What Belongs to You By Garth Greenwell (2016). A review by John Cook

What Belongs

This is the second book in the last 12 months to be acclaimed both in gay and straight literary circles as a gay lit masterpiece – perhaps they both are! I wrote a note on Hanya Yanagihara’s  ‘A Little Life’ which is on this blog. The interesting thing about the two books is their similarities yet extreme differences. Yanagihara’s is a long work of conventional prose (720 pages) set in an almost heteronormative world. At its core is a wounded person struggling with the damage incurred in his early life. Greenwell’s book is stylistically utterly different and quite short (approx. 300 pages) but with a similarly wounded character.

 

‘What Belongs to You’ is broken into three sections – ‘Mitko’, ‘A Grave’ and ‘The Pox’. Each is stylistically somewhat different though all use the contemporary notion of lost quotation marks wedded to a flow of consciousness style that is at its most extreme in the second section which is one long paragraph. Greenwell’s book is set firmly in the world of gay cruising (albeit in a very unusual and remote location – Bulgaria) with only minor elements of heteronormativity in the form of lover R (one character, Mitko, is granted a name, all others are either nameless or are represented by capital letters only). Both books, in my view, share a concern for desire and longing (a common review comment) though I would go further and argue that power issues and personal control in the contemporary gay world is central to both.

 

Section I – Mitko – concerns the narrator’s involvement with a homeless young Bulgarian man (his priyateli) of considerable attractions which narrows into an intensity of lust and desire which is only matched by his difficulty in dealing with the harsh reality of his situation.

 

Section II – The Grave – is a dramatically sudden shift from the Bulgarian High School Language class of the American narrator back to his home and dying father where we are intensely taken through the influences of his childhood and focussing particularly on his rejection by his best friend K and his father.

 

“His look entered me and settled there and has never left .. It rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.”

 

He is subjected to a triumphal and demeaning rejection by K and is reminded of his father’s words on reading his diary –

“You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son?”

 

Section III – Pox – involves a final wrenched parting with Mitko, a partial resolution with his mother and a muted acceptance of his growing relationship with R. It contains a passage in which he travels by train with his newly-arrived mother and a grandmother and her grandson. I found this to be one of the most dense, beautifully written and most moving portions of the book – but there are plenty of others that have a compact beauty that is worth savouring.

 

I cannot put one of these books ahead of the other. Both troubled and uplifted me. Both can lay claim to stylistic excellence. All I can suggest, if you are interested, is to sample some of the online full reviews (if you care for them) and perhaps even dip into the online interviews of both authors. In one case, Hanya even interviews Garth!

 

 

 

 

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Jews Queers Germans: A Novel by Martin Duberman (2017) . A review by John Cook

Jews Queers Germans

The central figure in this work of historical fiction is Count ‘Harry’ Kessler, a gay man whose extraordinary diarising life covered the period from 1880 to 1937. Kessler was born into a life of considerable privilege which only withered post WWII. His family background and education equipped him to have a broad European consciousness which was unlike many of his more narrowly nationalist contemporaries. His earlier period diaries had been assumed lost but were found in a safe (closed for 50 years) on Mallorca in 1983 and have since been published giving a view from an insider what those formative pre-WWI years were like in Germany. Several key aspects mark his contributions – he was an insider who knew practically everyone who counted in royal and political circles – he was quite the aesthete in art, music and literature and was very aware of current developments in science (dinner with Einstein) including the birth of sexual science (Magnus Hirschfeld). Finally, he was a gay man who knew of, and socialised with other key man of that time – most especially Walter Rathenau, the important industrialist and statesman assassinated in 1922.

Duberman is a well respected historian particularly of homosexual life and history. What he has attempted here is to examine what is known historically of German history from his birth to the post WWII period through the prism of Kessler’s revelations and then to humanise it by re-creating situations and dialogue. It is all rather like a film script (hint). There are so many characters touched on an situation with which an average reader will already be familiar from Kaiser Wilhelm and Prince von Eulenburg through to Ernst Röhm and Adolf Hitler.

I was already familiar with much of the factual material presented but found great interest in its contextualising which is rich indeed. I have some familiarity with the puzzle of the behaviour of gay men and Jews when confronted with the emergence of the Nazi state and Duberman’s settings were very helpful in that respect.

This is a peculiar piece of work and I think many people will learn a great deal from it both about historical events and persons made more readily available through their humanity as exposed by the Kessler material. I don’t read it as a particularly effective piece of novel writing though the characters of Kessler and Rathenau (a hard man to come to grips with) were well developed though largely without emotional feeling.

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Codebreakers : Inside the shadow world of Signals Intelligence in Australia’s two Bletchley Parks By Craig Collie (2017).A review by John Cook

CODEBREAKERS

It find it hard to control my desire to rabbit-on about this book as it had so much personal interest for me with an anti-Bruce Ruxton (look him up for his anti-gay stance as well as his good works) dividend built in. I am a war baby (1941) with a very few early memories of Brisbane as a garrison city and grew up with its physical remnants all around (air-raid slits in the school playground, those air raid shelters that transformed into bus shelters and some very enduring like Brisbane Eagle Farm airport) and its impact on folk life and stories (I had a 10 year older brother who was a teen at the time). I later enjoyed an early experience with Australian history at the U of Q and have since appreciated the gradual emergence of histories of Australian WWII experiences. My father and two uncles served in the North while another was used for his maritime cargo handling skills in the Northern islands by US troops, so I did not lack for background. I was raised with lots of war stories from the European theatre to read but very little from the Pacific. I did have a cherished and very beautifully illustrated children’s book about New Guinea Fuzzy Wuzzy angels which the 1974 flood dispatched but very little else except for my father’s wartime photos. In adulthood I developed a strong interest in the role played by code breaking in the European theatre of war especially at Bletchley Park and the works of the magnificent Alan Turing and his sad fate. I was aware that code breaking occurred in Australia and in Brisbane and this was re-ignited when reading Donald Friend’s diaries and his references to his involvement there. I was therefore primed and ready for this book.

 

Craig Collie is a TV producer and something of a Pacific war history specialist with titles that look at the perspective of the Japanese troops on the Kokoda trail, the Nagasaki bombing and the emergence of Republican China. His work seems very well referenced though I did find a couple of local clangers – I know of no Hotel Cathay in Brisbane but the old Café Cathay in Fortitude Valley would be the logical place for the meeting he mentions plus at last one street mis-spelling. All told, it seems factually well-backed and especially showing real insight into the characters involved and the disputing influences at work in the formation, development and utilisation of code breaking capacities in WWII Australia and its liaison with other similar centres.

 

After a false start at the hands of Imperial loving Menzies, even with a little typical subterfuge, starts were made even before the Japanese entrance into the war as Lt Commander Jack Newman and Commander ‘Cocky’ Long set up the Special Intelligence Bureau. These men were Navy and a lot of early influence came from this direction given British experience. The extra element required came from Commander Theodore Eric (Jack) Nave, who spoke native Japanese and had extensive experience in the Asian theatre and code-breaking. He played a long and often critical role. Given the specific difficulties of the Japanese language for coding and the use of different codes by different parts of the Japanese armed forces this was a continuing critical problem. The efforts required to set up a code breaking facility and maintain it against constant changes codes, its requirement for operational activities and the tug of war from national interests (US, Britain and Australia) and personalities (Macarthur and Blamey) were considerable and herculean efforts were required of all levels of personnel. As a parallel to Bletchley. I noted the role of IBM machinery that the US introduced and how it disappeared promptly post war (no lost advantages there.

 

The facilities located originally in Melbourne, then Brisbane, Port Moresby, Hollandia, Leyte and San Miguel following Macarthur’s progress and there is definitely no space here to canvass the inner workings, politics and worth of this work as the war progressed. I can only say – go read it, it is worth the time and effort. The book follows the arch of the war’s progress too its end and dissolution with one highlight being the role these men and women played in bringing down Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour. At the same time, this is not a vengeful book and makes clear some of the harsh experiences of the enemy.

 

The stand-out for me, in this work, was the portrayal of a top level key individual, Lt Colonel (eventually full Colonel) Alastair ‘Mic’ Sandford who is listed as Executive Officer of the Central Bureau and leader of its Australian Army Contingent. He was awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm amongst other honours (CBE much later) as he liaised extensively overseas while keeping a close eye of the smooth running of the Bureau.

 

Sandford was the scion of a wealthy South Australian, Sir James Sandford, and a young barrister when he enlisted in 1941. He saw key service in Crete and there joined intelligence. On return to Australia he played his key role in Central Bureau and after the war served in occupation force in Europe. He became an Executive for BP and lived to his fifties in Italy where he was made a CBE in 1968. Things were still secret enough then for no mention to be made as to why he received the honour. He was then a gay man living with his long term partner!

 

Collie makes things very clear in his coverage of the life led by the code-breaking community in Brisbane. There are references to Sandford’s batman who accompanied him

‘Constantly on the move, Sandford shuttled particularly between Brisbane and Hollandia, his batman with the inexpertly dyed blond hair moving back and forth with him. Homosexuality was seldom considered or mentioned. Colin Wainwright’s theatricality was regarded as comical – troops called him ‘The Bat-Man’ especially when compared with the somewhat aristocratic demeanour of his senior officer.’

 

Sandford was also associated with Donald Friend, the great Australian artist (now somewhat sullied because of his later preference for the under-age) who saw service and was in Brisbane working on the docks.

 

‘Donald Friend was an emerging talent in Australia’s embryonic art world. After enlisting in the army in 1941, he was posted near Newcastle, but after a breach of discipline he was moved to a labour battalion in Queensland. Living in an army camp and working on the Brisbane docks, he was told by his friend Bill Beresford that a Colonel Sandford was determined to meet him. Sandford wanted the painter to come to a dinner party at his house in Hamilton. Insouciant and with an air of detachment, Friend had been part of Sydney’s bohemian society before the war, as had Beresford, now a Captain in the Australian Army.

 

Friend phoned Beresford from a brothel disguised as a confectionary shop and suggested he meet with Sandford at ‘Major-General Ming’s HQ’, as they called Brisbane’s Cathay Hotel (??). They would have lunch and ‘discuss the matter in hand and go over all evidence available’. Friend’s diary is full of such cryptic references.

 

Private Friend had dinner at Colonel Sandford’s house the next night. Sharing similar backgrounds, the two connected. Both were the product of private schools, Sanford of Adelaide’s St Peters College, the other of Cranbrook, in Sydney. Friend was from a wealthy grazing family that had been hard hit by the Depression. He was three years older than Sandford, and his dry wit appealed to the young officer. The dinner was an occasion of ‘brilliant people, superb food, leisurely talk and a little fine music to listen to, discuss and talk about’ according to the diary. (my italics)

It sounds like a gathering of sensualists, but it was more than that. Mic Sandford, the golden boy of signals intelligence, was a participant in another secret world. Sandford was homosexual, but he presented so thoroughly masculine that few suspected it. With close friends and people who accepted homosexuality, however, he made little effort to pretend. The bohemian set Sandford socialised with were risqué and often reckless, but this was wartime. To a large degree, the rulebook of proper behaviour had been torn up. On one occasion, Friend reports turning up in a taxi outside Sandford’s house at 3 a.m., drinking Sandford’s beer with his heavily made-up batman. Wainwright had a bottle of Chanel No. 5 though where he got it from is anybody’s guess.

‘Chanel! Chanel! Don’t you realise? He screeched in ecstasy. ‘Chanel!’

Sandford was away that night. The taxi driver was drinking with them. They all smelt of French perfume.

‘You must stay the night,’ said Wainwright.

‘Not on your bloody life,’ replied Friend. ‘I can’t stay. I’ve got a parade at six in the morning.’

Friend thought the officers in the military were uninteresting, but Sandford was perhaps – and only perhaps – an exception, a ‘rarity’. Friend ponders in his diary whether Sandford would seem so special in peacetime. ‘Presentable, well-educated, a rather witty young man, you’d ask him to dinner occasionally, but he’s not in the category of my painter friends, merely an additional gilt curlicue in a rococo boudoir’. This was not a person to get very close to.

Thanks to his contact with Sandford, however, Friend was transferred to Central Bureau. He was glad to be relieved at last from navvy work on the wharves and given a clerical job inside. He was attaché to Gerry Room’s meteorological unit, but – aware of the importance of the documents he handled – he found the work stressful. No longer in camp but in a room in town, he complained of having to go bed early, ‘exhausted from the mental efforts of the day.’ Before long, he was suffering from eye strain.

The painter was a shrewd observer of people, however, sharing insights with Sandford on assorted social occasions. Of Macarthur he noted that most Americans disliked him as an egotist ready to sacrifice lives for self-publicity, but Australians regarded him as a hero.’

….

 

A few days later, Friend arrived at work to be told to come to Sandford’s Henry Street office.

‘Have you heard anything?’ Sandford asked the puzzled Friend. He hadn’t.

‘Well, you’re going to get a commission. I’ve approved it. Soon you’ll hear from a Major Dom. He’ll interview you. For God’s sake, look as though you’ll make a good officer.’

Friend was made a temporary Captain for six months, the same rank as his erstwhile friend Bill Beresford, and appointed an official War Artist with the Australian forces. He was to join immediately the northward migration of servicemen.

Four days later, Sandford invited Friend to dinner to thank him for the gift of an art book. The war artist asked if he could return to Central Bureau as a private when his commission expired.

‘Old boy,’ said the young Colonel, ‘wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, you can be sure of a job if you chose to join me.’

 

….

 

‘… In February 1946 he (Sandford) went to the United Kingdom, from where he joined the British Army of the Rhine, the occupation force in in Germany, as an intelligence officer, One of the main purposes became prevention of a Soviet Drive into West Germany, although Sandford was primarily keeping an eye out for any resurgence of Nazism. He came back to Melbourne briefly late in 1948 and addressed a weekly intelligence briefing at Victoria Barracks on the situation in Germany. Then he disappeared back to Europe.

In 1948 Sandford left the military and joined the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company soon to become British Petroleum (BP) as Manager of its Rome office. He lived in Italy for the rest of his life, moving into an ornate stone villa on a coastal cliff with his male partner and, later, their adopted son. He came back to Australia from time to time, keeping in contact with family and making no pretence about his sexuality, though he did not reveal it to his mother, who had always thought young Mickey’s friends were ‘very arty’. Sandford never again visited Australia.

 

 

Sandford seems to have had no further contact with his batman after the war was over. Donald Friend tells of a 1947 night out with a mate on the seedy side of Melbourne. They were watching young gay men on the beat being scrutinised when Friend spotted Colin Wainwright among them, ‘dyed and painted up like a Matisse houri.’

Let’s get out of here,’ Friend said to his mate.’

 

I apologize for this lengthy ‘note’ but thought that this content was exceptional and worth reading by any gay man told that his ilk were worthless in wartime. Whether an Alan Turing, a Mic Sanderson, a Donald Friend or a Colin Wainwright, gay men had roles to play from the most critical to the mundane and they did well, all praise to them.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff by Jean Findlay (2015). A review by John Cook

 

Moncrieff

What a fascinating life of which I had previously been totally innocent! This could have been expected to be a tome of praise by the subject’s grand grand niece with an interest in extended family genealogy and what looks like a promising individual. CKSM was born in a solid middle class Scots family in late Victoria times. The family had an impeccable record of public service (father was a judge) and the literary arts (mother wrote and was published extensively all her life).

He showed precocious talent as a boy especially in classics and literature generally but was also a solid all-rounder in manly activities including territorial volunteers. He was granted a Winchester scholarship but failed to continue to the great universities and settled for Edinburgh. He wrote and was published all his life but was interrupted by WWI from which he emerged as an honourably wounded Captain with a MC though he continued with his diaries and poetry which was published. While helping his fellow wounded and damaged comrades immediately after the war, he found employment post-war somewhat difficult.

He eventually found his metier in translation especially from the French. He pioneered the Chanson de Roland and eventually translated all of Proust even giving the work its initial English title ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. He spent a lot of his life in Italy translating (Beowulf, Stendhal, Pirandello and the letters of Abelard and Heloise) and working for the British Passport Office as a spy reporting on the developing Mussolini era. As a man deeply committed to family, he devoted large sums of his income to the nine nephews and nieces of deceased family members he helped support. He once gave his occupation in ‘Who’s Who’ as ‘nepotist’.

So far, so good. CKSM died of oesophageal cancer at Calvary Hospital in Rome in 1930 and is buried in the Campo Verano. Even his family biographer agrees with his own sentiment and that of his close friends that his cancer might have something to with his life-long enjoyment of gay oral sex.

This man largely led parallel lives. Coming from a strong Scots Protestant background, he converted to Roman Catholicism for reasons of doctrine, aesthetics and because he found the concept of confessional absolution helpful with a vigorous sex life. He associated with GK Chesterton, Monsignor Benson and Ronald Knox.

He failed to be accepted for his preferred university because he unwisely published a startlingly confronting story of gay school sex before his candidature was considered.

He became closely involved in Georgian and post Georgian literary circles, sometimes comfortably (meeting Wilfred Owen with whom he fell in unrequited love at Robert Graves’ wedding) while he met and was supported by the Wilde circle with Robert Ross, Vyvan Holland (Oscar’s son) and Bookseller Christopher Millard who may have seduced him; and sometimes uncomfortably (his long enduring enmity with the Sitwells and their clique). He was also an early supporter of the young Noel Coward’s career – especially when lampooning the Sitwells.

He clearly appreciated the homosocial potential of military life but there are no indications of him acting upon his inclinations. In fact he was lauded for his enduring support and care for men with whom he served and was even offered the opportunity to write the official history of his regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

While living in Italy, he was a beacon for those in the know as well as those who appreciated his literary talents while others from street toughs to aviators appreciated others. The 21 year old Evelyn Waugh was literally distraught when he missed the opportunity to live with him and act as his secretary in Florence – ‘a year abroad drinking Chianti under olive trees and listening to discussions of the most iniquitous outcasts of Europe’.

Clearly a greatly talented worldly man of great charm and complexity. I should like to have shared a dinner table with him.

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CARDINAL The Rise and Fall of George Pell By Louise Milligan (2017). A review by John Cook

CARDINAL The Rise and Fall of George Pell

It is rarely that I have a think about what I write in a note from a legal point of view but I did consider that before writing this. I checked the most recent reviews of this book and was taken by the clear difference between that supplied by the SMH which was factual and supportive of the journalist author’s determinations while the Oz review started out as follows.

Lawyers representing George Pell have demanded an apology and retraction from Fairfax and The Guardian over articles ­ repeating child sexual abuse allegations made in a new book ­described by the cardinal as a “character assassination”.

The legal demands were sent to the media outlets at the weekend after a book made a series of allegations against Cardinal Pell over his role in the sex abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church.

They include unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing by Cardinal Pell, who has stridently rejected any misconduct.

The articles published at the weekend reported allegations made in ABC journalist Louise Milligan’s book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, published by MUP.’

I can only say all power to MUP and their legal advisers who must have indicated that the book should be published.

I see three themes in this book.

First there is the range and depth of sex abuse perpetrated mostly (not all) on young boys and youths under the care of Catholic priests and educators. This is limited largely to Victoria and the Ballarat diocese though story lines trail off elsewhere to Melbourne, Phillip Island and the Torquay Surf Club. However, this is only a subset of the larger Royal Commission investigation into similar matters but with a much wider ambit.

Milligan has been following this matter for a long time and expertly marshals a range of interviewees obtaining their stories as well as the wider issues of their ‘fit’ in their respective communities while she also tries to counter objections that might be raised with regard to their reliability while highlighting other instances of accusation higher in perceived reliability and non-contamination of group memory. Given that even the church has offered compensation (in varying degrees) to many of these people, there can be little doubting of what happened though there can be debate about details.

Second is the characterisation of the institutional response of the church, which was clearly tardy, disbelieving and also appeared to have engaged in some tactics (especially legal) which could be seen as more characteristic of a rich and powerful multinational organisation rather than a caring religious organisation with a pastoral mission.

Third is the involvement of George Pell on two levels. Was he privy to what was happening in the Ballarat diocese when some of the worst of these abuses were playing out and parents and others were being fobbed off and serial offenders transferred into new opportunities to further their abuse pattern? As the formulator (he takes credit for it regularly) of the Melbourne Response was he continuing a pattern of dampening down any damage to the church institution at minimal cost while employing the blunt and savage weapon of legal warfare? Is there a continuing pattern of avoidance and protection?

At the personal level has Cardinal Pell been a deft user of a mixture of legal ploys, overseas activities and poor health to avoid closer examination? Are there instances of Pell, himself, behaving inappropriately towards youngsters both in the pool at Ballarat and later in the Surf Club changing room at Torquay?

George Pell reads as a gifted individual physically and mentally. He clearly advanced rapidly within the ranks of his church to the very peak of that organisation. Milligan supplies individual commentary that indicates two very different sides to the man – one is warm, caring, helpful and worthy of his promotions another as dominating, curt and insensitive.

I believe he is both as are many intelligent, skilled successful manipulators in any large organisation. Apart from his personal behaviours which remain to be fully tested, I think he has acted quite predictably and appropriately in his own view especially as a Vatican II counter-reformer. He is loyal to his church organisation and his own image of himself as a protector and promoter of what he has devoted his life to. It is sad that his views and actions seem to have prevented him from fully engaging with the true nature of the deep malaise he was confronting with the enduring empathy and concern one might have expected. He seems to display the pastoral declarations require of him but fails all to often as a pastor. As an aside, I have to mention that similar behaviours from persons in similar positions of authority have been paraded before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from other religions and State organisations.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to explore these issues in some depth (366 pages) and some recent news indicates that there may yet be more to be written. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

ABC News May 17, 2017 – Victoria Police are considering whether to charge Catholic Cardinal George Pell over sexual assault allegations dating back to the late 1970s after receiving advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

Key points:

DPP provided advice to Victoria Police about sexual assault allegations against the Cardinal dating back to 1978

Police to consider laying charges, after three officers flew to Rome last year to interview George Pell

He strenuously denied the allegations saying they were untrue, completely wrong

Three Victorian detectives flew to Rome last year to conduct a voluntary interview with Cardinal Pell

Police have issued a statement today saying they had received advice from Victoria’s DPP about a current investigation into sexual assault allegations and detectives would consider the advice before any charges were laid.’

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Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney (2016). A review by John Cook

Black Deutschland

This was a troubling read for me. The author comes with high credibility in the areas of essay and review writing though with limited novel experience. It may well be that it is the author’s extensive knowledge and experience of Black American life, society, culture and history was part of the problem as I am severely lacking in that respect. Certainly, it seems to be that it puts the average white non-American reader at a disadvantage to detect and respond to the nuances of this work.

There is little grand narrative to be found – rather, for me, it read as the musings of a mid-western US black man (Chicago) who feels apart from his largely successful and involved family. He makes at least two journeys to Germany (Berlin), one while younger with a white wine addiction (now I am frightening myself) and a later sojourn post rehab (though not without some continuing substance use). He has a family contact in Berlin who can be helpful but also a source of angst (there is a lot of that in the less than 200 pages of this small format book).

There is a great deal here to enjoy the acquaintance especially with regard to the glimpses into his formative life and sometimes whacky family. Likewise, I enjoyed many aspects of the lives of students, refugees and innovators in 80s Berlin.

When Pinchey settles to a topic or description he often does quite well. What makes much of it non-productive and irritating is the forced nature of his expression and grammar which often go out of their way to be confusing without much purpose except, perhaps, to slow the reader done. This certainly happened to me many, many times and I found myself willing myself to continue on and through the annoyance.

I am sure readers with more background knowledge and experience will get more for their money while I was limited to occasional delights and insights. Similarly, for a novel that initially talked about going to Berlin for the boys, there is very little sex though a deal of striving to ‘find’ himself . The central character is sexually capable in either direction but lusts after classic white German men but eventually has a doomed affair with a young French part Negro student. Certainly it is mostly angst once again.

This is a hard book to recommend as I feel the average Australian reader might well give up on it relatively early. However, it does have its worthwhile aspects while requiring more than usual attention and dedication.

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The Sins of Jack Saul By Glenn Chandler (2016). A review by John Cook

Jack Saul

I admit to being a bit of a Jack Saul tragic. Like the author of this book, Glenn Chandler (lead writer for Taggart and substantial chops as a playwright), I have had a long interest in the history of gay life particularly that interesting period in the last half of the 19th century in Britain. Two of the focal points for that period are the Cleveland St brothel scandal and the Oscar Wilde trials. It is a watershed period as it would seem that a period of slightly increased tolerance (in some quarters) was matched by an increase in moral panic highlighted by the Labouchere amendment that laid down the foundations of nearly 100 years of blackmailing. I was intrigued by the involvement of the ‘Truth’ newspaper, the Australasian version of which continued in its prurient way well into my childhood (I read it every Sunday morning for the divorce reports).

 

One figure that sailed through this period was the shadowy ‘Dublin’ Jack Saul, putative author of ‘Sins of the Cities of the Plains’. Chandler has done the sterling service of exhaustively searching available resources to create the bare bones of his life and then fleshed out a story that incorporates his involvement in two great scandal trials, the Dublin scandal and Cleveland St. In doing so, he has created a window into the times, locations, social mores and institutions (especially the Police and courts). It is to his credit that he has done so carefully and has not indulged in unsupported fantasy or romanticism. Jack emerges as a character of interest and some mild sympathy as a creature of time, place and circumstance, someone the reader can understand without reading in too much modern sexual outlaw activist sentiment.

 

Anyone familiar with the growing Victorian desire to document the lives and living and working conditions of the underclass will not find the sketches of Jack’s birth and childhood in Dublin and his life in London surprising, some may find it depressing. The acute nature of the class system, its differences and impact, is made clear. I am always alert to courtroom judicial moralising and there is plenty of this and embedded fear of social change throughout the work.

 

The book is uneven with its share of occasionally jarring typos but that seems to be price of many modern books that are produced cheaply from computer script. Reader interest may vary a little but the two court cases are well documented and presented and hold reader interest particularly well. Chandler has followed up on many of the related characters who ended up in France (for the wealthy) and the US (for the adventurous) and perhaps Australia (for those who wanted to get as far away as possible).

 

This publication well satisfied my interests in history and biography and gave me a fascinating insight into a character one might well have believed otherwise was apocryphal.

 

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