic goes, it’s clear that the emperor was never an absolute ruler, and functioned to manage a range of different interest groups – the Senate, the armed forces, and the public – and to ignore the wishes of any of which could be fatal. 

Much like a modern-day constitutional monarchy like Australia – where I was born, grew up, and where I live – ancient Rome was a place where people could succeed given cunning and talent. The imperial system to a certain degree freed up the elites of many countries, allowing them to participate more fully in a large, diverse polis. It is arguable that the self-contained Roman aristocracy, which controlled it during the republican period, was less flexible, and less able to accommodate newcomers. Certainly, Vespasian and his son Titus were able to even enter the pantheon, and rule effectively. They were better emperors than some of blue blood like Nero or Claudius.

The place of the emperor-as-god is something that others have described less well than Strauss, for example Mary Beard (whose ‘SPQR’ I reviewed recently). The ceremonial and formal duties of the emperor were critical for the health of the polis – as the Senate and the legions understood. This is clear if you read history. If anything, the ceremonial functions of the ruler are just as important as his or her executive or military functions, even in a place as warlike as ancient Rome.

Strauss’ book is a fabulous place to start for anyone keen to learn about it but more attention might’ve been given to the issue of religion, a failing that dogged the pages I read in Beard’s book as well. Further reviews on related matters to follow.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Book review: Veritas, Ariel Sabar (2020)

I bought this book at Gleebooks while I was out looking for a book on Liszt. (I’d called the bookstore earlier and they’d told me to look up a title and ask them to order it, but my online researches weren’t fruitful. It took the woman behind the counter in the store less than a minute to find what I needed, and she ordered it for me. While I was standing at the back of the shop, waiting, I picked up ‘Veritas’ in order to buy it.)

Subtitled 'A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife', the book is sometimes a fascinating work of journalism – and sometimes dull – chronicling the participation of an esteemed academic in the unearthing for public scrutiny of a document a man who contacted her purported was an ancient manuscript. If that sounds elaborate, wait until you get to the section on the history of Harvard. I sometimes wondered if Sabar had just taken the technique of writing a magazine article and stretched it out (seemingly) indefinitely. I wouldn’t say that the book has structural problems, but I think that some people will find this overly-complex.

Starting in 2012, the story unfolds carefully in a way that allows you to understand the personalities of the people involved and the gravity of the outcomes of the case, which began when a professor at Harvard University named Karen King received an unsolicited email.

It’s salutary that her name is “Karen”, and the book makes frequent nods toward the online public sphere, where extreme views get all the attention. It’s a timely reminder of how abuse of trust can undermine a whole class of individuals and upset a fragile balance. Sabar began researching the case while writing a story for a well-known US magazine. 

The book is the result of a broader search for answers. It illustrates much about society generally, especially about our beliefs as a collective and about our unwillingness to listen to dissenting voices. In this way it’s a kind of parable about conformity and the mob, something that has, because of social media, become more obvious in recent years. Academics are complicit in perpetuating this dynamic and, as Sabar suggests, the poor conduct of one can damage the reputation of an entire class of individuals. 

The conflict between left and right is alive in these pages, and though Sabar goes a bit fast at times he is thorough and conscientious – both qualities that are essential a journalist.

I wasn’t impressed by all his assumptions, especially where he slates conservative voters’ objections to abortion to the issue of sex, and the church’s disapproval in relation to it. Personally, I think the idea that abortion is bad has more to do with concerns about the sanctity of life – something that religious people have, in all ages, valued higher than their secular counterparts (you can see the truth of this assertion for example in the fact that it was the religious who first advocated for the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century). 

But this is a minor – though important – point to make and in doing so I don’t want to detract from the relevance of Sabar’s achievement, which is larger than what I have outlined here as in its second half the book veers off into truly strange territory. 

To explain how this happens would risk revealing the plot, so I’ll keep silent. Suffice it to say that Sabar’s story goes to the heart of the nature of the status of institutions of higher learning, which have come to signify so much about our civilisation: what, if anything, is wrong with the way that they portray themselves, and the way that we see them? If you are employed in a professional capacity by such an organisation, how should that fact work on your personal conduct? What is the ultimate responsibility of the academic, vis a vis the public and vis-à-vis herself? To the truth? Whose truth? And what, in a Postmodern age, is truth?

The image on the cover is of Harvard University and Sabar attempts to wound his subject but I think misses out on more productive leads though the narrative longueurs near the end suggest an appetite for detail. Sabar might’ve spent more time thinking about the nature of truth itself, rather than just allocating blame for certain actions to certain individuals.

The process that all of his major players are involved in should be the main subject of the book. 

No-one comes out of the wash looking particularly radiant, but it’s not clear what the ritual cleansing is in aid of. 

My guess is that each reader will take away different lessons, depending on their experience in life. I just wish Sabar had had more fun with his material.

Friday, 16 October 2020

RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD (episode four)

It’s been about three-and-a-half months since I picked up my new car so I’ve had time to get used to things. Time flies, and so do you when you’re driving one of these beauties.

Thinking back, and on viewing YouTube videos of others reviewing the same car, it strikes me how accurate were the issues, in those early days, I noticed to remark on. The noisy drivetrain under pressure, for instance, is something that others have mentioned in their reviews, as is the nice feel of the car over any surface; its hard ride – something my father used to complain about in European cars (he drove a Holden Statesman) – is dreamy and effortlessly deals with speed bumps.

One thing that comes to mind as a shortcoming is the use of CarPlay, though this is a secondary function and won’t impact your driving or safety. My phone is an old one (I bought it in 2017) and so I have to plug it into the car in order to enable CarPlay; with newer phones you just place the device in the brown holding bay under the aircon controls and it automatically charges and connects. To connect mine via CarPlay I bought a short USB cable at the Apple store. 

A related issue is also of secondary importance. This is the irritating warning message (mentioned in an earlier review) that appears for the driver’s information every time you start the car, and which, if you need to get out into the traffic quickly because of a break in the flow of cars, prevents you from moving if you need to use CarPlay for some reason, for example to enable hands-free messaging, or if you need to punch an address into the satnav. 

What I do for music is, while at home I buy albums on the iTunes store and start playing them sitting on the couch and then, when I climb into the car and start it, simply wait for it to use Bluetooth to connect to my phone and play the same album at the point where I’d left of listening earlier. By using Bluetooth instead of CarPlay I avoid having to plug the phone into the car. These are minor points but they affect your decision-making every time you choose to drive.

When CarPlay is not in use Bluetooth integration of your phone is enabled. You can toggle between commercial radio and Bluetooth using the ‘Audio’ button (a physical button handily on the right-hand side of the centre console) to bring up a menu of sources to select. 

Bluetooth is a dreamy feature and can also work with podcasts and audiobooks, as you can listen at home and then, a few minutes later, resume listening at the same spot when inside the car, but while you can shift between tracks on an album easily to change albums you have to go back up a navigational level (by tapping the soft ‘Browse’ button) and then painstakingly select the phone again, and then ‘Albums’, before you get a list of the relevant titles to choose. This navigational quirk of the system takes some getting used to, and might’ve been avoided by better design of the interface. 

If you want to avoid this problem you can plug in your phone and use the CarPlay function. This allows you to navigate between albums, a task that is far simpler as CarPlay has a soft ‘Back’ button that, from the play screen of an album track, you can touch to go to a full menu of albums that are on your phone. It’s is very convenient.

Some items by design won’t work with CarPlay, including TV and YouTube. A safety function thus shelters drivers from distractions while in traffic and busy manoeuvring among fast-moving cars. 

A hands-free approach to using the popular messaging application WhatsApp was useful one day. On that day I knew I had to contact someone while on the road and decided to use WhatsApp to do so. The interface that allows access to this application is however slightly counterintuitive. You tap on the WhatsApp icon on the top level menu in CarPlay, then a Siri-like interface prompts you to say a name. When I said the name of the person I wanted to contact, the AI understood me and displayed his name on the centre console. Then I dictated my message, the AI captured it and asked me if I wanted to send it, reading out my message back to me. I sent it when I tapped a soft button on the screen but you can also reply to a prompt that lets you send your message without using your hands. 

The feature worked pretty smoothly but not all of the RAV4’s electronic and software features do. You get the promise of endless features but in the upshot your ability to use them can be limited by various constraints. This is obviously suboptimal and reflects an annoying problem that Toyota has with interface design. They do a terrific job with hardware and have perfected the art of manufacturing, but US companies do the soft part of IT better. Problems with the RAV4 driver interface system also reflect the hazards inherent in a car that almost has more functions than can be feasibly handled by a driver who must obey road rules all the time.

As one reviewer mentioned – and as I also found after some weeks of driving – you get about 1100 kilometres out of one tank of petrol. It comes out at around 47 miles per gallon, or five litres per 100km, which is pretty tops compared to all-petrol units (which is most of the cars on the market). 

I’ve been noticing more RAV4s as I drive around the city, but most don’t have the “EV” badge the state government issues. I got my badge in the mail and affixed the little triangles – made with blue reflective paint and the letters “EV” printed in white – to my number plates on 8 September. The badges are designed to alert emergency personnel and first-responders to the presence of a battery in case of an accident, so that they know immediately in case of fire which cars to attend to first. The front plate had less room for the badge than the rear plate, and you have to put them on without obscuring the registration details. It’s a bit fiddly; if you take care you’ll have no problem but if NSW drivers don’t have them on their hybrid or hydrogen or electric vehicles after 1 January 2021 they could cop a fine.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Book review: The Regency Revolution, Robert Morrison (2019)

I bought this book at a Collins bookseller near Wollongong.

This book of popular history varies the focus in successive chapters and because of the large quantity of primary sources is able to provide a good deal of detail about such things as sexuality as well as about more routine subjects like war. 

For Jane Austen fans like me, this book is catnip but can be meaningfully read by anyone who is interested in how the modern world emerged out of the Enlightenment. Few know what that word signifies but fewer know about the Regency, which encompassed the teen years of the 19th century. The Victorian urge to improve is anticipated by changes that took place during the years when the future George IV was regent, once his father George III was finally and terminally incapacitated by what appears to have been insanity (though I haven’t read a biography of this monarch, so am yet to be fully informed on this matter).

The fact that the American Revolution occurred in the years immediately prior to the Regency must make this book even more relevant, as that urge to improve certainly derived from secular events that are, today, known to a large number of people.

The Regent was lambasted strongly during his lifetime as well as in the Victorian era, though he did much to encourage the arts and sciences, both financially and in terms of the public honour he bestowed on practitioners. Fat, fond of a drink, and libidinous, George was an easy target for political satirists and it’s easy to grasp how an historian like Morrison would want to reformulate public perceptions (revisionism is one of the primary engines of history as a discipline), but I can see the merit in his point of view. 

While a bit too fond of hyperbole, Morrison does a solid job though his analysis of Australia – which grew rapidly during this period – is sketchy at best and adds nothing to one’s understanding of colonial history. Morrison might’ve done better to ask why names made famous by Walter Scott were used to label geographical locations.

I give this book a full three stars, as it’s worthwhile for people to read, especially for those who haven’t read much about this period before. For those, like me, who have, reading ‘The Regency Revolution’ is still profitable.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Book review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple (2019)

I bought this book at Gleebooks for the usual price while there to pick up something else. The cover and the introduction promise one view of events, but the text delivers another.

This mismatch between a politically-correct view and one steeped in history is striking. Or at least it was for me. Dalrymple’s book is interesting for what it brings in the form of extracts from previously unused original sources, but the book’s gist – the East India Company (EIC) grew in power and influence almost despite itself – was already known to me from prior reading.

Founded by former pirates in London at the time of Old Queen Bess, the EIC had an inauspicious start. Steady application of a simple set of principles for 150 years led, in the mid-18th century, to it being embroiled in a new set of circumstances tied to what should be thought of as the first world war – between England and France. This conflict culminated in 1759 but the seeds of Company expansion were sown in North America; to be exact, in the Ohio wilderness. 

It was the French who first applied superior European military tactics in the subcontinent, but without French expansionary policies the EIC wouldn’t have started rebuilding the defences at Fort William (in modern-day Kolkata). This circumstance enraged the local Nabob, Siraj ud-Daula, who attacked it. His action led to an aggressive soldier named Robert Clive being brought in. Clive was later used by local bankers – the Jagat Seth – to get rid of the Nabob and install in his place Mir Jafar. But once British fighting abilities had been proven in the field that became a tempting recourse for local rulers eager to overcome their Indigenous enemies. Here lies the key to understanding what wasn’t a relentless rise at all but, rather, a rapid upslope followed by a bumpy plateau during which the Company’s dominance was tested by various actors.

The first use of the term “anarchy” precedes Plassey (the battlefield where Clive won against the Nabob’s forces) by a number of years. This is due to the fact that the Mughal emperor’s power had already waned and that other Persians were happy to capitalise on this fact. (The Mughal Emperor himself was of Persian background.)

Dalrymple sometimes ignores the sources he gained access to. On at least one occasion a source quoted in the book says one thing and then, immediately afterward, Dalrymple says the opposite. In general the text is undercooked and it’s clear that the author is not an academic. 

A bit more rigour would have improved things but Dalrymple’s method – to use individual events to develop a central thesis about kingship – is mostly effective. While the EIC had the knowledge and technology needed to stay ahead of those who would try to compete with it, it didn’t possess the loyalty of the people. And while the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam – which translates, optimistically, and in a way that gives you a taste of some of the chronicles of the era, as “ruler of the world” – was given help wherever he went even though he had no money and few escorts, he had no money and no military power. So the two institutions complemented each other. This is a good lesson to learn for those who say they prefer republicanism to constitutional monarchy.

More rigour might’ve been applied in cases where Dalrymple relies on primary sources, especially letters, to build a story. The kaleidoscope of influences and contemporary players – let alone the players in such debates as exist now, in the 21st century – are multiple, and include the Nabob of Calcutta (Mir Qasim), the factor of Forth William (whose name is Ellis), and the governor of Bengal, Henry Vansittart. You also have (just to make things more complex) Warren Hastings, who would go on to become the governor of India once Parliamentary control was introduced later in the 18th century. 

Just taking at face value the complaints of Mir Qasim about English traders, especially Ellis, without any corroborating evidence, is more than a bit slack, it undermines the whole enterprise, allowing innocent readers to draw conclusions that sit easily with the thesis situated in Dalrymple’s title and in his introduction but which – as we have seen – is often contradicted by other sources. To just drag in selectively chosen sources in an effort to bolster an already-discredited idea is bad scholarship. Maybe Hastings was being groomed for the position he would go on to hold? Maybe Ellis and the traders around Calcutta were just trying to do business so that the Company could earn the profits its investment warranted? Maybe Mir Qasim was unhappy with the new arrangements because it reduced his own personal income or influence? 

None of these possibilities is given much attention by Dalrymple intent, as he is, on making a point he’d already undermined. As a general rule I felt that the book is underwritten (despite the original sources) and that inadequate attention is given to individual events. More could easily be written on narrow chronological ranges, for example the Bengal Famine, or the Company’s victory at Buxar, or the relations between the Company and the Marathas. In the absence of such sustained scholarship, Dalrymple allows himself to veer skittishly across wide swathes of territory without sufficiently describing their peculiarities and characteristics. It’s like writing an account of a visit to India without getting of the train at any of the stations on the way from point A to point B.

In fact the rise of the Company wasn’t relentless and it wasn’t accomplished without falls. Indeed, there were many low points along the way, but one thing is certain is that the quantity of written material to do with it is one reason why it’s possible to read about people who might otherwise be ignored by history. Indeed, Dalrymple should have gone further and spent more time examining the lives of the common people rather than focusing to the exclusion of most else on the military and political activities of the great men of the era. If the Company is a lens through which to view an entire civilisation, then historians are obliged by the desires of their readers to raise up the little man and to show what life was like before the Company began its rise and what life was like afterward. For example, Dalrymple is quick to censure Robert Clive on account of insider trading, but he neglects to illustrate for the reader’s benefit what hardship for local artisans looked like in the wake of the victory at Buxar.

You can’t see the forest for the trees. Excited by the quantity of material he gained access to in his researches, it appears that Dalrymple has done what any undergraduate soon enough learns not to do: put everything in. And the emphasis on the political aspects of British India and the decline of the Mughal Empire is less than satisfactory, bringing me back to the fact that the troubles many communities had in the years between 1600 and 1850 can be slated to the effects of greed by a range of actors, notably the Persians.

This book was a missed opportunity and better editing wouldn’t have fixed its problems. A more serious and thoughtful approach to its subject matter – and possibly more time – might’ve allowed the author to produce something of lasting purpose.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-nine

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

9 May 2020

Had a nap just before midday and dreamt I was swimming around the ocean and it was covered in newsprint. The pages were arrayed in neat rows, with water between their edges; they were arrayed in uniform ranks, held in place by a mysterious force I couldn’t perceive or understand. 

I was taking other pages with writing on them to place in the sea of paper, at a location a bit distant from where I was and off to the left. I can’t remember, now, what messages were on the paper I was transporting but at one point I was swimming with, on my right, a brightly-coloured outpouring of water coursing downhill (it was the sea but there was, also, an incline descending to my left) appearing from beneath a tarpaulin that had been somehow suspended over the expanse of water. I remember understanding – as if someone had spoken the words directly into my ear, though there was no-one nearby – that the outpouring of coloured water represented the opinions of Australians, and it was toxic. I had flippers on my feet, and I paddled on my stomach past the stream of green and blue water. 

Elsewhere, I swam amid objects in a patch of foul-smelling water, and here the newsprint was not as regularly spaced as it was elsewhere. In fact there were large gaps with nothing but calm water that I swam through, but I hastened away from this area as well. The pages I had in my hands were to be spread out in another part of the sea and, full of hope, I swam off to my left, kicking my webbed feet, heading for my destination.

10 May 2020

Dreamt I was enrolling in a course of study at a university. The course was engineering, and I had to select classes in units of study from a set of brochures that were given out at the department office. I had an index card to write the days and times on, the UoS codes, and the names of the UoS’s.

I had to get this information from the brochures. I held them, like a stack of papers, in my left hand. They were held together, each group of them in a bundle, with paper clips. First, I had to read the information on the brochure, then I had to find a class time that suited my schedule, and then I had to write down details on an index card. For one class the available times and locations were in a country town near Lake George (near Canberra, Australia’s national capital), and, I imagined, I would have to drive almost all the way to that city to attend them. 

This class had something to do with sheep, so evidently by this time I was enrolling in an agriculture degree. I found nothing puzzling about this change of plan, and simply tried, using a pen and the index card, to write down the required details while, all around me, other students were doing the same. In fact, they were doing it much faster than I was. They were all younger than me – I was, in the dream, about the same age I am in real life – and I remember being amazed by their speed and focus. 

I was having a lot of trouble just grasping the meaning of the UoS titles let alone putting the codes in the right places. At one stage I was writing, over the top of what I had already written, the date – in the format “day/month”, the Australian way – making the numbers, due to the number of repetitions required to make them clear, almost impossible to decipher. Was it a four or a one I had written with my pen? I couldn’t make it out. Such confusion made it even more difficult to schedule things properly. If I couldn’t read what I had written, I said to myself, how was I supposed to make a clean list and get all the classes organised on my index card? 

Monday, 5 October 2020

Book review: SPQR, Mary Beard (2016)

I bought this volume at Gleebooks for the recommended retail price. I like the minimalist cover design, one which points to the subject matter in a way that consciously borrows visual elements from the culture of the society the book promises to examine. Roman letters and twinned laurel branches are a fitting way to both acknowledge the high regard in which Beard is held by her peers and to accurately reflect the importance, to the community that harbours potential readers, of the Romans. Less is best, and according to the evidence – the books contains images showing the much-vaunted “warts and all” Roman approach to representation and ornament – it is most suitable for a cover of a book of this nature. 

The acronym stands for the Latin for “the senate and the people of Rome”. Merely to utter that syllable (“Rome” rhymes with “home”) enables you to evoke so many ancillary things, and Beard is conscious of this. She starts the book with an anecdote but other than that for most of the time concentrates not on individuals but on the Roman community more broadly. 

If anything the narrative tends toward the impersonal. In the first two-thirds of the book politics is its main focus though Beard makes a concession by inserting chapters on the family, women, and slaves. She gets onto literature in detail only at about page 450 but, even then, concentrates only on animal stories. The vast bulk of the literary output of Romans – either of the republican era or the time of empire – is passed over unacknowledged.

So the book’s contents match the cover but you are as a consequence made to feel slightly alienated from the story being told. I would’ve preferred more intimate glimpses of daily life and of the recorded meanderings of the minds of men and women alive at the time. It’s arguably more fun and informative to watch an episode of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ than to watch ‘A Current Affair’. Beard is best when explaining the reasons for the successes of republican Rome. 

The relationship between the Roman people and their leaders, and between the polis and the people’s deities, is not so well articulated. This might be the reason why, when the time comes in the final century BC for the Roman people to transition from a republic to a system of government with a sole individual at the head of the administration, Beard has so many unanswered questions. The idea of a man who is the son of a god obviously has strong echoes in relation to the modern-day West, and it cannot have been an accident that both things – the birth of Christ and the appearance of the first Roman emperor – happened at the same chronological moment. 

It’s striking to me that, though I’ve been alive for almost 60 years, no-one made such a link in my hearing, nor in any of the tens of thousands of books and magazine articles or news stories that I’ve read since I started to read independently when I was about 12 years old. Is it not obvious to anyone else? The fact hit me with such force when it first came to my attention that, for a while, I could think of nothing else, and it was the big take-away for me from the book.

Which promises to be the first of many that I’ll read in order to find out more. Because Rome was ascendant such a long time ago, and because of its centrality to my own culture, it is arguably more rewarding to read about how people living in other societies related to Rome, than about Rome itself. Of course, if you want to understand what someone like the 18th century naturalist Joseph Banks or the 16th century scholar Erasmus thought of Rome, you’d better also know something about Rome yourself.


The lack of information from Beard about the Roman pantheon is, for me, this book’s major failing, and I also feel a bit let down by her making little of classical Roman literature. She notes that the available volume of textual material pre-empire is relatively low, though, at other times, she uses the merest hints found in the record to try to make her case, with regard to literature she doesn’t use much detail.

She makes solid sense of a large quantity of material and strings together a compelling story that coheres so that someone living in the 21st century can mostly make sense of it. One thing she fails to do is explain the early Romans’ constant military campaigning. She hints at a potential cause – the need to conquer nearby communities and secure their obedience in order to stop predatory raiding – but doesn’t explore far enough either to confirm it as the reason for Roman expansion in the early years or to rule it out in the reader’s mind. 

She does enable you to understand the benefits and strengths of the Roman method, notably the fact that people in satellite communities could become Roman citizens and that, under the republican model of government, the pool of candidates for leadership positions was wider than the traditional collection of established families. In fact, the extension of this right sits near the start of the story, at the point where republicanism was first practiced, in the 5th century BC. 

For about 500 years Rome survived as a republic but then (Beard tries to explain), due to geographical expansion, the political system was unable to ensure peace. It also failed to enable the proper running of such a vast empire. If anything, the administrative apparatus required to run it was better-developed under the emperors than it had been under the senate.

At around the time of Christ’s birth voting was abandoned although the emperor took pains to maintain the old structures. Instead of giving himself the despised title of “king” he arrogated to himself the powers, for example, of the consuls which, in the republican period, had belonged to elected officials. And he was, as Beard notes, consciously assuming for himself the guise of a god on earth. In fact, at least one predecessor of Julius Caesar, the first emperor, did the same.

If her book has one overall failing – apart from the ones already mentioned – it is that Beard uses qualifying linguistic formulas a tad overmuch. It’s usually “may” or “could” rather than something more definite. I can’t work out if this is due to the fact that she’s been unable to make the imaginative leap required to put herself in the shoes of the people she’s writing about, for certainly the Romans were different from us. Perhaps focusing more on the fiction produced at the time might’ve helped her to make that leap. Or perhaps if she was on top of the religion …

Her unwillingness to commit in such cases might also be due to the fact that there are so many viewpoints for any single event, with generations – nay, centuries – of historians writing about Rome, each of whom has had his or her own view about it. This problem becomes more noticeable at the end of the book, perhaps because at this point Beard feels the need to summarise her findings.

I was a bit alarmed by her reliance on a strongly Latinate vocabulary – something that, in my case, militates against comprehension, though her language is adequate for the task. A reluctance to delve too far was also, for me, a barrier to understanding – personal stories do more than increase the refinement of details available to the reader, they also enhance recall because when our emotions are engaged we remember details more faithfully – but at least now that I’ve felt the benefit of reading about ancient Rome, no doubt other, similar book reviews will follow this one.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Grocery shopping list for September 2020

This post is the twenty-first in a series and the seventh with rona. 

1 September

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) Bega cheese, couscous and pumpkin, a sultana butter cake, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

3 September

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) bread, Arnott’s biscuits (Chocolate Monte, Gaiety, and Caramel Crowns), flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and laundry liquid.

4 September

Went to Lakemba and bought steak, lamb chops, chicken biryani, aloo gosht, Lahori cholay, daal moth (a snack), and goat’s-milk yoghurt drink.

6 September

Walked to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) Nile perch, salmon, smoked hake, sliced ham, sliced silverside, lentil salad, coleslaw, tomato soup, lamb soup, cauliflower soup, Loacker coconut wafers, Caramel Crowns, Gaiety (another Arnott’s biscuit), bhuja, Calbee “Harvest Snaps” (black bean and dill pickle flavour), milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

7 September

Had to go to the tailor’s and while out popped in at Woolworths and bought flavoured sugarless mineral water.

10 September

While doing errands I popped in at Woolies and bought (see receipt below) couscous with pumpkin, sliced, ham, sliced pastrami, chicken noodle soup, bread, and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

14 September

Went to get my phone serviced, then dropped by to see fabrics for curtains and on the way home stopped at the Fish Market and bought (see receipts below) sliced smoked wagyu, sliced Morcon ahumado picante, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, a lettuce, swordfish steaks, salmon fillets, and some ling fillets.

15 September

Popped into Woolworths and bought lentil salad, Bega cheese, chicken and orange pate, a sultana butter cake, bread, potato salad, Jatz crackers, bhuja, biscuits (Caramel Crowns, Chocolate Montes, Loacker coconut wafers), instant porridge, and sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.25 each this time!). 

Later I drove to Vinnies in Waverley and while out bought some goat’s cheese and blue cheese at a grocery store. Still later I popped into the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

16 September

Had a local appointment and while out popped in at Woolies and bought sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.80 a bottle).

17 September

Popped into the convenience store and bought milk.

19 September

Walked to Woolies and bought sliced pastrami, a sultana butter cake, apples, taramosalata, hummus with harissa, marinaded goat’s cheese, lentil salad, couscous with pumpkin, pea and ham soup, chicken noodle soup, bhuja, Arnott’s Caramel Crowns biscuits, and sugarless flavoured mineral water (at $1.80 a bottle).

21 September

Walked to Woolies and bought milk and sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.80 a bottle) and later went down, with a friend, to the new house at Botany. After talking with Joe, the builder (and owner), we dropped in at a fruit and vege store and bought cucumbers, zucchini, corn on the cob, pawpaw, olives, and Napolitanke wafers in two flavours (“lemon orange” and nougat).

23 September

Went to the tailor’s and while out popped in at Woolworths and bought sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.80 a bottle) and toilet paper.

24 September

Back at the tailor’s on this day; popped in at Woolies and bought lamb chops, bread, tomato soup, pea and ham soup, chicken and corn soup, pastrami, sliced ham, salad (a mixture of black rice, corn and coriander), and some snacks.

26 September

Went to Woolies and bought lentil salad, mandarins, milk, a carrot cake, a sultana butter cake, bread, a lettuce, crackers, taramosalata, and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

29 September

Went to the pharmacy and while in the arcade popped in at Coles and bought flavoured sugarless mineral water ($1.70 a bottle). Later I went to Harris Farm Markets and bought eye fillet steak, pork chops, soup (one harira, one leek and potato, and one chickpea and bean soup), Danish salami, Hungarian salami, and some aged gouda cheese. On the way back home I stopped at the Fish Market and bought ling fillets, tuna steaks, snapper fillets, and some salmon.

30 September

Had some local errands to run and while out I popped in at Coles and bought blueberries, Jatz crackers, and sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.25 each).

Monday, 28 September 2020

Book review: Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, Eric J Evans (2019)

On a whim I bought this book in Glebe one day in the middle of September. I had gone to the shop to pick up an order and saw Evans’ book and thought of a friend who reads a lot of history, and thought to myself: “This looks interesting ..”

In the event I turned out to have been right in my assumption, which is remarkable as a biography about a dead historian might not, to most people, seem like fertile ground for analysis of larger themes. But born in 1917 (a little after my grandmother) Hobsbawm was part of a generation that saw the major events of the 20th century at first hand, including WWII, the aftermath of the October Revolution, and the Cold War.

He subsequently wrote at length about a range of eras, though he concentrated on the period extending from about 1750 to 1900. Evans asserts rather glibly, at the end of the book, that Hobsbawm “was never a Stalinist” and flirts with irrelevancy by using the ridiculous term “Hobsbawmian”. He never seems to address the problem of categories – something that must be, for any historian, a central issue – and accepts the prima facie importance of terms such as “Marxism” in a way that Hobsbawm must’ve been unable to do – if he was honest (though I’ve never read any of his books).

Evans makes the point well that Communism was a way for Hobsbawm to find community – something he needed early on as both his parents died before he reached his majority. In his youth he was a dedicated Communist. His parents were British subjects of Polish Jewish extraction. 

He was bookish and aspired to write – it’s evident from surviving sallies he penned as an adolescent – so drew inspiration from others, such as Shakespeare, Shelley, Coleridge, and Rimbaud. Which is a good place to go to look for such things (you can easily do a lot worse). Evans keeps the ball rolling – by about page 100 you’re at the time Hobsbawm went up to Cambridge – and as, himself, an authority on Germany in the 20th century, he is well-placed to make cogent observations about the environment in which his subject lived and learned though there’s a lack of information about Eric’s sources and curricula for these years, which isn’t remedied until Evans starts talking about books Eric wrote in the 1960s and 70. And I wasn’t sure that Evans grasped the significance of sentiments Eric expressed in his early writings; I often felt a good deal of boyish innocence behind strongly worded statements, a strong hint of uncertainty lying behind the bravado, but Evans seems not to have seen such things. 

What’s remarkable however is the fact that so much material survives for historians to ponder. Such a trove of riches enabled by the subject’s scribbling propensity. He was also hypercritical, with an opinion about everything – often, as it turns out, wrong, as when he predicted the demise of pop music – complementing a keen eye for the telling detail. His biographer’s equally quick condemnation of poetry – which Hobsbawm tried on various occasions, including when he was in the Army – is regrettably of the same stripe as his subject’s incisive discernment though considering the number of things Hobsbawm got wrong, perhaps a bit more reflection might’ve leavened the mix. On the other hand, you want someone to make people think, someone with a solid commitment to a particular line of reasoning is probably more likely to deliver pithy, memorable phrases than someone who goes the more round-about way to arriving at his or her goal or who is liable to qualify everything with reservations. In any case, being right all the time is probably not as important as regularly participating in public debates. So, for example, Hobsbawm’s dismissal of the environment and nationalism in favour of economic factors as explanations for specific phenomena that everyone agreed had become manifest in different places at different time. So what if Eric’s approach was contradicted by later scholars? 

If you demand 100% correctness all the time you’re going to end up with such stupidities as Stalinism specialised in. Other people on the left have expressed a similar kind of abhorrence of dogma and conformity, notably the Australian novelist Vance Palmer (one of whose books I reviewed recently). Hobsbawm solved the problem by being successful in a way that allowed him to survive on the proceeds of his own labours – he taught at a tertiary education institution for most of his adult life at the same time as he wrote and published books. 

Mao was equally pithy in terms of his written output, so Hobsbawm was following in the footsteps of greatness. An intelligent youth who wants to overturn all old institutions and structures and uses his natural abilities toward achieving that aim: the world has paid a high price for this characteristic of the species where still, today, we live with the consequences of the mistakes of past generations. When are the old going to be allowed to set the tone? Perhaps never. So we must fix problems that endure due to the triumph of the young by using patience in a way that Hobsbawm – soon tiring of the discipline that poetry needs in order to produce quality verses – was able to do only by dint of consistency. In the end, Eric prevailed in his chosen profession due to the fact that, over the course of many decades, he remained true to a single political line. His political views were cemented in the 1930s but financial security didn’t arrive until the 1970s.

It’s just disappointing that Evans’ loyalty to his subject allowed him to unthinkingly take sides in a contest that Hobsbawm refused to enter into all those years ago. It seems strange that Evans would reward Hobsbawm for a signal failure, but Eric’s other failures of the period in question – he was refused access to the cypher program due to that fact that his mother was not English – seem to have made Evans lose control of his critical faculties at an important moment in his narrative. English chauvinism is, to be sure, a poisonous elixir and Hobsbawm was right to have felt aggrieved (though he didn’t express such feelings to the officer who informed him of the decision), but surely it’s not necessary to forgive him everything (including his failure to persist with poetry, regardless the low quality of his youthful productions) just because you’re studying his life in exhaustive detail. 

It seems that familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. In fact it’s astonishing that Evans neglects Hobsbawm’s German-language poetry considering how liable the young man was to start writing at the slightest pretext, since he wrote reviews of films and other cultural products, and since he clearly considered himself to be educated. Hobsbawm’s reception among peers – visible in the critiques offered by people who were sent his essays and theses for comment – reveal that he was happy to accept others’ reviews as valid, but Evans seems to think that Hobsbawm’s poetry is exempt from the same kind of scrutiny his academic work received.

While pretending to offer a comprehensive view of the historian’s life, Evans still leaves out critical clues to his subject’s approach to the world in terms that a reader could easily grasp. I find this failure a severe one, and deeply regret it. 

It’s possible to see Hobsbawm’s reluctance to use poetry to achieve agency as a reflection of his disenchantment with the creative arts in the light of the economic burdens society places on the proletariat. Artists had been writing, painting, and composing for generations but things were still bad (notably after 1929) so: what’s the point? The failure of the mainstream to take the hint might be seen as having convinced people like Hobsbawm that art wasn’t the best way to achieve their goals. Linked to this feeling of ennui was Hobsbawm’s need to get involved in committees and to run educational activities for students; in other words, to belong. The dream of finding a place for himself that would both satisfy strict ideas about relevancy as well as his appetite for sophisticated thinking drove him to participate in activities that brought him into contact with others. Once his writing and publishing led to financial security and acclaim from peers, however, Hobsbawm was happy to accept sinecures and memberships that had previously been withheld from him. He became a notable part of the same Establishment that he had, in his youth, rejected outright.

A shortcoming of Evans’ book is the absence, for most of the first 300 or so pages, of any indication for the layman of how Hobsbawm’s scholarship fit into contemporary society. What kind of academic was he? Was he fashionable? Unnecessarily biased (considering his Marxist leanings)? Good? Bad? Indifferent? The contents of the curriculum during his BA are also not detailed very comprehensively, so it’s hard to understand formative influences leading to choices later made.

Until things became clearer at about page 350 I felt that Evans considered the average reader able to know such things – unlikely unless they were a truly committed history buff (and even if that was the case, they might know little about Hobsbawm) – or else likely go and find out for him- or herself. Fortunately, once Eric travels to Russia and once he starts becoming involved in the journal ‘Past and Present’ – and especially once the USSR invaded Hungary – it became easier to see how his ideas fit into the magazine of global Marxism and into broader debates about values, economics, and politics. He was less a doctrinaire Communist – though he tried to stay active in bodies affiliated with the Party – than a fellow traveller; ideologically sound rather than slavishly toeing the Party line.

Evans is right to criticise the intelligence services on account of the scorn they expressed, in reports, with regard to Hobsbawm’s political allegiances, especially after WWII. During the war, young Eric was clearly unsuited to secret work – in fact he abused his privileges on several occasions when given freedom to use his discretion, compromising the war effort for ideological reasons – but if anything their alarm grew once hostilities had ended in 1945. Hobsbawm had predicted that this would happen. Again, we must be grateful that so much survived to furnish material for a book such as this.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Book review: Agent Running in the Field, John le Carre (2019)

I got this fun genre gem from my local bookstore in early September. I’d run out of things to read and as an afterthought I picked it up because it was there, on a shelf, waiting to be noticed. Like a chocolate bar on a display rack near the supermarket checkout. I’d originally gone to the bookshop to pick up something I’d ordered – they’d sent me an SMS to inform me of its availability and arrival in-store – and while there I browsed for treats. 

Gleebooks never disappoints and le Carre rarely does. If this formulaic novel has one shortcoming it’s the indeterminacy of the ending, especially regarding the fates of some central characters. 

The narrator – an experienced MI6 officer named Nat – and his wife Prue live a normal life in London. Their house is in Battersea and their daughter Steff is contrary, so the base upon which le Carre cleverly builds his edifice is credible. But ‘Agent Running in the Field’ might’ve better been titled ‘The Pair’ or ‘Badminton for Beginners’ in order to play off a major plot device – Nat is an expert at the game and at his sports club meets a young man named Ed who comes to figure largely in his life.

The novel doesn’t disappoint as far as the demands of the genre go, but his handling of the message – which centres on Trump and Brexit – is somewhat insistent. Furthermore you won’t, unfortunately, find any attempt to diagnose the disease that led to these political phenomena, things that have made many people (including le Carre) both unhappy and worried. 

He deserves a credit mark for attempting to talk about contemporary politics, though the inclusion of such elements in genre novels is routine. Adding a bit of evidence that you’re talking about the real world is common for novelists and directors of films, and fans of genre products pride themselves on recognising the linkages between plot devices and contemporary events. A bit of colour can offset the effects of an outlandish plot. 

Le Carre is candid about where his sympathies lie, so ‘Agent Running in the Field’ is something like a manifesto. Due to the fact that personal beliefs seem to function so strongly in spies’ motivations, it’s possible to make such secondary elements more important than they might be in, say, a literary novel, where the writer might choose to examine more profound things, such as the nature of the species or of existence itself. In genre fiction you rarely get to see this sort of topic dealt with, so you feel grateful that he or she chooses to admit you into the inner sanctum, to view his or her political views displayed in relation to the story. I give this one six stars.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Book review: Samsung Rising, Geoffrey Cain (2020)

I bought this volume at Gleebooks for the recommended retail price.

Cain had been writing stories about Samsung, the diversified manufacturer, for many years before he decided to write this book, though signally the company wouldn’t cooperate with him in the latter endeavour. Cain yet found many people willing to talk with him, some on the record and some not.

The company had nothing to fear in my case as apart from the Ellen De Generes selfie that made such a splash when it was taken in the Oscars about six years ago, I wasn’t aware of most of the events that form the core of this book of journalism. The TV personality’s stunt however wasn’t spontaneous but was, rather, the result of a sustained effort by a group of American employees who subsequently left the company on account of its culture.

Excellence isn’t prized very highly at Samsung but conformity is. Belonging to the herd is the most important characteristic of successful employees of a company that, to succeed, relies on the support of the Korean government, the country’s judiciary, as well as business luminaries. The collective is paramount.

As is the case also in Japanese companies. Hard to imagine I’d be able to stoke into existence a desire to buy a Samsung phone after reading this engrossing book, which begins its account in the early years pre-WWII and continues up to the present. Luckily there are plenty of alternatives available in the market.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Book review: The Husband Hunters, Anne de Courcy (2017)

I bought this entertaining study at Gleebooks one weekend earlier this month after a ramble in the sun across Wentworth Park. My mobile phone’s activity tracker said I’d been more sedentary this year and, in response to this information, I decided to take countervailing measures.

The body wasn’t the only thing exercised in the event; the mind was also. Sometimes with this book it’s hard to keep abreast of outcomes as the intricacies of people’s relationships can force meaning out the window if you don’t pay attention though what it has in abundance – these are all true stories despite the soap-opera tone – is pathos. 

Often modulated by irony: the book mainly deals with New York society as the endless search for social cachet therein was the driver of female ambition fuelling interest among patrician and arriviste mothers, from Stateside, in titled families resident in the archipelago. 

These are basically American stories although there’s no doubt that England also benefited from the transaction, especially in terms of human rights. What young Americans were used to in terms of property law and civil rights differed from what was normal for their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. The ethos of the frontier – where men outnumbered women, and where women’s contributions to domestic economy were more highly prized – impacted on the ethics and morals of the community in London and rural England. 

In the light of such revelations it’s easy to see how reading this book can help to constitute a kind of study of the education of manners, with a bias toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. 

What happened at the end of this era – by the first years of the new century the traffic of young women and their mothers to London had slowed – was that people became grossed out by the level of expenditure. The dramas played themselves out in the newspapers, so they were public events. With the push for female electoral franchise heating up and the pushback against sickening levels of spending by the one percent, instead of social advancement the fashionable world became more focused on other things. 

Charity and human rights became popular all of a sudden. The new century was also when technology began to forcefully change Western economies and political settlements, and so de Courcy’s book can have broad appeal if you are interested in learning about how science can affect both finance and morals. The ability to cross an ocean in a matter of days rather than weeks must count as an improvement, regardless of the impact on the global environment, and other novelties (refrigeration, telephony) also made the world a smaller place than it had previously seemed.

Subtitled ‘Social climbing in London and New York’, this multi-subject biography is very readable and is lots of fun especially if you’re energised by descriptions of sumptuous gatherings of people. The lists of costumes for parties, the descriptions of the preparations made by the organisers, and the lists of names of invitees contribute toward making a kind of catalogue of excess in which other objects are ignored – apart from art, which is included only because of the money involved in the purchase thereof. The only thing missing here are details of the catering (today food is of supreme importance in most developed countries, so this is actually a distinct shortcoming). 

Definitely one to keep an eye out for!

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-eight

This is the twenty-eighth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

7 May

Had a nap after lunch and dreamt I was in Watsons Bay aged about 25 and granny was still alive. Other elements of the dream were set in the real-life present (i.e. not 30 years ago), for example the tweets that I saw in the sand outside my parents’ house. These tweets showed a conversation held between a woman with whom (in real life) I used to work and stopped being connected with on Facebook because I unfriended her. 

The conversation she was having involved her husband – whom I had blocked on Twitter because of the way he would comment in response to tweets of mine – and some other people, people in the broader community, about buying a property. In the dream, one person offered to lend the woman the money needed for such a transaction. I knew this person from his online persona but didn’t know he had so much money to throw around that he could make such an offer.

I walked along the path from mum and dad’s house to the beach at Watsons Bay reading the tweets in the grass and in the sand – the tweets were embedded and visible in the landscape like actual physical features of the pavement and of the sandy grass verge that bordered it – while I made my way along the promenade to where the restaurant was. Police were near it doing random breath tests, and had set up a marquee on the pathway, in Robertson Park, that heads up the hill toward New South Head Road where, in real life, there’s a bus stop. At the beginning of the long marquee police were handing out flyers – presumably to warn people off drinking – and I took one saying, prophylactically, to the cop who handed it to me, as though to ward off the evil eye, “I haven’t had anything to drink.”

Further on, I walked up the hill toward the Gap and met granny in a church. I had stopped inside it to read tweets, a part of the previous Twitter conversation, now visible on a printed pamphlet that had been made by the church, and that was being given out for free to visitors. In real life, granny used to go to church in Watsons Bay every Sunday dressed in her best clothes, and now, in the dream, I sat in this building – which differed from the historical church in so many ways, and was far more modern – while reading, as she came in and started to talk with the preacher and his wife. Both of these people were Indians. Then I tapped granny on the arm, though, at first, when she turned her head to look at me, she didn’t recognise who I was. I took off my sunglasses so she could see my face clearly and she seemed surprised to see me there. 

After a while I left her. By this time we were up the hill toward the rocks of the Gap. In the dream I’d wanted to get to a place I thought dad used to go to – he was dead in the dream even though his mother was still alive. After granny and I were on a bus I said goodbye to her then went walking on the concrete path by the cliff’s edge. The path I took was sometimes made of rock, the rock of the cliff. 

I met people on the path who were walking the other way, some of whom were young and were singing hip-hop songs. I was rapping too and the path suddenly became steep, so steep in fact that I couldn’t go any further. There was no balustrade at this point, with a drop to my right of hundreds of feet leading to the rocks below and the ocean. I kept going and then, after I had overcome the obstacle in front of me, mingled with crowds of people and police who were standing around the forecourt of the lookout, with Robertson Park spread out below. Then I woke up.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Book review: Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (2018)

I bought this, like a number of recent reads, at an op-shop. It cost me a few dollars but there’s no sticker on the cover so I’m not sure of the exact amount.

Whatever it was, it was good value as I enjoyed reading this gentle thriller that cleaves to a modern method of mixing popular tropes with a literary style. The early chapters – when everything is embryonic and unformed, an ambience suited to the narrative, which at that point deals with teenagers – are wonderful, evoking for me my own youth and filling me with long-forgotten feelings.

Feelings I hadn’t met with for many a day. The book tries to achieve something difficult: the realisation of an atmosphere belonging to a time and place that is, now, almost forgotten except by a few (very elderly) individuals, unless you take opportunities to vicariously experience the feeling of international conflict through movies or books of fiction and history and journalism.

At moments, the word “light” appears and reappears in different settings, with different modifiers, and the title is a word that crops up two or three times in the course of the storytelling. It is designed to describe for the reader a shadowy, uncertain and crepuscular landscape where people aren’t always who they profess to be, where things happen for reasons that might never be revealed, and where the differences between truth and lies are sometimes infinitesimally tiny.

It’s in such a world, in 1945, that Nathaniel (“Stitch”) and Rachel (“Wren”) find themselves when their parents disappear to relocate to Singapore. Allegedly. What is incontestable is that the two leave their children in England. Initially they are enrolled in boarding school but they hate it so they flee the confines of their institutions and return home where The Moth functions are their guardian. Even then they attend school patchily, and The Moth introduces them to The Darter, another reliable but shadowy individual, who takes Nathaniel out on errands on a boat in the evenings, ferrying greyhounds and other cargo from one part of London to another.

It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the book, so I’ll stop there and just add that it seems to me – who has been writing about the use of genre conventions in literary fiction for months now – that we are where we are because of a need for determinacy, a distrust or even aversion to exactly the kinds of liminal tactics and strategies that ‘Warlight’ appears to deploy. 

In fact, the certainty that genre tropes allow is most suitable for our unironic age, a time when people must take sides and where to prevaricate – or even to be seen to do so – is to be considered a betrayer of your cause. The fashion for genre literary fiction is as much a product of the age as shaming on social media, Antifa protests, and Kenosha, WI.

Though at times ‘Warlight’ was, in my view, somewhat overdetermined, I enjoyed reading it for the reasons outlined in this review, and recommend it to anyone who wants a pre-Covid page-turner.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Book review: Brighton Rock, Graham Greene (1938)

Like others reviewed recently, this volume came from an op-shop near Wollongong. It cost me $3 and was a complete revelation, being a literary novel with genre roots avant la lettre. The use of genre tropes – the unsolved murder, the missing husband, the grizzly find – in our day is widespread and Greene appears, to me, to be a harbinger of such riches.

The book is not long but it wastes no time and a good amount of action is packed into a series of eventful seaside days. Greene’s inventions – Pinkie, the 17-year-old gangster, and Ida Arnold, the middle-aged local who likes a laugh and a Guinness in the afternoon – are fabulous. Ida reminded me strongly of Vera Stanhope, the detective in the ITV network’s crime drama ‘Vera’ which is a favourited of mine on Sunday nights (a series regrettably ended at the end of August). 

Like Vera, Ida feels a deep compassion for her fellow human beings and it is this that drives her to investigate the death of a man she’d met only briefly one day in Brighton. Ida tipples during the day and has a generous figure that she uses to her advantage but she’s smart as well as sentimental. Pinkie is also smart but he’s anything but sentimental, so the two characters act as a foil, each to the other, like diametrical opposite components in an interlocking pair that makes a different shape. Almost yin and yang.

The way that Pinkie tries to force people to accept his version of reality has a lot in common with certain totalitarian governments today (another thing to regret, alas). There are other characters of note, such as Spicer, whose bloodshot eyes and calloused feet make him sympathetic despite his life of crime, and Rose, a 16-year-old waitress who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Greene portrays these unheroic individuals with a kind of awareness and delicacy born of empathy.

A seaside resort close to London, Brighton in this book is a dark and menacing place animated by unseen forces. Good and evil reside there, and people yet go about their errands in peace. 

Without the overt racism it contains – disgusting caricatures of people of African ancestry and of Jews – ‘Brighton Rock’ might have turned out to be a piercing meditation on contemporary Britain, a society with enormous disparities of wealth where anyone’s upbringing is recorded in their voice as much as in their clothes. For a youth growing up in such a place, it must’ve seemed that financial security – as evident in the kinds of establishments you’d normally visit or the clothes you wore – must be achieved as quickly as possible, and damn the consequences for anyone unwise or unlucky enough to get in the way.

Unfortunately, what I found in the first half of the book was too unambiguous to ignore, so I gave up before finishing it. Ian McEwan’s endorsement on the back cover is also disturbing in the light of the repellent ideas I found expressed in the book.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Book review: East, West, Salman Rushdie (1994)

This knock-you-off-your-feet collection of short stories was picked up at an op-shop for $2, proving the rule that you cannot judge a book by the sticker price. It’s the only book of short stories I’d read since April this year, so was a breath of fresh air on two counts. The jacket is surprising too, and seems to me to be distinctly modern, with the naïve style reminding me of similar works by Australian Aboriginal artists.

Each story has its own style and so the fictional process is as much at issue as any notion of the Other that Rushdie successfully imports into his creations. In fact, the striking differences that take you from one world to the next are so severe that it is as though you were reading productions of a range of different pens. 

With aplomb, Rushdie manages to pull off each sally, never shrinking from a challenge and always delivering meaning as well as pleasure. What a find! Surely the best thing by this author I’ve ever read. In fact, it seems a shame that Rushdie decided to spend more time writing novels, if this level of quality is available in the shorter form.

Short stories are, unfortunately, discounted by readers and this can lead good short story writers to transfer their energies to the longer form. In Australia, two authors who have achieved acclaim in the short form and who then went on to try novels are Cate Kennedy (not brilliant novels but exceedingly good short stories) and Melanie Cheng (wonderful short stories; I haven’t read her recent novel). 

Rushdie’s mercurial temperament – something that made him infamous with some parts of the global community – might in fact be the thing that allowed him to write such brilliant short stories for ‘East, West’. He likes variety and doesn’t like to be tied down to convention. In fact he finds himself at home in both hemispheres, and this is a source of charm for the reader. A writer of the future …

Friday, 4 September 2020

Book review: Rupert’s Adventures in China, Bruce Dover (2008)

I bought this book at an op shop in Fairy Meadow while out of town. My apartment was on the market and I wanted to avoid mussing up the place and making more work for myself in advance of buyer inspections.

I’m having trouble working out why the cover was made the way it was but it’s not a fatal flaw: the book is informative and entertaining, having been written by an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s employ during years when Murdoch was trying to gain entry to the Chinese pay-TV market. Dover was therefore, for much of the time in question, close to the source of the events that allowed him to produce material for his story.

It’s interesting for two reasons. On the one hand it provides an indication for the curious spectator of how Murdoch runs his businesses. On the other hand – and just as importantly – the book shows how the Chinese Communist Party worked with overseas businesses in the later part of last century and the first years of this one. Before the Great Firewall and the emergence of native social media sites. The situation has changed dramatically since the time covered by Dover, but reading the book at least you get some idea of how the mechanisms of governance in the Middle Kingdom work.

I won’t disclose the reason why Rupert Murdoch decided to pull out of the Chinese market other than to say it was about access. Murdoch is famous for his love of the media business, and he’s been successful in many global markets because of his ability to make the system work in his favour and by delivering a kind of content for which there was a market that wasn’t being filled. But in China he came up against a different set of principles, and this eventually did it for him.

Because the book is full of dramatic vignettes – bits of stories inserted into the larger narrative to illustrate salient points – you are able to get a feel for Murdoch’s business in a way that a report in a newspaper or on the home page of a stock exchange could not deliver. The different threads of the narrative – involving such issues as political freedom, China’s emergence as a major economy, the role of the media in a pluralistic democracy, and Murdoch’s own character – come together to form a rich tapestry full of primary and secondary significations. Dover’s book is more than just a documentary account of a business failure, it’s a mine of information about the Middle Kingdom.

While at times the writing can be a bit long-winded and continuity might have been improved – as if it were a feature article being written, rather than a book – it’s a lot of fun to read, and it’s informative on all counts mentioned earlier in this review. Highly recommended, though a bit more attention paid to proofs might’ve improved the final product.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Grocery shopping list for August 2020

This post is the twentieth in a series and the sixth with rona. 

2 August

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) tomatoes, apples, onions, a sultana butter cake, “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veg,” spaghetti, milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

Woolworths had earlier asked shoppers to wear a mask when visiting its stores in NSW but it was announced on this day that, in Victoria, supermarket shopping would, beginning on the 3rd of the month, be legal only if (with some exceptions) carried out by one person. 

4 August

Popped across the road to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

8 August

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) a perch fillet, salmon fillets, smoked hake fillets, sliced ham, sliced pastrami, bread, blueberries, some containers of soup (one cauliflower one mushroom, one lamb), lentil salad, bean salad, biscuits (Carmel Crowns, Chocolate Montes, and Gaiety), and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

10 August

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) taramosalata, hummus with harissa, marinaded goat’s cheese, blue cheese, duck and currant pate, Jatz crackers, bhuja, Calbee “Harvest Snaps”, Caramel Crowns, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

14 August

Went to a shop in Wollongong, where I stayed for a few nights due to buyer inspections at my apartment, called TJ Max. I bought a container of Turmeric Latte, which I’d developed a taste for while staying at my friend’s place.

15 August

On the way back from Wollongong, I stopped at Auburn and bought milk.

16 August

Drove to Woolworths in Pyrmont and bought (see receipt below) pastrami, sliced ham, couscous with pumpkin, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg,” pea and broccoli soup, beetroot soup, strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

Later, went to Lakemba and bought some Punjabi prepared dishes in plastic containers (Lahori cholay, murgh pilau with kebab, chicken karahi), as well as jars with chilli pickle, garlic pickle, mixed pickle and lime pickle. 

I worked out that the food was Punjabi after coming home and doing research; there was nothing in the shop to illustrate provenance. Pickles are sold in many shops in Lakemba, but the cooked food I usually get from this one shop is on the eastern side of Haldon Street.

18 August

Went to Woolies and bought sugarless flavoured mineral water.

20 August

Went to the Campos Coffee website and placed an order (see receipt below).

22 August

On the way back from Wollongong stopped at Lakemba on an errand and while there went to a grocery store and bought milk, yoghurt drink, apples, grapes, kiwi fruit, peaches, nectarines, chillies, ginger, and capsicum.

23 August

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) salmon fillets, a barramundi fillet, marinaded goat’s cheese, pastrami, ham, sultana butter cake, eggs, lentil salad, couscous with pumpkin, pea and ham soup, Malaysian chicken soup, taramosalata, hummus with harissa, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

24 August

At 7.10am arrived an SMS from Australia Post telling me that the coffee would arrive on this day. It also said that, if I wasn’t home, the parcel would be left if a safe place was available for the purpose. At just before 9am the intercom buzzed and I spoke with the deliveryman, who left the parcel downstairs. 

Later I went to run an errand. While out, at Woolworths I bought bread, soap, mouthwash, and no-sugar flavoured mineral water.

26 August

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) no-sugar flavoured mineral water, porridge, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg,” potato salad, and bhuja.

In the evening I popped out to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

27 August

Had an errand in Broadway Shopping Centre and while there stopped by at Harris Farm Markets and bought (see receipt below) Scotch fillet steak, porterhouse steak, lamb chops, mustard, tabouleh, harira soup, white bean soup, raspberries, and blueberries.

28 August

Went to Woolworths and bought milk and no-sugar flavoured mineral water.

31 August

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) corned silverside, sliced pastrami, lamb soup, lentil soup, lentil salad, apples, blueberries, taramosalata, hummus with harissa, Chocolate Montes, Caramel Crowns, Loacker “Noisette Crème” wafers, bhuja, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).