John C’s personal reading for February 2015

Valentine Grey

Valentine Grey

By Sandi Toksvig


I might try to jog your memory by pointing out that Sandi Toksvig has been on your TV screen if you have been a viewer of Antique Masters, Call My Bluff, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Mock the Week, QI or Have I Got News for You – at the least. Given the company she keeps, it might be a dangerous and lessening comparison to describe her as a female (and feminist) Stephen Fry. Certainly she has a longstanding (and more orthodox (?) lesbian partner to whom she is married with children after a scary period of public calumny.

Her polymath credentials are impeccable with added credits in a range of performing arts and public esteem.She studied law, archaeology and anthropology at Girton College, Cambridge, graduating with a first-class degree and receiving two prizes for outstanding achievement’. Her honours include

2010 – Honorary Doctor of Letters University of Portsmouth

2012 – Honorary Doctor of Letters York St John University

2012 – Honorary Doctor of Letters University of Surrey

2012 – Honorary Fellowship Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge

She is currently Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth

All considered not bad for a Danish born small and dumpy (pardon) feminist lesbian who was difficult to educate. (’She was sent to an English boarding school at 14 after being thrown out of a number of US schools (“the last one, they had a ridiculous rule about being there every day!”)’). Today she presents as a highly literate, worldly, wryly witty comedian and TV and radio personality and is touring with a presentation based on Valentine.

This book has a wildly unlikely premise with a boyish girl educated in the wilds of British Assam returning to the highly restrictive world of turn of the century London where she swaps roles with her gay cousin Reggie who views staying with his elegant stage-bound boyfriend Frank as being much more desirable than journeying off to the adventure (?) of the Boer war as part of a volunteer bicycle force (I’m not kidding).

I spent time initially rolling along with the unfolding tale seeing it as a piece of mildly interesting feminism though troubled by the mounting improbabilities. All this fell away once the unlikely force set off for the Boer war and was gradually engulfed (literally) by this totally new form of warfare that spawned the concept of guerrilla warfare and the concentration camp. This was extremely well done and quite engrossing highlighting the beginning of the process of the ‘public’ war where first-hand feedback began to find its way back to the largely manipulated people at home. Anyone following the wars from Vietnam onwards has got to be aware of the pitch to which this has been elevated in modern times. Even the bicycle force looks less ridiculous when placed against reminders of the role it had as an engine of social change for men and women and all classes.

All told an interesting and engaging read from a woman of great intellectual depth and breadth who is also skilled at engaging public interest. She has recently published the euphonious ‘Heroines & Harridans – A Fanfare of Fabulous Females’ and ‘Peas & Queues: The Minefield of Modern Manners’. As a student of social anthropology particularly applied to aspects of ‘manners’ and etiquette, I hope to read this latter this year and will try to report on it.

Whitlam Mob

The Whitlam Mob

By Mungo McCallum


This book was a belated Christmas gift from a friend who is a Life Member of the ALP. As two old codgers we can be excused the occasional(?) dip into nostalgia – and that is certainly what this work is. It is a highly partial selection of personalities from what could be called the Whitlam years (including some pre- and post-). McCallum describes it as “… a nostalgic reminiscence of those days of glory and disaster, of high drama and low farce,” and that is good enough.

Don’t expect close and up-to-date analysis, rather lively, sometimes affectionate sometimes satirical thumbnail sketches of the personalities that enlived my years of growing political interest (I never joined any party). I can remember McCallum senior who likewise was a commentator from radio to early TV days. Junior has always been of a somewhat heavier build and chose to conceal his substantial jaw with a substantial beard. He is a denizen of the Upper North Coast of NSW and I have seen him often at the Ocean Shores Coffee shop and the Billinudgel pub (Ma’s if you are old enough to remember) and contributes to that excellent regional newspaper, the Byron Shire Echo.

Given the predictable bore of current parliamentary broadcasting, younger readers might find it unbelievable that the earlier radio broadcasts were actually entertaining and enjoyable. This was so particularly in the light of some of the personalities on the floor when giving voice in speeches and interjections. This was a time of great friendships, loyalties and hates. I offer only one delicious item that is typical.

When Bob Hawke, as President of the ACTU, attended Dougherty’s funeral, Cameron blasted him: ‘What you have done is to pay your last respects to the most evil man ever to hold office in any trade union. You presided over the funeral of a cruel, arrogant, deceitful, hypocritical, malevolent, treacherous and lecherous man. One of the worst criminals ever to escape the gallows, a gangster, a thief, a thug, a blackmailer, a ballot rigger, a wife starver, a traitor to his union, a standover man, a giver and taker of bribes, a tyrant and a coward.’

I wonder if he left anything out?


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