Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Enjoying Ladies in Black

Last Friday, 21 September, a friend and I went to see the new Bruce Beresford film Ladies in Black. I had really wanted to see it.

The film is based on the 1993 book Women in Black written by Australian writer Madeleine St John (pronounced Sinjun). Madeleine was born at Castlecrag on Sydney's North Shore on 12 November 1941, the daughter of Edward St John and French mother, Sylvette (Cargher). Her maternal grandparents were Romanian Jews.

Edward was a prominent Sydney barrister, a civil activist and a sometimes renegade Liberal Party parliamentarian in the 1960s. Madeleine's mother committed suicide in 1954 when Madeleaine was 12. The following year her father married Valerie Winslow.

Madeleine grew up in the urbane upper middle class world on Sydney's North Shore. She went to Queenwood School for Girls, Mosman before going the Sydney University where she was a contemporary of Beresford, John Bell, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Arthur Dignam, Robert Hughes and Richard Walsh. Her father defended Walsh in the first Oz obscenity trial in 1964.

Madeleine turned to novel writing quite late following a failed eight year attempt to write a biography of Helena Blavatsky. She then gave up, destroyed the manuscript and tuned to fiction.

Women in Black was published in 1993 followed by three more books including The Essence of the Thing, a book shortlisted for the Booker prize. Her career was cut short because of her death from emphysema. She was just 64.

I am very out of touch with some things. I had not heard of the book, nor that it had been turned into a successful musical under the title Ladies in Black. I was attracted to the film by the posters and by snippets of news that suggested that it was a film that I might enjoy. As I did.

The film is set in Sydney in the summer of 1959. This was a time of change in Australia. The austerity of the immediate post war period had been replaced by relative affluence with full employment and growing wealth. The mass migration program launched at the end of the Second World war was well underway bringing changes within Australian society,

The story begins when a shy schoolgirl, Lisa Miles (Angourie Rice)) takes a summer job at the grand city department store, Goode’s, while awaiting the results of her final exams. Goode's is clearly based on David Jones, then Sydney's poshest store, where Madeleine worked as a casual.

At Goode's Lisa is befriended by fellow assistants in the cocktail frock section Fay (Rachel Taylor) and Patty (Alison McGirr) and is drawn into the ambit of Magda Szombatheli (Julia Ormond), the charming and sophisticated Slovenian émigré who in charge of Goode's high fashion end. Between them, they are the ladies in black named because of the uniform they wear.

We watch Lisa grow from a bookish girl to a glamorous and positive young woman as she herself becomes a catalyst for a cultural change in everyone’s lives.

I really enjoyed the movie as did our fellow blogger AC. You will find her review here. It does have weaknesses, but it's good fun.

Following the movie I read some of the reviews as well as investigating the film's background. I am glad that I did this after rather than before, because I got seriously annoyed at spots. Sometimes, it is better not to read reviews because of the way it affects, conditions, thinking. I may come back to this point later once the film is out of the cinemas.  

Monday, September 17, 2018

Monday Forum - things that inspire

My internet connection has been down, system outage, which proved a complete pain! Forcibly removed from my screen, I was sitting there in the battered armchair in the kitchen reading with the radio on in the background. Then a most wonderful interview on ABC Radio National's Conversations came on with writer Louisa Deasey about her new book A Letter from Paris. I put the book down and listened, tearing up at several spots.

The ABC RN web page describes the story in this way:
In 2016 Louisa Deasey received a message, out of the blue, from a stranger in France. 
The woman's grandmother had died, and in her attic was a bundle of love letters. 
They told the story of a dashing Australian man named Denison Deasey, and his love story with a young French girl. 
Denison was Louisa’s late father, and when she was growing up, the family rarely spoke about him. 
The message from France sent Louisa on a voyage of discovery about her father, and herself.
These fairly bland words only hint at the texture of the story. I am not going to tell you more about the story. Instead, this is the link to the Radio National conversation, this a link to another description that includes a chapter from the book. I leave it to you to follow up.

 Think about the conversation, I thought that things that inspire might be a suitable topic for this week's Monday Forum. What thing's have inspired you? They might be a book or film, a scene, a person. Whatever.

As always, feel free to wander as you like.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Can Mr Dutton survive?

There was something quite unseemly about Australian Immigration Minister Dutton's attacks on the former Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg, accusing  him (among other things) of  "grooming" a younger woman (and here). I am no fan of Mr Quaedvlieg, but this was over the top.

How things change.

Just a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Turnbull seemed relatively secure with a functioning government that seemed to be making some progress. Then came his collapse on the National Energy Guarantee followed immediately by his decision to call a Liberal leadership spill with the aim of shoring up his position against the emerging Dutton challenge. From this came the confusing fiasco of the subsequent Dutton challenge that saw Mr Morrison become Prime Minister with Mr Turnbull exiting politics.In the end, everybody, including many Liberal and National Party Parliamentarians, was left wondering what was all that about!

I'm not fond of Mr Dutton. I dislike what I perceive to be his policies and indeed his values. I was also deeply distrustful about the creation of Border Force and the militarisation of previous civil functions. I make this point because it affects my judgments. Accepting this, I would make two points.

The first is that many in the Liberal Party must be feeling a sense of relief that Mr Dutton's challenge failed. Imagine how the Government would be coping now if Mr Dutton were PM instead of a just a Minister.

My second point is that I struggle to see how Mr Dutton can survive as Minister. I am not talking here about the visa issues including Mr Quaedvlieg's attacks. I think Mr Dutton could have survived this, although it is yet another unwelcome distraction for the Government. However. now that he has got down in the ditch to pick up scoops of mud to throw at Mr Quaedvlieg he has lost all the benefits of the high ground. I may be wrong, but I don't think that he can survive that.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reflections on my latest Armidale trip - drought, Airbnb and still more New England writers

I was up country last week. As I topped the mountain, the southern New England was showing traces of green, but the country then got very dry indeed. All the verges along Thunderbolt's Way showed signs of grazing from travelling stock, although this time there were no stock on the road either coming or going.

I kept a wary eye out for roos, there have been a number of accidents with hungry roos crossing roads looking for grazing. but while I saw some roadkill there were no live ones. Just as well. I was a little tired driving in both directions and it was also raining for a lot of the time. Not enough to break the drought, but it should give some greenpick if the frosts hold off.

I was thinking as I drove about the droughts I have known. The grass gets a gray colour, almost transparent.Then there is the blowing dust coming in especially from the west. This drought has attracted a lot of mainstream media attention, that's good, but its not the worst drought I have seen.

Armidale was cold and damp. It's a pretty place, really quite beautiful in spots even at the end of winter, but I was glad to spend some time in my warm motel room, just reading. I had planned to go the week before, but the city was booked out. Last week, too, accommodation was quite limited with most of the motels showing no vacancy signs. In addition to the hotels and motels, Armidale now has 133 Airbnb places. Most of these were booked as well.

Armidale is a funny accommodation marketplace because of its peaks. There is normally plenty of accommodation, but then you have graduation or some other special event that soaks it all up. From the viewpoint of the provider, it's feast or famine.

I have the strong impression that both base load and peak demand has increased. This is where Airbnb has its advantages, for it has effectively double available bed nights.

In February I saw a small heritage cottage listed for sale at $275,000. It was a funny little three bedroom place, then rented for $275 per week. It was proving hard to sell even though that's a good rental yield by Sydney standards because it didn't quite fit the family market. Checking, it finally seems to have sold for $250,000. It's now on Airbnb at $200 per night and seems to be renting quite well.

Looking at the photos, I estimate that the new owners probably spent $50,000 on a new kitchen and other repairs. Even at an average of just two nights per week, and occupancy seems far higher than this, $400 per week is not a bad gross yield.

I know that problems can arise with Airbnb, but for many places outside the high traffic areas it can really add to tourism opportunities. You can't get the visitors without the accommodation, but the accommodation won't come without the visitors. Airbnb acts as something of a circuit breaker.

There is also a ripple effect. Armidale, for example, does have a certain draw-power. Airbnb adds to Armidale's options but also spreads its effects around Armidale, creating new choices.

I mentioned that I spent a fair bit of time reading. I had one of those green shopping bags with me full of new, well mainly new to me, second hand books. Yes, I know that I am meant to be clearing out my collection and it has shrunk a little, but there have been some opportunities to buy some really good stuff cheaply . As you might expect, my new treasures include history and biography with an especial focus on Northern NSW, my broader New England.

I read very little current fiction. It's partly time, but it's also true that I am put off by the now many writers' festivals. I don't attend, but I hear a fair bit about them including multiple festival sessions repeated on ABC Radio National. Maybe I'm just getting old, but as the festivals search for audience they go more and more into particular types of niche areas that target elements in the audience that do go. And I'm not interested.

I have the same reaction to ABC Radio National's Hub on Books. I have never been very keen on arts or cultural programs. I tell myself I should be, but then I find myself turning the radio or TV off, retreating into silence and my own thoughts. There is so much produced now, so little that I am interested in, that I find myself submerged. I can't process it all. I am out of their frames. I am also tired of angst.

The things that I am most interested in, the stories that I want to tell, relate to my own life and, more importantly, my own area.

On Wednesday I visited Boobooks (on Facebook) and the Readers Companion (on Facebook). These two nearby stores in the Armidale Mall really compliment each other.

Boobooks has taken over the artdeco banking chambers built for the Commonwealth Bank. Now the bank that I knew as a child is the home to 70,000 second hand books. Happiness.

Reader's Companion is a new book shop. It's not easy making money today from a bookshop. Reader's Companion has responded by making the store a centre for new releases and writer activities, including the ever-increasing range of local publications. They also have a Kombi van that takes new books to all the surroundinf centres that lack bookshops.

I sat in the coffee shop across the Mall from Boobooks to review my latest treasures. It was just too cold to sit outside as I normally do,

From Boobooks, I had a signed copy of Zeny Giles' Caught in the Light: A Celebration of Newcastle.  I hadn't heard of Zeny, so many people I haven't heard of!, but she is quite a well known writer.The book was published by Newcastle's Catchfire Press, another small publisher that I did not know.

From Reader's Companion, I bought Jimmy Barnes' Working Class Man, the second volume in his autobiography. Now I here I found myself caught in cross-links between recent purchases.

Jimmy Barnes' first chapter is headed I was a serial runner and is subtitled  On the way to Armidale, 1974. The first 32 pages are a picture of hippy Armidale in the mid 1970s.

I have previously mentioned the New England writer Shirley Walker. Recently. I was able to buy her memoir, Roundabout at Bangalow: an intimate chronicle which includes details of her life on the North Coast and in Armidale. It was Shirley's son, singer and song writer Don Walker, who brought Jimmy Barnes to Armidale when Don decided to do postgraduate studies at the University of New England.

The hippy connection linked to another of my recent purchases, Judy Cassab's Diaries. I first read the diaries because I was interested in Judy Cassab as a painter. There I found that son John had become involved in the counter-culture movement on the North Coast in its early days, so the diaries include references directly relevant to my historical interests. Here the social change that took place in the 1960s and 1970s is part of my story, personal as well as historical.

The copy of the diaries  I was reading belonged to a friend. It's only in the last four week's that I have been able to acquire my own copy.

As so often happens, I drove back from Armidale with more to write about. On the way, I sat in the cafe cum general store and post office at Barrington and tried to gather my thoughts. So much to think about, so much to say. How was I too manage? I still don't have an answer!  

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Saturday Morning Musings - reflections triggered by Hey Jude

In a comment on last week's Monday Forum, kvd referred me to Tim de Lisle's essay in the GuardianNana na naaa! How Hey Jude became our favourite Beatles song. It's a well written piece that attracted a large comment stream, 1548 as I write. Some agreed, many others did not listing their favourite Beatle songs in order. Some attacked the Beatles, including a few lone defenders of classical music!

I do remember Hey Jude coming out, but not really the exact year. Looking it up, it was 1968, roughly when I thought.

One of the difficulties of growing older is that dates tend to blur, along with the detail of events. I am not talking about the aging process as such, although that can happen. It's rather that the present is always more intense, an intensity lost as that present recedes further into the past. The more presents there have been, the lower the intensity of preceding presents, the more memory is lost. Certain things stand out like increasingly distant mountains, but the detail and often accuracy is gone.

This process is a good thing. How can people heal from tragedy or trauma if the details remain fixed in their memory carrying the same emotional intensity? We need distance to put things in perspective. We need new experiences with new emotions. Healing may not be perfect, scars may remain, but the process allows us to move forward.

I am reminded of all this from time to time because I write so much history, including stories from the relatively recent past. My last Armidale Express column began:
Life can sometimes become too much. On November 18, 1920, William Ogilvie was found lying on his bed at Sydney’s Usher’s Hotel with a bullet wound in his temple, a revolver clasped in his right hand. He was only 58.   
Near his body were found a letter to his solicitor and telegrams to his wife and children. 
“Good-bye, my darling wife,” one telegram read, “I shall never see you alive again. I have written you to Ilparran today, explaining everything. Fondest love, my dearest dear.”      
I felt sad reading the material on his death because here was a man with a loving family, without money worries, for whom it had become just all too much. Yes, he appears to have been drinking too much, this is often a feature in such cases, but this is not a sufficient explanation. Knowing something about he and his broader family, I can surmise far more than I could put in 500 words.

I think it goes back to the decision to send him away to school in England at an early age, separating him from home including his grandmother for whom he seems to have been a favourite. Then after those years in England came his father's decision after William completed Oxford to send him back to Australia to start preparing to take over Yulgilbar. William seems to have been happy in England and close to his brother who was also living there.

Relationships with fathers are often complex, Edward Ogilvie was becoming increasingly irascible and authoritarian. His daughters, poet Robert Browning's beloved octet, would shortly escape into marriage. His brother would remain in England. For William's part, he was sent back to a country he now barely knew to learn his trade from a station manger who continued to live in the big house, who excluded him. When William raised objections and concerns with his father about the way the manager was treating family interests, he was ignored.

Later, his father would be forced to take action, to put aside his extended idyll in Europe and especially Florence, a city Edward had fallen in love with, to return to stabilise the family fortunes. By then, the break between William and his father had become permanent. Now well-off in his own right, it seems that William was left without a proper anchor or degree of purpose.

All this is surmise. although (I think) reasonable surmise. What I had not expected is that the column would draw comments from people whose own fathers had committed suicide, where the wounds were still raw. That past was still very present.

While the passage of time does lead to sometimes necessary blurring, there are times when you would like to remember. Hey Jude is a case in point, That period of my life once so bright, so clearly delineated in bright light, has become vague. But this is where the historian comes in!

Following kvd's comment, I went back checking dates. I find that if I remember something to which I can attach a date, it becomes easier to remember and check events and feelings surrounding that. It was something of a trip down nostalgia lane, Maybe I will write something on that. But not today!