‘Ironbark’ by Jay Carmichael, 2018. A review by John Cook.

This is fine piece of Australian writing on a most worthwhile subject – a young man in late adolescence living in a country town who feels same-sex attraction but lives in an environment that heavily suppresses its expression. That might sound like a cliché but this book is far from that. While almost totally internally expressed, it presents a surprisingly objective representation of nearly all the characters, their feelings and behaviours. What gives the book colour is how young Markus operates in this environment and especially his yearnings for the lost Grayson. For me, an equal standout was the author’s description and use of the environment. The community described seems trapped in its physical depression and inability to escape and this is mirrored in the battle in Markus’ mind and his occasional self-harm.

The coach gives a pre-game speech: grit, determination, teamwork. An’ piss orf if yer not up fer it! The team, two by two, leave the shed and heads out onto the foggy field. The silence has a sound: hushed static, as if tuning in for signs of life. The fog means most can’t see the scratches running tracks up Markus’s arms or the callouses from the sewing needle criss-crossing his thighs. No doubt, someone caught sight of them back in the change room. None said a word.’

Rather than try to sketch out a particular place, Carmichael presents it initially in a kind of generic environment that could be any country town experiencing contemporary struggles and problems. He then adds patches of detail and colour about Narioka that are moving and, at times, intense. This awareness of environment, animals, birds, even vegetation is highlighted by their often careful description with latin genus terminology. I did not find this a problem but some might if they cannot find a justification for it.

A lot centres, as it would for such a young man, on home and its strengths and problems, likewise school and employment prospects, life with friends and especially the local AFL club and frequent return to the local pool (full and empty). I felt the author showed real skill in presenting the shifting focus and motivations of a young man living in this context. The tale works largely backwards and around the death of Grayson and we are only gradually made aware of its occurrence and centrality to Markus’ thinking and behaviour.

There is no doubt that some people may not like the prose style of the novel which violates some conventions around quotations etc but I did not find this a deal breaker. After some initial hesitation, I tuned into its mood and gradual development and found that it had me in thrall by the last third.

I have to recommend it as a sincere, thoughtful modern interior representation of the mind of a contemporary young man living the life of Markus.

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‘The Quarters’ by Errol Bray, 2017. A Review by John Cook.

The cover of this book led me a little astray. I rather expected a tale in inner city urban gang fighting with plenty of blood and guts and perhaps some human interest to add to the mix. It turned out to be that in part but much, much, more. The author set himself a sizable task with a lot happening, explanations needed and a extensive cast. Initially, things move along a little slowly as there is a lot to put in place and relationships to establish while things do become surprisingly edgier. The author uses a method of mixed length observational passages and added dialogue that, at times, read like lines from a play with directions. There are also chapter headings in the manner of a Victorian novel.

The structure is interesting with nods in the direction of some classical literary features (Homer?) while based upon the concept of an ‘apart’ community which has been forced in upon itself by always threatening external circumstances. It has to evolve within its own resources means of socialization and governance that cover the full range of human needs and survival. The method of delivery is rather like that of a chronicle, the age old concept of an observer who records largely dispassionately, though in this case, with more compassion, wit and humour, relaying the flow of events in this living social organism. There is a series of colliding events which spark changes, growth and sometimes loss. There is birth, life and death, at all levels, and plenty of it. There is hope, despair and resolution.

The author is closely associated with the world of drama and he mines this with a central role being given to a ‘street’ production of Hamlet and its sequelae providing a link with the ‘outside’ world along with other small commercial activities. A charming note is the use of a naïf ‘street’ Homer who provides a commentating voice from within on notes ranging from humour to deep tragedy.

With our larger world confronting another industrial revolution with the customary winners and losers and the seeds of so much dissatisfaction, loss and anger, a book like this is a timely reminder of how finely balanced our ‘civilization’ can be and the potential forms of chaos that are always waiting at the door, and sometimes within our very selves.

Right from the beginning, there is a clear and developing interest in relationships and sex. This seems to intensify and deepen toward the conclusion, perhaps as a response to the evolving environment. These relationships cover the full range of human pairings in ways that are exploratory and largely satisfying.

Given the populations involved, the author has kept the dialogue largely free from rough language and any over-use of profanity which is often pointless and solely used for repetitive emphasis. The result is simple, clear expression quite capable of conveying the range of emotional contexts encountered.

This is a surprising not-so fantasy tale which is at once a possible harbinger and an entertaining tale.

 

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‘Logical Family: A Memoir’ by Armistead Maupin, 2017. A review by John Cook.

This was a much anticipated read as most readers of gay Lit over the past almost 40  years and 6Million+ copies must have some appreciation of the ‘Tales of the City’ series by Armistead Maupin as well as his other novels and occasional works. While opinions vary, I have always appreciated and enjoyed all the series (though with a few dips in quality). Given the period covered, the books have reflected so many issues that have impacted generations of gay men and women who reached their adulthood in and after the sixties and seventies and many have wondered how much of Maupin’s real life experiences had found their way into their covers. We now have some answers. I found the cover design intriguing also.

The origins of the series as a newspaper serial have always been well known especially with their parallels with Dickens (I say that very deliberately). This book nests their creation within a very interesting life trajectory from an utterly traditional deep South conservative Republican background and homophobic father and brother through a series of rocky awakenings including Naval service in Vietnam and that utterly conventional glimpse of San Francisco from the deck of a returning navy ship and what it might hold for a footloose young gay man.

What has to be noted, however, is that this is not a tale of rejection of his past and the demonising of all the agents of his background (with the obvious exception of Anita Bryant – look her up if you are too young to remember her). He has clung to much of the essential warmth and gentleness that arose from his early years (he still sleeps in grand pappy Branch’s sleigh bed to this day) and it informs his view of the world. His struggles, fears and outrages over the years are quite similar to many of my generation and the manner in which he dealt with them was often funny, lively and cheekily humorous while never avoiding encroaching darknesses all with a wonderful sense of irony and wit. His much quoted ‘Letter to Mama’ must have struck a cord in the hearts of millions of gay men and women coming to terms with a straight world and family.

I had to enjoy his tales of early fumbling experiences and where they were located and understood his long period of physical sexual self-denial and the mixed emotional bases for his behaviour at that time. His time in the Navy and especially in Vietnam was almost entirely new for me as yet another example of those non-existent gay men and women at war. His experience with Nixon and appearance on the notorious tapes was intriguing as was his contribution to the de-mystifying of the life of Rock Hudson, again with joy, warmth and understanding of that icon (he does rate that word). He is still unhappy at the closeted world that Hollywood continues to be to this day. He handles the overlay of Harvey Milk’s assassination with a key moment in his family life with much tenderness again. It goes without saying that his real life experiences in the saunas and sex clubs of San Francisco and the subsequent AIDS years informed the series plots and characters as in the case of Dr Jon Fielding in the 1984 ‘Babycakes’. They were often related to his daily life experiences and lovers and friends. I took pleasure in reading about his interactions with Christopher Isherwood (having worked my way through his hypochondriac diaries). Maupin obviously saw him as an historically great man of gay letters and was warmed by his praise. The book includes one of Don Bachardy’s drawings that is particularly good.

It was good to hear his writing voice again with its ease of flow, warmth and sense of familiarity and optimism. Very much recommended.

He concludes for his ‘logical’ family

“I think we’re in a much better place than when I began writing, despite all the  efforts of right wingers around the world, simply because we are more visible and there are good people out there who know who we are, who love us and will fight for us. I am proud to have been a part of that fight over the last 40 years.”

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‘Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis’ by Eric Myers, 2001. A review by John Cook.

Thank you to the group member who brought this book to my attention along with an apology for having claimed at that meeting that Dennis’ second most famous work was ‘Belle Poitrine’ rather than ‘Little Me’ – I plead an aging memory and perhaps a mammary obsession.

I confess to being an ‘Aunty Mame’ tragic and purist (definitely no Lucy Arnaz!) while Belle holds a special place in my heart (my hardback copy like to many other treasures was claimed in the 1974 flood). I know Dennis’ key works hold such a special place for many of my generation (I don’t know and can’t speak for anyone younger than 60) and ‘Little Me’ encapsulates so much of my generation and gay sensibility as it then was (we were homosexuals and poofters then). As an example, I can point out that the drag name of a dear departed friend was ‘Portia Portnoy’ and I cannot remember whether this was from Pixie Portnoy in ‘Little Me’  (1955) or the eponymous ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (1969). Oddly, my departed friend also had a similar beard and the same talent for language as Dennis.

Dennis (Edward Everett Tanner III (1921 -76) spoke a lot for my generation. He came from a very conventional Illinois background but clearly was marked as different, was a party person, quick with an arch line in conversation and commentary, had musical talent and enjoyed amateur theatre. The man was gay and didn’t seem to initially know it and was camp through and through. His eventual break away to the American Field Service as an ambulance driver in Lebanon and Italy in WWII was a formative experience for him but also showed the strong clear nature of his entertaining talent.

He enjoyed himself to the hilt in post-war New York which had become the place to be for artistic talents. He partied around the fringes at this time but found his métier with a series sketches that had roots in family (everyone claimed to be Auntie Mame), theatrical background and his views on contemporary American society. This morphed into the Mame phenomenon of book, stage, screen and musical fame. Dennis was haunted by this fame all his life though, as a poor businessman (my friend again) he did not benefit as well as he might have done so. He continued to write books and plays most of his life with varying degrees of success. He could be quite dilatory and actually had editors complete work for him on occasion.

‘Little Me’ may well be the campest book ever written. It portrays the ups and downs of an American personality of stage and screen, one Maybelle Schlumpfert (Belle Poitrine). The book came with photographs by Cris Alexander (a pal of Dennis) and were taken using largely friends and acquaintances at weekend parties (they must have been something!). Jeri Archer portrayed the dim Belle, Dennis’ wife was Pixie Portnoy. Alexander’s boyfriend and ballet dancer Shaun O’Brien presented as Mr Musgrove while others featured included the wonderous Letch Feely. The whole thing is a romp and if it has any serious purpose at all, it deflates the blowsy nature of much American film culture and its celebrity – how we need this again today! I have a vague memory of  ‘First lady’ the story of Martha Dinwiddie Butterfield whose Trump-like husband steals (briefly) the US Presidency – how we need this again today!

He had a long and crazy period in Mexico involving interior decoration before returning to the US in ever more straightened circumstances – he actually buttled for an unsuspecting employer at one stage. He had two very beloved children and a long suffering wife (he had gay escapades) yet he returned to her care as he died of pancreatic cancer (strong alcohol precursors). I found it charming that while he specified no funeral, cremation and dispersal, his wife Louise was buried with his urn in her arms – a measure of the love, friendship and loyalty he engendered in many (not all).

There is nothing great in literary terms in Dennis’s writing and the reader always has a good idea of what might happen and rejoices when it does – gossipy, lively, campy and hilarious. He stands as a highlight of his time giving insight, pleasure and humour much needed today.

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‘Double Agent Celery’ by Carolinda Witt, 2017. A review by John Cook.

The history of warring mankind is long and chequered as is the history of espionage and cyphers (my favourite). However, there is a special corner of espionage occupied by the double agent (sometimes triple). While this undoubtedly continues to this day (see the recent tit-for tat between the West and Russia) the last flowering of the double agent of which we are aware was WWII when the British (who knows what the others were up to) actually had a double cross committee at work (how very British!). Among the agents who performed sterling service in this respect would have to be Garbo, ZigZag, Snow and Celery (subjects of this book), Jonny, LaLa, Tricycle and Mutt and Jeff (look them up for yourself). Many of these were patriotic men (not all British) who saw a cause and served it well in the most dangerous of circumstances.

This book is devoted to two who must have to be described as more ‘dodgy’ in their motivations. Snow, a Welshman (Arthur Owens) is interesting but was often lost in a fog of alcohol, boastfulness and insecurity. This book focuses on Celery, one Walter Arthur Charles Dicketts who can best be described as a charming rogue, a war hero who was also a con-man, cheat and multiple womaniser (4 wives, 2 mistresses and 6 children). It is a sad appendix to this book that so many of his wives, mistresses, children and grandchildren lived and died without knowing about his positive contributions as well as the other relationships. As my family’s historian I enjoy a good genealogical sleuth and Witt provides this in some detail as she carried out her explorations which occupy a slice of the text.

The reader has to speculate on how authorities could eventually accept (they were guarded) a man who came from a privileged background yet clearly was a mixture of unstable fraud, opportunist, patriotic soldier (WWI in armoured cars, tanks and the birth of the RAF, and finally a aptain with the Air Ministry) and womaniser. It took time and he had to prove himself and that he did in spades spending time in Berlin being thoroughly (perhaps) interrogated and examined by the Abwehr for five days. The British had already proved themselves adept at all forms of espionage and continued to do so with remarkable effect throughout the war and double agents proved themselves to be especially valuable.

It was critically important for double agents to not be cracked (and survive) as Britain was not only receiving very valuable information from their own agents but were active in locating German agents who arrived by whatever means and commandeering their means of reporting (radio) and using this for all kinds of manipulative purposes. It was for this reason that it was especially dangerous to permit British citizen agents to venture into Portugal (Lisbon was a hot spot) much less Germany where they could be tested, broken and information extracted – this with a man who had been jailed for bad cheques – a pattern he continued after the war when he engaged in a ponzi fraud and died of gas poisoning under quite mysterious circumstances.

This story has only emerged from the murk of his life because his descendants were determinedly curious and, following the release of some documents, worked to clear away what Dicketts obscured and security provisions had also hidden – all power to their incredibly detailed research and subsequent publication by granddaughter Carolinda Witt. The availability of previously protected military and coronial resources and the availability of research on the other side (especially Nikolous Ritter, Celery’s German handler) enabled Witt to flesh out this story to create clarity and sometimes to increase doubt.

Dicketts was an intriguing man and this raises the question of just how skilled the British were (especially Lt Col ‘Tar’ Robertson) in exploiting his criminal skills and photographic memory and evident patriotism when so much could have gone wrong so easily. It is evident in the cases of Snow and Celery that money always remains an important factor yet it seems Snow was much more oriented in that direction than was Celery who was initially kept on a much tighter rein while proving himself. Not all conmen would make a trustworthy double agent. It would seem the trick lies in locating the right one and keeping him on track. It was this process that intrigued me most.

The following is an overview of Dicketts’ life which I have extracted from a review.

‘1900 Walter Arthur Dicketts born in Wandsworth, London

1915 Skipped school at 15 to enlist in WWI

1915-17 Served in armoured cars and tanks in France, learned to fly

1918 Flying accident

1918 Joined Air Intelligence, married Phyllis Hobson

1919 Left RAF as Captain, unemployed, first son, George (later changed name to Adair), born.

1920 Daughter Effie born to Tiller Girl mistress, Dora Viva Guerrier

1921 In court for getting cash by false pretences
Third child, Rodney (later changed name to Adair), born to Phyllis.
Jailed for nine months at Old Bailey for fraud

1922 Fourth child, Eric Richard “Dick”, born to Dora

1923 Dicketts moves in with Annette Benson
Pleads guilty to fraud, given “last chance” because of war record

1924 Phyllis granted divorce

1926 Jailed for fraud

1927 Joined Mexico Air Force, then left for California

1929 Back in Britain, eloped with Alma Wood, 16

1930 Jailed for fraud

1931 Marriage to Alma annulled, jailed again for fraud

1933 Married Vera Nellie Fudge

1934 Fifth child – born to Vera – Richard (later changed name to Tudhope)

1937 Went to Singapore to buy silk

1940 Living with mistress Kathleen Holdcraft
Recruited by MI5 after meetings with double agent “Snow” in London pub

1941 Meetings with German secret service in Portugal, then five-day interrogation in Germany
Debriefed by MI5, leading to jailing of “Snow”

1943 Double Cross Committee chief agrees to release Dicketts from duty
Marries fourth wife Judit Rose Kalman

1944 Sixth child – Robert – born to Judit

1949 Jailed for four years

1951 Released and runs plantation in Malaya

1957 Divorced from Judit. Dicketts found dead in Paddington lodgings.’

I found this an enjoyable read though this is in neither the Bond nor Bourne manner. The emphasis is on tension rather than action and there is a great deal of careful detail presented.

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‘Prince Felix Yusupov: The Man Who Murdered Rasputin’ by Christopher Dobson, 2016. A review by John Cook.

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How many advantages is it possible to have in this life? How can one man lose so much as he was reduced to all sorts of stratagems ranging from gradually selling off what remained of his patrimony and exploiting stories of his own life and a spot of legal gaming against the film industry?

Prince Felix Yusupov was born the second son to the richest family in pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia. He married a niece of the Nicholas II and became his family scion on the death of his brother. The author does his best to sketch out the obscenely fabulous nature of the society Felix would adorn and its apparent inability to deal with the realities of their collapsing world. As most of us know, a key symptom of the dysfunction of this world lay within the Romanov royal family – their tragedy in having a haemophilic son, their covert attempts to deal with that situation and their openness to the kinds of religious quackery endemic in all levels of Russian society. This was personified in the person of the starets monk Rasputin who embedded himself within the Imperial family and underscored its indecision and unworldliness.

With disaster imminent on all fronts, it is no surprise that some of those who saw themselves as the superior upper echelon wanted the man gone and our hero and his circle of friends saw themselves as serving that end. Their attempt became a byword for incompetence and futility as the great Empire stumbled and slid into revolution, a new autocracy and the tragic end of both the central and peripheral Imperial family.

Most readers are familiar with the Rasputin story but probably only marginally aware of the leader of the assassin cabal. He was a truly fabulous person who lived most aspects of the fairy tale life he was born to with one major exception. This most handsome man (generally agreed – he was proud of the smallest waist in St Petersburg) grew up in a world where he enjoyed dressing as a woman, amateur theatricals and wasn’t much interested in warlike activities except for the uniforms (sounds like the 5th Marquess of Anglesey). He was, and always attempted to remain, a closeted homosexual. It is obvious where this is going as the relatively newly-married Prince responded to the rumours swirling around him and acted in accordance with what he saw as his honour (this despite the rumours that claim Felix, himself, had an affair with the mysterious magnetic monk).

The second half of the book follows his life as an exile amongst those scattered Imperial Russians who fed fashionable societies all over the world until their shrinking resources sent them into ever more pedestrian activities if not downright poverty. Felix followed a similar trajectory using whatever he could pawn or sell (not inconsiderable) utilising his pre-war English contacts (Oxford and smart set London) and his own determination in business. This was a story of mixed success punctuated by his writings about his own story and the bungled death of Rasputin. This led to a series of historic court-room financial wins as a savvy lawyer ran a series of cases against major film studies claiming misrepresentation and libel.

This is a competently written piece adequately explores the life of the Prince. I must say I felt a little cheated by this volume as I has expected more detail about the Prince’s concealed homosexual life. Perhaps it is to be found elsewhere or he was skilled in covering it up. There seems to be agreement that he continued all his life to pursue that interest despite his long-suffering and faithful wife. I would just like to know more about it.

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‘Reckoning: A Memoir’ by Magda Szubanski 2015. A review by John Cook.

With this book, you get two for the price of one. Yes, it is a memoir of Magda Szubanski yet overshadowing much of her revelations is the story and influence of her father Zbigniew. He was a teenage hero of the WWII Polish tragedy displaying brave humanity toward the threatened and oppressed and an apparently (initially) uncomplicated capacity to deal fatally with traitors and oppressors. He migrated to Australia after his training as a medical doctor was cut short in post-war Scotland. Like so many, he arrived in Australia to create a home with hopefulness for himself and family. Again, like so many this was not to be without difficulties and complications certainly involving trying to create space between the harrowing details of his wartime, the present and enduring links with place and family.

While revealing a great deal about her early life – probably the best part of this work – Magda finds herself caught up in the web of her father’s experiences and spends a lot of time especially in the middle of the work and during her experiences with her Polish family to gradually believe she has found answers to gnawing questions about her father’s role and her relationship with him and evils in the world generally. Based around her episode with ‘Who do you Think You Are?’ we are also treated to her mother’s Scots-Irish family background which informs a great deal of her character as well. We are also acquainted with her Polish background when she visits aunt Danuta (whom she resembles) and her cousin Magda Zawadzka and husband Gustaw Holoubeck, who were the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh of Poland.

For me, the earlier parts of the book were the greatest pleasure. Growing up where she did, the daily lives and cultures are wonderfully and wittily expressed. I have to marvel at her capacity to recall (something I sadly lack) and to convey a sense of time and place so accurately. We are treated to her emerging nature surrounded by all the childish and teenage angsts that pulled and tugged her in a number of different directions – and always her father. Her coverage of her daily suburban life and dealings with the school systems are a delight.

I enjoyed her description of her early work and emergence into TV comedy and more lately acting where she continues to make a mark. I believe few can say that they cannot still remember her characters in D-Generation, Fast Forward, Big Girl’s Blouse and the unfortunate but ever-hopeful Sharon Strezlecki without smiles that range from hilarity to the wan. I feel her work in many of these characters resembles that of a feminine Barry Humphries.

I mentioned evils in the world earlier and Magda carries the burden of dealing with her sexuality as oppressive discrimination. Like so many, she has her personal and public persona considerations to deal with and, while her actions indicate a strong gradual trajectory toward her lesbianism, there is trauma and behavioural problems she has to deal with. While rumours were rife, she eventually found the time and place that was comfortable for her to come out and has since been a public beacon for acceptance and equality. Her spiritual experience seems to be blend of finding inner peace with Buddhist views but her Catholic ancestry is never far away.  Perhaps the book is her very personal expression of what the Dalia Lama told her – maximum affection is always best.

A surprising book with many dimensions, it is very readable though the last third may be less interesting for some and the intense degree of self-examination may also put some off – I think they would be few.

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