Journey to the Stone Country – Alex Miller and ideas on Conservation

Plenty has been written about the storyline of Journey to the Stone Country.  We have a  fortyish woman who was raised on an outback Queensland station and an aboriginal man who grew up in the same area.  They meet  and when working together visit a long deserted, decaying station house

The house was left with its contents intact so we are given an understanding of what the life was like when the occupants were alive.  My interest was suddenly sparked when the question was raised about the rightness or otherwise of preserving or conserving objects from the past. exactly as they were found.

So imagine standing in the dining room of a fully furnished house whose air has not been disturbed by a human for a long while  Can you feel the previous dwellers.?  Do you feel comfortable or is there a shiver down your spine ? Do you feel that you are intruding on something private ?

Preserve 1One thing we should all treasure is our privacy. With social media this is becoming something that people have less and less regard for. We can have our discussions in our blogs but surely we all draw the line at just how much about ourselves we will reveal.  So if we preserve these objects from the past are we intruding on the privacy of the owners.

Preserve 2When we do conserve the past does that intangible atmosphere disappear ?

Preserve 3Alex Miller gives a very convincing argument which carries you along while you are reading.  In this case it was a substantial house which was the object in question. But how often when driving out in the country have you seen a clump of daffodils just inside the paddock fence, or a lone fruit tree in a most unlikely place and you realise that once there was probably a hut or home on that site

I have done a fair amount of family history research over the years and I have come across documents that have made me mentally apologize to the people for having intruded on their privacy, As far as I am concerned they will remain private.

But on the other hand look at this hut.  It is tucked away in a back yard in Castlemaine, Victoria, and you can see it by driving up the side lane.  Such a pretty little hut, or should I call it a cottage.  My McDonald great-grandparents lived  in this cottage in 1861-2 and had a couple of children there.

CottageCastlemaineI can use my imagination to try and re-create the lifestyle of Jane and Robert.  Would I have different emotions if the cottage had been allowed to fall into disrepair ? Would I feel their ghosts beside me ?  I am pleased that someone has taken the trouble to keep the cottage painted and in good repair.

Alex Miller would say that we have kept the fabric but lost the spirit.

Advertisements

Harvest by Jim Crace

In a nutshell , not bad !  It didn’t grab me to begin with, but after a while I found myself quite absorbed by the story, slowly being carried along by the events in a small English village

HarvestIt is set at a time when the enclosure of  land was becoming prevalent, possibly late C16th  Unfenced fields for crops provided good work for the villagers ,  But replacing crops with the more lucrative sheep required both fencing the fields and reducing the number of workers.

The story takes place within one week and is narrated by a villager, a widower who is not quite a villager as he came to the community after he became an adult. Through his marriage to a local girl he is accepted in good times but in times of trouble he doesn’t necessarily have  the full trust he deserves.

When strangers arrive in the village, a party on horseback  to the manor house and  some wanderers who camp on the outskirts  of the village, the disintegration of the village is set on its way.  In a matter of a few days a stable, balanced community  falls apart.

It reminded me of  Geraldine Brooks’ “Year of Wonders” but in that case a village turned in on itself and cut itself off from the world.  In this story  the villagers deserted their homes to spread out into the world. Two different village reactions and two  quite different styles of writing,  but both enjoyable

One thing I did appreciate with this book was the author’s empathy with the countryside of the village. I don’t think even the best of researchers could give you that  feeling of being at one with the living land. These days there is such separation between  our food, clothing, shelter, water, warmth. and their origins.

The basic small town story still has it’s equivalent today with the closure of  businesses, particularly in small towns. Lords of the Manor have been replaced with politicians and big business. Replace the fields with offshore processing, disregarding the human cost.

But to return to Jim Crace,  on page 232 when walking  in the rain as dusk takes hold and the sky blackens he writes —–
This downpour has not got  the force to last, but for the moment it takes hold. The clouds carry too much weight before they reached this place. I can almost hear them sigh with relief as they let go their load.

In future I’ll be listening for the sighs.

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

“He came on a November day, a cold wind blowing, the fields soaked with rain.”

With this first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, then the second page , I knew I was starting a book I would enjoy

Apart from Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel I haven’t found much to interest me in period stories set in Italy, such as Medici stories.  But this rather tragic tale is unforgettable.

I hadn’t heard of it until one night recently it was discussed on the Book Show on Australian ABC TV and now having read the book I went back and watched their comments again more carefully.  To them it seemed the love story was secondary to the Gothic, the darkness, the evil, the religion and politics.  But I’m a people person and the meeting and the gradual involvement of the sculptor and the beautiful young girl was what it was all about. .  It is set in the less affluent parts of Florence  and the countryside with the brief ventures of the sculptor into princely circles.

Because it was set in late C17th Italy how a relationship developed depended on the laws and the morals of the time., and this historical background floats along underneath the characters of the story.  There are also some fine descriptions of how sculpture in wax was done in those times and some unforgettable minor characters along the way.

Then there are the secrets.  We all have our little secrets which we don’t reveal to casual acquaintances. And it is these secrets held by different characters  in the book which lead the story to its conclusion.

It wasn’t until I had finished the book that I found out that Zumbo was a real person who spent his life fleeing foom his home in Sicily.  He really did make the wax sculptures depicting the plague. This has made the book even more fascinating in retrospect.

The boy-girl story and the secrets were but the dominant factors of the book to me.  I enjoyed the background, it was a necessary part of the story, but it wasn’t the story itself.

But, I found a different interpretation of the book in the Australian ABC TV’s Book Club.  For the discussion the three regulars were joined by authors Junot Diaz and Sarah Dunant.  I don’t think I’ve read anything by either of them but after listening to them talk I certainly intend to remedy that.

The background seemed to be everything to them -evil, hell-hole, darkness, gothic, pious, sordid were some of the words they used.  True, but what did they expect in C17th Florence and was it very different to what is happening in different parts of our world and which we read in our papers and hear on the TV news each night.

I don’t think the panel made any mention of the title, Secrecy, which is such an  important part of  the story.  As secrets are revealed so are actions determined.  Knowledge determines how we react to a situation.

Soo…we all liked the book, but with different interpretations and  for different reasons. My appreciation of the book was enriched by listening to these two discussions, the first from the ABC Book Club and the second from an interview with the author Rupert Thomson.

The Burial by Courtney Collins

Ths was a great read.  It was this Australian author’s  first book and i wish her well for her future writing.

The burial

The Narrator is a new born baby, sacrificed and buried by the mother  The baby bears her mother no grudge but continues to monitor her mother’s life and has the ability to fill in the back story of her mother’s early years. I really enjoyed this connection between birth, life, death and the earth.

It is set in the Australian bush, away from urban living,  just after World War I It is a story of rustling, neglect, loneliness, hard livng, endurance and courage.

I enjoy her writing style, at times with a slight mystical quality. We are reminded of the the earth and all the stories its contains, giving it a living, breathing quality.  The things that are going on in the various layers of the earth reminds me of   Julian Barnes    saying ‘It’s just the Universe doing its stuff’.

Page 1 the burial

For some reason or other I kept feeling the story was set in the C19th. I kept missing  or overlooking the clues to its era. But in my mind i think I’ll keep it that way. -the horses, the mountains and caves, all the virgin country where people could hide and not be found, the scattered huts where people tended their cattle. This unrelenting country is another character in the story with, in varying amounts, her husband, her lover, the law, and reward hunters.

In my eyes this is a little gem of a book.

Julian Barnes (and Van Loon)

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

My father owned a book called Van Loon’s Lives originally published in 1942 and it was one of my early reading experiences.  In  it the author invites pairs of famous people for dinner.  It didn’t matter if the guests lived in different centuries, this was a beautiful fantasy where a conversation could be constructed between very different people. Think of Sir Thomas More with Erasmus, Beethoven with Napoleon,  Mozart with Hans Andersen , Plato and Confucius, Chopin with Emily Dickinson.  I don’t know how the book would fare these days but for me it was a wonderful potted introduction to famous people in history. It’s back on my reading list after all these years.

I was reading a 1954 reprint of the book.   The endpapers show the supposed setting for the dinners.

Van loons lives

It was brought back to my mind when I started reading Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life”.  As he started telling me about the early experiments with ballooning I found myself thinking I like this bloke.  I’d like to be at a dinner party where he is a guest. And hence Van Loon’s Lives !

I picked this book to read as I had so enjoyed his “Sense of an Ending”.  I get such a feeling of calm from his writings.

Levels of Life

But it’s an unusual book. Of just 118 pages I could call it a pot-pourri.  It starts off with stories of the early experiments with ballooning, the early adventurers escaping from the pull of the earth and an 1858 attempt at aerial photography.  We also learn a lot about the actress Sarah Bernhardt which you possibly hadn’t heard before, and then it moves on to his grief at the death of his beloved wife, Pat Kavanagh. For someone who normally lives a very private life, he is very revealing about his loss and its effect on his life.

At one stage his attitude to Death is “ It’s just the Universe doing its stuff.”  I like that.  It stacks up well against the usual condolences which are proffered. .  The Universe doing its stuff.  When we disintegrate do we break down into atoms or something smaller like an electron or a proton ?  I can visualize all my little bits and pieces floating around the Universe and hopefully one day in the distant future one of them will be re-cycled and become a part of a brilliant scientist or artist, writer or singer, pianist or doctor, someone who contributes strongly to their community.  Note that I didn’t include a Member of Parliament!

He appears to have no dependants, no going out each day to a regular job- is he alone too much with his grief ?  Would he have coped differently with  a fixed income and three children at school  That word LOVE needs a lot of consideration.  I felt there was so much dependency there,  Where is the borderline between Love and Dependency ?

Make sure you know the dictionary definition of uxurious before you start the book – excessively fond of your wife. .  He has a thing about people who don’t use the same meaning as he does, but then again he was a lexicographer for a while.

The copy of the book which I have read was published by Jonathan Cape.  I found it strange that it didn’t contain a list of the author’s previous publications.  When I enjoy a book one of the first things I do is go to the front of the book to find out what else he/she has published.

Since finishing the book a week or so ago I am still picking it up and opening it at random to read a paragraph or too.  I need to re-read the whole book. In the meantime, look what I found in Van Loon’s Lives – a lovely old bookmark.   British Commonwealth Day began in 1958, replacing Empire Day.

Commonwealth Day Bookmark

Art as the basis of a novel – Headlong by Michael Frayn

I often wonder how writers decide on the story they want to tell in a novel. These days I seem to be reading so many stories which have a factual, underlying theme which has to be explained in great detail,  presumably to show what a clever author we are reading.  So what came first, the interactions of some characters who have a tale to tell, or a sudden interest in a topic  whether it be history, art, astronomy, science, medicine, travel etc, etc , using this interest as an excuse to spend time on research, later developing  a story involving those facts.

Take Art as an example   I know very little about Art.  I do like a pretty picture, or a nostalgic picture.  The colours might appeal to me or it might represent a time and place which has meaning to me. It might just make me feel good or in some cases quite emotional.  But I probably couldn’t put into words what it is about the painting which is affecting me. And dissecting it into little details in the background or what was happening in the artist’s life at that time diminishes my enjoyment of the painting. As my father used to say – Sex, Art and Politics are private and not for discussing. – a useful statement when you want to get out of a discussion.

But Michael Frayn  in Headlong is determined to educate me about Art, the History of Art and the History of the Netherlands.  The words Iconography, Iconology, Nominalism and Breugel whirl around in my head.  Don’t get me wrong.  I quite  enjoyed the book.  But there were times I wanted to scream.  GET OUT OF THE LIBRARY AND GET ON WITH THE PLOT !!

Basically it is a mystery story as Martin Clay tries to find proof that his accidental sighting of a long-ignored painting is a sighting of an unknown masterpiece. . There is also the dilemma about what leads a nice young man with a nice wife and a baby , an educated man, an academic, to behave in such an underhand manner, deceiving the rightful owner of the painting, at the same time justifying his actions as a necessary noble deed,

And then I started reading what other people had written.  Oh dear.  Am I so naïve that I didn’t see it was meant to be funny, hilarious, amusing, comic, engaging or with humorous overtones.  It seems that I  need to have relevant books labelled Do Not Take Me Too Seriously. I took it seriously It could have happened.  It happened with a low level academic  looking at a painting and seeing a chance of self-glorification. That is incredibly sad.

So Michael Frayn’s buckets of words communicated differently  to me compared to other people.  Perhaps it was because I had never heard of Frayn before whereas others talked of Headlong with references to previous works.

If you want to read more about the storyline one suggestion is

http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/08/29/reviews/990829.29cohen.html

When I get through my current reading list I intend to read some more of Frayn.

Dictionaries, and The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

Who would have thought that delving into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary would produce such a riveting tale of murder and madness, brilliant minds and dogged determination.

It was on Eliis Nelson’s blog that I first heard of The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. And what a great read it turned out to be. Over the years there had been other attempts to make collections of words but the Oxford English Dictionary  was the first great attempt to set out the history and meaning of every word in the English language.  Supervised by Dr James Murray, hordes of volunteers collected words.  One contributor showed himself to be highly intelligent and absolutely the right kind of researcher for this task.

That researcher was Dr W.C  Minor.  He had been a surgeon during the American Civil War but signs of mental illness caused him to give up medicine.  While travelling overseas he suffered from delusions and in that state committed murder in London and was placed in Broadmoor  Asylum. The book is largely about his life story and his connection with the O.E.D.

Words are our means of communication.  I can only hope that the words that I have used so far in this post mean exactly the same to you as they did to me when I wrote them.  In my adult life have relied on three books to help me with the meaning of words  – Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Roget’s Thesaurus.  I wonder how many school  leavers will actually add a physical, hold-in-your-hand dictionary as a must-have possession or whether they will just rely on online resources.

The changes that take place in meanings over the years can be a problem.  Some  words have changed so dramatically that I can no longer use them in their earlier meaning.   Recently I was feeling gay, using  it  with its old meaning.  But if I didn’t explain my meaning , you would just take the word gay at its present face value.  I didn’t want to say I was happy – that word to me  is too serene, too calm, very pleased with life.  But gay still means I am pleased with life at the moment but it has a bounciness, I want to give a little skip as I come down the hall, a feeling of sheer delight.   The meaning of happy and gay that you have built up in your mind dictionary might be slightly different to mine but there would be sufficient meaning in common for us to communicate, as long as you are old enough to know the previous meaning of gay.   So…. Yesterday I was happy.  Today I am gay,

Another word which is changing its meaning is marriage.  I’d be quite happy  to see that word honourably retired and have the lexicographers devise a new umbrella word to cover all forms of vowed intimacy, allowing for the fact that some time in the future someone will probably start agitating to include threesomes and foursomes !

These are all thoughts arising from my reading of the book.  But I was saddened by the amount of personal information the author gives us about Dr. Minor’s  illness.  I have done quite a bit of family history research and it’s always exciting when you find a new snippet of information apart from the official births, deaths and marriages – an old photo, a newspaper reference,  an old letter,  So it was enough to know from the newspapers the details of Minor’s conviction. It would have been enough to tell us how he went about contributing to the dictionary.  But Winchester had to  make a juicy story by invading the very privacy of Minor’s mind by using  the Broadmoor records.  Even though Dr Minor is dead I believe he is still entitled to his mind’s privacy.  The privacy of our mind is the only thing we really have.

On a personal note though my great grandfather used to buy the Birmingham paper once a week and reading it lasted him all week.  No doubt he read about the Minor trial in 1872 at the time when his first child, my grandfather was just a few weeks old. And another trivial note to tell you that a little black ant has just wandered across my laptop screen !  Now, where did he come from ?

If you are still with me then thank you for reading.  Isn’t it amazing what one book can bring out in you !

Image

Trusty friends