‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

The Pull of the Stars

Emma Donohue is an amazingly prolific writer (of all kinds) with a strong academic background. Her reach and range are quite amazing. Typically, she presents as bisexual…

‘When I think about how embarrassed and sheepish so many gay people felt around 1990, it’s unrecognizable. I’ve ended up having a family [Donoghue has two children with her partner Chris] as well as being a lesbian – when I was younger I really thought it would be one or the other.’

Emma Donoghue says she developed an interest in the Great Influenza in 2018 as the 100th anniversary approached. That is the kind of prescience shared by ‘The End of October’ but without the sci-fi drama and bedded in total realism that pulls in so many issues of that time that continue to be working today.  She has produced something eminently readable though with substantial challenges for some. For me, the book generated a lot of introspection about time and place. My parents were born in 1906 and 1909 in rural locations and I had never given much thought about their birthing. I am a family historian and am aware of a grouping of deaths of older family members in 1919. Dealing with the detailed treatment of childbirth took me back to my Mother’s copy of ‘The Home Physician’ (1930) which was big on so much of the treatments Donoghue presents especially those poultices and my childhood memories of chloroform. It makes this reader think about the advances every twenty years of my life have brought – some lifesaving for me. The reference to the difficulty of defeating the combination of viral flu and bacterial pneumonia is stark against the imminent Covid 19 vaccination program and its speedy development.

The focus of this three day (and night) story is Nurse Julia Porter. She is young (twenties) as well trained as the time permitted, a mixture of traditional Irish culture (religion), a respect for learning and science, and aware of her thoughtful position in a country torn by political strife and now a plague. Donoghue skilfully draws in a series of characters that represent different experiences and backgrounds and crams then largely into a narrow frame of time and place – an inner-city hospital dealing with its usual business plus the often interacting effects of the Spanish Flu.

The other two main characters are Dr. Lynn, a real life Sinn Fein rebel doctor who devoted her life to mother and infant care. She represents a modern, changing, scientific view on life and medical practice and highlights the problems of dealing with a somewhat rigid medical world dominated by men, strict hierarchies, and religious encrustation.  The other is Bridie Sweeny who appears at the door as a volunteer from a nearby Catholic home (she has been institutionalised all her life). She rapidly learns from Julia how to be a help both in menial tasks and some medical procedures, even anticipating them. She represents an almost innocent goodness that soon creates a bond with Julia against the background of the heaving life and death incidents that occur on their tiny stage. There is another character, Julia’s returned soldier brother Tim who has been rendered mute. He has little to do with the story detail and mainly stands as a symbol for the damage done in Irish society by all kinds of conflict.

This tiny space in which Julia works can only accommodate three women who simultaneously are birthing and dealing with the flu. Each come from different backgrounds that represent marital and social problems but most clearly the dead hand of ‘the pipe’, the system of public care dominated by the Catholic church which delivered services for which it was paid but also a range of behaviours and outcomes that it is now known were marked by insufferably harsh behaviours. The author is careful to balance this care and with good and thoughtful actions that come to a final crisis in the last pages dealing with young Barnabas.

This is a somewhat extreme book in some respects that may be off-putting. Readers are present at all aspects of three births and in great detail. I, like most men, have only the sketchiest knowledge of what happens and probably squeamish to boot. However, I am grateful for what I learned from this book about the process in general and what can go horribly wrong as well as the endurance of mothers and their carers.

There may be some who might argue that the plot and speed of development are extreme which might be a little true of Julia’s decision making but not of what happens in that tiny ‘ward’. Donoghue appears to have had lesbian experiences but is married with two children and this appears to seep into this story. As Dr. Lynn pretty clearly is unabashedly so with her determinedly masculine clothing while Julia finds herself finding emotional satisfaction, at least, in her speedy relationship with young Bridie. Most of the relationship material concerns future possibilities after the flu recedes. The only question is who will be there to take their part in the momentous events that have since shaken Irish society.

Not great but very good indeed, easy to read, compelling, and fulfilling.

BCC Library has 50 copies,  audio book, eBook, mp3

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‘Jazz Moon’ by Joe Okonkwo, 2016.

A review by John Cook.

Pardon a touch of obscurantism, but my personal view of this book has been overshadowed by my love of  French baroque opera specifically Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau in the aria ‘The Flowers’. This was very much a dance and musical response to contact with the American Indians and the Rousseau concept of the noble savage. There is also the life of the remarkable Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, son of a slave on Guadeloupe who captivated Paris before and after the revolution, felt the bite of racism and threw in his hat (and sword) with the revolution. This book focusses strongly on racism (especially blacks) homosexual discrimination and miscegenation. Paris, France is seen by those distant as a safe harbour away from racism and acceptance of black artistry. But is it always so?

The book gives a clear and sometimes startling view of the 1920’s Jim Crow life of the Southern US states (you won’t forget the lynching in a hurry), the traditional escape to the Northern States (New York), and a new pattern of restrictions in employment and housing with the only release being the nightlife and jazz of the alcohol and drug-soaked speakeasies of Harlem.

Ben Charles fits neatly into this pattern except he has acquired literary desires (poetry) and a growing awareness of a ‘thing’ that is driving him toward feelings and desires for men. He has a wife who escaped with him at 15 from the South, work (obsequious table-waiting for him, beauty parlour for Evangeline), and a family life with occasional excursions into the Harlem jazz life. However, the ‘thing’ won’t let him go and keeps on pushing into his awareness which is quite skillfully presented by Okonkwo with glimpses of clothing, manners, etc that make the reader very aware of power relationships. This is seen in the rich white man he regularly serves at the hotel and his ‘partners’ and in more sexually based situations especially with the trumpet virtuoso Baby Back. This meshing opens the door for long detailed descriptions of jazz music which may not be to the taste of all readers.

Baby Back also has a backstory – an uncle who made it to Paris but returned to South Carolina, ultimate indignity and death passing on the fairy tale view of the wonders of life in Paris where blacks were accepted and often honoured. BB has the musical talent much valued and wanted in the jazz joints of the day and is open to suggestion by someone who can offer him a gig in Paris. Ben, who is enamoured by BB’s large physical and sexual persona is severely tempted but has to determine his relationship with Evangeline. Without spoiling, the reader gets a clear picture of Ben’s weakness at this point which doesn’t mend until the conclusion.

The author paints some good pictures of physical and social life in Harlem, on an ocean liner to Paris and later in and around that city. I found the tone of the writing a little odd. I understand the author was writing of the past and wanted to include the mood and feeling of the time as Ben experiences it. However, there is a clumsiness that was present mostly early, less so later. As Ben is a poet, there are frequent quotes from him illustrating his feelings and responses. I only occasionally found this of much interest or illumination. The other thing I found a little odd was the speed with which Ben acquired vernacular French. He must have had quite an aptitude for it. At least he reminded me of the French for ‘kitten’.

Inevitably, Paris is a very mixed situation with BB doing very well while his relationship with Ben comes under increasing strain as his literary output fails to be recognized. A range of Parisian characters are introduced and time spent on Ben’s favoured locations around Montmartre and Pigalle, with the steps of the Sacre Coeur as his ‘thinking spot’. We are treated to descriptions of the ‘life Boheme’ of the time with exciting hysterical highs and the depths of despair including an opium den.

This is, of course, basically a love story, finding it, losing it, feeling it, all kinds of pleasure, sentiment and pain though things to rather peter out at the conclusion with at least one linkage left very much up in the air.

I really did find the racial issue the main interest for me, enlightening in its being experienced, used as a power play, and as a social phenomenon that creates fears, hopes, disillusion, and sometimes self-realization. The famous black dancer Josephine Baker comes up for regular mention as does the interpretation of Jazz as being ‘primitive’ (whatever that may be taken to mean).

Not a great read but one that offers some valuable insights.

BCC Library has 4 copies.

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‘The Death of Vivek Oji’ by Akwaeke Emezi, 2019, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

I say wonderful simplicity. Simplicity because the prose is so easy to read and absorb – even when the occasional local word or expression is employed. Wonderful because this was one of the most enjoyable books I have had in my hands for some time. It has so much to offer in its interest, emotional engagement, and moral questions. I enjoy a book that takes me out of my comfort zone and this one set in small-town modern Nigeria highlights differences in understanding between age groups, cultures, class and social settings, gender and, of course, change.

The title character, Vivek Oji, is found dead with head injuries wrapped in cloth on his home doorstep.

‘the length of his body stretched out on their front veranda … the back of his skull … broken and seeping into their welcome mat’,

We are promptly plunged into an extended family and friends dynamic that centres around Vivek’s parents, Chika (father), and Kavita (his Indian mother). His Aunt Mary, her husband, and son Ostia. They are descended from a common grandmother who lived and died in a more traditional farmland setting.  Vivek is very close to her and has a physical link in the form of an identical ‘soft starfish’ scar under his foot.

The family has moved into a more Westernised business-oriented way of life but the threads of traditional ways of thinking and acting are mixed with social-political pressures (Northern Nigeria and Muslim terrorists) and their local consequences in mob activity and ‘necklacing’. One further element that intrudes is the impact of Christianity and especially fundamentalism. The amount of multi-culturalism in this location was surprising, especially in the form of a group of immigrant wives who move and respond almost like a chorus – the Nigerwives. It is fair to say that the female elements in this story are largely stronger and more effective than the men which is not surprising when considering the traditional role of Nigerian women as marketers and businesswomen.

Three elements from this book will remain with me for a long time. One was the treatment of blood in associations with Vivek’s death and funeral, the descriptions of his interment alongside his grandmother, and the jewel-like tale of Ebenezer and Chisom which had the feel of Chaucer and Boccacio.

The book is organised with a continuing narration with occasional inputs from the now-dead Vivek and his cousin Ostia. This worked remarkably well especially toward the end as a lot of the incidental clues are orchestrated into a final revelation. Keep an eye out for Vivek’s change in naming and gender pronouns (he (Oji) and she (Nnemdi)). There are a number of images that are cleverly interwoven with events that are signaled quietly without any indication of their future significance such as his silver chain necklace ..

‘placing one of the necklaces against his sternum, over his silver chain, clipping his ears with the earrings … so beautiful he made the air around him dull’

The main interest in the story is who Vivek was, how he lived his life and the apparent mystery of his death and deposition on his parents’ doorstep. He was born unpropitiously at the time of his grandmother’s death and his behaviours as he grows are seen by others as increasingly strange. This is initially explicable as he is subject to fitting (petit mal). However,  his increasing withdrawal and changes signalled by growing his hair very long (dangerously non-masculine) and his association with his female cousins lead to more and more isolation and deepening concerns from his mother who only wants a conventional life and successes for her son. This is not happening and she is constantly searching for ways to change things but, until too late, lacks the capacity to truly understand him.

Given that he kept so much of himself internal and hidden, it is not surprising that other voices do not see and feel the real Vivek which helps to maintain the tension about how others react to him (exorcism through to assault with bottles) until the truth begins to gradually seep through. I feel most readers will gradually sense a greater identification with him and understanding of his life and manner of death. Vivek is not always a totally sympathetic character and could be irritating to know with sudden bursts of behaviour such as the one that led to his demise.

This is a clever, sensitive beautifully written book that was a joy to read, to try to incorporate its message, and to absorb its emotional load.

BCC Library has 10 copies, 1 ebook

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‘The Seventh of December: The Czarina’s Necklace’ by Garrick Jones, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

Sadly, the BCC library does not hold any of Garrick Jones’ books. I have reported to this blog on two of them, ‘Australia’s Son’ and ‘The Cricketer’s Arms’, of which I most enjoyed the latter. Jones’ work is eminently readable and fiercely  Australian in its orientation and usually very well researched. He is a semi-retired Music academic living in Queensland and most of his stories have a strong crime or mystery orientation.

This offering (mine was a revised second edition) was no exception. Think of the three musketeers (queen’s diamonds included), add in James Bond et al and a swathe of similar English boy’s own adventure heroes and you have a starting point. However, the protagonist, in this case, is a gay multi-talented Aussie who is an academic linguist, concert violinist, army trained spy, and killer who has moved from his rural Aussie background to the intelligence scene of London pre-war and is now in the middle of the blitz! Yes, while this can be a rattling good read, the reader has to be prepared to put aside the regular doses of extremely happy circumstances in his characters’ skill sets, abilities, and amazing happenstances (instant promotion to Lt Colonel by royal command). Mostly, I enjoyed it but occasionally my teeth rattled. This is Luc, a fifteen year old (safely straight) French resistance member ..

“He’d turned out to be the most proficient radio operator I’d come across in years. A combination of playing secret codes with his friends before the war, together with a keen mind, had led to him picking it up exceedingly quickly when he was still a child. His father had told me Luc had been obsessed with Morse code since he was eight when he’d read about it in one of Georges Simenon’s Commissar Maigret stories.”

There are a lot of mainly gay characters in this tale, some out, some coming out, and some straights who are amazingly supportive. Lest I forget, there is a veritable who’s who of the London scene at the time including a dinner party attended by Prince George (the then Duke of Kent) Louis Mountbatten, Ivor Novello, and the list goes on. Our hero, Tommy Haupner (fortuitous German background) is charged with several tasks in occupied France and other countries to assist the Resistance, rescue and repatriate downed airmen (including his twin brother and his boyfriend) but with the primary aim of reclaiming letters that incriminate the Duke of Windsor and a massive diamond necklace once the property of Queen Mary.

‘Over his shoulder, I noticed Heinrich expertly weaving and twirling around with the Duke of Kent, both of them chatting amiably. The surreal nature of the situation was somewhat heightened by the sound of the first air-raid sirens of the night and the sight of the Duke’s private secretary, who was keeping guard at the doors out onto the terrace, preserving our privacy.’

‘The duke sighed and rolled his eyes, a little theatrically, but with great humour, before introducing his companion. “Heinrich Reiter, Thomas Haupner, may I present my cousin, Louis Mountbatten?’

Any literate person should be able to see that there are many plotlines that are based on real characters and events (some in the ‘maybe’ basket) while Jones admits that his interest was piqued by a real person. He says ..

‘Morris “Moe” Berg was a premier league American baseball player, who not only spoke eleven languages, but graduated from Princeton University, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and in law from Columbia Law School. He was recruited by Billy Donovan (who you’ll meet in this story) and was sent to Zürich during the war to assess the progress of the Nazi’s atomic bomb development by attending a lecture by the famous physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Combat trained and licensed to kill, Berg was authorised to assassinate Heisenberg if he felt the Germans had already progressed far enough to make a viable nuclear weapon. Although there’s no remaining direct evidence, many historians believe that Berg was also gay.’

Oh, yes. In case I forgot, Tommy acquires an amazingly handsome, multi-skilled American lover (Henry Reiter) with whom he has to decide, through the thick and thin of clandestine action, whether he truly loves this man and will want to be as partnered as the times then permitted them. Jones says that he is going to continue this character in future stories and with D-day still in the future, there is plenty to explore.

While I became aware that this is an introductory book, I did find it a little slow to develop as there were a slew of characters who had to be introduced and a lot of background material to be included. I was wondering when things might step away from a pretty glamorous lifestyle when Jones employed a blitz incident that grounded things well. Even there, while very well emotionally toned, there is an occasional sense of what some might feel is burdensome detail. Later events are similarly handled but given that the second half of the book does have plenty of incidents, I thought that this kind of offering was never attained again.

The internal and spoken dialogues between Tommy and Henry were at times lengthy but well oriented toward contemporary experiences and problems of gay relationships. A warning for music lovers, there are quite a few music references, mostly classical, but occasionally contemporary. They should be tolerable for non-music lovers and do add colour to the story-telling. All told a good read once again for something relatively light but with darker and more thoughtful moral elements as well.

(BCC Library has 0 copies)

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‘The Last Lighthouse Keeper’ by John Cook and Jon Bauer, 2020.

A review by John Cook (not the author!)

I was attracted to this book by the obvious (same name as the author), familiarity with the Tasman peninsula (regular visitor for many years and have sailed along the West Coast and around Tasman Island), and, perhaps, those childhood memories of Grace Darling (look it up young’uns!).

It turned out to be a mixed offering from John Cook and Jon Bauer. This is neither a direct memoir nor a novel, rather a sometimes peculiar blend that some readers might regret. Cook is now 85 and suffering Parkinson’s disease (all that mercury used in the lighthouses to support the light) and says that he wants the book to pass on to his children. There are elements within it that ring very true that have been blended with material that sometimes feels less so. Perhaps his publishers were unsure that sticking to the straightforward memoir material would be enough, perhaps it needed to be ‘goosed’. It does make it less clear what to celebrate or find less enjoyable.

Cook has the credits for his long service of 26 years from 1968 on a series of difficult locations (some extremely so) at a time when issues of service in isolation were very real. Some were to the point of being life-threatening while the sheer toil of all aspects of daily life and maintenance in a candle and kerosene environment was very onerous. On the other hand, there were also advantages for men (and women and children) who could not just tolerate the extremes of isolation and prolonged vicious weather but find comfort and pleasure in their routines, daily lifestyles, and a closeness to all aspects of their challenging environment.

Cook and/or Bauer is at his best when conveying this. For the isolated personnel, there are problems in dealing with interpersonal relations and a remote employing authority but these are well leavened by descriptions of all aspects of their remote cocoon ranging from the geology, landscape, all animals (wild and domesticated) and always the wind, all aspects of the sea environment, and the constantly changing sky. There are some very fine moments when Cook is in tune with his environment and not only conveys his experiences of something as small as tiny plant life to a mystic encounter with a blue whale (what luck!). I identified with him on the found merits of relative isolation which I have experienced briefly in the outback when it comes to an increased awareness of all aspects of one’s environment when not continually being assaulted by the sight and sound pollution of much urban life.

He has a clear but balanced view of the relationship between human and animal life (including those farmed) and shows great sensitivity toward household animals and wounded wild birds as an honorary ranger. This, for me, made his bringing an orphaned joey onto Tasman Island confusing. Granted it happened a long time ago and Tasmania has got to be the roadkill capital of the world, but there have always been wildlife carers, I found this part of the story sad, perhaps unnecessary.

This probably points toward aspects of the story that some reads might find jarring. The story tells us a lot about the keeper, his family background, and changing marital status. He presents as another of we flawed humans but his decisions (and processes) are sometimes questionable, erratic, and dangerous (the night time visit to his children). His relations with other keepers are also difficult though it must be agreed that not all were-suited to their employment and demon grog was always present. The occasional encounters with supernatural people or forces were quite acceptable. The Tasman peninsula is riddled with ghosts – try the night ghost tour at Port Arthur. I have to doubt my valour in knocking out one of my teeth with a chisel, but I guess pain can lead to anything.

Cook began his service at Eddystone Point on the north-east tip of Tasmania before his Southern experiences on Tasman and Maatsuyker Islands, then Bruny. Like most Australians when touring, I am always attracted to a lighthouse whether it be Macquarie Lighthouse in Sydney, Bustard Head, Lady Elliot, Cape Willoughby, or Cape Leeuwin. The list is very long indeed. Travellers are always drawn to their often beautiful and romantic locations, the grandeur of the buildings, and the romance of their operation. This book offers a supplement to a lot of those attractions while also presenting something of a romantic antidote – beware what you wish for or idolise!

The change to electrification was, of course, inevitable also the possibility of the sites being largely unmanned. We can only hope that what has been put in place is truly fail-safe in times of danger compared with the valiant efforts of dedicated keepers (not those who were on the grog and slept in or simply refused duty).

Whatever bonds he has forged in his life, Cook says that he wants his ashes to return to Maatsuyker just as some of us also want to just finally ‘go to sea’. Amen to that.

(BCC library 25 copies, 1 ebook, 25 holds)

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‘Rooted’ by Amanda Laugesen, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

Whether you swear or not, or more or less frequently, it is impossible not to be aware of this behaviour in Australian daily life and culture.  I am probably average in that I heard almost none in my childhood home as I was living with my great grandmother who was a very proper lady, my mother, my sister, and one older brother until my father returned from WWII. I acquired some words at primary school and from my male cousins but had a crash course at a cadet camp (‘Ivan Skavinsky Skavar’ of fame, and ‘The Bastard from the Bush’ or ‘The Captain of the Push’ – by Lawson?). This was followed immediately by a spell in an army camp base hospital where the ‘conversation’ after lights out was quite a revelation. To this day, I rarely swear except under duress and on the road (who doesn’t?) and take the view that overuse and repetitious use is boring and verbal laziness. I have a friend who comes from the Serbo-Croatian tradition who informed me that in that culture swearing is quite vile especially when referring to mothers and family. Likewise, I am aware that the Arabic tradition is for elaborated, prolonged (almost poetic) expressions.

Amanda Laugesen is an historian, writer, and lexicographer, Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the ANU, and Chief Editor of the Australian National Dictionary,  so this is no brief sensationalist piece suitable for a popular magazine. The extensive Bibliography, Notes, and Index are testamentary to her skills and knowledge. Don’t expect lots of grubby extracts though she doesn’t shrink from examining the usual offenders. Researching this topic has its difficulties as there are only written records from the past and the author has mined a range of media, court documents, and letters for her material. There is quite a lot of humour throughout the book including an hilarious exchange between a first nations woman and a magistrate as to ‘vagina’ being ‘the flash word for ‘c**t’ ‘ –  a wonderful reversal from convict ‘flash’ talk. And yes, I just did what so many have done in print – dodge the issue with asterisks. I will not attempt to summarise the range of terms presented and discussed. If you are interested, dive in with ‘bloody’ ‘damn’ etc, and see where you end up.

Australia has a long tradition of swearing and otherwise foul language use. It certainly arrived with the first ships and their passengers, willing and unwilling, all with their long traditions as ordinary working folk, crims, cockneys, and military and naval personnel. The author makes it clear that the Aboriginal people at that time also had a tradition in this respect, which was modified with contact. So, Australia was off to a good start. From the beginning, foul language provided authority with an avenue for control especially once the religious established themselves (sometimes as both clergy and magistrate). This was then supplemented as a middle class was established with the overlay of high Victorian double standards. Throughout, Laugesen argues, probably correctly, that this kind of language is always closely related to power issues in our society and relationships and this is important to keep in mind.

Some of the key events of the last 200 years, especially the gold rushes and the growth of rural and pastoral life saw the growth of literary traditions that proclaimed both the ‘high’ and ‘low’ of everyday life with elements like the bush ballad joining the two and often having low and high-brow forms that linked the respectable and the more direct, outspoken and often bawdy.

The other key historical episodes that had a similar effect were the two World Wars and the Depression. Each of these provided both cause and opportunity for expressions of anger and disappointment to be memorialised in an evolving tradition of swearing, though often conservative in retaining elements of the past. We also need to be reminded that this has not always been a facet of male behaviour whether larrikin or club man. Female swearing is relatively hard to find in the past but the ubiquity of mobile phone recording has corrected that imbalance.

Towards the end of the book, the author looks at more recent developments especially all kinds of liberation movements and their public and printed expressions vying to overcome the wowserism and suppression of the 1950s and earlier, book banning and obscenity trials. The role of Barry Humphries as a collector of these expressions and their publication in text and film is acknowledged along with his creative touch in creating new material that has passed into everyday use. The role of the more generally defined media (post Internet), is examined along with pop music (that grating Hip Hop stuff) and the current crop of social media apps that have led to a new ‘flowering’ sometimes with dire mental health outcomes for those on the receiving end.

Homosexuality gets a short mention along with the tendency by it and other minority groups to often ‘own’ abusive terms and to make them a badge of identity and often pride. I have a good friend who is a long-term full-blown AIDS  survivor who was active in the local Positive People group who told me the story of a bus arriving to take out a group being greeted by a friend with ‘the bus is here for the infected bitches’!

It would certainly seem that these social media have provided a fertile ground for this kind of expression with all of its usual facets and most people are puzzled as to what the long-term implications may be for society and those who record and analyse our profanities. Certainly, it will continue to be used at all levels of society for all the usual reasons.

BCC Library has 6 copies, 24 holds

 

 

 

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‘Moonlite’ by Garry Linnell, 2020.

A Review by John Cook.

Like any good Aussie boy, I was raised with tales of bushrangers especially around Stanthorpe where Fred Ward (Captain Thunderbolt) had his hideout. Only with time and some deeper acquaintance with Australian history did I become more interested in the background of bushranging in Australia and some of its more colourful and notorious practitioners. In most cases, there has been a strong focus on the Kellys with plenty of books, films, and TV usually obscuring the depth of their story. I wrote a note for this blog in Nov 2011 on Evan McHugh’s ‘The Bushrangers’ which helped to put this to rights.

‘This work of McHugh’s is part of a more recent tendency to re-evaluate just who these men were and what brought them into their way of life. The answers are, of course, quite diverse depending on time (spanning roughly 100 years), place (the Tasmanian experience could be very different from that of the New England), and social and economic circumstances (once again the early Tasmanian context was very different from that of some young ‘flash’ currency lads who saw an opportunity for fame (celebrity?) and perhaps riches) and finally that of mental health and social integration (ranging from the madness of Jeffries the monster ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan to the pseudo-gentility of  Thunderbolt and Moonlight).’

I must confess that working on my family tree also brought me closer to this phenomenon when I found that a GGGG Grandfather of mine and his son were involved closely in fighting the original bushrangers in Van Diemen’s Land in 1813-14 (Michael Howe). Also, his grandson, John Isaac Tibbs was murdered as an infant in 1824 by a truly vicious individual (Thomas Jeffries) who captured his mother and bashed out the child’s brains against a tree as he would not stop crying.

Continuing that theme of more careful objective analysis, Gary Linnell has added to at least five other books on the subject of Captain Moonlite (apparently more accurate than ‘Moonlight’). This is not a truly scholarly effort but it is extremely thorough in engaging with a very wide range of sources (indexed and partially referenced) and a presentation that is journalistically readable (just occasionally a little too much so).

As a gay man, I was intrigued by the emergence of evidence twenty years ago of an intimate relationship between Andrew George Scott (Moonlite) and one of his five young ‘followers’ in his final escapade, James Nesbitt. They are pictured above. There were three others also involved in the final ‘gang’ the oldest being 20.

Linnell doesn’t offer a linear story but cuts in and out of its progression to counterpoint the tale with the men who had the ‘job’ of hanging those condemned to death and the emergence of a contemporary current opposing that penalty. He also fleshes out the detail of the Scott family’s progress from relative comfort in Ireland to much more straightened but decent circumstances in NZ. There is quite a lot of detail about Scott’s education, skills, and increasingly uneven and florid personality which Linnell guesses may have been strongly narcissistic and bipolar.

I found the presentation engaging and interesting as I followed the almost inevitable progress of an otherwise talented individual who had a talent for breaking out and doing the wrong thing and then rationalising his poor judgement usually in terms of what he saw as a point of honour. The tale covers territory across three states and the Pacific islands and many of the individuals and families who are part of his progress. This is especially so with the final attempt to find work across northern Victoria and across to the Murrumbidgee and the ‘shoot-out’ at McGlede’s farmhouse adjacent to Wantabadgery station. The denouement and subsequent court appearance are covered in detail leading to his execution aged 35 on his father’s birthday at Darlinghurst prison.

There are two main themes in this telling of the Moonlite story. One is the clash between the talents and personality traits of Scott which are more easily comprehended today but which would have been seen in a different light during his life. This makes him an interesting if a deeply frustrating character to consider in contemporary terms – so much loss for so little – and the intransigent difficulties confronting the poor and disadvantaged in colonial society.

The other, of course, has to be whether Moonlite and Nesbitt were truly gay lovers as that would be conceptualised today. That is an impossibility to plumb but the evidence indicates that their relationship surpassed the kind of ‘manly love’ and its expression that most of us are familiar with from that time. Scott’s desire to be close in all senses to Nesbitt even after their death to the grave and his understanding of the balance his calming presence brought to his more disturbed personality are indicated for the man and young man bound together by a lot more than circumstance and mutual interest. They were eventually re-united in Gundagai cemetery though not in the same grave as Nesbitts’ was unmarked.

I can recommend this as a good read (a little slow to get underway) that presents a rattling good tale, educates historically with balance and without preaching while giving gay readers something to understand and with which to, at least, sympathise.

ANDREW GEORGE SCOTT
CAPTAIN MOONLITE
BORN IRELAND 8-1-1845
DIED SYDNEY 20 -1-1880
As to a monumental stone, a rough unhewn rock
would be most fit, one that skilled hands could
have made into something better. It will be like
those it marks as kindness and charity could have
shaped us to better ends. 
                          Andrew George Scott
Laid to final rest
near his friends James Nesbitt and Augustus
Wernicke who lie in unmarked graves close by.
Gundagai 13-1-1995

BCC Library has 10 copies, 5 holds, 2 mp3, 2 holds

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‘Home Stretch’ by Graham Norton, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

How many times have I picked up a newspaper or heard from TV a report of a traffic accident involving several young people, frequently with deaths, disablement, and the anguished responses of friends and family? There is often some minor follow-up but such things often fade fast in our memories. Norton has quite cleverly chosen to use such an incident to look at the immediate consequences and the long-term influences on the lives of those directly involved, their families, and community.

‘There are moments in any life that are to be treasured, but only sometimes are they recognised as they happen. That was how the six people in the blue estate car felt that day. The windows down, an optimistic glow about the town, two of their number about to embark on a whole new life together. It felt special. This was not a day to be forgotten or confused with all the others.’

This story can be broken into roughly three components. There is the initial shocking incident involving six young locals which Norton sets in a small Irish semi-rural community, Mullinmore, near Cork in 1987. As so often occurs in our local incidents and the Facebook and newspaper reports that follow, there are deeply personal highlights. The group has been to the beach to relax before a wedding soon to take place.

The couple to be married and a bridesmaid die. The bridesmaid’s sister is rendered paraplegic. Also in the car were the glamorous son of the local Doctor, Martin Coulson, and Connor, the less glamorous barman son of a local pub owner. There’s the rub because it is Connor who volunteers to have been the driver of the car when it overturned on a local roundabout.  Because of a variety of circumstances, Connor is not to receive criminal charges.

Predictably, the responses of a variety of locals range from bitter anger to disappointment and fear. Norton spends some time at this stage acquainting the reader with the various families involved and their associations with others in the village. It becomes clear that there are complications that eventually move the increasingly isolated Connor to leave the Hayes family pub and head for the big smoke, leaving no trail of where he has gone. We become aware that another key character, his sister Ellen, will somewhat surprisingly marry handsome young Martin Coulson while the town slides into a kind of gradual amnesia except for Connor’s family.

This of course is Norton at his best. His ability to draw and colour such a group of Irish people with their locations and language that resonates so well.  That was his strength in ‘Holding’ which I very much enjoyed. The key part of its strength was that the storyline remained largely in the village. In this case, the storyline requires Norton to pursue Connor’s life over another 20 years, taking him to Dublin, London, and eventually New York. He also finds himself eventually in a long-term relationship with Tim, a wealthy older man who lives the high gay life of New York, Fire Island, and overseas. At the same time, life is continuing in Mullenmore with Ellen’s marriage to Martin falling into severe decline despite their producing two children.

It is one of these two, Finbarr, who provides a link between the home village where he achieves a degree of acceptance as a gay young man though he still departs town to further his interests in art and design and travel. In what has to be one of the weakest moments in the novel, he encounters his uncle Connor, who has broken up with Tim, in an almost pick-up situation in a seedy New York gay bar (yes, that is what we are offered).

Things are continuing to grow and change in Mullinmore and the moment is ripe for a return.

‘Sometimes she wondered about her brother. He had left under such a heavy blanket of shame, but there were times when she envied him. Whatever life he was living, at least it was his own. He wasn’t stuck in Mullinmore making choices based on what their parents wanted or what the neighbours might think.’

The return occurs with some exposures, revelations, and happy reunions paired with a rather unbelievable now-accepted gay wedding for Finbarr and his partner. Sister Ellen finds a new healthier pathway forward while Connor finds new peace and some fulfilment rather than being an emotional refugee.

This is a pleasant enough read with good colour and some emotional renderings. It tended to lose its way in the American interlude and never quite gathered emotional steam at the conclusion with something of a paean for Ireland’s progress as a more inclusive and open society. Is it really so? Also, I would have been more interested in Martin’s interior story.

(BCC library 36 copies, 75 holds)

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‘ITCH’ by Luke Evans, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

I selected this book thinking it would probably be another coming of age and coming out story. The author is a relatively young man who has the same name as a well-known British actor. So, if you were thinking of looking him up or Googling I am afraid you won’t find out too much. The book certainly makes up for that. Rarely does someone open up on such a scale, not just about the calendar details of their life but very much their inner thoughts, motivations, and self-evaluations – it certainly felt like the 30 years to which he refers.

 I can honestly say that I enjoyed some portions of the book particularly the elements of Evan’s life that led to his vocational pathway and present business orientation. From there, things are something of a mixed bag. The book is heavily oriented toward passing on what the author sees as the fruits of his experience in a direct personal sense in terms of his sexuality and coming out, and his progress through several related jobs leading to his current business activities, his relationships, and his sexuality. Finally there are his musings, personal research, and conclusions concerning his spiritual existence and almost a self-created religion.

The book is dominated by the author’s professed need to pass on the fruits of his experience in all these domains in a series of lessons and mantras.  Some people may find this helpful without being over directive in finding their way through the secrets of human growth and self-understanding. Others may be bored, offended, or simply largely disinterested. Without being over-limiting, I suspect this book may be of more use to the generation who, like Luke Evans, has just completed their 20s. It is at that point that many young gay and lesbian people encounter experiences and self-explanatory needs for which this may provide a partial framework. Beyond that, many readers will be put off or bored and will not proceed to the conclusion.

The initial portions of the book are largely as might be expected but increasingly so there is an air of Dale Carnegie echoes that begin to emerge and dominate the young man’s thinking and self-analysis. Evans seems to admit that while his coming out was patchy and with some painful moments, its experiences were not all that difficult especially in the working and social environment in which he found himself. He does give credit to those who came before him and laboured to make things a bit easier for this process. It is the constant leavening of self-promotion that some may find unpalatable.

‘Whether it is the relationship you have with yourself or your partner, the relationship you have with sex and your sexuality, the career you create in pursuit of a purpose, the experiences you have through travel, or the depths of your own spiritual being, it is up to you to seek more. So many of us sit idle in fear of what we do not understand, while the universe—God—offers us the opportunity to understand and develop ourselves further through different signs in life. It is our job to read them and follow the path. For those of us who have been comfortable with our sexuality for some time now, we need to make sure that we don’t become complacent in the search for our authentic self.’

The life story continues with some mildly interesting insights into life in the business world of the Middle East which seems to have gone pretty well for the author despite some of the regular stories of individuals being severely short-changed and even imprisoned over business issues in that environment. He believes he gradually finds his way to his métier through helping and organising others with a side interest in working for disadvantaged communities, particularly in Nepal.

All along his continued self-analysis and generation of guidelines for himself lead him to more ‘spiritual’ concerns so much so that the book consistently confounds the terms God and the universe. Perhaps because of his work in the Asian and southeast Asian worlds and his partner, he finds himself drawn towards Bahai precepts.  As a group that is very syncretic In its origins and thinking,  Evans finds many of its thoughts and guidance to be of use. I can very much understand this and I’ve often wondered why more young people do not end up thinking similarly rather than drifting toward the structures of Buddhism.

‘The one thing that this shows, and that which I have learned, is that regardless of whether you agree or disagree, it doesn’t matter. Why? Because it is about my own journey. It is the journey of my own reality to understand the deeper meanings to life, and to create something that ultimately offers me what I perceive to be as growth and understanding. And on a basic human level, it is to bring me joy. A type of joy where I can release myself of those things which we say exist in this term called “hell” and create a life that is built of what we would imagine to be “heaven.” That is my freedom and my prerogative in my life. As much as it is your very own.”

Being young and hip with media interests and intensive internet searching brought him to the area of contemporary psychology represented by one text to which he references. This did resonate for me as a student of the work of Martin Seligman particularly concerning locus of control and learned helplessness – both key issues for all levels of contemporary society and cultures. What Evans at this stage seems to struggle with is to find the means to express what he has assembled for himself in a lot fewer and clearer words if he wants younger readers to persist in investigating and perhaps absorbing some of the signposts he presents.

‘This theory of Positive Psychology was a way for psychologists to develop programs that focused on what strengths we have, rather than what we believe we don’t have, like most previous programs. An incredible study on this topic was undertaken and written about in a book called, ‘Character Strengths and Virtues:” It is more of a textbook than easy read, but definitely worth researching for yourself. From this study, researchers found twenty-four human strengths in character, which all corresponded to a set of key human virtues. To agree on the virtues in the first place, they studied all major religions and philosophical traditions, and found six classes of human virtues that were consistent across all faiths, traditions, and cultures. Those being: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Under each of these virtues, and through that focus on strength of character, they came up with twenty-four strengths that they believe define the human character. And the reason I loved this, whilst I can’t share all of their findings in this book, is that these are character traits, virtues, that all of us hope to achieve in our lifetime.’

Anybody for Comparative Beliefs in our schools?

More information available on the author’s website. www.helloiamluke.com

BCC Library has 0 copies

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‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

If you like your novels to end with a definite conclusion, you won’t find it here. That isn’t necessarily a weakness but probably a continuation of the mindset of the central character, Wallace, who doesn’t seem to originate much but rather moves along with the current of his life. This is not to say that there hasn’t been turbulence in the past (sexual interference and varying degrees of racism). He is very much from the South (Alabama) and has experienced the sting of poverty, and institutional racism before finding his feet on the academic trail and now finds himself as a chubby black biochemistry postgraduate working in the lab centre of a mid-Western university (Chicago?).

His work while interesting (for him) is hardly glamorous and requires great concentration and skill. He is working in one of several lab settings where varying degrees of complexity are being explored and the hopes and futures of many are tied into the success of their endeavours. Taylor manages to convey some detail of the skill involved in the work while also making it clear that there are cleavages in the apparent front of people working and living in a circumscribed environment where apparent friendships can be riven by ambition embellished with racism and lust.

The author does a good job of describing the University environment along with its lakeside environment – it all a case of dreaming spires beside the mid-Western lake with lunching, drinking, boating, and swimming with the kind of easy grouping typical of 20-somethings adrift from home and alert to the possibility of matchings and pairings. All this over just one weekend. The description of the location in its relatively brief time-frame is very well done with carefully delineated linkages to the action particularly when water is involved.

“Wallace stopped just short of that point, the point at which the water wavered on the very cusp of the container that meant to hold it, the point at which things swell to an unbearable height before giving way, the point at which something must either recede or break and extend.”

Wallace is carrying much of his past which has been accentuated recently by the death of his estranged father about whom he has told none of his ‘friends’. There are overlays of unhappiness and uncertainties that Wallace is experiencing in his uncertain social relations and his lab research which has had a setback that may have been deliberately engineered by one of his lab ‘friends’.

Midway through the book, Wallace unburdens himself to Miller, one of his closest friends, about his history of sexual abuse while Miller tells him of his past violent behaviours (red flags, anyone?). It is obvious that this part of the book is intended to explain some of the earlier indecision and explain what is to follow in the Miller relationship. Apart from the carefully crafted ‘gothic’ flavour of much of this, it did not touch me at all deeply. There is a puzzling sense of being lost and without a sense of direction in an otherwise promising environment that pervades Wallace’s mood. The reader wonders if this is part of a continuing pattern that has grown out of his interaction with this otherwise idyllic environment and its promise and what part his malaise has arisen from his own sometimes micro-examination of his motives and experiences.

It all comes perilously close to be off-putting and may be so for some readers, unfortunately, as this can be an absorbing read with such emphasis on the interior life – which may be the more ‘real’. The book ends on an ambiguous note which may be more ‘real’ than something more contrived despite explosive sex that seems only to reinforce what has gone before and is inconclusive.

Here are some of Wallace’s musings on the impact of race.

“But to stay in graduate school, to stay where he is, means to accept the futility of his efforts to blend in seamlessly with those around him. It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life. Stay here and suffer, or exit and drown, he thinks.”

“There will always remain a small space then, a space where people like Roman will take root and say ugly, hateful things to him. It’s the place in every white person’s heart where their racism lives and flourishes, not some vast open plain but a small crack, which is all it takes.”

“What Roman is referring to is instead a deficiency of whiteness, a lack of some requisite sameness. This deficiency cannot be overcome. The fact is, no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns or how many skills he masters, he will always be provisional in the eyes of these people, no matter how they might be fond of him or gentle with him.”

“The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgement. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.”

(BCC library 15 copies, 1 ebook, 1 mp3, 1 epub, 29 holds)

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