Tuesday, 19 September 2017

[Book Review] Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (2001)

Neil Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (Doubleday: London 2001)

Nobody could accuse Neil Hanson of not writing a gripping story.  This account of the Great Fire of London fairly tears along, from the closing stages of the plague that preceeded it, to the condition of the poorer quarters of the town on the eve of the fire, to the disaster and its aftermath.  His gaze shifts rapidly from the highest levels of the court of King Charles II to the primitive relief camps outside London. 

The Dreadful Judgement
Image from here
Hanson takes issue with the traditional death toll of four people, although he seems to accept that these are the only deaths that are known with certainty to hsve occurred.  Knowing what we do after Black Saturday, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that the actual loss of life was hundreds or even thousands that number.  Intriguingly, he leaves open the possibility that the fire may in fact have been started deliberately by French or Dutch saboteurs.

A connecting thread in the story is the experience of the baker, Thomas Farriner, whose shop is traditionally thought to be the cause of the fire.  He shifts between details which seem to have been drawn from contemporary accounts to narrative which seems to be a mix of inference, conjecture and speculation.  This is the unsettling part of the book: it is difficult to tell precisely where the history ends and the imagination begins.  This makes it hard to trust his commentary on (say) the likely cause of the fire.  The situation is not helped by inexcusably poor footnoting. For example, claiming Samuel Pepys' colossal diary as a source is useless when the reference simply refers to "Samuel Pepys, Diary" or "Samuel Pepys, op. cit.".  A first-year Arts student would not be allowed this sort of scholarly sleight of hand, and Hanson's editor should not have permitted it either.

This book is a good yarn, and perhaps a good place to start researching London of the 1660s, but it would be a poor place to stop.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

[Book Review] Antonia White: Diaries 1926-1957 (1991)

Antonia White, Diaries 1926-1957 [vol. 1], ed. Susan Chitty (Constable & Co: London, 1991)

I don't read a great deal of fiction, and until I saw this book in an op shop I'd never heard of Antonia White.  However, I love reading diaries or letters by artists (one of my desert island books is the Letters of Bruce Chatwin).

Diaries 1926-1957: Volume I
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White's diaries did not disappoint.  More than anything else, she was a writer's writer.  Clive James' memorable description of Turgenev could equally have applied to her -
The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.

In the later stages of the diaries, especially as they stretch into the 1950s, you get a real sense of the life of a professional writer: the difficulty meeting editors' deadlines, self doubt, and becoming bored with one's characters or subject.  You also get a sense of the black hole into which prose stylists can fall, as she writes and rewrites the first chapter of an ultimately unpublished book (one thinks of Joseph Grand in Camus' La Peste, only without the hint of comedy).

Real life keeps breaking through, especially in the years up to 1950, as White chronicles a string of failed marriages and questionable relationships.  Susan Chitty - her daughter and editor - deserves praise here: White frequently writes about her own quite-active sex life and editing this material can't have been fun.

Antonia White was too singular a person for her diaries to be a time capsule of her age, either of the big- or small-picture type.  However, they do have the same crystal-clear quality of George Orwell and Earnest Hemingway without the former's bitterness or the latter's irony.  They may not be everyone's taste, but they should be on the list of every aspiring writer.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Rosie and Me

I have a job!  Three weeks ago I applied for a job as a metal fabricator at a local signmaker.  I was completely straight with them about my skills: I learned to do my welding on-farm and most of my practical talents are what I learned in the same place and with the State Emergency Service.  A few days later they offered me the job: there had been better candidates, but they “liked my attitude”.  I started the next day.


The work is hard: a great deal of it involves lifting and moving items made out of aluminium and acrylic.  My first few days were spent either installing signs at Benalla and Shepparton and Melbourne and polishing letters which will form part of a sign halfway up a building.  The start time varies from 0500hrs to 0730hrs.

 

There was a “you are here” moment when going out to a sign-repair in Melbourne.  The sign belonged to a medical practice from which I used to request medical records and repeats.  This proved something, but I’m not sure what.


For the last few days I’ve been working blisteringly hard cutting lengths of aluminium for welding into frames for signs.  The client is a very valuable one and each cut must be accurate to within half a millimetre.  The target is enough material for 134 signs; as at 1730hrs on Friday I had completed 116.  The most satisfying thing in the world is working hard at something worthwhile.  I found myself wondering if this work truly is worthwhile.  It was hard not to wish I was putting this much energy into serving the Red Cross or the SES, or that the army hadn't knocked me back.  This led me to thinking about the “Rosie the Riveter” women who went from being housewives and secretaries and shop assistants to being welders and bomb assemblers during the last World War (it was the closest analogue I could think of for my own change in circumstances).

Image from here

At first I thought: that was worthwhile work.  But then I remembered that the reality as lived by the people was probably closer to the munitions factory setting in Foyle's War: the work was worthwhile, but done in a setting which was venal, bullying and unrewarding.



This was a salutary reminder not to expect the world to be what it isn’t.  The same thought has been on my mind since I received paperwork last week advising that one of my favourite charities – the Royal District Nursing Service – has changed its name to Bolton Clarke.  Allegedly this is to reflect its expanded range of services.  The cynic in me suspects that this is an initial step to becoming a for-profit enterprise (less likely) or sold as a going concern (more likely – the public would be outraged to hear that Royal District Nursing Service assets are being sold, but will barely notice when the assets belonging to what sounds like a firm of accountants are sold).  It saddens me to think that a charity I love may be acting like a low-grade bait-and-switch.


I’m not sure I know what to do with any of this.  I don’t know if I’m over-naïve or over-jaded.  Simple economics dictates that I have to keep working.  But I wish I was doing something that made the world a better place.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Review: Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (2005)

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Paulines Publishing House: Manila, 2005)

Like most papal documents, Paul VI's exhortation on evangelization is deceptively easy to read.  It is supremely quotable and textually dense.


Pope Paul VI
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The text spans the need for evangelization in the world of 1975, when it was first released.  It remains a necessary text today for many of the blocks of opinion which the church encounters in- and outside itself.  Chapter 3 demonstrates the point well.  This chapter seems to be a rebuff to Liberation Theology as an error, or at any rate as a sufficient form of church practice.  The Church's role in ending suffering and systemic injustice is accepted (¶30) -
It is well known in what terms numerous bishops from all the continents spoke of this [liberation] at the last Synod, especially the bishops from the Third World, with a pastoral accent resonant with the voice of the millions of sons and daughters of the Church who make up those peoples. Peoples, as we know, engaged with all their energy in the effort and struggle to overcome everything which condemns them to remain on the margin of life: famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism. The Church ... has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children- the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization.

However, readers are cautioned, this is not the end of the work: "in order that God's kingdom should come it is not enough to establish liberation and to create well-being and development" (¶35).

Two parts of this discussion are equally resonant today.  Commentators who view the church as tolerable only to the extent that it perform's socially useful services are cautioned that this limit is not acceptable (¶32):
[M]any, even generous Christians who are sensitive to the dramatic questions involved in the problem of liberation, in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a man-centered goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. She would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God.

There is an equally stern rebuke to the modern writers who talk gleefully about 'Elijah house-clearing with a shotgun': "The Church cannot accept violence, especially the force of arms - which is uncontrollable once it is let loose - and indiscriminate death as the path to liberation, because she knows that violence always provokes violence and irresistibly engenders new forms of oppression and enslavement which are often harder to bear than those from which they claimed to bring freedom" (¶37).



The discussion of responses to non-Christian religions bears re-reading when Evangelical belief has shrunk to a crude rejection of encounters with other faiths as 'fellowship with Baal'.








Without conceding to a vague 'kumbaya', the significance of other faiths is firmly announced (¶53):
The Church respects and esteems ... non Christian religions because they are the living expression of the soul of vast groups of people. They carry within them the echo of thousands of years of searching for God, a quest which is incomplete but often made with great sincerity and righteousness of heart. They possess an impressive patrimony of deeply religious texts. They have taught generations of people how to pray. [However,] ... neither respect and esteem for these religions nor the complexity of the questions raised is an invitation to the Church to withhold from these non-Christians the proclamation of Jesus Christ. On the contrary the Church holds that these multitudes have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ - riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth. Even in the face of natural religious expressions most worthy of esteem, the Church finds support in the fact that the religion of Jesus, which she proclaims through evangelization, objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action; she thus causes an encounter with the mystery of divine paternity that bends over towards humanity. In other words, our religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven.
Chapter 6 covers the role to be played by members of the church in advancing evangelization, from the episcopate to the laity.  The merit in the monastic life is firmly restated: Monks and nuns "embody the Church in her desire to give herself completely to the radical demands of the beatitudes. By their lives they are a sign of total availability to God, the Church and the brethren" (¶69).  This bears repeating in the light of a hostility that seems to have begun in the Reformation and never quite ended:



Chapter 7 follows up with a reminder to the various Christian denominations that internal squabbles are deeply unhealthy for evangelization.  Polemicists from Catholic, Protestant, Mormon and Orthodox traditions will probably all feel a little stung by the criticism in ¶77:
The power of evangelization will find itself considerably diminished if those who proclaim the Gospel are divided among themselves in all sorts of ways. Is this not perhaps one of the great sicknesses of evangelization today? Indeed, if the Gospel that we proclaim is seen to be rent by doctrinal disputes, ideological polarizations or mutual condemnations among Christians, at the mercy of the latter's differing views on Christ and the Church and even because of their different concepts of society and human institutions, how can those to whom we address our preaching fail to be disturbed, disoriented, even scandalized?


Most of the points His Holiness made in 1975 were strong than.  Many have become even stronger in the intervening 40 years.  Evangelii Nuntiandi should be read by anyone of a religious persuasion who wants to share their faith with the world.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review: Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (2009)

Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life (HarperCollins: New York, 2009)

I wasn't sure whether I was going to like Sarah Palin's autobiography or not.  Having finished it, I'm still not sure.

Image from here
Palin came to (inter)national prominence with her nomination as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential election.  Since then she's bobbed about on the political scene as a speaker and talking head, but not as a candidate.  Her 2008-and-after career, however, is a little misleading. It distracts from her time as a competent and effective governor of Alaska.  This is fundamentally the puzzle with this book.  Slightly over half covers her early life, the start of her political career, and governorship of Alaska. This part is genuinely interesting.  The discussion of the process of reforming the oil industry is a gift for a policy wonk, taking in issues of revenue, royalties, land use and resource planning.

It's less easy to like the discussion of her time as a Vice Presidential nominee.  This section of the book feels remarkably disjointed, as if each episode were remembered and written down separately and then copied and pasted into more-or-less chronological order.  It may be that Ms Palin did write this section that way: the book came out in 2009 - the year after the election - and the memories may still have been a bit raw.  It's also possible that it reflects the McCain campaign itself.  The presidential and vice presidential wings of the campaign seem to have barely communicated with each other, resulting in the latter learning about (say) the decision to abandon Michigan from the morning news.  More seriously, the professional campaign staff seem to have decided to retain a tightly controlled message which meant they could not effectively utilise Palin's skills as a grassroots campaigner.  One must, of course remember that this is Palin's side of the story and (like every political writer since Thucydides) there will always be a temptation to set the record crooked on key points.  That said, the impression from the book matches my recollection from the time. That is, the McCain-Palin campain was poorly organised and wasted the opportunities it had to finesse a win from an already difficult hand.

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The style is folksy throughout and I'm not sure how much was ghostwritten.  This becomes a little tiresome after a time (the phrase "commonsense conservative" is used ad nauseam).  It also rather does Palin a disservice: one has the impression of a competent backwoods politician out of her depth at a national level - a kind of Alaskan Joh Bjelke-Petersen, with none of Bjelke-Petersen's ruthlessness or strength of personality.

This book is useful as a record of a time.   Not everything in it is sound, but it will repay reading by students of the art of campaigning.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Shot during sex

The further I drift from my life as a university graduate and lawyer into a life of hi-vis and manual work, the more I find myself seeing the world through the lens of rounded edges and sharp edges.  That is, it's remarkably easy to be relaxed about parole laws if you live in (say) low-crime Toorak.  It's much harder if you live in Noble Park (which is basically a war zone with a postcode).    It's easy to encourage drug decriminalization if you live a safe middle class life and you're not likely to encounter a nutter in an ice-fuelled rage.



In both cases, one group of people live in a life of rounded edges, where few actions have truly serious consequences.  Even truly anti-social acts are more a cause for therapy than punishment.  The other group lives in a life of sharp edges.  That is, where misfortune fuelled by crime or economics occurs essentially arbitrarily.  Where cruelty is esentially casual.  And where bad decisions tend to have long-lasting potential impacts.  In general, the people I have met in the State Emergency Service and other emergency service organizations tend to live in a world of sharp edges.  Pain and loss, in our world, is as easily caused as a moment of distracted driving and as arbitrary as a summer storm.

This is on my mind this evening particularly following the account of a police shooting last night in Melbourne.  According to The Age (which is basically the journal of record for the world of rounded corners) -
Superintendent Hardeman ... said police received "a number of phone calls in relation to the male with the firearm, including from the venue ... People observed the firearm down the front of his pants."
The police "shot the man after he aimed a gun at police"  The man and a female partner -
... were attending the erotic Saints & Sinners Ball, which is described as "Australia's raunchiest party" for "broadminded adults".   It is believed the couple were engaged in a sexual act in front of other party-goers when about 40 police from the heavily-armed Critical Incident Response Team stormed into the club.
The venue operator's comments are revealing -
 


I'm struck by the casual statement that the man was "in a compromising position with his female partner, which is a normal activity with the nature of this event".  To a police officer (indeed, to anyone in the world of hard edges) a man apparently with a weapon in a 'compromising position' sounds remarkably like a man committing a serious crime.  And while the people may well have been "enjoying each other’s company", one cannot descibe it as 'innocent' in anything but a legal sense.

Image from here
On the information to hand, I'm struck by the different world views on display.  On one hand, people who appear to have believed they could behave as they wished, in any circumstances, without consequence.  On the other, people who must deal with the hard edges of the world, and where everything has consequences for themselves and for others.  Kipling's bitter observation on the divide is as true as it was a century ago -
Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
    Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
    But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
    The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
    O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.
I don't know if the world is becoming more anarchic and less self-restrained.  I certainly don't think peoples' desire for order and safety is any less.  But I think it will be ever more the job of people in the world of sharp edges to provide that security.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Review: Berlitz, The Lost Ship of Noah (1987)

Charles Berlitz, The Lost Ship of Noah (W.H. Allen & Co: London, 1987)

Berlitz's exploration of the Great Flood and the search for Noah's Ark is much better than it should have been.  It's a compact 187 pages but still gives the impression of covering significant ground at a slow amble.

The Lost Ship of Noah by Charles Frambach Berlitz

The book is best described as an examination of different aspects of the tale of the Flood.  Each chapter more-or-less stands alone.  One covers Flood myths from around the world (and the different personages 'Noah' has taken).  Another covers the difficulties of climbing Mount Ararat, and still another the verbal accounts of sightings of the Ark in the mountains of Armenia.  This has a few drawbacks.  The book seems fairly undisciplined and no real line of argument emerges.  Sometimes information seems to be included simply because the author was aware of it rather than because it was relevant.  I'm not sure why the final chapter discussed the prospects of the world ending in 1999 (pp. 171-187).

The author seems to have made a genuine effort to be objective.  For example, he recounts that timbers brought which Fernand Navarra claimed to have recovered from Ararat were variously dated to 5000BC and 560AD (pp. 94-95).  On the other hand, he studiously avoids commenting on how documentary evidence of Ark sightings can miraculously never be located.  For example, the report of a Russian search for the Ark was apparently destroyed by Leon Trotsky (p. 33).  People who have photographed the Ark will show the pictures to others but not release them to the press or allow them to be copied (pp. 41-42).  A statement from an eyewitness is mysteriously destroyed in a house fire (p. 150).  Newpaper reports can somehow never be found (pp. 42 and 150).  He is also remarkably unselective about his material.  He accepts as genuine an absurd claim by a man in Arizona to by the son of Tsar Nicholas II (p. 37).  He quotes from a fourteenth century Ark sighting by Sir John Mandeville, despite Mandeville being a fictional character! (p. 18).  And his account of flood legends from around the world seems to be drawn from secondary sources quoting secondary sources quoting secondary sources quoting ... you get the idea: what the primary source material might be is anyone's guess (pp. 129-136).

Fundamentally, this book is less history and more a collection of folklore.  It's worth flipping through on a long train ride, but don't take it too seriously.