Category Archives: Books

Standfast and Other Tales

 

 

by Barbara Yates Rothwell

HC: 215 pp

 

rothwell_book

Trafford Publishing

 

 

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

 

Short story virtuoso Barbara Yates Rothwell paints with a delicate brush. Here are no vulgar splashes of colour. Instead, we’re taken into a world revealed in idiosyncratically gentle pastels. And she brings more than a hint of compassion – and a wry eye – to the characters she draws with such understated artistry.

 

In Crown of  Thorns, we meet an order of elderly monks in a remote and crumbling abbey. Their lives revolve around an exquisite, pearl-encrusted gold crown which has pride of place in the thoughts and lives of those leading ascetic lives. Why is this ancient crown so unusual in relation to those other relics – skulls, fragments of the Cross, say – which are treasured and revered in monasteries, convents and other places of worship?

 

 

A father trying to make the most of an access visit to a much loved young son, takes the little boy to the fair and all the fun that’s associated with such excursions. The child has his heart set on a minicar that’s the prize at a shooting gallery. Why does that innocent endeavour have so eerie, frankly inexplicable  – and deadly – an effect on others miles away?

 

Dawning is a gem about awakening awareness of the opposite sex when a still-gawky teenage experiences her first heartbreak. This is a beautifully considered piece.

 

On a visit to Sydney, a woman visits one of the city’s historic and prestigious homes. In one of the bedrooms, there’s a mirror – but what it reveals has nothing (or possibly a great deal)  to do with the here and now. And what of her gentleman friend who she hopes will ask her to marry. There’s more than a little heartbreak here

 

An attentive householder hears – senses – something that ought not to be there in that very old dwelling. It’s the sounds of a child weeping. But there’s no-one in the room.

 How does she handle this curious matter – and how does this kindly woman bring closure to a child in deep trouble?

 

In Grenadine, a woman sitting on a tranquil Australian beach in the here and now  suddenly finds herself part of an horrific event:  the death of a ship and many on it. It can’t possibly be happening now; these are people of a bygone age – surely?.  Yet, as if in a waking dream, she’s leading bedraggled survivors up the steep cliff to safety.

 

Here is a writer whose skilled literary touch brings odd events to life, if the latter is the appropriate word for events concerning those long dead (or perhaps not entirely so?).

The Seamstress (Geraldine Wooller)

UWA Press

The Seamstress2

227 pages: SC: rrp $24-95

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Photo GW smiling

Geraldine Wooller. Photo is by James Booth.

Miniscule victories, quiet heroism, seismic reverses, a fling at happiness, stoicism in the face of catastrophe, wretchedly few wins in life’s lottery with more than a fair share of disappointment, discouragement and tragedy.  This, in essence, is The Seamstress.

It is Geraldine Wooller’s great gift to articulate, with compassion but without sentimentality, the lives of a family which she observes with an unblinking gaze. Utterly free of sentimentality, The Seamstress is a remarkable achievement which kept  this reader glued to the turning pages. I read it in a single day and into the night.

Wooller’s language is the essence of realism; it has the indelible tinge of truth. But it

is not the sort of novel for those who like the narrative to unfold in a strictly chronological way. This is quite different. The book is made up of a series of vignettes, often painfully and disconcertingly detailed. It’s rather like a chaplet of carefully polished literary gems, each set near-perfectly.

Newspaper reports often carry the words ‘ordinary people’ and, if the characters in this novel were flesh and blood, they, too, would probably be thought of in this way. But I’m not sure if there are any such beings. Have you met an ordinary man or woman? I certainly haven’t – and they definitely don’t inhabit this book.

In The Seamstress, we find vignettes, episodes that reveal with startling, even unnerving, clarity those moments that might for years following – generations, perhaps – scar a family history. Here, they come thick and fast.

I will not reveal any of these moments in this review. It is the author’s privilege to announce these disquieting upheavals which she does with unflinching honesty of purpose. What family is without moments such as these?

Running through the story like a fine thread is a near-faultless recounting of the dismantling of a much loved mother’s mind – and the very real sense of loss, bereavement even – which occurs before there is a physical death. It is like mourning for a mind that has, to all intents and purposes, died – and it is Wooller’s great gift to articulate the grief in coming to grips with a calamity the incidence of which is multiplying with frightening rapidity as medicine finds ever new ways to keep the body alive but lags far behind in preserving the disintegrating brain and a sense of dignity.

Jo observes her mother Willa’s descent into unreality with a restraint that is masterly. In a sense, all the other inter-family upheavals are a side show to the devastating main game. In its lucidity and poignancy, Woollard’s tale calls to mind William Styron’s Darkness Visible in which he describes his real-life battle with depression.

If you read no other book this year, let it be this. It is too satisfying to overlook.

BOY ON A WIRE

by Jon Doust

Fremantle Press, 236pp, $24.95

reviewed by Jo Donnellan

 

Jon Doust is well known in Western Australia as an amusing speaker of wiry physique, his low-key anecdotal style reminiscent of Garrison Keilor with a touch of Walter Mitty. He is perhaps lesser known as a writer.

His first serious novel, ‘Boy on a Wire’, telling of the adolescent years of the boy Jack Muir, reveals the author’s depth and passion. It is the story of a child whose clear Christian ethic and blazing sense of justice are confounded by his family, his peers and by his Christian boarding school. Most of the characters are composites*, yet the story is evidently based on experience.

Why was it written? As a personal catharsis, or to reveal the dark side of a particular school system, or to acknowledge those who sank beneath the weight of the system, as well as those who survived? The dedication reads ‘For all those boys who carried their scars into manhood’.

Notwithstanding some very funny passages, the predominant mood of the book is dark. Themes of cruel oppression, injustice and disillusion run through it. There are beatings and fights, and persecution both physical and spiritual.

The cover design shows the back view of a young man standing on top of a stone column above a grey rippling ocean. The man is dressed for cold weather. It is a lonely image.

Doust uses the first person, present tense throughout, giving immediacy to the narrative. His graceful English is without tricks or crudity: minimal slang is used, even in dialogue. Only the foreign accent of a particular character is indicated phonetically.

Parallel with the action run Jack’s intense interior monologues and conversations with God, providing important windows into his inner self.

* Probably the only character given his real name is Tom Brittain, a Manjimup forester, a handsome quiet man of towering physique: a man who revered the majestic timber of the south-west forests. The log chop at the local show was his event. A master of his craft, he made it look easy.

 

Jack enjoys chopping wood and visualises ‘Big Tom Brittain swinging from the hips in slow perfect movements and dismantling huge logs of the hardest wood on Planet Earth.’ Images of Big Tom Brittain’s rhythm and contained strength recur in Jack’s mind at moments of threat and confusion at boarding school.

*

The novel is set in the nineteen sixties in a farming and timber town in south-west Western Australia and in a Perth city boarding school. Jack’s practical, unimaginative father is a shopkeeper. His mother, emotionally volatile yet submissive, is a churchgoer who teaches Jack a strict system of truthfulness and respect. The parents produce two contrasting offspring. Unlike his stolid, capable elder brother Thomas, Jack is sensitive, witty, volatile, not to be trusted with machinery, and an indifferent scholar. His parents ascribe his shortcomings to a medical condition:

He’s often irritable, Doctor, and his teacher worries about him…his face is often very red. Do you think it’s the pinks disease?

 

What is it, Doctor, I ask, the pinks disease?

 

It’s all right Mrs Muir. It’s time he knew. Pinks disease, acrodynia, is mercury poisoning, son. When you were a baby you had all the symptoms: peeling skin, rashes, pink scalp, irritability and respiratory distress.

 

How did I get it?

 

We’re not sure, but a lot of baby products had mercury in them and some babies were very sensitive to it, but not all. Clearly your brother Thomas wasn’t.

 

And that is that. The doctor gives me some medication, confirms that some doctors believe salt will help.

Embedded in this passage is the disturbing idea that his parents may have inadvertently poisoned him.

Salt becomes a recurring element. In moments of exasperation, trying to cool his hot head, Jack licks salt from his palm. His father, making indirect reference to his inadequacies, constantly reminds him to eat plenty of salt. Later Jack becomes expert at surfing in the salty ocean.

Lists are another recurring motif. His father makes daily detailed lists of prosaic tasks he and his sons must do. At boarding school Jack makes a more potent list, of five bullies to be paid back. At the back of the book another list outlines the eventual fates of the main characters.

Birds are significant. The story opens with Thomas shooting parrots. The difference between the brothers is revealed by Thomas’ impassive efficiency, while Jack anxiously questions their right to destroy life.

Perversely Jack shoots one of his mother’s favourite small birds. Afterwards he tussles with the notions of Satan’s power within him, and of God’s avenging wrath.

A new boarder at secondary school, he is shocked and frightened by an unjustified beating from a housemaster. Bewildered, naked and in pain, he recalls the image of a small bird he once saw clinging to an overhead power line in a storm, blown about helplessly until it flew off to the shelter of a big old tree. For Jack there is no tree, no haven in this so-called godly school. He remains the ‘Boy on a Wire’.

During a tortured adolescent phase he kills and burns a crow, carelessly starting a bushfire. (In a forest region this is a serious offence). His father’s scornful rejection completes his sense of desolation.

*

Jack struggles to explain man’s inhumanity to man. In his childish mind the issues are clear and God’s silence is inexplicable. The mystery of God’s silence in the face of wrongdoing pervades the book.

The injustice of his parents’ favouritism galls him. Brotherly friendship is impossible due as much to his parents’ attitude as to the gulf between the sensibilities of the two boys. Events burden Jack with an uneasy mix of anger, guilt and protectiveness towards Thomas.

At Grammar School not only are the masters unpredictably violent; the bigger boys bully the smaller, newer ones. Jack’s intense feeling for integrity and fair play is outraged by the hypocrisy of the authorities and by the cowardly brutality of the bullies.

Throughout the book runs a thread of sexual persecution.

The local butcher takes liberties with married women on social occasions and to Jack’s dismay nobody challenges him. At primary school a teacher ogles the female students and Jack fumes hotly at the crassness of the man.

Jack’s mother suffers a troubled relationship with her father. Obliquely the cause of her bowed spirit and her unstable temperament is linked to some form of paternal oppression.

At boarding school each new boarder is ritually subjected to crude and painful indignities. A vulnerable boy is traumatised by this treatment. Jack divines the boy’s deep shame and sexual confusion. He makes it his solemn mission to avenge the boy’s suffering.

With all his strength Jack manages to resist an ambush by a group of older boys who would drag him behind closed doors for ugly purposes. He escapes at the cost of a thorough bruising.

A distraught young boy confides in him after an incident of interference by a stranger. Jack manages by means of quiet sympathy, respect, and a touch of humour, to comfort and restore the boy. It is a redemptive moment, described with consummate sureness.

*

Slowly Jack finds a way of being. His elder brother moves on. He counts down the list of bullies he has vowed to humble. He discovers girls. Unofficial rites of passage involving drink, and the law, take place. He opens up a rapport with his father. Jack’s relationship with God alters and his ties to the church loosen. Jack Muir has learned to take life with a grain of salt. He will survive to ‘carry his scars into manhood’.

*

Doust’s writing is powerful in its unpretentiousness. The spareness of his prose allows the content full impact. Skilful understatement in the telling adds drollery to the humorous passages. The author takes us deep into the tender, idealistic heart of the child Jack Muir. This is sincerely felt storytelling accomplished with a light but compelling touch.

JD, Perth, August 2009


Perth Modern School The History and the Heritage

Perth Modern School

Perth Modern School

583pp SC with companion CD
The Sphinx Foundation

$49-95 plus postage

Reviewed by Neville Cohn

Having reviewed too many histories of this or that state school while working in a distant outpost of Empire, the prospect of wading through yet another dust-dry chronicle was less than inviting. Would this be yet another blameless but cosmically tedious recital by well-intentioned worthies? Was this yet another school history destined to be given away as prizes on Speech Night or to gather dust on the neglected upper shelves of school libraries – or to suffer the indignity of being remaindered at knockdown prices at this or that local fete? I quailed at the prospect, the more so on discovering that this was a book written by a committee.

In the event, I am happy to report that my concerns were groundless. This dissertation on Perth Modern is that rarity, a school history that makes for frankly fascinating reading. Although inevitably (because of its numerous contributors) there is little uniformity of style, the book is put together in so skilled a fashion that making a way through its almost 600 pages became a pleasure rather than a chore.

Its alumni are a rollcall of distinction: at random, Bob Hawke (among 14 Rhodes Scholars), John Stone (former Head of Treasury who remembers the excellence of teaching at PMS), Nugget Coombs, Max Newton (foundation editor of The Australian), Peter Douglas (who was instrumental in introducing credit cards to Australia), leaders in law, commerce, science. the arts, diplomacy. There are lists in abundance and for the most part those on them have done themselves, their community – and their country – proud.

From a musical perspective, PMS has produced any number of graduates who have gone on to notable careers in W.A. and the wider world. They include, in no particular order, Jenny Coleman (trumpet), Victor Sangiorgio (piano), Emma Lysons Matthews (soprano), Phillip Murray (flute and voice), Gregory Yurisich (baritone), Alison Eddington (percussion), Simone de Haan (trombone), Geoffrey Michaels (violin) and Ian Westrip (choral trainer). PMS is also now the home of the Graduate College of Dance.

What comes across vividly time and again is how relevant Perth Modern has remained, and with what practicality – and compassion – in time of war as well as peace, it has welcomed children, refugees perhaps, with little or no English and cultural backgrounds that might often be exotic and barely known locally. This, running like a golden thread through the book, is surely the supreme achievement of PMS. Certainly, the sensible and sensitive approach its various stewards over time have brought to bear on the life of its community within a community, makes it a national treasure that is yet, perhaps, to receive its full recognition.

No less impressive is how resilient and adaptable PMS has remained in the face of sometimes inconsistent, insensitive or frankly foolish guidelines laid down by the education bureaucracy of the day – and how dedicated and imaginative most of its teachers have been across the century of its existence.

There are abundant and fascinating pen pictures of the school’s more colourful teachers such as Mr Greenhill “for singing, natty oldish wisp of a man belting out sea shanties” and “muscular Miss Arthur of the dreaded gym class”.

Nostalgia, that yearning for days that will never return and which invariably seem better now than they were, in fact, radiates from its pages. If many of these recollections are touching to this reader whose school days were spent in another country, they must surely have made many a PMS alumnus misty-eyed. The book abounds in students’ recollections of chums.

This inspired use of memories (which is one of the most striking of the history’s features) elevates the book to a special category of excellence, bringing the past lucidly to life. Lavish laurels to those who would presumably have had an avalanche of yarns to sift through; it’s a labour that has borne fascinating fruit.

There are absorbing insights into what it meant to teach at PMS through the decades, not least Mary Straiton’s beautifully written memoir about communicating with refugee Vietnamese children in mathematics classes.

Bearing in mind how we are nowadays exhorted to be alert to terror plots, the recollections of Lieutenant-General L.G. O’Donnell (a PMS student from 1946 to 1950) about school army cadets travelling to and from PMS across the metropolitan area in buses, trains or on bicycles while carrying their rifles over their shoulders make intriguing reading. The imagination boggles at how today’s constabulary would react to such a sight now.

In 1988, then-minister for education Bob Pearce told a conference of education bureaucrats that by the end of the year, seventy per cent of them would be out of a job, prompting Warren Louden, then Director-General of Education to remark that, with this put into effect, 1,200 years of experience had been lost.

The book speaks with a sure, strong, confident voice. To have incorporated so many pertinent, revelatory, fond and often very moving reflections on the part of its old boys and girls gives an unusually vivid insight into a remarkable educational institution.

The overall quality of the writing is excellent. A myriad recollections and vignettes cause the book to flash into life. It should be required reading for anyone embarking on a similar enterprise.

This book can be purchased from Perth Modern School, Roberts Road, Subiaco
Telephone (08) 9380 0555

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn


Race Against Time – The Diaries of F.S.Kelly Edited by Therese Radic

Reviewed by Neville Cohn

National Library of Australia SC

$29.95

2006

Does the name F.S.Kelly ring a bell? I confess it meant nothing to me; neither did it to 29 friends and colleagues I polled. None could place the name. Now, nothing so justifies the existence of the Australia’s National Library in Canberra as publishing a book of this nature. The edited diaries of Kelly are significant in the arts as well as the sports history of Australia – and Britain for that matter.

So far as I can establish, there exist no recordings of Kelly, a pianist as well as a composer and gold-medal winning Olympian. Rescuing him – and his diaries – from oblivion is timely, not least for drawing attention to his skill as a sportsman, winning gold for rowing for England on the Thames at Henley at the London Games of 1908.

Most of Kelly’s diaries cover his time in the U.K. at the height of Britain’s Imperial power, a time when Brittania really ruled the waves. There are vivid descriptions of upper class Edwardian society in which Kelly moved – a milieu that, with blurring of class distinctions and the collapse of Empire, has almost completely vanished. It was a societal stratum into which Kelly fitted neatly via immense inherited wealth, excellent connections (which reached up as far as 10 Downing Street), considerable physical charm and, I dare say, a very good tailor.

It was a life of ease: lunch at the Savoy, golfing or croquet weekends at the country seat of Lady this or Sir that, ownership of a chauffeured car (a most significant and unusual asset at the dawn of motoring history) and an existence utterly devoid of financial anxieties (his Sydney-based father died leaving in excess of 250,000 pounds sterling, a fortune in 1901(OK))

Kelly’s fastidious entries leave one with the impression of a man to whom a sense of order was paramount – details of concert programs heard are recorded in meticulous detail as are his practice times. The same could be said of fastidious attention to the recording of rowers, their names, weights and other sporting detail.

But whether so intended or otherwise, his diary entries leave one with an impression that hardens into a belief that Kelly was something of a cold fish, a man free – or perhaps more accurately, incapable – of deep emotional involvement. This might, of course, have been, if only in part, a striving to identify with Edwardian high society for whom the concept of stiff upper lip and never showing strong emotion in public was de rigueur. Again, even the briefest of piano recordings by Kelly would have thrown light on his emotional range.

In their absence, we have the elegant but cruel reviews of his concerts which appeared in The Times, London. They strongly suggest a musician of serious purpose, controlled and carefully prepared – but lacking passionate involvement. One is irresistibly drawn to the thought that had Kelly experienced some of the vicissitudes of life (of which he was singularly free until sucked into the murder mill that was World War I), his playing might have had more depth to it.

Kelly’s diaries give us insight into the astounding vitality and variety of London’s arts life in the Edwardian era. Kelly writes, for instance, about listening to Saint Saens performing 4 Mozart concertos in a single evening, attending performances by ballet demi-god Nijinsky, of hearing Paderewski. And on a night that Kelly gives a recital in London, he competes with Brahms’ Requiem at Westminster Abbey, Wagner’s Gotterdammerung at Covent Garden and a recital by Casals.

Stellar names flit through the diaries’ pages ­ the great violinist Jelly(OK) Aranyi, Donald Francis Tovey (best remembered nowadays for his editing of Beethoven’s piano sonatas), composer Roger Quilter, politician Arthur Balfour. Kelly hears Debussy playing his own Preludes and believes he could do a better job of it!

On returning to Sydney in 1911, he finds common cause with those who rail against the rape of the bush for crass commercial purposes. He comments that the ‘ubiquitous villa is springing up all over’ Belleview Hill. And he notes, as if it were something he’d not encountered before, that “Surf bathing has recently become a very popular amusement in Sydney”.

Despite Sydney’s remoteness from European and American music centres, Kelly records an often lively local music scene. Here, too, he moves in high society, visiting an ailing Prince Leopold of Battenberg and dining at Government House.

Back in England when war breaks out in 1914, the ever-well-connected Kelly, instead of calling at the nearest recruiting office, visits 10 Downing Street to take advice on which branch of the military to apply for.

In uniform, he meets poet Rupert Brooke. They are on the same ship steaming to war. Brooke visits Kelly’s cabin at night. Days later, as Brooke lies dying, not of war wounds, but of septicaemia following a mosquito bite, Kelly sits nearby writing the first draft of his Elegy in memory of his dying friend. If there’s an attraction or intimacy, the diaries reveal nothing. All he writes is:”The events of today made a deep impression on me”.

Kelly attends Brooke’s funeral on a small Greek island and afterwards painstakingly copies the contents of the poet’s notebook on case it fails to reach England intact.

Kelly survives Gallipoli only to die in the battle of the Somme leading a ‘gallant and successful attack on a machine-gun emplacement”.

Hopefully, publication of these diaries, meticulously edited by Therese Radic (whose introduction is a model of its kind) will spark interest and performance (perhaps on compact disc) of some of Kelly’s compositions.

Copyright Neville Cohn